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)

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