Sunday, July 6, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: REPENTANCE (2014) and RAZE (2014)

(US - 2014)

When Forest Whitaker won his Oscar for 2006's THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, it was just as much for his powerful performance as Idi Amin as it was an acknowledgment of his over 20 years of consistently exemplary work in lead and character roles. Whitaker was as reliable as they came, and his presence almost always meant a good film would be better or, worst-case scenario, a bad film would be bearable at least while he was onscreen.  Since the Oscar, he's been on a skid that easily rivals Cuba Gooding, Jr., Nicolas Cage, and Adrien Brody, but Whitaker's astonishing mutation into one of our current worst actors is somehow more alarming than the others, mainly because when you see him giving these terrible performances in terrible movies like THE EXPERIMENT, CATCH .44, and FREELANCERS, you can see he's giving it everything he's got, and then some.  Perhaps he knows the material is shit and he's overcompensating in his attempts to turn it into something. Twitching, gesticulating, and yelling are now his constant crutches. But even being in the presence of the likes of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Shepard in OUT OF THE FURNACE didn't help matters: Whitaker's performance as an inexplicably grunting police chief was so bad that he stopped the movie cold every time he opened his mouth. Whitaker's past accomplishments will always be his and, by all accounts, he is a very nice and genuine guy, but seriously, what the hell is going on here? Why can't he act anymore? Watching Forest Whitaker in most of his recent films is almost always a painful, depressing sight.

He scrapes bottom with REPENTANCE, and since he also produced it, he has no one to blame but himself, though there's plenty of that to share with director Philippe Caland and screenwriter Shintaro Shimosawa, a former producer and writer on Whitaker's justifiably short-lived CBS series CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR. Shimosawa has also logged time on Fox's hilariously awful THE FOLLOWING, which should be another huge red flag about what awaits the viewer in REPENTANCE (the film is a remake of a still-unreleased Caland film titled THE GURU & THE GYPSY, completed in 2012 and featuring Caland in the role played by Whitaker here). If you've ever wished for more socially-conscious torture porn with an uplifting, spiritual ending, then REPENTANCE is where it's at. In what's now a typically mannered, hyperventilating performance, Whitaker stars as Angel, a grieving and clearly troubled man unable to cope with the death of his mother. He still feels her and sees her following him around. He seeks the guidance of self-help author and life coach Tommy Carter (Anthony Mackie), who uses meditation and yoga to help Angel address the psychological blocks in his grieving process. But Tommy has his own secrets: he survived a near-death experience four years earlier, and the circumstances around it have led his older brother Ben (Mike Epps) to resent him, his success, and his marriage to Maggie (Sanaa Lathan).  When Tommy tries to break off the sessions with Angel, Angel knocks him out cold and goes full MISERY on his favorite writer, holding him captive in a bomb shelter under the house and inflicting all manner of torture and pain on him, starting with a spike through the leg. Obviously, there's a connection between Tommy and the death of Angel's mother that might have something to with the opening scene of Tommy and Ben driving drunk four years earlier and running over someone.  And there is the primary problem with REPENTANCE: Caland and Shimosawa never met a twist they couldn't telegraph ludicrously far in advance to the point where it's basically a self-spoiler. Obviously the person they hit is Angel's mother. Obviously, Angel knows this and has targeted Tommy. REPENTANCE also requires its characters to behave like idiots: after Tommy goes missing for several days and Maggie is informed by his manager (Peter Weller) that he's been a no-show at his book signings, Maggie never calls the police.  Instead, she just keeps texting him and leaving messages.  After Tommy's been missing a little while longer, Ben gets a text from him (actually sent by Angel) to meet him at a strange address. Is Ben suspicious of this strange address? Does he call the cops or even Maggie? Nope. He goes to the address, and it's Angel's mostly boarded-up house. Again, does Ben call the cops? Is he alarmed? Nope. He stands around until he gets conked over the head by Angel and dragged in the basement with his brother because Shimosawa is a shitty writer. The crammed-in feel-good ending is insultingly stupid, but considering what came before, what else do you expect?  I might suggest a life coach for Forest Whitaker if he continues squandering his talent in shit-shows like REPENTANCE. At least we'll always have GHOST DOG.  (R, 94 mins)

(US/France - 2014)

New Zealand-born stuntwoman Zoe Bell is best known for doubling Uma Thurman in KILL BILL and playing herself in Quentin Tarantino's DEATH PROOF portion of GRINDHOUSE. Since then, she's turned up in small roles in mostly DTV actioners and is part of The Asylum's upcoming all-female EXPENDABLES knockoff MERCENARIES, with the likes of Vivica A. Fox, Cynthia Rothrock, Brigitte Nielson, and Kristanna Loken. Bell's latest film RAZE gives her the lead as well as a producing credit, and reunites her with DEATH PROOF co-stars Tracie Thoms and, in a brief cameo, Rosario Dawson, whose presence here proves that she's indeed a Bell friend, but not a good enough friend that she'd stick around any longer than absolutely necessary. RAZE is a numbingly violent, offensively idiotic waste of time from director Josh C. Waller, giving us back-to-back bed-shitters with this right on this heels of his awful MCCANICK. Bell is Sabrina, who wakes up in some kind of underground bunker with garishly red Dario Argento hallways. She's an unwilling participant in a twisted tournament hosted by cartoonishly psychotic high-society couple Joseph (Doug Jones) and Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn sighting!), who have narrowed it down to the final six in a fight to the death.  If you lose or refuse to fight, your dearest loved one will also be killed. They've got Sabrina's daughter and she's determined to emerge victorious.

What is the point of RAZE?  Imagine FIGHT CLUB with just the fights, and David Fincher botching the job. It's basically just one shaky-cam, quick-cut fight sequence after another, all ending with the loser getting their face beaten to hamburger. Joseph and Elizabeth appear to be the Tyler Durden organizers for the EYES WIDE SHUT one-percenter set, but to what end?  We get the what, but what about the why?  A lot of people seem to be in the know about the tournament. But who? Cops? Politicians? Other movers & shakers? Why is it taking place?  RAZE is indicative of the kind of "born on third base and thinks it hit a triple" mentality of today's cult cinema, the notion that all you need to do is show up and make the reference and you're "cult." RAZE can't even be bothered to make the reference. Many reviews have likened it to an old-school, 1970s women-in-prison movie. Anyone who thinks this has obviously never seen an old-school, 1970s women-in-prison movie. It's hard to care about anything when we learn almost nothing about the characters and there's no context in which the story exists. The women are abducted and taken to this place and they fight to the death. There's no suspense, no satire, no commentary on class struggle or social issues, no underlying themes, no message of empowerment for women, and ultimately, no answers and no payoff at the end. Where's the entertainment here? It's just women pummeling each other into ground chuck.  There's nothing here. Waller is so bad at his job that both Sabrina's fight with psychotic captive Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) and her revenge on her captors are anti-climactic letdowns. RAZE is one of the most shallow, miserable film experiences I've had in quite some time. It's not overtly misogynistic because the movie would be equally worthless if it had just men in the tournament, but it sure does feel like girl-on-girl wife-batterer porn disguised as a BLOODSPORT knockoff. Is it supposed to be edgy or subversive because it involves women? If so, then Waller and screenwriter Robert Beaucage are even dumber than RAZE already makes them look. The worst film of 2014 so far. (R, 92 mins)

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