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Friday, February 28, 2014

In Theaters: NON-STOP (2014)


NON-STOP
(US/France/UK - 2014)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.  Written by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle.  Cast: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Linus Roache, Anson Mount, Shea Whigham, Lupita Nyong'o, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Frank Deal, Corey Hawkins, Jon Abrahams. (PG-13, 106 mins)

No one expected 2009's TAKEN to turn the now-61-year-old Liam Neeson into the modern-day Charles Bronson and an icon of AARP asskickers (how is he not in EXPENDABLES 3?), but he's carved a niche for himself at a time when most actors his age are settling into character parts and elder statesman roles.  Sometimes, as in the case of Neeson and Kevin Costner, star of last week's 3 DAYS TO KILL, which looks and feels like it was written for Neeson, a good actor can dabble in both.  Neeson's latest is NON-STOP, and a cursory glance at the poster art and the trailer might suggest it's TAKEN ON A PLANE but that's an incorrect assumption.  True, it probably wouldn't exist had TAKEN never happened, but in the hands of underrated director Jaume Collet-Serra, it plays a lot like a Hitchcockian "wrong man" situation in the era of post-9/11 security and technology.  Collet-Serra, a former music video director, has turned into a solid suspense craftsman after an inauspicious debut with the 2005 remake of HOUSE OF WAX, where he was saddled with the then-ubiquitous Paris Hilton in co-starring role.  But even in retrospect, HOUSE OF WAX shows a method to Collet-Serra's madness:  as a filmmaker, he's rooted in the classics, even if HOUSE OF WAX was a dumb remake of a beloved horror film (1953's HOUSE OF WAX, itself a remake of 1933's THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM).  After the barely-seen soccer sequel GOAL II: LIVING THE DREAM (2007), Collet-Serra established his bona fides with 2009's ORPHAN, a BAD SEED-inspired thriller with a deliriously gonzo plot twist that has to be seen to be believed, and 2011's UNKNOWN, his first teaming with Neeson, where the star found himself in the middle of another classic old-school suspense thriller standard:  a man waking up from an accident to find that those closest to him have no idea who he is and that he's being pursued by killers for reasons he doesn't know or can't remember.


NEESON!
Like TAKEN's absent-dad-trying-to-make-good Bryan Mills and THE GREY's suicidal John Ottway, NON-STOP's Bill Marks is another flawed Neeson hero with a certain amount of baggage.  Marks is a Federal Air Marshal with alcohol and money problems.  Of course, his wife and kid are out of the picture and all he's got is his job and he's barely holding on to that.  Haggard and bleary-eyed, Marks boards his latest assignment, a flight from New York to London that's so routine that he thinks nothing of downing a shot beforehand, keeping a flask in his jacket pocket, attempting to order a gin & tonic from flight attendant Nancy (DOWNTON ABBEY's Michelle Dockery), who knows he's on the job and brings him water instead, and occasionally heading to the restroom to smoke.  It's business as usual until Marks gets a text from someone onboard the plane demanding $150 million or a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes.  The spoilers start pretty quickly, so to recount any more of the plot would do a disservice, but with each new development and each new corpse, it becomes clear to Marks--and only Marks--that someone among the passengers is trying to frame him and orchestrate this elaborate scenario as a hijacking by an angry, bitter, paranoid alcoholic who can't be trusted with the lives of innocent people.


NEESON!
There's little new or innovative here, but for a good chunk of its duration, NON-STOP is exactly that in terms of nail-biting suspense.  It's great fun watching an appropriately disheveled-looking Neeson grow increasingly desperate and angry when everyone--the pilot (Linus Roache), a second marshal (Anson Mount), his TSA boss on the ground (Shea Whigham), Jen (Julianne Moore), the woman sitting next to him, and even the sympathetic Nancy--dismisses the situation as Marks' imagination run wild or just presuming he's on yet another bender ("Really, Bill?  How many have you had today?").  When Collet-Serra focuses on these interactions--Marks' frazzled paranoia as he looks more guilty by the minute and loses the confidence of the flight crew (he's eventually denied access to the cockpit after the pilot demands his badge and gun), the increasingly irate passengers plotting to subdue Marks and take over the plane--NON-STOP is tremendously entertaining.  Of course, numerous passengers--a hot-headed, homophobic NYC cop (Corey Stoll), a software programmer (Nate Parker), a nerdy schoolteacher on his way to Amsterdam (Scoot McNairy), a Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally), Jen, who was peculiarly adamant about getting a window seat and was hesitant to discuss her career with Marks, and even the co-pilot (Jason Butler Harner), seen by Marks shiftily whispering to his secret girlfriend Nancy--are presented as possible villains, but all the evidence seems to point to Marks.   Things do grow more implausible, but when done right, that can be part of the fun. 


NEESON!
The plot turns and plot holes that abound late in NON-STOP are a bit too silly and nonsensical to overcome, but what really dampens the finale is the usual shitty CGI.  Again, it's difficult to discuss without spoiling the plot, but it's another case where something that should look spectacular looks like it was taken from a video game on short notice.  Admittedly, my complaining about cut-rate CGI is pretty much beating a dead horse at this point, but there's no reason for AIRPLANE! to have more convincing visual effects in 1980 than NON-STOP does today.  Even a scene on the runway is obviously done with a greenscreen.  Really?  You can't even drag the actors out to a runway and shoot it for real anymore?   Some say it doesn't matter, but when the artifice sticks out like a sore thumb in 2014, it does matter.  Or, if you can't do it for real, can you at least make it look convincing?  It can be done.  You'd be surprised how many streets and backgrounds and buildings in movies and TV are CGI or greenscreen effects.  But when time and care are put into it, you can't tell. The best CGI doesn't draw attention to itself.  I get that CGI is here to stay, but quit half-assing it.  When it stops taking me out of the movie, I'll stop bitching.  Until Collet-Serra basically steps aside to let the CGI team take over, NON-STOP is quintessential post-TAKEN Neeson, right down to the usual "particular set of skills" gravitas inherent in selling-point lines like "I'm not hijacking this plane...I'm trying to save it!" that sound awesome when said by Liam Neeson. It's not perfect, but it's Neeson, he's bellowing, and he's kicking the shit out of people.  Not even some subpar CGI can ruin that.

NEESON!








Wednesday, February 26, 2014

In Theaters: POMPEII (2014)


POMPEII
(Canada/Germany - 2014)

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.  Written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson.  Cast: Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Kiefer Sutherland, Emily Browning, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Sasha Roiz, Currie Graham. (PG-13, 105 mins)

In the 20 years since his 1994 debut SHOPPING, Paul W.S. Anderson has been an unabashedly style-over-substance filmmaker both reviled as a hack and a charlatan and praised as an unsung visionary.  He first gained attention for 1995's video-game adaptation MORTAL KOMBAT, which led to SHOPPING getting a belated US release in 1996 courtesy of Roger Corman.  EVENT HORIZON (1997) and SOLDIER (1998) quickly followed, but it was 2002's RESIDENT EVIL that seems to have set the course for his career.  A hit worldwide, RESIDENT EVIL spawned its own sequel (2004's RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE) that Anderson handed off to the hapless Alexander Witt so he could instead focus on 2004's AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, a botched misfire that proved to the nadir of two legendary franchises, with one of the most tragically prophetic tag lines ("Whoever wins, we lose") ever plastered on a one-sheet.  The miserable AVP essentially killed any momentum Anderson might've had going, and he's been fighting against the backlash since.  Even as the terrifying EVENT HORIZON has found a significant cult following after being met with shrugs 17 years ago, and SOLDIER seems a bit better now than it did then, there hasn't been and likely will not be a reassessment of AVP.  It's a terrible movie with almost no redeeming qualities, but it's well past the time to stop making it Anderson's albatross.


To his credit, Anderson soldiered on with the entertaining DEATH RACE 2000 reboot DEATH RACE (2008).  He stayed peripherally involved with the RESIDENT EVIL films, with Russell Mulcahy (HIGHLANDER) helming 2007's RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, but returned to direct 2010's brilliant RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE, a visual stunner in 3-D on the big screen, with an outstanding Tomandandy score. Anderson's been working exclusively in 3-D since, and he's proven to be one of the few directors to consistently use the frequently superfluous gimmick effectively.  Anderson's 2011 reimagining of THE THREE MUSKETEERS boasted some astonishing production design but no one really needed a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN-inspired take on Dumas, and 2012's RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION was OK but felt like AFTERLIFE leftovers.  Anderson's had moments of greatness in his career but I don't know that I'd go so far as to call him a "visionary."  One term that's often used to describe many of his films is "guilty pleasure," and I've even described them that way myself, as if it's necessary to justify enjoying an entertaining movie.  But it begs the question:  how many guilty pleasures does the guy have to make before he finally gets credit as a capable genre craftsman?


Anderson is back with POMPEII, a spectacular epic that opens in 62 AD with Roman general Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) ordering the massacre of an entire Celtic settlement in Britannia.  One boy, Milo, survives and is immediately abducted by slave dealers.  17 years later, the grown Milo (GAME OF THRONES' Kit Harington) is sold to gluttonous, Nero-like slave owner Graeceus (Joe Pingue) and sent with others to the majestic Pompeii, a city near the base of the mighty Mount Vesuvius.  Milo immediately proves his worth by being a Horse Whisperer of sorts for the kindly Cassia (SUCKER PUNCH's Emily Browning), daughter of spineless Pompeii leader Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss).  He's also pitted against the champion slave warrior Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who's--wait for it--one victory away from winning his freedom (is there any chance they won't set aside their differences and form an unlikely alliance?).  Meanwhile, Severus is dealing with a visit from now-Senator Corvus, who makes it quite clear that he intends to make Cassia his bride despite her obvious feelings for Milo, and all the while, like a giant symbol of the treachery and smoldering passion in the city below, Vesuvius churns, gurgles and burps, the hellfire within ready to boil over and explode, unleashing hell.


POMPEII is a silly and formulaic movie, but it's a lot of fun.  Anderson is a director who uses extensive CGI but he puts care into it, ensuring that it doesn't look cartoonish like, say, Renny Harlin's recent THE LEGEND OF HERCULES.  POMPEII boasts a $100 million budget, and it's pretty much all up there on the screen.  While the CGI is unavoidable, there's also elaborate sets that really lend legitimate atmosphere and help convey the feeling of an ancient era.  It still doesn't look as good as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or SPARTACUS, but this is another time and for better or worse, CGI is just how it's done now, and to Anderson's credit, he doesn't cut corners in the visual presentation.  The storyline and character arcs offer little in the way of surprises, but true to his style-over-substance methods, Anderson makes sure the audience gets what it came for:  action, fight scenes, romance, outstanding visual effects, and even some humor (watch one particularly loathsome character get hit with a fireball that Vesuvius seems to be aiming right at him).  Harington and Browning aren't the most dynamic leads and Moss has almost nothing to do, but veteran character actor Akinnuoye-Agbaje steals every scene he's in and he and Harington convincingly convey the camaraderie and mutual respect in their newly-formed alliance.  They aren't quite Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in SPARTACUS, but they do a nice job.  The biggest misstep POMPEII makes is the horrible miscasting of Sutherland as Corvus.  Given the pulpy nature of the project, Corvus is a character that doesn't demand full-blown self-parody but really needs some over-the-top scenery-chewing.  Sutherland seems torn between playing it straight and hamming it up and ends up somewhere in an inert middle that never really works.  If you're going to play a preening, pompous Roman senator and you opt to use a lisp and a vaguely Irish brogue, then you may as well just completely throw yourself into it.  Ultimately, Sutherland never looks comfortable and his stilted performance--a Razzie nomination is inevitable--comes off like he's doing a restrained, monotone impression of Dr. Evil's ancient Roman ancestor.  Not since Jason Robards' deer-in-the-headlights portrayal of Brutus in 1970's JULIUS CAESAR has a good actor come off so badly in this type of setting.


If you aren't a fan of Anderson's past work, this isn't likely to change your opinion, but if you can take his films at face value and just appreciate his newest effort for the commercial genre fare that it is, POMPEII makes for a good guilty ple...uh, I mean, entertaining popcorn movie that you shouldn't have to concoct excuses for enjoying.


On DVD/Blu-ray: ICE SOLDIERS (2014) and RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE (2014)

ICE SOLDIERS
(Canada - 2014)

If you can imagine SHOCK WAVES caught in the Polar Vortex and paired with UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, but brought down by sluggish pacing and lackluster greenscreen and CGI, then you've got a pretty good idea of how ICE SOLDIERS plays out.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, while America is focused on Cuba, the Russians have deployed three genetically-engineered super soldiers to launch a terrorist attack on NYC.  But their plane crashes in the barren tundra of northernmost Canada and they're discovered by some scientists at a nearby military base, who are promptly killed as the "Ice Soldiers" vanish in the endless, frozen wilderness.  50 years later, scientists Malraux (Dominic Purcell) and Lobokoff (Nicu Branzea) get funding from an oil company to ostensibly drill for crude but really to search for the Ice Soldiers, who Malraux believes are still at large.  Also along are micro-managing oil company ballbuster Frazer (Camille Sullivan), who hired a crew of money-hungry crew of mercenaries led by Col. Trump (the great Michael Ironside).  With a blizzard on the way, Frazer and Trump call an early end to the expedition until Malraux discovers the frozen bodies of the three Ice Soldiers who, miraculously, still show faint signs of life.  Frazer and Trump see endless riches but Malraux has a change of heart and tries to terminate the life support for the Ice Soldiers, who proceed to kill everyone but Malraux and again escape.  On his own in the middle of nowhere, Malraux encounters Native American TC Cardinal (Adam Beach) and hires him to help track the Ice Soldiers, who have retained their intelligence and still plan to go forth with their half-century-old plan of attacking NYC.


Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson (BEOWOLF & GRENDEL) and written by Jonathan Tydor (I COME IN PEACE), ICE SOLDIERS gets off to a decent start and gets a lift from an enjoyably growly Ironside in vintage "Michael Ironside" mode.  Even Purcell is better than usual and the film has some amusingly goofy asides, like the Ice Soldiers commandeering an SUV and discovering their affinity for rap music and trashy women.  But with 90% of the cast killed off by the midway point, the pace slows significantly and Gunnarsson and Tydor fall victim to clichés and plot convenience.  Of course Cardinal has a drinking problem.  And when the trail of the Ice Soldiers leads Malraux and Cardinal to the nearest town, they're immediately arrested for no reason other than increasing the body count when the dumb--and soon-to-be dead--cops don't buy their story.  By the time Malraux brawls it out with the lead Ice Soldier (Gabriel Hogan), it's very likely that you'll be as checked out of this as its makers. (R, 95 mins)


RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE
(US - 2014)

There's a sharp satirical bite to the concept behind this faux-documentary from NYC-based British indie filmmaker Ashley Cahill.  Filmed in 2010 under the title CHARM and shown on the festival circuit under that title as well as MALCOLM before its current rechristening, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE stars writer/director/producer/editor Cahill as Malcolm, a seemingly affable Manhattan doorman who moonlights as a serial killer whose exploits are being chronicled by documentary filmmaker Bob (Dominic Ciccodicola).  Citing Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and Scorsese's MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER as influences (and dedicating the film to Samuel Fuller), Cahill's biggest debt is probably owed to Remy Belvaux's MAN BITES DOG as Malcolm sets out to avenge the gentrification of NYC and return it to its sleazy and dangerous glory days of the '70s and '80s.  AMERICAN PSYCHO-as-a-mockumentary wears a little thin after a while and Cahill falls victim to intermittent self-indulgence, but there's a lot of genuinely sick laughs throughout, whether Malcolm is confronted with such offenses as homeless people asking for his pizza but complaining because it's not vegetarian ("You're a bum, you're begging for food and you won't eat meat?  What happened to this city?"), vacuous poseurs who wear homemade Truffaut and Godard tees but don't appreciate Clint Eastwood and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER ("Is that the one with the monkey?" someone asks), vegans, thumb rings, movie theater texters ("Do you know how difficult it is to get a film released?  Have some respect for the cinema!"), and trendy bands ("If I could kill any band in the world, it would be Kings of Leon").   There's also some hints at sly meta commentary on battles between producers and directors when Malcolm starts clashing with Bob over the goals of the documentary and the direction in which it's heading.  Cahill doesn't really explore the ramifications of his actions until an admittedly inspired finale that feels like TAXI DRIVER if rewritten by Larry David.  Not everything in RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE works and it ultimately feels like a drawn-out MAN BITES DOG tribute as seen through the lens of a trust-fund Abel Ferrara, but when it works--which is more often than not--it works well, and I liked the vibe that Cahill captures amidst the jarring mix of laugh-out-loud humor and shocking violence.  As an actor, he comes off as an odd and funny combination of Stephen Merchant and William Fichtner.  Also with Dustin Hoffman's dead ringer son Jake as a gun dealer and a cameo by Cahill pal Kirsten Dunst as herself.  Co-produced by Wes Craven's son Jon. (Unrated, 87 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)


Note: though in English, this is the French trailer for the film, hence the "Un Film de Ashley Cahill," which is not some pretentiously douchey stab at humor on his part.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: WITCHBOARD (1986)


WITCHBOARD
(US - 1986)


Written and directed by Kevin S. Tenney.  Cast: Todd Allen, Tawny Kitaen, Stephen Nichols, Rose Marie, Kathleen Wilhoite, Burke Byrnes, J.P. Luebsen, James W. Quinn, Judy Tatum. (R, 98 mins)

With countless iconic slasher films and monster movies with then-state of the art makeup effects to cut their teeth on, horror fans who came of age in the '80s are perhaps the most sentimental about their movies.  But with that comes the risk of being sentimental for the era rather than the movies themselves.  There's no doubt that the '80s were a great time to be a horror fan, but--and we're all guilty of it--sometimes we champion films today that play a lot better in our memories than they do in present-day reality.  Sometimes this nostalgia backfires and you find something you held dear really isn't all that good.  Do you leave it alone or do you risk taking another look?  I hadn't seen 1986's WITCHBOARD since perhaps 1990. I had no strong affinity for it but recall it being a competently-done B-movie from back in the day.  It was recently released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory and I decided to give it another look after approximately 25 years.




Shot in the summer of 1985 and given a limited release at the end of 1986 (I assume to build word-of-mouth momentum and not to qualify for the Oscars) before expanding nationwide in March 1987, WITCHBOARD, written and directed by a debuting Kevin S. Tenney, became a surprise hit in theaters and was an even bigger success in video stores.  Children of the '80s have held it near and dear to their hearts and it's become a genuine cult classic over the years.  Of course, this is due not just to the film itself but also the short-lived pop culture phenomenon that was Tawny Kitaen.  The sexy redhead had a few films under her belt, most notably playing Tom Hanks' fiancée in BACHELOR PARTY (1984) and starring in the softcore cable favorite THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK YAK (also 1984).  She was also a noted "video vixen" of the hair metal era, appearing on the cover of Ratt's 1984 album Out of the Cellar, as well as a couple of their videos, in addition to dating Ratt guitarist Robbin Crosby.  But it was 1987 that proved to be Kitaen's breakout year with both WITCHBOARD and her involvement with Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale.  The pair became an item after Kitaen appeared in several of the band's videos and were married from 1989 to 1991.  Kitaen's fame was fleeting, and by the early '90s and onward, her acting gigs were sporadic while her tabloid notoriety increased due to a drug bust, a DUI, later accusations of spousal abuse by her second husband, major league baseball pitcher Chuck Finley, and, perhaps most cringe-inducing, a several-year fling with O.J. Simpson that apparently dated back to her WITCHBOARD days (on the bonus features, crew members recall Simpson's frequent calls to the production office and visits to Kitaen's trailer) and through her marriage to Coverdale.  All things considered, it was inevitable that Kitaen would end up on trashy reality shows like THE SURREAL LIFE and CELEBRITY REHAB, but looking back, she does an alright job in WITCHBOARD.  She's no great actress by any stretch, but she's got a presence that's both seductive and wholesomely appealing in equal measures.  She clearly got sucked into the L.A. fast lane, though let's place the blame where it probably lies:  O.J. Simpson.


Anyway, how does WITCHBOARD hold up?  Fairly well.  Some of it is obviously dated (check out Steel Breeze's closing credits tune "Bump in the Night"), some of the smartass quips Tenney supplies his actors with are real groaners (when told he's rude, the hero huffs "I got a D in manners!"), some attempts at humor fall embarrassingly flat (what's with Burke Byrnes' detective teaching himself to juggle?), and the "falling" effect used in the climax (hooking star Todd Allen up to a rig and slowly pushing him out of a second story window and lowering him onto a car) is laughable.  But Tenney does a commendable job with cheap jump scares and building suspense.  There's always an inherent unease in any situation where people are communicating with spirits and Tenney handles these elements like an experienced pro.  All hell breaks loose when Linda (Kitaen) starts putzing around with a Ouija board left at her house after a party by her ex-boyfriend Brandon (Stephen Nichols, then a popular star of DAYS OF OUR LIVES).  Brandon and Linda were communicating with David, the spirit of a murdered eight-year-old boy, much to the dismissive derision of her boyfriend Jim (Allen) and his blue collar buddies.  Using the Ouija board on her own, Linda thinks she's communicating with David, thus ignoring Brandon's warnings to never do the Ouija alone and that spirits often lie.  It turns out she's communicating with the spirit of axe murderer Malfeitor (J.P. Luebsen), who then uses Linda as a portal to re-enter the world and off those closest to her.


One thing that's legitimately surprising in WITCHBOARD (other than the presence of '60s TV star Rose Marie as Linda's landlady) is the little bait-and-switch Tenney pulls with the two male leads.  It's established that the two were once best friends who became bitter enemies when Linda started dating Jim.  When introduced as "Brandon Sinclair of the Sinclair Vineyards," there's practically a flashing neon sign that Nichols' character is going to be a stuffy, condescending asshole and a sort-of James Spader prototype, if you will.  But as the film proceeds, Brandon emerges as the sympathetic voice of reason who's acting in Linda's best interests while Jim comes off as an increasingly abrasive prick.  I'm even willing to entertain the possibility that the dismal one-liners that Tenney gives to Allen's Jim are intentionally so, as if to illustrate that Jim is a smug dick who isn't nearly as funny as he thinks he is (Tenney has said that he based Jim on his own personality, so interpret that how you will).  Additionally, once Linda starts showing signs of possession--what Brandon calls "progressive entrapment"--Kitaen is essentially relegated to the background while Jim and Brandon set aside their differences to find out what's happening to her.  Another big surprise is how little screen time Luebsen has as Malfeitor.  In the two and a half decades since I last watched this, his grinning, axe-wielding visage is really the only thing I recalled, with the possible exception of Kathleen Wilhoite (who had just teamed up with Charles Bronson in MURPHY'S LAW) totally Wilhoiting it up as a medium with her "psychic humor."  What a shock to see that he's onscreen for a total of maybe five seconds in a dream sequence where Linda sees herself being decapitated.  It's such an effective shock, and Luebsen is made up in such a memorably creepy fashion that his appearance, however brief, really sticks with you.


WITCHBOARD isn't as stylish as a lot of its contemporaries but it works well within the confines of its budget.  It often looks like a TV-movie, but the score by Dennis Michael Tenney (the director's brother) has a nice Italian horror feel to it that lends the film some big-screen personality.  Of course, the murder scenes are nicely splattery but not too over-the-top.  As far as '80s horror classics go, it's no FRIDAY THE 13TH or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but WITCHBOARD proves to be a case where, other than the hair and the fashions, time has generally been kind.  It's harmless, cheesy fun that never takes itself too seriously but is refreshingly lacking the sense of ironic self-consciousness that would permeate it if it were made (or, God forbid, remade) today.  That sense of fun is infectious on the Blu-ray's newly-recorded commentary track with Tenney, Nichols, Wilhoite, and co-star James D. Quinn (who plays Jim's buddy, an early Malfeitor victim).  They share a lot of production memories and get a lot of laughs out of the big cordless phones, the big answering machines, and Kitaen's big hair ("She looks like a lion!"), but they do have a tendency to have so much fun that they're sometimes reduced to just giggling.  There's quite a bit of vintage on-set interviews and a making-of,  plus a commentary track with Tenney and the producers that was ported over from Anchor Bay's DVD from a decade ago.  There's also a newly-filmed, 45-minute retrospective titled "Progressive Entrapment" that features all the main players, including Allen reminiscing about Kitaen's "great bod and great boobs," Luebsen, who now actually looks like Malfeitor, and likably self-deprecating comments by Nichols, Wilhoite ("I was gonna be a rock star, I was gonna win Academy Awards!"), and Quinn ("Looking back twenty-some years...long hair, sunglasses on all the time...what was I thinking?"). Kitaen, who's had some cosmetic work done, also appears through the Barbara Walters/Diane Sawyer lens filter.  The extras on this release are seemingly bottomless, and with the HD transfer making it look as good as it possibly can, this is as close as WITCHBOARD fans will get to a Criterion-level package.


"This Time, It's Not a Sequel"
WITCHBOARD was successful enough that it made Tenney a "name" B-lister for several years.  His 1988 film NIGHT OF THE DEMONS has enjoyed a similar cult following, and he directed the Robert Forster/Robert Davi sci-fi outing PEACEMAKER in 1990.  In 1989, Tenney made WITCHTRAP, which featured Luebsen, Quinn, and others who had smaller bits in WITCHBOARD, plus cult horror favorite Linnea Quigley.  It wasn't a sequel to WITCHBOARD but everyone did their damnedest to make it appear so.  Magnum Entertainment's VHS box boasted artwork that blatantly imitated WITCHBOARD's but also contained a stipulation that "This film is not a sequel to WITCHBOARD."  Tenney delivered a belated official sequel with 1993's WITCHBOARD 2: THE DEVIL'S DOORWAY, which featured no returning cast members.  Tenney scripted 1995's WITCHBOARD: THE POSSESSION, but handed directing chores off to Peter Svatek.  Tenney's career seems to be more or less on hiatus as his last film of note--and dubious note at that--is the straight-to-video, Charlie Sheen-less sequel ARRIVAL II (1998).  He hasn't made a film since the PG-rated, family-friendly teen movie BIGFOOT (2009), where the title creature appears to be the tattered remains of a HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS costume that Tenney found in a dumpster on the Universal backlot.

Friday, February 21, 2014

In Theaters: 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014)

3 DAYS TO KILL
(France/US - 2014)


Directed by McG.  Written by Adi Hasak and Luc Besson.  Cast: Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Tomas Lemarquis, Richard Sammel, Eriq Ebouaney, Raymond J. Barry, Marc Andreoni, Bruno Ricci. (PG-13, 115 mins)

Luc Besson didn't put forth much effort in the construction of his latest Paris-based actioner 3 DAYS TO KILL.  The whole thing feels like a cut-and-paste job comprised of elements pilfered from past Besson projects like THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), TRANSPORTER 2 (2005), TAKEN (2009), and FROM PARIS WITH LOVE (2010).  Just a month after we saw him playing the mentor role to the inexperienced titular hero in JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, 59-year-old Kevin Costner tries to horn in on Liam Neeson's aging action hero turf but it doesn't work nearly as well.  TAKEN was a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon, a surprise blockbuster that was almost sent straight-to-DVD before Fox decided to dump it in US theaters a year after its European release.  Neeson's career was in a commercial slump and nobody expected much from it.  Instead, it became a genuine word-of-mouth hit--something we don't see much of anymore--and it revitalized Neeson's career, making him more popular than ever and now, at 61, he can still be counted on for a TAKEN knockoff almost annually (NON-STOP, aka TAKEN ON A PLANE, is out next week).  With his "very particular set of skills," everything just fell into place for Neeson with TAKEN.  Costner tries, but doesn't quite pull off the "dangerous badass" bit, though with his character's gravelly voice and his grumpy, sardonic demeanor throughout, he almost approximates what might've happened if the Clint Eastwood of 20 years ago ended up in a Luc Besson joint.


But Costner's not the problem with 3 DAYS TO KILL.  With the possible exception of WATERWORLD, he's never really done the "indestructible action hero" thing and seems to be enjoying himself and his paid Paris vacation.  Costner is Ethan Renner, a covert CIA operative with a nagging cough who lets a pair of targets--Eurotrash terrorist The Wolf (Richard Sammel) and his right-hand man The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis)--slip away during a botched assignment in Belgrade.  While hospitalized, tests show that Ethan is terminally ill with brain cancer that's spread to his lungs.  Given three months to live, he decides to quit the business and spend what little time he has left reconnecting with his estranged wife Tina (Connie Nielsen), who works in Paris, and teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld, from the TRUE GRIT remake).  It's easier said than done, since they're not pleased that he essentially abandoned them for his job five years earlier (Zooey thinks he's a salesman), but especially when he's hounded by sultry CIA assassin Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), who demands that he finish the job.  She even offers him an experimental cancer treatment that might extend his life.  The Wolf and The Albino tried to set off a dirty bomb in Belgrade and Vivi has tracked them to Paris, conveniently enough.  But when Tina goes away on business for the weekend, Ethan is left to take care of Zooey for three days, which really interferes with his ability to knock off this One Last Job.


Brainless action flicks can be a blast when done right and for a while, under the direction of CHARLIE'S ANGELS hack McG, 3 DAYS TO KILL zips along just fine.  But then it starts exhibiting some of the same problems that plague many recent Besson works (especially last year's THE FAMILY) in that he can't settle on a tone or style and the whole thing ends up feeling like a patched-together jumble.  3 DAYS TO KILL is an action thriller, a slapstick comedy, disease-of-the-week melodrama, and sappy daddy/daughter weepie all awkwardly crammed into one.  Costner's crankiness provides some amusement (when confronted with one intentionally trite bit of dialogue, he growls "Did you really just say that to me?"), but his scenes with Steinfeld feel forced and never ring true.  Sloppy editing doesn't help--after they have a huge blow-up, there's a cut to him showing her how to ride a bike like nothing ever happened.  A lot of time is devoted to Ethan shaking down a pair of Wolf flunkies--driver Mitat (Marc Andreoni) and accountant Guido (Bruno Ricci)--with ripped-off armpit hair and car battery-cables-on-the ears torture scenes played for laughs.  There's also a "heartwarming" subplot that has Ethan bonding with a family of squatters led by wise patriarch Jules (Eriq Ebouaney, best known as the killer Black Tie in De Palma's FEMME FATALE) who have taken up residence in his Paris apartment.  There's also time for Ethan rescuing Zooey from an attempted gang rape at a rave where McG winkingly restages a famous image from THE BODYGUARD, plus a strange scene where Ethan teaches Zooey how to slow dance to Bread's "Make it With You" in a moment that invokes the kind of squirming discomfort not seen since Michael Bluth and Maeby Fünke sang "Afternoon Delight" on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.


All of this could be entertaining if Besson could settle on what movie he was telling McG to make.  The film often feels like it's been edited at random and may very well have been victimized by post-production reshoots and restructuring.  There's a few scenes where the pitch of actors' voices change and the dialogue doesn't match their lip movements.  Heard sounds dubbed in a lot of her scenes.  She's pretty terrible here in the latest failed attempt to make Amber Heard happen.  It doesn't help that Besson and McG have no idea what to do with her, so they just let her periodically drop in, preen, and strut in a variety of wigs and provocative outfits and flirt with Costner.  She's basically another incarnation of Kate Nauta's memorably lethal killer in TRANSPORTER 2, but Heard isn't believably intimidating, has no screen presence, and is all vamping and smirks.  She looks stunning but there's nothing else there (imagine how much fun someone like Besson's ex-wife Milla Jovovich would've been in this role). You could argue that she doesn't feel like she belongs in the film, but you could say that about every subplot that's randomly inserted by the filmmakers.  McG also gets careless when it comes to covering Costner's stunt double, including one badly-blocked fight scene where "Costner" is only shown from the shoulders down with occasional cuts to close-ups of his face in what feels like an homage to the last decade of Steven Seagal's career.


Despite some good work by Costner, it's doubtful 3 DAYS TO KILL will lead to future endeavors for him as a Neeson-esque asskicker for the Social Security set.  He's credible in the part and looks much younger than a guy pushing 60, but Costner is an actor whose heroic characters have always been more the pensive, earnest, introspective sort.  3 DAYS TO KILL gives him a nice change of pace but it fails to play to his strengths (though, to its credit, an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower isn't accompanied by the caption "Paris").  Of course, Neeson wasn't an action guy either until TAKEN happened to make him one, but by this point in time, it's a formula that's getting too predictable to even function as time-killing comfort food.  From the moment 3 DAYS TO KILL's trailer bowed a few months back, it was obvious that this was "Kevin Costner's TAKEN."  The busy actor (who was also very good in last year's disappointing MAN OF STEEL) will next be seen as the beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns in Ivan Reitman's football saga DRAFT DAY, due out in April, putting Costner back in his familiar BULL DURHAM/TIN CUP/FOR LOVE OF THE GAME sports stomping ground that's always been a proven winner with his fans.  But second-rate action movies with Amber Heard?  He's getting too old for this shit.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On Blu-ray: THE COUNSELOR: UNRATED EXTENDED CUT (2013)

THE COUNSELOR: UNRATED EXTENDED CUT
(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Ridley Scott.  Written by Cormac McCarthy.  Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Sam Spruell, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Goran Visnjic, Natalie Dormer, Richard Cabral, Richard Brake, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. (Unrated, 138 mins)

Over the course of his lengthy career, Ridley Scott has been one of the key figures in the advent of the "director's cut," largely from his experiences with 1982's BLADE RUNNER.  Scott famously clashed with the producers and for a decade, the version of the film that everyone knew was despised by both Scott and star Harrison Ford.  Then, in 1992, the Director's Cut was released, only it wasn't a true "director's cut" in the sense that Scott, then busy filming 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, wasn't directly involved in the project, which was assembled based on his notes and what was known to be his original ending.  It was close, but not quite a director's cut, though it went a long way in establishing the film as the classic we know today and prompted many critics who dismissed the film in 1982 to reconsider it.  In 2007,  Scott was able to make subtle changes and "The Final Cut" finally provided fans with the BLADE RUNNER its maker always intended.  Scott had similar, though much less drawn-out, experiences with Universal over the 1985 fantasy epic LEGEND.  The studio sat on the film for a year and finally released it in 1986 with a different score and 30 minutes cut out.


Years later, DVD and Blu-ray editions of LEGEND featured both the uncut European version (Scott's cut) and the butchered US version, and the 2007 BLADE RUNNER set featured four (!) versions, with a deluxe box set containing a fifth, the pre-release workprint version.  These two films are the prime examples of Scott's director's cuts being used to right what he considered a wrong.  After the 2003 "Director's Cut" of his 1979 classic ALIEN, Scott refrained from using the term "director's cut" because he felt it implies that the director is unhappy with the previously released version.  Scott still considers the 1979 ALIEN the definitive version, but only offered the "director's cut" because fans wanted to see the legendary cut footage of the cocooned Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) being used as food for the alien.  Both characters were simply killed off in the '79 version after Scott opted to ditch the "cocoon" feeding angle.  On the DVD, Scott explains that both versions are being offered and people don't have to worry that their preferred cut is being "replaced."  He basically says "They're both here...watch the one you want to watch."  That's been Scott's philosophy with the DVD and eventual Blu-ray presentations of most of his work after that.  GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), and ROBIN HOOD (2010) all have "extended versions" included alongside the standard editions.   Sometimes, the changes help--KINGDOM OF HEAVEN's extended version adds 45 minutes that really do enhance and enrich the film--while other times, it's inessential.  The 19 minutes added to AMERICAN GANGSTER add little to the film other than superfluous bloat.  Scott doesn't offer these alternate cuts to illustrate dissatisfaction but rather, just as a bonus for fans.  They're scenes or plot threads he decided not to use, but if you're so inclined, here's what the film looked like at one point.  In most cases, Scott's extended versions serve as the cut before the final cut.  Oddly, the one recent film of Scott's that feels compromised in its released version and really does warrant a director's cut is 2012's PROMETHEUS, and it has yet to materialize other than a handful of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray.


Scott's 2013 film THE COUNSELOR was just released on Blu-ray with both the 117-minute theatrical version (reviewed here) and a 138-minute "unrated extended cut."  The film opened to some of the most toxic reviews of the year in what quickly became a ludicrous pile-on, culminating in numerous blurbs that it was the worst movie of the year, with Salon's Andrew O'Hehir going even further than that by declaring, in a stunning example of over-the-top hyperbole that should effectively prevent him from ever being taken seriously again, "Meet the worst movie ever made."  Audiences despised it and the film scored a D on the witless CinemaScore.  But then, something odd happened, and it happened quickly.  Buzz started spreading around the internet that THE COUNSELOR wasn't nearly as bad as the reviews suggested and that, if approached with an open mind and an appreciation for the work of novelist Cormac McCarthy, making his screenwriting debut, it proved a rewarding experience.  By the end of its second, and in most of the country, last week of release, it had already transformed from much-maligned box-office bomb to a genuine cult film that didn't get a fair shake from critics.  I was discussing THE COUNSELOR with a friend on Facebook recently and someone commented "Were the critics watching the movie or were they watching each other?"


As I stated in my original review from October 2013, THE COUNSELOR is a mess but it's a fascinating mess.  If you didn't like the theatrical version, then there's little chance that the extended cut will change your feelings.  Given the verbose nature of what we've already seen, the bulk of the additional 21 minutes primarily consist of dialogue, something which the theatrical cut of THE COUNSELOR certainly wasn't lacking (some of the scenes in the late-going occur in a slightly different order as well).  There's some additional dirty talk during the opening with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in bed.  There's a long monologue for Bruno Ganz as the Amsterdam diamond dealer.  There's a new intro for drug-running motorcyclist The Green Hornet (Richard Cabral), who tells a joke about dog food and "licking your balls."  The already-infamous "Cameron Diaz fucks a car" sequence is augmented by some additional graphic details from Javier Bardem.  The death of one major character is much gorier in the extended version.  None of these scenes really add any depth to the film, and though Ganz is terrific in his additional footage, you can see it's one of those scenes that an experienced director of Scott's caliber could see wasn't really essential.  The same goes for a comical throwaway scene of one of Bardem's cheetahs crashing a neighbor's backyard barbecue.


Aside from the additional 21 minutes (the extended cut is only available on the two-disc Blu-ray set, with the theatrical version on the other disc), the highlight of the second disc is the documentary/visual essay "Truth of the Situation: Making THE COUNSELOR."  Described as an "immersive experience" and running a whopping 216 minutes, "Truth" covers just about anything a fan of THE COUNSELOR would want to know.  It's part audio commentary with Scott, with the extended version of the film frequently intercut with corresponding behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews.  Scott is blunt about what works and what doesn't (the extended cut contains a gratuitous and unconvincing shot of one character's severed head and Scott says "I think I'm glad I cut that"), and it's the kind of extra usually reserved for something along the lines of a Criterion release, a fascinating journey inside a film whose tattered reputation was already on the mend before it even left theaters.


Scott seems to be of the opinion that he's happy with the theatrical version, and I'd probably go that route on future viewings.  It's a film of odd rhythms and heavy dialogue that requires patience, and with the 21 minutes added to the extended cut, things do get occasionally tedious.  Admirers of THE COUNSELOR--a continually growing lot--will want to check out the extended cut and the absolutely essential "Truth of the Matter," which will only expand their appreciation of one of 2013's strangest and most misunderstood major-studio releases.  And, like Scott has said in the past:  both versions are here...choose the one you prefer. 



Friday, February 14, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: HAUNTER (2013); ENOUGH SAID (2013); and HOW I LIVE NOW (2013)


HAUNTER
(Canada/France - 2013)


Detroit-born, Canada-based filmmaker Vincenzo Natali's place in the cult movie pantheon was established with his 1997 debut CUBE, but he's largely maintained a low-profile since.  CUBE spawned two inferior follow-ups sans Natali, who instead went on to the mandatory unpleasant Miramax experience with the long-shelved CYPHER (dumped on DVD in the US in 2005, four years after it was shot), and then the quirky character piece NOTHING (2003), and a segment in 2006's PARIS, JE T'AIME.  He returned to big-screen sci-fi with 2009's bonkers SPLICE, which proved a little too odd for the summer multiplex crowd, which brings us to his latest film, the ghost story HAUNTER.  It's refreshingly old-school in its restrained approach, but it has some genuine scares, a sense of unease throughout, and a strong lead performance from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Oscar-nominee Abigail Breslin.  Breslin is Lisa, a gothy teen in 1985 who seems condemned to live the same GROUNDHOG DAY-type scenario every single day.  She lives with her parents (Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden) and little brother (Peter DaCunha), and every day begins the same way, as they eat the same meals, do the same chores, and have the same arguments as Mom asks the same questions and Dad perpetually works on a car that just won't start.  The phone is dead and the house is surrounded by thick fog.  Only Lisa seems to realize that they're all dead and stuck in some sort of purgatory.  Lisa uncovers clues in hidden doors and in the attic, and is visited by an ominously spectral "Pale Man" (a terrifying Stephen McHattie) who warns her to accept that she's dead and to stop trying to contact the living.  Lisa has been somehow been summoned by the one of the house's present-day occupants, a teenage girl (Eleanor Zichy) whose father (David Hewlett) is seemingly possessed by the Pale Man, a serial killer who lived in the house prior to Lisa's family moving in.  His victims' souls are trapped in the house, kept from rest by the vengeful Pale Man, but Lisa must find a way to cross over into the real world to prevent history from repeating itself with the family now occupying the house.


Natali and screenwriter Brian King (the pair previously collaborated on CYPHER) are wearing a lot of influences on their sleeves here.  Not just GROUNDHOG DAY and THE OTHERS, but THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE SHINING, and a little of the 1988 cult classic LADY IN WHITE, and a lot of Lucio Fulci's THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY with its children reaching out to the living in a cursed house inhabited by a murderer who wreaks supernatural havoc on each new set of tenants.  With its foggy surroundings, Natali blankets the film in an almost Euro-horror sheen with some unabashed Spielbergian sentimentality.  Other than some cheap, TV-movie-looking visual effects, HAUNTER comes across like the kind of film that could've been made in the 1980s.  While the effects are disappointingly-executed at times and Natali goes for some tired RINGU-type ghost action in the finale, HAUNTER succeeds on style and atmosphere and some solid acting all around, particularly Breslin and McHattie.  It's not quite THE HAUNTING or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, but for the most part, it's a nicely low-key and pleasantly surprising little throwback horror film that just fell through the cracks and deserves to find an audience.  (Unrated, 97 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)


ENOUGH SAID
(US/UK - 2013)


Since her 1996 breakthrough WALKING AND TALKING was released during the height of Miramax's indie heyday, writer/director Nicole Holofcener has been a distinctive voice with smart, insightful movies about women that don't resort to "chick flick" clichés.  Her latest, ENOUGH SAID, relies a little more on dumb contrivance than her earlier films, and right down to its title, frequently feels like the kind of pleasant-but-middling effort her one-time mentor Woody Allen (Holofcener was a production assistant on Allen's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) might crank out between genuinely great films.  That's not to say it isn't enjoyable, but were it not for a dumb decision by its main character, there probably wouldn't be a movie.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus is excellent as divorced, middle-aged masseuse Eva, stuck in a rut and fearing the empty nest once daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) goes off to college.  Dragged to a party by her friend Sarah (Toni Collette), she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), an affable, schlubby sort of guy, and they immediately hit it off.  Meanwhile, Eva has a new client in poet Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), who does little but trash-talk her ex-husband.  Eventually, Eva figures out that Marianne's ex is Albert, and can't stop herself from projecting Marianne's issues back on to him, jeopardizing the relationship (at one point, after an uncomfortable dinner with friends, Albert says "Why do I feel like I just spent the evening with my ex-wife?").  Here's why this whole conceit doesn't work:  Marianne is a bitter, pretentious, unlikable bitch, which goes without saying as she's portrayed by Catherine Keener, who, with rare exception, more or less has a lock on this type of character.  Eva doesn't seem desperate enough for a friend that she'd latch on to Marianne the way she does, or be so inclined to nitpick to such a level that she'd fatalistically torpedo her relationship with Albert.  Yeah, it's a romantic comedy, but real characters in real life--or, at least, characters in earlier Holofcener films, would've resolved this situation in a matter of minutes.


But ENOUGH SAID excels in other areas:  Louis-Dreyfus is very good and Eva's parental panic over her baby venturing into the real world is handled in a believable and sympathetic fashion.  She's also very funny, especially in a scene late in the film where she's insulted by someone and lets loose with a laugh that displays outrage, dismissal, and hurt all in a matter of seconds, and it's a vintage Louis-Dreyfus moment.  And then there's Gandolfini in his penultimate role (his last film, the crime thriller THE DROP, is due out later this year).  Released four months after his death, ENOUGH SAID lets the actor show a vulnerable side of himself rarely seen before.  You've always heard women say "he just had something about him," but he never really got to play a romantic lead until this and it's a stellar performance.  ENOUGH SAID is likable if a little too slight and predictable, but it's a must-see for fans of Louis-Dreyfus, who's really flourished post-SEINFELD (her HBO series VEEP is one of the funniest things on TV), and especially the much-missed Gandolfini.  (PG-13, 93 mins)


HOW I LIVE NOW
(UK - 2013)

This dumb, drab adaptation of Meg Rosoff's 2004 YA novel about a American teenager's survival in England after the country is leveled by a nuclear attack only made it to 68 screens during its US release.  Pick a reason why:  is it that it centers on the most abrasive and coarsely unlikable heroine in recent memory?  Is it that the target audience is too young to get into R-rated movies?  Is it that the central romance in the film is between cousins?  Coming off like a TWILIGHT-ized CHILDREN OF MEN and showcasing all the depth of a Taylor Swift song, HOW I LIVE NOW manages to defeat the gifted Saoirse Ronan, who's never turned in a bad performance but can't do much with the bitchy and complaining Daisy, a standard-issue Ugly American spending the summer--against her will, it seems--with some cousins who live in the English countryside.  While she churlishly resists any attempts to bond with them until they playfully throw her in a river and goo-goo eyes with the oldest, Eddie (George Mackay), quickly escalates to all-out cousin-fucking, London is nuked, Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) disappears, and the military comes through to round up the survivors.  The kids--there's also 14-year-old Isaac (Tom Holland, so good in THE IMPOSSIBLE), and nine-year-old Piper (Harley Bird)--are split up, with Daisy and Piper forced to fend for themselves.  It's amazing how quickly Daisy goes from spoiled bitch to hard-nosed survivalist almost instantaneously.  Even in the context of a fantastical film, it's too much of a stretch and even an actress as good as Ronan can't sell it.  There's no suspense, the pace is deadeningly dull, and while it might be aimed at sullen teens, it feels like it's made by them as well, which is quite shocking considering that director Kevin Macdonald (ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, TOUCHING THE VOID, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) and co-writer Tony Grisoni (the RED RIDING trilogy) have made very good films before (Macdonald is also the grandson of legendary British filmmaker Emeric Pressburger).  A meandering misfire from the start, you can probably live the rest of your life without subjecting yourself to HOW I LIVE NOW.  (R, 101 mins)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Theaters: ROBOCOP (2014)


ROBOCOP
(US - 2014)

Directed by Jose Padilha.  Written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner. Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patrick Garrow, John Paul Ruttan, Aimee Garcia, Zach Grenier, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Douglas Urbanski. (PG-13, 117 mins)

With its perfect mix of action, over-the-top violence and sly, subversive wit, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic ROBOCOP still stands as one of the most inspired and original commercial sci-fi films of its decade.  The only surprise with the 2014 remake is that it took this long to happen.  Like the original film, ROBOCOP '14 has an acclaimed foreign filmmaker trying to make his mark in mainstream Hollywood.  In this case, it's Brazilian director Jose Padilha, whose intense, nail-biting, politically-charged thrillers ELITE SQUAD (2007) and ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN (2011) have earned him significant accolades worldwide.  Padilha is an interesting choice to helm a ROBOCOP remake with the obvious idea of spawning a new franchise, but ultimately, starting with its PG-13 rating, ROBOCOP '14 is only as good as it has to be, and even with Padilha's usual concerns of politics and corruption, it stands as yet another cautionary tale of a promising foreign director seduced by Hollywood and likely forced to compromise and acquiesce until the resulting film effectively eliminates all traces of the innovation, vision, and personality that got him the job in the first place.

Having just revisited ROBOCOP '87 in its pristine new Blu-ray edition a couple of nights before seeing the remake, it's fascinating to note how prophetic many of its satirical elements became.  From the Halliburton-like OCP Corporation ("Who cares if it worked?") with its profits-before-people priorities ("I'm very disappointed" says the CEO when the demo ED-209 kills a staffer but also threatens to delay the rollout) and the privatization of the police to the Greek chorus of bubbleheaded newscasters Casey Wong and Jessie Perkins--whose utter vacuousness was even funnier considering they were played by actual media personalities Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons--Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier (who would collaborate again on STARSHIP TROOPERS) and Michael Miner created what may stand today as the NETWORK of 1980s sci-fi action movies.  Much like the news-as-entertainment doomsday scenario of the 1976 Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky classic, the satirical elements of Verhoeven's film are the commonplace norm today.  With that in mind, there's really no angle for ROBOCOP '14 to tackle from than one of dour, thudding seriousness.  When it tries to be funny, all it's doing is pointing out obvious references to our current world, from US military occupation in the Middle East to the bloviating Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), the right-wing, Bill O'Reilly/Glenn Beck-like host of THE NOVAK ELEMENT, a guy prone to cutting off guests who disagree with him.  That might've been hilarious 30 years ago, but not so much now when it happens daily on cable news.  Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (Neumeier and Miner retain presumably WGA-mandated co-writing credits) follow the basic template of Verhoeven's film but to what end?  With the possible exception of the 2014 ED-209s moving a little more smoothly than their stop-motion 1987 counterparts, what improvements are made?  What insightful reflections are to be found?  None.  I'm not against remakes if they have something new to bring to the table.  Is it a bad movie?  No, not at all.  But with Verhoeven's film aging like fine wine, there's no reason for Padilha's film to exist.  If Verhoeven's film was a satirical reflection of the Reagan era, then what is Padilha's other than a reflection of 2014 mainstream Hollywood as obvious, coasting, and completely out of fresh ideas?  It's not "Gus Van Sant's PSYCHO" bad, but it's easily "CARRIE 2013" pointless.


The kind of film that shows an aerial shot of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument yet still feels the need to include the caption "Washington, D.C.," ROBOCOP '14 presents Alex Murphy (THE KILLING's Joel Kinnaman) as an impulsive Detroit detective after Motor City crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), who consistently manages to operate unencumbered thanks to numerous Detroit cops on his payroll.  When Murphy and partner Lewis (BOARDWALK EMPIRE's Michael K. Williams) go after Vallon on their own, Lewis is shot and a fed-up Vallon has a bomb planted under Murphy's car.  Of course it blows up, burning over 80% of his body, shattering his spine, blinding him in one eye, and costing him an arm and a leg.  As Murphy barely clings to life, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who's made billions putting peacekeeping robots and drones in war-ravaged Middle East, finally sees a loophole for his ambition to put mechanized drones on the streets to replace law enforcement.  America has a ban on drone officers because they lack the "human" element, but with Murphy's brain still functioning, Sellars sees a way to keep the human element inside the robotic shell, thus skirting the "robophobic" federal ban.  Overseeing Murphy's transformation into RoboCop is sympathetic Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who insists that the human element can't be completely eliminated, at least until Sellars orders him to make it happen as Norton essentially rewires Murphy's brain to diminish the emotional receptors.  While this makes him a fearless killing machine who's able to apprehend any Detroit bad guy thanks to the entire department database downloaded into his brain, it also makes him unable to relate to or eventually acknowledge his wife (Abbie Cornish) and young son (John Paul Ruttan) as he pursues his single-minded goal of nabbing Vallon and any corrupt cops on the take who had a hand in his attempted murder.


A lot of ROBOCOP '14 focuses on elements that were glossed over by Verhoeven.  It's over an hour before Murphy/RoboCop is even out of the lab and on the streets.  Verhoeven had Peter Weller's Murphy killed and simply waking up as RoboCop.  Padilha gives us all that time in between--the shock of waking up with most of his body gone, the adjustment, the training, etc.--with more of a focus on Murphy's family.  Sure, it's a different approach, but was anyone clamoring for that in 1987?  Is anyone clamoring for it now?  Kinnaman is fine as the sleeker, black-suited RoboCop, with a helmet that makes him look like a third member of Daft Punk, an excellent Oldman is trying much harder than he needs to, and while Keaton's "Michael Keaton" persona is always welcome, he seems a little bored here.  And Jackson just registers zero in his scenes as Novak, which of course culminates in him letting loose with a bleeped "motherfucker" on the air, not because he's doing an astute satirical interpretation of a cable news host with an agenda, but because he's Samuel L. Jackson in a movie.  Nobody says "motherfucker" like Jackson, but it's a joke that lost its novelty around the time SNAKES ON A PLANE took a 60% drop in its second weekend.  As far as villains go, Keaton's Sellars is no Ronny Cox-as-Dick Jones, and Garrow's Vallon isn't given much of a chance to match Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddiker, though Sellars hatchet man Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) arguably shares that function.  Padilha and Zetumer spend so much time on Murphy's Robo-angst that they have to rush through the action part of the story, which frequently and predictably resembles a video game with Murphy leaping around and inevitably landing in the three-point, bent-knee hero stance, and the heavily CGI'd scenes of Murphy out of the Robo-suit--essentially reduced to a head, a set of lungs, and a right arm, are unconvincing and a little silly in a BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE way.  Nothing about ROBOCOP '14 is terrible, but there's nothing in it to get excited about, either.  Verhoeven's film is now 27 years old and people are still talking about it.  Will people even be talking about Padilha's version 27 days from now?



Monday, February 10, 2014

In Theaters: THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)


THE MONUMENTS MEN
(US/UK/Germany - 2014)

Directed by George Clooney.  Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.  Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Zahary Baharov, Sam Hazeldine. (PG-13, 118 mins)

For all of George Clooney's fame and tabloid ubiquity over the last 20 years, he hasn't been in a lot of box office blockbusters other than the THE PERFECT STORM, OCEAN'S ELEVEN films and GRAVITY.  He's largely chosen quality scripts over easy star vehicles (OUT OF SIGHT, SYRIANA, MICHAEL CLAYTON, UP IN THE AIR), isn't afraid to go for non-commercial material (SOLARIS, THE GOOD GERMAN, THE AMERICAN) and with his matinee idol looks, he's often described as a throwback to the Hollywood of old, a sort-of Cary Grant for today's cinema.  For the most part, his directorial career also seems rooted in the past:  CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002) was an adaptation of GONG SHOW host Chuck Barris' improbable memoirs,  GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005) chronicled CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow and his battle against the McCarthy hearings,  LEATHERHEADS (2008) was a screwball romantic comedy set in the world of 1920s football, and THE IDES OF MARCH (2011) was a thriller set in the scheming world of present-day politics but nevertheless felt like the kind of movie Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet, or Sydney Pollack would've made in the 1970s.  Clooney has more than established his bona fides as an actor and director, and the WWII epic THE MONUMENTS MEN, with its motley crew of unlikely heroes going into battle, is cut from the same cloth as the grand, large-scale men-on-a-mission classics of the 1960s, like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), THE TRAIN (1964), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and KELLY'S HEROES (1970) to name just four.


The difference here is that those films didn't have a soapbox to stand on, and if Clooney has a weakness as a filmmaker, it's the need to endlessly speechify with issues of Grand Importance.  I enjoyed the relatively light LEATHERHEADS and the conspiratorial suspense of THE IDES OF MARCH, but I found GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK a little too smug and self-satisfied, regardless of how remarkable David Strathairn was as Murrow.  Every scene seemed to have someone stopping to mention how what they were doing was Changing the World, and some of that comes into play with THE MONUMENTS MEN.  There seems to be no momentum that Clooney the director won't halt in order to allow Clooney the actor one more chance to deliver a windy treatise on The Importance of Art and how they're Preserving History.  The constant invocations start to grow wearying after a while and it doesn't help that Clooney can't seem to settle on what kind of WWII movie he wanted to make.  Is it lighthearted?  Is it a serious memorial to the Greatest Generation?  Is it a comedy?  Is it transparent Oscar bait?  Yes.  It's all of those.


Inspired by a true story, THE MONUMENTS MEN is set in the final months of Hitler's reign before Germany's surrender.  With word that Der Fuhrer has gathered and stored massive art collections pilfered during the Nazi takeover of Europe, renowned art professor Frank Stokes (Clooney) pleads with FDR to put together a team of art experts and historians to go through the war-torn areas of Europe to salvage and protect the remaining art and recover what's gone missing.  This means putting together the usual ragtag group of Unlikely Heroes:  Stokes' old friend James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), art experts Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), plus a bonus recruit in German-speaking Jersey-based private Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).  Damon's Granger spends most of the film on his own separate mission, investigating some missing French art with curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who's been keeping a log of art stolen by her scheming, Nazi-aligned boss (Justus von Dohnanyi).  For about 40 minutes or so, THE MONUMENTS MEN is moving along nicely enough, coasting on the screen presence of its stars and the no-expense-spared production design, but there's a scene with Damon and Blanchett that's so tone-deaf and wrong-headed that you can actually see the film fall on its face and consequently spend the remainder of its running time trying to regain its footing. 



Claire takes Granger to a vast and seemingly endless warehouse packed with paintings, furniture, glasses, dishes, books, etc.  Granger looks around in wide-eyed wonder.

Granger: "What is all of this?"
Claire: "People's lives."
Granger: "What people?"
Claire: "Jews."

At that moment, Alexandre Desplat's maudlin, manipulative score swells and Granger's sense of wonder sinks with the saddened realization that...the Holocaust was happening?  What does he mean "What people?" Where does he think all this stuff came from?  How pie-in-the-sky naïve can he be?  There had to be a more effective way to convey the horror of concentration camps than making Damon's character look like an idiot.


There's also little sense of camaraderie between the Monuments Men.  Clooney and Damon get the bulk of the screen time, with the rest relegated to the sidelines.  Sure, Murray, Goodman, and the others are onscreen a lot, but they're just there, and not really given characters to play.  Campbell playfully busts Savitz's chops throughout, but they have no other defining characteristics that necessitated them being played by distinctive actors like Murray and Balaban.  It's nice to see all these actors working together and there's no doubt they had a good time, but why put Murray, Balaban, and John Goodman together to have them play cardboard characters that anybody could've played?   Murray's big scene involves playing a record sent from home with his granddaughter singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as tears well in his eyes.  Given the context, it's not a revealing character moment but instead comes off as the kind of cheap, heavy-handed melodrama that someone as sharp as Murray can't possibly be taking seriously.


THE MONUMENTS MEN is passable and it's never boring, but it just misses the mark. Films of this sort had a sense of fun and adventure that this is sorely lacking. They can make big statements without advertising that they're Big Statements.  Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov seem to be in such a mad rush to get to the lecturing and the pontificating that they don't bother establishing anything with the characters.  Other than a scene where Campbell and Savitz get the edge on a Nazi art thief, there's rarely a sense of danger or even where they're really at.  There's a lot of looking at maps and saying "We have to go here," but it never really registers.  They just go from one place to another, Stokes says something like "We're Doing Something Important!" and they find some stashed art, stare at it as Desplat's score tells us to how to feel, and they move on.  It looks like a classic WWII movie that belongs on TCM, but in the end, it's just pretending to be one.  This was originally scheduled to be released in December 2013, but was abruptly yanked to "finish the visual effects," with the date bounced to the barren wasteland of February.  That may be the case, as the film looks superb, but it's hard to ignore the sneaking suspicion that this wasn't the automatic Oscar magnet that Sony and Clooney were hoping it would be.