Thursday, June 26, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: ENEMY (2014); ROB THE MOB (2014); and WOLF CREEK 2 (2014)

(Canada/Spain - 2014)

Loosely based on Jose Saramago's novel The Double, but not to be confused with the recent Jesse Eisenberg film THE DOUBLE, Denis Villeneuve's ENEMY is one of those frustrating cinematic puzzles where the set up and the placement of the initial pieces prove much more challenging and engaging than the actual solution. ENEMY excels in its early stages in its depiction of the ennui-drenched L'AVVENTURA, RED DESERT, and THE PASSENGER alienation of vintage Antonioni fused with the cold Cronenbergian chill of Toronto high-rises that recalls everything from SHIVERS to CRASH and even Fernando Mereilles' underappreciated BLINDNESS, itself an adaptation of another Saramago novel. There's also an overt DEAD RINGERS vibe that begins with quiet, withdrawn history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) suffering through small talk with a colleague, who recommends a movie called WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A WAY. Adam rents the movie and it's a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, but something catches his attention: cast as "Bellhop #3" is one Daniel Saint Claire, who happens to look exactly like Adam. Adam researches the doppelganger's other roles, which are limited similar bit parts in two other forgettable films from a decade earlier, and eventually goes to the office of the agency representing Saint Claire and is mistaken for him, which gets him Saint Claire's phone number and address.  Adam calls the actor, whose real name is Anthony Claire, and though Anthony is initially hesitant, they meet. Their features are identical and they even have the same scar. Adam freaks out and regrets meeting, but Anthony, who has a history of cheating on his now-pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon), forces Adam to go along with a swap so he can spend some time with Adam's girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent).

There's such an eerie, unsettling, Hitchcockian, De Palma-esque by way of Antonioni and Cronenberg feel to the first hour of ENEMY (at times, you might think it's a horror film) that it's almost enraging when you realize it's gone to such intriguing and fascinating lengths to tell such an ultimately banal story.  And I haven't even gotten into the ham-fisted symbolism of spiders and webs, which wasn't part of Saramago's novel. ENEMY is borderline brilliant for 2/3 of its running time, but the back end of the script by Javier Gullon (who also co-wrote the intriguing 2007 thriller KING OF THE HILL) has all the depth and insight of someone's first and quickly-discarded draft in an Intro to Creative Writing course. The film is very well-directed by Villeneuve, who also teamed with Gyllenhaal on last year's more commercial PRISONERS (ENEMY was shot first, but released after). Villeneuve is a director who brings out the best in the actor, who was riveting in PRISONERS in a performance that deserved more attention than it got. Gyllenhaal delivers two strong performances here, even as the film starts collapsing around him in the closing sequences as--you guessed it--the lines between real and fantasy become impossibly blurred, not to mention hopelessly hackneyed. Still worth seeing for that opening hour and the powerfully dread-filled slow build...at least until it starts sabotaging itself. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2014)

There's a slight sense of TRUE ROMANCE redux in this somewhat fictionalized account of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva, a Queens couple trying to stay on the right path after jail stints for armed robbery. Struggling in their 9-5 jobs, they started robbing mob-owned bars and social clubs. In one of their jobs, they managed to obtain a list that thoroughly detailed the Gambino and Bonnano family hierarchy, and as they got increasingly cocky and overconfident, they used it to guarantee their safety which, of course, backfired and the couple were whacked on Christmas Eve 1992.  In ROB THE MOB, directed by Raymond De Felitta and written by Jonathan Fernandez, Tommy (Michael Pitt) and Rosie (Nina Arianda) aren't married, for some reason (they're planning to get married on Christmas Day, so perhaps it was a dramatic decision), and some of the names are changed, but otherwise, it mostly sticks to the story. The none-too-bright Tommy has a lifelong grudge against the local gangsters, who strong-armed, shook down, and eventually killed his florist father, so once they get desperate and he starts toying with the idea of ripping them off, Rosie can't talk him out of it, and when the money starts rolling in, she's OK with it as well. During one robbery, they get "the list" from inside the wallet of aged and slightly feeble mobster Joey D (Burt Young), and all hell breaks loose in the family, run by the reclusive Big Al Fiorello (Andy Garcia), a composite of Bonnano boss Joseph Massino and underboss Sal Vitale.

ROB THE MOB does a good job of mixing lighthearted and serious moments, as Tommy's early, haplessly clumsy attempts at pulling a social club stick-up get a reaction from the mobsters that's not unlike Richard Pryor's famous "Mafia Club" bit. But as things get serious and the stakes get higher, the shift to drama is smooth and organic. De Felitta (who previously worked with Garcia on 2009's enjoyable CITY ISLAND) does a superb job with period detail and other than some CGI effects in the closing scene, the whole film has a vivid sense of time and place and feels like it could've been made 20 years ago. The film takes place during the trial of John Gotti, whose 1992 conviction was essentially the beginning of the end for the old-school glory days of the American Mafia, and it deftly ties in an elegiac feeling for that era, though only Big Al seems aware that things are about to change. Most of the goodfellas in ROB THE MOB have seen better days but there's a comfortable complacency that's set in for them. It's a period of Mafia history that isn't glorious and hasn't been covered much in popular culture and ROB THE MOB offers a unique perspective in the "working-stiff gangster" subgenre with films like DONNIE BRASCO (1997) and KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012).  Fine performances all around from Pitt, Garcia, and Ray Romano as NYC crime reporter "Jerry Cardozo," presumably based on Gotti biographer and Mafia historian Jerry Capeci, in addition to colorful supporting turns by familiar faces like Michael Rispoli, Griffin Dunne, Cathy Moriarty, Yul Vazquez, John Tormey, Joseph R. Gannascoli, and Frank Whaley (Aida Turturro is prominently-billed but her role was cut from the film). The standout however, is Tony-winning Broadway actress Arianda in what would be a star-making big-screen breakout had Millennium released ROB THE MOB on more than 30 screens. Arianda is a ball of fire throughout, in her interaction with Tommy ("You bought me flowers!"), chewing people out on the phone at her collection agency job, or overcome with visions of fame and talking way too much when Cardozo wants to interview her. She handles the "tough moll" role in classic fashion and has a very natural, streetwise 1970s presence (these small-time Queens would-be gangsters always seem a little behind the times) that sets her apart from a lot of young actresses today, who probably would've appeared mannered and playing dress-up. It's the kind of showy role that could've easily been turned into a caricature, but Arianda keeps it under control and nails it, and if this movie had gotten any exposure at all, there's a good chance she'd be getting some legitimate Oscar buzz.  On the whole, ROB THE MOB wanders a bit and isn't as ambitious or as focused as it should be, but it's a solid little film, and Arianda's performance is a big reason why.  (R, 104 mins)

(Australia - 2014)

In the horror genre, nine years is an unusually lengthy wait for a sequel, and after that amount of time, you might wonder why writer/director Greg McLean took so long to get to the follow-up to 2005's WOLF CREEK. And after you watch the absurdly tardy WOLF CREEK 2, you'll wonder why he even bothered. When it was released, WOLF CREEK got the attention of hardcore horror fans with its mercilessly bleak vision and its instantly iconic performance by veteran Australian character actor John Jarratt as gregarious Outback serial killer Mick Taylor.  As Mick, Jarratt came across as the terrifying doppelganger of Crocodile Dundee, and the grueling film wasn't for horror amateurs. Indeed, it didn't go over with mainstream audiences (earning a rare F from the ludicrous CinemaScore), and was lumped in with the then in-vogue torture porn craze (which, to be fair, it shared some aspects), but horror scenesters embraced it and McLean was hailed as a major new talent in the genre. He returned with 2008's surprisingly good killer crocodile flick ROGUE, buried by Dimension Films after the similar and inferior PRIMEVAL beat it to theaters and bombed.  McLean's been off the radar since ROGUE, and the pointless WOLF CREEK 2 isn't likely to re-establish his career momentum.

Jarratt is back, and rather than play Mick in the sinister, unsettling way he did nearly a decade ago, McLean instead has him crank it up to 11 and beyond, turning the character into a relentless killing machine with his endlessly-quipping Freddy Krueger zingers and asides ("Welcome to Australia, cocksucker!"). WOLF CREEK 2 eschews the nightmarish qualities of WOLF CREEK to go for broad horror comedy augmented by over-the-top splatter effects. Shifts in tone in a sequel are nothing new: Sam Raimi did it with 1987's EVIL DEAD 2 and it's the same approach Tobe Hooper took for 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2. It doesn't work here, nor does McLean's decision to attempt a "shifting of the protagonists" move from the PSYCHO playbook.  The first hour is essentially one long chase as we spend a bunch of time with two likable German backpackers, Rutger (Philippe Klaus) and Katarina (Shannyn Ashlyn), only to have them exit as Mick's focus turns to British tourist Paul (Ryan Corr). Mick plays road and head games with Paul, eventually getting him back to his vast HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES torture dungeon. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where WOLF CREEK 2 implodes beyond repair, but Mick plowing over kangaroos to the tune of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is as good a location as any. It doesn't really matter in the end, because this only exists to be THE JOHN JARRATT SHOW, with the actor's overbearing histrionics turning his second interpretation of Mick into an extended tribute to the career of Bill Moseley, whether he's screaming at the top of lungs, shouting Aussie jingles and limericks, or mowing down a friendly old couple to "The Blue Danube Waltz."  Some nice cinematography and a tense opening sequence aside, the ill-advised and badly-executed WOLF CREEK 2 is just uninspired, stupid, and lazy. Here's to hoping McLean gets his mojo back before he has to shit out a WOLF CREEK 3 in desperation seven or eight years from now. (Unrated, 106 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

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