Wednesday, January 14, 2015


(US - 2014)

Debuting to widespread dismay and derision at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and opening to toxic reviews on 608 screens in October, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is currently ranked fifth on the list of all-time worst box office openings on 600 or more screens. Its total gross stalled at $705,000 but honestly, no film that allows you to hear Emma Thompson utter the words "titty-fucking cum queen" can possibly be completely worthless. Based on a novel by Chad Kultgen, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN finds director Jason Reitman, once the toast of Hollywood and the Next Big Thing after THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005), JUNO (2007), UP IN THE AIR (2009), and the underappreciated YOUNG ADULT (2011), crashing and burning with this on the heels of the universally-lambasted apple pie fiasco LABOR DAY (2013). MW&C is an hysterically overwrought look at Our World Today and examines the ways technology and everything else in our environment makes us strangers to one another. People drift apart, communication is non-existent, and everyone lives in their own insulated bubbles. Written by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson, best known for scripting 2002's SECRETARY and Atom Egoyan's ridiculous 2010 erotic thriller CHLOE, MW&C is another of these "everything is connected," big ensemble movies along the lines of CRASH, but miraculously manages to out-Haggis Paul Haggis in hackneyed sanctimony. Reitman is only 37 years old, but he's somehow directed a film that seems to have been made by an embittered and out-of-touch 80-year-old with its "Old Man Yells At Cloud" attitude about the state of the world with all the texting and the internet and the oversexed kids with the selfies and the hooking up. Most of that stems from one character: Jennifer Garner's Patricia Beltmeyer, arguably the most smothering helicopter parent in the history of cinema, a killjoy of Nurse Ratched proportions, a drunk-with-power sadist who makes Piper Laurie's Margaret White in CARRIE seem lenient and easy-going. Patricia is a mom so fixated on controlling every aspect of her teenage daughter Brandy's (Kaitlyn Dever of SHORT TERM 12) life that she seems to spend all of her waking hours scrolling through her daughter's texts and Facebook profile, systematically unfriending anyone she deems a "threat," and even plugging in a keylogger that monitors every one of Brandy's keystrokes. There are no redeeming qualities about this character and no reason given for her behavior to be as extreme as it is. But that's MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN in a nutshell: everything is black or white, with no shades of gray. It exists in an ennui-drenched suburbia where everyone's neuroses, dysfunctions, and emotional voids are right there in their browser histories. Everyone is selfish, everyone is miserable, and if there's anything that disrupts that simplistic view--like Patricia's useless husband (Jason Douglas)--then they're just cast aside by the filmmakers. Ray's there, but only exists to shake his head as Patricia sifts through pages upon pages of Brandy's text message printouts, like a driven detective obsessively digging through cold case files. It's no fault of Garner, who does what Reitman requires her to do, but Patricia Beltmeyer is one of the most ludicrously conceived villains to pop up in a movie in ages, and it was that character who bore the brunt of the film's overwhelmingly negative reception.

Elsewhere, we get quite the parade of sad sacks, all accompanied by the soothing tones of Thompson serving as narrator, at least until Reitman seems to forget about her and we go an hour without hearing her, and when she breaks out the aforementioned "titty-fucking cum queen," you're kind of interested in what else she has to say. Instead, we get Don Truby (a schlubby Adam Sandler in drama mode) and his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), bored parents of two sons whose stagnant sex life is separately rejuvenated by Helen creating an account with Ashley Madison and Don hiring escorts. This provides him with a nice break from sneaking home from work in the middle of the day to rub one out at his son Chris' (Travis Tope) laptop since Don's computer is completely shut down due to malware and viruses from all the porn sites he's visited. Chris has spent so much time jerking off to bondage and creampie videos that he can't even function during "normal" sex with hot cheerleader and self-aggrandizing would-be model Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), even after he practices by drilling a hole in a Nerf football and filling it with hand lotion. Hannah and her single mom Donna (Judy Greer) spend all their time working on making Hannah a star, taking photos of dubious merit--often with Hannah scantily-clad--and selling them online through Hannah's web site, where her "fans," unbeknownst to the impossibly naive Donna--who raised Hannah alone after being ditched by the father, a shitbag who promised to make her a star--are primarily pedophiles. Donna begins dating Kent (Dean Norris), whose wife abandoned him and star quarterback son Tim (Ansel Elgort) a year earlier. A disillusioned Tim has since quit the football team and spends all of his time playing a WORLD OF WARCRAFT-type game online, at least until he meets the similarly disconnected Brandy, who's looking for any way to escape her mother's psychosis. There's also the formerly overweight Allison (Elana Kampouris), who spent the last year starving herself and developing an eating disorder only to lose her virginity to an asshole jock (Will Peltz) who instantly ignores her. MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is overbaked and hopelessly melodramatic, but it's hardly the grease fire that many reviews made it out to be. Despite the cartoonish characterizations, the cast acquits themselves well, especially Norris and Greer, at least until the script requires the characters to do something stupid. Norris' Kent is handled in a surprising fashion in the sense that he initially supports his son's decision to quit the football team, giving him his space to deal with an accept his mother walking out on them. In most situations like that, the dad would be an abusive bully pressuring his son to man up and get back out on the field. Even Sandler puts forth some effort, but eventually everyone is defeated by the ham-fisted, reactionary story that only provokes guffaws instead of serious thought. (R, 119 mins)

(US - 2014)

This North Carolina-lensed indie horror film looks at the disintegration of a relationship through an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS filter. It's an alien invasion film with the intimate brutality of Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION and Lars von Trier's ANTICHRIST. While the derivative "pod people" angle sometimes feels like it's being forced into functioning as a metaphor by director/co-writer Leigh Janiak, HONEYMOON ultimately succeeds thanks to a pair of gutsy performances by its leads--the only actors onscreen for about 95% of the film--and a general queasy discomfort and one scene that recalls the kind of horrific set piece that fans cut their teeth on back in the '80s. Young newlyweds Paul (Harry Treadaway of PENNY DREADFUL) and Bea (Rose Leslie, best known as Ygritte on GAME OF THRONES) head to an isolated cottage in the middle of the woods for their honeymoon. After a couple days of wedded bliss, the party comes to an abrupt end when Paul finds Bea naked and confused in the woods in the middle of the night. She claims to have been sleepwalking but over the next day or so, she begins behaving oddly. She starts using familiar terms in a strange fashion (calling her suitcase a "clothes box") and forgets how to make coffee and French toast. She makes excuses for avoiding sex and has what look like deep bug bites on her inner thigh. She won't answer Paul's questions, leading him to believe she stepped out for a tryst with violent, hot-headed townie Will (Ben Huber) who owns the local diner and with whom Bea was obviously friendly as teenagers. Paul notes that Will's wife Annie (Hanna Brown) was also behaving in a disoriented manner. Strange lights shine into the cottage in the middle of the night and Paul catches Bea writing "My name is Bea, my husband's name is Paul" over and over in her journal, as Paul is convinced that something has happened to Bea and something has replaced her. "You look like her. You smell like her. You taste like her.  But you're not her," he says.

One of the interesting things HONEYMOON does is flirt with the idea that maybe it's Paul who's cracking up and that his concern over Bea is really just his jealousy boiling over after he quickly concludes from their brief meeting that Will is a long-ago ex of Bea's. The BODY SNATCHERS motif is a tried-and-true formula for utter paranoia, and applying it to what's essentially a two-character piece mostly taking place in a cottage makes for an intriguing contrast with the usual widespread, large-scale scope of most films of this sort. If ever there was an alien invasion character study, HONEYMOON would be it. The concept seems a little forced when Janiak tries to use it to illustrate the idea that no matter how much you love someone and think you know them, you can never really know everything about them. Mostly low-key and character-driven, HONEYMOON makes great use of light and shadows, and Janiak is to be commended for avoiding cheap jump scares and setting HONEYMOON up as a narrative feature when it would've been very easy to turn it into yet another found-footage offering. Instead, she keeps it old-school by building the characters and getting to know them, then letting the tension escalate and deftly handling not just the innately horrific concept of being a stranger in your own body, but the horror of realizing the person you married is not that person at all. The "been there, done that" BODY SNATCHERS-esque plot elements aside, HONEYMOON is a creepy and effective horror movie that Magnet only released on three screens, grossing $9300. (R, 87 mins)

(US - 2014)

Martin Scorsese's 2006 Oscar-winner THE DEPARTED was a remake of Andrew Lau and Andy Mak's acclaimed 2002 Hong Kong thriller INFERNAL AFFAIRS, and Scorsese "presents" and serves as one of 20 credited producers on REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS, collaboratively co-directed by Lau and Andrew Loo. Lau hasn't had much luck trying to crack the American market--his 2008 Richard Gere/Claire Danes serial killer thriller THE FLOCK was taken away from him in post-production and partially reshot by an uncredited Niels Mueller (2004's THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON) before it was given an unceremonious straight-to-DVD release. He gives it another go after his 2010 Donnie Yen hit LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHAN and the 2012 period epic THE GUILLOTINES, and the results are a mess. "Inspired by true events," GREEN DRAGONS desperately wants to be a Chinese GOODFELLAS or MEAN STREETS, but it's a cliche-laden disaster that only serves as a reminder that you should just watch those films one more time, along with Abel Ferrara's KING OF NEW YORK and Michael Cimino's YEAR OF THE DRAGON. Populated by stock characters and weak performances in a film whose story is typically advanced by montages, the confusing and often completely incoherent GREEN DRAGONS plays like an epic crime saga cut down to about half its length, but even at 95 minutes, it feels four hours long. It had potential, with its look at Chinese street gangs in Queens and Flushing in the 1980s, seen through the eyes of Sonny (THE TWILIGHT SAGA's Justin Chon), an orphan adopted into the Green Dragons gang after being brought to the US in the illegal immigration operation overseen by Snake Head Mama (Eugenia Yuan). Sonny and his adoptive brother Steven (played as an adult by Kevin Wu) serve as soldiers under the command of Green Dragons boss Paul Wong (GLEE's Harry Shum Jr) as Lau, Loo, and co-writer Michael Di Jiacomo essentially proceed with a watered-down remake of GOODFELLAS.

The chief problem is that Sonny registers a complete zero as a character, with Chon's bland performance doing nothing to make him sympathetic or even remotely compelling. So many other characters appear and disappear throughout that it's often impossible to tell how they relate to wherever the filmmakers are in the story. Of course, the hot-tempered Steven (the Tommy DeVito of the story) will be the major troublemaker in the Green Dragons. Of course Wong (the Jimmy Conway surrogate) is a ruthless leader who thinks nothing of throwing his own partners and subordinates under the bus if means saving his own ass by bringing down his chief competitor in smuggling heroin inside Hong Kong mooncakes. And of course, like the Henry Hill stand-in he's supposed to be, Sonny will turn against the Green Dragons when it becomes clear Wong intends to kill him. Also adding to the GOODFELLAS love-fest is a pointless supporting role for Ray Liotta as a hard-nosed FBI agent obsessed with busting up Wong's operation and getting no support from his do-nothing bosses at the Bureau. Liotta's character basically serves as a cipher for racist white America's ignorance of Chinese culture and customs, as Lau and Loo engage in laughably clumsy exposition drops like having Liotta ask an undercover Chinese-American NYPD detective (Jin Auyeung) "Do you speak Chinese?" to which the cop responds with a lecturing "Chinese is not a language. It's a family of languages...Cantonese, Fukienese..." Aimlessly meandering throughout its duration, GREEN DRAGONS only manages to be intriguing when it's focused on Shum's duplicitous, self-serving Paul Wong, constantly looking out for number one and a far more interesting character than either Sonny or Steven. Lau and Loo also sacrifice "true events" for a dramatic but phony twist ending, which is completely disingenuous considering the real Sonny is in witness protection and made contact with Loo to give him pointers on the film, which the co-director clearly disregarded. Elsewhere, it says nothing about the immigrant experience, opting instead to rely on every post-Scorsese, post-Tarantino gangster/crime movie cliche in the book, starting with Sonny's Henry Hill-style narration, right down to numerous instances of guys in a room shouting at each other until one yells "Fuck you!" and gets a "NO, FUCK YOU!" in response as everyone draws their guns for a standoff. REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS is a straight-to-DVD-level misfire completely at odds with the exemplary work Lau has done in his Asian films, and it's hard to believe Scorsese would even attach his name to it. (R, 95 mins)

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