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)

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