Friday, January 2, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: REACH ME (2014); AS ABOVE SO BELOW (2014); and RAGNAROK (2014)

(US - 2014)

Though it's been largely forgotten over the years, John Herzfeld's 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY (1996) was one of the better Tarantino knockoffs that came in the wake of PULP FICTION (1994). If it's remembered at all today, it's for giving moviegoers their first exposure to Charlize Theron, whose icy presence and epic catfight with Teri Hatcher managed to upstage the bigger names in the cast. Making his first feature film since the 2001 Robert De Niro thriller 15 MINUTES, Herzfeld returns to the Santa Monica settings of VALLEY for REACH ME, but the results are decidedly different. Like VALLEY, it's packed with big names (or, at least, familiar faces), but REACH ME falls into the played-out, post-CRASH, "everything is connected" ensemble subgenre, a simple-minded MAGNOLIA with a laughably hokey self-improvement slant that makes it resemble what might happen if a more-sanctimonious-than-usual Paul Haggis tried to make a movie version of the 2006 Rhonda Byrne bestseller The Secret. The premise is shaky from the start, and the film is so badly-assembled that it's obvious something bigger was planned before they settled on this 92-minute cut that ended up being barely released. As it is, REACH ME is so choppy and sloppy, which such whiplashing changes in tone that Herzfeld is never able to establish any dramatic or narrative momentum. It's just a collection of scenes that never come together and ideas that never coalesce, populated by characters you don't care about, played by actors who have no chance of overcoming the project's countless deficiencies. REACH ME is as preachy and pandering as any evangelical film and can only be described as "self-helpsploitation." This isn't a movie made for general release--it's a motivational DVD for businesses to play at workshops and training seminars they force their employees to attend. It's WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!? for the self-improvement crowd.

As the self-help book Reach Me blows up on social media and skyrockets to the top of the bestseller list, the world searches for its enigmatic and reclusive author, Teddy Raymond (Tom Berenger), who spends his days anonymously wandering the beach, desperate to avoid the spotlight. Ambitious journalist Roger King (Kevin Connolly) works for a TMZ-like tabloid site run by celebrity blogger Gerald (Sylvester Stallone in rare character actor mode, going for "gregariously eccentric" but really just "loud"), who's obsessed with getting an exclusive interview with Raymond. King falls for Raymond's press agent (THE WALKING DEAD's Lauren Cohan) after tracking him down and finding he has a peculiar and effective method for making major life changes: Raymond simply has chain-smoker King stand on the beach and yell "My name is a Roger and I'm not a smoker!" at the top of his charred lungs for several hours and just like that, he's a non-smoker. The book has also affected the lives of others: ex-con Colette (Kyra Sedgwick), who discovered it while serving time, giving her the nerve to face down a bullying inmate; famous rapper E-Ruption (Nelly), who's built a hip-hop empire since absorbing Raymond's words; and dim-witted hitman Thumper (David O'Hara), who uses the book to convince his cohort Dominic (Omari Hardwick) to leave their mobster boss Frank (Tom Sizemore) and open a restaurant together instead of killing a Weiner dog that belongs to the guy (Christoph M. Ort), who's now with Frank's model ex Denise-Denise (Rebekah Chaney, Herzfeld's wife and one of 30 credited producers). Others drawn into the story's wobbling orbit include Colette's actress friend (Elizabeth Henstridge) who's sexually assaulted by an asshole movie star (Cary Elwes); rogue cop Wolfie (Thomas Jane) who acts like a spaghetti western gunslinger and keeps intentionally getting himself in situations where he's forced to kill his way out, angering the alcoholic priest (Danny Aiello) who has to hear his confessions; powerful gangster Angelo Aldobrandini (Kelsey Grammer), who's fed up with the incompetence of Frank and his chief flunky (Frank Pesce); Raymond's tough-but-sensitive spokesman (Terry Crews), who advises E-Ruption that it's not polite to curse in public; and a movie stuntman (Ryan Kwanten), whose Tourette's was cured by Raymond.

In his quest to turn REACH ME into the self-help IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD you never knew you needed, Herzfeld also finds room for bit parts by Frank Stallone, Danny Trejo, Sally Kellerman, Jillian Barberie, Noel Gugliemi, Darius McCrary, Frankie Valli Jr., Chuck Zito, and yes, even Herzfeld himself as a movie director in arguably REACH ME's biggest casting stretch. There's no story here, no observations made about the self-improvement industry--just a staggering waste of actors who must really like Herzfeld, as they all took significant pay cuts on a strapped production that found Herzfeld and his benefactor buddy Stallone resorting to Kickstarter and Indiegogo to get the funding to complete the movie. The idea of Stallone asking people for money on Kickstarter is as absurd as his Nic Cage-meets-Al Pacino performance, with one scene where he's painting what looks like a giant vagina on a mural while incoherently screaming at Connolly that's begging to become a viral sensation. This is a shockingly bad film, one of the year's absolute worst and so awful that it makes something like THE POWER OF FEW look good. It scrapes the bottom of the barrel of an already historically dismal subgenre--poorly-written, amateurishly executed (watch the inept and awkward Fake Shemping for Stallone and Berenger in their scene together as Herzfeld can't cover for the obvious fact that the actors weren't there at the same time) and almost unparalleled in 2014 in its utter disregard for the concept of entertainment. Even with this cast, there is no commercial audience for REACH ME, which is probably why Cannon cover band Millennium only gave it an under-the-radar VOD debut just a month before its DVD release. (PG-13, 92 mins)

(US - 2014)

The Catacombs of Paris are a natural setting for a horror film and if nothing else, AS ABOVE SO BELOW and its cast and crew deserve some credit for actually shooting on location and trekking further in-and-downward than any other commercial film crew before them. It's too bad that extra effort is wasted on yet another assembled-via-checklist found-footage horror film, with imagery too dark and handheld camera work too shaky to maximize the unique opportunity offered by the Catacombs. With all the screaming, shouting, dropped cameras, and blurry, jittery imagery, the Catacombs rarely get a chance to convey their inherently ominous, claustrophobic nature, regardless of how many tight passageways and narrow tunnels the characters have to squeeze themselves into and through. Urban archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) is dedicated to continuing the work of her late father, an alchemy historian who was after the magically healing Philosopher's Stone, believed to be discovered by 14th century alchemist Nicolas Flamel. Flamel's body, along with six million others, is buried in the Catacombs, and through ancient Aramaic carvings translated by her ex George (Ben Feldman)--who's still bitter about her leaving him behind in a Turkish jail during their last expedition--Scarlett makes a startling discovery: from the alchemist belief that the Number of the Beast is 741, she surmises that the Gates of Hell are located approximately 741 feet under Paris. Scarlett, her cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), and a reluctant George hire Parisian urban explorer Papillon (Francois Civil), who brings along two of his friends, and the group venture deep into the Catacombs and, of course, start going in circles and winding up at the same spot. It gets worse when they begin encountering physical manifestations of long-suppressed memories--George finding a battered piano with the same bum A-key that was in his family's house when he was a kid; Papillon happening upon the specter of his brother who died when he couldn't save him from a burning car; and Scarlett answering a ringing rotary phone and hearing her dead father on the other end of the line. Faster than you can say EVENT HORIZON, the explorers are being haunted by their own psychological traumas as they get closer to Hell, which may very well be nothing more than a vast room filled with found-footage horror films.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle (the [REC] remake QUARANTINE and the M. Night Shyamalan-produced DEVIL), who scripted with his brother Drew, AS ABOVE SO BELOW couldn't really have been made as anything but found-footage, given the close confines of the Catacombs and the whole hook of actually shooting down there but it's a moot point when you can't tell what's going on anyway. There's a fundamental problem with the Dowdles' approach when you're squeezed into some of the tightest confines a film crew has ever worked, and in a naturally terrifying location and the end result is not intense claustrophobia but rather, frustration and boredom. In the long-ago, ancient days of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and even the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, found-footage was a clever way for no-budget, DIY filmmakers to produce effective, scary horror movies. Now, with studios like Universal and production houses like Legendary backing the $5 million AS ABOVE SO BELOW (still cheap, but mega-budget compared to the $23,000 spent on BLAIR WITCH), the entire subgenre's transformation into a cynical cash-grab is complete, and judging from the rapidly declining box office that recent titles have seen, the public is finally growing tired of them. AS ABOVE topped out at $29 million--far below what found-footage hits were raking in just a couple of years ago, but still making 6x its budget. With that kind of profit margin, you can rest assured that even with decreasing appeal and fan fatigue, you're getting more of these things whether you want them or not, and they'll be claiming squatters' rights at multiplexes nationwide for several years to come. That's not to say there haven't been interesting offerings here and there--Barry Levinson's THE BAY and Bobcat Goldthwait's WILLOW CREEK were limited-release/VOD standouts--but AS ABOVE SO BELOW squanders its access to the Catacombs and is as middling and forgettable as the majority of its ilk. (R, 93 mins)

(Norway/Sweden/Denmark - 2013; US release 2014)

Some key personnel from Norway's hugely popular COLD PREY slasher franchise are behind this terrifically enjoyable homage to the commercial, crowd-pleasing heyday of Steven Spielberg, with some added James Cameron nods as well. Museum researcher Sigurd (Ryan Gosling lookalike Pal Sverre Hagen) is ridiculed and cut off by his financial backers and demoted to tour guide by his boss over his insistence that much of Norse mythology, particularly Ragnarok, essentially the Norse End of Days, actually happened. A widower who lost his wife and research partner to cancer five years earlier, Sigurd drags his two kids, daughter Ragnhild (Marie Annette Tandero Berglyd) and young son Brage (Julian Rasmussen Padolski) along with fellow curator Allan (Nicolai Cleve Brach), adventurer Elisabeth (Sofia Helin), and grumbly driver/terrain guide Leif (Bjorn Sundquist) to the mountains of Finnmark near the Norway/Russia border where they find runestones and Viking gear in a hidden cave. They're left behind by the scheming Leif, who steals the findings and has no interest in museum preservation, but he's killed by something in the surrounding lake. Brage finds a strange egg from which emerges a baby snake-type creature secretly stashed away by Allan. Soon, they all encounter a massive serpent documented in the runestones of Viking queen Asa over 1000 years earlier. The serpent is huge, hungry, and pissed off at the intruders, going on a motherly rampage to recover its missing offspring.

Director Mikkel Braenne Sandemose (2010's COLD PREY III, still unreleased in the US) and writer John Kare Raake (awesomely-named producer and COLD PREY director Roar Uthaug is credited as "screenplay consultant") wear their love of '80s and '90s Hollywood blockbusters on their sleeves.  The Spielberg influences are all over the place--you'll spot elements of JAWS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and JURASSIC PARK (the latter in particular when the serpent pursues the kids), and even more recent monster fare like 2007's THE HOST and 2008's ROGUE, and the idea of a giant creature unleashing hell to rescue its offspring from human interlopers dates back to the beloved British GODZILLA knockoff GORGO (1961). The CGI and special effects throughout RAGNAROK are top-notch and the cinematography by Daniel Voldheim is superb. This looks and feels like a huge movie, and there's some surprising depth to it as well, especially in the relationship between Sigurd and his kids and in the way loner Elisabeth is drawn to Ragnhild, a child forced to grow up too soon. Sigurd is a loving dad, but he has a habit of letting the kids down, not in a neglectful way but more out of absent-mindedness and focus on his research, and it's something the kids have just learned to work around. All issues get put aside to focus on survival, and once Leif is out of the picture, the remaining characters are turned into a tough and likable team...for a while, at least. RAGNAROK is formulaic and offers nothing original, but it's very good at what it sets out to do. It's filled with appealing performances, impressive and suspenseful action set pieces, and excellent visual effects. It's the kind of popcorn movie that just wants you to sit back and have a good time, getting to the point and not overlong, old-school in its execution, and light on the gore, making it acceptable for kids but intense enough for adult audiences to get sucked in as well. They need to make more movies like RAGNAROK. (PG-13, 95 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

1 comment:

  1. LOL "the self-help IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD you never knew you needed". That is a tagline for the ages!