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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Theaters: THE BIG SHORT (2015)


THE BIG SHORT
(US - 2015)

Directed by Adam McKay. Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay. Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Adepero Oduye, Karen Gillan, Jeffry Griffin, Byron Mann, Billy Magnusson, Max Greenfield, Stanley Wong, Tracy Letts, Wayne Pere, Al Sapienza. (R, 130 mins)

Based on the book of the same name by Moneyball author Michael Lewis and a good companion piece with J.C. Chandor's 2011 film MARGIN CALL, THE BIG SHORT chronicles the disparate group of hedge fund oddballs and outsiders who predicted the bursting of the mortgage bubble and bet against the American economy when it became apparent that the crash was inevitable. Directed and co-written by frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, THE BIG SHORT treats a serious, devastating subject with cynical and often scathing humor, with an offbeat and occasionally anarchic sensibility that's used conservatively enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome. For instance, when the Wall Street verbiage gets a little too technical for the layman, narrator Jared Vennett (a smooth, sarcastic Ryan Gosling) will break the fourth wall to introduce a celebrity and say something like "And now, to explain this in everyday terms, here's Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubble bath," or "Here's world-famous chef Anthony Bourdain..." though at times it opts for the easy route and has an incredulous character say "OK, wait a minute...let me get this straight...are you saying....?"


The film, which changes the names of the major players from Lewis' book except for Dr. Michael Burry, centers on a small number of individuals who took the time to separately analyze data to conclude that the global economy was a Jenga tower with a foundation of dubiously unstable subprime loans. In 2005, Scion Capital head Burry (Christian Bale), a socially-awkward former neurologist-turned-hedge fund wunderkind with a glass eye and Asperger's and a penchant for ultra-casual dress and air-drumming to Master of Puppets-era Metallica and Pantera in his office, is the first to notice the initial signs of trouble and of course, no one listens to him. He risks becoming a Wall Street pariah when he invests his firm's money into betting against subprime mortgages (known as a "credit default swap") that he anticipates collapsing beginning in 2007 ("Everybody pays their mortgage!" overconfident bank execs say repeatedly). Vennett is another hedge fund cowboy who overhears news of Burry's maverick actions and finds his own analysis comes to the same conclusion. A wrong number by Vennett ends up bringing him into contact with the abrasive Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an outspoken trader with an axe to grind against big banks, and the head of FrontPoint, a small outfit within Morgan Stanley that's referred to as "the world's angriest hedge fund." Vennett and Baum discover that clumps of bad loans are being repackaged as CDOs (collateralized debt obligation) with inaccurate AAA ratings or just flat-out fraudulent "synthetic CDOs" and it's not only being condoned but encouraged. At the same time, a pair of idealistic young hedge funders from Colorado, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), also get word of what Vennett and Baum are up to and want a piece of the action. They secure the assistance of legendary trader Ben Rickert (co-producer Brad Pitt, who had a big success with the movie version of MONEYBALL)--a paranoid semi-recluse who grew so disgusted with Wall Street's dishonesty that he quit the business and retired with his millions to Colorado to live off the land. Rickert informs them that the mortgage collapse will make them millions, but it also means millions of middle-class Americans will lose everything in the process.


That's the message at the heart of THE BIG SHORT. Wall Street's illegal antics and unending greed created a housing bubble that everyone got a piece of until reality set in and the bill came due. It takes a year longer for the bubble to burst than Burry predicted, mainly because the banks were withholding vital information and not being honest about what was really happening as they continued to turn no one down for a home loan ("Immigrants are the best," one broker brags, adding "They don't even know what you're saying!"). To its credit, the film doesn't make its characters into heroes, at the most painting them in shades of gray: they profit from the collapse of the evil financial institutions, but it's still the public that pays the price, especially with the inevitable taxpayer bailout ("They knew this was coming and they did nothing to stop it because they knew the taxpayers would bail them out," Vennett seethes). The ensemble cast is terrific, though only Carell and Gosling have any scenes together (with the exception of a shot where he walks by Carell and Gosling at a convention, all of Pitt's scenes are solo or with Magaro and Wittrock; and Bale never crosses paths with any of them), and the script by McKay and Charles Randolph (who also wrote the absurd THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE) is filled with zingers and quotable dialogue (Vennett to one of Baum's partners played by Jeremy Strong: "That's a nice shirt...do they make it for men?") that almost function as a protective shield from all the devastation on display. There's a good amount of humor ranging from dark to laugh-out-loud, but also gut-wrenching poignancy, as when Baum's partners find entire subdivisions of homes left abandoned when the owners simply walked away from the house, sometimes leaving almost everything behind ("This looks like Chernobyl...all they took was the TV"), and in some cases leaving unlucky renters in the lurch ("He hasn't been paying the mortgage?  But I've been paying my rent!" says one tenant whose family is living in a van by the end of the movie). Easily McKay's most mature work to date, THE BIG SHORT is a bleakly funny, laugh-so-you-don't-cry autopsy of an economic clusterfuck that reinforced the cynicism of today's world: as Vennett says "Only one banker went to prison, all the executives got fat bonuses, and everything was blamed on immigrants and the poor." The end credits tell what the principals have been up to since the events depicted here. The most telling is that Burry's repeated requests to interview Wall Street investment honchos, bank CEOs and government officials about the crash have all been declined and since 2008, the IRS has audited him four times.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: TIME OUT OF MIND (2015); NASTY BABY (2015); and GUNS FOR HIRE (2015)


TIME OUT OF MIND
(US - 2015)


A long-planned pet project for Richard Gere, TIME OUT OF MIND is anchored by one of the veteran actor's most committed performances. Gere is the focal point and is in every scene as George Hammond, a homeless man on the streets of NYC. Introduced squatting in a vacant tenement and kicked out by the landlord (Steve Buscemi), George makes his way around the city, asking for spare change and trying to find a place to sleep. He has his rituals, like sitting in the park and selling his coat for beer money only to stop by a donation center at a church to grab a new one. He wants to reconnect with his estranged bartender daughter Maggie (Jena Malone), who wants nothing to do with him. The film is largely plotless and seems to go where George's day takes him, though we learn bits and pieces as it goes on: George's life started to collapse over a decade earlier when he lost his job and his insurance, then his wife got sick and he was unable to get her proper medical care. After she died, he handed Maggie over to be raised by his mother-in-law, and he's been surviving on the streets since, unable to pull his life together and admittedly living in a ten-year-long blur. Gere and writer/director Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER, RAMPART) aren't really interested in telling a linear story as much as they are getting inside George's head. Moverman often plants the camera on Gere as we hear all the sounds that surround him, going in one ear and out the other: fragments of chatter and phone conversations, passing cars, horns, sirens, construction, and the general sounds of NYC. Moverman often goes for old-school guerrilla filmmaking, keeping the camera stationary and from a distance--perhaps from inside a business establishment--to observe Gere-as-George asking passersby for change, rummaging through trash cans, or sleeping on the sidewalk as actual NYC pedestrians are unaware that the homeless man they're passing is a famous Hollywood actor. It feels a little gimmicky at times, and at 121 minutes, it's an extremely slow-moving exercise in verite minimalism that's a good 30 minutes longer than it really needs to be (there were walkouts when it was shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014), but it's an ambitious experiment on Gere's part, and he gets some solid support from friends who appear in cameos, like Kyra Sedgwick as a homeless woman, Michael Kenneth Williams as a guard at the shelter, and, in his best role in years, Ben Vereen as a homeless former jazz pianist (or so he claims) and nonstop chatterbox befriended by George at the shelter. With no concern for mainstream appeal (IFC had this on 18 screens at its widest release) and no real drive to the story, it's most certainly not for everyone. It's absolutely the kind of film you need to be in the mood for, but it's a must-see for Gere fans and if you brew a pot of strong coffee ahead of time, it has its rewards, particularly in its powerful final shot. (R, 121 mins)





NASTY BABY
(Chile/France - 2015)



Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva (the 2012 Michael Cera stoner oddity CRYSTAL FAIRY & THE MAGICAL CACTUS) wrote, directed, and stars in this largely improvised--at least for its first 2/3--comedy-drama that remains effective despite never really settling on what it wants to accomplish. In a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, gay couple Freddy (Silva) and Mo (RACHEL GETTING MARRIED's Tunde Adebimpe, also the frontman for the band TV on the Radio) are trying to become parents with the help of Freddy's friend Polly (Kristen Wiig), who desperately wants to be a mom, with the trio planning to raise the child in an unconventional but loving home. Freddy's low sperm count prompts Polly to plead with Mo to be the donor, which he initially declines but eventually agrees to do. As they go about their daily lives, with performance artist Freddy planning an absurdly awful multimedia exhibition called "Nasty Baby," where he sucks on a pacifier and rolls around on the floor like a helpless infant while video of Mo, Polly, and Freddy's assistant Wendy (Alia Shawkat) doing the same plays on video monitors around him, Silva establishes an occasionally rambling improvisational feel in the relationship and interaction between Freddy, Mo, and Polly and how their lifestyle choice affects those in their lives. They get support from fatherly neighbor Richard (a rare nice-guy performance by veteran character actor Mark Margolis), who's also gay, and there's some static from Mo's opinionated sister about their "disregard" of tradition.




But their biggest obstacle is "The Bishop" (Reg E. Cathey), a homophobic and mentally unstable neighborhood nutjob who fires up his leaf blower at 7:00 am, hurls anti-gay slurs at the couple whenever they pass him on the sidewalk, and also repeatedly gets in Polly's personal space and physically grabs her from behind, but the cops won't arrest him because his mother is a prominent judge. Throughout the film, the Bishop's increasingly aggressive and antagonizing presence provokes a discomforting sense of unease to what otherwise feels like any number of self-indulgent mumblecore indie rom-coms, Indeed, the final third offers one of the most abrupt, jarring, and audacious plot shifts in recent memory, sort-of like how Robert Rodriguez's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN went from a kidnapping thriller to a vampire movie at its midpoint. Even with the Bishop's irrational behavior, you still won't be prepared for what Silva does--for better or for worse--with the character in the late stages. There's certainly an argument that NASTY BABY is an uneven, unfocused mess (and despite what some thinkpiece-type reviews might say, I don't see it saying one thing or another about gentrification), but after getting to know these characters for an hour and change, and suffering through Freddy's cringe-worthy demonstrations of his idiotic presentation (surely, Silva is satirizing pretentious, hipster performance artists with the ludicrous "Nasty Baby" project), the shocking development that dominates the last third and sends it into blood-splattered, SHALLOW GRAVE territory prompts you to question what you really think of them and what they think of themselves (you can see the self-doubt on Freddy's face in the final shot). Silva and Adebimpe make a likable couple, a wild-eyed Cathey is intimidating and terrifying, and Wiig continues to surprise in her post-SNL/BRIDESMAIDS career choices that include the blockbuster THE MARTIAN and the upcoming GHOSTBUSTERS remake, but also have her spending a lot of time in small, under-the-radar indies like this, HATESHIP LOVESHIP, and WELCOME TO ME. NASTY BABY is a weird and ultimately unsettling little movie that sneaks up on you and veers wildly down roads you never see coming. It's hard to tell if it's some kind of slyly brilliant head game or a last-ditch, desperation Hail Mary to keep the story going, but regardless, it sticks with you. (R, 101 mins)


GUNS FOR HIRE
(US - 2015)



You really have to sit back and admire the astonishing straight-to-DVD hosejob that is GUNS FOR HIRE. It's practically a throwback to the days of old when people were duped into seeing movies that were nothing like the misleading posters. One can't entirely blame the writing/directing team of Donna Robinson and Katherine Brooks. After all, GUNS FOR HIRE was a last-minute title change for a film shot as the more docile-sounding THE ADVENTURES OF BEATLE. It's a quirky character piece that was obviously never meant to be thought of as the gun-toting action thriller that the GUNS FOR HIRE artwork is selling, with the recognizable faces of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ben Mendelsohn, Tony Shalhoub, and Orlando Jones on display (all have supporting roles that range from minor to, in Shalhoub's case, a brief cameo). It almost looks like some kind of SMOKIN' ACES knockoff or something along those lines. But as you watch the movie, it doesn't take long to figure out that something doesn't seem right and something is very off, particularly with the appearance of Mendelsohn, whose craggy, sad-sack visage has been seen in several noteworthy films of late and the Netflix series BLOODLINE, but he looks distractingly young here. Then Morgan turns up, and he looks both younger and a little heavier in the face than he's been in recent films. Though it completed post-production in 2013 and has some 2013 and 2014 copyrighted songs by unknown bands in the credits, principal photography on what was called THE ADVENTURES OF BEATLE was done all the way back in 2006. In other words, the film now being released as GUNS FOR HIRE has spent nearly a decade on the shelf before being given a justifiably silent DVD burial.



Well, I've got news for Robinson and Brooks: this thing still doesn't seem to be ready for public consumption. The credits are video-burned; the opening credit roll lists Robinson and Brooks as co-directors but the closing credits only give Robinson director credit; prominently-billed Brooke Adams (the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE DEAD ZONE) has a nanosecond of screen time as a secretary, another character whizzing by her as she gets up from her desk and has a door slammed in her face with her back to the camera, only allowing you to ascertain that it's Adams if you hit the pause button; and even better than that, Ivana Milicevic (RUNNING SCARED, CASINO ROYALE) is credited with playing someone named "Friday Green" and isn't even in it. GUNS FOR HIRE follows lesbian tow-truck driver and part-time assassin Beatle (Michele Hicks, who was on THE SHIELD at the time), and the story is told in flashbacks as she's being interrogated by angry cop Holt (Raffaello Degruttola) over her association with sleazy crime kingpin Kyle Sullivan (Mendelsohn). Athena (Ever Carradine) is a suicide case being pursued by Sullivan's psychotic hitman Bruce (Morgan), but instead hires Beatle to kill her first. Of course, they fall in love but not before endless psychoanalyzing and Cassavetesian discussions that turn the film into a talky remake of BOUND that plays like it's being staged by the world's worst acting workshop. That's bad enough, but then Robinson and Brooks pull two laughable whoppers of plot twists out of their asses that take a merely boring, pointless film and turn it into an inexcusable, infuriating one. Even factoring out the retitling and the marketing and looking at it as simply THE ADVENTURES OF BEATLE, this is an amateurishly-made, badly-acted, and thoroughly unwatchable collection of scenes that might make a lot of noise, but goes nowhere and says nothing. GUNS FOR HIRE wasn't so much completed as it was abandoned. It obviously ran into some huge problems on the long--but not long enough--road to release to be kept on the shelf for so many years (a 2014 BEATLE trailer got a polite but vague response from Morgan on Twitter), but this is such a hopelessly lost cause that not even a vigorous and sweaty Hicks/Sarah Shahi sex scene in the early-going can keep it from being the worst 2015 film I've seen so far. You're off the hook, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT, and THE VATICAN TAPES(Unrated, 82 mins)


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Theaters: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
(US - 2015)

Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt. Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Joonas Suotamo, Simon Pegg, Pip Torrens, Kiran Shah, Greg Grunberg, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis, Ken Leung, Iko Uwais, Harriet Walter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. (PG-13, 135 mins)

Picking up the STAR WARS saga a decade after the mixed-bag prequel trilogy, fan expectations were high with franchise overlord George Lucas removing himself from the equation and Episode VII being handed to polarizing director and lens flare enthusiast J.J. Abrams. Abrams himself is coming off a career nadir with the abysmal STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, a film that everyone loved until they actually saw it. Taking place 30 or so years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS brings together two protagonists--lone warrior/scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), from the desert planet Jakku, and morally-conflicted Stormtrooper FN-2187, or "Finn" (ATTACK THE BLOCK's John Boyega)--and a rolling droid called BB-8, who has an important piece of a map in his possession, placed there by Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (EX MACHINA's Oscar Isaac). The Empire may have fallen after the destruction of the second Death Star, but The First Order has risen in its place, overseen by the nefarious, masked Kylo Ren (GIRLS' Adam Driver) and ambitious General Hux (Isaac's EX MACHINA co-star Domnhall Gleeson, channeling Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin), who work at the behest of Supreme Leader Snoke (motion-captured Andy Serkis). The map contains the key to the whereabouts of the long-missing Luke Skywalker, and with Kylo Ren's Stormtroopers in pursuit, Rey, Finn, and BB-8 commandeer a junked Millennium Falcon and cross paths with none other than Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew in some closeups, but played mostly by stuntman Joonas Suotamo due to 71-year-old Mayhew's disabling knee issues), who are surprised to find their old ship. As the hunt for BB-8 intensifies, the heroes end up joining the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who's desperately searching for the whereabouts of her lost brother, Luke.


It's simply impossible to replicate the groundbreaking, game-changing phenomenon that was the original STAR WARS trilogy, which still stand among the most influential films ever made. It's clear that Abrams and co-scripters Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK/RETURN OF THE JEDI co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (THE BIG CHILL) have molded THE FORCE AWAKENS as the "give the fans what they want" nostalgia trip. There's nothing wrong with that, but one must keep their expectations in check. It's filled with exciting action, fun performances, and lots of trips down Memory Lane to get a good sentimental streak going, but that's really all it does. It works for the most part, and you'd almost have to be a total dick to not get a big, stupid grin on your face over Han's and Chewbacca's first appearance 40 minutes in when they discover the Millennium Falcon ("Chewie...we're home!"). The same goes for the eventual appearances of Fisher's Leia (she and Han still harboring feelings for one another, and both feeling a sense of responsibility for the rise of The First Order), Anthony Daniels' C-3PO, and an offline R2-D2 (81-year-old Kenny Baker now credited as "R2-D2 Consultant"), who comes back to life late in the film to provide an important piece of the puzzle involving Luke's location. Mark Hamill returns as Luke--obviously to help set up what must be a larger role in Episode VIII--but don't be fooled by his second billing: there are Hitchcock cameos that last longer than Hamill's appearance in THE FORCE AWAKENS.


There's also a trip to a bar run by 1000-year-old pirate Maz Kanata (motion-captured by 12 YEARS A SLAVE's Lupita Nyong'o) that looks very similar to the legendary Mos Eisley Cantina, and there's numerous callbacks and parallels to previous saga plotlines, from Rey living in the hollowed remnants of an AT-AT Walker to a father-son confrontation that looks very similar to the Cloud City showdown between Luke and Darth Vader in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The set-up itself is very similar to STAR WARS, with BB-8 carrying a crucial piece of information and teaming up with Rey, much like the circumstances that brought R2-D2 and Luke together. Franchise newcomers Boyega and Ridley acquit themselves well, particularly Ridley, whose fierce energy makes her an inspiring heroine worthy of becoming a next-gen Luke Skywalker. Once he removes the helmet, Driver is seriously miscast as the sulking, pouting Kylo Ren, and regardless of that being the intent with the character, it turns Kylo Ren into little more than a millennial Darth Vader with daddy issues. For those who saw the original trilogy when it was new, the real fun of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is seeing the old-school icons back in action. Even though only Han and Chewbacca get any significant screen time, it's great fun seeing them still doing what they do and bickering like an old married couple. Ford gets by on his legend alone, often delivering his dialogue with a "Look, Abrams...how much longer do I have to be here?" tone that sort-of works considering he's playing an older and even more cynical Han that gels rather well with the actor's grouchy persona. He gets a huge laugh out of fans when Rey says "You're the Han Solo?!  You made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!" to which Han angrily snaps "12 parsecs!" then, shaking his head and harumphing in incredulous disgust under his breath, "14..." Abrams and the writers lean heavily on that sense of established goodwill and unlike the prequel trilogy, it moves quickly, gets pretty much all of the exposition out of the way in the traditional opening crawl, and doesn't dawdle around with political machinations and trade federation debates or get bogged down with George Lucas' complete post-JEDI inability to grasp human interaction. There have been some analogies made comparing this to a long-floundering classic rock band getting a few original members back together for a new album and going on a tour to play one song from it while the rest of the set is all the beloved hits from the past. That perfectly describes STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS: it's the real thing, it's got enough of the key components, it's fun while you're watching it and maybe you love it now because you really don't like the prequels and this gives you everything you want. But when the dust on Jakku settles, is it really going to hold up against the original trilogy?



Friday, December 18, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: EXTRACTION (2015)


EXTRACTION
(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Steven C. Miller. Written by Ulair Aleem and Max Adams. Cast: Kellan Lutz, Bruce Willis, Gina Carano, D.B. Sweeney, Dan Bilzerian, Joshua Mikel, Steve Coulter, Olga Valentina, Lydia Hull, Tyler J. Olsen, Summer Altice, Rob Steinberg, Simon Rhee, Hwan Tran. (R, 82 mins)

It's not unusual for an A-list actor to hit a rough patch and go slumming in second-tier work for a brief or extended period of time (Nicolas Cage and John Cusack immediately come to mind).  It happens to almost any big star whose career has any kind of multi-decade longevity. However, it is unusual for an A-lister to tackle these kinds of B-movie projects by choice, in the midst of an otherwise solid period. Four years ago, on the heels of his 2010 hit RED, Bruce Willis turned up in a couple of low-grade, straight-to-DVD 50 Cent productions (SET-UP and CATCH .44) and it seemed like an odd move at the time, almost like he was doing a favor for someone. Then, when he wasn't in something acclaimed like Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM and Rian Johnson's LOOPER or in the big-budget A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, and RED 2, he was popping up in another 50 Cent production, FIRE WITH FIRE. In the last couple of years, Willis has appeared in such forgettable Redbox-ready trifles as THE PRINCE and the WESTWORLD ripoff VICE, and his roles in both of them (as well as FIRE WITH FIRE), mainly confine him to a desk where he barks orders at underlings in person or on the phone, in shots that require minimal set-up and probably keep him on the set for two days tops. In VICE, Willis plays the CEO of an adult amusement park where sex robots revolt by going offline and becoming sentient. Thomas Jane is the star, but there's periodic cutaways to Willis, looking like he's battling a case of indigestion as he observes a row of monitors in a control room and mutters things like "Whaddaya got?" and "Bring up the temperature in Sector Five," until the androids rebel and he gets to yell "Initiate the kill switch!" Willis' descent into VOD/DTV irrelevance is odd in that it seems to be by choice. He was still getting major, starring Hollywood gigs when he started dabbling in this shady netherworld and now, aside from his iffy turn in the current stage production of MISERY, it's these slapdash paycheck jobs that seem to constitute the overwhelming majority of his cinematic work these days.


Few actors do a worse job of masking their complete indifference to a project than Willis, and as set by the standards of FIRE WITH FIRE, THE PRINCE, and VICE, he's sleepwalking through EXTRACTION, a film that shares a screenwriter and at least five supporting actors with the recent VOD release HEIST, which featured Robert De Niro, himself no stranger to inexplicably slumming in B-movies between high-profile studio titles. Rather than sitting behind a desk, Willis spends most of his limited screen time in EXTRACTION zip-tied to a chair in a dimly-lit warehouse office. He plays Leonard Turner, a former CIA legend forced into retirement a decade earlier after a terrorist outfit he was pursuing attacked his home and murdered his wife. His teenage son Harry survived the tragedy, and in the present day, played by the almost-lifelike Kellan Lutz (the TWILIGHT series), is in the CIA training program in Prague, against his father's wishes. Disregarding the orders of his superiors and his mentor and dad's old partner Robertson (D.B. Sweeney), Harry takes matters into his own hands when Leonard is kidnapped in Newark by a group of domestic terrorists who have stolen "The Condor," described as "the ultimate hack" (not to be confused with 2015 Bruce Willis), a device that, once activated, can control any government's electronic communication--internet, e-mail, GPS, etc. It can only be deactivated by "The Patriarch Key," which must be uploaded directly into The Condor. Teaming with CIA agent and ex-girlfriend Victoria Fair (Gina Carano), Harry heads to Newark to rescue his estranged father, resulting in two fight scenes at bars, a few explosions, some attempts at witty repartee (the ass-kicking Carano doesn't seem like someone who would start a sentence with "You know, this totes reminds me of..."), and a shootout at an abandoned warehouse, just in case you were concerned that EXTRACTION would do something completely insane and even slightly stray from the path of utterly formulaic convention.


Blandly directed by Steven C. Miller, who's got the atrocious SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT remake SILENT NIGHT on his resume, EXTRACTION feels overlong and padded even at a brief 82 minutes--and that includes over a minute devoted to five or six production company logos at the start, a long opening credits sequence where 23 producers have to see their names listed, and a slow closing credit crawl that combine to make the actual movie itself a little under 75 minutes. It's the kind of movie where Jersey-based characters can't just say "Newark," but instead have to say "Newark, New Jersey" to give the target audience--pay-per-viewers at hotels in Asia and the United Arab Emirates--some sense of geography. It's the kind of movie where an establishing shot of the most instantly recognizable cemetery in America is accompanied by the caption "Arlington National Cemetery - Washington, D.C."


"Hey, pal...there should be
another zero on this!" 
EXTRACTION gets its biggest boost from an occasionally funny, Bob Balaban-like performance by Steve Coulter as the sarcastic, condescending CIA honcho watching the proceedings on a bank of monitors in the mandatory Jason Bourne Crisis Suite (when told about the specifics of The Condor, he calmly and matter-of-factly queries "Can someone who didn't spend their childhood jerking off to science magazines explain this to me?"). Still waiting for a worthy starring vehicle post-HAYWIRE, Carano isn't given much to work with, starting with Lutz, who's so charisma-impaired and so lacking in screen presence that he practically evaporates before your eyes. Lutz has got several failed actioners under his belt (JAVA HEAT, the unwatchable THE LEGEND OF HERCULES, and the disappointing THE EXPENDABLES 3) in numerous attempts to make him a thing after TWILIGHT, and it's not hard to fathom why Willis is so bored playing support to him, though a late-film plot twist does get Bruno out of his chair and a little more invested in the proceedings than in his other VOD credits. I still doubt Willis spent more than a few days working on EXTRACTION before ensuring the money was wired to his bank account and moving on to his next projects: an action thriller called MARAUDERS directed by--you guessed it--Steven C. Miller, and a heist thriller called PRECIOUS CARGO, directed by EXTRACTION co-writer Max Adams. Can someone sit Bruce Willis down and show him DIE HARD or maybe PULP FICTION? Hell, even COLOR OF NIGHT would be worth another look at this point. Does Willis have some personal financial issues that necessitate his taking on these mercenary assignments or is he still pissed that nobody went to see HUDSON HAWK and he's just now exacting his vengeance?





Friday, December 11, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: WHITE OF THE EYE (1988)


WHITE OF THE EYE
(US - 1988)

Directed by Donald Cammell. Written by China and Donald Cammell. Cast: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Art Evans, Alan Rosenberg, Michael Greene, Alberta Watson, William G. Schilling, David Chow, Danielle Smith, Mimi Lieber, Pamela Seamon. (R, 111 mins)

Scottish-born Donald Cammell (1934-1996) made only four features over his career, beginning with the 1970 cult classic PERFORMANCE, co-directed with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. A wild, surreal mindfuck about a vicious London gangster (James Fox) on the run and going down the road to madness while hiding out with a retired, reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and two bisexual groupies (Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton), the X-rated PERFORMANCE was shot in 1968 and shelved for two years by Warner Bros., who hated the movie and had no idea what to do with it. They finally released it after some re-editing against Cammell's wishes, and supported it with a promotional campaign that centered almost completely on Jagger, even though Fox is the star and Jagger doesn't even appear until 45 minutes in. This would become a recurrent theme throughout the director's career, with tragic results: his final film, the 1995 thriller WILD SIDE, which features one of Christopher Walken's most insane performances, was taken away from him in post-production and recut by the producers, who emphasized the explicit lesbian sex scenes between Joan Chen and then-newcomer Anne Heche, whose last name was mispronounced "Heck" in the trailer. It went straight to video and into regular rotation on late-night cable after Cammell had his name taken off of it, with directing credit going to the non-existent "Franklin Brauner." The filmmaker was so despondent over his serious work being retooled into a tawdry Skinemax flick that he fell into a deep depression and made the ultimate protest for final cut, shooting himself in the head in his Hollywood home on April 24, 1996. His widow and frequent collaborator China Kong claimed that it took him nearly 45 minutes to die, and he requested a mirror in order to observe his own final moments of life.


Donald Cammell (1934-1996)
Between his first and last films, Cammell made two others--1977's DEMON SEED and 1988's WHITE OF THE EYE--and occasionally directed music videos, most notably U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)." DEMON SEED was Cammell's most commercial effort, relatively speaking, an adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel in which Julie Christie is held captive and impregnated by a sentient computer system (voiced by Robert Vaughn) created by her scientist husband (Fritz Weaver). Weaver was cast against Cammell's wishes, as the director wanted his friend Marlon Brando, who was vetoed by the studio for being too difficult and too expensive. Cammell and Brando attempted numerous projects over the years, none of which came to fruition in their lifetimes. In 2005, a year after Brando's death, their novel Fan Tan, assembled from a manuscript that the actor had stashed away since 1978, was published. DEMON SEED was a journeyman big-studio gig for Cammell, who needed the money but wasn't happy with the film's lurid marketing and the lack of control over the project (it's the only one of his four films that he didn't script). Cammell is also credited with co-writing the 1979 Brooke Shields pinball movie TILT, which he was originally scheduled to direct but quit over creative differences, namely the casting of Brooke Shields (he wanted Jodie Foster). Keeping busy with music videos in the early '80s, Cammell didn't make another film until WHITE OF THE EYE, shot in early 1986 and given a very limited release by Palisades Entertainment in the spring of 1988, a year after it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the last release of the short-lived Palisades, which was founded in 1987 and released films like ZOMBIE HIGH, Frank Henenlotter's BRAIN DAMAGE, and future ROAD HOUSE director Rowdy Herrington's acclaimed thriller JACK'S BACK. The company was already facing bankruptcy by the time WHITE OF THE EYE was smuggled into a handful of theaters and grossed just $225,000, its cause not helped by a terrible trailer (see below). Palisades' final productions, the Mickey Rourke boxing drama HOMEBOY among them, were eventually released by other distributors and the doomed indie company closed up shop less than two years after it started. Recently resurrected on Blu-ray in the US courtesy of Shout! Factory's "Scream Factory" horror division, WHITE OF THE EYE is represented by the British print licensed from Arrow Video, opening with the Cannon logo, as they secured the UK distribution rights.





Themes of duality, transformation, flip sides of the same coin, and an irreversible descent into all-out madness turn up in PERFORMANCE and WILD SIDE, and WHITE OF THE EYE is no exception. Adapting the 1984 "Margaret Tracy" (a pen name for Andrew Klavan) novel Mrs. White, but very much tailoring it to suit his own style and obsessions, Cammell molds WHITE into a sun-baked, suburban desert-set giallo, with AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN's David Keith as Paul White, a likable stereo/sound system/VCR (yeah, it's the '80s) installer and repairman in Globe, a small town in the outskirts of Tuscon, AZ. Paul makes a good living maintaining and repairing the luxury toys of Globe's upper-class residents, and he and his wife Joan (RAGING BULL Oscar-nominee Cathy Moriarty, who had been offscreen since the 1981 John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd bomb NEIGHBORS) and ten-year-old daughter Danielle (Danielle Smith) are a close and loving family. Flashbacks to ten years earlier--done in a strange, high-contrast "bleaching" look--show that New Yorker Joan was cross-country road-tripping with then-boyfriend Mike (Alan Rosenberg), when she angrily poured a can of soda in his van's 8-track player. Stopping off in Globe to see if it can be repaired, they encounter and befriend Paul, who begins a clandestine fling with Joan prior to Paul and Mike going on a hunting trip where a bizarre episode involving Paul's erratic behavior and over-the-top glee in killing a deer greatly disturbed Mike. Eventually, Mike found out about Paul and Joan and splits town, leaving her behind. In the present, nothing is what it seems as a serial killer has been offing Globe's wealthy and adulterous wives. The local cops are in over their head and call in Tuscon detectives Mendoza (Art Evans) and Ross (Michael Greene), who find some tire tracks at a murder scene are a match for the tires on Paul's truck. Mendoza and Ross, who keeps calling Paul a "non-conformist," are convinced he's the killer, but these educated investigators don't get any cooperation from Globe's useless and not-much-for-fancy-book learnin' sheriff (William G. Schilling), who grouses to his buddy Paul that "They got a 'psychological profile,' whatever the hell that means!" After Mendoza hauls both Paul and Joan in for questioning, philandering Paul's dalliances with recent victim Ann Mason (Alberta Watson) are brought into the open, prompting Joan to question whether her husband is the killer.

Donald Cammell's descents into madness:
James Fox as Chas in PERFORMANCE (above)
and David Keith as Paul White in WHITE OF THE EYE (below)



It's not a spoiler to say that Paul is the killer--it's revealed for certain at roughly the midpoint, in a horrifying scene where Joan discovers Ziploc freezer bags filled with human organs neatly stored in a hidden compartment built into their bathroom vanity. Paul admits he's the killer, driven by the notion that he's "chosen." Joan tries to reconcile the fact that the man she loves is a deranged killer and when she can't, he arms himself to the teeth and straps himself in dynamite (Danielle: "Dad's wearing a bunch of hot dogs!"), pulls his hair back in a samurai bun, applies war paint, and tries to kill his family. There's more to the story, especially with the late-film return of a brain-damaged Mike, who suffered a serious head injury during a jail stint and still has some resentment about Joan leaving him for Paul. Mike's surface function in the story is as a red herring--Cammell briefly flirts with the possibility that Mike is the killer and he's setting Paul up to take the fall--but he's the flip side of Paul. Paul internalizes his sickness and maintains a normal exterior, while the doofy but fundamentally decent Mike is "damaged" on the outside (an early cut of the film included a third man in Joan's life: her boss at her part-time thrift shop job played by John Diehl, who primarily existed to be another red herring, but was cut out of the film entirely by Cannon for the UK, and his scenes were left out for the US release as well; they're included  as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray, minus lost audio but with commentary by Cammell biographer and film historian Sam Umland).


Both Paul and Mike love Joan--Mike showed it by walking away and Paul shows it by trying to kill her if it means being together forever. Keith and Moriarty have never been better in roles that require the gamut of emotions and put them in situations that grow increasingly unpleasant as the film goes on. There's some shades of THE SHINING as a deranged Paul stalks his wife and daughter through the house, but in nearly every other way, WHITE OF THE EYE is a film like no other. It's not the most cohesively-assembled work (allusions to Native American folklore are mostly cosmetic never really go anywhere) and not everything wraps up neat and tidy, but like life, marriage, and relationships, it's messy by design. It's a terrifying thriller, but it plays out like anything but a commercial one, with the off-kilter feeling throughout augmented by hypnotic Steadicam work by cinematographer Larry McConkey and a trippy score composed by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn. Cammell also shows some love to Italian horror in the stunning opening sequence that has the (unknown at that point) killer following a woman into her house and killing her, the mix of blood, broken wine bottles, and thawed meat creating a disturbing and virtuoso display of all manner of splattering red that recalls Dario Argento firing on all cylinders.






The kind of film that stays with you days after seeing it, WHITE OF THE EYE is moody, bleak, and profoundly unsettling, especially one straight-out-of-an-Italian giallo murder, the punchline of which eerily foreshadows Cammell's own alleged final request in his last moments of life. Its almost non-existent release and the fact that nobody saw it did nothing to further his career, and the next several years would find him mired in the expected stalled productions that would never be, including a collaboration with Brando called JERICHO, which would have found the actor cast (improbably at that point in his life) as a retired contract killer who emerges from hiding to wipe out a Colombian drug lord's operation. JERICHO made it as far as pre-production but fell apart in 1988 when the erratic and unpredictable Brando bailed. Looking for some studio gigs to make some quick cash, Cammell was in the running to direct ROBOCOP 2 (eventually directed by Irvin Kershner) and the Rob Lowe thriller BAD INFLUENCE (ultimately made by Curtis Hanson), as well as 3000, a drama about a wealthy business executive who hires a street-tough prostitute for a week. The script for 3000 had been floating around Hollywood for several years before it was completely overhauled and turned into the beloved romantic comedy blockbuster PRETTY WOMAN. It would be another five years before the ill-fated WILD SIDE would get the greenlight from Cannon cover band NuImage, the Avi Lerner-owned outfit best known up to that time as a straight-to-video assembly line specializing in Frank Zagarino action vehicles. Cammell wrongly assumed that a small company like NuImage would leave him alone and let him make the film he wanted to make, but they weren't interested in art-house auteur pieces and recut it into the kind of sleazy, unrated erotic thriller that cluttered video store shelves at the time. Several years after his death, Cammell's director's cut of WILD SIDE would get a festival screening in the UK, but it thus far hasn't seen the light of day in the US outside of the bootleg and torrent circuit. A 2006 biography titled Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side, written by Umland and his wife Rebecca, wasn't widely read but the cineastes who did applauded its cementing of Cammell as a genuine auteur, and it's a tragedy that he only directed four films in 25 years. Cammell's name is synonymous with PERFORMANCE, but the Blu-ray release of WHITE OF THE EYE marks the perfect occasion to rediscover this haunting, forgotten masterpiece.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: WAR PIGS (2015) and RE-KILL (2015)


WAR PIGS
(US/UK - 2015)



This dull and pointless WWII actioner rips off THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, and just about every other men-on-a-mission outing and even borrows two stars of THE EXPENDABLES but can't even muster the energy to function as a remotely entertaining dumb movie. Funded in part by Panzerfabrik, a Colorado-based company that manufactures reproductions of WWII German tanks and other war equipment and offers its services for WWII re-enactments, WAR PIGS is basically a bunch of coasting C-listers playing dress-up while wandering around Utah's Uinta National Forest and pretending it's 1944 France while dodging an occasional CGI explosion. Luke Goss, who's devolved from passable second-string Jason Statham into arguably the most boring actor alive, is Capt. Jack Wosick, a disgraced soldier ordered by Maj. A.J. Redding (Mickey Rourke, whose kamikaze squandering of his SIN CITY resurgence and Oscar-nominated WRESTLER triumph is now complete) to team up with Capt. Hans Picault (Dolph Lundgren) of the French Foreign Legion. Their assignment: whip a team of military malcontents, ne'er-do-wells, and all-around fuck-ups into shape to take out a secret weapon being developed by Hitler. Cliches abound, usually with Wosick butting heads with smartass, pretty-boy soldier August (Noah Segan), before they all grow up and emerge heroes. There's no humor and barely any action, Lundgren doesn't even pretend to give a shit, with his French accent coming and going throughout, and third-billed UFC icon Chuck Liddell is killed off five minutes into the movie in a role that's not so much a cameo as it is "POLICE SQUAD! special guest star." Most depressing of all is Rourke, always seen behind a desk and clearly arriving to work in his own clothes, sporting a cowboy hat with his long hair dangling down the side of his head and shirt unbuttoned halfway down in regulation, by-the-book 1944 military style. Looking less like a high-ranking officer and more like he got the part after some Panzerfabrik re-enactors found him dumpster diving on the Uinta campgrounds, Rourke is just a sad sight here, and since Lundgren is in a coma, Liddell has the good sense to get offed 300 seconds into the movie, and there's absolutely no such thing as a fan of Luke Goss movies, there isn't a single reason for anyone to watch this. (R, 87 mins)





RE-KILL
(US - 2015)



After a five-year hiatus, the "8 Films to Die For" After Dark Horrorfest package returns with more indie horror from around the world. Most of the titles released from 2006 to 2010 ranged from completely forgettable to thoroughly awful, but there were a few notable standouts, like Nacho Cerda's THE ABANDONED, Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S), Sean Ellis' THE BROKEN, and Joel Anderson's disturbing LAKE MUNGO. Lionsgate is no longer involved, and the 2015 relaunch came and went with little fanfare on VOD and has now arrived on DVD courtesy of Fox. One of the new offerings is RE-KILL, a bottom-of-the-barrel zombie shoot 'em up shot so long ago that it was originally announced as part of the 2010 lineup before it was abruptly yanked from the list and shelved for five years. Shot in Bulgaria and Baton Rouge, RE-KILL is a borderline unwatchable 90 minutes of handheld shaky-cam that would've seemed stale even in 2010, set after yet another apocalyptic zombie outbreak, this time generated by some botched government experiment called "The Judas Project." As cities are overrun with the sprinting dead (called "Re-Ans," short for "Re-Animateds"), military officers are followed by a camera crew for a reality TV show called RE-KILL, which documents their pursuit and extermination of Re-Ans. And that's pretty much it, other than frequent breaks for some Paul Verhoeven-esque would-be satirical commercials that lack the bite of similar bits in ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS (and furthermore, with 80% of the population dead and hordes of undead in the streets, who's really in the mood or even has time to keep up on reality TV?). The cast is headed by Bruce Payne (PASSENGER 57), doing a Russell Crowe impression as a fanatically religious, thousand-yard-staring hardass soldier, and a badly-utilized Scott Adkins (NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR) as a fist-pumping, chest-thumping war hero ("You got questions about soldierin', you come to me!"). Both actors are better than the material (Payne actually appears to be taking it seriously), but both are killed off well before it's over. You can never tell what's going on or who's who or where--it's just a lot of posturing ("This is what we do!"), stating the obvious ("You gotta destroy the brain stem"), yelling ("Get down!"), gunfire, and CGI splatter. There's little nuance or subtlety in the script by Mike Hurst, but that's about what you should expect from the guy who gave us such renowned gems as HOUSE OF THE DEAD II and PUMPKINHEAD 4: BLOOD FEUD. Hurst co-directed with Valeri Milev, who parlayed this success into getting the coveted WRONG TURN 6: LAST RESORT gig in 2014. Payne's effort is the only thing keeping RE-KILL from stumbling off the ledge into utter uselessness, and when it wraps up at the end, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more fitting metaphor than the RE-KILL TV show closing credits rolling on a TV in an empty house with no one watching. (R, 87 mins)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

In Theaters: KRAMPUS (2015)


KRAMPUS 
(US - 2015)

Directed by Michael Dougherty. Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields. Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Krista Stadler, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker. (PG-13, 98 mins)

Inspired by a nightmarish holiday figure in Germanic folklore, KRAMPUS is at times quaintly old-fashioned in the way that, with a few tweaks, it could've been pretty much the same movie 30 years ago. It's got some dark elements in line with today's more snarky and cynical audiences, but in terms of style, score, and visual effects (yes, there's CGI, but there's a lot of practical-based work as well), it's the kind of GREMLINS-era mix of horror and dark comedy that recalls both the best of Joe Dante and a high-end, big-budget Full Moon title. It's a film out of its own time, much like its young protagonist Max (Emjay Anthony), a ten-year-old who's already nostalgic for a few years ago, desperately clinging to the notion of Santa Claus as his childhood slips away. His older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is always off with her boyfriend, and his parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) love each other but are very slowly growing complacent and drifting, with Tom spending so much time at work and Sarah's realization that time keeps ticking. The mood isn't helped by the holidays, which are supposed to bring cheer but instead bring relatives: Sarah's sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her right-wing, gun-nut husband Howard (David Koechner), and their abrasively unpleasant children, bullying tomboys Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel) and silent-except-for-belching, Mountain Dew-guzzing Howie Jr (Maverick Flack, easily the most awesomely-named horror movie child actor since 28 WEEKS LATER's Mackintosh Muggleton), plus the bonus surprise of booze-guzzling, constantly-complaining Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell).


In its earliest scenes, KRAMPUS does a great job of nailing all the terrible things about the holiday season, starting with an opening credits sequence that shows a mob of frothing-at-the-mouth shoppers stampeding into a big-box retailer in a symphony of destruction and mindless consumerism. Likewise, anyone will be able to relate to the dread and unease of family--people you might not necessarily be close to but they're family so you spend the holidays together--visiting, whether it's the way a judgmental aunt criticizes your cooking or your decor or the way you have to listen to your conservative blowhard brother-in-law bitch about Democrats and parroting what he heard on talk radio. When Stevie and Jordan make fun of Max's letter to Santa, Max tears it up and tosses it out the window. This fateful act awakens Krampus, a hooved, horned demon described by Tom's German-speaking mother Omi (Krista Stadler) in a beautifully-executed animated detour as "the shadow of St. Nicholas," the vengeful spirit who brings death and destruction on those who've lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. When a blizzard hits the next morning, knocks out the power and makes travel impossible, the family is holed up inside the house, forced to deal with each other and the evil elves of Krampus, who's trying to get into the house to teach them all a lesson.


KRAMPUS is directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, a Bryan Singer associate who co-wrote X2 and SUPERMAN RETURNS but is best known for writing and directing the cult horror anthology TRICK 'R TREAT, which was bounced around the release schedule for two years before going straight-to-DVD in 2009. I found it merely OK, but TRICK 'R TREAT has become a beloved Halloween favorite for today's horror fans, and with KRAMPUS, Dougherty establishes himself as the go-to guy for holiday fright. Both films have Dougherty demonstrating a fondness for (relatively) old-school horror, particularly the crowd-pleasing types of the '80s. KRAMPUS isn't necessarily scary, but it has a nicely creepy feel throughout, whether it's the snowbound desolation or the way ominous-looking snowmen keep popping up in the front yard and moving closer to the house. There's also a loving homage to the video-store favorites from Charles Band's Full Moon, with some evil toys and gingerbread men coming to life and attacking the family in vintage DEMONIC TOYS fashion, with an incredulous Howard, after shotgun-blasting gingerbread men who were attacking him with a nail gun, shouting "I just got my ass kicked by a bunch of Christmas cookies...I'll believe anything!" Of course, the family bands together and casts aside their differences to survive the holiday onslaught, and KRAMPUS is probably accessible enough that kids would enjoy it, but it does get darker than you'd expect, especially in the way it pulls no punches in terms of who it's willing to kill off and in its deceptively happy ending that's really anything but. I don't think Dougherty has quite made his knock-it-out-of-the-park horror classic yet (despite horror scenester hype that KRAMPUS is "the next great horror classic!"), but his is a welcome voice that still has a lot of promise if he doesn't keep taking eight years between movies.



Wednesday, December 2, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2015); MISSISSIPPI GRIND (2015); and MOMENTUM (2015)

GOODNIGHT MOMMY
(Austria - 2015)


This wildly-acclaimed Austrian import ("The rebirth of Austrian horror," one blog emphatically declared ) was hailed as a new genre classic by the horror scenester echo chamber when it opened in limited release and on VOD in September of this year. Sure, there's an occasional BABADOOK or IT FOLLOWS where the hype is justified, but accolades of this sort might carry more weight if those same scenesters didn't say that about every new indie horror movie that comes out (remember every Ti West movie? Or when everyone said STARRY EYES was the next classic?  Remember how everyone was pumped about THE GALLOWS and then it was actually released?). GOODNIGHT MOMMY gets an extra love tap with the kid gloves since it's a subtitled foreign film, as if that lends it a classy sheen to help deflect the rote predictability of the entire endeavor. There's some baiting-and-switching and a big twist of a reveal at the end, but anyone not declared legally brain-dead will be able to call it by the ten-minute mark, so all that's left to do is sit and wait. Then the twist comes--and it plays out just as you predicted--and the movie's over. Giving off the stench of bargain-basement Michael Haneke, GOODNIGHT MOMMY has an interesting and disturbing set-up, but the writing/directing team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala switch gears almost immediately, turning the film into another tired "evil children" piece that just spins its wheels and turns into a stultifyingly tedious waste of time. When their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home from having some kind of vague cosmetic surgery, nine-year-old twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) are alarmed by her increasingly erratic behavior--she's prone to mood swings, demands total silence, and won't even acknowledge Lukas--and come to believe the woman whose face is covered in gauze and bandages (an admittedly unsettling image) isn't their mother. So far, so good, but then the sinister element of "Who is this woman?" is up-ended as the bandages come off and the boys go to extreme measures to get this person who looks exactly like their mother to confess her true identity, morphing into a rote "creepy kids" movie, even if it's the sensitive Elias acting under the direction of the persuasive and domineering Lukas. The twist is so embarrassingly easy to see that you figure there has to be something more, but there isn't. That is, unless you count the boys super-glueing their mother's mouth and eyes shut and blood gushing all over the place when they try to cut her lips open. A film that almost sets a land-speed record for going from intriguing to actively pissing me off, GOODNIGHT MOMMY can't even get much out of its ominous, middle-of-nowhere setting in a huge house straight out of a classic giallo. Come on, bloggers and horror fanboys. Your hype and fawning praise are meaningless if you don't start being a little more discerning and a little less concerned with keeping the free shit coming. (R, 100 mins)






MISSISSIPPI GRIND
(US - 2015)



For a while, the gambling drama MISSISSIPPI GRIND, the latest from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (HALF NELSON), seems like a shaggy dog road movie that doesn't appear to be ambling to anywhere in particular. But it carries itself like a '70s character study along the lines of its two primary 1974 influences: you could argue that it's a loose remake of Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT, but it also owes a lot to Karel Reisz's THE GAMBLER, right down to the brief presence of veteran filmmaker and GAMBLER screenwriter James Toback in a rare acting role. With his slumped shoulders and dark cloud perpetually hovering over his head, Ben Mendelsohn straddles the line between good-natured but unlucky sad sack and sketchy, self-serving shitbag as Gerry, a down-on-his-luck real estate agent who owes money all over Dubuque. With his soft-spoken but serious loan shark (Alfre Woodard in some unexpected casting) tells him the clock's ticking, Gerry hits the road with new acquaintance Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a confident and gregariously likable guy he recently met at a seedy dive of a casino, the kind of effortlessly smooth talker who loves to tell stories and has everybody at the poker table laughing. Once he meets Curtis, Gerry coincidentally starts winning and is convinced Curtis is his good-luck charm ("You're my leprechaun!"). Gerry splits town, helping himself to $200 in his employer's petty cash fund, dragging the goes-where-life-takes-him Curtis (Curtis to Gerry: "What?  You have a job?") on a road trip to Memphis and through Little Rock to New Orleans, by which time Gerry presumes to have earned enough money to invite himself to a secret poker game with a $25K buy-in hosted by Tony Roundtree (Toback), a big-time gambler he only knows of through Curtis' second-hand stories.





Things obviously don't pan out, as Gerry is a character played by Ben Mendelsohn, who's sort-of cornering the market on dodgy, untrustworthy skeezes and small-time scam artists (ANIMAL KINGDOM, KILLING THEM SOFTLY, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, LOST RIVER, and the Netflix series BLOODLINE). Like the Altman film it models itself on, MISSISSIPPI GRIND is about the interaction between the two main characters and how their bond brings out the best and worst in one another. Gerry is a hopeless, reckless gambler who loves the thrill of the bet but is terrible at it. So is Curtis, but his confidence carries him and compared to Gerry, he knows when to walk away. Curtis, whose financial solvency is never really explored, mainly just likes talking to people and finds poker tables are the best place to people-watch. He goes along with Gerry initially because he's got nothing else going on but eventually because he just likes him, and if Gerry believes Curtis is the source of his luck, then so be it. It's hard to get a read on Curtis, and that's by design. Reynolds again proves himself to be a much better actor than his detractors would ever be willing to admit (he was a last-minute replacement for Jake Gyllenhaal, who was delayed on another project), and he's a good match with Mendelsohn, who gets to show different shades of his character as the film progresses. He's funny and likable one moment, desperate and pathetic the next--nowhere is this more apparent than in a very uncomfortable reunion with his embittered ex-wife (Robin Weigert). Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton are saddled with underwritten and rather superfluous supporting roles as hookers-with-hearts-of-gold who capture the attention of Curtis and Gerry respectively, but other than that and an ending that's sufficient but does wrap things up a little too neat and tidy, MISSISSIPPI GRIND is an engaging, slow-burner throwback character piece that would've been right at home if it had opened 40 years ago instead of today, on just 46 screens for a total gross of $130,000. (R, 109 mins)



MOMENTUM
(US/South Africa/Spain - 2015)



The kind of movie where an establishing aerial shot features the Capitol Building in the foreground and the Washington Monument in the background and still feels the need to include the caption "Washington, D.C.," MOMENTUM is cliched almost to the point of parody. It has a hissing, snarky villain who, just before he's about to off the hero, opts to give an endless, condescending speech instead. You'd be correct in assuming a bad guy like that is also prone to hackneyed chess analogies that come back to bite him in the ass, as he of course gets the upper hand on the hero and sneers "Check!" which is pretty much an open invitation to that hero to declare "Checkmate!" just before killing him. And that's exactly how it plays out. Nevertheless, once it gets settled in after a clunky and confusing opening, MOMENTUM is stupid but reasonably entertaining action movie junk food. It's complete garbage, but it's energetic and has a pair of fun performances at its core, plus one seriously slumming surprise guest star who's not featured in the trailer, the poster art, or in any of the promotional material, and who couldn't possibly have been on the set for more than half a day, literally phoning in his performance from behind a desk.





After a botched Cape Town bank robbery where one of the criminals, Alexis (QUANTUM OF SOLACE's Olga Kurylenko) loses her mask in front of a lobby full of witnesses, a cleanup crew of hired killers led by the gleefully snide and sardonic Mr. Washington (James Purefoy) is dispatched to eliminate the entire team. Alexis had plans to disappear after this One Last Job, but now she's fighting for her life with Washington and his goons in hot pursuit. The killers are in the employ of a corrupt US senator (Morgan Freeman...yes, that Morgan Freeman), who's secretly planning a terrorist attack in Chicago in order to start a new war and secure a huge defense contract, with his entire nefarious plan laid out on a flash drive that Alexis acquired in the bank job (why a US senator would save that on a flash drive and then go through the trouble of storing it in a safety deposit box in South Africa remains a mystery). Co-written by Adam Marcus (JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D) and directed by a debuting Stephen Campanelli, a veteran camera operator who's been part of Clint Eastwood's crew since 1995's THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (MILLION DOLLAR BABY and INVICTUS star and nice guy Freeman obviously doing a solid for Campanelli, who likely wasn't going to risk getting booted off the Malpaso payroll by asking Clint to play the senator), MOMENTUM knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and it's almost nonstop action after the clumsy first act. Kurylenko displays steely gravitas as a kickass heroine who walks away from CGI explosions like a pro (team her up with Milla Jovovich!), and a constantly smirking Purefoy is having a blast as Mr. Washington ("Oh, you magnificent bitch!" he yells at Alexis when she outsmarts him yet again), There's some brutal action sequences, some winking Eastwood homages (cue the "Do you feel lucky?" speech) and self-referential auto-critiques ("I've seen this in too many movies," Washington glowers as Alexis is doing exactly what he thinks she's doing) and an inspired bit where one bad guy's head is smashed apart with a kid's Tonka Truck. A late-breaking plot development involving Alexis' background as a rogue CIA superagent recruited from the Mossad would appear to set up a BOURNE-like franchise that likely isn't happening, considering the $20 million film went straight to VOD in the US and is currently making headlines for grossing the equivalent of $69 during its ten-screen theatrical release in the UK. It's enjoyable for what it is--wait for it to turn up on Netflix Instant and queue it up on a slow night expecting nothing and you'll be entertained. (Unrated, 96 mins)




Sunday, November 29, 2015

In Theaters: CREED (2015)


CREED
(US - 2015)

Directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Anthony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Ritchie Coster, Wood Harris, Jacob "Stitch" Duran, Ricardo McGill, Malik Bazille, Gabriel Rosado, Frank Pesce. (PG-13, 133 mins)

"Time takes everybody out. It's undefeated."

When CREED was first announced a couple of years ago, with a plot focusing on the son of Apollo Creed being trained by Rocky Balboa, the immediate reaction of most was eye-rolling dismissal. It sounded like a desperate ploy by Sylvester Stallone to keep the ROCKY franchise going by remaking it with himself in Burgess Meredith's Mickey role. It sounded like the kind of cheap, cynical DTV spinoff along the lines of a CARLITO'S WAY: RISE TO POWER, an EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK, and the still-unreleased THE BRONX BULL, which was shot as RAGING BULL II prior to succumbing to various legal issues that have kept it on the self since 2012. Even if it's approached with lowered expectations, CREED is one of the biggest surprises of the year. In the hands of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (2013's acclaimed FRUITVALE STATION), CREED is so much more than a Stallone nostalgia trip. It's a thoughtful and perceptive film about families, legacies, loss, and new beginnings. Ghosts of the past haunt nearly every scene. The legacy of the late Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), killed in the ring in ROCKY IV (1985), unites two men: his best friend and former foe Rocky (Stallone) and Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son whose birth Apollo didn't live to see.


The result of an extramarital affair between his mother and Apollo Creed, Adonis Johnson was orphaned at a young age, had severe anger management issues, and seemed doomed to a life in juvenile detention when he wasn't bouncing around foster care and group homes until he was 13, when Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) found him, took him in, and adopted him. Keeping his mother's last name to both honor her and avoid getting a free ride on his father's legend, Adonis establishes himself as a capable fighter in illegal Tijuana boxing matches while maintaining a day job at a prestigious investment firm in Los Angeles, where he's just gotten a promotion before promptly quitting to pursue boxing full-time. This angers Mary Anne, who remembers what it was like taking care of Apollo after his fights ("Do you know how many times I had to help the Heavyweight Champion of the World up these stairs because he couldn't walk?  Do you know how many times I had to wipe his ass because he couldn't use his hands?"), but she's powerless to stop him. Adonis heads to Philadelphia to track down Rocky. He finds him, still running Adrian's, the small neighborhood Italian restaurant named in honor of his late wife, who died prior to the events of 2006's ROCKY BALBOA. Rocky is happy to tell Adonis stories about his dad but firmly states he has no interest in becoming his trainer, instead sending him to Mighty Mick's Gym, now being run by Pete Sporino (Ritchie Coster), who keeps trying to get Rocky's celebrity name attached to his own son Leo "The Lion" Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Of course, it doesn't take long for lonely Rocky, who's once again estranged from Rocky, Jr and who also lost his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) and Apollo's trainer Duke (Tony Burton) in the years since ROCKY BALBOA, to see Apollo's spirit in Adonis and take him up on the training offer, not having much in the way of book smarts to give the educated Adonis but dispensing the sage advice he's learned from experience over his lifetime ("See that guy in the mirror?  That's your biggest opponent. I believe that in the ring and I believe that in life"). Adonis, meanwhile, falls for his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring singer who's suffering from progressive hearing loss.


The story structure of CREED--the first ROCKY film not written by Stallone--is largely formulaic in its point A-to-point B plot mechanics: Adonis establishes a name for himself, eventually accepting his lineage and going by Adonis Creed when Pete leaks his true identity to the media, and becomes a recognized fighter over the course of the film, eventually taking on the champion "Pretty Ricky" Conlan (Anthony Bellew) in a Liverpool bout hastily arranged by Conlan's manager (Graham McTavish) to pay the bills while Conlan serves a seven-year prison sentence on gun charges. Stallone directed four of the six previous ROCKY movies, with John G. Avildsen helming 1976's ROCKY and 1990's ROCKY V, and both men are the sort-of capable journeyman types whose skills can best be described as "workmanlike." Coogler, on the other hand, displays more confidence and skill at just 29 than Stallone and Avildsen could've brought to the table, the innovative Steadicam contributions of Garrett Brown in the 1976 film notwithstanding. Coogler and veteran cinematographer Maryse Alberti (WHEN WE WERE KINGS) have fashioned some of the best fight sequences you'll see in the boxing genre, especially in Adonis' bout with The Lion, where the entire first round is shot in real time without a cut, the camera snaking around the ring, between and above the fighters, with a dizzying array of sounds from each of their corners drifiting in and out as they move around the ring. It's a stunning sequence, and along with the film's many long, uninterrupted tracking shots that follow Adonis or Rocky, indicative of a gifted director at work. Stallone must have had absolute faith in Coogler's vision to allow his most personal, iconic character to be placed entirely in someone else's hands. Coogler responds by making Rocky even more multi-layered and complex than ever, a man who knows he's a legend but remains humble, preferring his quiet, low-profile life and lamenting that all of his loved ones are gone and he's alone. Even in the midst of the formula elements (why does every aspiring boxer live in a shithole apartment?), CREED remains unpredictable: we expect Rocky Jr, now living in Vancouver and calling himself "Robert Balboa," to show up at a certain point in the film when Rocky needs him most. He doesn't. He's referenced once and never mentioned again. In some films, this could be an oversight, but here it's by design. Adonis is the son Rocky's lost through estrangement, and Rocky is the father Adonis never had (Adonis immediately endears himself to Rocky by repeatedly referring to him as "Unc"). We also expect Bianca's hearing loss to factor in, but it's introduced and matter-of-factly accepted. She puts her hearing aids in like someone putting on their reading glasses. There's nothing Adonis can do in the ring to restore her fading hearing, so like every other setback these characters face--and a big obstacle surfaces in the second half--they adjust to it and keep on fighting.


It would've been easy to cave to hokey sentimentality and maudlin manipulation, but when the waterworks start (this immediately joins the pantheon of Hall of Fame man-weepies--you can actually feel a wave of emotion in the audience late in the film when Bill Conti's "Rocky Theme" fires up), it's earned. Jordan is absolutely magnetic as Adonis, who's simultaneously running away from and directly toward the long shadow cast by his father ("I just want to know I'm not a mistake!" he yells when Rocky asks what he's trying to prove), but it's Stallone's Rocky who's the emotional core of CREED. This is a beloved character we've known for nearly 40 years, so much so that it practically transcends an actor playing a role. Stallone's had so many ups and downs throughout his career that he perfectly embodies that underdog spirit. It's enough to make you forget the cartoonish depths of the Reagan-era flag-waving of ROCKY IV (nobody likes the much-maligned ROCKY V, but at least it's better than ROCKY IV), even though CREED's springboard is Apollo's death at the hands of Soviet superfighter killing machine Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a tragedy for which Rocky still feels tremendous guilt over not throwing in the towel to stop. Now that he knows Adonis, Rocky feels a responsibility for him. Stallone, who at 69 is the same age Burgess Meredith was in ROCKY, is so lived-in and naturally comfortable as Rocky that you almost forget he's acting. He's presented with a challenge by Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington's script and he rises to the occasion by delivering his most accomplished and invested performance in many years, probably going back to FIRST BLOOD in 1982. He's great in his big moments, but brilliant even in little ones, whether he's looking on with pride at Adonis or visiting the cemetery and talking to Adrian and Paulie ("It's gettin' harder to walk up that hill!" the arthritic Rocky says, catching his breath and pulling up a chair at Adrian's grave to tell her about his day). Filled with exhilarating boxing sequences, dazzling filmmaking (watch the way Coogler darkens the arena midway through the final fight as a way of illustrating the fighters' singular focus), gut-wrenching emotion, and honest, heartfelt performances, CREED is like nothing you'd expect a seventh film in the ROCKY series to be. More than a generic sequel-turned-reboot, CREED very much stands on it own as a terrific film and one of 2015's very best.







Saturday, November 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015) and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)


RICKI AND THE FLASH
(US - 2015)



Over her legendary career, Meryl Streep has demonstrated that she's capable of pretty much everything, so while it may seem like a stretch to imagine her as an aging rocker, it doesn't take long to accept her in the role. Streep is Ricki Rendazzo, who's more or less a D-list Bonnie Raitt in the grand scheme of things: her classic rock cover band Ricki and the Flash have a loyal following as the house band at a Tarzana bar that draws the same crowd every night of the week, but after one unsuccessful album over 20 years ago, she never came close to hitting the big time. Ricki's pursuit of fame and fortune came at a price: in the late '80s, she walked away from her life as Indianapolis housewife Linda Brummel, and though she's made sporadic appearances in the lives of ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and their children, her job as a mother has been fulfilled by Pete's second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Now, Ricki has been summoned back to Indianapolis after her daughter Julie (Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer) attempts suicide when her husband leaves her for another woman. Had RICKI AND THE FLASH kept that dysfunctional family dynamic as its focus, it would've been a lot better than the film that screenwriter Diablo Cody (JUNO) and the great director Jonathan Demme (STOP MAKING SENSE, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) ended up making. For a while, it goes along similar lines as the Cody-scripted YOUNG ADULT, even resorting to some well-done scenes of squirming discomfort, as when Ricki and Pete confront Julie's estranged, dickhead husband at a bar. I also like the approach Cody takes with Kline's Pete, who's happier with Maureen, has made peace with the past and, surprisingly by Hollywood standards, has moved on with his life and honestly harbors no resentment toward his ex-wife. Even more against convention, he may still have feelings for her but stops himself from acting on them. And Ricki's presence--and her tentative reconnection with her daughter and her sons, one sympathetic and forgiving (Sebastian Stan), the other bitter and resentful (Nick Westrate)--does manage to pull Julie off the ledge and get her taking steps toward rebuilding her life.



But then Demme abandons that, almost completely. Pete, Julie, and the rest disappear for a long stretch as Ricki returns to Tarzana and gets serious with her guitarist/boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield) before heading back to Indianapolis for her son's wedding. It's here where Demme sees fit to turn the film into a less caustic version of his own RACHEL GETTING MARRIED before letting it careen into full-on feelgood bullshit with a cast sing-along as Ricki and the Flash boot the wedding band off stage as the uptight onlookers sneer their disapproval but are eventually won over, get up and start dancing. Yes, a blunt and honest film about fractured family dynamics and decades-old wounds turns into a movie that ends with everyone getting over hating Ricki (and her far-right politics, which are introduced and promptly forgotten) and joining her onstage for a big, triumphant jam session at her son's wedding reception. Streep, Springfield (who's quite good here) and the band playing the Flash (featuring guys like keyboardist Bernie Worrell and drummer Joe Vitale) are really playing the songs, and Demme seems more interested in letting Streep show off her rhythm guitar skills and her singing voice in full-length Tom Petty, U2, and Bruce Springsteen covers. RICKI AND THE FLASH just utterly collapses in its second half to the point where it's not out of the question to wonder if Ricki is imagining the whole thing. The first half is honest, smart, and occasionally scathingly funny (Julie to Ricki: "Do you have a gig or do you always dress like a hooker from NIGHT COURT?"), but it just skids to a halt in the second half with one endless song after another and that godawful finale. And why is the bartender from Tarzana dancing at the wedding in Indianapolis?  The band making the trip is silly enough, but the fucking Ricki superfan bartender? Was Demme shooting the movie and realized Cody only had 50 minutes of script, so he decided to wing it the rest of the way? (PG-13, 101 mins)


AMERICAN ULTRA
(US/Switzerland - 2015)



A one-joke comedy that plays like a mash-up of screenwriter Max Landis' DVD collection, AMERICAN ULTRA initially seems like one of those movies that's trying too hard to be an instant cult classic until you realize it isn't trying to be much of anything at all. A splattery, stoner take on THE BOURNE IDENTITY, AMERICAN ULTRA takes place in the fictional West Virginia town of Liman, where pot-addled slacker Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a carryout and spends his free time getting baked with his live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). But it turns out Mike is a CIA sleeper agent in the top-secret Ultra program and only becomes aware of his abilities as an unstoppable killing machine when he's activated by Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), who's trying to save him from the machinations of Yates (Topher Grace), an ass-kissing agency douchebag hellbent on eliminating all traces of the Ultra program. As CIA agents and covert assassins converge on Liman, with the media being fed a story about the town being quarantined, Mike and Phoebe try to stay alive, with Mike instinctively--though he's too perpetually high to figure out how--using anything at his disposal to kill the assets sent to make him vanish.



I'm not sure anyone was demanding a BOURNE movie filtered through HALF-BAKED, but the results are neither as goofy as you'd expect nor as funny as Landis (son of John and writer of the overrated CHRONICLE) thinks. The weed angle is eventually abandoned altogether as ULTRA becomes a lot like a conventional thriller with only the cartoonish, PUNISHER; WAR ZONE-level splatter and would-be CRANK-style gonzo attitude to indicate that it's supposed to be played for laughs. Eisenberg and Stewart fared much better together in ADVENTURELAND, and director Nima Nourizadeh (the found-footage teen comedy PROJECT X) has a great supporting cast at his disposal but doesn't do much with them: Grace, not the most plausible casting for the head of a secret division of the CIA, can play this kind of unctuous turd in his sleep, Bill Pullman has a few scenes as a CIA big shot, John Leguizamo pops up as a strip club owner who's also Mike's dealer, Tony Hale does his umpteenth variation on Buster Bluth as a needy, nervous Lasseter underling, and only Walton Goggins makes a memorable impression as a constantly-laughing assassin named (wait for it) Laugher, whose comedic demeanor masks a depressed cognizance of his autonomy and individuality being stripped from him by his CIA brainwashers. That's as close as AMERICAN ULTRA comes to making a statement about anything. In the end, it's a lot of noise, a lot of CGI (even the exhaled pot smoke is CGI'd!), and not much funny. THE BOURNE LEBOWSKI, it ain't. (R, 96 mins)