Thursday, January 8, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE GUEST (2014); FALCON RISING (2014); and I ORIGINS (2014)

(US/UK - 2014)

The terrific YOU'RE NEXT (2013) earned some significant critical acclaim even outside the usual insulated and self-congratulatory horror circles and showed that indie filmmaker Adam Wingard and screenwriting partner Simon Barrett were ready to take things to the next level. The film didn't do very well commercially as mainstream audiences were perhaps a bit fatigued with home-invasion thrillers, but it's found a major cult following on DVD and Netflix streaming. Wingard and Barrett are part of the horror hipster collective that also includes their buddies and V/H/S franchise collaborators Joe Swanberg and Ti West (Wingard and Barrett starred in the horribly self-indulgent 24 EXPOSURES, a recent film by the prolific Swanberg. who also co-starred in YOU'RE NEXT), but as with YOU'RE NEXT, THE GUEST demonstrates that Wingard and Barrett are just as skillfully adept at making smart and entertaining thriller as they are the would-be auteurist circle-jerk home movies they get roped into by their friends. THE GUEST had an even tougher time in theaters than YOU'RE NEXT when distributor Picturehouse--a relaunch of the short-lived '00s indie distributor--cancelled their plans to roll it out nationwide (it was their only 2014 release) and instead halted THE GUEST's run on a mere 53 screens at its widest release for a gross of just $330,000. It deserved better and it's another one of those films that, had it been released ten years ago, would've easily become a huge word-of-mouth sleeper hit and likely launched the big-screen career of former DOWNTON ABBEY co-star Dan Stevens.

Sporting a flawless American accent, the British Stevens (also seen recently opposite Liam Neeson in the underrated A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES) is David, recently discharged from the military and paying a visit to the mourning family of his fallen friend Caleb. Caleb's family--mom Laura (Sheila Kelley), dad Spencer (Leland Orser), 20-year-old sister Anna (Maika Monroe), and teenage brother Luke (Brendan Meyer)--are dealing with his death in their own ways when David arrives to grant Caleb's final wish to tell each of them that he loved them very much. Touched by the extent of David's respect for their son by following through on his promise to honor Caleb's request, Laura and Spencer invite him to stay with them as long as he needs. David repays their kindness by helping out with some problems, whether it's handling some bullies making Luke's life hell, kicking some troublemakers out of a party thrown by Anna's friends, or just being a calming, comforting presence in a home fraught with tension. But something seems off about David, even with his story seemingly checking out and his being clearly visible in one of Laura's photos of Caleb's Special Forces unit in Iraq. To say any more about where the story heads would spoil the surprises THE GUEST has to offer (I haven't even mentioned the involvement of character actor Lance Reddick and an almost unrecognizable Ethan Embry), but with its twisty plot that expertly balances dark comedy and odd bits of humor (note the GENERAL HOSPITAL references in the family names) with grim and shocking dramatic turns, its unexpected character development (Brittany Murphy lookalike Monroe is quite good at playing Anna's very believable maturation from one who is disaffected and can't even to being the first to see through David's ruse and attempt to do something about it), and its killer John Carpenter-esque score by Steve Moore (one half of American synth-rock duo Zombi), it's one of the most giddily entertaining genre pieces in ages, and with the exception of THE IMMIGRANT, perhaps the best film of 2014 that nobody saw. Best of all is Stevens, whose brilliant performance brings to mind the smiling sincerity masking the tightly-coiled, ticking time-bomb menace that Terry O'Quinn brought to the 1987 classic THE STEPFATHER. Wingard admirably wastes absolutely no time in getting THE GUEST off and running, and it rapidly unfolds with all the appeal of a catchy song that's immediately got you hooked. This one should've been big, but like YOU'RE NEXT, it had to wait to be discovered. (R, 100 mins)

(US/Germany - 2014)

The busy Michael Jai White divides his time between DTV actioners and the Tyler Perry universe, starring in the Perry-produced WHY DID I GET MARRIED? TV spinoff FOR BETTER OR WORSE, a show that started on TBS but is now about to air its sixth season on OWN. For many years, White was best known for the title roles in the HBO movie TYSON (1995) and the big-screen SPAWN (1997), but his place in pop culture history would eventually be cemented by the 2009 cult classic BLACK DYNAMITE, a dead-on, labor-of-love spoof of blaxploitation films that White also wrote and shepherded every step of the way to its completion. BLACK DYNAMITE only received a limited theatrical release, but it's gone on to become one of the most revered and quotable comedies--at least with hardcore movie nerds--of the last several years, and in that sense, it's surprising that White, who's absolutely perfect as Black Dynamite, hasn't gone on to bigger things. White's no stranger to the world of DTV action, and his films have generally been a cut above the norm, whether he's working for Isaac Florentine in UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (2006), headlining the bone-crushing and bloody BLOOD AND BONE (2009), or directing himself in NEVER BACK DOWN 2: THE BEATDOWN (2011). Like Florentine--another DTV action figure who should theoretically be getting better mainstream offers--it may just be that White prefers the relative freedom that the world of low-budget action allows. Florentine is one of the producers of White's latest, FALCON RISING, which actually made it into a few theaters in September courtesy of Freestyle Releasing. It's the tentative beginning to what producers Shahar & Etchie Stroh of Moonstone Entertainment have christened the "Codename: Falcon" franchise, with White as former Marine-turned-government Black Ops agent John "Falcon" Chapman.

As FALCON RISING opens, a suicidal Chapman, haunted by his Iraq War memories, is playing Russian Roulette before heading to the liquor store, where he of course thwarts a robbery. When his humanitarian aid worker sister Cindy (Laila Ali, Muhammad's youngest daughter) is brutally beaten and left for dead in the "Favela" slums of Rio, Chapman heads to the Rio de Janeiro capital where his old war buddy Manny (Neal McDonough) conveniently runs the US Consulate. It seems Cindy was working to stop a human trafficking and child prostitution ring and got the attention of Rio's most corrupt cops and an evil crew of yakuza planning to ship underage girls to Japan. When an yakuza hit woman disguised as a nurse tries to kill a comatose Cindy, Chapman goes full One Man Wrecking Crew to take out the trash in the Favela. Director Ernie Barbarash is a DTV action veteran (CUBE ZERO, ASSASSINATION GAMES), not on the level of a Florentine or a John Hyams, but FALCON RISING (shot under the far less catchy title FAVELA) shows he's getting a little better. There's an enjoyable Cannon vibe to much of FALCON RISING, right down to its 101-minute run time, and it's really just one action movie cliche after another: PTSD-stricken Chapman's death wish, the Rio cop in charge of the case (Jimmy Navarro, looking and acting like his character should be named "Brazilem Dafoe") obviously being a villain, and the inevitable climactic shootout/MMA throwdown at a shipyard warehouse. There's nothing here you haven't seen before: the villains are complete cardboard cutouts; a sequence where Chapman issues a beatdown on a suspicious-looking guy who turns out to be a complete red herring who never bothers to introduce or explain himself until he and five of his buddies have been decked senseless is unbelievably dumb; a subplot about cleaning up the Favela owes a bit too much to THE RAID; and former boxer Ali has nothing to do but lie motionless in a hospital bed (and she gets an "introducing" credit despite IMDb showing 12 prior acting credits dating back to 2000), but FALCON RISING works as brainlessly diverting action fare. White is an engaging and stoical hero, there's some nice bantering with McDonough (shockingly not cast as a smug prick), who quips "I see you stopped working out" when he first sees the hulking Chapman at the Consulate, the fight choreography by Larnell Stovall is top-notch, and Barbarash and cinematographer Yaron Levy do a fine job of passing Puerto Rico off as Rio and making FALCON RISING look a bit bigger-budgeted than it really is (though you could make a drinking game out of how many times Barbarash cuts to swirling, second-unit aerial shots of the Christ the Redeemer statue). It's hard telling if FALCON RISING will actually lead to a franchise, but it's got plenty of action and no shortage of a perpetually scowling White beating the shit out of people, so what more do you need? (R, 101 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(US - 2014)

(Some SPOILERS ahead). The 2011 Sundance hit ANOTHER EARTH, directed by Mike Cahill and written by star Brit Marling, was one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking indie sci-fi films to come down the pike since PRIMER introduced the world to Shane Carruth. While Marling wrote and starred in the interesting SOUND OF MY VOICE and the disastrous THE EAST for their director pal Zal Batmanglij, Cahill was busy writing his follow-up film I ORIGINS. Marling is just an actress in this one, but it has that distinct feel that she usually brings to her projects. However, the film is ultimately a disappoint that never recovers from the glacially-paced mumblecore moping of its first half and it eventually succumbs to silliness despite an interesting premise once the narrative finally starts advancing. Opening in 2006, molecular biology Ph.D. candidate Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), his roommate Kenny (THE WALKING DEAD's Steven Yeun), and their frumpy research assistant Karen (Marling) are studying the evolution of the human eye in an effort to dismantle the notion of intelligent design and creationism. Ian meets Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) at a party and the two begin a whirlwind romance that comes to an abrupt end when Sofi is killed in an elevator accident. Cut to 2013, as the now-Dr. Gray and his research partner/wife Karen are told their infant son displays signs of autism. They're suspicious of the tests given to the baby and, through some plot advancement that the audience is just forced to roll with, discover that their son's iris pattern is identical to that of a man who died two years earlier, and the photos which provoked an emotional response from the baby during the test were images from that dead man's past. Making this their new mission--apparently with the plan of cutting the autism specialist (Cara Seymour) out entirely--Ian jets off to New Delhi when an eye-scan database indicates that a child with Sofi's iris pattern was there as recently as three months earlier.

Cahill tries to go for some heady ideas involving reincarnation, religion, and scientific theory, but too much of I ORIGINS is a laborious, pretentious bore. The courtship scenes between Ian and Sofi go on forever, with the two demonstrating the kind of odd, eccentric behavior that only goes over well at film festivals (their meet-cute is particularly absurd), and the performances of Pitt and Berges-Frisbey respectively channeling the most grating aspects of circa-2000 Jeremy Davies and circa-anytime Paz de la Huerta. The first 50 minutes are a slog, but if you can hang with it, it gets marginally better--for a while, at least--as Cahill gets a decent Shane Carruth forward momentum going and actually takes the concept somewhere. But it's ultimately a lot of talk on the way to nowhere special and not really worth the effort. There's still a lot of lingering questions, William Mapother's one-scene appearance as an American minister in Ian's New Delhi hotel seems to be what's left of a larger role that got hacked down in post, and a post-credits stinger tries to go for a big surprise but is just hokey and laughable. There's some nice cinematography, particularly in the New Delhi sequences, but Cahill's follow-up to the far-superior ANOTHER EARTH is, for the most part, a dull, draggy misfire, and though Marling is only in front of the camera, it's a good indication along with THE EAST that maybe the Marling/Cahill/Batmanglij team have said everything they've had to say. (R, 107 mins)

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