Thursday, November 6, 2014

On DVD/Netflix Instant: NOT SAFE FOR WORK (2014); MERCY (2014); and MOCKINGBIRD (2014)

Indie producer Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions has achieved significant Hollywood success with a hand in such films as the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS, and THE PURGE franchises, as well as SINISTER, THE LORDS OF SALEM, DARK SKIES, and OCULUS among others. Blumhouse titles are typically budgeted between $3 million and $5 million, with name actors taking pay cuts in exchange for a percentage of the profits, which really paid off for Ethan Hawke on SINISTER and THE PURGE. However, that formula isn't working for the actors starring in several Blumhouse titles have been languishing unreleased for quite some time--as long as five years in the case of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY helmer Oren Peli's AREA 51, acquired by Paramount and still awaiting release after being completed in 2009. Joe Carnahan's STRETCH was recently released directly to VOD, and it, along with three buried Blumhouse productions set to be distributed by Universal--NOT SAFE FOR WORK, MERCY, and MOCKINGBIRD--were recently released on DVD exclusively (for now) at Walmart and just this week, began streaming on Netflix Instant. All of these films had nationwide theatrical release dates penciled in at various times, but for a variety of reasons--primarily the claim of exorbitant distribution costs--Universal opted to shelve them until quietly making them available now.

(US - 2014)

A sort-of Hitchcockian OFFICE SPACE, NOT SAFE FOR WORK has been on and off the release schedule since 2012. Directed by veteran journeyman Joe Johnston, no stranger to big movies (1989's HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, 1991's THE ROCKETEER, 1995's JUMANJI, 2001's JURASSIC PARK III) and who, it should be noted, made this right after scoring another blockbuster with 2011's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, NOT SAFE FOR WORK is a tight and fast-moving suspense thriller that, of course, gets dumber as it goes along. Fortunately, with an unusually short 74-minute running time (probably a major reason the theatrical release was nixed), it gallops along briskly enough that its flaws don't really have time to become a problem. Lowly, ambitious paralegal Tom (Max Minghella) screws up one too many times at the pricy law firm where he's employed, and is fired by his boss Emmerich (Christian Clemenson) on the eve of a huge trial involving a pharmaceutical corporation that knowingly put a medication with lethal side effects on the market. After Emmerich sends most of the staff home for the night, Tom ends up staying behind when he notices a well-dressed mystery man (JJ Feild) hanging around the main lobby and exchanging briefcases with another stranger before getting on the elevator to the firm's floor. When the stranger kills an attorney (Molly Hagan), Tom finds his buddy Roger (Tom Gallop) working late and the pair are soon involved in a game of cat-and-mouse as the killer has their floor locked down and mercilessly pursues them through the maze-like office.

It's a refreshingly simple set-up and Johnston is enough of a pro to keep it suspenseful, getting a lot of help from some twisty, snaking camera work by Jonathan Taylor, who handled second-unit duties for Johnston on THE FIRST AVENGER. It does sometimes seem like the film is too short, with some of Roger's behavior left unexplained (why does he react so oddly to Tom telling him he's secretly dating Emmerich's assistant Anna, played by Eloise Mumford) and his potential backstabbing of Tom dropped completely (why is Roger going through Tom's desk?), and it's hard telling what drew Johnston to the project. Perhaps after so many effects-heavy films and behind-the-scenes drama (he also directed 2010's troubled THE WOLFMAN), he just wanted to make something basic and simple with a producer known for being mostly hands-off and letting his directors direct. Buoyed by a terrific performance by Feild (James Montgomery Falsworth in THE FIRST AVENGER), looking and acting like a young Clive Owen as the relentless killer, NOT SAFE FOR WORK is the very defintion of a harmless time killer, unspectacular, slight, and not very inventive, but a polished and entertaining B-movie that's over before it ever has a chance to wear out its welcome. (Unrated, 74 mins)

(US - 2014)

Completed in early 2013, the shelving of MERCY is a bit of a surprise, considering it's based on a Stephen King short story ("Gramma," from his 1985 collection Skeleton Crew, which was made into a Harlan Ellison-scripted episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE in 1986) and stars Chandler Riggs, best known as Carl on THE WALKING DEAD. Riggs is Georgie, a sensitive boy who shares a deep bond with his loving grandmother Mercy (Shirley Knight). When Mercy is incapacitated by a massive stroke, Georgie, his older brother Buddy (Joel Courtney), and their mom Rebecca (Frances O'Connor) move into Mercy's ramshackle home to be her full-time caregivers. No one can figure out why the nursing home didn't want to deal with Mercy, but the townspeople still speak of her in hushed tones, as they have for 45 years, when, as a young mother of triplets, she watched her town drunk husband split his own head open with an axe. Mercy's moods are erratic, she's rarely lucid, and she's prone to shrieks and growls. In one of her seemingly saner moments, she convinces Georgie to replace her medication with saline, which essentially unleashes a demon from within. Screenwriter Matt Greenberg (who also scripted the King adaptation 1408) and director Peter Cornwell (THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT) mostly abandon the Lovecraftian tone of King's story to make MERCY yet another standard-issue demonic possession potboiler. It seems that young Mercy, after several heartbreaking miscarriages, was so desperate to be a mother that she disappeared into the surrounding hills for a night, making a pact with a necromancer called Hastur and returning the next morning pregnant with triplets thanks to spells in something called a "weeping book," the contents of which are invisible until the page is soaked with tears.

There's some interesting and disturbing ideas in King's story and for a while, MERCY is eerily effective and beautifully filmed, especially in some visually striking, almost painterly images of the mountains, hills, and the monstrous-looking trees with twisting branches that surround Mercy's home. Unfortunately, it soon devolves into more modern-day EXORCIST nonsense, made unique only by the bizarre sight of 77-year-old, two-time Oscar nominee Knight going through all the standard possession histrionics (including vomiting into Georgie's face) and doing the herky-jerky RINGU/JU-ON shuffle. By the end, the film just collapses into a smoldering heap of bush-league CGI and utterly incoherent plot developments and, running just a few minutes longer than NOT SAFE FOR WORK, looking very much like a strangely short film that doesn't seem to be all there (Kevin Greutert, director of the last two SAW entries, has an "additional editing" credit).  Also with mumblecore icon Mark Duplass as Georgie's alcoholic, loser uncle, Hana Hayes as "Girl Next Door," Georgie's imaginary friend/guardian angel who appears in times of trouble (shades of THE SHINING's "Tony"), Jack Carter as a nursing home resident terrified by Mercy, and Dylan McDermott, appearing in his second film titled MERCY since 2010, as a local artist/handyman still carrying a torch for Rebecca. (R, 79 mins)

(US - 2014)

Writer/director Bryan Bertino made his debut with 2008's THE STRANGERS, a tense home invasion thriller that many felt heralded the arrival of a major new talent, even if it owed more than a little to the 2006 French film THEM. Then...he disappeared. Bertino probably didn't think it would be six years before his follow-up effort would be released, but MOCKINGBIRD was also shelved by Universal upon its completion in 2012. But unlike STRETCH, NOT SAFE FOR WORK, and MERCY, there's almost nothing redeeming about MOCKINGBIRD. It's sadistic, depressing, and completely derivative, with Bertino ripping off both SAW and himself by basically retro-fitting THE STRANGERS as a found-footage horror film. Set in 1995 for no reason other establishing the lack of wi-fi internet and the ubiquity of smart phones, and to indulge in some shameless pandering to VHS horror hipsters, MOCKINGBIRD has an already running camcorder left on the doorstep of two homes--one belonging to married couple Tom (Todd Stashwick) and Emmy (Audrey Marie Anderson), whose two daughters are at a sleepover with his brother's family, and the other rented by quiet college student Beth (Alexandra Lydon).  They assume it was a contest prize of some sort, and after playing around with them for a while, they notice there's no way to turn it off. Then more gifts arrive--cards telling them they can't stop filming, Polaroids of them sleeping, and a creepy VHS tape warning them that they're being watched. Meanwhile, slovenly loser Leonard (Barak Hardley) is given a package with a camcorder and instructed to don clown makeup and a costume and is sent across town on a series of JACKASS!-style pranks, of course filming himself the whole time as he comes off like an overzealous fan stalking Sid Haig at a horror con. It's obvious that these three parties will cross paths but to what end?

The puppet masters orchestrating the mayhem in MOCKINGBIRD are amazingly efficient and coordinated, creating a camera with an undying battery, sneaking in and out of Tom & Emmy's and Beth's house, breaking windows, banging on the doors, and blaring ominous classical music, all while somehow not drawing the attention of the neighbors, and still having enough time to fill Beth's garage with red balloons in the world's lamest Nena tribute. In no time at all, the film is little more than grating characters screaming and arguing, unfunny comic relief with Leonard in clown garb, and almost non-stop shaky-cam and darkness. There's no scares, because movies like this have you trained to watch the entire frame for a person to appear in the background, then immediately disappear. By the time everything wraps up, you realize that Bertino has made the sophomore slump a self-fulfilling prophecy, looking like a one-trick pony who's done nothing more than remake THE STRANGERS with one of the flimsiest excuses yet for found-footage while adding a little of SAW's impossibly elaborate gamesmanship almost as a bonus lack of inspiration. The best thing than can be said about MOCKINGBIRD--other than the fact that it does indeed, at one point, finally end--is that Bertino offers a knockout opening sequence that gets your attention and creates the impression that this one means business. It doesn't. There's nothing here. (Unrated, 82 mins)

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