Wednesday, February 5, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013) and RUNNER RUNNER (2013)

(Germany/US - 2013)

There's some intriguing ideas in this occasionally effective but more often muddled horror film that has a hard time deciding what it wants to be.  Debuting writer/director Blair Erickson shows some promising technique, knows how to use darkness to his advantage and has a clear knack for delaying reveals to the point of nail-biting agony--plus I'm always a sucker for the inherent unease of instantly disturbing garbled radio transmissions--but the movie's a bit of a mess and once everything is laid out, the finale is too predictable to be the shocking twist that Erickson wants it to be.  Predominantly straight narrative but mixing in bits of faux doc and found-footage (ugh...I know), BANSHEE CHAPTER focuses on Anne (Katia Winter of DEXTER and SLEEPY HOLLOW), a reporter investigating the disappearance of her friend James (Michael McMillian of TRUE BLOOD).  She has some footage of James ingesting a dose of a liquid drug supposedly used in the US government's top-secret MK Ultra mind control experiments of the 1960s.  He got the drug from a source in Colorado and upon ingesting it, immediately senses that "they're coming," and a shadowy figure appears by the window as James' face distorts and his eyes bleed and turn black.  Anne's investigation leads her to Colorado where she meets James' source:  washed-up '60s counterculture hero and gonzo writer/conspiracy theorist Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine).  Blackburn informs her that the drug doesn't cause hallucinations, but rather, allows the user to become a receiver to see our "alternate reality."  All clues point to an abandoned military research station, so the pair hit the road, all the while seeing visions of monstrous figures and hearing a nursery rhyme and gibberish coming from a short-wave numbers station.

Playing a lot like a shaky-cam, road-movie version of Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND with the Soy Sauce element of Don Coscarelli's JOHN DIES AT THE END, BANSHEE CHAPTER suffers from a clunky, lugubriously-paced first half that takes forever to get going in a typical post-Ti West slow-burn fashion, and the early found-footage sequences just feel like desperate pandering to make sure the film would be able to find a distributor (Anne even starts out filming her trip in faux-doc style, but Erickson abandons that rather quickly).  The film gets a lot of mileage out of a strong performance by Winter and a gregarious one by Levine, playing a character clearly based on Hunter S. Thompson.  There are some undeniably chilling moments scattered about, especially the long sequence where Anne is in a lab at the abandoned military facility and looks back eight minutes on the security footage and sees that something has entered the room and must still be in there with her.  But too much of BANSHEE CHAPTER is derivative and filled with ostensibly smart characters doing dumb things.  While his script could've used another polish or two, Erickson demonstrates enough skill behind the camera that I'm intrigued to see what he does next.  Zachary Quinto was one of the producers. (R, 87 mins)

(US - 2013)

Justin Timberlake's status as an iconic pop music figure and his comedic skills on SNL are without question, but he hasn't had a lot of luck on the big screen other than supporting roles in acclaimed films like THE SOCIAL NETWORK and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.  Duds like IN TIME haven't done much to establish him as a box office draw and that trend continues with RUNNER RUNNER, a bland, boring thriller that audiences pretty much avoided during its theatrical run last fall.  It had potential, considering the script was written by ROUNDERS scribes David Levien and Brian Koppelman, but it seems like all they did was rewrite that script and move it to the world of online gambling while half-assedly peppering it with references to the financial meltdown of several years ago.  Timberlake is Richie Furst, a former Wall Street hot shot who lost everything in the collapse and is now struggling to pay his way through Princeton, largely through bookmaking and with commission earned by luring profs and fellow students to an online poker site.  When he's ordered by the dean (Bob Gunton!) to shut down his operation, Richie gambles his entire savings on a poker site and loses.  Sensing something fishy about the algorithms, Richie learns he was scammed and does what any struggling, broke college student would do:  flies to Costa Rica to personally confront online gambling magnate Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who's able to operate unencumbered by US federal laws.  He manages a brief meet with Block, who's impressed enough to hire Richie to work for his operation.  Now with money beyond his wildest dreams--and getting to sleep with Ivan's sultry assistant/lover (Gemma Arterton)--Richie is living the life.  That is, until he's shaken down by overzealous FBI agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie), who's obsessed with bringing down Block and will do anything to nab him, even planting drugs in Richie's luggage to ensure his cooperation.

Unlike ROUNDERS, which felt gritty and real, RUNNER RUNNER is cartoonish and absurd from the start, following a template very much like the structurally similar and equally forgettable financial thriller PARANOIA, right down to the villain threatening the protagonist's father (John Heard shows up for a couple of scenes).  RUNNER RUNNER is filled with lazy writing to explain away its endless contrivances (Richie's roommate: "You're about to jet off to a country you've never been to, with a language you don't speak, bluff your way into Ivan Block's posse and expect him to just give your money back?"...next shot, Richie's landing in Costa Rica), and characters who say things like "You know who Meyer Lansky is?" and "You know what Napoleon said?"  Even Ivan Block is prefaced by someone saying "He's like the Wizard of fucking Oz...no one gets behind the curtain!"   He could've been a fun nemesis along the lines of ROUNDERS' Teddy KGB, so brilliantly played by John Malkovich in that film, but Affleck seems so bored that his performance--essentially a Bond villain version of his BOILER ROOM character--never really comes to life, even when he's dumping liquid chicken fat on some guys and threatening to feed them to his crocodiles (Affleck does get one great line, telling Timberlake's Richie "That's the problem with your generation...you sat around with your vintage T-shirts and your participation medals, but you never did anything").  By the time Richie inevitably devises an elaborate scheme to turn the tables on his mentor, the clich├ęs and trite dialogue are simply out of control: "This isn't poker.  This is my life...and I've got one play left."  Levien and Koppelman are accomplished writers, but are they even trying here?  Lifelessly directed by Brad Furman (THE LINCOLN LAWYER), RUNNER RUNNER is the kind of predictable, paint-by-numbers product that can't even mask how utterly bored it is with itself.  (R, 91 mins)

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