Thursday, April 9, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE VOICES (2015); PRESERVATION (2015); and LATE PHASES (2014)

(US/Germany - 2015)

A hired-gun gig for PERSEPOLIS graphic novelist and director Marjane Satrapi, THE VOICES is a dark splatter comedy with Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, a socially-awkward but generally nice and eager-to-please guy who works at a small-town bathtub and sink factory. Jerry has a history of mental illness and was institutionalized when he was a teenager and may have had a hand in his schizophrenic mother's death. Jerry lies to his psychiatrist Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), telling her that he dutifully takes his meds every day, but he's not. As a result, his home life is a fantasy world where he spends his evenings in his apartment above a vacant bowling alley, carrying on conversations with his cat Mr. Whiskers and his dog Bosco (Reynolds voices both animals--a sarcastic, foul-mouthed Scottish brogue for Mr. Whiskers and an aw-shucks, Cecil Turtle voice for Bosco). He has a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton) in accounting and through a convoluted chain of events, ends up accidentally killing her. He dismembers the body and stores her head in the fridge, where she whines that she's lonely and wants a friend. Lisa (Anna Kendrick) also works in accounting and likes Jerry, even sleeping with him before making the mistake of dropping by his place uninvited just as Jerry is most vulnerable to caving to the horrible suggestions made by Bosco and Mr. Whiskers.

When Jerry is off his meds and happily conversing with his cat, dog, and Fiona's head, we see his apartment through his eyes: clean, colorful and pleasant. When he tries going back on his meds, the pets are silent, Fiona's head is rotting, he has no one to talk to and is confronted with the reality that his home resembles an abattoir, with blood-splattered walls and floors and Fiona's body parts and entrails stacked in countless Tupperware containers. Satrapi and screenwriter Michael R. Perry (a veteran of TV shows like THE PRACTICE, MILLENNIUM, and LAW & ORDER: SVU) dutifully keep the film on track when it could easily fly off the rails and become a high-end Herschell Gordon Lewis film. Satrapi wisely has Reynolds underplay it, even when he's having imaginary conversations with a severed head, and they succeed in actually generating sympathy for an obviously sick person who feels tremendous guilt over his actions but can't stop himself, is too hesitant to make new friends because he's concerned his mental problems will scare them off, and is terrified to take his meds because then the voices go away and he has nothing to keep him company. It's a difficult performance that could've veered toward Jim Carrey in maximum "Allllrighty then!" mode, but even amidst the black humor and the buckets of gore being spilled, Reynolds--an underrated actor who can't seem to shake his VAN WILDER image with critics and audiences alike--is grounded and believable. It's too bad that Satrapi lets things bog down in the home stretch, the film runs about 15 minutes too long and it probably could've done without ending with a musical number. But THE VOICES is a quirky and interesting comedy/drama/horror mash-up that was an undeniably tough sell (shot in Berlin in 2013, it played at Sundance in January 2014 and only got a small theatrical release in February 2015), but has "future cult movie" written all over it...in blood. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

A sort-of YOU'RE NEXT GOES CAMPING, this survivalist horror film has a few moments of credible suspense (the creepiest being one character taking a selfie at night, with the flash revealing a split-second glimpse of a masked figure in the trees behind him), but it too often falls victim to contrivances and outright stupidity. On no less than four separate occasions, characters carelessly turn their backs on someone they thought was dead only to turn around and find them either gone or very much alive and ready for the kill. Anesthesiologist Wit (Wrenn Schmidt of BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and her stockbroker husband Mike (Aaron Staton of MAD MEN) were supposed to have a romantic camping getaway but Mike invited his war vet brother Sean (Pablo Schreiber, best known for his recurring role as a serial rapist on LAW & ORDER: SVU) along. Right from the start, things seem off: Mike keeps fondly reminiscing of sadistic childhood pranks, Wit seems distracted, and Sean, still psychologically scarred from his time serving in Afghanistan, obviously has feelings for Wit. They illegally enter a closed state park to go deer hunting and after one drunken night, they awake to find their guns, gear, food, water, shoes, Sean's dog, and Mike's cell phone gone and "X"'s Sharpie'd on their foreheads. Irrational, braying jackass Mike immediately accuses Sean of having a PTSD breakdown and wanting to sleep with Wit, and as the parties split up--Wit and Mike go off to the find their SUV while Sean looks for his dog--it soon dawns on them that they're being stalked by three masked murderers--actually teenage boys--intent on slaughtering them.

Actor Christopher Denham (ARGO, SOUND OF MY VOICE) wrote and directed PRESERVATION, and while there's intermittent instances of directorial skill, his script is really dumb. It's not just the way the characters constantly turn their backs on lethal threats, but in the predictable way everything plays out. Of course, hot-headed bro-type Mike is going to blame his brother for what's going on, and of course he's too preoccupied with taking calls from work to have time to talk to Wit, who secretly buys a home pregnancy test at a convenience store on their way to the state park. Of course, the old-school trap Mike sets in the woods will ultimately trap (wait for it) Mike, and the way Mike (notice what a dick this guy is?) carelessly leaves the necks of broken beer bottles near a rest area park will come into play much later. And how does Wit have time to set off a bunch of flares and decorate the ranger station with paraphernalia to taunt the killers in a way that references something that happened between the killers and Mike and that Wit, separated from the dead Mike (oh yeah, spoiler alert) couldn't possibly know about?  It doesn't get much dumber than Mike (this guy again) hiding in a Port-a-John while one of the killers is trying to kick the door in. Mike kicks the top off the Port-a-John and climbs out, kicking and grunting the whole way, then sneaks from the back around to the front to find the killer still looking at the door of the Port-a-John to figure out a way in, as if he could somehow miss all the noise Mike was making while climbing out of the top. Denham also tries to say something about technology and interpersonal disconnect in the way Mike and Wit can't find time to talk and in the way the killers take a break on the edge of a lake and don't talk, but rather, sit down and text one another in silence. Oh...because people don't communicate! Get it?  These kids today with the texting and the video games and the stalking and the murder. Do yourself a favor and stick with RITUALS instead. (Unrated, 88 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant).

(US/Mexico - 2014)

An unusual if not altogether successful werewolf movie, LATE PHASES distinguishes itself from the CGI crowd by relying on practical effects that recall the nearly 35-year-old transformation work of Rick Baker on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Rob Bottin on THE HOWLING. There's only one big transformation sequence, and Spanish filmmaker Adrian Garcia Bogliano (HERE COMES THE DEVIL) errs in showing too much of the werewolf in the attack scenes, as it looks as if the producers scoured eBay for the cheapest, rattiest werewolf costume they could find. LATE PHASES really gets a boost from an excellent performance by cult actor Nick Damici (STAKE LAND, COLD IN JULY), playing about 20 years older than his age as Ambrose McKinley, a blind, widowed Vietnam vet being taken to a retirement community by his son Will (Ethan Embry). On his first night in his new residence, Ambrose's dog Shadow and his neighbor Dolores (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's Karen Lynn Gorney) are killed by what's thought to be a giant dog. The useless local cops dismiss it ("This kind of thing happens all the time...old people can't defend themselves") but Ambrose, his other senses heightened with the loss of his sight, rightly feels something is off here, and not just because he dislikes the concept of retirement communities in general ("People don't come here to live...they come here to die," he tells Will's wife). Still a crack shot even without sight, Ambrose quickly alienates his chatty neighbors who want nothing to do with him (among them are GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Tina Louise, AMITYVILLE II's Rutanya Alda, and HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE's Caitlin O'Heaney), but finds a mutual understanding in his philosophical conversations with local priest Father Roger (Tom Noonan), who has enough sympathy for old Ambrose that he arranges for church employee Griffin (THE LAST STARFIGHTER's Lance Guest) to transport him on outings when the other residents refuse to ride the bus with him.

With the coughing, wheezing werewolf having a distinct smell that Ambrose picks up on when he talks to two different coughing, wheezing characters, it doesn't take long to figure out who the werewolf is (and much like THE HOWLING's "The Colony," the werewolf situation seems to be an open secret, at least with the cops and the community staffers), but LATE PHASES is less about werewolfery and more a character study about an old man trying to find purpose and dignity in a bad situation (LATE PHASES referring to both the lunar cycle and Ambrose's life). It's an odd mix--imagine GRAN TORINO if Clint Eastwood's neighbors were werewolves instead of Hmong immigrants--that stays mostly interesting thanks to the outstanding work of Damici, who brilliantly channeled William Smith in STAKE LAND and here seems like a somber and even more stoical Charles Bronson. Only when Bogliano goes full throttle horror near the end does the film start falling apart, starting with a confusingly-shot sequence where the werewolf (one of them, at least) makes its presence known and explains itself as it transforms. Moody and character-driven, LATE PHASES has a few generous gore scenes but isn't really scary or particularly suspenseful, but when Damici is onscreen, he commands your attention. Plus, that supporting cast (Tina Louise and Karen Lynn Gorney sightings?!) is pretty fascinating. (Unrated, 96 mins)

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