Friday, September 5, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: NIGHT MOVES (2014); WHITEWASH (2014); and THE LOVE PUNCH (2014)

(US/Brazil - 2014)

It's a ballsy move for any film, regardless of the genre, to call itself NIGHT MOVES after Arthur Penn's 1975 masterpiece that makes a perfect Gene Hackman double bill of existential cynicism with the previous year's THE CONVERSATION. This NIGHT MOVES has no relation to the Hackman film but stands on its own as a taut, methodical nail-biter that builds very slowly until you realize just how tightly director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt has you wound. Reichardt is one of the true originals in American cinema in recent years, her minimalist ideals creating memorable works like OLD JOY (2006), the heartbreaking WENDY AND LUCY (2008), and the revisionist western MEEK'S CUTOFF (2011), the kind of covered-wagon period piece where the filmmaker actually takes several minutes of screen time for the heroine to go through every tedious step of loading a frontier-era shotgun. Reichardt and regular co-writer Jon Raymond are known for their obfuscating, open-ended conclusions and deliberate pacing, and the first hour of NIGHT MOVES is slow enough that it makes MEEK'S CUTOFF look like STAGECOACH. But it's all by design, and Reichardt masterfully cranks up the tension in the second half as NIGHT MOVES becomes--at least by her standards--a fairly straightforward thriller that leads to a typically discussion-worthy final shot.

The film deals with three environmental activists--Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harlan (Peter Sarsgaard)--and their step-by-step plan in plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon with a speedboat packed with ammonium sulfate fertilizer. Reichardt's offbeat rhythms are such that she wrings stomach-knotting suspense from the most mundane situations, especially prolonged silences that grow agonizing. It's impossible not to feel cringing discomfort as the three activists stare in silence at a chatty hiker (Lew Temple) struggling to make small talk in a remote forest picnic area, or Dena's attempt to buy a large order of the explosive fertilizer from a by-the-book manager (James Le Gros) of a gardening supply warehouse. They eventually pull off the act of eco-terrorism, and of course, there's some blowback in the form of an unexpected after-the-fact complication, the resulting paranoia among the trio, and the question of whether their actions will make the slightest difference at all, all of which tie in beautifully to the powerful closing shot. Anchored by an intense, riveting performance by Eisenberg, who's really on an indie roll between this and THE DOUBLE, NIGHT MOVES is the kind of slow-burner that often tries your patience but really sneaks up on you and stays with you after it's over. Co-produced by Todd Haynes and Larry Fessenden, whose suggestion of a post-dam-explosion Wendigo encounter was presumably vetoed by Reichardt. (R, 112 mins)

(Canada - 2014)

I'm a sucker for any thriller set in the middle of a cold, snowy nowhere, and for a while, the Quebecois WHITEWASH gets by just on atmosphere and an interesting performance by Thomas Haden Church. Church only got a brief career boost from his SIDEWAYS Oscar nomination a decade ago, leading to his playing Sandman in 2007's SPIDER-MAN 3, one of those mega-blockbusters that nobody really liked, but he's since settled into character roles in generally smaller films like this one. WHITEWASH provides the kind of showy leading role that any jobbing character actor likes, but it's one of those films where the more it reveals, the less you'll care. Jumping between present and past, WHITEWASH opens during a snowstorm in a small town in rural Quebec as snowplow driver Bruce Landry (Church) runs down a man walking in the middle of the road.  The man is Paul Blackburn (Marc Labreche), and Bruce promptly dumps the body in the woods and recklessly drives the plow through the forest until he gets caught in a snowdrift. We see a bottle of liquor rolling around the floor of the plow and the natural assumption is that Bruce is drinking on the job. Periodic cutaways to the recent past provide--very slowly--the pieces of the puzzle as Bruce struggles to survive in the frozen wilderness.

Director/co-writer Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais seems to be going for a "survivalist thriller if made by Atom Egoyan" vibe, but the more it goes on, the more thoroughly illogical it becomes. It seems Bruce happened upon stranger Paul in the middle of a suicide attempt, talked him out of it and let him crash on his couch, with Paul quickly becoming a mooching houseguest who wouldn't leave. Throughout Bruce's time in the woods, he keeps heading into town to forage for gas and food, at one point being confronted by a homeowner after the guy's daughter catches Bruce stealing supplies from their shed. He also visits a diner and a gas station and sees his and Paul's photos in the newspaper, with the cops looking for both missing men. It's here where I question how much Hoss-Desmarais knows about rural, small-town life. In the cuts to the past, we learn Bruce lost his wife to cancer and once drunkenly crashed his plow into a restaurant. He regularly hangs out at the townie bar and at the local mini-mart, making small talk with the bored clerk. This town is clearly not very big and Bruce doesn't travel very far to dump the body before getting stranded in the woods. During his trips away from the plow, he runs into numerous people who recognize him from the paper and TV news reports. But wouldn't they recognize him as the area snowplow guy who lost his wife to cancer and drunkenly drove his plow into a local restaurant?  Wouldn't most of them actually know him as "Bruce"?  But the longer WHITEWASH goes on, the less interested Hoss-Desmarais is in a straightforward drama, with Bruce's guilt-riddled anxiety prompting him to return to the stuck plow and make it a new home, a sort-of purgatory of his own construction. Church does a good job in what was clearly a physically demanding role, and the snow-blanketed outskirts of Quebec makes a very effective location, but both Church and the region deserve a better story in which to be showcased. (Unrated, 91 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

(US/UK/France - 2014)

Writer/director Joel Hopkins' critically-acclaimed LAST CHANCE HARVEY was a sincere and thoughtful romantic comedy with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson that flopped in theaters but has since found a following with older audiences on video and cable. Hopkins is back with THE LOVE PUNCH, a dismal FUN WITH DICK AND JANE by way of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL that, time and again, goes for the cheapest and easiest laughs. You can practically hear him exclaiming "It's funny because they're old!" as if his protagonists were pushing 90 rather than 60. Thompson stars again, this time with Pierce Brosnan as a divorced couple who continue to ignore that small spark that still exists between them. With their grown children off at school, Kate (Thompson) is an empty-nester who teaches at a university and lives alone with her cat, while Richard (Brosnan) has just sold his company and is about to retire with his much-younger girlfriend, who promptly dumps him for a man her own age. Richard is shocked to learn that unscrupulous hedge-fund manager Vincent Kruger (Laurent Lafitte) bought his company just to drain its assets, leaving Richard, his employees, their pensions, his and Kate's savings, and the kids' college funds completely wiped out. With the help of their son Matt (Jack Wilkinson)--a convenient computer hacker because old people and computers--they get some background info on the mysterious Kruger, who just purchased a $10 million diamond known as "The Eye of the Rainbow" for his trophy bride-to-be Manon (Louise Bourgoin). Kate and Richard, with the help of their married best friends Jerry (Timothy Spall) and Penelope (Celia Imrie), hatch a plan to crash the Paris wedding by disguising themselves as crass Texas oil billionaires and swiping the Eye of the Rainbow during the reception.

Brosnan and Thompson are so effortlessly charismatic that Hopkins' inability to provide them with worthwhile material is an absolute travesty. Everything in THE LOVE PUNCH (what does that title even mean?) is played so broadly and over-the-top that it's hard to believe Hopkins is the same guy who made the comparatively sensitive and heartfelt LAST CHANCE HARVEY. THE LOVE PUNCH is constantly going for the laziest joke, from Brosnan's Texas oil man disguise looking like Burt Reynolds circa SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and Thompson sporting a garish Dolly Parton wig and an overdone Southern twang, to several RESERVOIR DOGS-inspired, sunglasses-sporting slo-mo struts set to old rock tunes, with a hotel lobby walk to The Clash's version of "I Fought the Law" interrupted by a record needle-scratch and Penelope announcing "I need a pee!" because old people and bladders. A badly-shot and terribly-edited car chase begins with Kate grabbing a cd and throwing it in the player--it's Free's "All Right Now," to which she and Richard sing along and Richard pumps his fist in mid-chase because old people rocking out during a car chase apparently equals comedy gold to Hopkins. Thompson is also reduced to getting hit in the face with a volleyball and being thrown off a jet-ski while trying to hang with younger women, and Brosnan has to endure numerous desperate 007 references. Brosnan's THE NOVEMBER MAN is currently in theaters and it shows him, a decade removed from 007, remaining a credible action star at 61, and Thompson is still a vital and engaging screen presence--why are they going along with this nonsensical charade of a story that practically has them ready for adult diapers and dinner at 4:00 pm? It would be one thing if Hopkins was treating his characters with dignity instead of making their age a consistently failed source of thudding jokes, but neither of the stars look or act as "old" as the script seems to think they are. I guess the best thing you can say about THE LOVE PUNCH is that Hopkins somehow finds it within himself to spare Thompson and Brosnan the humiliation of a set-up where one is forced to announce that they've fallen and they can't get up. Hopkins occasionally attempts some choreographed Blake Edwards-type set pieces, but he's clearly not Blake Edwards, and Blake Edwards on his worst day was better than this. A laughless embarrassment for its appealing and overqualified stars, THE LOVE PUNCH grossed a paltry $266,000 in its US release courtesy of something called Ketchup Entertainment, who got it out on just 120 screens. It was 120 too many. (PG-13, 94 mins)

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