Saturday, October 4, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THIRD PERSON (2014) and SPACE STATION 76 (2014)

(Belgium/US/UK/Germany - 2014)

Is there a more reviled Best Picture Oscar winner in recent memory than 2005's CRASH? It has its effective moments and a strong performance by an Oscar-nominated Matt Dillon, but the film's preachy and simplistic messaging has made it a punchline over the last decade. CRASH writer/director Paul Haggis scripted MILLION DOLLAR BABY for Clint Eastwood a year earlier, and his earlier career triumphs included such landmark achievements as co-creating WALKER, TEXAS RANGER. But since CRASH, he's mainly focused on hired-gun scripting gigs like co-writing CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). He wrote and directed IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007) and the lackluster THE NEXT THREE DAYS (2010), but he's refrained from repeating his Robert Altman-inspired, "everything-is-connected" motif that spawned an entire self-important subgenre of similar films in CRASH's wake. That is, until his most recent film, the star-studded, little-seen THIRD PERSON, which only made it to 225 screens this past summer. Rather than lecturing us on why racism is bad, Haggis instead looks inward, and there are many moments throughout THIRD PERSON that reveal it to be a confessional of sorts. He gets surprisingly self-critical at times, practically acknowledging the complaints that have been leveled at him post-CRASH. At one point, the central character, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael (Liam Neeson, in a departure from his now-standard action hero persona) is treated with kid gloves by his publisher, who tells him that he rejected his latest book because "the business has changed...I don't know how I'd even market it." Michael calls bullshit on it, and his publisher lays into him: "Your first book was brilliant...it was dangerous. Your second, less so.  Then the third, and the fourth.  When I read your latest, I was just embarrassed for you." This is not to suggest that THIRD PERSON is Paul Haggis' 8 ½--the interweaving, multi-story structure is too gimmicky and Haggis doesn't have enough to say to justify the film's gaseous 137-minute running time-- or that CRASH was a brilliant and dangerous piece of filmmaking, but however self-aggrandizing it may sometimes come across, it does offer some unexpected soul-searching and harsh self-critiquing by its creator.

THIRD PERSON takes place in Paris, Rome, and NYC (the whole film was shot on sets at the legendary Cinecitta in Rome).  The Paris scenes focus on Neeson's Michael as he struggles to put his latest novel together while dealing with the erratic behavior of his much-younger mistress Anna (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring writer for whom Michael has just left Elaine (Kim Basinger), his wife of many years. The Rome storyline centers on Scott (Adrien Brody), a slick operator in corporate espionage who works for a company that specializes in cheaply-made knockoff fashions. He encounters Monika (Moran Atias), a Romanian prostitute whose young daughter is being held captive by her vicious pimp Carlo (Vinicio Marchioni). The NYC thread follows Julia (Mila Kunis), a one-time soap opera actress and perpetually unreliable screw-up in the middle of a protracted custody battle with her ex-husband Richard (James Franco), a successful artist. Julia harmed their son in an unspecified way and even her fiercely-dedicated attorney Theresa (Maria Bello) is losing patience with her. For the bulk of the film, Haggis cuts back and forth between the three stories, but then strange things start happening, like a note written by Julia in NYC suddenly appearing in Michael's hotel room in Paris, and bouquets of flowers delivered in Paris are seen in a similar room in NYC. Haggis delays the reveal of how everyone is connected as late as he possibly can, and when that reveal comes and neatly and conveniently explains away all of the various inconsistencies you've been mentally noting the whole time, it almost feels like you've been duped by a riff on one of the hoariest cliches in all of storytelling. If Haggis wasn't so focused on being clever, he might've had a Fellini-esque self-examination of how he went from Toast of the Town to the face of tone-deaf Hollywood sanctimony so quickly. The actors are generally good--Kunis is a standout and fans of obscure '70s counterculture cinema may be interested to see DRIVE, HE SAID co-star Michael Margotta in a small but pivotal role, and the horror nerd in me can't help but wonder if GIALLO's Brody and MOTHER OF TEARS' Atias spent their downtime on the set discussing the late-career decline of Dario Argento. The foundation of THIRD PERSON is a potentially interesting one, but Haggis takes a ridiculous amount of time to say what he has to say and ultimately shoots himself in the foot with a finale that pretty much obliterates any goodwill he might've accumulated over the preceding two hours and change. The clues are scattered throughout and the ending should induce "Whoa!"s but instead provokes an annoyed "Really?  That's it?" (R, 137 mins)

(US - 2014)

Opening on two screens a week and a half before its DVD release, SPACE STATION 76 has to be the oddest and most unmarketable release of the year. Directed and co-written by actor Jack Plotnick (a veteran of all three of Quentin Dupieux's films, which explains a lot), the film is rather difficult to describe but let's just say that it's approached from a 1976 vantage point and would seem to be a comedy at first glance, but it's a drama disguised as a kitschy spoof. It's like THE ICE STORM filtered through ANCHORMAN and shot on what look like leftover SPACE: 1999 sets. It's filled with all manner of 1970s conventions, from chain-smoking to self-absorption to pop psychology and new age therapy, with adultery, closeted homosexuality, and women's lib, all on a space station that's in the path of an oncoming asteroid. SPACE STATION 76 is not brazenly terrible. It's a well-made, good-looking film with remarkably dead-on production design but it's one of the most anti-entertaining pieces of cinema I've ever seen. It's a film that defies convention to a fault. What is the point of telling this story in this fashion? It's a three-minute Jean Doumanian-era SNL skit padded out to 95 minutes. It's the world's first dead-serious, straight-faced spoof.  Other than a robot shrink that resembles a tiny R2-D2, it's almost completely unfunny, and it's that way by design. Is this some kind of stunt?  Was it made on a dare? Is it some sort of psychological experiment? Was the goal to be so dark-humored and deadpan that it circles back to completely depressing seriousness?  Is it part of some newly-launched "post-spoof" movement? Though it will no doubt be lovingly embraced by the most consistently contrarian member of your cult film circle, this is one of the most jarring, baffling, and ultimately off-putting film experiences that I can recall.  That it only managed a two-screen theatrical release less than two weeks before its DVD dumping isn't the least bit surprising. What is surprising is that it was even made in the first place.

Jessica (Liv Tyler) arrives at Space Station 76 as the new second-in-command to surly, Harvey Wallbanger-swilling Capt. Glenn (Patrick Wilson), who's not happy about having a woman as part of his crew. There's also ship mechanic Ted (Matt Bomer), whose boozing, Valium-addled wife Misty (Marisa Coughlan) is having an affair with Steve (Jerry O'Connell), who's married to her friend Donna (co-writer Kali Rocha). Ted and Misty are only together for their daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), who's routinely neglected by her mother and left in the care of educational VHS tapes and TV shows. Ted develops feelings for Jessica, who's always been career-focused since she's unable to have children. Glenn, meanwhile, plays up his hard-edged chauvinist act but everyone knows he's a closeted gay man getting over a relationship with his previous second-in-command (Matthew Morrison), who transferred to another space station when things soured between them. All the while, there's montages of misery, emptiness, and loneliness set to Ambrosia's "How Much I Feel," Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me," and Neil Sedaka's "Laughter in the Rain," a cameo by Keir Dullea as Jessica's dad to remind you of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, along with '70s signifiers like waterbeds, feathered hair, wide collars, top-loading VCRs, and wood paneling on the space station interiors. The dramatic elements are things we've seen in countless other films, but what's here beyond the novelty of the setting? Sure, we already have GALAXY QUEST and since it's stood the test of time, we don't need another, but who in 2014 would possibly need an R-rated, outer space PEYTON PLACE set in a 1976 version of the future? What is this?  What is it supposed to be? Who is it for? Why? (R, 95 mins)

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