Friday, March 13, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: ROSEWATER (2014); PIONEER (2014); and BLACK NOVEMBER (2015)

(US - 2014)

ROSEWATER, a chronicle of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari's 118 days of interrogation and torture at Tehran's Evin Prison, is the big-screen writing and directing debut of THE DAILY SHOW's Jon Stewart--viewers will recall John Oliver hosting over the summer of 2013 while Stewart made this pet project that has a direct tie to the show. A resident of London, Bahari (played here by Gael Garcia Bernal) was in Tehran covering the 2009 Iran presidential election for Newsweek and staying with his mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) when he was arrested and held in solitary confinement. Initially, Bahari thinks he was arrested for filming some protests over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's questionable victory. But his interrogator (Kim Bodnia), referred to as "Rosewater" by the constantly blindfolded Bahari, who never saw his face but recognized the rosewater scent of his perfume, informs him that he's been arrested for being a spy. The proof? Bahari was interviewed in a DAILY SHOW segment by Jason Jones (playing himself), who was pretending to be an American spy incognito as a reporter.

Stewart occasionally flirts with black comedy but always pulls back, which is too bad, since he would seem to be a natural for exploring the absurdity of the situation with some satirical bite (early on, Iranian authorities label Bahari's DVD collection, with things like THE SOPRANOS and Pasolini's TEOREMA, as "porn"). Instead, Stewart fashions ROSEWATER as a reverent, inspiring, triumph-of-the-human-spirit saga that just never catches fire. There's little suspense or tension in Bahari's situation--not because we know the outcome that he gets released after 118 days and will be OK, but because Stewart tackles the subject in such a perfunctory and by-the-numbers fashion. Perhaps he wanted to be taken seriously as a filmmaker and be respectful of his subject but he erred too much on the side of caution, ending up with a film that's dull, plodding, and predictable. None of Stewart's personality comes through in a creative way and his voice is nowhere to be heard (and THE DAILY SHOW is never even referenced by name) and when he starts showing Bahari having imaginary conversations with and getting "hang in there!" pep talks from the ghosts of his late father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani), ROSEWATER starts to look like something any hired gun director could've put together. In Stewart's defense, these conversations with his dead father and sister, both political prisoners, are in Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me, and while it may have worked on the page and he wanted to remain faithful to Bahari's writing, it's a mawkish, eye-rolling cliche when put on the screen. Given his status as both a comedy figure and an astute political junkie, as well as his own indirect involvement with the situation, there's so many other approaches Stewart could've taken with ROSEWATER rather than going for superficial, transparent awards-bait. Open Road didn't really know what to do with the dry, tedious ROSEWATER, only putting it on 371 screens at its widest release for a gross of $3 million. It's doubtful it would've even gotten that without Stewart's name attached to it. There was a lot of potential here and the intentions are nothing but sincere, but all things considered, this is a major disappointment. (R, 103 mins)

(Norway/Germany/Sweden/Finland/France - 2013; US release 2014)

Set in the late 1970s and looking like it was made then as well, the nautical conspiracy thriller PIONEER is a throwback in every way, right down to an on-set mishap that looks like something out of the original GONE IN 60 SECONDS. Star Aksel Hennie's (HEADHUNTERS) character is being chased in his Jeep, and the actor insisted on doing his own driving. He lost control of the Jeep, flipping twice, windows shattering and top torn off before the Jeep lands upright, Hennie clearly visible in the driver's seat and looking terrified. Even as it happens in the film, it's attention-getting simply for the spontaneous and awkward way it happens...like a real car wreck would rather than one precisely engineered by stunt coordinators or pulled off with CGI. Hennie emerged uninjured but quite shaken, and even in a DVD special feature called "The Crash," he still gets emotional recounting it. It's left in the film as it happened, taking a rather humdrum car chase and making it unforgettable. The film itself has origins in fact, dealing with the installation of an oil pipeline along the floor of the North Sea off the coast of Norway. The job requires training professional divers to do the work and the project is a joint Norwegian-American venture, with the Norwegian divers, headed by Petter (Hennie) and his brother Knut (Andre Eriksen) at odds with the arrogant American divers, represented by Mike (a scowling Wes Bentley). Tragedy strikes when Petter blacks out on a dive, failing to close a valve that results in Knut's death. Aside from losing his younger brother, something doesn't feel right about what happened, and the more he presses for answers, the less anyone around him wants to talk. He begins to suspect that someone tampered with his oxygen supply. Anyone with answers turns up missing or dead, the videotape documenting the accident is nowhere to be found, the perpetually surly Mike speeds up behind Petter and tries to run him off the road, and the bottom-line-watching American oil company rep Ferris (Stephen Lang) is running out of patience with Petter's refusal to let it go.

Director/co-writer Erik Skjoldbjaerg, who helmed the original Norwegian INSOMNIA and came to Hollywood for his mandatory Horrible Harvey Weinstein experience--pretty much a rite of passage for foreign filmmakers at this point--with the four-years-on-the-shelf PROZAC NATION, really gets a solid '70s paranoia vibe throughout, helped a lot by the short, balding Hennie looking nothing like your conventional leading man. He really does look like an average, blue collar guy getting in way over his head with powerful people, but still bulldozing forward, not giving it up--even his widowed sister-in-law (Stephanie Sigman) seems content to take Ferris' fat settlement offer--and it's admirable that Skjoldbjaerg and the screenwriters aren't always concerned with making Petter appealing. Indeed, there's times when he's a bellicose prick. There's a doomy, palpable tension as the screws tighten and Petter realizes that somebody's hiding something and it could cost him his life, but Skjoldbjaerg shows his cards too soon and it's too obvious that the Americans are shady and untrustworthy. Bentley's Mike is a completely unlikable asshole, glaring, seething and yelling at the Norwegians from the moment he first appears, for no real reason. And it makes no sense when he stops someone from torturing Petter in a pressurized chamber ("I didn't sign on to kill anyone," he protests), only to resume the torture as soon as the other guy leaves the room. We've also seen Stephen Lang in enough movies to know that if he's acting altruistic and sympathetic, it's because his character is anything but. PIONEER has its glaring flaws and plot holes, and its ambiguities are such that they lead to an unsatisfying ending, but its positives still outweigh its negatives, generating significant suspense and establishing an effectively bleak, gray atmosphere, which gets an immense push from an occasionally Tangerine Dream-ish score by Air. (R, 111 mins)

(Nigeria/US - 2015)

BLACK NOVEMBER is a bad movie, but at least it's a bad movie with noble intentions. A feature-length lecture on the evils of Big Oil and government corruption, BLACK NOVEMBER opens with text explaining that Nigeria is the world's fifth largest oil supplier, while neglecting to mention that their top export is deposed princes who just need your checking account and social security numbers. A group of Nigerian terrorists led by Opuwei (Akon) and Timi (Wyclef Jean) are holding Western Oil CEO Tom Hudson (Mickey Rourke, looking embalmed) hostage in the 2nd Street Tunnel in Los Angeles. Unlike their needlessly complex plan of orchestrating a massive rush hour traffic jam, their demand is simple: arrange the release of activist Ebiere (a convincing Mbong Amata), currently in a Warri prison in the Niger Delta, where she's about to be executed. Flashbacks reveal that Ebiere attended college in America on a Western Oil scholarship, and Hudson would use her to settle disputes between Nigerians (irate that their land has been ruined by constant oil spills) and the corrupt military that acts at the behest of the oil company, frequently going over the line into atrocities like murder and gang-rape. In time, Ebiere is driven to a shocking act of violence when she realizes she's been set up by Hudson and the whole thing was a ploy to get the protesters arrested. Shockingly, the unscrupulous Hudson is one of those billionaire CEOs who cares more about profits than people, and back in L.A., he's about to pay for his misdeeds if he can't convince the Nigerian government to spare Ebiere's life.

Very sporadically enlivened by bits of action and some inexcusably crummy CGI explosions, BLACK NOVEMBER is essentially a 96-minute public service announcement disguised as a commercial movie. Characters don't speak naturally but rather, in hackneyed, exposition-heavy proclamations, almost like the script is just a bullet-pointed outline (Hudson's model-like daughter, just before he's abducted from his limo: "You always get nervous before you fly to Nigeria."). It's terrible, but that's only because Nigerian writer/director Jeta Amata (Mbong's husband--it's a family affair with Amatas everywhere in the credits, with Mbong being much more talented than the other Amatas in the cast) is more concerned with shouting his points than telling a story with any subtlety or nuance. It's too sincere in its intent to be dismissed as a mere vanity project (though Amata calling his production company "Jeta Amata Concepts" doesn't bode well), but that doesn't give it a pass. The backstory of BLACK NOVEMBER is much more interesting than the film itself. Amata took his shelved 2011 film BLACK GOLD--produced by Nigerian oil baron Captain Hosa Wells Okunbo--dumped roughly half of it and shot additional footage to restructure it into its current form as BLACK NOVEMBER. BLACK GOLD starred Mbong Amata as Ebiere, along with a veritable Who's Who of Redbox All-Stars including Tom Sizemore, Michael Madsen, and Billy Zane, the latter three nowhere to be seen in BLACK NOVEMBER. Conversely, Rourke, Kim Basinger (as intrepid reporter Kristy Ames, covering the L.A. hostage situation), Anne Heche (a virtual walk-on with maybe two lines of dialogue as an FBI agent), Jean, and Akon did not appear in BLACK GOLD. Footage of Vivica A. Fox as a US government official and former WALKING DEAD star Sarah Wayne Callies as a crusading cable news reporter comes from BLACK GOLD, as do most of Mbong Amata's scenes that take place in the Niger Delta (she looks noticeably different in NOVEMBER-shot footage with Rourke). Amata has a confused mess on his hands, but with the help of four credited editors, he almost makes the whole thing hang together, with the seams only slightly showing when Callies picks up a ringing phone in BLACK GOLD and it's BLACK NOVEMBER's Basinger on the other end of the line, and when Fox is seen at a command center that seemingly belongs in another movie, that's because it does. Jean and Akon put up some of the financing for Amata to transform BLACK GOLD into BLACK NOVEMBER, which was completed way back in 2012 and shelved after being screened for events at the Kennedy Center and the United Nations before getting its belated commercial release in early 2015. Regardless of its good intentions, BLACK NOVEMBER is still junky, cobbled-together DTV material (it's too bad the original cut of BLACK GOLD isn't included as a bonus feature for the masochistically-inclined), with Rourke, Basinger, and Heche looking especially perplexed over exactly how they ended up being Raymond Burr'd into a Nigerian protest drama. (Unrated, 97 mins)

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