Saturday, September 27, 2014


(Canada/US - 2014)

After nearly 45 years in the industry, 66-year-old Susan Sarandon has spent the last several years dealing with the unforgivable sin of being an aging woman in Hollywood essentially by staying in the game and taking whatever roles come her way. It doesn't seem like it was that long ago that she was still headlining major movies, but now she usually turns up in supporting roles as somebody's mother or grandmother. Lead roles have been few and far between for the Oscar-winning actress of late, so one can see why she might jump at something like the modestly-budgeted thriller THE CALLING. Sarandon stars as Hazel Micallef, a hard-drinking, pill-popping detective in Fort Dundas, a small town outside of Hamilton, ON. Also functioning as the de facto police chief, Hazel is confronted with a rare homicide in one of those sleepy towns where everybody knows everybody (it's fictional, though there is a Dundas, ON, where most of this was shot) when an elderly family friend is found with her throat slashed and her mouth set open in an unnatural way that the medical examiner says was staged post-mortem. A victim killed under similar circumstances is found in a nearby town, and Hazel, partner Ray Green (Gil Bellows), and big-city transfer Ben Wingate (Topher Grace) are convinced they're dealing with a serial killer after finding links between their victims and seven other unsolved murders across Canada.

THE CALLING starts falling apart about midway through, but for a while, it seems like it'll shape up to be a genuine sleeper. It's sort of like a less grim SE7EN restaged in the snowy environment of a FARGO, with a legitimately unusual set of clues that set things in motion: the killer (nicely underplayed by a well-cast Christopher Heyerdahl) has positioned the mouths of the victims in a way that forms silent words when autopsy head shots are viewed in quick succession in the order they were killed. Using the autopsy photos like a morbid flip book, the detectives are forced to sound out and decode the killer's message to them. They discover this a little too easily and it's a gimmick straight out of a CBS procedural, but it's off-the-wall enough to be intriguingly creepy. THE CALLING went straight to VOD in early August and ended up in a few theaters on the last weekend of summer with no publicity whatsoever. In the late '90s, it probably would've been a big hit but today, there's just no mainstream, multiplex market for serious, straightforward genre pictures for adults, especially one focused on a 66-year-old star, regardless of the fact that she looks a decade younger. But it's eventually all for naught, as rampant stupidity takes over, whether Hazel drives a great distance to visit a linguistics expert priest (Donald Sutherland) to get the definition of a Latin term when she could've just as easily called him or Googled it. Or when Wingate voluntarily traipses all over Canada to do some snooping and Hazel recklessly orders him into a dangerous situation with no backup that, of course, doesn't pan out well for him (this is after telling him to withhold information from neighboring police departments). THE CALLING starts out with smarts but eventually turns into the kind of thriller where the killer taunts Hazel over the phone with a "Did you get my package?" as the camera pans to an unopened package right in the middle of her desk that she's just left there untouched for just such a plot convenience. The killer's motives involve a misguided religious obsession about sacrifice and resurrection, though it eventually becomes overly concerned with Hazel's redemption at the expense of the suspense and the mystery that's been building. Hazel is a damaged and broken woman with a bad back that surgery still hasn't corrected and a tumultuous, on-and-off relationship with a married man, much to the disapproval of her concerned mother (Ellen Burstyn), with whom she lives. Granted, Sarandon looks a good bit younger than 66, and 81-year-old Burstyn (also looking younger than her age) could logistically be her mother, but the casting just doesn't work and the filmmakers (director Jason Stone and screenwriter Scott Abramovitch) give the great Burstyn absolutely nothing to do.  THE CALLING gets off to a promising start but never recovers once it starts skidding, though it does give Sarandon the opportunity to deliver a priceless line of dialogue like "I think I found the stomach." (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2014)

There's style and ambition to this twisty, low-budget mind-bender that only made it to 120 screens over the summer but seems destined for cult status. Or, more accurately, director/co-writer William Eubank seems destined for bigger things. Eubank and his crew work wonders with a $4 million budget, assembling something that looks better than a lot of films that cost 25 times as much. It's too bad THE SIGNAL (not to be confused with the overrated 2008 horror film) gets bogged down with a draggy pacing (yes, this one's a slow-burner) and a twist ending that creates more questions than it answers, wanting to be Shane Carruth but ending up feeling more like M. Night Shyamalan at his most eye-rolling. There's a lot going on in THE SIGNAL that probably warrants a second viewing, but there's a lot of frustrating misdirection and time-killing as well, and the one twist prior to the big twist is entirely too easy to figure out. Three MIT students--Nic (Brenton Thwaites of OCULUS and THE GIVER), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke, one of the few positives of THE QUIET ONES), and their friend Jonah (Beau Knapp)--are road-tripping to California, where Haley is transferring to a new school. Nic was recently diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and is using forearm crutches, and is certain that Haley is using this opportunity to distance herself from him. The three were nearly expelled after a computer hacker known as "Nomad" got into the MIT servers and left evidence pointing to them. Nic and Jonah are also using the trip to track down Nomad, who they've traced to somewhere in the Nevada desert. While searching Nomad's shack of a house in the middle of nowhere, Haley is lifted into the air by an unseen force, Jonah vanishes, and Nic blacks out.  He awakens in a sterile, underground government bunker with "" tattooed on his arm and is interrogated by HazMat-suited scientist Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who informs Nic that the three of them encountered an EBE (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity) and may be contaminated. Damon is intentionally evasive with Nic and is constantly changing his story. Nic eventually finds Haley in another part of the facility and manages to escape, with Damon warning "I can protect you down here...I can't protect you from what's up there."

Nor can Eubank protect himself from hackneyed plot developments and other contrivances. Visually, the film has moments that recall the work of Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull, Andrei Tarkovsky, and, to cite a more recent example, Duncan Jones. While arresting visuals show that Eubank is a contender, THE SIGNAL isn't nearly as successful on the script end as its numerous cerebral, hard sci-fi influences such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SILENT RUNNING, or SOLARIS. Thwaites and Cooke are engaging leads, and Fishburne is appropriately obfuscating in his demeanor, but at some point, you start to feel like you're being strung along and ultimately, the reveal isn't worth the incredibly elaborate buildup. Still, there's a lot to appreciate in THE SIGNAL. Judging from what he's done here, with a better script, there's no limit to what Eubank is capable of achieving in the sci-fi genre. He's not quite there, but he's well on his way. (PG-13, 97 mins)

(Canada - 2014)

A gushing love letter to mass shooters everywhere, Uwe Boll's RAMPAGE: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT is too heavy-handed to pass as satire and too dumb to even be deemed irresponsible. This sequel to Boll's RAMPAGE (2010) with thematic ties to his ASSAULT ON WALL STREET (2013) finds the filmmaker in full-on "poking people with sticks" mode as "hero" Bill Williamson (Brendan Fletcher) emerges from hiding after the first film's titular killing spree to take on American corruption and hypocrisy. He starts by sitting in an alley and picking off random pedestrians (Boll, ever ready for a sick joke, makes sure a Target location is prominently displayed in the background) before shooting up the local TV station and taking gasbag news anchor Chip Parker (Lochlyn Munro) and some staffers hostage. Bill wants Chip to play his DVD manifesto and get his message out nationwide, which basically involves Fletcher (who shares a writing credit with Boll) getting far too much self-indulgent wiggle room as Bill expresses his admiration for Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and rants about topics as varied as the Bush and Obama administrations, politicians, lawyers, global warming, Wall Street, reality TV, Hollywood actors, Steven Spielberg, Anderson Cooper, and Botox.

Like most Boll movies, RAMPAGE was terrible, but the short-statured Fletcher was well cast as a ticking time bomb with a huge chip on his shoulder. The film was little more than FALLING DOWN JR, as Bill, seething with disenfranchised white-guy rage courtesy of cable news and right-wing talk radio, stockpiled weapons and went on a killing spree throughout his city. Here, Boll and Fletcher try to turn him into a modern messiah. Boll at least seems to briefly recognize that Bill is a deranged madman and a hypocrite--witness the way Bill rails against the insipid nature of media hype while spending hostage situation downtime checking his Twitter feed--but the filmmaker clearly still likes him. Whatever valid points Boll has to make--and there are some--are drowned out by the endless repetition of Fletcher's over-the-top performance as Bill quickly becomes your most humorless and annoying Facebook friend from high school. But even beyond that, RAMPAGE: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT is sunk by stupidity and tastelessness, like Bill's babbling on about "extermination" and "cleansing," obviously more transparent Holocaust jabs that Boll loves so much. Boll and Fletcher's script is wildly inconsistent: Bill chooses Chip Parker because he's "the Voice of America," yet it's established early on that Parker is just a local news star, plus Boll himself plays the greedy and unscrupulous station manager, selling footage of the hostage situation to the networks for millions. Also, after blowing up his house, Bill gets in his car and pays a visit to the first film's bingo "centre" where he spared a group of elderly folks from his rampage because they're "already dead." The bingo centre is closed, but it leads to an interesting observation beyond Boll neglecting to disguise his Canadian locations:  Bill is a fugitive responsible for the largest mass shooting in American history depicted in the first film, and judging from the opening sequences of the sequel, he seems to have been on the run by...hiding out in the same town where he's always lived. And where does he get his money to have guns and bombs and cars stationed all over town?  He was working part-time and living with his parents in the first film.

But nevermind--RAMPAGE: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT isn't about logic, it's about Boll shamelessly panhandling for attention and controversy. Certainly there was a way to turn Bill into a modern-day Howard Beale without having him take pleasure in killing an untold number of innocent people. Boll's misanthropy lacks the nuance and focus of a NETWORK and instead too often comes off like a tantrum-throwing child in desperate need of a time-out. Boll and Fletcher think they're being edgy and subversive, but they really look like assholes by the end of this thing. At least with ASSAULT ON WALL STREET--however bungled it was--the audience was supposed to take some degree of cathartic pleasure in watching Dominic Purcell mow down financial industry sociopaths. What are you supposed to take from something like this? What's next for Boll and Fletcher? The Columbine massacre reimagined as a wacky buddy comedy?  A dramatization of the Aurora tragedy where the victims had it coming for paying to see a Hollywood product like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES? (Unrated, 93 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

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