Saturday, December 21, 2013

New on DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Streaming: DEVIL'S PASS (2013); ALIEN UPRISING (2013); and SIGHTSEERS (2013)

(US/Russia - 2013)

As found-footage continues its status as the horror subgenre that refuses to die, largely because it's cheap to produce and it's a way for young filmmakers to get their feet wet, it can also function as a last-ditch place for long-established filmmakers to run when they find themselves in a career rut.  It worked surprisingly well for Barry Levinson with THE BAY, and now DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER director Renny Harlin, who hasn't had a hit since 1999's DEEP BLUE SEA, as he belatedly hops on the bandwagon with the barely-released DEVIL'S PASS.  Written by reality TV vet Vikram Weet (whose production associate credits include THE REAL WORLD and KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS), the film ostensibly tries to get to the truth behind the mysterious Dyatlov Pass Incident, which took place in the mountains of northern Russia in 1959.  Nine mountain climbers were found frozen to death, many displaying inexplicable injuries like severed tongues and crushed chest cavities with no exterior bruising, and one had an exceedingly high amount of radiation.  The official word from the Russian government was hypothermia, but there's long been conspiracy theories about everything from UFOs to nuclear testing to a yeti attack.  University of Oregon psych student Holly (Holly Goss) has been obsessed with the case for much of her life, and gets a grant to shoot a documentary where she attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery.  Joining her on the project are her platonic friend and cameraman/conspiracy theorist Jensen (Matt Stokoe), sound operator Denise (Gemma Atkinson), and experienced guides JP (Luke Albright) and Andy (Ryan Hawley).

For about 2/3 of its running time, DEVIL'S PASS is on the high end of the found-footage genre.  The characters aren't too irritating, Harlin stays fairly consistent with the camera work, and the frozen, desolate surroundings are always effective for horror films.  There's a couple of brief glimpses of figures lingering in the snowy background, and strange footprints start appearing near their camp.  JP and Andy think Holly is playing games, but of course she isn't.  The film only starts stumbling when it busts out the night-vision and the requisite "running around screaming with a shaky cam," gets sloppy with the consistency of the camera operation, the dialogue starts to sound a little too scripted, and Harlin and Weet start piling on everything from alien abductions, psychic and paranormal phenomena, wormholes and teleportation, time travel, the Philadelphia Experiment, and even the Mothman.  It's not for nothing that JP is seen reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five at one point.  It almost threatens to turn itself into a found-footage take on THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, but Harlin eventually buckles down for a twist ending that's goofy but mostly works.  Just don't expect any serious examination of the Dyatlov Pass Incident and you'll be reasonably entertained.  There are some undeniably chilling moments throughout, but it's getting difficult at this point to get excited about anything related to found-footage. (R, 100 mins)

(UK - 2012/2013 US release)

Originally titled U.F.O., this British alien invasion sci-fi outing combines elements of INDEPENDENCE DAY and ATTACK THE BLOCK into something a bit too derivative for its own good.  After a night of clubbing, a group of Derby friends--Michael (Sean Brosnan, Pierce's look/sound-alike son), Robin (Simon Phillips), Robin's fiancĂ©e Dana (Maya Grant), Vincent (Jazz Lintott), plus Carrie (Bianca Bree), a vacationing American who hooks up with Michael, wake up to find the power's out, the clocks are stopped, and phones and radios are dead.  Soon enough, a giant spacecraft is hovering in the sky above and all hell breaks loose as the quintet tries to make their way to the isolated compound of Michael's ex-Black Ops/survivalist uncle George (Jean-Claude Van Damme).  Writer/director Dominic Burns relies far too much on handheld, jittery shaky-cam and he's got a bad poker face, showing his hand way too early for his twist ending to work.  When Carrie is quoting Roy Batty's "All those moments..." speech from BLADE RUNNER and says she's "not a 'phone home' type of girl," I think Burns intends for it to be winking fun but it comes off as insulting to consider that he might think the target audience isn't savvy enough to figure out where he's heading with it.  He also tries to shoehorn in some shallow, heavy-handed social commentary in the form of a grizzled old gas station attendant played by the great Julian Glover ("Survival of the fittest," he mutters, "...maybe they'll just sit back and watch us all turn on each other"), and chooses the dumbest possible time for the immature Vincent to reveal his secret feelings for Dana.  Still, Burns' enthusiasm buys him some wiggle room, he gives Sean Pertwee a couple of scenes to ham it up as a homeless guy, and he does offer one legitimately surprising fate for one of the leads in addition to staging a few decent action sequences and one epic fight in the vein of Isaac Florentine. 

ALIEN UPRISING isn't very good, but it would be a bit better if Burns had a more competent star than Bree, a beautiful but astonishingly inept actress whose presence is likely a contractual demand to secure the guest-star participation of her father: Jean-Claude Van Damme.  JCVD has put his daughter and son Kristopher Van Varenberg in most of his own recent films (Kristopher sits this one out), but Bree has never had this much screen time before.  But this isn't really a Van Damme vehicle: he appears in a couple of two-second cutaways early on and isn't properly introduced until around 75 minutes in, exiting approximately 12 minutes later.  He's sleepwalking through his one day on the set and is just here for distribution value and to get his daughter a leading role, and while I'm sure he loves his little girl like any dad would, Bree is just absolutely god-awful.  Brosnan, on the other hand, has enough of his old man's screen presence that he could probably have a future in DTV actioners.  If Burns can nix the shaky-cam and deliver a sci-fi action flick that pairs up JCVD and young Brosnan, he might have something.  (R, 101 mins)

(France/UK - 2012/2013 US release)

The third effort by British filmmaker Ben Wheatley (DOWN TERRACE, KILL LIST) is a misanthropic, absurdist road movie/black comedy that almost plays like Mike Leigh remaking NATURAL BORN KILLERS.  The humor is of the darkest sort and most of the laughs come from discomfort as awkward, sheltered, mom-jeans-wearing Tina (Alice Lowe) is 34 and lives with her controlling mum (Eileen Davies), who won't let her forget about a freak knitting accident that resulted in the death of her beloved dog ("It was an accident!" Tina pleads.  "So were you," Mum replies).  Tina has just started dating affable caravanner Chris (Steve Oram), an alleged writer who wants to take his "muse" on an "erotic journey" as they hit the road for inspiration for his latest book. On a tour bus, Chris gets irate with a litterer and later, accidentally backs over the guy, killing him.  Tina is horrified and Chris tries to shield her eyes from the gory sight, but the grin of satisfaction on his face tells us there might be more in store than an erotic journey.  Yes, Chris is a serial killer who mainly takes out people who piss him off, like a successful writer he pushes off a cliff (and steals his dog to give to Tina), or a guy who yells at Tina in a park after the dog defecates and she has nothing with which to pick it up.  Tina finds the killing a turn-on, but when she tries it herself, it puts a strain on the relationship, as does Chris' man-crush on a bicyclist (Richard Glover) they meet on the road.  Executive produced by Edgar Wright and written by Lowe and Oram, along with Wheatley's KILL LIST co-writer Amy Jump, SIGHTSEERS is decidedly not for all tastes with its morbid, deadpan humor and moments of comically over-the-top gore, but if you appreciate this sort of thing, it's a worthwhile film, an often subtly, grimly hilarious study of two lonely, murderous souls lucky enough to find one another.  It also shows Wheatley coming into his own after the inexplicable acclaim bestowed on KILL LIST, which was very well-made but had a plot that was stale and predictable, a WICKER MAN retread with the filmmaker telegraphing the twists far too early.  SIGHTSEERS is a major improvement.  (Unrated, 88 mins)

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