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Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: WELCOME TO THE PUNCH (2013)


WELCOME TO THE PUNCH
(US/UK - 2013)

Written and directed by Eran Creevy.  Cast: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey, Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris, Jason Flemyng, Ruth Sheen, Daniel Mays, Natasha Little, Daniel Kaluuya, Elyes Gabel. (Unrated, 96 mins)

It won't win any points for originality, but the lean, mean WELCOME TO THE PUNCH is a highly entertaining British cop thriller produced by Ridley Scott and directed by the promising Eran Creevy, who achieved some acclaim for his 2008 debut SHIFTY.  Creevy, a music video vet who cut his teeth as a production assistant on films by Matthew Vaughn (LAYER CAKE) and Danny Boyle (MILLIONS), is unquestionably a style-over-substance guy, as his script is pretty by-the-numbers with plot turns that barely twist, let alone surprise.  But while his script may lack the punch promised by the title, it's obvious that Creevy worships at the altar of Michael Mann--not just in the big HEAT influence on PUNCH, but also in its look and feel, with everything drenched in a cold, blue sheen that brings scenes from vintage Mann classics like THIEF and MANHUNTER to mind.  Like THE SWEENEY from a few weeks back, WELCOME TO THE PUNCH doesn't exactly forge a new path in the British crime genre, but it's diverting, well-acted, looks terrific, and doesn't try to be anything more than what it is.


Plays-by-his-own rules London detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is obsessed with bringing down criminal kingpin Jacob Sternwood (the always-excellent Mark Strong).  The two come face to face in an underground tunnel, but Sternwood gets away after shooting Lewinsky in the knee.  Three years later, and a hobbling Lewinsky is now the kind of cop who wakes up with a hangover and has to drain the fluid from his knee several times a day, with a wiseass partner in fiery Sarah Hayes (Andrea Riseborough).  Meanwhile, a young man (Elyes Gabel) with a gunshot wound to the stomach causes a disturbance on an airport runway and it turns out he's Sternwood's son Ruan, who's been involved in a botched heist.  Sternwood has been in hiding in Iceland for three years, and with Ruan in the hospital, Lewinsky is convinced he'll try to come back to London to see him.  With the reluctant approval of police commissioner Geiger (David Morrissey), Lewinsky and Hayes stake out the hospital, and sure enough, Sternwood returns, but it turns out that Ruan was a pawn in a complicated chain of events that involve rampant corruption and backroom dealing and may (wait for it) lead all the way to the top of the department.  Once realizing they share a common enemy who's employed sociopathic ex-military man-turned-hired killer Warns (Johnny Harris), Lewinsky and Sternwood put aside their Sworn Enemy status, forming an uneasy alliance to work together to blow the lid off a secret that may extend all the way to the government...

...if they don't kill each other first!


Creevy stages a number of impressive sequences, starting with the exciting chase that opens the film.  There's also a memorable shootout in an empty nightclub, illuminated only by a bunch of rotating, spinning spotlights (don't look for a reason why...it just looks cool), and, in one of the few scenes that exhibit some creative writing, a tense encounter between a now-allied Lewinsky and Sternwood, accompanied by his gangland cohort Roy (Peter Mullan), and Warns, when Warns walks into the home of his sweet but dodderingly oblivious nan (Ruth Sheen) to find the other three already there waiting for him, his nan completely unaware that she's got a gun pointed to the back of her head.  Of course, all roads lead to a showdown at a shipping yard (the abandoned warehouse must've been locked up), and you'll see the big reveals coming long before they happen, but WELCOME TO THE PUNCH gets a lot from its lead actors, both of whom are excellent, and it's ultimately undemanding, check-your-brain-at-the-door fun that doesn't have any pretentious aspirations about being anything more than mainstream entertainment (plus it features one of the more crowd-pleasing shotgun-blasts-to-the-head you'll ever see).  Being distributed by IFC Films and featuring a cast of Brits automatically relegates it to a limited release arthouse run, but this is the kind of escapist flick that should be opening nationwide.

 
 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: DAY OF THE FALCON (2013) and EASY MONEY (2012)


DAY OF THE FALCON
(France/Italy - 2011; 2013 US release)

It's nice to see a grand, majestic 1960s-style desert epic that looks like it could've been made in the wake of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, but Jean-Jacques Annaud's DAY OF THE FALCON is a rather tedious affair despite some outstanding cinematography and location shooting in Tunisia and Qatar.  The initially intriguing story gradually becomes laborious, drawn out, and overly contrived, and after a while, it just starts to feel like this thing is never going to end, especially when the hero gets shot in the head, chunks of skull flying in several directions, instantly presumed dead and carried to his immediate funeral service...and he somehow survives and is just fine in the next scene.  In the Arabian desert land of Hobeika in the 1920s, Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas) and Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) have been fighting over a vast area known as the Yellow Belt.  As part of a peace agreement, both men agree that the land is to be left alone and is owned by neither, but Amar is forced to hand over his two young sons to be raised by Nesib.  15 years later, the boys have grown into the outgoing, arrogant Saleh (Akin Gazi) and the sensitive, bookish Auda (Tahar Rahim), who has loved his adoptive sister Leyla (Freida Pinto) since childhood.  In the ensuing years, a Texas oil company has informed Nesib that the Yellow Belt is rich in oil, and the formerly financially-strapped Emir has become the richest man in the region, albeit a benevolent one who shares the wealth by building a hospital, a school, and a library for his people.  Amar views this as a violation of their agreement to leave the land alone and, sticking to his convictions, even turns down a share of the profits.  Saleh, still devoted to his father, rebels against Nesib and is killed by his men, prompting a never-ending shifting of alliances as the withdrawn Auda, who has been granted marriage to Leyla in exchange for his continued loyalty to Nesib, finds his voice and becomes a leader, determined to do what's best for his people--something neither Nesib (blinded by money and power) nor Amar (blinded by religion and revenge) are now capable of doing.


Scripted by Annaud and former Steven Spielberg associate Menno Meyjes (THE COLOR PURPLE, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE), DAY OF THE FALCON gets off to a decent start but ultimately just meanders and spins its wheels before a climax that grows more hackneyed and cliched by the minute.  And Rahim, so terrific in 2009's riveting A PROPHET, is just a bland bore here. The desert locations look beautiful, even with some CGI augmentation, and it's nice to see relentlessly busy supporting actor Strong in a starring role, but despite all the right ingredients, DAY OF THE FALCON just never catches fire.  (R, 130 mins)



EASY MONEY
(Sweden/Denmark/France/Germany - 2010; 2012 US release)

SNABBA CASH was Sweden's biggest box office hit in 2010 and has already led to 2012's SNABBA CASH II and a third installment due to be released there later this year.  Martin Scorsese saw it and helped broker a US distribution deal (earning a cosmetic "Martin Scorsese Presents" credit in the process) with the Weinstein Company, who rechristened it with the English-translated title EASY MONEY and released it on seven screens last summer.  Joel Kinnaman (the scene-stealing Det. Holder on the AMC series THE KILLING, and star of next year's ROBOCOP remake) stars as broke economics student JW, who struggles to get by with a meager income provided by driving a cab part-time and doing term papers for other students.  JW has ingratiated himself into a clique of jet-set rich kids in his obsessive climb up the social ladder.  It's this ambition to abandon his lower-class roots that drives him into a life of crime, though he tries to pretend that he's not an active participant and seems legitimately shocked when his decisions and actions have consequences.  As JW works his way into the inner circle with his financial smarts, his life intersects in various ways with escaped convict Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) and Serbian mob enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrcic), as both use the otherwise naive JW for their own purposes, though JW is just as quick to sell either of them out if it means a higher social/economic standing to impress his comes-from-an-insanely-rich-family girlfriend (Lisa Henni).  She genuinely loves him and looks the other way when his lies collapse (at various points, he claims his blue-collar father is a diplomat to both India and South Africa), though it's hard to see what she sees in a vacuous, superficial poseur like JW in the first place.


Based on a novel by Jens Lapidus, EASY MONEY attracted enough international attention prior to its belated US release that it got director Daniel Espinosa a major Hollywood break with the 2012 Denzel Washington thriller SAFE HOUSE, but it's ultimately a bit on the disappointing side.  Though you eventually figure it out, the film doesn't do a very coherent job of introducing many of the characters and establishing who they are in relation to everyone else.  Also, at over two hours, it's at least 20 minutes too long and really drags in spots, and despite some interesting character touches (tough guy Mrado is forced to take custody of his impossibly cute eight-year-old daughter and drag her on jobs with him when his junkie ex-wife gets arrested), there's really no surprises in how these characters progress through the film.  Though it doesn't involve cops, a lot of the situations seem a bit like a retread of INFERNAL AFFAIRS and its remake THE DEPARTED, so maybe that's why Scorsese was so enamored of it, but there's very little in the way of innovation or surprises here.  Solid performances by the three leads do a lot to carry EASY MONEY through its many ponderous stretches, and it's strange seeing and hearing the Swedish Kinnaman, who's so good at playing a fast-talking, street-smart American cop on THE KILLING, speaking in his native tongue.  The overrated EASY MONEY has its moments, but I honestly can't imagine it needing two sequels.  (R, 125 mins)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In Theaters: SPRING BREAKERS (2013)


SPRING BREAKERS
(US/France - 2013)

Written and directed by Harmony Korine.  Cast: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane, Sidney Sewell, Thurman Sewell. (R, 94 mins)

After writing the script for Larry Clark's controversial KIDS (1995), Harmony Korine became an indie icon of sorts with his own directing efforts, ranging from the repugnant (GUMMOTRASH HUMPERS) to the merely unwatchable (JULIEN DONKEY-BOY).  While Korine has his defenders, I've never made it all the way through any of the films he's directed.  The surprise with SPRING BREAKERS is not only that it's a Korine film in multiplexes nationwide, or that it has name actors, including the subversive casting of Disney good girls doing very bad things, but that it shows that Korine can indeed make a real movie once he decided to quit dicking around.  It's by far his most commercial film yet, though still not for all tastes and certain to alienate most mainstream audiences, but it's filled with such dazzling visuals and garish colors (Korine is working with cinematographer Benoit Debie, who's shot films by Gaspar Noe, Fabrice du Welz, and Dario Argento), propelled by some memorably quotable dialogue, some very Steven Soderbergh-inspired editing, and a propulsive, constant score by Cliff Martinez (another Soderbergh fixture) and Skrillex, that it's an exhilirating, adrenalized, and very cinematic experience, miles ahead of anything Korine's done in the past or even seemed capable of doing.  At 40, it's possible that Korine has finally grown up.  SPRING BREAKERS is unexpectedly inspired, frequently brilliant, and one of the year's best films.


For a while, Korine fashions the film as a hard-R MTV Spring Break special, with copious amount of alcohol, drugs, partying, and the requisite jiggle and gratuitous nudity.  But slowly, a style emerges and the plot kicks in as we follow four college students and their desperate attempt to get to Florida for spring break: wild girls Candy (Vanessa Hudgens of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL), Brit (Ashley Benson of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS), and Cotty (Rachel Korine of...uh, her marriage to Harmony Korine), and their more conservative, devoutly Christian friend and not-very-subtly-named Faith (Selena Gomez of THE WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE).  With only $300 in spending money between the four of them, Candy, Brit, and Cotty decide to rob an all-night diner called the Chicken Shack, using squirt guns and sledgehammers (an extremely impressive continuous tracking shot where Korine and Debie keep the camera in the car with Cotty, who drives slowly in front of the restaurant as we see masked Candy and Brit's mayhem through the Chicken Shack's windows and then make their escape out of the side exit).  Faith doesn't approve of their methods, but wants to go to Florida, so off they go where it's a non-stop party until they get arrested in a raid at the motel.


It's here where the film really takes off, with the introduction of James Franco as Alien, a drug-dealer and aspiring rapper who bails them out of jail and comes off like a walking cliche:  he's got a teardrop tat, neck tats, cornrows, wears a gold grill, he's decked out in assorted bling, has a pit bull, a house full of guns, a grand piano on his back patio, and gets an epic "Lookit my shit!" monologue that must be heard to be believed ("I got shorts!" and "I got SCARFACE on repeat!  Constant y'all!"  "See these guns?  See these Franklins!  Lookit my shit!").  Uncomfortable among Alien and his gangsta friends, Faith catches the first bus home but the other three become partners in crime with Alien and get involved in his turf war with former friend and now rival Archie (Gucci Mane).  Alien calls this area his home and doesn't have much use for the throng of spring breakers ("every spring, the scum comes"), but he finds kindred spirits in Candy, Brit, and Cotty after a bizarre KILLER JOE-esque scene where Candy and Brit make Alien fellate two loaded guns at once.

SPRING BREAKERS is a surreal, hypnotic fever dream that may not exist in any kind of reality (it doesn't seem plausible that Faith, despite her willingness to drink and get high, would hang out with the other three), and even in their criminal exploits, the girls are constantly saying "It's just like a dream" or "It's just like a video game."  While the plot itself likely isn't meant to be taken seriously--though there could be an argument made about Korine's misanthropic world view and the girls being coddled, overprivileged, and spoiled, with no idea of the world they're entering--the film is so well-crafted and compelling just on a visual level, with no shortage of audacious "Why the hell not?" set pieces like Franco's haunting piano rendition of Britney Spears' "Everytime," Franco's instant-classic monologue, and, well, everytime Franco's on screen really.  It's easy to mock Franco when he does his "James Franco" things, but it's a performance like the one he turns in as Alien that justifies the hype he was getting as far back as his days on FREAKS AND GEEKS.  Perhaps recognizing that there was only so far he could take the "Disney girls gone wild" element (Gomez doesn't strip, but the other three do nudity, and Hudgens and Benson have a swimming-pool threesome with Franco), Korine essentially lets Franco take center stage, and it was probably a smart move.  In short, nothing Korine has done before has indicated what he accomplishes with SPRING BREAKERS, managing to deftly balance style, swagger, downbeat drama, dark comedy, social critique, and revenge thriller all in 90 minutes. From the visuals to the music cues (Ellie Goulding's "Lights" is the perfect closing credits tune for this), SPRING BREAKERS demonstrates a startling maturity of Korine from self-indulgent enfant terrible to a genuinely gifted filmmaker. The year's still young, but this is my favorite 2013 film so far.





Sunday, March 24, 2013

On HBO: PHIL SPECTOR (2013)


PHIL SPECTOR
(US - 2013)

Written and directed by David Mamet.  Cast: Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rebecca Pidgeon, John Pirruccello, James Tolkan, David Aaron Baker, Matt Malloy, Jack Wallace, Matthew Rauch, Meghan Marx. (Unrated, 91 mins)

What exactly was David Mamet's point in making this film?  It's hard to screw up an account of the Phil Spector murder trial, especially with a cast headed by Oscar winners Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, but with rare exception, writer-director Mamet makes one bad decision after another, starting with the opening disclaimer that the film is a work of fiction and not "based on a true story."  The legendary Wall of Sound record producer Phil Spector is currently serving a 19 years-to-life sentence, convicted in the 2003 murder of D-list actress Lana Clarkson, but regardless of how you may feel about his guilt or innocence, one thing is certain:  Mamet clearly thinks he's not guilty, and seems so intent on making Spector a Mumia Abu-Jamal or West Memphis Three for baby boomers that you'll wonder why the film isn't called FREE PHIL SPECTOR. 


Opening in 2007, just before Spector's first trial, famed John Gotti attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) has a huge caseload and brings in pneumonia-stricken Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) to help out for a bit, which soon leads to her taking over the defense for Spector (Pacino).  Spector, an eccentric with a penchant for waving guns around, be it in a record studio or to keep terrified women captive at his house, claims Clarkson (Meghan Marx) was goofing around with one of his guns and accidentally shot herself through the mouth.  Gradually, despite his general bizarre nature and his love of distractingly freaky wigs, Spector wins over Baden, starting with what's probably the best scene in the film:  Pacino's introduction as Baden arrives at Spector's castle-like mansion Alhambra and Mamet lets the camera snake through the many rooms of this museum of Spector's life while Pacino gets an epic monologue.  It's all downhill from there, as Mamet turns PHIL SPECTOR into one of the very few courtroom dramas with no courtroom scenes, other than mock practice ones.  The film ends with the opening of Spector's first trial, with the rest of the story (a mistrial, a second trial, and a conviction) covered in an onscreen post-script.

Mamet's directed some fine films (HOUSE OF GAMES, THE SPANISH PRISONER) and written some great ones (THE VERDICT, THE UNTOUCHABLES, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), but his signature rapid-fire dialogue sounds forced and over-rehearsed here, and from the directing end, he's going for a vintage kinetic Martin Scorsese feel a lot of the time--as well-done as it is, even the aforementioned tour through Spector's house feels like something Scorsese would do.  There's also heavy use of Spector's music, which Scorsese has used in his films, and though Mamet can't be faulted for using something like the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," it can't help but evoke memories of Scorsese's MEAN STREETS even if Mamet wasn't going out of his way to make PHIL SPECTOR look and feel overtly Scorsesian.  Pacino, Mirren, and Tambor are undeniably well-cast, though Mirren probably comes off best.  Pacino is granted a little bit of leeway to do his bellowing Pacino thing, but Mamet sabotages his best bit of acting with some distracting handheld that ruins the scene. Elsewhere, his Spector mannerisms seem to be channeling Jeff Goldblum.  We don't learn enough about Spector or Baden to care about either of them, but it's obvious Mamet wasn't interested in making a film with characters and arcs and a beginning, a middle, or an end.  He just wanted the world to know that he thinks Spector is innocent, or at the very least, was scapegoated for things like the O.J. verdict.  If he wants to make that film, then fine--make a documentary and present your case.  Don't waste Pacino and Mirren in the process.  There's a fascinating film to be made of this story, but the botched PHIL SPECTOR, which really feels truncated and incomplete at just 90 minutes, isn't the one.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: COME OUT AND PLAY (2013)


COME OUT AND PLAY
(Mexico - 2013)

Made by Makinov.  Cast: Vinessa Shaw, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Daniel Giminez Cacho, Gerardo Taracena, Alejandra Alvarez. (Unrated, 86 mins)

This remake of Narciso Ibanez Serrador's 1976 Spanish cult horror classic WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (based on a novel by Juan Jose Plans and released in the US in 1978 by AIP on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit in a re-edited version under the titles ISLAND OF THE DAMNED and TRAPPED) is almost slavishly faithful to its source film, which may have been an influence on Stephen King's short story "Children of the Corn."  The initial set-up of COME OUT AND PLAY differs in that it eliminates the rather heavy-handed political subtext--the original Spanish version of Serrador's film opened with an eight-minute montage of documentary footage of war atrocities commited against children--and gets right to the story.  Running nearly 30 minutes shorter than WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, COME OUT AND PLAY improves on the pacing of the original film by nixing much of the endless travelogue footage that comprised its opening half hour or so, as well as utilizing a droning, nerve-jangling synth score and demonstrating a creepily effective use of sound throughout.  Beyond that, it's WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, right down to many sequences being restaged in their entirety, almost exactly as they were in Serrador's film.


Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his pregnant wife Beth (Vinessa Shaw) are vacationing in Mexico before the arrival of their third child (the other two are back home with Beth's mom).  They rent a boat and head to the distant island of Punta Hueca, only to find it almost entirely abandoned except for some strange children.  It appears that people left in a hurry, and Francis realizes that something is seriously wrong when he finds a group of children killing an old man.  Then he starts finding bodies around the village as he and Beth are pursued by packs of crazed, murderous kids.

COME OUT AND PLAY is the writing/directing debut of one "Makinov," a mystery man who presents himself as a sort-of Banksy of the horror genre, reputed to be some kind of masked Belarusian performance artist with no filmmaking experience, speaks only Russian, hates giving interviews, and laid out his artistic goals in an online manifesto from his "Dark Forest" headquarters shortly before last fall's run of film festivals.  He has never allowed himself to be photographed without a mask or a hood, and even wears it on the set.  According to an interview with Moss-Bachrach, who's likely just going along with the joke, Makinov indeed worked masked/hooded at all times (even, according to the actor, when the two went on a fishing trip during a break in filming), and was more concerned with "image," while more or less letting the actors do what they wanted.  This sideshow act is an obvious publicity stunt, and with some stellar copyright detective work by Video Junkie's William Wilson and some assorted two-year-old Twitter posts that can be found via a simple Google search, there's a good amount of evidence that points to "Makinov" really being Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo, who received some arthouse acclaim a year or so ago with the thriller MISS BALA (there's also some comments on an IndieWire article as far back as 2011 that specifically mention "the remake of WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? that Gerardo Naranjo's doing."  Why Naranjo--or whomever--had to create this ridiculous and extensive fake backstory to direct a remake of a relatively obscure Spanish horror film is a mystery.  Other than personal amusement, ego, or a sociological experiment designed to punk some of the horror scene's more sycophantic fanboys (that I could actually get behind), there's really no point, other than "Makinov" being yet another in a string of recent would-be horror "auteurs" who think they're the star of the show and the films are secondary.


Allegedly budgeted at around $150,000 with presumably a skeleton crew (there are no credits other than five actors and, of course, Makinov), COME OUT AND PLAY doesn't really have a reason to exist, but as far as remakes go, it's decent in spite of the predictable need to ratchet up the grossout factor (needless to say, Serrador's film didn't show the kids playing with limbs and organs and making necklaces out of ears and fingers).   While its admirable that Makinov didn't eliminate the finale that has the male lead (Australian actor Lewis Fiander in Serrador's film) graphically machine-gunning a bunch of kids, the staging of the scene in the remake is much more brief and with much fewer children, but it's probably harder to get away with in 2013 than it was in 1976.  Sure, Moss-Bachrach is shown taking an oar and smashing kids' heads in, but having revisited Serrador's film just before watching the remake, that shot of Fiander mowing down about 50 kids is still shocking today.  Serrador's film remains powerful but isn't flawless:  the pacing is extremely slow and it takes forever to get going, and Makinov's version unquestionably is an improvement in that department.  The film is hardly great, but it's credible enough that it can stand on its own without all of Makinov's shenanigans and pre-fab cult horror flim-flammery.  And why dedicate the film "to the martyrs of Stalingrad"?  And who is Makinov that he can call the film "Makinov's COME OUT AND PLAY," and end it with the words "Made by" and the letters "M-A-K-I-N-O-V" going across the screen in a huge font one-by one?  I'll say this much: I'm highly skeptical that masked guerrila filmmakers from Belarus who live off the grid in the Dark Forest and post YouTube manifestos about the nature of their art agree to sign posters for a Dread Central contest.

Cut the shit, Makinov.





Friday, March 22, 2013

In Theaters: OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013)


OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN
(US - 2013)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua.  Written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt.  Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Rick Yune, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Ashley Judd, Cole Hauser, Finley Jacobsen, Keong Sim, Malana Lea, Phil Austin, Sean O'Bryan. (R, 120 mins)

When the trailer for OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN started making the rounds a couple of months ago, with its seemingly intentionally bad visual effects and dialogue like "I'm the best hope you've got!," "America does not negotiate with terrorists!" and "They've opened the gates of Hell!," one could be forgiven for assuming that a bunch of big-name actors agreed to take part in a fake trailer mocking big-budget, overblown, jingoistic, flag-waving, "America! Fuck Yeah!", porn-for-red-states action explosion epics.  But no...OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is a real movie with real actors.  And what's most surprising, other than it's not nearly as terrible as that trailer made it look, is that the actors lured by fat paychecks actually seem to be taking it seriously, as if this is the first film of its kind and they're really doing something groundbreaking.  The outrageously overqualified cast is pretty much all this has going for it.  They're the reason this thing cost $80 million and still looks like a shot-in-South Africa, straight-to-video Frank Zagarino flick directed by Sam Firstenberg in 1996.  Avi Lerner and his Cannon cover band Millennium/Nu Image may be able to somehow pull $80 million out of their asses several times a year despite most of their films going straight-to-DVD and the two EXPENDABLES films being their only recent hits, but true to their Golan-Globus heritage, they haven't been able to shed their B-movie skin despite Herculean efforts to do so.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in their continued employment of the Bulgarian visual effects outfit Worldwide FX, whose trademark digital splatter and SyFy Channel-level CGI is showcased here in all its chintzy, D-grade glory.  Rushed into production in true Cannon fashion to beat Roland Emmerich's upcoming and very similar WHITE HOUSE DOWN into theaters, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is fast-moving and brainlessly entertaining, but the extended CGI destruction of Washington, D.C. (itself CGI'd even before the mayhem, as the film was shot in Louisiana) that's displayed here would've looked subpar in the mid-1990s.  No matter how many A-listers they manage to reel in, Millennium/Nu Image will never be a major player with these kinds of shit-ass visual effects and shoddy, blurry greenscreen work.


Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, who also co-produced) has been wallowing in guilt at his desk job at the Treasury office. 18 months earlier, he was the chief agent on the security detail of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), when a car accident during a snowstorm on a bridge along the icy road to Camp David resulted in Banning saving the President's life but not that of the First Lady (Ashley Judd), whose seatbelt was jammed as the limo plummeted into the cold waters below.  The widower Commander-in-Chief removed Banning from his detail, not because he blamed him, but because his presence would be a constant reminder of the First Lady's tragic death to himself and his young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen).  While staring at the computer monitor at his desk after another day of feeling sorry for himself, Banning gets a shot at redemption when North Korean terrorists attack D.C. from the air, killing hundreds of citizens and toppling the Washington Monument in a sequence that would be a stunner were the visuals not so cheap and tacky.  The President is hosting a South Korean delegation, allowing them into the underground PEOC bunker when he and his staff are moved there. Of course, the delegation has been infiltrated by the same group of terrorists, led by the nefarious Kang (Rick Yung).  Kang wants the US military to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea and he's prepared to kill President Asher, Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez (Phil Austin), and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) before turning America into a post-nuke wasteland if his demands aren't met.

Kang's army overtakes the half-destroyed White House, wiping out the entire security detail, led by Banning's buddy Roma (Cole Hauser), a character who was doomed to die, as he's played by Cole Hauser.  Banning takes out a number of Kang's men before infiltrating what's left of the White House, which apparently doesn't change any passwords or security codes over an 18-month period since Banning still has full access to everything in the Oval Office.  He gets in contact with the Pentagon, where House Speaker Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) is the acting President, providing intel to him and his advisors, Secret Service chief Jacobs (Angela Bassett) and General Clegg (Robert Forster).  Once he locates Connor--codename "Sparkplug"--and gets him to safety through an air vent (Banning sure knows a lot of easy, unsecured ways in and out of the White House), he goes to work eliminating Kang and his cohorts--including former Secret Service agent-turned-hired gun traitor Forbes (Dylan McDermott), who helped coordinate the infiltration--and rescuing the President.

If you think this sounds a lot like DIE HARD, well, you're right.  Several scenes are restaged almost in their entirety, including a botched chopper rescue attempt that's shot in such a similar fashion that you almost expect Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush to show up as Agents Johnson and Johnson.  And of course, even though he's "the best hope you've got," someone--in this case, Clegg--has to be the requisite "Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson" of the film and doubt Banning and his intentions at every turn, if only to have someone else pipe up about what a dedicated badass he is.  And there's also the tough guy wisecrackery, but when Banning tells Kang "Let's play a few rounds of Fuck Off...you're it!," it doesn't quite have the same iconic punch as "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!"  Butler is OK in Hollywood's latest attempt to make Gerard Butler happen, though he isn't really exerting himself here in what amounts to a two-hour Bruce Willis impression.  He does have a nice rapport in his scenes with young Jacobsen.  Eckhart mainly clenches his teeth and yells "Fuck you!" a lot, while the hammy overacting is left to Leo, who gets kicked and beaten to a pulp not once but twice (after the first, she asks President Asher, with blood dripping from her mouth, "How's my hair?"), and in the film's most unintentionally hilarious moment, is dragged down a hallway by her hands to her presumed execution while kicking and shrieking "I pledge allegiance to the flag!  Of the United States of aaaaagggghhh!"


Freeman brings surprising humanity and gravitas to the Speaker of the House, a man who disagrees with the President but puts politics aside and demonstates humility and nervousness over the role he wasn't expecting to be playing when he woke up that morning.  Considering the stock, one-dimensional characters in Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt's script, I'm sure this level of complexity was brought to the table by Freeman himself, and his scenes have some unexpected credibility to them.  I particularly liked his initial anxiety when confronted with the situation and how he's stammering and indecisive and rapidly losing the confidence of everyone in the room when he dodges questions and instead asks someone for a cup of coffee, "with double cream and three Sweet & Lows...and put it in a real cup, not one of those styrofoam things," then closes his eyes, and something snaps in him and he's ready to take charge.  It's just a little moment of real, human feeling in an otherwise dumb movie, and Freeman, pro that he is, totally sells it when all he really needed to do was show up.

Directed by the underrated Antoine Fuqua, who fares much better with more grounded and gritty films like TRAINING DAY and the criminally underappreciated BROOKLYN'S FINEST, the shockingly cheap-looking OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN isn't quite the laugh-riot you'd expect from the trailer, and if it weren't for the horrible CGI and the fact that the President's high-tech bunker looks like it was quickly thrown together in Avi Lerner's basement, it would almost certainly play better.  As it is, it's the kind of movie where an aerial shot featuring the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument includes a caption that reads "Washington, D.C."  It's a forgettable but stupidly entertaining enough way to kill two hours, and for what it's worth, it's miles ahead of the abysmal A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD.  But really, it's long past the time for Worldwide FX to install a software update or close up shop because their work just isn't cutting it anymore.  Say what you will about Roland Emmerich, but he's a guy who knows how to convincingly destroy Washington D.C., and his WHITE HOUSE DOWN (with President Jamie Foxx's life in the hands of Secret Service agent Channing Tatum.  No, really) will undoubtedly make OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN look even more amateurish than it already does.




Thursday, March 21, 2013

New from Shout! Factory: ACTION-PACKED MOVIE MARATHON




Shout! Factory is back with another impressive collection of back-in-the-day video store fixtures from their MGM licensing deal, now available in anamorphic widescreen transfers at the incredible list price of $9.99 for four movies over two discs.  With only one total clunker in the set, this is one of the must-have genre DVDs of the year.  Disc 1 is a double shot of exploitation icon Fred Olen Ray with CYCLONE (1987) and ALIENATOR (1990), while disc 2 is the Gary Busey actioner EYE OF THE TIGER (1986) and the vigilante sequel EXTERMINATOR 2 (1984), which also features a commentary track with director Mark Buntzman and co-star Mario Van Peebles.


CYCLONE
(US - 1987)

Heather Thomas had just finished a five-season run on the Lee Majors TV series THE FALL GUY when she got to headline her own big-screen action film with this enjoyably dumb Fred Olen Ray joint.  The extremely prolific Ray has cranked out about 130 movies over the last 30 years but the mid-to-late '80s found him at a weird crossroads where he almost could've had a major Hollywood breakthrough. These days, he's responsible--under a variety of pseudonyms, much like fellow almost-famous '80s genre vet Jim Wynorski--for a lot of those not-quite-pornos you see on Cinemax and the specialty HBO channels around 2:30 am.  Minus the gift of writing, he was doing the Quentin Tarantino thing with casting your has-been heroes about a decade before it was cool.  In addition to providing work for the usual suspects like David Carradine and Bo Svenson, Ray's earliest efforts featured the likes of Buster Crabbe and John Carradine.  Thomas capably carries CYCLONE, but gets a ton of support from one of the strangest casts of any low-budget B-grade '80s action flick.  Teri (Thomas) finds herself pursued by government agents and hired assassins when her tech-head boyfriend Rick (RE-ANIMATOR's Jeffrey Combs) is killed over the Cyclone, a top-secret super-cycle he's developing that runs on converted hydrogen and could feasibly put an end to reliance on traditional fuel.  Teri takes off with the Cyclone, with ruthless killer Rolf (legendary stuntman Dar Robinson) and his psycho sidekick Henna (Ray's then-wife Dawn Wildsmith), plus two government agents (Martine Beswicke and COUNT YORGA's Robert Quarry) close behind.  Pulling the strings from behind the scenes is mysterious big shot Bosarian (Martin Landau, just before his TUCKER/CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS comeback), who's promised the Cyclone to a Japanese crime organization.  Also with Troy Donahue, Russ Tamblyn, Huntz Hall as a pervy old motorcycle parts dealer, Ashley Ferrare, Tim Conway, Jr., the punk/metal band Haunted Garage, and Michael Reagan, making CYCLONE the only low-budget action cheapie of the 1980s to co-star a son of the sitting US President. 


CYCLONE is dedicated to Robinson, who was killed shortly after the film wrapped in the fall of 1986, performing a routine stunt for the 1987 bomb MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY.  He was filming a driving stunt, missed a turn, and drove off a cliff.  The famed stuntman was just 39 years old.  With films like CYCLONE and, earlier, Burt Reynolds' STICK (1985), where he played a psychotic albino henchman, Robinson was trying to break into character parts and with his imposing presence, likely would've succeeded.  With Robinson onboard, it's no surprise that Ray shows off some spectacular stunts, car chases, and explosions in CYCLONE, and though it's nothing close to a great movie, let it be said that even on a cost-cutting project like this, Ray's action sequences still look better than a good chunk of the CGI silliness that moviegoers inexplicably accept in $100 million movies today.  (R, 86 mins)


ALIENATOR
(US - 1990)

Another Ray film, this one a D-grade sci-fi outing that's already several notches below CYCLONE quality-wise.  Shot in 1988 but unreleased until 1990, ALIENATOR feels like three films edited into one, and none are particularly interesting.  On a distant planet, death row prisoner Kol (Ross Hagen) escapes into a pod and crashes on Earth.  The prison commander (Jan- Michael Vincent) sends a cyborg soldier called the Alienator (female bodybuilder Teagan Clive) to retrieve him.  Meanwhile, on Earth, Kol is clipped by an RV filled with four obnoxious vacationers who take him to the nearest ranger station, run by Ward (John Phillip Law), as the Alienator chases them in circles through Topanga State Park.  ALIENATOR has a great cast of veteran B-movie and TV actors--there's also P.J. Soles, Hoke Howell, Fox Harris (in his last role; he died in 1988 and the film is dedicated to him), Robert Clarke, Robert Quarry, DAY OF THE DEAD's Joe Pilato, Ray regulars Dawn Wildsmith and Jay Richardson, and a spirited turn by Leo V. Gordon as a crusty old war vet who helps Ward battle the Alienator--and a pro like Law actually appears to be taking this seriously, but other than the fun cast, ALIENATOR just stinks.  Lousy special effects, terrible acting by the younger cast members (Wildsmith and Richard Wiley, as the beer-guzzling RV driver, are especially bad), mumbling apathy from Vincent, and plodding pacing kill it, and an irritating score by Chuck Cirino gives it the distinct aura of a bottom end Roger Corman/Concorde release from that era.  The one outright dud in this set, ALIENATOR isn't even an entertaining bad movie.  It's just bad.  (R, 93 mins)




EYE OF THE TIGER
(US - 1986)

The modern-day western EYE OF THE TIGER was in and out of theaters in a week back in the fall of 1986, but don't let that fool you:  it's really a shame that this low-budget, testosterone-heavy actioner isn't better known.  While the title was merely an excuse for Scotti Bros. Pictures to trot out Scotti Bros. Records artist Survivor's 1982 chart-topper "Eye of the Tiger" one more time as if ROCKY III never happened, the movie itself kicks all kinds of ass.  Gary Busey is recently-paroled ex-con Buck Matthews, a Vietnam vet who ended up serving time over a self-defense killing.  Buck just wants to head back to his small Texas hometown and lead a quiet life with his wife Christie (Denise Galik) and young daughter Jenny (Judith Barsi, who would die tragically in 1988 when she and her mother were murdered by her father, who then killed himself), but with the corrupt sheriff (Seymour Cassel) who trumped up his murder charge acting as his parole officer, things aren't going to be easy.  Buck saves a local nurse from being gang-raped by a group of vicious, drug-running bikers led by Blade (William Smith), who retaliates by killing Christie and putting a catatonic Jenny in the hospital.  With the sheriff on Blade's payroll and the townfolk too cowardly to help, Buck is forced to take on Blade and his psychos alone, but gets some help from buddy J.B. (Yaphet Kotto).



How evil is Blade's gang?  Not only do they kill Buck's wife, but then they dig up her casket and leave it in his driveway.  Other highlights include Buck stretching wire across a road and decapitating some speeding bikers, and later, torturing another by shoving a stick of dynamite up his ass and lighting the fuse.  Director Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT), who previously worked with Busey on 1973's Rod Steiger vs. Robert Ryan hillbilly feud drama LOLLY-MADONNA XXX and 1984's Bear Bryant biopic THE BEAR, stages some impressive explosions and stunt work, and Busey, two years before a head injury in a motorcycle accident began his slow and painful transformation into a reality show punchline (he's an Oscar-nominated actor, folks), is in top form.  EYE OF THE TIGER isn't a Cannon film but it sure feels like one, and seeing it again after 25+ years, it's an absolute blast and a great example of what a fun and fast-moving B-grade action flick should be. (R, 92 mins)


EXTERMINATOR 2
(US - 1984)

Four years after the surprise box office success of the 1980 vigilante thriller THE EXTERMINATOR came the sequel, only this time the dynamic duo of Golan & Globus got involved.  Without the original film's writer/director James Glickenhaus on board, Cannon had EXTERMINATOR producer Mark Buntzman handle the directing chores, and to say it didn't work out is an understatement:  Buntzman was fired during filming and Cannon moved the production from NYC to Los Angeles as William Sachs (1977's THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, 1979's VAN NUYS BLVD, 1980's GALAXINA) was brought in rewrite part of the script and to finish directing the film.  As a result, EXTERMINATOR 2 exhibits all the tell-tale signs of a troubled production:  choppy editing, mismatched shots, obvious stock footage, continuity errors, superfluous padding, blatant gaffes (co-star Frankie Faison looks straight into the camera twice in one scene) and most noticeably, the complete absence of star Robert Ginty for the last 20 minutes of the film.  When Buntzman was fired, Ginty left as well, and Sachs had to somehow shoot major sequences in order to finish and salvage a film without access to its star, and it's dealt with in classic Fake Shemp fashion by having Ginty's John Eastland either shot from behind or above or spending entire scenes hiding behind a welding mask, even when he's just running around (two stuntmen are credited with doubling Ginty). That, coupled with the laughably cheap sets and obvious low budget (there's a nightclub set in this that's almost as chintzy as the bar with folding chairs in SAVAGE STREETS), pretty much dooms EXTERMINATOR 2 from the start, and while it really pales in comparison to the first film, it's moderately entertaining trash if you're in the right mood and approach it with the lowest possible expectations.  Eastland is still taking out NYC's trash as a flamethrowing vigilante by night and runs afoul of a cartoonish street gang that seems to have wandered in from the set of an Italian post-nuke outing, and is led by the ruthless X (Mario Van Peebles, giving it his all in an early role).  When X's goons attack Eastland's dancer girlfriend (Deborah Geffner) and his buddy Be Gee (Faison), Eastland fortifies Be Gee's garbage truck into a ridiculous high-tech tank and takes on X and his gang at the requisite abandoned factory.


THE EXTERMINATOR is a great example of a grindhouse film with complex characters that holds up very well, but EXTERMINATOR 2 dates pretty badly (need to add a few minutes to the running time?  Then have Ginty and Geffner walk through Central Park and watch some breakdancers) and isn't helped by behind-the-scenes problems that are all too apparent in the finished product.  A while back, Cannon expert and genre historian Paul Talbot wrote a terrific piece on the EXTERMINATOR films for an issue of Screem that does a far better job of detailing the behind-the-scenes discord of EXTERMINATOR 2 than the wasted opportunity of a commentary track does here.  Buntzman and Van Peebles talk a lot of trivia, like Van Peebles going into how he put his character's wardrobe together and Buntzman saying he's the one who talked Golan & Globus into making the breakdancing epic BREAKIN' ("but they made it without me") or that he "rode around with garbagemen" while prepping for the movie.  There's long silences and comments that are left hanging (Buntzman: "a lot of ideas from this ended up in THE TERMINATOR," and "Bob (Ginty) had a sweet side.  He had a really angry side, but he had a sweet side, too") with no follow-up or explanation.  Or, after a particularly long space of dead air, Buntzman says "It's interesting to watch this again...it's like I'm just watching the movie."  Van Peebles: "Yeah, it is interesting."  The two men barely talk about Ginty and both get Geffner's name wrong (calling her "Deborah Geffen").  The backstory of EXTERMINATOR 2 is far more interesting than the film itself, but it's a story that neither Buntzman nor Van Peebles--who have remained friends through the years as Buntzman has had small roles in several of Van Peebles' subsequent directing efforts, and Van Peebles mentions Buntzman is godfather to one of his kids--appear interested in telling.  Buntzman says something about when "we moved the production out to L.A.," and how Ginty is doubled in the climax because "we didn't have him," but Buntzman was fired by that point.  At one point, Van Peebles mentions Cannon, and Buntzman chuckles "I haven't even gotten into that yet," and he never does.  Buntzman's firing and replacement by Sachs is never mentioned, even when the closing credits kick off with "Additional scenes directed by William Sachs."  I suppose it's possible some of this was discussed in the long silences and maybe the comments were edited out, but if the rest of the track is any indication, these guys just don't have much of anything substantive to say about EXTERMINATOR 2 and the commentary is ultimately a waste of time.  The film itself, despite its many issues, still has some sleazy grindhouse charm to it, though it's quite a step down from its predecessor.  (R, 89 mins)


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: BACHELORETTE (2012) and THE FACTORY (2013)


BACHELORETTE
(US - 2012)

Though the Will Ferrell-produced BACHELORETTE is based on a play, it's firmly in the post-HANGOVER class of foul-mouthed, raunchy shock comedy.  There's an obvious BRIDESMAIDS comparison to be made--especially with both films featuring Rebel Wilson--but BACHELORETTE really cranks up the hard-R elements, almost to a fault (there's one utterly pointless scene with a character on a plane discussing her blowjob techniques in graphic detail to the passenger next to her, and it seems thrown in just because the overrated BRIDESMAIDS had a talked-about--and endless--scene on a plane).  Oh, there's some laugh-out-loud moments, and the film gets off to a solid start, but eventually just runs out of things to say and feels like it's having a difficult time even getting to 87 minutes.  Now in their 30s, four high-school friends who called themselves "The B-Faces"--type-A control freak Regan (Kirsten Dunst), ditzy Katie (Isla Fisher), perpetually wasted Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and overweight nice girl Becky (Wilson), unaffectionately called "Pigface" behind her back--reunite for Becky's wedding.  Writer-director Leslye Headland does a good job of capturing the spiteful, bitchy cattiness of the three B-Girls' disgust and outrage that the unattractive fat girl they kept around to feel better about themselves has landed a GQ handsome, successful guy like Dale (Hayes MacArthur), and has become the happiest and most well-adjusted of the clique, but once that's established, there's really nowhere to go.  Most of the film focuses on Regan, Katie, and Gena's attempts to fix Becky's wedding dress in the middle of the night after Regan and Katie, coked-up and drunk after everyone else goes to bed, start mocking the size of it and accidentally rip it in half while trying to squeeze into it so they can take a pic to post on Facebook and embarrass Becky.   Besties!


There's an admirable and uncomfortable mean streak to BACHELORETTE and it starts losing its way when Headland goes conventional and redemptive and feels the need to make the three hot B-Girls likable, at which point the film becomes just another standard-issue chick flick.  Maybe it's just me, but I found it much funnier when it focused on jokes like Regan being stored in Gena's phone under the name "Cuntgina."  Though it's a mixed bag overall, there are some bits that are pure gold:  Katie walking into Scores and cooing "This must be what it's like to go to the Oscars!"; dour, depressed Gena's high school boyfriend (Caplan's PARTY DOWN co-star Adam Scott, cast radically against type as "Adam Scott") making her pancakes and saying in a whiny voice, "Yours has a sad face made of chocolate chips because the world is an asshole!"; and an inspired bit of lunacy where Dale's stoner friend Joe (Kyle Bornheimer as Seth Rogen) tries to revive an OD-ing Katie by sprinkling water on her and singing Heart's "These Dreams."  Also with Ann Dowd and James Marsden as the douchebag best man, BACHELORETTE didn't inspire much confidence in the Weinstein Company, who released it on just 60 screens for a $450,000 gross. (R, 87 mins)



THE FACTORY
(US/France/Germany/Canada - 2013)

Shelved for nearly five years by a rightfully embarrassed Warner Bros., this Dark Castle production was completed in 2008 and fell victim to endless release date shuffles.  After a planned Christmas 2011 release was predictably nixed, it languished for another year before they quit delaying the inevitable and quietly released it straight to DVD a few weeks ago.  The insulting, idiotic, incompetent, and offensive THE FACTORY is a mind-boggling travesty of a thriller featuring another terrible performance by a seriously skidding John Cusack, who's just not having a good run lately between this, THE RAVEN, THE PAPERBOY, and the still-unreleased-in-the-US epic SHANGHAI, which was also shot half a decade ago.  Cusack froths at the mouth as a hot-tempered Buffalo detective obsessively working a case involving missing prostitutes.  The perp is hospital food service worker Dallas Roberts, a twisted psycho who kidnaps streetwalkers and stashes them in his basement, fathering child after child for the baby factory he's running out of his home.  Of course, it gets personal for Cusack when his rebellious 17-year-old daughter (Mae Whitman) is mistaken for a hooker by Roberts and taken back to his dungeon to breed babies for "Daddy."  Cusack can't crack the case, Roberts is always one step ahead and the obligatory twist is pretty obvious five minutes in when--SPOILER--Cusack's wife (Sonya Walger) makes one of the clumsiest exposition drops in film history when, apropos of nothing as she's pulling the turkey out of the oven for Thanksgiving dinner, she shoehorns in a mention of his partner Jennifer Carpenter's infertility, which has nothing to do with anything they're talking about at the time, essentially shining a spotlight on its utter randomness ("You work her all these hours and it's bad enough that she's 30 and can't have children...") and cloddishly demonstrating that writers Morgan O'Neill (who also "directed," and I use the term loosely) and longtime AS THE WORLD TURNS co-star Paul Leydon haven't the faintest idea how to use foreshadowing. (END SPOILER)  Maybe it works if you, like O'Neill and Leydon, have never seen a suspense thriller before, but nothing in this film holds up under any scrutiny, from the implausible set-up to the brain-dead finale.  How is it possible that Cusack--himself a capable screenwriter (GROSSE POINTE BLANK, HIGH FIDELITY) could've read this trashy script, riddled with plot holes, and thought "Yup...looks good.  I'm in!"?  Recommended only for how deliriously awful it is, THE FACTORY, with its ludicrously contrived plot, vein-popping overacting, and amateurish CGI that doesn't look quite finished, will definitely provide some yuks for your next Bad Movie Night gathering, followed by wistful sadness as you ponder why the once-popular Cusack is seemingly hellbent on tanking his career to become the next Nicolas Cage.  (R, 104 mins)

Friday, March 15, 2013

In Theaters: THE CALL (2013)


THE CALL
(US - 2013)

Directed by Brad Anderson.  Written by Richard D'Ovidio.  Cast: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Imperioli, Michael Eklund, David Otunga, Roma Maffia, Justina Machado, Denise Dowse, Jose Zuniga. (R, 94 mins)

It's always frustrating to watch a film that's solidly, briskly, and efficiently doing its job only to have one illogical decision snowball into a calamitous chain reaction that causes the entire thing to crash and burn.  That's exactly what happens with THE CALL, a high-concept suspense outing from director Brad Anderson, a long-ago indie darling (1998's NEXT STOP, WONDERLAND, 2000's HAPPY ACCIDENTS) whose 2001 cult classic SESSION 9 led to him finding his niche with thrillers like 2004's THE MACHINIST and 2008's TRANSSIBERIAN.  Anderson mostly does hired-gun TV work these days (FRINGE, TREME, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, THE KILLING), and his last film, 2011's VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, was easily his worst, but for about 2/3 of its running time, THE CALL finds Anderson in fine form and reinforces the idea that genre films of this sort are indeed his true calling.  But around 65 minutes in, THE CALL makes a fatal mistake from which it never recovers. 

Overcoming an initially distracting wig, Halle Berry delivers a strong performance as Jordan, a veteran 911 operator at "The Hive," the centralized complex for Los Angeles emergency services and first responders (sample clumsy exposition from wide-eyed trainee: "Why do they call it 'The Hive?'").  In the opening sequence, Jordan is on the line with a teenage girl who's home alone and trying to hide from an intruder when a brief lapse in judgment ultimately leads to the girl's death.  Six months later, still shattered by the mistake (the girl was hiding, the call was disconnected and the intruder was about to give up and leave, but Jordan hitting "redial" inadvertantly alerted him to the girl's location) and unable to forgive herself, Jordan pops Diazepam and works as an operator trainer behind the scenes.  She's forced back onto the console when a 911 call comes in from 16-year-old Casey (Abigail Breslin), who's been abducted from a mall parking garage by a mystery man (DTV fixture and Uwe Boll vet Michael Eklund) and stashed in the trunk of his car.  It's here where THE CALL really starts cooking, as Anderson and screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio focus on Jordan digging deep within herself to find the confidence to talk Casey through what's happening to her and using her wits to help her alert other motorists to her plight. Since Casey is using the disposable phone left behind at the mall by a friend who had to leave, the police can't pinpoint its location.  Jordan instructs Casey to kick out the taillight and stick her arm out of it and wave.  When Casey finds some paint cans in the trunk, Jordan tells her to pour the paint out of the taillight opening.  At a stoplight, a motorist in the next lane (Michael Imperioli) gets a funny feeling about the missing taillight and the paint and when he tries to intervene, he ends up in the trunk of his own car with Casey when the kidnapper realizes the police are on to his vehicle and switches cars.


THE CALL is moving along at a nice clip and going just swell when it suddenly gets an urge to fix what isn't broken.  It's working because the tension builds by keeping its characters interacting while trapping them in their own confined, claustrophobic spaces (Casey in the trunk, Jordan at her desk).  But when Jordan ends up talking to the kidnapper and realizes that it's the same perp who killed the teenage girl six months earlier, THE CALL makes the conscious decision to shit the bed by having Jordan leave "The Hive" and take this 911 call...personal.  When the cops--including Jordan's understanding, supportive boyfriend (Morris Chestnut)--get the kidnapper's identity from a partial print on a shattered chloroform bottle near his abandoned car, they visit his house and his clueless wife (Justina Machado) and find the motive for his behavior and his possible location in a photo.  When a trip to that location turns out to be a dead end (they don't even turn the lights on--Chestnut walks in, looks around, and says "This is a dead end," and leaves), Jordan is unconvinced and drives out there herself.  At 2:30 am.  With just a flashlight.


And with that, what was a somewhat implausible but thoroughly entertaining, crackling thriller with strong, believable characters (it's also great fun watching Eklund go from cool and confident to a twitchy, blubbering mess as his day encounters one unforeseen obstacle after another) abruptly turns into a trashy, exploitative horror film with Eklund's psycho having a secret underground torture bunker where he scalps his victims and makes out with a mannequin head and touches himself because, after his turns as a post-apocalyptic cannibal in the atrocious THE DAY and a post-apocalyptic necrophile rapist in the loathsome THE DIVIDE, this is apparently what Michael Eklund does.  Of course, Jordan discovers the subterrenean SAW/HOSTEL death dungeon and decides to rescue Casey, who's strapped to a table and stripped down to her bra for no other reason than to show us that, yes, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is growing up and now has ample cleavage.  The jarring shift in tone is a tacky metamorphosis that ruins an otherwise exemplary nailbiter and would reek of studio exec interference and reshoots were it not for the film's last shot of Berry's Jordan pulling a Roy Scheider and using Eklund's catchphrase ("It's already done") against him.  The last third of the film is a train wreck (I haven't even mentioned Casey's eye injury being badly CGI'd; really, everything has to be CGI'd now?  We can't even apply practical makeup and a small prosthetic to simulate a swollen eye anymore?  I'm just glad ROCKY and RAGING BULL were made when they were), but the final five minutes in particular, are so utterly, stupidly senseless and at odds with everything we've seen and learned about these characters that when the closing credits roll, you just sit there slack-jawed at the implosion of what was a pretty good movie.  At one point during their phone conversation, Jordan promises Casey that she'll get her through this and that they'll go see a movie together that weekend.  What a nice, believable, well-rounded ending that would've been.  Instead, apropos of nothing and against all established logic, it culminates in vigilante vengeance, a cheap laugh, and red meat tossed out to the audience. 








Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (2012) and STORAGE 24 (2013)


THIS MUST BE THE PLACE
(Italy/France/Ireland - 2011; 2012 US release)

The Weinstein Company acquired this eccentric, glacially slow-moving road film from IL DIVO director Paolo Sorrentino and sat on it for over a year before sneaking it onto 15 screens in the US last fall.  It's certain to attain at least some minor cult status thanks to Sean Penn in perhaps the strangest role of his career as a reclusive, aging, Robert Smith-lookalike goth rocker named Cheyenne.  Living in Dublin with his firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand), Cheyenne, who still dresses the part despite having not performed or recorded in 20 years, is forced to travel home to America upon hearing that his estranged father has died.  Once back in NYC, Cheyenne is reminded of his Jewish heritage and learns from aging, foul-mouthed Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch) that his father (whose letters are read in voiceover by an uncredited Fritz Weaver) devoted his life to tracking down a Nazi officer who tortured him at Auschwitz and is now living somewhere in the US.  Cheyenne, haunted by his own demons--he quit writing "depressed songs for depressed kids" and withdrew from public life when two teenaged Irish fans committed suicide after listening to his music--and permitted by his wealth and celebrity to remain a child in many ways, believes he's finally found his true purpose when he decides to finish his father's work and locate the Nazi war criminal.



Sorrentino's film functions as an homage to road films past, particularly the work of Wim Wenders, a point driven home by the presence of PARIS, TEXAS star Harry Dean Stanton as a chatty old-timer who claims to have invented the wheeled suitcase.  Cheyenne becomes quite the detective on his quest down the back roads of America, awkwardly meeting a retired teacher (Joyce Van Patten) who was once married to the alleged Nazi, which leads him to the man's granddaughter (Kerry Condon), a widowed waitress with a young son.  Filming in Dublin, NYC, New Mexico, Utah, and Michigan, Sorrentino does a nice job of capturing the peculiar sounds and rhythms of rural America, and commendably doesn't go for cheap, fish-out-of-water laughs, with the mumbling, vaguely effeminate Cheyenne often finding accepting, kindred spirits among these misfit souls who live off the beaten path.  This is an enigmatic and sometimes frustrating film that leaves several vital pieces of the puzzle open to interpretation, particularly Cheyenne's friendship with Mary (Eve Hewson, daughter of U2's Bono), a Dublin teenager with a delusional mother who hasn't been right since Mary's brother mysteriously vanished, but if you give it chance, it has its rewards, especially with some frequently arresting visuals and Penn's performance, while initially affected, off-putting, and feeling a bit like a stunt, gradually finds its place after a scene where he dumps all of his emotional baggage on old friend David Byrne (playing himself), whose Talking Heads song gives the film its title.  The US theatrical cut was shortened by seven minutes from Sorrentino's original version, completely removing Shea Whigham's appearance as a fast-talking businessman and the explanation of how Cheyenne is suddenly driving a pickup truck on his journey (Whigham apparently asked him to drive it cross-country for him).  THIS MUST BE THE PLACE isn't an easy film to like and anyone who assumes from a cursory glance that it'll be a Cure-inspired goth-rock CRAZY HEART will bail in record time, but road flick nerds and Penn completists will certainly want to give it a look. (R, 111 mins)


STORAGE 24
(India/UK - 2012; 2013 US release)

Uninspired at best and dreadful at worst, STORAGE 24 feels clumsily torn between being a horror movie and a Noel Clarke vanity project.  British TV star Clarke, who wrote and co-directed the moderately entertaining Tarantino/Guy Ritchie knockoff 4.3.2.1, is still trying to mount some kind of Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright breakthrough in the US market, with little success thus far.  Clarke co-produced, co-wrote, and stars in STORAGE 24, which starts its cribbing with a set-up straight out of SUPER 8 as a military cargo plane crashes near Hyde Park in central London.  As the military closes in, the area is locked down and a group of people in a 24-hour storage facility (very) slowly discover that they've got company in the form of a rampaging alien that looks an awful lot like PREDATOR minus the rasta braids.  But before any of that, director Johannes Roberts overindulges Clarke, who seems like he wanted to write a boring breakup drama intermittently interrupted by gory alien kills.  Far too much time is spent on Charlie (Clarke) bellyaching to his best buddy Mark (Colin O'Donoghue) about getting dumped by Shelley (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), who's also at the storage facility and, it turns out, has been secretly seeing Mark for months.  Even when the alien starts offing people one-by-one and the film just starts to blatantly copy other, better movies (mostly ALIEN and ALIENS, but also PREDATOR, DISTRICT 9, and ATTACK THE BLOCK just to name a few), with the alien dragging people up through the ceiling tiles, people crawling through air shafts, John Carpenter-esque score, etc. without any sense of style, fun, humor or homage, Charlie is still fixating on why things didn't work out.  Ploddingly-paced with a dull cast and shoddy CGI gore effects, STORAGE 24 accomplishes nothing other than reminding you of past films that you'd be better off rewatching instead.  (R, 87 mins)