Friday, August 15, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: RAGE (2014); LOCKE (2014); and PROXY (2014)

(US - 2014)

Almost as if his potentially career-reviving turn in JOE never happened--which it feels like anyway considering how Lionsgate seemingly went out of their way to ensure nobody knew about it--Nicolas Cage is back with another phoned-in actioner ready-made for one of those random eight-movie "Action Marathon" sets you find in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart.  By now, Cage has racked up almost enough of these DTV-quality programmers to make an entire set of his own--anyone remember TRESPASS, SEEKING JUSTICE or STOLEN?  Of his recent work, only JOE and the surprisingly engaging and similarly distributor-abandoned THE FROZEN GROUND have given Cage the quality projects he's still clearly capable of doing. RAGE is every bit as generic as its title suggests, at least until a legitimately unpredictable twist ending that's undermined by a pointless coda that plays along with the closing credits. Cage is Paul Maguire, a successful building developer who's managed to bury his criminal past with the Irish mob. He went legit years earlier when his wife died of cancer and someone needed to be around for their daughter Caitlin (Aubrey Peeples). Now married to the much younger Vanessa (Rachel Nichols), Paul is a loving but stern father who wants the best for his little girl. While Paul and Vanessa are out at a business dinner, Vanessa has some friends over but the party comes to an abrupt end during a home invasion by three gunmen who abduct her. When the cops find Caitlin dead, Paul knows his past has come back to haunt him: years earlier (Cage's son Weston plays Paul in flashbacks), he and his buddies Danny (Michael McGrady) and Kane (Max Ryan) robbed and killed the younger brother of Russian mob chief Chernov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff) and got away with it. Believing Chernov knows their secret and is finally exacting his vengeance, Paul and his still-connected pals embark on a citywide rampage taking out Chernov's crew, despite the warnings of weary, dogged detective St. John (a weary, dogged-looking Danny Glover, who finally does look too old for this shit) and aging, wheelchair-bound old mob boss Francis O'Connell, played by Swedish Peter Stormare using a vague and inexplicable Eastern European accent as if the filmmakers neglected to inform him that he was supposed to be Irish.

Director Paco Cabezas stages a couple of interesting action sequences, like Paul taking out a bunch of Russian mob flunkies while armed only with a hunting knife, but then blows it with a tiresome shaky-cam foot chase that ends in--where else?--an abandoned warehouse. Other than the intriguing twist that unfortunately doesn't deliver for those expecting an explosive finish, the script by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller (the writers of Dario Argento's Adrien Brody/Byron Deidra buddy movie GIALLO) is just a cut-and-paste job from hundreds of other such revenge thrillers.  Not even 20 minutes in, and we've already heard Cage declare "I'm out of the game...you know that!", McGrady bellow "Knock knock, asshole!" while barging through a door, and someone asking Cage "How deep do you wanna take this?" to which he growls "How deep is Hell?" Of course, Nichols, who has nothing to do, pleads "Talk to me!  Please don't shut me out!" and Glover warns "You can't go around tearin' up the city!"  Sporting what looks like a vintage 1970 Christopher Lee hairpiece, Cage mostly goes through the motions here but indulges in a couple of classic Nic Cage meltdowns, presumably to keep himself awake ("You're a rat!  RAT! RAT! RAAAAT!"), and in one ridiculous scene, smashes a guy's head into the ground ten times, empties an entire clip into him, then kicks his head again, all while screaming at the top of his lungs. Such histrionics indicate not only that Cage knows this is garbage, but also that he's fully aware of what his fans want and is just giving them more material for future "Nic Cage Freaks Out!" clips on YouTube. It's passably entertaining and never boring, but if you've seen JOE, it's depressing all the same, and the future doesn't look promising with the upcoming LEFT BEHIND reboot.  RAGE isn't good and it isn't bad.  It just is. Watch JOE or THE FROZEN GROUND instead. (R, 98 mins)

(US/UK - 2014)

Steven Knight is best known for his Oscar-nominated script for 2002's DIRTY PRETTY THINGS as well as writing David Cronenberg's 2007 drama EASTERN PROMISES. These were the first two films in a loose trilogy of London's exploited and downtrodden that also includes Jason Statham's 2013 departure vehicle REDEMPTION, which marked Knight's directing debut. Knight, also the creator of the original British version of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE, took six years off between EASTERN PROMISES and REDEMPTION, and has been a veritable workaholic since. He wrote last year's flop legal thriller CLOSED CIRCUIT and the current THE HUNDRED-YEAR JOURNEY, and was recently hired to script the sequel to WORLD WAR Z. He's also written and directed LOCKE, his most ambitious project yet. It's difficult to put a guy in a car taking phone calls during a real-time 80-minute road trip and not just adhering to the premise, but also making it compelling, and Knight and star Tom Hardy pull it off. Obviously dealing with a badly-timed cold that was worked into the story as the film was shot over eight consecutive nights, Hardy is Ivan Locke, a prominent and successful Birmingham builder who's got the biggest, most expensive concrete pour of his career taking place bright and early the next morning, a 55-story, $100 million skyscraper commissioned by a corporation based in Chicago. But he's delegating it to an underling and making a late-night drive to London to be with Bethan (voiced by Olivia Colman on speakerphone), who's about to give birth to his child. The problem is, Locke has been married to Katrina (Ruth Wilson) for 15 years and they have two sons. Locke had a drunken one-nighter with the older Olivia, a lonely, socially awkward woman who'd given up on happiness. He has no interest in being with her, but he feels that being there for the birth and being a presence in the child's life is the right thing to do, much like overseeing the final details of the concrete pour as he speeds down the highway, fielding a constant barrage of phone calls from Bethan, Katrina, his oblivious sons giving him football updates, his frazzled second-in-command who's picked the wrong time to get drunk, an irate boss, and overseers in Chicago who want him fired.

In the rare moments he isn't taking or making calls, Locke, symbolically enough, looks to the rearview mirror to address his unseen and long-dead father, a deadbeat dad who walked out on him and was never there. That's the past Locke's speeding away from as he careens to his future, however bleak it might be considering how he's jeopardized his marriage and his career. Sniffling his way through the film in the best real-cold-written-into-the-film bit since John Malkovich's one day on the set in JENNIFER 8 (1992), Hardy is dynamic as the beleaguered Locke, trying to keep his cool as he faces the consequences of one mistake that's causing his entire life to collapse. Knight's a little heavy-handed with the metaphors (yes, Locke constructs sturdy buildings but his own is a shambles with crumbling foundation!), and some of the actors on speakerphone, particularly Wilson as Katrina, sound a little too rehearsed (Locke: "This only happened once." Katrina: "The difference between once and never is everything!"), but he does a marvelous job of wringing suspense and tension from something as simple as an incoming call notification. In the end, it's still a gimmick, but unlike stunts of this sort, it sticks to its established rules and doesn't cut any corners, and the real time element indeed feels real. The problem most filmmakers run into when they have a premise like "He's in the car for the whole movie!" is that they can't wait to get him out of the car, and Knight admirably avoids that trap. (R, 85 mins)

(US - 2014)

The obfuscation and misdirection start immediately in PROXY with the introduction of the very pregnant Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen), whose surname would seem to indicate that she's in store for a ROSEMARY'S BABY predicament, but that would be too easy. Director/co-writer Zack Parker has other things in mind when Esther is violently assaulted two weeks before her due date. The baby dies and Esther, a loner who used an anonymous sperm donor, has no family or friends and finds herself hanging around in hospital waiting rooms to find some sense of security. Things look up for her when she starts attending a support group for grieving mothers and meets Melanie (Alexa Havins), and PROXY is the kind of film where revealing any further plot details would be a disservice to a potential viewer. What I've described here is approximately the opening 15 minutes, and this is a film best seen knowing as little as possible other than the essentials: it's not for everyone, it's often extraordinarily uncomfortable, it's absolutely riveting, and you won't soon forget it. It's an audacious and chilling psychological thriller that begins as a painful examination of grief before a focused and assured Parker sends it into increasingly unpredictable and, for the most part, plausible directions. Every time you think you know where PROXY is going, Parker has something wholly unexpected in store for you. It only stumbles with a couple of contrivances that reek of plot convenience, but it recovers nicely for its terrific finish. PROXY is populated by complex and extremely damaged characters with equally complex motivations whose lives of secrets, deception, and neuroses intersect in tragic and shocking ways. Parker even manages to pull off a Hitchcock trick at one point and not have it blow up in his face, but he also throws in little bits of Kubrick (fans of THE SHINING will spot one obvious homage), and one long sequence in a department store that's total De Palma, right down to the Newton Brothers' blatantly Pino Donaggio-esque score. Some scenes of domestic discord have a Cassavetes-level of emotional rawness to them. One stunning sequence resorts to a jaw-dropping, over-the-top fusion of Argento splatter and Peckinpah bloodletting. Rasmussen and Havins are remarkable in very difficult roles (Rasmussen's in particular), and they get solid support from Kristina Klebe as someone who figures into the story in a major way (again, anything is a spoiler here).  Of the four leads, only DIY indie auteur Joe Swanberg doesn't really work, and it's largely because he just doesn't have the dramatic chops (he's fine as the comically arrogant blowhard in YOU'RE NEXT) to pull off the arc his character endures. You've never seen anything quite like PROXY, one of the boldest and most unusual films of the year, and perhaps the most impressive breakout genre offering since Nicholas McCarthy's THE PACT. This is going to become a major cult movie. (Unrated, 122 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

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