Thursday, January 30, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: JACKASS PRESENTS: BAD GRANDPA (2013); DON JON (2013); and DARK TOUCH (2013)

(US - 2013)

BAD GRANDPA is a departure film for the JACKASS team as Johnny Knoxville goes solo in the franchise's first narrative feature.  Of course, the plot isn't the focal point of this ramshackle affair as Knoxville, under heavy makeup as lecherous 86-year-old widower Irving Zisman, who goes on a road trip to throw his wife's body off of a bridge (per her final wishes) and turn his eight-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) over to his shitbag father (Greg Harris) when Irving's daughter (Georgina Cates) has to go to jail.  The hook here is that other than the primary actors, no other onscreen players are in on what Knoxville and a show-stealing Nicoll are up to as they go on a series of outrageous misadventures that owe more than a slight debt to Sacha Baron Cohen's BORAT and BRUNO.  There are quite a few screamingly funny scenes--Irving in an African-American male strip club; Irving sharting in a diner; Irving bringing a margarita blender to a bingo hall; Billy in drag at a beauty pageant, dancing to Warrant's "Cherry Pie"--and quotable dialogue ("They used to call me Jizzy Gillespie in my younger days"), but the whole narrative element is unnecessary and not that interesting.  It works best when focused on the shocked reactions of those around them, caught by numerous concealed cameras as shown during the closing credits (usually the owners of the establishments were in on it, but not the patrons).  Knoxville has a great rapport with a game Nicoll, a brave and fearless young actor who's so good at staying in character and keeping a straight face that you can see genuine affection and admiration even through the old-man latex on Knoxville's face.  It's ragged and inconsistently-paced, but an outrageous, offensive blast all the same.  (R, 92 mins; 102-minute unrated version also available)

(US - 2013)

In films both small (MYSTERIOUS SKIN, THE LOOKOUT) and huge (INCEPTION, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), Joseph Gordon-Levitt has built a solid reputation as one of the most gifted, natural actors of his generation.  He's also an immensely likable guy, though he does seem to occasionally try a little too hard to please, so it's nice to see that his debut as a filmmaker--directing, writing, and starring in DON JON--is indicative of a confidant and assured talent behind the camera as well, the work of someone who's clearly spent a lot of time on movie sets observing and learning from others.  It's to Gordon-Levitt's credit that DON JON isn't the vanity project that it could've been, though it's not quite as deep and meaningful as its creator intended.  In a role originally planned for Channing Tatum but taken over by Gordon-Levitt himself, the actor plays Jersey meathead Jon, a cartoonish pussy hound who enjoys the simple things in life:  working out, clubbing with his bros (Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke), and getting laid.  He also has a serious pornography addiction that's rendered real sex with real women unsatisfying, and he goes to church every Sunday to confess his sins, which are usually limited to out-of-wedlock sex and how many times he masturbated to online porn.  Thinking a meaningful relationship will make the sex more fulfilling, Jon pursues Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a gum-smacking Jersey goddess who tries to mold him into her image of the perfect guy, including making him watch insipid romantic comedies and badgering him into taking night classes to better himself.  While the sex is OK--he laments that she won't do anything but missionary and refuses to give him blowjobs--he genuinely loves her but can't resist the temptations of the anything-goes, money-shot netherworld that awaits him on his laptop.

Gordon-Levitt is good as the conflicted Jon, who's not quite as dumb as he tries to make himself look.  He and Barbara exists in one of those Italian-American Jersey enclaves firmly devoted to tradition and remaining largely unchanged over the decades:  other than the HDTV and Jon's morose sister (SHORT TERM 12's Brie Larson) silently texting, Jon's parents (screeching Glenne Headly and a bloviating Tony Danza) live in a house that looks like it's frozen in 1980, with Jon Sr. generally wearing a wifebeater with a football game blaring in the background and Mom wanting nothing more than grandchildren (the first thing out of Jon Sr.'s mouth when he hears the name "Barbara Sugarman" is "She a Jew?  She sure as hell ain't Italian").  Though very light on explicitness, there's a hard-R boldness to DON JON in its dialogue and in Gordon-Levitt's decision to play a character that constantly straddles the line between likable mook and a lunkheaded Neanderthal.  A late-film subplot involving Julianne Moore as a middle-aged classmate is well-played by Moore but its transformative effect on Jon doesn't really ring true, nor does his falling head over heels for Barbara, who almost immediately comes off as a manipulative, ballbusting cliché.  DON JON is a credible directing debut for its talented star, but it plays a lot like the kind of diverting but generally forgettable indie that Miramax would've bought at Sundance in the '90s.  (R, 90 mins)

(France/Ireland/Sweden - 2013)

Since working for her mentor Francois Ozon as an actress (1997's SEE THE SEA, 1998's SITCOM) and as a writer (2002's 8 WOMEN), Marina de Van has demonstrated a no-holds-barred penchant for in-your-face provocation.  2002's IN MY SKIN, her profoundly disturbing directing debut, found the writer/star crafting an almost Cronenbergian take on self-harm and body image, with de Van casting herself as a young woman whose leg injury leads to self-mutilation and eventually graduating to consuming her own flesh.  2009's double-identity head-games thriller DON'T LOOK BACK was purported to be her "maturing" work, though it comes off as a bit too ponderous and gimmicky despite strong performances from Monica Bellucci and Sophie Marceau.  Apparently staying behind-the-camera full-time now (she hasn't acted since 2007), de Van returns with DARK TOUCH, which has an almost mainstream air about it (it's also her first English-language film) while still dealing with sensitive and uncomfortable issues.  Opening in a disorienting, in medias res cacophony of confusion, 11-year-old Niamh (Missy Keating) flees her house and takes refuge with neighbors/family friends Nat (Marcella Plunkett) and Lucas (Padraic Delaney).  Niamh's tongue is cut and she's covered in bruises, which are explained away by her parents Maud (Catherine Walker) and Henry (Richard Dormer) when they arrive to pick her up.  The next night, a supernatural force invades Niamh's house, destroying the interior and brutally killing her parents.  Her infant brother, also seen covered in bruises, dies as a result of Niamh clutching him too tightly while escaping the destruction.  The local Garda attribute it to a home invasion, but nobody seems to do much investigating as Niamh temporarily moves in with Nat and Lucas, who have two children of their own and recently lost their oldest daughter--around Niamh's age--to cancer.  Niamh remains unreceptive to any kind of affection and soon demonstrates a telekinetic, CARRIE-like ability to move objects as well as possessing a strange, psychic hold over other children when she feels threatened by them.

Young Keating is very impressive in a demanding, difficult role, and de Van succeeds in weaving a thorny subtext into what plays very much like a commercial horror film.  The abuse Niamh endures at the hands of her parents has generated an uncontrollable telekinetic ability born of sheer rage, and it's an anger she uses to take on the adults in her town, even ones like Nat and Lucas, who are trying to help her but don't really know how.  Feeling almost like it could've been a British or Italian fright film made in the 1970s, DARK TOUCH uses the classic tropes of the "evil children" subgenre--in addition to CARRIE, you'll spot elements of ORPHAN (2009), Tom Shankland's little-seen gem THE CHILDREN (2009), the OMEN-inspired British cult favorite THE GODSEND (1980), and Narciso Ibanez Serrador's WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976)--to show the horrific effects of child abuse on the victims and those around them.  It works merely on a surface level, but de Van is digging for something more and doesn't always find it.  Some plot threads are underexplored, perhaps intentionally, and some may find the loose ends frustrating.  It's not the confrontational galvanizer that IN MY SKIN was, but de Van continues to be a bold, ballsy voice in European cinema.  (Unrated, 92 mins)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: ENEMIES CLOSER (2014)

(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by Peter Hyams. Written by Eric Bromberg & James Bromberg.  Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tom Everett Scott, Orlando Jones, Linzey Cocker, Christopher Robbie, Kris Van Damme, Zahari Baharov, Dimo Alexiev, Vladimir Mihaylov, Teodor Tzolov.  (R, 85 mins)

Back in the late '80s, Jean-Claude Van Damme built his fan base and became a star the old-fashioned way:  by working his ass off.  As he graduated from low-budget B-movies that became surprise box-office hits (1988's BLOODSPORT, 1989's CYBORG) to bigger-budgeted A-list fare (1992's UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, 1993's HARD TARGET, 1994's TIMECOP), he became a proven player with a solid track record.  By 1996, he had enough clout that Universal let him star in and direct his pet project THE QUEST, and then it all started to implode.  THE QUEST bombed, followed by tabloid fodder like multiple marriages, stories of drug abuse and being labeled "difficult."  In his memoir My Word is My Bond, THE QUEST villain Roger Moore offered this observation on being asked what it was like working with Van Damme: "I've always believed that if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.  So I'll say nothing at all." The movies kept tanking (1997's DOUBLE TEAM, 1998's KNOCK OFF), LEGIONNAIRE (1998) went straight to video, and the "Muscles from Brussels" was becoming something between an industry pariah and punchline.  After 1999's last-ditch, desperation Hail Mary UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN, Van Damme's movies started bypassing theaters altogether.  But then a funny thing happened:  he straightened up his act, settled down, and focused on his work, and the movies were often shockingly good.  Much like his earlier days, Van Damme was once more building his career by word-of-mouth: low-budget B-movies like the gritty IN HELL (2003), WAKE OF DEATH (2004), UNTIL DEATH (2007), and THE SHEPHERD (2008) are as good as, if not better, than many of the films from his theatrical heyday.  The 2008 meta/mockumentary/confessional JCVD got some acclaim but didn't open any serious doors for him, and after a few more quality DTV outings like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009) and ASSASSINATION GAMES (2011), Van Damme was invited back to the big screen to play the villain in THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), and the Van Dammessaince was on.  The brilliant UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012) managed to get raves from serious cineastes, and a recent Volvo commercial became a viral sensation.  Everyone loves an underdog, and once more, after years of hard work and rebuilding his reputation, the 53-year-old Van Damme has engineered the quietest comeback in recent memory, even if some are approaching it ironically.  He never went away--it's just that he managed to accomplish some of his best work when the industry dismissed him and no one was paying attention.

I've been saying for years that Van Damme would make a great Bond villain, and THE EXPENDABLES 2 did a nice job of demonstrating that.  His latest film, ENEMIES CLOSER, again finds JCVD in bad-guy mode, with the initial focus on Henry Taylor (Tom Everett Scott), a ranger at a park near the US/Canada border.  He's the only employee and lives in the ranger station, with only one other resident--cranky old Mr. Sanderson (Christopher Robbie)--living on the other end of the park.  Taylor prefers the solitude after dealing with the emotional and physical scars of time spent in the military, serving in Afghanistan.  After helping stranded hiker Kayla (Linzey Cocker), the two make a dinner date, but it's put on the backburner when Taylor is approached at gunpoint at the ranger station by Clay (Orlando Jones).  Clay has a personal beef with Taylor:  his younger brother was killed in Afghanistan and Taylor was his commanding officer.  Taylor tries to explain that Clay's brother got separated from their group and he was given orders to leave him behind.  Taylor had a breakdown and spent years blaming himself and the ranger job was as far as he could run from the world.  Clay doesn't buy any of it and takes him out to the deep woods to execute him.

Meanwhile, a plane filled with a large heroin shipment has crashed in the lake surrounding the island park.  Just as the skeleton crew of border patrol officers ("It's just us...they only care about the Mexican border!" one officer laments) goes to investigate, they're massacred by Xander (Van Damme), the eccentric, environmentally-conscious, vegan cartel boss who's introduced talking about his refusal to wear leather shoes and the methane in cow farts.  Xander and his crew encounter Taylor and Clay just as Clay's about to kill Taylor.  Shots are fired, and the hunt is on as Xander and his crew start pursuing Taylor and Clay through the massive park, forcing the two men to set aside their differences and work together...

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

The script by Eric and James Bromberg has a lot in the way of logic lapses--why would Taylor and Clay leave Xander's last remaining henchman merely knocked out instead of killing him like they did all the others?  (this flunky is played by JCVD's son Kristopher Van Varenberg, who's now just cutting the shit and going by "Kris Van Damme"; Van Damme keeps putting his kids in his movies, and it needs to stop, though Kris is a marginally better actor than his sister Bianca Bree). Why, you ask?  Well, so he can pull a surprise appearance just when he needs to, and prompt Clay to grumble "I shoulda killed you when I had the chance."  YES, YOU SHOULD HAVE!  The Sanderson character is absolutely pointless and there's no shortage of trite dialogue when Van Damme is offscreen (at one point, Clay says "I didn't prepare for a war," to which Taylor actually replies "This war came to us").  There's a third-act twist that you'll see coming long before Taylor and Clay do, but for all its predictability and occasional stupidity, ENEMIES CLOSER is entertaining thanks to a completely unhinged performance by Van Damme.  Sporting a bizarre hairstyle that looks like Christopher Walken in a high humidity climate, mugging shamelessly, complaining that Taylor's coffee isn't fair trade, and prone to waxing rhapsodic about a childhood that included a pet goose named Edith Piaf, Van Damme sinks his teeth into this thing, devouring every bit of scenery that he can.  It's a thoroughly cartoonish performance that's engineered to go over the top, and seeing Van Damme do his best "Gary Oldman-in-THE PROFESSIONAL" is impossible to resist.

This is the star's third collaboration with veteran director Peter Hyams (TIMECOP, SUDDEN DEATH), a past master of commercial genre fare, with BUSTING (1974), CAPRICORN ONE (1978), OUTLAND (1981), and RUNNING SCARED (1986) to his name.  Now 70, Hyams was once respected enough in the industry to be entrusted with helming 2010, the surprisingly solid 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), but he's been skidding for well over a decade, hitting bottom with A SOUND OF THUNDER (2005), a complete disaster that was abandoned by its producers and actually released with unfinished special effects after three years on the shelf.  ENEMIES CLOSER is no Hyams classic, but it's his best film since 1997's THE RELIC.  He doesn't really bring any distinct touches (Hyams in his 1974-1986 prime, when he was scripting his own films, had a distinct "Hyams" feel--just check out Hal Holbrook's incredible CAPRICORN ONE monologue), other than having one character named "Spota," a name that turns up in many of his films (it's his wife's maiden name).  Van Damme and Hyams obviously like one another and enjoy working together, and Van Damme has also starred in three films directed by Hyams' son John, including the instant cult classic UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING.  John Hyams served as editor on ENEMIES CLOSER, and the film, shot in Bulgaria and Louisiana, feels more in line with the current crop of high-end DTV fare cranked out by the likes of John Hyams and Isaac Florentine.  It's probably a good bet that a lot of that was achieved in the editing stages with John helping his old man out.  Peter Hyams is more than capable of pulling off a high-intensity action flick, but in the many fight scenes, the influence of John Hyams, who's becoming a genuine action auteur in his own right, is very obvious.

It's too bad Lionsgate and After Dark Films aren't capitalizing on the Van Dammessaince and giving this a bigger rollout than a handful of theaters and VOD, but given the tepid commercial response to the recent string of quality aging action star vehicles that don't feature the word "expendables" in the title, you can't really be surprised.  Sure, Van Damme doesn't have--and probably never will have--the box office pull that he once did, and nobody in 2014 is going to the multiplex to see Tom Everett Scott or Orlando Jones, but it's just a bit disheartening to see the company dump this one off but put I, FRANKENSTEIN on 3000 screens.

Friday, January 24, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: IN A WORLD... (2013) and SUNLIGHT JR. (2013)

(US - 2013)

One of the most acclaimed films at Sundance in 2013, IN A WORLD... is exactly the kind of movie that plays better at film festivals than in commercial release. It's pleasant, occasionally amusing, and it's made with the best intentions.  There's nothing egregiously wrong with it, but it doesn't really do anything with its ideas and is rather slight and forgettable by the end.  CHILDREN HOSPITAL's Lake Bell, a proven comic and dramatic performer who rarely gets the attention she deserves, writes, directs, and stars in this labor of love as Carol, a Los Angeles-based vocal coach who specializes in helping actors nail accents (she's introduced getting a voice mail from a sound mixer who needs her to work with Eva Longoria on a period film, as her Cockney accent "sounds like a retarded pirate").  She's successful in her field, but lives in the shadow of her legendary father Sam (Fred Melamud), a famed movie trailer voice who had a mentor in the late, great Don LaFontaine (Bell opens the film with a nice tribute to that great "In a world..." voice).  She lives with Sam, a widower who promptly kicks her out so his one-year-younger-than-Carol girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) can move in.  While working with Longoria in the studio where the actress has to re-loop her entire performance, Carol narrates a trailer as a goof, and she nails it so well that she finds herself in the running to voice the trailer for the Cameron Diaz blockbuster "AMAZON GAMES quadrilogy," which puts her in conflict with her dad and Gustav (Ken Marino), the other main voice in the trailer business.

Movie buffs will appreciate the occasional glimpses at the inner workings of the voiceover industry, but too much of IN A WORLD... is devoted to standard-issue rom-com stuff, with Carol falling for sound mixer Louis (Demetri Martin) and trying to patch things up between her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry) when concierge Dani fools around with AMAZON GAMES director and hotel guest Terence Pouncer (Jason O'Mara), plus some easy jabs at THE HUNGER GAMES and L.A. women with "sexy baby voices" who talk like every sentence ends with a question mark?  Bell and Watkins have a nice sibling chemistry, Holden's Jamie is unpredictably handled in the way she legitimately loves Sam and is not just drawn by his fame, and Melamud has a voice that was made for trailers (Marino, however, does not), but the whole "female empowerment" message that Bell is going for is too heavy-handed by the end, and she can't resist the indie hipster crutch of using '70s and '80s hits ironically (Dani and Moe reconcile to the tune of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line," and Carol and Louis' night out is a montage set to Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," for some reason).  In the end, there's a few chuckles for film dorks, but that's ultimately the biggest problem.  Bell got all of her cult comedy friends together (there's also supporting turns by Nick Offerman, Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro, and Jeff Garlin, plus Geena Davis as a ballbusting movie exec), and it grossed $3 million on 144 screens against a $1 million budget, but its appeal is too narrow.  It feels like the kind of movie Tom Dicillo made in the '90s that nobody outside the industry gave a shit about.  Bell is a charming and immensely likable actress, but IN A WORLD... too often comes off like little more than a rejected IFC pilot.  (R, 93 mins)

(US/UK - 2013)

Here's another example of a well-intentioned film that just has no chance once it's away from the secure and loving embrace of the film festival circuit.  It was a major title at last year's Tribeca fest, and it's the kind of offering that the indie and the festival scene just eats up:  gritty subject matter, socially and culturally relevant themes, name actors working for scale or less and getting their hands dirty on a pack-your-own-lunch labor of love that shows how serious they are about their craft...and it was ultimately given a zero-publicity VOD dumping while only playing on a few screens nationally.  Written and directed by SHERRYBABY's Laurie Collyer, SUNLIGHT JR. stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon as Melissa and Richie, a severely down-on-their-luck Florida couple who've been beaten to shit by life:  he's a hard-drinking paraplegic living disability check to disability check, fixing VCRs and siphoning gas from cars, and she's supporting them by scrambling for shifts at a rundown convenience store called Sunlight Jr., where she's routinely hassled by her stalker ex Justin (Norman Reedus), who demonstrated his love by routinely beating her and getting her hooked on prescription painkillers.  They live in a fleabag motel but they're happy together, and that happiness intensifies when she discovers she's pregnant.  But, since this is a depressing indie drama that could almost be called BLUE VALENTINE: THE LATER YEARS, that joy is short-lived as her asshole boss (Antoni Corone) threatens her job and Justin's behavior grows more menacing now that his restraining order's been lifted.

Watts, Dillon, and the film are moving along just fine until the pregnancy, when Collyer just starts piling on one misfortune after another in a way that crosses the line from realism into deck-stacking misery porn.  The problems with her boss exist only to make the story take a more miserable turn.  It's a corporate chain--as evidenced by a company HR rep visiting to administer drug tests--so there's no reason Melissa can't tell someone higher-up that she's being sexually harassed by her boss ("Are those pants wet because of me?" he asks Melissa after she walks to work in the rain), and his other managerial practices are flat-out abusive and intimidating.  And given Justin's behavior, there's no valid reason for the restraining order to be lifted other than Collyer needs him to show up at Sunlight Jr to cause dramatic conflict and offer Melissa some painkillers.  And later, when they're kicked out of the motel and have to move in with her alcoholic mother (Tess Harper) and her brood of unruly foster kids that she lets run wild so she can keep the foster care checks coming in, there's not only Richie's ramped-up boozing and the foster kids being bitten by bedbugs, but also the mom's asshole landlord--who else?--JUSTIN!  To Collyer's credit, she doesn't turn Melissa and Richie into martyrs or succumb to white trash caricaturing, and she does a commendable job of capturing the atmosphere of crippling economic depression, shooting in locations that look like a desolate wasteland of homeless people, closed-down strip malls with weeds growing through the concrete, pawn shops, flea markets, and dive bars. Watts and Dillon are excellent until the plot developments start threatening to turn the characters into cardboard cutouts; Watts perseveres but Dillon can't do much with the clichéd arc undergone by Richie.  SUNLIGHT JR sometimes falls victim to ham-fisted melodrama, but there's a lot of positives to be found with the performances, a very Ry Cooder-ish score by J. Mascis, and Collyer's compassionate depiction of a struggling underclass.  (Unrated, 95 mins)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1977)

(UK/Italy/West Germany - 1977)

Directed by George Pan Cosmatos.  Written by Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Katz and George Pan Cosmatos.  Cast: Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, O.J. Simpson, Ingrid Thulin, Lee Strasberg, Lionel Stander, Ann Turkel, Lou Castel, John Phillip Law, Ray Lovelock, Alida Valli, Tom Hunter, Stefano Patrizi, Carlo De Mejo, Fausta Avelli, Angela Goodwin, Renzo Palmer, John P. Dulaney.  (R, 129 mins)


Disaster movies were one of the signature genres of 1970s cinema.  Though the concept wasn't new and dated back to the early days of the movies to SAN FRANCISCO (1936) and 1950s hits like THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) and ZERO HOUR! (1957), and would continue later with the likes of ARMAGEDDON (1998), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2008), the subgenre really exploded in the 1970s.  Starting with box-office blockbusters like AIRPORT (1970), THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) to less-popular but still entertaining later offerings like the sniper-in-a-football-stadium TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976), the Goodyear Blimp-blowing-up-the-Super Bowl BLACK SUNDAY (1977), and the mad-bomber-terrorizing-amusement-parks ROLLERCOASTER (1977), disaster films showcased then-state-of-the-art special effects depicting catastrophes both natural and man-made, and a large cast of stars both current and from Hollywood's golden age.  The incredible success of these films spawned countless imitations, from exclamatory made-for-TV disaster movies like HEAT WAVE! (1974), FLOOD! (1976), and FIRE! (1977) to drive-in exploitation like THE BEES (1978) and AVALANCHE (1978) to the inevitable foreign-made ripoffs with films like TIDAL WAVE (1975), which inserted new footage of Lorne Greene into a Japanese disaster movie; the Italian oil fire thriller OIL (1977); the Canadian city-on-fire thriller CITY ON FIRE (1979); and the Italian/Brazilian co-production KILLER FISH (1979), which involved an emerald heist, a laughable tornado, and a river filled with hungry piranha.  It's unfortunate that most of these films lacked the hyperbolic punctuation that the TV movies used--think how much better KILLER FISH would be if it was called KILLER FISH! 

In addition to the mandatory "faces in boxes" poster design, disaster movies frequently featured supporting roles for an off-season or retired sports star, usually from the NFL, such as Rosey Grier in SKYJACKED (1972), O.J. Simpson in THE TOWERING INFERNO, Alex Karras in WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980), and then-Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini in the aforementioned KILLER FISH, as well as college football star Mark Harmon in BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979).  Other such stunt casting included the likes of fake evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner in EARTHQUAKE (1974), singer Helen Reddy in AIRPORT 1975 (1974), and game-show host and frequent TONIGHT SHOW guest host John Davidson--the Ryan Seacrest of the 1970s--in THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 (1979).  Audiences grew tired of the increasingly silly and often shoddy spectacles (how can we forget 1978's THE SWARM or 1979's METEOR?) and the demand for these things vanished.  Kinji Fukasaku's mega-budget Japanese epic VIRUS (1980), featuring such stars as Glenn Ford, George Kennedy, Henry Silva, Sonny Chiba, and Robert Vaughn, was perhaps the most ambitious disaster film of them all, but couldn't find a US distributor even with a sappy Janis Ian theme song, and was cut by nearly an hour and drastically re-edited before going straight-to-video in 1984 (Fukasaku's complete 155-minute version is a masterpiece).  By the time so-called "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen, the man behind THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, and THE SWARM, unveiled the volcano epic WHEN TIME RAN OUT, the title could've applied to the genre itself, especially when it was expertly parodied that same year by AIRPLANE!, from the gathering of stoical, serious actors known for their stern gravitas (Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack), right down to the casting of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as himself, moonlighting as a pilot named "Roger Murdock."  Disaster movies, at least in their 1970s incarnation, were done.

These films always had eclectic casts populated by actors you'd never expect to find working together (THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 managed to get Alain Delon, Charo, Jimmie Walker, and Sylvia Kristel in the same movie), but the British/Italian/West German co-production THE CASSANDRA CROSSING provides a bizarre mix of international A-list, Hollywood old guard, Eurocult regulars, and one vacationing football star nearing the end of his playing days.  It's not often you see people like O.J. Simpson and Martin Sheen mixing it up with the likes of THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE's Ray Lovelock and FISTS IN THE POCKET's Lou Castel.  Like many of its genre brethren, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING offers multiple problems for its heroes to conquer and is actually two disaster movies in one:  first a terrorist exposed to a deadly plague stows away on a Geneva-to-Stockholm train, then the US military tries to contain the disease by intentionally diverting the train to an unsafe bridge in the hopes that it will collapse, killing all the passengers and making for a nice, convenient cover-up.  There's a level of cynicism in THE CASSANDRA CROSSING that doesn't exist in other disaster movies.  The US government is the villain here, and it's interesting that it's represented by Burt Lancaster, who starred in the same year's TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, a bile-soaked screed of a conspiracy thriller that depicted the US President's own cabinet members sending the newly-elected and earnestly naïve Commander-in-Chief (Charles Durning) to his own execution when he decides to go public with his predecessors' classified memos that will expose the truth about America's Vietnam policies.  He's advised against it by those in his inner circle, old men who tell him "This is just how it's always been," and he pays the price for breaking tradition.

In CASSANDRA, Lancaster's Col. Mackenzie is dispatched to the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva after three Swedish terrorists (Castel, Stefano Patrizi, and Carlo De Mejo) infiltrate the building and the resulting shootout ends up exposing them to a strain of pneumonic plague that's been developed--illegally and in secret--by the US government and stored in a lab on the premises.  De Mejo is killed by a guard, Patrizi is wounded and captured, and Castel escapes.  Mackenzie, his aid Major Stack (John Phillip Law), and WHO-based Dr. Stradner (Ingrid Thulin) get no information out of Patrizi before he dies, and Mackenzie orders the body burned.  Castel, the lead terrorist, makes his way to a nearby train station and sneaks aboard the express going to Stockholm.  It's here where CASSANDRA, for a while at least plays out as your standard issue '70s disaster epic.  The major players onboard are renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris); his romance novelist ex-wife Jennifer (Sophia Loren); requisite elderly con man Herman Kaplan (Lee Strasberg); hippie lovebirds Tom (Lovelock) and Susan (Ann Turkel); a grandmother (Alida Valli) and her granddaughter Katerina (Fausta Avelli); wealthy Nicole Dressler (Ava Gardner, also in EARTHQUAKE and CITY ON FIRE), wife of a German arms magnate, along with her heroin-addicted, drug-dealing boy-toy Robby Navarro (Sheen); and Haley (Simpson), an incognito-as-a-priest Interpol agent tailing Navarro.  The script by Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Katz, and director George P. Cosmatos (who would go on to Hollywood blockbusters like 1985's RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and 1993's TOMBSTONE) spends a little too much time on the soapier elements of Jonathan and Jennifer's inevitable rekindling of their romance (they've already been divorced twice), but once the terrorist makes his way through the train, quickly infecting many of the passengers, things pick up considerably.

Oddly, the plague part of the film is resolved rather quickly.  Chamberlain, in conference with Dr. Stradner, concludes that in a highly-oxygenated environment like a train, the disease will eventually run its course and people will recover unless, like the terrorist, it was directly absorbed into the bloodstream.  The terrorist eventually dies, but those onboard who are afflicted soon find themselves on the mend.  That's not good enough for Mackenzie, who orders the train to be diverted to a quarantined area--a former concentration camp--that will require it to cross a condemned bridge that hasn't been used since WWII.  Of course, his intention--his orders--are to bury this incident by any means necessary, as the US was illegally developing deadly germ warfare in Geneva and keeping it secret.  Mackenzie has the train met in Nuremberg by a team of 40 Army officers in HazMat suits led by Col. Scott (Tom Hunter).  Scott's job is to keep everyone onboard and kill anyone who tries to get off the train.  So, about midway through the film, with the plague story wrapped up, the action now centers on Chamberlain leading a passenger revolt against Scott and his goons and stop the train before it reaches the Cassandra Crossing.

Make no mistake, the bulk of THE CASSANDRA CROSSING is, like most of its disaster contemporaries, silly and illogical.  Many of the actors on the train don't seem to be on the same page as far as what kind of movie they're in:  Harris, Sheen, and Simpson play it straight and serious (as seriously as O.J. dressed as a priest can be taken), while Gardner, perhaps still amused by being cast as Lorne Greene's daughter in EARTHQUAKE, is glib and snarky at all the wrong times.  Loren doesn't really have much to do other than look glamorous in soft focus, which Cosmatos ensures since her husband Carlo Ponti was the producer (Loren's introduction, where she's given numerous close-ups from various angles, is a bit excessive and obviously done to please Ponti).  Strasberg's con man character keeps trying to sell phony watches, while you could make a drinking game out of how many times Valli helplessly says "Katerina!" to no one in particular after she gets separated from the little girl.   And my God, I haven't even gotten to the song. 

Any self-respecting '70s disaster movie had the mandatory maudlin theme song, like "The Morning After" from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from THE TOWERING INFERNO.  Both of those songs were sung by Maureen McGovern and both won Oscars for Best Original Song.  THE CASSANDRA CROSSING gives us a fine Ennio Morricone-esque score by Jerry Goldsmith, but also offered co-star Turkel--who was married to Harris at the time--singing something called "I'm Still on My Way," and she sings it early in the film, as she and Lovelock and some other hippie pals are jamming in one of the train cars.  And just when you think it can't get any sillier, train conductor Max (Lionel Stander) takes a break from his duties to just hang out with them.  It seems unnecessary to mention that their efforts were not rewarded with a Best Original Song Oscar.  It's easily the worst scene in the film, and one that completely stops it cold and one that I never knew existed until I saw it on Turner Classic Movies some years back.  For decades, I only knew the version that aired on NBC and in syndication, which mercifully cut that scene out entirely.  Also absent from the television version are some gory bits from the finale, as the train indeed crashes and a good chunk of the passengers die horribly violent deaths:  watch for the train rail cutting through a car and impaling a passenger right through his gut, yet another example of this film's unrepentant mean streak.

THE CASSANDRA CROSSING isn't the best of its type, but it's maintained a well-deserved cult-following over the decades, primarily for its unusual international cast and because it works very well as an entertaining thriller.  But if you approach it from the angle of Lancaster's Mackenzie, there's some unexpected depth to the film.  Of course, an old pro like Lancaster knows just how to play the various subtleties and nuances, and perhaps there wasn't anything in the script and he simply took it upon himself as an experienced actor to make something out of nothing.  At the conclusion of the film, after telling Dr. Stradner "I know you see me as some kind of monster," and essentially saying he did what he had to do, you can see the sadness in Lancaster's eyes and it's the first moment in the film that Mackenzie seems remotely human.  And in that moment, Lancaster makes us see that, like Stack and Scott and those under him, he's just a part of the machine.  Lancaster nails it when he's about to leave the building.  Stack offers to take him to a nearby bar and buy him a drink.  Mackenzie says nothing, putting on his coat and unconsciously reaching for his uniform service cap, stopping himself, and going for his fedora instead.  It's not that he isn't worthy of wearing it.  No, he was a good soldier who followed orders.  He's just too sickened by those orders to wear it, and by rejecting it, he retains some semblance of humanity.  And as Mackenzie leaves the room without saying a word and heads down a long hallway to the exit, Stack can be heard on the phone with an unknown superior: "He's leaving right now.  Yes, he and the doctor are both under surveillance."  Mackenzie is as expendable as the people killed in the bridge collapse and he likely isn't making it to his next destination.  In that closing scene, using no dialogue, Lancaster's aging face perfectly illustrates a career military man who served his country only to be made a fall guy who knows shit rolls downhill and it's coming straight for him.  In that respect, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING--or, more accurately, Lancaster's sequences in it--makes for a fascinating companion piece to TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, where he played another soldier who just followed orders issued down a corrupt chain of command until his conscience could no longer allow it.

Monday, January 20, 2014


(US - 2014)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.  Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp.  Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Colm Feore, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Peter Andersson, Alec Utgoff, Nonso Anozie, Elena Velikanova, Gemma Chan, David Paymer, David Hayman, Kieron Jecchinis. (PG-13, 105 mins)

Bounced from the busy Christmas 2013 schedule and dumped in January, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT is the second reboot of Tom Clancy's "Jack Ryan" series, and the first since 2002's THE SUM OF ALL FEARS.  In that film, Ben Affleck played a younger version of the CIA analyst previously portrayed by Alec Baldwin in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) and, in the best Ryan incarnation, Harrison Ford in PATRIOT GAMES (1992) and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (1995).  Now, in SHADOW RECRUIT, essentially a re-reboot, Chris Pine is introduced as a collegiate Jack Ryan, who enlists in the Marines after 9/11.  When he's shot down over Afghanistan and heroically saves two soldiers even with a broken back, he's visited at Walter Reed by CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who presents an offer:  go back to school to get his doctorate in economics and work for the CIA as a covert agent on Wall Street, where his job will be to monitor global financial accounts to search for transactions that may be tied to terrorist activity and the funding of sleeper cells in the US.

Cut to a decade later, as Ryan spends his days at a desk analyzing market trends, financial algorithms, and bank accounts, but still isn't allowed to divulge his CIA status to fiancée Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley).  The pair met when she was a med student working in physical therapy during his post-Afghanistan recovery.  Their relationship and Ryan's need for secrecy get even more complicated when he has to go to Russia on a CIA job to audit the accounts of investment broker Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) after noticing some inexplicable inconsistencies in their market performance.  Cherevin has stockpiled billions of dollars in a series of secret accounts at the behest of a group of old-school Russian politicos led by Sorokin (Mikhail Baryshnikov).  Their plan is to launch a terrorist attack as a distraction while using these secret accounts to bankrupt the United States.  What was supposed to be a simple audit turns into a major situation when Ryan is nearly killed by Embee (Nonso Anozie), sent by Cherevin to ostensibly serve as Ryan's driver and bodyguard but instead given instructions to eliminate him.  Ryan gets the upper hand and kills Embee and is met by Harper, who's been nearby the whole time.  "You're operational now," his mentor informs him as he hands him a gun.  There's another problem: Cathy has decided to show up in Moscow on a hunch that Ryan is having an affair.

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT is the first film in the Ryan franchise that isn't based on a novel by Clancy, who died in 2013.  It's an original screenplay by David Koepp and Adam Cozad, and it's pretty clear that it's heavily influenced by the BOURNE series and Daniel Craig-era 007.  As directed by Branagh, who seems to have taken a respite from Shakespeare adaptations to reinvent himself as a genre gun-for-hire after 2011's THOR, SHADOW RECRUIT is brisk popcorn entertainment that moves along at such a relentless clip that it's easy to overlook its many derivative and frequently ludicrous elements.  There's nothing here you haven't seen before--from the shaky-cam (but still watchable) action sequences to Ryan's improbable metamorphosis from desk-jockeying numbers nerd to Indestructible Action Daredevil to the rapid-fire brainstorming of the analysts as they pinball ideas around to figure out the location of the terrorist attack and have all the info they need instantly available on their laptops (of course, Cathy's the one who figures it out) to Ryan's sweat-on-the-brow high-tech break-in at an impregnable fortress of an office to steal computer files as Harper is observing from a nearby building to gravely intone "Five minutes, Jack," and "He's on the move...two minutes, Jack." It's almost as if the filmmakers are working from a checklist instead of an actual script.  They also don't seem to trust the audience with too much in-depth information:  this is one of those films that opens with a shot of Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster, the Westminster Bridge, and the London Eye ferris wheel, yet still feels the need to include the caption "London."   Of course, soon after that, there's an aerial shot of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline accompanied by a helpful "New York City." 

Nonetheless, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT still works even as it becomes increasingly ridiculous and predictable in its second half.  As shown in UNSTOPPABLE and the new STAR TREK films (even the terrible INTO DARKNESS), Pine has a genuinely engaging screen presence that works in his favor, especially in his scenes with Costner, who seems ready to gradually settle into elder statesman-type roles with grace and class as he approaches 60.  Costner is still youthful enough that he probably could've almost played Jack Ryan had they kept the character in the Baldwin/Ford age bracket of the 1990s Ryan films, but he and Pine have a credible teacher/student chemistry that's very likable, especially with Harper's occasional good-natured griping to Ryan ("Any way you can wipe that boy-scout-on-a-field-trip look off your face?").  Knightley doesn't have much to do other than nag and get kidnapped, which you'll see coming (and speaking of nothing to do, what's with 1993 MR. SATURDAY NIGHT Oscar-nominee David Paymer buried in the credits with a ten-second, two-line walk-on as a Wall Street analyst?).  Branagh the director could've done a better job of keeping Branagh the actor from hamming it up.  He doesn't go overboard but the Russian accent is laid on a little thick at times and the character is handled with clichés (of course, he's introduced listening to opera and beating the shit out of an underling), and he occasionally comes off as more of a psychotic Bond villain than a genius financier and international criminal.

Friday, January 17, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: +1 (2013); TOAD ROAD (2013); and BLINDSIDED (2014)

(US - 2013)

Busy VFX siblings and occasional directing team The Brothers Strause (ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM and the awful SKYLINE) produced this would-be mindfuck that irritates more than it entertains.  Melding elements of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with a circa 2000 teen party comedy, +1 doesn't have nearly enough substance to last 90 minutes and feels like something more akin to a TWILIGHT ZONE episode and even then it would need some work to get to 30 minutes.  Sensitive nice-guy David (Rhys Wakefield, the grinning home-invasion leader in THE PURGE) has just had an ugly breakup with his away-at-college girlfriend Jill (Ashley Hinshaw) when she catches him kissing her fencing rival.  While everyone else went away to college a year earlier, David, his best friend Teddy (Logan Miller), and loner Allison (uncredited twins Suzanne and Colleen Dengel) stayed at home, and now everyone's back for an epic bash at Angad's (Rohan Kymal) parents' house.  At the same time, an object crashes in someone's backyard and a kind-of lifeforce melds with the power lines, spreading throughout the town and causing periodic brief blackouts.  During the first of these blackouts, a doppelganger is generated for everyone at the party, and it takes a while for David to notice, but once he does, he sees that they're repeating what the actual people did a short time earlier (as shown by, among other things, David seeing himself walking through the party looking for Jill).  With each short power blackout, the doubles get closer and closer in time, to the point where paranoia takes over and partygoers are soon duking it out with their identical doubles.

It's an admittedly clever concept, but that's ultimately all it is.  Director Dennis Iliadis (who helmed 2009's surprisingly OK remake of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) and writer Bill Gullo seriously belabor the point--how many times do we need to see David or Teddy or Jill watching themselves in events from 45 or 30 or 15 minutes earlier before they realize we get the gimmick?  Before long, the whole thing is just a way for David to win Jill back by pulling some GROUNDHOG DAY shenanigans, which makes no sense since he isn't sure which Jill he's winning (Teddy even brings this up when he yells "Do you even care which one?").  David means well, but he's kind of an immature creep, and his actions throughout the film reflect that.  It's a risk to make this guy the hero and if +1 had any point, it's a ballsy move that might've worked.  But there's nothing here other than the initial hook.  The main characters--David, Jill, Teddy, and Allison--are fleshed-out a bit, Miller provides some likable comic relief as the tries-too-hard Teddy who can't believe he gets to hook up with the impossibly hot Melanie (Natalie Hall), and Iliadis deserves some props for choosing to go for some good ol' gratuitous nudity that you don't generally see in these types of movies, but +1 never kicks into gear.  It's derivative, dull, and there's no way in hell a group of one-year-out-of-high-school kids this diverse would ever be at the same party. Wallflower Allison is routinely bullied by these people--why would she even go to their party?  In fact, when someone references the Book of Talmud and a Woody Allen-ish Jewish kid pops up out of nowhere to provide expository info and is promptly never seen again, I started to wonder if Iliadis and Gullo were just punking the audience.  Then I thought "What audience?" (Unrated, 96 mins)

(US - 2013)

Centered on the urban legend of an abandoned asylum on Toad Road in York, PA and the surrounding wooded area that's allegedly home to the seven gateways to Hell, the micro-budgeted, cinema verite-styled TOAD ROAD isn't really a horror film.  It's not really much of any film as director/writer/cinematographer Jason Banker has his cast seemingly riff and improv what's largely a look at privileged, drug-abusing slackers smoking, snorting, and inhaling anything that will get them high and through the day.  Feeling like what might happen if Harmony Korine directed a mumblecore Lucio Fulci tribute to REQUIEM FOR A DREAM by way of JACKASS, the Elijah Wood-produced TOAD ROAD focuses on James (James Davidson), who's introduced high as shit, dragged down a hallway with his pants around his ankles.  This is every day for James and his buddies--whether they're dropping acid, blowing Vicks inhalers in each others' eyes, or setting one another's pubes on fire, they only exist to see how fucked-up they can get.  James somehow attracts the attention of college freshman Sara (Sara Anne Jones), who's experiencing freedom from her parents for the first time and wants to explore the hedonistic lifestyle of James and his friends.  For James, whose dad still pays his rent, developing feelings for Sara has convinced him that maybe it's time to quit dicking around and grow up.  But Sara is intent on dropping acid and venturing to Toad Road and attempting to pass the seven gates. 

Banker is obviously going for a heavy-handed addiction metaphor with the "gateways to Hell" stuff, but it takes about 55 of the film's 76 minutes to even get there.  There's some intriguing elements, especially with James waking up in the woods on Toad Road and being told six months have passed and he's a suspect in Sara's disappearance.  But Banker has no interest whatsoever in conventional narrative, and that would be fine if there was anything else here.  Considering they aren't professional actors, Davidson and Jones aren't bad, and if TOAD ROAD acquires any cult following at all, it'll be due to 24-year-old Jones' death from a heroin overdose just as the film was making the festival rounds in 2012.  There's an undeniably queasy feeling watching her character hell-bent on immersing herself in the culture of addiction "for the experience" and knowing she'd die that way before anybody saw the movie.  Jones was an aspiring model and this was her only film (she also appeared in a Death Cab for Cutie video).  She had an appealing presence and even when TOAD ROAD is going nowhere--which is to say, essentially its entire running time--the camera seems to love her.  What a waste.  (Unrated, 76 mins)

(US/Canada - 2014)

Shot two years ago under the title PENTHOUSE NORTH, the ludicrous home invasion thriller BLINDSIDED was set to be released theatrically by Dimension Films in 2013, but executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein obviously had a change of heart.  They didn't even give it a courtesy DVD dumping, instead selling it to Lifetime, who ran it the first weekend of 2014 as a "Lifetime Original Movie" before it turned up on Netflix Instant a few days later.  Those are some pretty major red flags, and coupled with the fact that it stars the great Michael Keaton and the charming Michelle Monaghan, and is the first film in a decade directed by Joseph Ruben, a veteran pro who knows how to make commercial, crowd-pleasing suspense thrillers (he's best-known for 1987's THE STEPFATHER, 1991's SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and 1993's THE GOOD SON), the initial assumption you might have about Dimension's treatment of this film is that it must be terrible.  And you'd be right.

It's one thing to be awful but it's also utterly generic.  Ruben and frequent screenwriting collaborator David Loughery (they previously worked together on 1984's DREAMSCAPE and 1995's MONEY TRAIN, and Loughery also scripted such films as 1992's PASSENGER 57 and 2008's LAKEVIEW TERRACE) are both uncharacteristically asleep-at-the-wheel here and seemed to prep for this by rewatching WAIT UNTIL DARK, telling Keaton to do some Michael Keaton stuff, giving Monaghan a white cane, and hoping other minor details like a plausible plot and competent filmmaking would just work themselves out.  Ruben's no Hitchcock, but he's made some very good movies and one legitimately great one with THE STEPFATHER.  BLINDSIDED, on the other hand, is easily his worst thriller (I'd say it's his worst film overall, but not with the 1980 comedy GORP on his resume).  Monaghan is Sara, a combat photographer who loses her sight in an Afghanistan suicide bombing.  Three years later, she lives with her boyfriend Ryan (Andrew Walker), who owns a posh penthouse apartment in Manhattan and "has some money."  It's New Year's Eve, and after buying some wine for a quiet night in, Sara returns home and, until she slips in a pool of blood, is unaware that Ryan is lying dead in the kitchen.  Sara is then terrorized by Chad (REVENGE's Barry Sloane), a psycho who insists Ryan has some money hidden in the penthouse.  Eventually, they're joined by Chad's boss, the matter-of-fact Hollander (Keaton), who then tells Sara that Ryan has made off with his diamonds and he thinks they're stashed somewhere in the apartment.  You can predict the rest:  they play cat-and-mouse games, yell a lot, Sara gets tortured via waterboarding, and of course, she tries to play the bickering criminals against each other.  The underemployed Keaton, kicking off his 2014 "Fuck It, Just Pay Me" tour that includes the ROBOCOP remake and NEED FOR SPEED, has some enjoyably snarky moments in the way he condescendingly addresses Chad's frequent bouts of incompetence, but there isn't a single thing in BLINDSIDED that you haven't seen before, unless you count greenscreen work and CGI that can best be described as "unfinished."  The unbelievably shoddy look of BLINDSIDED--the NYC skyline in the background is hilariously unconvincing, as is the CGI breath as characters stand out on the terrace in freezing temps (when the filmmakers remember to use it, that is) and one character's cartoonish fall from the terrace--is the likely reason the Weinsteins dropped this like a bad habit, pawning it off on presumably less-demanding TV viewers who might be more inclined to forgive crummy visuals at home than they would be laughing it off the screen at the multiplex.  BLINDSIDED just looks like a movie that everyone involved simply walked away from during post-production.  There's probably a story to tell with what went wrong here.  I hate to think Ruben returned from a decade-long sabbatical to make something this uninspired, amateurishly sloppy, and riddled with plot holes.  (Unrated, 85 mins; currently only available on Netflix Instant)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: SHORT TERM 12 (2013) and BLUE CAPRICE (2013)

(US - 2013)

One of the most acclaimed indie films of 2013, SHORT TERM 12 is a feature-length expansion of writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton's 2008 short film of the same name, set in a foster-care facility where youths with problems ranging from psychological to legal await placement.  Most are there for a year tops, but some of the older kids usually remain longer, instead waiting for their 18th birthday when they're free to go.  Cretton worked at such a facility and there's little doubting the raw, natural feeling of the interaction between the kids and the counselors, and how they go about the day-to-day routine, from group sessions to emotional outbursts to half-hearted escape attempts, and the bureaucratic bullshit from the office-bound psychologists who don't spend time in the trenches.  Grace (Brie Larson) is a mid-20s supervisor who has a good rapport with the kids, though they know she's no-nonsense in the way she handles them and the staff working under her, which includes boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr).  Grace is shaken up with the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a morose, sarcastic cutter who reminds her far too much of herself at that age.  Grace is vague about her own past--most of the counselors are former foster kids themselves--so much so that even Mason isn't fully aware of the personal demons she's battling, and Jayden's problems with her abusive father and the absence of a mother eerily mirror Grace's teenage years, affecting her in a way that jeopardizes her job and her relationship with Mason.

For most of its running time, SHORT TERM 12 works so well and earns its emotions so honestly that you almost forget you're watching actors.  The cast does some remarkable work, particularly Larson, Dever, and Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who's about to turn 18 and doesn't want to leave.  They inhabit these characters so thoroughly--and you probably know people like them--and the story feels so credibly real that it's crushing when Cretton briefly skids with a frankly absurd third-act plot development involving Grace that feels like focus-group pandering instead of something she would actually do, no matter how frustrated and enraged she is at the time.  Cretton steers it back on course, mainly just by having Jayden quip "That's a little extreme, don't you think?" but it's such a ludicrous turn of events that the film never really recovers, though fortunately it's close enough to the end that it doesn't end up a deal-breaker.  For about 80 of its 97 minutes, SHORT TERM 12 is an absolutely terrific piece of work that perfectly balances emotionally-draining drama and dark comedy.  It's hard to forget Marcus' devastating, autobiographical rap, the sisterly bond that forms between Grace and Jayden, and Mason's heartfelt toast to his own foster parents on their 30th wedding anniversary, in a house filled with love, surrounded by adults who were once troubled children with nowhere to turn.  It's just one of many beautiful scenes throughout this often brutally honest, and mostly uncompromising film with what should be a star-making performance by Larson.  It's just a pity about that brief shark-jump in the third act.  (R, 97 mins)

(US - 2013)

A loose chronicle of the October 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, BLUE CAPRICE seems to adamantly refuse to get too specific about anything.  There's a methodical, riveting ZODIAC-esque thriller that could've been made about this subject, but that's not the film that director Alexandre Moors and writer R.F.I. Porto chose to make.  One's reaction to BLUE CAPRICE is largely predicated on accepting that it's a thriller second and an oblique, sometimes esoteric mood piece first.  The filmmakers stick close to the facts, but this is the kind of film where you almost need to study up on the subject or risk being lost at some points.  John Mohammed and Lee Malvo were the perpetrators of these killings--Mohammed was executed by lethal injection in 2009 and Malvo is serving multiple life sentences with no possibility of parole.  You won't learn that by watching BLUE CAPRICE.  You don't even get last names.  In Antigua, 17-year-old Lee (Tequan Richmond) is abandoned by his mother and attempts suicide by drowning when he's rescued by John (GREY'S ANATOMY pariah Isaiah Washington in his first noteworthy gig since getting fired from the show for homophobic slurs directed at openly gay co-star T.R. Knight), an American on vacation with his three kids--he's actually got a restraining order forbidding him to see his kids and his ex-wife and he took them without authorization.  John brings Lee back to his hometown of Tacoma, WA, where the pair move in with John's girlfriend (Cassandra Freeman).  John's temper and paranoia get them booted out and the pair shack up with his gun-nut buddy Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams).  A twisted father/son bond develops between John and Lee, more akin to brainwashing on Lee's part, as he absorbs all of John's bitterness and rage about his ex-wife and not knowing the whereabouts of his children.  Once it's discovered that Lee is a natural with firearms, John decides that it's time to make everyone pay.  Their killing spree--first in Tacoma, then going cross-country--ultimately lands them in the D.C. area, where John drives and Lee picks off random people with a rifle aimed through a small hole cut in the trunk of a beat-up Caprice.

The pair don't even make it to the Beltway until nearly 70 minutes into the film.  Until then, we witness John's manipulative and codependent relationship with his surrogate son as well as the manipulation and intimidation of those around him--it's strongly implied that he's sleeping with Jamie and even Ray eventually gets a bad vibe from his increasingly unhinged friend.  Washington, now 50 and pretty much persona non grata since the GREY'S controversy, is very good throughout and shows why he was once such a promising young actor.  The main problem with BLUE CAPRICE is that it never really comes together as a psychological character study and definitely not as a thriller, which is unfortunate because Moors' handling of the spree itself is both unique and unsettling:  rarely showing an actual shooting but instead showing the aftermath, intercut with the Caprice ominously and anonymously cruising down the expressway, accompanied by an unnerving reeds/string score by Arcade Fire side members Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld.  It's in these moments that the film really excels and you see the potential, but up to that point, it's too often plodding, mumbling, and deliberately, maddeningly vague.  We don't even see John again after the pair are arrested at a rest stop.  BLUE CAPRICE is well-made and the actors are fine, but this just could've--and should've--been something a bit more memorable and substantive.  (R, 93 mins)

Friday, January 10, 2014

In Theaters: LONE SURVIVOR (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Peter Berg.  Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Jerry Ferrara, Sammy Sheik, Rich Ting, Dan Bilzerian, Rohan Chand. (R, 121 mins)

LONE SURVIVOR is an often visceral and unflinchingly brutal adaptation of Marcus Luttrell's 2005 chronicle of his time as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan.  Played in the film by Mark Wahlberg, Luttrell was involved Operation Red Wings, a four-man operation to take out Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a major Taliban figure.  As the title hardly warrants a spoiler alert, things didn't go as planned.  Making their way into the remote Kunar Province mountains, Luttrell, Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) find themselves outnumbered and unable to contact the military base, and opt to secure positions higher in the mountains but they're stumbled upon by three goat herders.  After deciding to cut them loose--the film presents it as a debate, but Luttrell has said Murphy made the call as per rules of engagement--the four SEALs make a run for it to wait for extraction but are soon overwhelmed by Shah's forces, who outnumber them 4-to-1.

Writer/director Peter Berg (THE RUNDOWN, THE KINGDOM, BATTLESHIP) handles this extended firefight sequence--which takes up about a third of the running time--quite well aside from an occasional over-reliance on shaky-cam.  Berg takes the time to lay out the positions of the principles to give the audience the lay of the land and to watch the methodology at work.  You'll be thoroughly convinced these four actors have been to hell and back, from the utterly convincing makeup work to the sounds of bullets tearing through flesh and bones slamming into rocks as the SEALs roll down a mountainside.  Luttrell served as a technical advisor and Berg spent time with US forces in Iraq to observe them in action and make the depiction of the Red Wings ordeal as ultra-realistic as possible.  He even included little details to honor the memories of those involved, like a shot of Lt. Cmdr. Erik Cristensen (Eric Bana) wearing Birkenstocks at the base.  Cristensen was killed during an attempted rescue of Luttrell and a look at his Wikipedia page reveals that his mother requested he be buried wearing his ubiquitous Birkenstocks. It mostly works--there's a level of raw, take-no-prisoners ferocity here that doesn't approach SAVING PRIVATE RYAN levels but is easily in the same class as BLACK HAWK DOWN.

But to get there, you have to endure some frequently tiresome military clichés.  Berg wants to honor these fallen heroes, and he succeeds, but the opening and closing narration by Wahlberg-as-Luttrell sounds like a bad high-school essay, especially when he's talking about a "fire within."  The same goes for sniper Axe positioning himself and grunting "I am the reaper" or "You can die for your country, but I'm gonna live for mine!"  or Luttrell's "I'm about to punch their time card." Of course, this is probably an accurate depiction but it comes off as tired, macho warrior chest-thumping more akin to a RAMBO movie.  Fortunately, Berg keeps the jingoism to a minimum, especially in the last third when Luttrell is found and given shelter by Muhammad Gulab (Ali Suliman) and the members of a peaceful Afghani village who lay their own lives on the line, knowing the Taliban are after the American.  These anti-Taliban Afghanis, living by a 2000-year-old code of honor, were instrumental in saving Luttrell's life and let's be honest, a lot of Hollywood depictions of Luttrell's experiences would've eliminated them entirely in order to spend more time waving the flag.  Berg's script doesn't allow for much in the way of character development other than Murphy planning a wedding, Dietz trying to pick some interior design colors for his girlfriend back home, and Axe being married.  Oddly enough, it's Luttrell who gets the least amount of character sketching.  But it works--it's a BAND OF BROTHERS/"fuckin' A, bro!" film first and foremost, but knowing these men a little more might've given it greater emotional weight.  While Wahlberg is fine, his breakdown in the climax feels, through no fault of his, like a lightweight revamp of a similar scene at the end of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS which represented arguably the best acting of Tom Hanks' career.  Aided by an effectively minimalist score by post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky, LONE SURVIVOR isn't a war movie classic, but it's good, accomplishing what it sets out to do, and does so in a way that honors the heroes--American and Afghani--of Operation Red Wings and its aftermath. 

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE ACT OF KILLING (2013) and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

(Denmark/Norway/UK/Finland/Germany/Sweden/Poland - 2013)

One of the best films of 2013, the stunning documentary THE ACT OF KILLING is a classic of its kind, a horrifying examination of the death squads that helped overthrow the Indonesian government and secure a military dictatorship in 1965 by murdering over one million people.  Primary director Joshua Oppenheimer, with co-directors Christine Cynn and one credited as, along with numerous hands-on technical crew and production assistants who still fear retribution for their participation, simply "Anonymous," approach the story from a unique perspective that Oppenheimer has called "a documentary of the imagination."  Shot between 2005 and 2011, Oppenheimer established contact with the now-aged Anwar Congo, one of the primary figures in the genocide and, like many of his colleagues and co-conspirators, still a revered celebrity, and talks him into making a film that re-enacts the various torture and killing techniques used by the death squads, but done in a way that emulates Hollywood films. Congo and his cohorts were gangsters and killers hired by the military to exterminate all who weren't onboard with the new regime.  They previously dealt in a black market operation to bring forbidden and popular Hollywood cinema to Indonesia, and as such, became obsessed with the gangster films of Humphrey Bogart and the westerns of John Wayne.  They based their actions on what they learned in these movies, even though their brutality towards dissenters--given the blanket term "communists"--was far more barbaric than anything seen in a classic movie.  Under the direction of Oppenheimer, Congo and his associates restage their atrocities in the guise of film noir, westerns, musicals, and horror set pieces.  At first, Congo and the others gleefully recount their horrific acts ("This is who we are...people need to know the story") and enthusiastically partake in everything from auditioning to acting to the collaborative filmmaking process. Congo even gets a makeover with a dye job and dentures.  But as the set pieces go further off the rails (Congo is playing a character tortured by associate Herman Koto, who's dressed up in a Carmen Miranda costume, trying to feed Congo his liver), some of the men start to express concern that the film will make them look bad.  This ultimately takes its toll on Congo, whose exuberance begins to diminish to the point where he plays the victim in a torture scene and tells Oppenheimer "I don't want to do that again." 

Oppenheimer isn't asking the audience to sympathize with Congo as he has this change of heart, but watching it happen is a sight to behold.  The last 20 or so minutes of THE ACT OF KILLING contain some unforgettable images as Congo, haunted by the faces of his countless victims of atrocity and murder for which he's lauded as a hero, is overcome with emotion, directly addressing Oppenheimer ("Josh..."), and pitifully announcing "I never expected it would look this awful."  He wonders about the children who witnessed his heinous acts.  As the other "actors" burn a village, he looks on in shock, finally realizing the extent of his crimes.  In a finale that's hard to watch, Congo takes Oppenheimer to the top of a building (now a purse store) where much of the torture took place.  Looking around, picturing his victims, Congo becomes ill and can't stop dry-heaving.  Oppenheimer just keeps filming.  It's a stark contrast to the strutting audacity that Congo and his cronies displayed earlier.  It's also fascinating watching the celebrity culture around them, including the media.  Your jaw will hit the floor watching newspaper editor Ibrahim Sinik triumphantly crowing along with Congo, who says "We gangsters keep him well protected."  Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are among the executive producers.  THE ACT OF KILLING is a staggering achievement and a genuinely disturbing, unique film.  (Unrated, 122 mins; review pertains to 122-minute theatrical version; Oppenheimer's 165-minute director's cut is also available)

(US/France - 2013)

This remake of Jorge Michel Grau's grisly and terrific 2010 Mexican horror film WE ARE WHAT WE ARE has been described by director/co-writer Jim Mickle (STAKE LAND) as more of a companion piece to its source as opposed to a straight-up remake.  It retains the core of the plot--a family of cannibals--but changes just about everything else.  Instead of the patriarch dying and the mother carrying on with her two sons and a daughter, we now have the sudden death of the mom (Kassie DePaiva), with dad Frank (Bill Sage) left to care for his two daughters--18-year-old Iris (Ambyr Childers) and 14-year-old Rose (Julia Garner), plus six-year-old son Rory (Jack Gore).  Set in rural Delaware County, New York as opposed to a seedy Mexican slum, Mickle's WE ARE WHAT WE ARE immediately establishes a conflict in the aftermath of the mom's death in the way the daughters recognize that there's something seriously fucked-up with their family.  Rose is fiercely protective of Rory and wants nothing more than to get him away from their father.  Iris more or less agrees, but can't escape her sense of responsibility and the idea that family is family.  Meanwhile, since this is one of those films where there's numerous disappearances in the town and its vicinity over the years and the local law can't seem to do the math, we have a missing teenage girl who's probably been killed and possibly eaten by Frank, and of course, folksy Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) just happens to have a daughter who went missing years earlier and takes charge of the latest investigation in the stead of one of recent horror cinema's more useless sheriffs (co-writer and STAKE LAND star Nick Damici, who continues to morph into the second coming of William Smith). There's also a sensitive deputy (Wyatt Russell) who tries to woo Iris with expectedly tragic results.

Mickle lets the tension and dread build to an admirably suffocating level, and setting the film in the middle of a days-long torrential downpour with extensive flooding and a power outage is a nice touch that adds to the gloomy despair, but he and Damici just throw it all away for a pointlessly transgressive finale that's probably meant to be a darkly funny but just comes off as gratuitous, silly, and completely at odds with what's preceded it, as the payoff for 95 or so minutes of ominous buildup seems to be nothing more than cheap shock value.  It's too bad, because WE ARE WHAT WE ARE '13 is driven by some strong performances from Sage (a veteran of several early Hal Hartley films) and especially Parks, who checks his shopworn, twitchy Earl McGraw schtick at the door and gives us a quintessential Michael Parks characterization.  Always underrated, Parks is one of those actors who can speak volumes with just a facial expression or even a look in his eyes and he's marvelous here, especially once Doc Barrow pieces everything together and does what he has to do.  Also with Kelly McGillis in a useless supporting role as a neighbor--she only seems to be here because roles in STAKE LAND and THE INNKEEPERS have made the TOP GUN star an indie cult horror figure in recent years--and a mandatory cameo by Larry Fessenden, as required by cult hipster horror law.  Until it shits the bed in its closing minutes, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE '13 is a worthy reimagining of a film that not many people saw.  It is an interesting companion piece and a must-see if you're a Michael Parks fan, but Grau's original film is the one you need to seek out.  (R, 105 mins)