Saturday, January 24, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (2014); JESSABELLE (2014); and VIKTOR (2014)

(France/US - 2014)

It's a sign of the times that WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD got publicity less for being the latest film by a genuine 1990s indie auteur who's never gone Hollywood and has happily remained on the fringes, and more for being the "Shailene Woodley gets naked" movie. Gregg Araki, who made his name during the '90s indie explosion with THE LIVING END (1992), TOTALLY F***ED UP (1993), THE DOOM GENERATION (1995), and NOWHERE (1997), isn't a young man anymore and at 55, he seems to have mellowed with age. Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke, WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD is a puzzling film from Araki--not in the sense of its content, but in its presentation. It's essentially a straightforward, commercial thriller filtered through the ethereally dreamy haze of Sofia Coppola's THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (2000). Taking place from 1988 to 1991, WHITE BIRD centers on Kat Connors (Woodley, of THE DESCENDANTS and the DIVERGENT series), a 17-year-old high school student with typical teenage ennui. School sucks, the town is a drag, and her parents--milquetoast father Brock (Christopher Meloni) and mentally unstable mother Eve (Eva Green)--are lame. The miserable Eve has steadily gone off the deep end as Kat has gotten older, become more independent, and likely to be out with her stoner boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) instead of hanging out at home with Mom. Eve feels life has passed her by and she takes turns blaming Kat, who has learned to ignore her, and Brock, who crawls inside of his shell or, if he's in the mood, hides in the basement to jerk off to his Hustler stash. One day, Kat returns home from school to find her father waiting for her. Eve has vanished. Kat isn't alarmed, as this apparently isn't the first time it's happened, but this time, Eve doesn't come back. Brock files a missing persons report with hunky local cop Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), with whom Kat starts a casual fling when things cool off with Phil. Three years go by and there's no sign of Eve, but life has gone on. Kat is in college and Brock is dating May (Sheryl Lee), a co-worker at his office. Everyone's grown accustomed to Life After Eve, at least until a troubled Kat finally addresses the glaring absence of her mother in her life and faces a nagging suspicion that there's something being overlooked in her disappearance.

I haven't read the novel, but I do know that Araki drastically--and I mean drastically--changed the ending for the film in a way that makes you question everything that came beforehand. In that way, it's the kind of crazy and unexpected twist ending that's all too commonplace in most standard thrillers today. It works in the context of the film--and in being a Gregg Araki film--even if it totally alters the intent of whatever points Kasischke wanted to make with her novel. I did like the mood and the aura Araki establishes throughout, brilliantly abetted by a mix of '80s goth and alternative (Cocteau Twins' "Sea Swallow Me" perfectly kicks off the opening credits, and there's also songs by The Cure, Talk Talk, Depeche Mode, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, among others), and a dream pop-ish score by avant-garde musician Harold Budd and Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie. It's a thriller that disguises a coming-of-age drama when Kat, haunted by dreams where her mother cries out for her, finds she's unable to move on with her life until she knows what happened. It's not even that she necessarily misses her mother. No one seemed all that broken up about her vanishing. Even the police investigation seemed to go through the motions. Eve is a profoundly troubled woman prone to irrational tantrums and uncomfortable competitions with Kat, especially when it comes to getting Phil's attention (connoisseurs of cringe will have to look away during a flashback when Eve puts on a tight miniskirt and struts around the basement rec room where Kat and Phil are trying to do their homework). Eve is brought to vivid life by Green's patented crazy-eyes, psycho-bitch routine, seen in its full glory throughout her flashback sequences but never more haunting than when she looks at herself in a mirror and turns a dead stare into a wild-eyed, maniacal grin to the tune of Love and Rockets' "A Private Future". With her terrifying glare, Green's ability to throw herself into these kinds of characters has a history of single-handedly elevating mediocre trifles like DARK SHADOWS and 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE into must-see movies. Eva Greeniacs won't be disappointed with her work here, and she's in danger of typecasting even though this seems to be the niche she's chosen to carve for herself. The biggest surprise is Meloni, terrific in an unexpected role as a meek, slumped-shouldered doormat psychologically destroyed by his shrewish wife and quietly happy that she's decided to abandon them. There's some logic issues that pop up late in the game that beg the question of just how the cops did such a sloppy job with their investigation, but WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD is a low-key and very compelling film from a much less abrasive and in-your-face Araki, who doesn't work as frequently these days as he did in his '90s heyday--it's his first film since 2010's KABOOM, and the first I've seen since 2005's MYSTERIOUS SKIN--and gets fine performances from his cast, with a genuinely surprising finale, though serious fans of the book probably won't be as forgiving about the changes he's made. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2014)

SAW VI and SAW 3-D director Kevin Greutert trades torture porn for jump scares in yet another JU-ON/THE GRUDGE-derived "vengeful ghost" saga that also serves as a Blumhouse Productions assembly-line revamp of the already-forgotten 2005 Kate Hudson chiller THE SKELETON KEY. A few weeks before JESSABELLE's release, distributor Lionsgate cancelled its nationwide rollout and instead went the limited release/VOD route, a good indication of how little faith they had in it. They've certainly made hits out of far worse films than JESSABELLE, but the story is dull despite an overstuffed plot courtesy of screenwriter Robert Ben Garant, whose past writing credits includes such horror classics as THE PACIFIER, HERBIE: FULLY LOADED, and BALLS OF FURY. Garant works in a wheelchair-bound woman in peril, voodoo, doom-filled tarot readings, messages from beyond the grave courtesy of some VHS tapes (points docked for blatant pandering to horror hipsters), and a couple of spectacular OMEN and FINAL DESTINATION-style deaths, but it does nothing to stand out from the crowd. Jessie (Sarah Snook) moves in with her estranged father (David Andrews) after a car crash claims the lives of her fiance and her unborn child and keeps her in a wheelchair while she undergoes physical therapy. She finds a box of VHS tapes left for her by her mother (JUSTIFIED's Joelle Carter), who died of cancer in 1988 when Jessie was a baby. In them, her mom gives her tarot readings that indicate a presence doesn't want her in the house. Soon, Jessie starts seeing apparitions of a screeching specter with long dark hair (Amber Stevens) and her father accidentally sets himself on fire in a tool shed that locks itself when he tries to burn the videotapes. Jessie reconnects with her now-married high-school boyfriend (Mark Webber) and they dig into the mystery of who this ghost is and why it's so adamantly against Jessie's presence in the house. Greutert goes for a bit of a slow-burn feel in JESSABELLE, and the bayou atmosphere is well-handled. It's a harmless and thoroughly average PG-13 fright flick that's by no means terrible, but you've seen it a hundred times before, you'll spot every jump scare several seconds before they happen, and it just evaporates from memory as soon as it's over. Australian actress Snook, so good in the recent PREDESTINATION, is a very appealing heroine and definitely a talent to watch. Hopefully she lands a breakout role soon and moves past these pay-your-dues gigs. (PG-13, 90 mins)

(UK/France/Russia - 2014)

Since Liam Neeson struck gold with TAKEN five years ago, aging leading men have been attempting to score hits by hitching a ride on the 60-ish Action Guy bandwagon. In the wake of Neeson's unexpected second career, we've had 59-year-old Kevin Costner in 3 DAYS TO KILL, 61-year-old Pierce Brosnan in THE NOVEMBER MAN, and 59-year-old Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER in 2014 alone, along with 68-year-old Sylvester Stallone, 67-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, and 72-year-old Harrison Ford in THE EXPENDABLES 3. Everyone's getting in the game. But VIKTOR might feature the Geriatric Asskicker subgenre's most unlikely addition yet with 66-year-old Gerard Depardieu as Viktor Lambert, just paroled after serving seven years in a French prison and heading to Russia to tear Moscow apart in search of those responsible for the recent murder of his son. It seems Viktor's son got involved with drugs while working as a diamond runner for ruthless crime lord Belinski (Denis Karasov). Viktor teams up with his retired, out-of-the-game partner Suleiman (Eli Danker) and rekindles a romance with his old flame, posh club owner Alexandra (Elizabeth Hurley) in his obsessive quest to destroy Belinski's criminal empire and make everyone in his organization pay with their lives. Sample dialogue from Viktor to Belinski on the phone: "I just wanted you to hear the voice of the man who's going to kill you."  Then, Belinski to his goons: "Breeeng mee heeez hee-yed!"

Written and directed by DTV vet Philippe Martinez (WAKE OF DEATH), VIKTOR is surprisingly well-shot on location in Moscow and some outlying areas. But Martinez's script is as routine as it gets (Russian mobsters!  Again!) and the pacing is absolutely laborious. Other than Hurley, it's difficult to understand most of the cast due to the garbled accents of actors for whom English is a second language. Ten minutes are likely added to the running time just by the camera lingering on Karasov--who quite obviously is not fluent in English--valiantly struggling to say his lines phonetically. Hurley, appearing in just her second feature film in the last decade, still looks stunning, though she has a hard time selling Alexandra's insatiable lust for Viktor. Martinez spares us the explosive erotica of a Depardieu-Hurley sex scene but does offer Alexandra giving Viktor a post-coital shoulder-rub while kissing his neck. Despite his size being in the the ballpark of late-career Brando, Depardieu still has enough gravitas to convincingly to sell this character if he wanted to, but he just doesn't look like he cares. The film doesn't even get any dramatic mileage from the tragically poignant real-life parallel of Depardieu being a grieving father offscreen, having lost his 37-year-old son Guillaume in 2008. In several scenes, the French acting legend mumbles like Steven Seagal, his wandering eyes give away that he's reading cue cards or a teleprompter, and he doesn't even take part in the obligatory climactic showdown at an abandoned warehouse, instead having some guys crash into the warehouse and bring Belinski to him. It's here where Martinez completely drops the ball, as the entire film could've been redeemed had it been Depardieu crashing an SUV engulfed in CGI flames through the warehouse doors while hanging out of the window shooting at everyone. The $10 million VIKTOR didn't quite do for Depardieu what TAKEN did for Neeson: it opened on ten screens in the US with no publicity whatsoever last October and grossed just $623 in its first and only week of release. (Unrated, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

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