Wednesday, November 26, 2014

In Theaters: HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Sean Anders. Written by Sean Anders and John Morris. Cast: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx, Chris Pine, Christoph Waltz, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Banks, Keegan-Michael Key, Lindsay Sloane, Kelly Stables, Lennon Parham, Rob Huebel. (R, 108 mins)

As pointless sequels go, HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 isn't as stultifyingly unfunny as last year's ANCHORMAN 2, but in its own way, it's just as depressing. ANCHORMAN 2 was astoundingly bad, but that was due as much to the material as the creators' monumental self-indulgence and the misguided belief that what they were doing was setting new standards in comedic brilliance. After one of the most prolonged and aggressively obnoxious ad campaigns in cinema history, ANCHORMAN 2 was a stunning misfire that Ron Burgundy fans would rather just avoid discussing than admit how terrible it really is, and though I'm sure a burgeoning cult of apologists will someday declare it Will Ferrell's Pinkerton, it's a reassessment that's been very slow in its formation. But if nothing else, for all its infinite faults, ANCHORMAN 2 had ambition, whereas HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 is coasting from the start. Were there really enough unanswered questions and dangling plot threads from HORRIBLE BOSSES to justify a sequel? The 2011 original was an inspired and darkly hilarious look at three average guys reaching their breaking points with their abusive, asshole bosses.  It was a funny and mean farce that allowed the actors in the title roles--Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell and Kevin Spacey--to let it rip in ways they never had onscreen before, with the possible exception of Spacey, who was cast because he's so good at playing this kind of asshole. There's really nowhere to take HORRIBLE BOSSES 2, so nowhere is exactly where it goes. File it with the likes of CADDYSHACK II, WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S II, and BLUES BROTHERS 2000 on the list of thoroughly disposable, instantly forgettable sequels that everyone involved--from the cast to the intended audience--approaches with a sigh and a shrug like it's a clock-punching obligation.

Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day), having extricated themselves from the clutches of the titular trio of supervisors, have gone into business for themselves by patenting the "Shower Buddy," a shower apparatus that dispenses shampoo, soap, and water all in one function. Looking to manufacture the item domestically and provide made-in-America jobs, they're wooed by catalog retailing magnate Bert Hansen (Christoph Waltz), who promises them some start-up money for a factory and an initial order of 100,000 units in exchange for exclusive retailing rights. Upon completion of the order, Hansen abruptly cancels it, which will send the trio into bankruptcy, at which point Hansen will buy them out for pennies on the dollar, own the patent, and set up a manufacturing deal with a Chinese factory. Enraged, Nick, Kurt, and Dale attempt to collect a hefty ransom by kidnapping Hansen's dude-bro son Rex (Chris Pine), who hates his father and becomes an unintended partner in the plot to extort him.

Of course, assorted hijinks ensue in order to pad the paper-thin plot and clumsily work in Aniston, Spacey, and Jamie Foxx, also returning as the trio's sage criminal advisor Dean "Motherfucker" Jones (fortunately for Farrell, his character was killed by Spacey's in the first film, thus sparing him from any phoned-in participation here). Spacey has two brief scenes probably shot in half a day, delivering a couple of Spacey-esque takedowns weakened by his wandering eyes clearly reading cue cards, but Aniston and Foxx have about as much to do here as Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd in CADDYSHACK II. Both make fleeting appearances early on, with Kurt and Dale breaking into Aniston's nympho dentist's office to steal laughing gas only to find she's now running a sex addiction group as a way to hook up with fellow sex addicts, and both are awkwardly squeezed into the third act to beef up their screen time. Foxx's Motherfucker Jones at least gets to take part in a climactic car chase but Aniston has nothing to do except be the center of a potential four-way as Nick, Kurt, and Dale have an endless debate over which of them gets "face, puss, or butt." Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis don't even seem to be playing the same characters from the first film. Because there's nowhere for the writers to take them, they go with the easiest option: making them louder and dumber.  Day, in particular, resorts to screeching his way through, dialing it up to 11 and grating in ways that even the most fanatical IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA fan will find hard to take. Sudeikis also consistently mistakes yelling for actual comedy and gets to do an extended riff on his "Maine Justice" judge from SNL, while Bateman, again cast as the Michael Bluth-ian voice of reason (in other words, "Jason Bateman"), just looks tersely irritable throughout, like he'd rather be anywhere else.

None of the behind-the-scenes personnel from HORRIBLE BOSSES made the return trip, with the reins handed to the writing team of John Morris and Sean Anders, with Anders directing. This pair also had a hand in scripting SEX DRIVE (2008), HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010), the surprisingly good WE'RE THE MILLERS (2013) and the recent DUMB AND DUMBER TO (2014), but fail to bring anything interesting to the table with HORRIBLE BOSSES 2. It's never egregiously terrible, but it's bland, repetitive, and worst of all, dull. And what would a present-day studio comedy be without a montage set to The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?" or '70s and '80s FM radio staples used for lazily ironic laughs, in this case, Toto's "Hold the Line" and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "If You Leave"?  "I guess that'll do," seems to be this film's mission statement. The very definition of "perfunctory," it's the kind of movie you'll have already forgotten about by the time you exit the multiplex. Even the end-credits bloopers are boring, except for one crack Sudeikis makes regarding Bateman's acting that ends up being the one legitimate laugh-out-loud moment in the entire film.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


(US - 2014)

Directed by Stephen Merchant. Written by Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky, and Lee Eisenberg. Cast: Stephen Merchant, Christine Woods, Nate Torrence, Kevin Weisman, Kyle Mooney, Sean Wing, Stephen Tobolowsky, Allison Tolman, Adam Campbell, Henrietta Meire, Stephanie Corneliussen. (Unrated, 80 mins)

Cancelled after one season by a network that somehow kept ARLI$$ on the air for seven, HELLO LADIES garnered enough of a fan base for HBO to greenlight a spinoff film that doubles as a feature-length finale, albeit one with a few more aerial shots than usual for a bit of a cinematic flourish. The brainchild of THE OFFICE co-creator Stephen Merchant and BAD TEACHER co-writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (also a writing team on the American OFFICE), HELLO LADIES dealt with Brit Stuart Pritchard (Merchant) and his escapades as a would-be player in the L.A. dating scene. Stuart is a nice guy who means well, but he tries too hard and has always been obsessed with being popular, and his awkward attempts at ingratiating himself in with the cool kids at trendy nightspots and any other social setting provided some outstanding bits of wincing, cringe-worthy discomfort comedy. That element of the show tapered off as that lone season wore on, with more of a focus on his "Will They or Won't They?" platonic relationship with his friend and tenant, aspiring actress Jessica (Christine Woods), who was spinning her wheels in a dead-end relationship with her douchebag agent Glenn (Sean Wing).

HELLO LADIES: THE MOVIE picks up right where the first season left off, with Stuart still sucking up to Glenn to get into parties attended by supermodels, Jessica abandoning her acting career after a humiliating audition for a yogurt commercial, and Stuart's divorced best friend Wade (Nate Torrence) still tagging along as his hapless wingman. Stuart is panicked after getting a phone call from Trudy (Henrietta Meire), an ex from the UK who's visiting L.A. with her husband Mike (Adam Campbell). Trudy left Stuart for Mike, and Stuart was so traumatized that he moved to L.A. in an attempt to reinvent himself. Obsessed with showing Trudy and Mike that he's "won at life," Stuart manages to convince one of Glenn's Russian supermodels (Stephanie Corneliussen) to go on a double date, but she backs out to go to a party instead, prompting Stuart to press Jessica into service as a last-minute replacement. The night goes perfectly, at least until Stuart and Jessica are forced to confront their feelings for each other.

HELLO LADIES worked best when Merchant got Stuart into situations that were so awkward that it was difficult to even look at your TV (ask anyone who saw the fourth episode, "The Dinner," where Stuart starts telling jokes, gets some laughs, gets a bit overconfident, and has what he deems a smartly-conceived observational one about hypocrisy that blows up in his face...and then he somehow makes it worse). The cringing genius of HELLO LADIES at its best is a good indication that while Ricky Gervais is essentially the face of the UK version of THE OFFICE, Merchant probably came up with a lot of the show's most memorable laughs. Merchant and his co-writers packed these kinds of moments into the first half of the season and they're the ones that provided the biggest laughs, but anyone approaching HELLO LADIES: THE MOVIE cold will get a perfectly entertaining movie with Merchant's love of '70s and '80s songs, with a very effective use of Gerry Rafferty's "Days Gone Down," but one more in tune with the latter part of the series. The aftermath of Stuart and Jessica taking things to the next level provides some truth bombs from Jessica that force Stuart to take stock of his life and exactly why he's the way he is. It's well-written and believably acted, but the film needs more scenes like Stuart pestering Nicole Kidman at a party because Trudy's a fan and a bullshitting Stuart claims to be friends with her. There's a nice subplot later on with Nate meeting a woman (Allison Tolman, of FX's FARGO) who's just as likably odd and as thoroughly comfortable about it as he is, and one laugh-out-loud reveal of Stuart's "assistant" Rory's (Kyle Mooney) new hairstyle, but their horndog, wheelchair-bound buddy Kives (Kevin Weisman) more or less gets relegated to the sideline. HELLO LADIES: THE MOVIE seems poised to end on a bittersweet note, but it also needs to bring closure, so there's really nothing surprising about the crowd-pleasing wrap-up. It's hard to tell where HELLO LADIES would've ended up had HBO given it another season or two. Maybe there wasn't enough there for a long-running series, anyway. Amusing and occasionally heartfelt, HELLO LADIES: THE MOVIE is an enjoyable enough coda to a series that hit the ground running and didn't exactly switch gears, but seemed to burn brightest too early, losing some of its edgy fearlessness.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: AUTOMATA (2014) and THE DAMNED (2014)

(US/Spain/Italy - 2014)

The visually striking but ponderous AUTOMATA succeeds in looking a lot more expensive than its $15 million budget, but it can't overcome an obvious, empty, and hopelessly derivative story that suggests at least a small percentage of whatever, if any, profit it makes should go to the estate of Isaac Asimov. Set in 2044 with 99.7% of Earth's population wiped out by solar storms that have turned the planet into a radioactive desert, AUTOMATA has the surviving humans corralled into covered cities after the ROC Corporation manufactures a line of Automata robots to build walls and climate-controlled clouds to create pockets of atmosphere amidst the dystopian hellscape. The robots have two protocols: 1) never harm a living thing, and 2) they are forbidden to alter themselves or other robots. When a robot is spotted working on itself and another sets itself on fire after being caught smuggling a piece of equipment out of a research facility, it's apparent to the powers that be at ROC that the robots have started to flagrantly disregard their second protocol. ROC insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) witnesses the robotic self-immolation and is led to cybernetics engineer Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith), who warns him that robot evolution is well within the realm of possibility should one of them figure out how to abandon the second protocol. Vaucan is abducted by a sex robot named Cleo (voiced by Griffith) and three others, who take him on a journey across the deadly desert to meet their leader, the Blue Robot (voiced by Javier Bardem), the robot who evolved into a semi-emotional being and began working on the others, forming a rapidly snowballing rebellion that threatens to exterminate what little is left of the human race. "Life finds a way," the Blue Robot explains to Vaucan. "Your time is coming to an end."

Co-written by director Gabe Ibanez, a protege of Alex de la Iglesia, AUTOMATA sounds like a film with heady ideas but it really comes off as silly most of the time. It's extremely convoluted and seems like a piecemeal stitching of other, better sources, with a lot of Asimov's Robot series, some Neill Blomkamp allegory (there's a definite DISTRICT 9 thing going on with humanity's shabby treatment of the robots), a bit of BLADE RUNNER in the high-tech, sleazy neon cityscapes of the protected areas, and a portion of post-apocalypse with the admittedly well-done CGI in the desert sequences, which look terrific but go on forever. Once the robots get Vaucan out there (wait a minute...isn't the desert supposed to be lethally radioactive?), the pace really slows down as too much time is spent on Vaucan haplessly demanding to be taken back to the city and Cleo replying that they "can't do that, sir," repeated multiple times over. There's a bit of a HARDWARE vibe going on as well, right down to the presence of Dylan McDermott as Wallace, a rogue, robot-hating cop hired by Vaucan's boss (Robert Forster) to venture into the desert to find him and take out the fugitive robots. A subplot involving Vaucan's very pregnant wife (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) goes nowhere and has so little effect on everything that it feels like a more expanded plot thread that's been drastically cut. Banderas does what he can and is an engaging enough hero, and Cannon cover band Millennium gets better work than usual out of the Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX. Ibanez obviously has a great eye for visual style, but with such a weak, hackneyed, cut-and-paste script, the terrific-looking but frustrating AUTOMATA can't help but feel like it's all surface and no substance. (R, 110 mins)

(Colombia/US - 2014)

Spanish-born director Victor Garcia has earned a dubious name for himself as a go-to guy for shitty DTV sequels like RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (2006), MIRRORS 2 (2010), and the unwatchable HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS (2011), a crass exercise in Weinstein audience contempt--so much so that Doug Bradley refused to reprise his iconic role as Pinhead--shot fast and cheap when they realized they were about to lose the rights to the franchise. Garcia has been a gun-for-hire on all of these, demonstrating none of the promise of other top-drawer DTV auteurs and seeming like a hack who only got the lowly sequel gigs that Joel Soisson turned down. Garcia finally comes into his own with THE DAMNED, which isn't the most original horror film you'll ever see, but it's done with such spirited verve and frenzied panache that it wins you over in spite of the usual gaping lapses in logic that seem to haunt these kinds of films. Widower David (Peter Facinelli) and his fiancee Lauren (Sophia Myles) arrive in Bogota to pick up his college-age daughter Jill (Nathalia Ramos). Jill has been vacationing with her journalist aunt and late mom's sister Gina (Carolina Guerra), has hooked up with Gina's cameraman Ramon (Sebastian Martinez), and hasn't been answering David's calls. David is persistent, but the quintet have to drive about four hours to another town to get Jill's passport, which she carelessly left behind. Ignoring the warnings of local cop Morales (Juan Pablo Gamboa), and traveling down a dangerous mountain road, they get caught in a flash flood, destroying Gina's truck, forcing them to find refuge at a decrepit inn run by Felipe (Gustavo Angarita). The guest register shows no one's stayed at the inn since 1978, and the skittish Felipe doesn't want them wandering around. Searching for a bathroom, Jill hears a voice crying for help.  She and Ramon find a little girl, Ana Maria (Julieta Salazar), in a secret locked cell in the basement. They free her, and all hell breaks loose. Ana Maria is the current host of "La Bruja," the spirit of a 17th century witch with the power to jump from body to body when the current host is killed. Felipe has had Ana Maria locked in the basement cell since 1978, and with a torrential downpour making escape impossible, now has an inn filled with interlopers for La Bruja to freely possess at will.

Screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio's (THE CALL) idea of an evil spirit moving from body to body isn't exactly a new concept, having been used to great effect in John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST III (1990), and Gregory Hoblit's FALLEN (1998) to name a few. And the notion of keeping a demonic spirit locked away owes a lot to the second-season TWILIGHT ZONE episode "The Howling Man," and Michael Mann's THE KEEP (1983). But after years of execrable swill, Garcia finally establishes himself as a legitimate talent outside the shackling expectations of bad DTV sequels. Garcia got his start working on the effects crews on several of RE-ANIMATOR producer Brian Yuzna's Spanish productions of the early 2000s, such as DAGON (2001) and WEREWOLF HUNTER (2004). A lot of those Yuzna titles dealt with travelers being trapped in a desolate place, and in that way, THE DAMNED (shot under the title GALLOWS HILL) plays a lot like something Yuzna would've shepherded a decade or so ago. Garcia is conservative with digital effects, but really seems to prefer the practical if at all possible--it's nice to see latex and wet, spurting blood in a horror movie these days. Garcia also makes terrific use of tried-and-true genre tropes like creepy dolls, a chair rocking itself, covered mirrors, and cockroaches infesting the inn. The cheap jump scares work, and there's a doomy, rainy atmosphere throughout. Sure, characters do dumb things (David: "From now on, we all stick together!" he exhorts three seconds before wandering into another room alone), but as the film morphs into one of the more highly-energized EXORCIST knockoffs (Myles, in particular, throws herself into this), there's a genuinely sinister and unsettling method to La Bruja's madness in the way it's able to see inside the souls of those around it, exposing their deepest secrets and exploiting their guilt and weakness. You've seen most of what's in THE DAMNED before, but Garcia's enthusiasm, the film's relentless pace, and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, grief, and despair make it far more effective than it has any right to be. (R, 87 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray, Special "Cusackalypse Now" Edition: DRIVE HARD (2014) and RECLAIM (2014)

John Cusack in DRIVE HARD.  Or maybe RECLAIM.
For all the shit Nicolas Cage justifiably gets about the crummy movies he's been making, the precipitous decline of John Cusack--Cage's CON AIR co-star in better days for both--has flown under the radar with most mainstream critics and moviegoers who likely just assume he hasn't been busy. Oh, he's been busy. Any VOD denizen who regularly prowls the fringes of Netflix Instant's new arrivals or checks out a Redbox at the grocery store has probably noticed Cusack turning up in an alarming number of bad movies of late. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was briefly generating Oscar buzz for 2007's GRACE IS GONE, headlining 2009's mega-budget disaster epic 2012, and had a hit comedy with 2010's HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. In retrospect, it seemed like he stopped trying around the time no one really responded to his well-intentioned but smug and self-satisfied 2008 anti-war satire WAR, INC. There have been a couple of positives for Cusack in the last few years--even though nobody saw it, his reteaming with Cage on THE FROZEN GROUND produced a surprisingly compelling thriller, not something you can usually say about any film containing 50 Cent, and the Spanish GRAND PIANO was a goofy but enjoyable De Palma homage that featured Cusack mainly as a voice in an earpiece taunting concert pianist Elijah Wood from the balcony, threatening to shoot him if he plays one wrong note. Cusack is in David Cronenberg's upcoming MAPS TO THE STARS, which will mark the actor starring in his first respectably A-list production in years (not counting his brief bit as Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels' LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER), but it would appear to be an exception and not the rule.

John Cusack in RECLAIM. Or maybe DRIVE HARD.
Careers have peaks and valleys, but in recent memory, few icons--yes, with SAY ANYTHING, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and HIGH FIDELITY, I'd say Cusack is iconic with a certain demographic--have plummeted so quickly without some offscreen scandal or obvious and very public personal problems pulling them down. Almost overnight, Cusack went from box office draw to the undisputed king of Video-on-Demand. Working actors work, and to quote '70s exploitation producer Mardi Rustam on casting past-their-prime actors, "working's better than sitting by a phone that's not ringing," but with rare exception, Cusack's recent string of credits--THE RAVEN, THE PAPERBOY, THE FACTORY, THE NUMBERS STATION, ADULT WORLD, THE BAG MAN, and THE PRINCE--range from forgettable to flat-out embarrassing. A pilot he shot for a potential CBS series about a Wall Street investment firm wasn't picked up by the network. Cusack did star with Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li in Mikael Hafstrom's $50 million epic SHANGHAI, but it's been sitting on a Weinstein Company shelf for six years. The Cusackalyptic state of his career--honestly, an appearance in an Uwe Boll film can't be far off--has only become apparent to casual moviegoers in the last couple of weeks, when a poster for the Chinese period piece DRAGON BLADE, teaming Cusack as a centurion with Jackie Chan and Adrien Brody, made the rounds on the internet. Other upcoming Cusack projects include the Stephen King adaptation CELL, which maybe has commercial potential, and LOVE & MERCY, a low-budget Beach Boys biopic where he briefly appears as the older Brian Wilson (Paul Dano plays Wilson in most of the film) but other than that, it's business as usual, with a cop thriller called KICKBACK, where he co-stars with Famke Janssen, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Mischa Barton, and Tom Sizemore. Who knows if Cusack can pull himself out of this quagmire or if he's happy to just be working?  In the meantime, here's his two latest obscurities that you probably haven't heard of until this moment.

(Australia/UK/Germany - 2014)

A grating buddy comedy from Ozploitation legend Brian Trenchard-Smith, DRIVE HARD isn't the action-packed fun-fest that it seems to think it is. Cusack is paired with Thomas Jane--both appeared in Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE--and presumably both are only here for the paid Australian vacation. A quickie shot in Gold Coast, Queensland in a mere two and a half weeks, DRIVE HARD has Jane as Peter Roberts, a former American racing phenom who left the circuit to marry Aussie attorney Tessa (Yesse Spence). They have an impossibly cute daughter and a beautiful house, but Peter is unhappy working at his dull job as a driving instructor and misses the circuit. One morning, Peter's first appointment is American Simon Keller (Cusack), a vaping oddball in a black baseball cap and sunglasses, who claims to be in town on business. Simon's eccentric behavior irritates Peter, especially when he asks Peter to stop at a nearby bank so he can quickly run in and "take care of something." The bank is owned by the mob, and Simon is a freelance criminal from Cleveland sent to swipe some mob cash in the form of bank bonds set up by scheming executive Rossi (Christopher Morris).  The connected Rossi uses his influence to keep the cops off as various unsavory sorts spend the rest of the film chasing the two Americans--with unwilling accessory Peter specifically targeted by Simon for his superior driving skills--who have to work together to survive...if they don't kill each other first!

Trenchard-Smith's storied history in stunt-crazed Ozploitation cinema of the 1970s and 1980s would seem to make him a natural for something like this, but he hasn't made a good film in about 25 years (no, LEPRECHAUN 4: IN SPACE doesn't count), and DRIVE HARD exhibits none of the past style and panache that have made him such an endearing figure in cult cinema. The actual car chases are sparingly shown and unexciting, things gets bogged down in Peter's marital problems and the investigation by a hard-nosed Gold Coast major crimes investigator (Zoe Ventoura), and there just isn't much of a story here. That would be fine if the action was good, but Trenchard-Smith seems so excited to be working with name American actors again that just lets them riff their way through it. Long stretches of the film consist of Cusack and Jane doing some uninspired improv in the car, with tiresome and endless banter that usually involves a yapping Cusack being an unfunny, hectoring smartass and Jane yelling, almost like they're both trying to be Vince Vaughn, and it doesn't work. Jane, in particular, is really hard to take here. He seems to be mistaking "being really loud" for being funny. His entire performance is one long spaz attack, while Cusack, who never takes off the hat and shades, has been given a green light to do whatever he wants. Simon's final monologue to Rossi, where he blathers on endlessly about Buddha before shooting the coke-addled banker in the balls, allows Cusack the kind of self-indulgent, incoherent nonsense you would've expected from late-period Marlon Brando. Cusack was obviously given the star treatment by the producers--his personal chef is credited twice--and he responds by at least coming to work awake, which is more than you can say for his contributions to THE PRINCE, but DRIVE HARD is just a dull, dumb, and loud exercise in Cusackalyptica with an Ozploitation twist, an action-comedy that struggles to find a tone and comes up lacking in both action and comedy. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(US/Australia - 2014)

I don't know if RECLAIM was shot immediately after DRIVE HARD or vice versa, but Cusack's wearing the same black hat in some scenes and he's introduced vaping, which has obviously become his personal prop of choice. Released on just ten screens, RECLAIM is like a less competent version of the kind of glossy, hot-button thrillers that dominated the 1990s. Indeed, if it came out 12-15 years earlier with the same leads and a bigger budget, it would've been a huge hit. Despite his top billing, Cusack has a mostly secondary role until a little past the midway point, with the real stars being Ryan Phillippe and Rachelle Lefevre as Stephen and Shannon Mayer, a Chicago couple arriving in Puerto Rico to finalize the adoption of seven-year-old Haitian orphan Nina (Briana Roy). Unable to have children of their own after a car accident several years earlier that caused a pregnant Shannon to miscarry and netted them a nearly $3 million settlement, the Mayers are desperate to become parents and have already paid $60,000 to a charity agency run by the altruistic Gabrielle Reigert (Jacki Weaver), but still must wait several days for Nina's passport and some general paperwork to clear. In the meantime, Gabrielle sets the Mayers up at a resort where they keep encountering the gregariously pushy Benjamin (Cusack, greasy-haired and disheveled), his girlfriend Paola (Veronica Faye Foo) and their extremely surly buddy Salo (Jandres Burgos). Benjamin and especially Salo (who beats the shit out of committed-to-sobriety Stephen in a bar after Stephen declines a drink) display enough red flags for the Mayers to inform Gabrielle that they're checking into another hotel, but of course Benjamin and his crew turn up there as well, and not long after, Nina goes missing. Stephen attempts to notify Gabrielle, but no one at the agency's office answers the phone, the web site is down, and the property vacant when Stephen pays a visit. Benjamin is part of a scam overseen by Gabrielle (not her real name) to bilk people out of exorbitant adoption fees and make off with the kid. The scam is common, according to the useless local police chief, played by Luis Guzman, in practically the same role he had in the recent Gina Carano actioner IN THE BLOOD. Feeling cheated out of his share by Gabrielle, Benjamin goes rogue and concocts his own scheme to get the Mayers' entire fortune.

Australian director Alan White really wants this to be a serious expose of child exploitation and trafficking, but it's really just a rote, formulaic B-movie, and not a very good one. It starts with Stephen and Shannon being entirely too gullible too many times, but even on a technical level, RECLAIM comes up short. It sports what may go down as 2014's most ineptly-shot car chase, which hilariously shoddy greenscreen work that moves entirely too fast and jerky and looks like a Hanna-Barbera wraparound background. Coupled with a scene where the Mayers' SUV is dangling off the side of a cliff, RECLAIM has the worst car crash CGI this side of 2011's IN TIME. Phillippe and Lefevre do what's required of them, but Cusack is in PRINCE mode here, looking haggard and sleepwalking through a Puerto Rican vacation either immediately before or after his DRIVE HARD Australian respite. Until the midway point, he really isn't in it that much and until late in the film, he's more of a henchman to mastermind Gabrielle. In some scenes, he defers to the hot-tempered Salo. Why is Cusack playing a stock heavy role that any jobbing character actor could've played?  I doubt he's even reading the scripts he's given--he's choosing his films based on where they're being shot and how nice a resort the producers are willing to book him (though his personal chef doesn't seem to have made the trip for this one). Cusack's a smart actor and an insightful writer--if he was finding anything challenging or professionally rewarding about his Cusackalyptic career choices, he wouldn't resort to vaping in two different movies in a desperate effort to provide his character with some remotely interesting trait. An end caption states that over a million children are trafficked a year, adding "They're invisible and they're everywhere." These days, the same could be said for John Cusack movies. (R, 96 mins)

Friday, November 14, 2014

In Theaters: BIRDMAN (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. Written by Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, and Armando Bo. Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, Merritt Wever, Clark Middleton, Damian Young, Bill Camp, Benjamin Kanes. (R, 119 mins)

Though it was conceived by AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and three collaborating screenwriters, the surreal dark comedy BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) could easily be interpreted as a soul-baring confessional for Michael Keaton and an analytical walk through his career. Both Inarritu and Keaton say that the film wasn't written specifically for Keaton, but after seeing BIRDMAN, it's impossible to picture anyone else starring in it. So many elements of Keaton's career and the public's perception of him--as well as the image of one co-star in particular--are woven into the fabric of the story that in many ways, you could argue that this is Keaton's ALL THAT JAZZ...minus, of course, the production numbers and the general theme of substance-abetted self-destruction. Both BIRDMAN and the 1979 Bob Fosse classic have a past-his-prime figure (actor in BIRDMAN, director in JAZZ) laying it all on the line for a production that's a culmination of his life's work, a vindication of his existence, a middle-finger response to those critics and contemporaries who doubted and dismissed him.

Similar to Keaton turning down $15 million for a third BATMAN movie in 1995, his Riggan Thomson is a faded Hollywood celebrity who gave up a huge payday 20 years earlier when he walked away from the superhero franchise BIRDMAN. His Hollywood career never regained momentum, and now, Riggan is orchestrating what he believes will be his ultimate achievement, one that finally validates him as a serious artist.  He's mounting a stage production of the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." He's the writer, director, star, and financier, and it's not going well. He's run through his fortune to the point where he has to remortgage his home in Malibu that's supposed to belong to his recovering junkie daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and the other male lead (Jeremy Shamos) is such a terrible actor that Riggan may or may not have arranged for a stage light to fall directly on his head. The play's female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts), given her big break by Riggan, suggests her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) step into the vacated role. Shiner is a Broadway actor of repute, and his involvement immediately boosts ticket sales and garners more publicity, which gives the notoriously volatile Shiner enough ammo to start questioning Riggan's writing and directing decisions and trying to take more artistic control over the development of his character and the staging of the play itself (as far back as AMERICAN HISTORY X, Norton has been an infamously pushy control freak, undermining directors, writers, and co-stars, and is a remarkably good sport in the way he allows Inarritu to lampoon that reputation here). Riggan is tortured by self-doubt over this project, with Shiner's constant meddling, his manager/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) fretting over the money, and the probable pregnancy of his girlfriend/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and when alone, demonstrates magical, telekinetic powers and is both bolstered and harangued by the deep, forceful voice of Birdman. Riggan's grip on reality is slipping with each passing day as opening night approaches, and it's not helped by a bitter, spiteful Broadway critic (Lindsay Duncan) who has vowed to destroy him and everything he represents about celebrity culture.

BIRDMAN is often bilious in its tone, as Inarritu takes aim at vacuous celebrities, the fleeting nature of fame, pretentious actors, critics more interested in tearing someone down rather than attempting to understand their art, and a public that judges the worth of something by how much it's trending on social media. Even Keaton approaches it in a self-aware, self-deprecating manner (while destroying his dressing room, Riggan rants about how he's gotten old, wrinkled, flabby, and balding, screaming "You look like a turkey with leukemia!" at the mirror). In a lot of ways, it's the NETWORK of backstage dramas, but above all that, it's a career-defining validation of Michael Keaton, one of the busiest actors of the '80s and early '90s who never really went away, but just didn't seem to be working as much as he should be, or on projects that really showcased his talent. From his first moments on the big screen in Ron Howard's NIGHT SHIFT back in 1982, it was obvious that Keaton was a star. But in walking away from BATMAN FOREVER because he thought the script was terrible and didn't want to do it without Tim Burton, he chose integrity over money, and the momentum was never the same. He never became a pariah, but at the same time, Hollywood never seemed sure of him after that. Though he had some hits (1993's MY LIFE, 1996's MULTIPLICITY) and shined in ensemble pieces (1997's JACKIE BROWN), Keaton stepped back after 1998's JACK FROST and worked very sparingly throughout the next decade, with a Golden Globe-nominated performance in the 2002 HBO film LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, a couple of straight-to-video titles and a minor hit with the 2005 horror film WHITE NOISE. To a certain demographic, he's probably best known as the voice of Chick Hicks in the CARS franchise, but in recent years, Keaton has focused on smaller films like 2006's Don DeLillo-scripted GAME 6 and his own little-seen 2008 directing effort THE MERRY GENTLEMAN, while popping up in things like 2005's HERBIE: FULLY LOADED or this year's ROBOCOP remake and NEED FOR SPEED when he has a need for money. It was probably Keaton's scene-stealing supporting turn in the 2010 Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg comedy THE OTHER GUYS, as a beleaguered, TLC-referencing police captain forced to take a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond because he "has a kid at NYU who wants to explore his bisexuality and become a DJ," that reminded audiences of just how funny he could be. But he's a terrific serious actor as well, even though that's mostly been demonstrated by his playing villains in 1990's PACIFIC HEIGHTS and 1998's DESPERATE MEASURES. Compared to the height of his 1980s fame, the now-63-year-old Keaton was pretty much off the radar pre-BIRDMAN, but perhaps he's always been the kind of actor who wouldn't be fully appreciated until he was older. Make no mistake: this is the role of Keaton's career.

It's impossible to discuss all of the ALL THAT JAZZ parallels without going into spoilers, but a major example is the way both films take frequent leaves from reality: BIRDMAN with Riggan's telekinetic and increasingly destructive powers, and his conversations with his younger self in the Birdman costume (played by uncredited Benjamin Kanes) who eggs him on with either encouragement or scorn; and ALL THAT JAZZ's booze-addled, pill-popping Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) and his conversations with an angel (Jessica Lange) who's alternately sympathetic and derisively mocking. Riggan and Gideon are men pushing themselves to the brink, cognizant of their failures both professional and personal, both men are on friendly terms with ex-wives they treated badly but who knew the kind of man they were marrying, and both try to salvage relationships with their daughters and their current girlfriends. Both will stop at nothing to prove something to...themselves? It costs Joe Gideon his life in a way that questions just how much of ALL THAT JAZZ was supposed to be really happening, and by the end, that comparison comes into play with BIRDMAN. It's a strange, funny, angry, and dreamlike film, shot by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (CHILDREN OF MEN, THE TREE OF LIFE, and an Oscar winner for his work on GRAVITY) in a way that deceptively makes the entire two-hour film play like one continuous take. Inarritu doesn't spotlight the gimmickry or the trickery that goes along in maintaining the illusion, but in coupling it with a persistent jazz drumming score, there's an uneasy tension that grows throttling as the film--and Riggan Thomsen himself--careen toward their destiny. BIRDMAN isn't for everyone, but any fan of Michael Keaton must consider it a must-see as he delivers one of the great film performances in recent years.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


(US - 2014)

Arriving on DVD & Blu-ray just four days after its VOD and scant theatrical release, A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS is a bland and lifeless dysfunctional family Christmas comedy that has nothing to offer aside from Robin Williams in one of his last roles. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to play armchair psychologist knowing what we now know about Williams' battle with depression and his health issues that factored into his suicide in August.  But even here, in a film shot in early 2013 and in his unusually subdued interview in the DVD's bonus features, it's sadly evident that he looks tired and already checked out. Still, even without that dark cloud looming overhead, it would be difficult to enjoy this laugh-deprived trifle that squanders an overqualified cast of proven funny people. Forget comparisons to CHRISTMAS VACATION or BAD SANTA: this isn't even up to the level of the made-for-TV CHRISTMAS VACATION 2: COUSIN EDDIE'S ISLAND ADVENTURE. In a performance that won't be erasing fond memories of Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold anytime soon, Joel McHale is Boyd Mitchler, a successful Chicago hedge fund manager and all-around nice-guy family man with a tendency to overcompensate on Christmas, with an obsessive determination to keep the belief in Santa Claus alive for his coddled son Douglas, nicknamed "Bug" (LOOPER's Pierce Gagnon). As if the ridiculous character names weren't already pissing you off, the reason for Boyd's fanaticism about getting Christmas perfect is his abrasive, alcoholic father Mitch (Williams), whose misanthropic issues may very well be rooted in the fact that he's named Mitch Mitchler. Mitch's drunkenness had a habit of consistently ruining Christmas for young Boyd, and when Boyd is forced to drag the family--there's also wife Luann (BAD SANTA's Lauren Graham) and daughter Vera (Bebe Wood)--four hours away to his parents' house for the holiday, we know he'll be opening wounds that still haven't healed. Then we meet the rest of the Mitchler clan: enabling matriarch Donna (Candice Bergen), daughter Shauna (Wendi McClendon-Covey) and sex-offender son-in-law Dave (Tim Heidecker), and son Nelson (Clark Duke), whose cheating wife ran off with the father of the baby she left for him to raise, and who suffers from PTSD after being discharged from the military following a head injury when he fell off a Humvee during basic training. When Boyd realizes he left Bug's gifts back home in Chicago, he attempts to drive back to get them, but his car breaks down, forcing Mitch to pick him up as the pair predictably air their lifelong grievances on the ride to and back from Chicago, getting a little magical help from a homeless drunk in a Santa costume (Oliver Platt).

There's no edge to A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS. It's a strictly connect-the-dots story that never finds a spark. Everything about it is perfunctory and forgettable. It wants to be this dark, "did that really go there?" comedy, but it just doesn't have the balls to do anything, instead choosing to pull its punches and be safe, nice, and thoroughly neutered. It makes overtures toward pushing the envelope with Dave's sex offender status and the situation with Nelson's dark-skinned son, but it's too afraid to ruffle feathers. Even the wacky elements--Boyd's pants somehow catching on fire ten seconds after he arrives at his parents' house, Bug hallucinating after his competitive eating champ cousin dares him to down a 40-year-old jar of pickles, Mitch serving Boyd squirrel with buckshot when he finds out Boyd doesn't eat chicken, Luann finding some portraits in the attic that reveal Boyd's childhood Bea Arthur obsession--land with a strangely awkward thud (in the right hands, that Bea Arthur subplot could've killed). At the height of the TV series COMMUNITY's popularity, FRIGGIN' began life as a Joel McHale vehicle at Universal with ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT directors Joe and Anthony Russo and a script by WRECK-IT-RALPH writer Phil Johnston. But it never got made and the Russos eventually moved on to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. McHale kept the project alive through independent means, bringing regular COMMUNITY director Tristram Shapeero (also a vet of PARKS AND RECREATION and NEW GIRL) onboard. Things probably got drastically changed along the way, as an obviously displeased Johnston had his name removed from the credits, with the script now blamed on the non-existent "Michael Brown," and the film ended up being acquired by the lowly Phase 4 Films, home of many an Uwe Boll joint. A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS is so slight and has so little to say and offer that the closing credits start at 73 minutes, rolling as slowly as possible to stretch it to a reasonable running time. There's also a post-credits stinger involving two unfunny Cowboy Santa bit players as well as a nice enough tribute to Williams. He doesn't go overboard as in the recent THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN, possibly his worst film, but he seems completely disengaged from the project and isn't funny, spending FRIGGIN' grunting like Clint Eastwood in GRAN TORINO, chomping on a cigar, derisively calling Boyd "Sally" or "Gladys," and barking things like "Are you on the friggin' rag?" at him. Williams had three other films completed at the time of his death--the grim indie drama BOULEVARD, which got raves at this year's Tribeca Film Festival but is still without a distributor; his last onscreen performance in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB, due out in theaters in December; and he voices a dog in the comedy ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, set to be released in spring 2015--and hopefully any of those will provide him with a more fitting sendoff than this friggin' depressing holiday dud. (Unrated, 82 mins)

(US - 2014)

1991's SHAKES THE CLOWN was annihilated by critics before becoming a legitimate cult classic, but it another decade of TV directing gigs before veteran comedian Bobcat Goldthwait would make another film. With the Comedy Central mockumentary WINDY CITY HEAT (2003), and the extremely dark and quite often uncomfortable comedies SLEEPING DOGS LIE (2006), WORLD'S GREATEST DAD (2009), and GOD BLESS AMERICA (2012), Goldthwait has unexpectedly become one of America's boldest and most interesting indie filmmakers and one of the undisputed kings of cringe. He's carved a niche for himself in that field, which makes his delving into found-footage horror a bit perplexing. WILLOW CREEK follows a couple, Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) on an excursion into Trinity National Forest where Bigfoot enthusiast Jim intends to follow the path taken in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the men who claim to have filmed a female Bigfoot on Bluff Creek. Kelly isn't a Bigfoot believer but goes along because it's a hiking trip with her boyfriend. Goldthwait subscribes to the Ti West slow-burn methodology for over half of the running time, but once he finally gets Jim and Kelly in a tent and lets the tension build over a 20-minute uninterrupted take as noises, wailing, growling, and footsteps get closer and closer, WILLOW CREEK really hits its stride. The sequence inside the tent could almost be its own short film and is a textbook example of slow-burn done right. Goldthwait follows the template of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, almost to a fault: someone or something wrecks the camp site and hangs Jim's sock from a tree branch while he takes a swim, and after the tent sequence, the same noises seem to surround them and they end up running in circles (interestingly, BLAIR WITCH co-director Eduardo Sanchez just released his own found-footage Bigfoot opus EXISTS). Those who like concrete explanations probably won't care much for the deliberately ambiguous ending, one that has disturbing implications and expects you to have been paying attention. WILLOW CREEK does a good job of feeling improvised but being very carefully constructed and making early throwaway lines and jokey humor turn out to be quite significant bits of foreshadowing. It's rare these days for a found-footage film to be the kind of movie that prompts discussion and debate, but therein lies the conundrum of WILLOW CREEK: it takes its rightful place among the best that the subgenre has to offer, but it arrives so far beyond fashionably late that it can't really be greeted with anything but a shrug by horror scenesters who, if found footage's waning recent box office numbers are any indication, are getting to be just about over this type of thing (they're cheap to produce and easy to turn a profit, so even with diminishing returns, these movies aren't going anywhere for a while). It's not fair to WILLOW CREEK to judge it by the all the garbage found-footage bottom-feeders that came before it, but one can't help but wonder why Goldthwait decided to make this now. (Unrated, 80 mins)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (1990)

(US - 1990)

Directed by Bob Rafelson. Written by William Harrison and Bob Rafelson. Cast: Patrick Bergin, Iain Glen, Richard E. Grant, Fiona Shaw, Peter Vaughan, Bernard Hill, Roshan Seth, Delroy Lindo, Anna Massey, James Villiers, John Savident, Paul Onsongo, Roger Rees, Adrian Rawlins, Peter Eyre. (R, 136 mins)

Bob Rafelson isn't the first director to come to mind when you think "big-budget epics." Born in 1933, Rafelson got his start as a story editor and writer on various 1960s TV shows before becoming one of the primary creative forces on the TV series THE MONKEES. He directed the group's 1968 feature film HEAD, scripted by his friend Jack Nicholson, and he and business partner Bert Schneider would soon expand their Raybert Productions (the pair produced EASY RIDER) to form BBS Productions with new partner Stephen Blauner. Through BBS, Rafelson also had a hand in producing Peter Bogdanovich's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), Nicholson's first directing effort DRIVE, HE SAID (1971) and Peter Davis' Oscar-winning documentary HEARTS AND MINDS (1974). BBS also handled Rafelson's own directorial efforts like his breakthrough FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972). The company folded after HEARTS AND MINDS, but in this selection of work (all except HEARTS AND MINDS are on the 2010 Criterion set AMERICA LOST AND FOUND: THE BBS STORY), you see key building blocks in 1970s auteurism and the independent film movement with the kinds of intimate, serious, unflinching character studies (HEAD being the exception) for which Rafelson would come to be known. Simply put, Bob Rafelson wasn't the kind of guy who made huge, sweeping, expensive event movies.

Bob Rafelson on the set of MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON
By the time Rafelson began shooting MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON in late 1988, he'd only made two films over the course of the decade: his controversial 1981 remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, with Nicholson and Jessica Lange, and the 1987 suspense thriller BLACK WIDOW, with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. BLACK WIDOW was a rare commercial hit for Rafelson, grossing $25 million and becoming a cable mainstay to this day. Never prolific even in his prime, the now-81-year-old Rafelson has directed only eleven features over the course of his 50-year career--six of which involve Nicholson, the actor with whom Rafelson will always be inextricably linked--and he hasn't made anything since the little-seen 2003 thriller NO GOOD DEED, an updated adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1923 short story The House on Turk Street, with Samuel L. Jackson and Milla Jovovich. The subject of MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON was an interest of Rafelson's since the 1960s and the film was a longtime dream project that he'd been trying to get made since 1980, but never managed to get it off the ground.  That is, until he met Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, the heads of the indie production company Carolco.

Kassar and Vajna's Carolco began as a low-budget outfit producing horror films like THE CHANGELING (1980) and SUPERSTITION (shot in 1982, released in 1985). Carolco's first box office success came with FIRST BLOOD (1982), and would continue throughout the decade with hits like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985), RAMBO III (1988), and RED HEAT (1988) and notorious controversies like Alan Parker's ANGEL HEART (1987). They made a move into critical respectability with Costa-Gavras' MUSIC BOX (1989), which earned an Oscar nomination for Jessica Lange. A film like MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON would be another huge bid at serious artistry that the indie producers wanted, and they were eager to help Rafelson achieve his vision with a budget in the vicinity of $20 million. Considering how many of today's biggest actors and directors see their films going straight to VOD because something's a "flop" if it doesn't gross $75 million in its opening weekend, it's hard to believe there was once a time when producers were willing to give $20 million to Bob Rafelson, an accomplished and acclaimed filmmaker who nevertheless wasn't exactly synonymous with "big box office," to make a personal pet project starring two unknown actors and shot on location in the vast wilderness of Kenya, much like it's hard to believe there was once a time when $20 million was considered "big budget."

Iain Glen as John Hanning Speke
Scripted by Rafelson and William Harrison, from Harrison's 1982 biographical novel Burton and Speke as well as the personal journals of the men at the core of the story, MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON takes place from 1854 to 1864, and chronicles the efforts of explorers Richard Francis Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen) to find the source of the Nile. To do so requires going into the darkest heart of Africa where white men have never journeyed, and Rafelson follows them and their party every grueling step of the way, with hostile tribes, impenetrable terrains, and other life-threatening obstacles, from malaria to a deadly beetle burrowing into Speke's ear and causing him to go partially deaf, to Burton getting a spear thrown through his cheek and later slicing his legs open to combat a crippling bout of cellulitis causing a near-fatal swelling. But, in keeping with Rafelson's style, it's also a very human, character-driven story of two competitive men who shared a mutual respect and kinship, with their differences complementing one another to make them the perfect team. Burton was the scientific one, intellectual and learned (he claims to speak 23 languages), and dedicated to his profession but able to unwind with a rogue-ish, hard-living wild side tamed by the love of the upstanding Isabel Arundell (Fiona Shaw) back home in England. Speke was an ex-military man who made up for his lack of book smarts with his heroic actions, saving Burton's life on a number of occasions throughout their journey. When Burton is stricken with malaria and held captive by a chieftain, Speke goes forward and is convinced he's found the source of the Nile, christening it Lake Victoria. Burton is unconvinced, pointing out that the untrained Speke is barely literate and knows nothing of cartography and measuring coordinates (future historians and medical experts concluded that Speke was most likely dyslexic, a condition not identified or studied until well into the 1880s). A progressive-minded man who doesn't believe white men can "discover" any land that native people are already living on, Burton also has a change of heart during his time in captivity, when he's forced into the mercy-killing of slave Mabruki (Delroy Lindo in his first noteworthy screen role), and doesn't wish to proceed forward, instead dismissing Speke's assertions and calling an end to the expedition and heading back to London.

Patrick Bergin as Richard Francis Burton
By 1861, Burton and Speke are bitter rivals, a wedge driven between them by the abrupt end to the expedition and by the glad-handing Larry Oliphant (Richard E. Grant), an academic who's insanely jealous of Burton and manipulates the impressionable, insecure Speke into turning against him. Both Burton and Speke published their findings, and Speke was given a fully-funded expedition of his own to ascertain that Lake Victoria was indeed the true source. Public opinion sided with Speke, who relished the fame and attention but remained despondent over his and Burton's collapsed friendship. When academia-generated hype forces the two to agree to a very public debate, Burton dreads embarrassing his former friend, and Speke, fearing his intellectual weaknesses and shaky methodology will be exposed, commits suicide. Heartbroken, Burton retires from public life with Isabel as future research and exploration by others concludes that Speke was indeed correct about Lake Victoria.

It's a sweeping, beautiful piece of filmmaking, unlike anything else in Rafelson's filmography, with stunning cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. And of course, it bombed. Carolco productions were being distributed by Tri-Star Pictures, who didn't really know how to sell the film (did they think it was a sci-fi movie?). To many who saw the trailer in 1989, it looked like a then in-vogue Merchant-Ivory costume drama. According to Rafelson in a recent interview with film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Tri-Star executives were more focused on their own GLORY, bumping MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON from the holiday 1989 crop of year-end Oscar contenders to the early 1990 dumping ground. Opening on two screens on February 23, 1990, MOUNTAINS expanded over the next few weeks mainly due to passionate accolades from prominent critics (Siskel & Ebert loved it), but it abruptly flatlined at its widest release on 187 screens when Tri-Star gave up on it and pulled the plug, with a total gross of just $4 million. Perhaps the real, unspoken, underlying reason that Tri-Star didn't get behind the film was that it pretty clearly portrays Speke as gay, with the devious actions of Oliphant done more out of possessive love for him than overt hatred of Burton. There's a scene with a smiling Oliphant caressing an injured Speke's leg and resting his hand on his knee, and Speke smiling back, and while the film doesn't go into explicit details, the message is loud and clear. Though Rafelson doesn't specifically spell out the nature of their relationship, Harrison's research into his novel revealed that Speke and Oliphant's involvement with one another wasn't exactly a closeted secret among their social circle. Perhaps the most telling moment is where Speke comforts a delirious, incoherent Burton, stricken with malaria and the deadly swelling in his legs, with a kiss on the lips that lingers just a little too long. In the context of the scene, Burton has no idea what's happening and doesn't respond, but Speke knows what he's doing and loses himself in the moment, the implication being that Speke secretly wants to take their Victorian-era bromance to the next level.

Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar
in the early days of Carolco
Despite Carolco's success, industry experts said that the company's heavy spending ways wouldn't be able to sustain them forever. Carolco was also dealing with internal struggles at the time, as Kassar and Vajna's partnership had dissolved by November 1989 and Vajna was paid $100 million for his share of the company. He would remain credited on their films released throughout 1990, like MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, AIR AMERICA, TOTAL RECALL, and JACOB'S LADDER, as he was still part of Carolco when they went into production. Kassar would continue Carolco on his own and oversee blockbusters like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), BASIC INSTINCT (1992), CLIFFHANGER (1993), and STARGATE (1994) before the bottom fell out with Paul Verhoeven's SHOWGIRLS (1995) and Renny Harlin's CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), the latter being one of the costliest box office bombs in film history, and one that completely obliterated Carolco. Vajna formed his own production company, Cinergi, but the two would once again join forces for a new venture, C-2 Pictures, that seems to have fizzled in 2009 after an unspectacular run that included the Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson flop I-SPY (2002), TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003), BASIC INSTINCT 2 (2006), and the well-received but short-lived 2008 TV series TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. Neither Kassar (now 63) nor Vajna (now 70) have produced any films since 2009.

Bob Rafelson directing Patrick Bergin
Rafelson went back to work soon after MOUNTAINS sank from view, reuniting with Nicholson for the 1992 romantic comedy MAN TROUBLE, one of the low points of both men's careers. Rafelson and Nicholson teamed once more for 1997's BLOOD AND WINE, a tense noir nailbiter that Fox barely released and once again, one of Rafelson's finest films went nowhere despite a name cast that also included Stephen Dorff, Jennifer Lopez, Judy Davis, and Michael Caine. As a sleazy and terminally ill small-time criminal, Caine turns in one of his best performances in a film that he almost didn't make. Disillusioned with the state of his career after co-starring in Steven Seagal's ON DEADLY GROUND (1994) and doing a pair of low-budget, partially Russian mob-financed Harry Palmer adventures with notoriously corner-cutting producer Harry Alan Towers in 1995, a depressed Caine was seriously contemplating retirement until Rafelson and Nicholson convinced him to give BLOOD AND WINE a shot. Caine got most of the critical accolades and even though nobody saw the movie, it kickstarted a late '90s Caineassaince that resulted in another Oscar for 1999's THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and is presently ongoing. Rafelson then made the 1998 mystery POODLE SPRINGS for HBO, with James Caan as Philip Marlowe, and during this period, directed a few erotic short films and an episode of the Showtime series PICTURE WINDOWS. NO GOOD DEED is his last film to date, as Rafelson appears to have called it a career, instead opting to remain busy in his emeritus years as an interview subject. Rafelson dabbled in various genres, demonstrating a particular affinity for noir as he got older, but MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON remains his most unusual, and in many ways, most personal project.

Because of Speke's introverted personality, a very effective Glen turns in the more internalized performance of the two stars. Glen has stayed consistently busy as a character actor on British TV and in films like LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER (2001) and a couple of RESIDENT EVIL entries, and is probably best known for his current gig as Jorah Mormont on HBO's GAME OF THRONES. But MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON should've made a star of Bergin, and for a while, he was being groomed for the A-list, with Newsweek even declaring him "the next Sean Connery."  The Dublin-born Bergin was relatively inexperienced when Rafelson cast him, with supporting roles in a pair of barely-released Irish films (1988's TAFFIN and 1989's THE COURIER), but Rafelson rightly spotted something in the actor that made him perfect for the larger-than-life Burton. Bergin is absolutely magnetic in the role--alternately dashing, heroic, pompous, romantic, funny, and later, utterly devastating in the scene where he kills Mabruki--and while MOUNTAINS may have been a commercial bomb, it got him on the map with Hollywood executives and industry insiders. He struck gold shortly after when he was cast in 1991's SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY as the psychotic stalker husband of Julia Roberts, just coming off of consecutive Oscar nominations in STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989) and PRETTY WOMAN (1990). He then co-starred with Harrison Ford in PATRIOT GAMES (1992), but other than that, Bergin's Hollywood launch was stalled by one troubled production and box office disaster after another: the comedy/horror film HIGHWAY TO HELL hit a dead end in a handful of theaters in 1992 after three years on the shelf; Lizzie Borden's S&M thriller LOVE CRIMES (1992) was disowned by pretty much everyone involved and earned Bergin's combative co-star Sean Young a Razzie nomination; and the epic MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART (1993) was taken away from director Vincent Ward, re-cut by Harvey Weinstein and dumped by Miramax. Bergin did star in a pair of well-received TV movies--he had the title role in Fox's ROBIN HOOD (1991) and played Dr. Frankenstein opposite Randy Quaid's monster in TNT's FRANKENSTEIN (1992)--that did little for his big-screen career. By the time MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART was playing to empty arthouses, Bergin's career momentum was already at a complete standstill.

Some have blamed it on his hateful character terrorizing America's then-sweetheart Roberts in SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, and others have blamed it on the laughable LOVE CRIMES and his on-set clashes with the notoriously volatile Young. Whatever the cause--bad timing, bad movies, his mustache--Bergin was flatly rejected by American moviegoers in one of the quickest flameouts of a Next Big Thing in Hollywood history. The very industry that was grooming him for stardom now wanted nothing to do with him. By the mid-1990s, he was already a straight-to-video fixture with only occasional theatrical releases like the inane LAWNMOWER MAN 2: BEYOND CYBERSPACE (1996). When he turned up in a supporting role in the Ewan McGregor/Ashley Judd thriller EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (2000), it was actually a surprise to see him on the big screen. In 2002, he had the title role in the low-budget Italian TV miniseries DRACULA. In the years since, Bergin has appeared in some truly awful movies, many of which have never even been commercially released and, of course, was reduced to starring in an Asylum production with SyFy's spoofy SHARK WEEK (2012).  Like Michael Madsen and Tom Sizemore, but to a lesser degree, Bergin's IMDb page shows him appearing in several movies a year, but the last one anyone saw or was even vaguely aware of was when he was 15th-billed in the 2004 Anne Hathaway vehicle ELLA ENCHANTED. What happened to Patrick Bergin?  One look at his work in MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON and it's clear he had what it took to be a major star. Did SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY typecast him and ruin his career? Did he burn some bridges along the way? Did Alan Rickman get all of his roles? How do you go from "the next Sean Connery" to LAWNMOWER MAN 2 in five years?  Whatever the reason, will somebody give this guy a good part? How has he not played a Bond villain by now? How has he never played an eccentric detective on a CBS police procedural?

With a 1999-issued DVD long out-of-print, MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON was recently brought back into the spotlight with an airing on Turner Classic Movies. Nearly 25 years after its release, it's amassed a fervent cult following and has come to be regarded as a forgotten masterpiece. It's one of the last great films of its kind, a relic from a bygone era of grand, majestic, epic adventures in the tradition of David Lean (there's even a brief cameo by Omar Sharif). Reviews at the time compared MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON to Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and John Huston's THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), but despite significant acclaim and raves from those moviegoers who did manage to see it, it simply couldn't overcome the apathy of the executives at Tri-Star. Like other 1980s epics such as Sydney Pollack's OUT OF AFRICA (1985) and Roland Joffe's THE MISSION (1986), MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON showcased arduous location shooting in exotic places in the years just before CGI became the new way to do things. They don't make them like this anymore, and they were rarely making them like this then. With Carolco's CUTTHROAT ISLAND bankruptcy issues, Rafelson isn't even sure who owns MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (though, if it's anything like other Carolco titles from that era, it's most likely Lionsgate, though the logo at the end of the TCM airing indicates that Paramount at least controls the television rights), but 2015 would be the perfect time for a 25th anniversary, special edition Blu-ray release of this tragically neglected film.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: FRONTERA (2014) and SOULMATE (2014)

(US - 2014)

FRONTERA's topical subject matter of immigration and US/Mexico border security leads to a well-acted but nevertheless routine and predictable drama with a late plot twist that almost threatens to turn it into a Paul Haggis version of EL NORTE. Honest, hard-working Miguel (Michael Pena) seeks a better life in America for his pregnant wife Paulina (Eva Longoria) and their young daughter. Sneaking over the border into Arizona with the duplicitous and lazy Jose (Michael Ray Escamilla), the pair run into Olivia (Amy Madigan), a sympathetic woman on horseback who offers them water and a blanket. She tells them she and her husband own the vast swath of land they're on, known as "The Wash," which is so extensive that they're on safe ground for at least another day. In the distance, overlooking the land, three teenagers are gleefully firing warning shots at the illegal immigrants, causing Jose to flee and Olivia to be thrown from the frightened horse. Hearing the shots, her husband Roy (Ed Harris), the recently-retired local sheriff, speeds from their ranch and only gets a few moments to say goodbye before Olivia succumbs to a massive head injury. Roy only sees Miguel leaving the scene and once he's picked up, the new sheriff (Aden Young) is certain they've got their man. The sheriff didn't really conduct much of an investigation, but Roy isn't convinced Miguel is guilty and starts snooping around ("Somebody's gotta do your job for you," he tells his successor), finding shells and casings on his land that corroborate Miguel's version of what happened, but the sheriff will hear nothing of it. Meanwhile, the three teenagers responsible start panicking and one (Seth Adkins) seems destined to crack, and receiving word that Miguel is in jail, Paulina's family pays coyote Ramon (Julio Cesar Cedillo) to take her over the border, which takes the story into altogether new and grim direction.

If anything, director/co-writer Michael Berry and co-writer Luis Moulinet III try to cover too much ground in FRONTERA.  As a result, the film is torn between being a grand statement on border and immigration issues and an intimate drama of two old-school, self-reliant men brought together by an unspeakable tragedy. Pena, who delivers his performance entirely in Spanish (as does Longoria) is good as an upstanding man whose morals only seems to get him in trouble while schemers and criminals like the vicious Ramon always get ahead, and Harris is all steely convincing grit as a hard-edged, modern-day cowboy, but FRONTERA is all over the place. It's scattered and ponderous, and its third-act twist is obvious and completely collapses under any serious scrutiny. OK, follow me here: the just-retired sheriff owns the biggest piece of land in the vicinity (The Wash), and these local, small-town kids specifically say "Let's go to the Wash and shoot at some illegals," but they apparently have no idea that Roy owns it or that the woman on the horse might be Mrs. Roy, who, it's later revealed, was a teacher at the local high school?!  FRONTERA, please! A film with a more focused and hard-hitting statement to make certainly could've made better metaphorical use of the notion of Roy and Miguel bonding and taking that first step toward rebuilding their lives by taking up their shovels and working together to clean the horseshit out of Roy's stable. (PG-13, 103 mins)

(UK - 2014)

Neil Marshall (THE DESCENT, DOOMSDAY) produced this low-key British ghost story for his wife Axelle Carolyn, a sometime actress making her feature writing/directing debut. Avoiding the splattery chaos favored by Marshall in his films and in the occasional GAME OF THRONES episodes he's directed, Carolyn goes quaintly retro, fashioning SOULMATE as something that has a distinct Hammer/Amicus vibe. Light on gore aside from a bloody wrist-slitting in the opening scene, SOULMATE focuses on recently-widowed Audrey (Anna Walton of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY), who's so distraught over her husband Tristan's (Guy Armitage) death in a car crash that she attempts suicide. Checking out of the hospital, she decides to rent a small cottage in the Welsh countryside to clear her head and get back on her feet again. It isn't long before she's hearing strange noises coming from a locked attic room and property manager Theresa (Tanya Myers) and her doctor husband Daniel (Nick Brimble, who played the Monster in Roger Corman's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND) are evasive about it and write it off to "the house settling." Soon after, Audrey starts seeing the spectre of Douglas Talbot (Tom Wisdom), the homeowner who committed suicide in the cottage 30 years earlier. His ghost has been trapped in the house and has never been seen by anyone until Audrey. A friendship forms between the two as Douglas' loneliness is relieved and Audrey finds in Douglas someone who understands the torment of wanting to end one's life. Matters are complicated Audrey tries to convince Theresa and Daniel that Douglas' ghost continues to inhabit the cottage and Theresa, still carrying a torch for Douglas, her lover all those years ago ("I'm well aware that you settled for me when you couldn't have Douglas," Daniel tells his wife), grows jealous of the attention his spirit is giving to Audrey.

As you can see, the story careens into a silly, soap opera direction when it becomes less focused on eerie chills and comes perilously close to becoming a supernatural Harlequin romance. It's too bad, because Carolyn establishes a foreboding, vividly chilly atmosphere in the first half of SOULMATE and has it moving along like the kind of film the alleged new "Hammer Films" should be making. Shot on location in the vast hills and mountains of the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, SOULMATE looks absolutely beautiful and drawn-out scenes like Audrey lying motionless in bed while hearing the floor creak as something slowly moves down the hallway are terrifying. But once Douglas makes his presence known and all the way up to the formation of the Douglas-Audrey-Theresa love triangle, SOULMATE just starts rapidly disintegrating. Perhaps things would've worked a bit better had Wisdom played Douglas more or less resembling himself rather than looking like a ghost in a Benny Hill skit, with his face powdered in white pancake makeup and dark circles drawn around his eyes. It not only undermines the credible performance of Walton but also the film as a whole. Through no fault of Wisdom himself, it's just hard to take anything seriously after he gets a couple of closeups. It does work in Carolyn's favor that she avoids the obvious after what initially looks like a terrible job of telegraphing twists--obviously, you're thinking the cottage is some sort of purgatory and Audrey is alerady dead, and Theresa and Daniel's dog being named Anubis may have you thinking of the Egyptian god whose main duty was escorting souls into the afterlife, but it's some welcome misdirection on Carolyn's part, or just an excuse to put Anubis, the Marshall family dog, into a movie. SOULMATE gets off to a terrific start and really could've been something, but it just starts stumbling and bumbling along to nowhere special. Carolyn obviously has the directing chops to make a serious and enjoyable old-fashioned fright flick, but her script just doesn't get the job done. (Unrated, 104 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)