Thursday, August 28, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DOUBLE (2014); A GOOD MAN (2014); and DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

(UK/Germany/Australia - 2014)

This visually striking adaptation of Dostoyevsky's 1846 novella uses the title and the concept of the self, but really ventures off into its own dystopian nightmare black comedy scenario more akin to the likes of George Orwell and Franz Kafka. The retro-futurist production design recalls the drab and bleak worlds of Terry Gilliam's classic BRAZIL (1985) and Orson Welles' Kafka adaptation THE TRIAL (1962). There's also a lot of THE TRIAL in one of two performances by Jesse Eisenberg, who does a remarkable job of channeling Anthony Perkins' Josef K. in his portrayal of meek office drone Simon James. Afraid of his own shadow, Simon is employed by a bureaucratic company called ColLoc and works in a dreary, gray, overcrowded, and oppressively hot office building. He gets hassled by the security guard, who still doesn't recognize him after seven years of employment.  His co-workers and his demanding boss Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) rarely seem to notice him and if they do, they get his name wrong ("Stanley!"). Simon would rather keep quiet and look down, and on the rare occasions he considers speaking, he can't get a word out, especially around his cold mother (Phyllis Somerville), who can't even point him out when he's clearly visible in an improbably upbeat ColLoc TV commercial. He secretly pines for co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), finding excuses to visit her department for painfully awkward interaction or just spying on her through his telescope, as her apartment building is adjacent to his own. Simon's tenuous grip on his world is jeopardized when Mr. Papadopoulous hires James Simon (also Eisenberg), a doppelganger who looks just like Simon but is his opposite in every other way: brash and egotistical where Simon is quiet and withdrawn, James is Simon's id run rampant. His gregarious personality wins over the office. He coasts by on Simon's hard work. He bullies a waitress (Cathy Moriarty) into bringing him breakfast after they've stopped serving while she can't even be bothered to bring Simon a Coke. He seduces Hannah and the boss' daughter (Yasmin Paige) and demands a copy of Simon's apartment key so he can arrange other trysts he wants to keep secret from Hannah ("I'll also be taking other women up there, in case you start noticing different smells"). Obviously, Simon can only be pushed so far.

A cursory glance at some of the names associated with THE DOUBLE guarantees it'll at the very least be an interesting experience.  Directed and co-written by comedian, music video director, and THE IT CROWD co-star Richard Ayoade, the film also lists Michael Caine and Harmony Korine among its producers, it's co-written by Korine's younger brother Avi, and in addition to Shawn and Moriarty, its eclectic supporting cast features, among others, James Fox, Noah Taylor, Rade Serbedzija, Chris O'Dowd, and Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis as an irate janitor. THE DOUBLE obviously owes a huge debt to Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but it still manages to be a unique and very well-executed bit of paranoia, dark comedy, and bleak misanthropy, anchored by two brilliant Eisenberg performances that play to both of his screen personas and allow him to take them into some dark places. Only released on 16 screens and VOD, THE DOUBLE didn't get much of a push from Magnolia and grossed just $200,000, but it shouldn't take very long for it to become a word-of-mouth cult item. (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2014)

For most casual moviegoers, Steven Seagal probably fell off the pop culture radar around 2002, the last time one of his own headlining vehicles (HALF PAST DEAD) made it into theaters. In the years since, his A&E reality series STEVEN SEAGAL: LAWMAN and his jokey supporting turn as a villain in Robert Rodriguez's MACHETE (2010) have alerted the general public to his continued existence, but only hardcore denizens of the DTV gutter know that Seagal's been consistently cranking out a ton of low-budget and mostly terrible actioners, starring in no less than 25 nearly interchangeable straight-to-DVD titles in the 12 years since HALF PAST DEAD served as an unintentionally prophetic description of his big-screen career. Seagal doesn't seem to be well-liked by his peers--he was never invited to take part in any EXPENDABLES entries--and the only time he makes the news now is when he releases a hilariously awful blues album or is seen hanging out with his close personal friend Vladimir Putin. Most of Seagal's DTV titles are thoroughly worthless, with the once-engaging action icon setting new benchmarks in apathy by letting his obvious double handle everything from strenuous fight scenes to simple shots where his back is to the camera and he answers questions by nodding. If you see enough of these, you start to notice that it's frequently only really Seagal if he has a close-up or if it's a two-shot and he's talking, and even then, sometimes the co-star is much shorter and "Seagal"'s head is out of the frame. There were even a few instances in the mid-2000s where his performance was badly dubbed over by someone else for some unexplained reason. Seagal puts the bare minimum amount of work into most of these productions but, like a broken clock being right twice a day, a couple of them have been accidentally decent, like 2009's THE KEEPER and 2010's A DANGEROUS MAN, the latter being better than most of what he had in theaters during his late '90s decline before 2001's EXIT WOUNDS gave him a very brief comeback.

A GOOD MAN is typical of Seagal's straight-to-DVD output. It's hardly the worst of the lot, but that doesn't exactly merit a recommendation. Rather than being aggressively shitty, it's merely predictable and boring, with Seagal as Alexander, codename "Ghost," an ex-covert ops guy living off the grid in "Eastern Europe" (like many of Seagal's movies these days, this was shot on-the-cheap in Romania) after a raid on a Middle East terrorist compound went south two years earlier. Ghost involves himself in the troubles of attractive neighbor Lena (Iulia Verdes) and her kid sister Mya (Sofia Nicolaescu), whose safety is jeopardized by their American half-brother Sasha's (Victor Webster) involvement with Russian mobster Vladimir (Claudiu Bleont). Sasha owes Vladimir a ton of money via a debt accrued by his late father, and Ghost sees this as the perfect opportunity to start a war between Vladimir and terror cell financier Mr. Chen (Tzi Ma, best known for the Coen Bros. remake of THE LADYKILLERS), who was responsible for what went down in the Middle East two years earlier. A GOOD MAN offers everything you expect from modern-day Seagal: the star using a ridiculously affected and completely inappropriate accent, thankfully abandoning his N'awlins drawl of recent years but resorting to an even more ludicrous-sounding hip-hop dialect that sounds like Drexl Spivey after a root canal. This leads to a mush-mouthed Seagal shouting things like "All y'all muthafuckaz," and "I wondah how much pussy he get?" proving that at no point during filming did director Keoni Waxman pull his star aside and remind him that he's 62 years old. There's also the now-standard Seagal fighting style, which consists of being there for the close-ups and sticking his arm out so a bad guy can run into it while Waxman shakes the camera around to simulate "fighting action" before cutting to actual fighting with "Seagal" shot from behind as his younger and more svelte double does the heavy lifting. Finally, about an hour or so in, we get another signature move in the modern Seagal repertoire: the mid-film sabbatical where he disappears for 20 or more minutes while a co-star--in this case, Webster--advances the plot and gets a bunch of action scenes. Seagal stars in a lot of movies, but he's one of the laziest actors in the business and A GOOD MAN does nothing to counter that reputation and halt his ongoing free-fall into irrelevance. (R, 103 mins)


(UK - 2013; US release 2014)

Writer/director Richard Shepard scored an acclaimed indie sleeper hit with 2005's THE MATADOR, with Pierce Brosnan as a lethal assassin and all-around bad guy having a crisis of conscience when he befriends nice-guy salesman Greg Kinnear. Shepard explores somewhat similar territory--at least the redemption aspect--in DOM HEMINGWAY, which opens as strong as any film this year with an introductory rant by the title character (Jude Law) and a punchline that won't soon be forgotten and sets the tone right from the start that it's not going to be playing things safe. Law is all maniacal bluster, fusing elements of Dennis Hopper in BLUE VELVET, Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST, and Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK into one memorable madman. Safecracker Dom is released from a British prison, where he's been locked up for 12 years after refusing to rat on crime boss Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bichir). Teaming up with his best friend/handler Dickie (Richard E. Grant), Dom heads to St. Tropez to collect the money he feels Fontaine owes him for his work and his silence. Unfortunately, Dom can't keep his volcanic temper in check and ends up endlessly insulting Fontaine, his girlfriend Paolina (Madalena Ghenea), and Dickie. He succeeds in making amends, and Fontaine gives him more money than he ever expected. After a drunken car wreck results in Paolina running off with his money, Dom makes his way back to London and tries reconnecting with his estranged daughter Evelyn (GAME OF THRONES' Emilia Clarke), who resents him for spending 12 years behind bars and not being there when her mother--Dom's wife--was dying of cancer. Evelyn has a young son with whom Dom tries to get acquainted, and while he wants to go straight, he shoots his mouth off and ends up tangling with Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), Fontaine's chief rival and a man who has a score to settle with Dom.

DOM HEMINGWAY starts off so darkly hilarous and gloriously foul and profane that it's dispiriting when it veers off into the realm of feelgood redemption dramedy at its midpoint. Law's performance--one of his best--keeps things afloat but the shift in tone is cumbersome, to say the least. It's hard not to laugh at Dom incorporating James Taylor lyrics into a bile-soaked tirade that also has him threatening to "throat-fuck" Fontaine, but it's awfully difficult to buy him getting all misty over the grandson he never knew shortly after. It's not that a sociopath like Dom can't find genuine emotions of that sort deep within himself--it's that the film doesn't feel genuine in the journey of its central character. Dom is whatever the plot needs him to be at any given time, and even Evelyn's change of heart about her dad doesn't really ring true. The first half of DOM HEMINGWAY is outrageously entertaining, but it fizzles once Evelyn enters the story and never regains its footing. It's too bad because until the film starts stumbling and bumbling, it features some of the finest work of Law's career, and he gets some excellent support from Grant as his perpetually suffering yet always loyal sidekick. It's not always successful, but they make it worth seeing. (R, 93 mins)

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