Saturday, May 16, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: TWO MEN IN TOWN (2015); EXTRATERRESTRIAL (2014); and MORTDECAI (2015)

(US/France/Algeria/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)

A low-key, deliberately-paced character piece, TWO MEN IN TOWN is a remake of a 1973 French film by Jose Giovanni, with Alain Delon as an ex-con trying to stay straight with the help of an elderly social worker (the legendary Jean Gabin in one of his last films) and a new girlfriend (Mimsy Farmer). He finds this difficult thanks to a variety of obstacles, chief among them an angry cop (Michel Bouquet) with a serious grudge against him, and a former criminal associate (a young Gerard Depardieu) who keeps trying to pull him back into his old life. This new version, directed and co-written by French filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb (DAYS OF GLORY, OUTSIDE THE LAW), moves the story from France to the sparsely-populated southern-most area of New Mexico, right along the US/Mexico border. Paroled after serving 18 years of a 21-year sentence for killing a deputy sheriff, William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) has a dark past as a vicious criminal and a drug dealer, but has found peace while incarcerated. He's converted to Islam, is devoutly religious, he's taught himself to read and earned his GED, and worked as a tutor and counselor to his fellow inmates. A model prisoner who has fought his demons and wants nothing more than to start his life over and get it right, Garnett gets some support from his sympathetic parole officer Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn), gets a minimum wage job at a cattle farm, and starts dating nice bank teller Teresa (Dolores Heredia). But flashes of the old Garnett occasionally pop up, whether he arrives home from work to find Emily inspecting his room at a local halfway house, or smashing his neighbor's TV when he won't turn the volume down. His temper is egged on by big-shot, five-term sheriff Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), who shows legitimate concern over a local vigilante group's unlawful treatment of illegals crossing the border, but extends no such goodwill toward Garnett. It was Agati's deputy that Garnett murdered, and he has no intention of letting him off the hook. Agati follows Garnett, harasses him while he's having dinner at a restaurant, shows up at Teresa's house to embarrass him, has him held overnight for a speeding violation, and even goes so far as to bully Garnett's boss into firing him. On top of that, Garnett's old criminal cohort Terrance (Luis Guzman) keeps turning up, endlessly hounding and threatening him about picking up where they left off and, like Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST, refuses to take no for an answer. With no one but Teresa and his parole officer allowing him to lead the quiet life he wants to lead, it's only a matter of time before Garnett explodes.

Anchored by a Ry Cooder-esque score by Eric Neveux, TWO MEN IN TOWN often has a PARIS, TEXAS-era Wim Wenders feel to it. Like Wenders, Bouchareb is a European filmmaker who manages to convey a unique view of the American Southwest. The cinematography by Yves Cape (HOLY MOTORS) effectively captures the sun-drenched surroundings and the desert highways that Europeans seem to have a special knack for achieving, because as outsiders, Bouchareb and Cape see the unique things that Americans in their positions might miss. This environment is nothing new to Bouchareb, who has an affinity for the region, having shot 2012's JUST LIKE A WOMAN in New Mexico as well, plus he produced Bruno Dumont's 2003 cult film TWENTYNINE PALMS, a desert road trip slow-burner shot in the title city and in Joshua Tree. A lean and intense Whitaker, who's been dismayingly terrible in pretty much everything he's done for the last several years, turns in his best performance in a long while as the tightly-wound Garnett. Keitel does some fine work as Agati, who, despite his early concern for some illegals before turning them over to the border patrol, is every bit the asshole that you expect an apparent sheriff-for-life in a small town in the middle of nowhere to be. Ellen Burstyn turns up for one very well-played scene as Garnett's adoptive mother, who couldn't bring herself to visit him even once while he was in prison. Blethyn seems miscast, and her performance is uneven, as the folksy tone of her line delivery seems more to mask her British accent than to convey the down-home, tell-it-like-is sass of her character. The conclusion leaves a little to be desired, and Bouchareb has no idea what to do with Keitel's character, instead turning the primary antagonist role over to Guzman while Keitel basically disappears from the film. Still, it's an interesting drama that flopped in Europe and only managed a VOD and scant US theatrical release here over a year after it played the Berlin Film Festival. It's flawed, but worth seeing for fans of Keitel and Whitaker, who hasn't been this good since his Oscar-winning turn in 2006's THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. (R, 117 mins)

(Canada - 2014)

Though the generically-titled EXTRATERRESTRIAL is not intended to be a remake of the 2011 Spanish film by Nacho Vigalondo, they do share the idea of a couple's relationship issues being put on the backburner by a sudden alien invasion. That wouldn't be the only derivative element of the latest film from the GRAVE ENCOUNTERS team of Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who work under the name The Vicious Brothers. Their EXTRATERRESTRIAL is more concerned with being a blatant ripoff of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, with five archetypes--brain, nice guy, dude-bro, stoner, and blonde ditz--only here, they encounter UFOs and not-very-friendly aliens. April (Brittany Allen) is planning on a weekend at her parents' cabin with boyfriend Kyle (Freddie Stroma), but it turns into a blowout party when he invites their friends Seth (Jesse Moss as the dude-bro), Melanie (Melanie Papalia as the stoner), and Lex (Anja Savcic as the blonde ditz). April's rejection of Kyle's sudden proposal sours the weekend, but things go from bad to worse when a UFO crash-lands in the woods. Grabbing her dad's shotgun, April blasts one of the E.T.s, which doesn't bode well with its alien friends.

Diverting but not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, EXTRATERRESTRIAL doesn't really get the whole "meta" thing down like CABIN IN THE WOODS did. Like CABIN, it also has unseen puppet masters secretly calling the shots, in this case it's exposition supplied by Travis (Michael Ironside), a pot-growing, conspiracy-theorist Vietnam vet who lives in a nearby cabin. He knows what's the alien visitors have been up to in the woods and tells April and the others of a secret treaty between the US government and the aliens that dates back to Roswell: the government agrees to leave the aliens to go about their business of abducting yokels if they do so quietly and in limited numbers so as not to draw attention. In exchange, as Travis puts it, "We get to keep acting like we're running things down here." It's an interesting concept that gets a lot of mileage out of a terrific performance by Ironside, but the Vicious Brothers err in taking him out of the film far too early. Gil Bellows is also very well cast in a haggard, beaten-down-by-life way as the beer-gutted sheriff who hasn't been able to get past his wife's disappearance a decade earlier, and when these kids start talking about UFOs and aliens, coupled with a shell-shocked local mom (GINGER SNAPS' Emily Perkins) telling the same story where her husband and son were taken away, he starts seeing an explanation for what happened to her. EXTRATERRESTRIAL opens strong and for a while, it has the feel of an old-school '80s crowd-pleaser, but with its two major assets--Ironside and Bellows--not getting enough screen time, we're left with mostly uninteresting leads (Allen is a strong, appealing heroine, but the rest range from forgettable to, in Moss' case, excruciating). Connoisseurs of alien invasion films may enjoy what's easily cinema's nastiest anal probe scene, but there's little consistency: if the aliens can establish a psychic link strong enough to force one character to blow his own head off, then why can't they find Perkins' character, who's hiding in plain sight? And if the aliens are supposed to be keeping things on the down-low, why are they spending so much time and abducting so many people in this neck of the woods? The film really stumbles with an overdone, maudlin finale that leads to a downbeat NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ending that it doesn't earn, instead coming off as unnecessarily mean-spirited. Though it's rather unrestrained in its CABIN IN THE WOODS worship, there's a good film desperately trying to break out of the merely average EXTRATERRESTRIAL. As far as recent alien invasion pics go, it's at least preferable to the Milla Jovovich con job THE FOURTH KIND and the unwatchable SKYLINE, one of the worst major-studio releases in years. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(US - 2015)

After a string of misfires that saw former actor Johnny Depp's stock plummet with fans (THE RUM DIARY, DARK SHADOWS, THE LONE RANGER, TRANSCENDENCE, and his incognito supporting role in Kevin Smith's pathetic TUSK), it seems as if the world put its foot down with MORTDECAI.  After at least two months of the most relentlessly pushy ad campaign in recent memory, moviegoers actively revolted and let it bomb hard in theaters. On its own terms, it could've been an amusing throwback to double entendre-filled '60s comedies, like something Peter Sellers might've made around the time of THE PINK PANTHER, WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? or AFTER THE FOX. But the world made it known that it's clearly sick of Depp's constant crutches of pancake makeup and whimsical vocal affectations, and seeing him in the MORTDECAI trailers with a waxed mustache and a forced British accent trading randy and sassy quips with Goop publisher and vagina-steaming advocate Gwyneth Paltrow was where everyone drew the line, took a stand, and emphatically declared "No more!" The $60 million MORTDECAI, based on a series of 1970s comic adventure novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli, grossed just $8 million in the US and took a beating from critics, making it a safe bet that this won't become another PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise for Depp. The wasteful budgets of today's movies often border on criminal, but it seems especially offensive here. Other than paying a bunch of big names to jerk themselves off (Depp got paid $10 million), nothing here warrants pissing away $60 million. Think what $60 million could've done for people in need. Who the fuck needed MORTDECAI?

An appalling, obnoxious vanity project for star/producer Depp, MORTDECAI is every bit as awful as you've heard, which is tragic because there's a surplus of squandered talent. This is a film with an alarming contempt for its audience. It's obvious the actors are having a much better time than the viewer and you soon realize you're paying to attend a party where you're deliberately being excluded from the fun. Eccentric, jet-setting--and broke--British art dealer Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) gets roped into a plot by his friend and M.I.5 agent Martland (Ewan McGregor) to recover a rare stolen Goya painting. So begins a globetrotting adventure that finds Mortdecai and his faithful, hulking manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) tangling with Russian mobsters, vacuous Californians, and the nympho daughter (Olivia Munn) of a shady L.A. art figure (Jeff Goldblum, cast radically against type as "Jeff Goldblum"). Meanwhile, Mortdecai's wife Johanna (Paltrow) also gets pulled into the pursuit of the Goya, providing Martland with an opportunity to steal her away from Mortdecai, which he's been trying to do since their college days. There's very little in the way of comedy in the script by Eric Aronson, whose lone previous writing credit is the 2001 Lance Bass/Joey Fatone vehicle ON THE LINE. It's too bad director David Koepp, a veteran screenwriter whose credits include JURASSIC PARK, CARLITO'S WAY, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, didn't write it as well--perhaps he could've brought something to the table other than Aronson, whose approach seems to have been scribbling "Johnny Depp, British accent, mustache" on a piece of scrap paper, crossing his fingers, and hoping everything would work itself out. As it is, MORTDECAI's idea of comedy is Depp's overdone accent and the fact that he has a mustache and his character is a pompous dolt who still calls America "The Colonies." That's it. Every joke is based on one or a combination of those things. There's one legitimate AUSTIN POWERS-style laugh--Mortdecai at a men's room urinal as a Russian gangster grabs him from behind, injecting a sedative into his neck as Mortdecai quips "Oh! I've read about this!"--and that's it. There's nothing here. One of the emptiest films of the year, MORTDECAI is what happens when a movie star is too rich and out of touch for anyone to tell him no. Depp hasn't tried in years because he doesn't have to, so he enjoys another fat payday, amusing himself by mugging shamelessly with a wacky accent and a fake mustache. Well, I guess that means at least one person found MORTDECAI amusing. (R, 107 mins)

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