Friday, June 12, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: SERENA (2015); MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT (2015); and ASMODEXIA (2014)

(US/France/Czech Republic - 2015)

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (2004's BROTHERS) cracked the US market with the 2007 Halle Berry vehicle THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, but is best known for the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner IN A BETTER WORLD. SERENA, however, will not go down as one of her career highlights, despite the notoriety of being another Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence teaming that didn't exactly generate the buzz of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE. SERENA was shot in the Czech Republic in the spring and summer of 2012, several months prior to SILVER LININGS' release and before the stars moved on to AMERICAN HUSTLE, which hit theaters in December 2013. Bier displayed what must've seemed like an alarming lack of urgency to her backers, spending a year and a half tinkering with the footage while her stars went on to awards and accolades as SERENA languished in a state of perpetual incompletion. Even on the heels of Lawrence's blockbuster HUNGER GAMES success and Cooper's megahit AMERICAN SNIPER, the $30 million SERENA went straight-to-VOD in the spring of 2015 with just a 59-screen rollout following, for a gross of $176,000. You'd be correct in assuming SERENA is terrible--for all the time she spent assembling various cuts, Bier seems to have no idea what she wanted to accomplish with this film. Character behavior and motivation seem to change from scene to scene, and considering how well they worked together in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, Cooper and Lawrence just appear lost throughout. They're certainly capable actors, but neither get a handle on how they're supposed to play their characters, and both looking hopelessly out of their element in a rural period setting.

In the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina in 1929, timber magnate George Pemberton (Cooper) marries the unpredictable Serena (Lawrence) after a whirlwind courtship, or at least Bier's depiction of a whirlwind courtship: they meet, introduce themselves, screw, step off a train as man and wife, and she's immediately running his business, all in about 75 seconds of screen time. George's business is in trouble, he's been cooking the books, and the stock market crash has rendered his holdings worthless. On top of all that, he has an illegitimate son with dirt-poor Rachel (Ana Ularu), secretly supporting the boy behind Serena's back. Their marriage deteriorates after Serena miscarries and begins manipulating the clearly insane Galloway (Rhys Ifans), a glowering employee who gets his hand hacked off and believes Serena has been prophesied to him as he swears to do her bidding, whether it's killing a disgruntled employee (Sean Harris) who provided the irate sheriff (Toby Jones) with evidence of George's corruption, or killing Rachel and her son as George slowly comes to realize that his wife is a sociopathic shrew. Of course, George is no angel either, whether he's callously breaking Rachel's heart or killing his business partner (David Dencik) when his plans don't gel with what Serena wants to do with the company. It's hard to get behind George as a hero when he's not, and we never know enough about him or Serena to get a handle on either of them. There's stretches of the film where Bier seems to be assembling scenes at random, with no consistent time element whatsoever. Screenwriter Christopher Kyle took significant liberies with Ron Rash's 2008 novel, but that doesn't explain the poorly-defined characters and their vague and often nonsensical motivations. Bier just seems actively disengaged from the story and her actors, and instead demonstrates an almost Cimino-like fixation on the look and the atmospheric background details. Indeed, the only real positive of SERENA is the marvelously picturesque production design and period detail, which bring the era to vivid life in the same way that HEAVEN'S GATE did with its late 19th century Wyoming setting for the Johnson County War. If nothing else, SERENA looks like it costs a lot more than $30 million, but that's all it has going for it. It's under-the-radar enough that it'll likely be a minor footnote in the careers of its stars, but I'm still willing to bet that their publicists will be erring on the side of caution and instructing media types and TV talk show hosts to avoid bringing it up for the foreseeable future. (R, 110 mins)

(UK - 2015)

2010's MONSTERS, a monster movie that seemed to go out of its way to spend as little time as possible dealing with the titular tentacled creatures, nevertheless received much acclaim and vaulted writer/director Gareth Edwards to the big-time, winning him the job of last year's GODZILLA reboot. Edwards' GODZILLA utilized his MONSTERS ethos by sidelining Godzilla to a point where he was virtually a minor supporting character in his own movie. Edwards is onboard as an executive producer for MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT, which is more of a spinoff than a sequel, taking place ten years after the events of the first film, with clusters of the giant creatures now scattered all over the globe. Director/co-writer Tom Green (not the FREDDY GOT FINGERED Tom Green, though that undoubtedly would've been more interesting) is even less concerned with making a giant monster flick than Edwards was, and both strike me as the kind of guys whose favorite Frankenstein movies are the mid-1940s Universal monster rallies where Glenn Strange's Frankenstein monster doesn't even get off the table until the last two minutes of the movie, when he stands up, stumbles over some electrical equipment, and blows up the lab. The End. If these guys remade JAWS, the opening hour would be devoted to Sheriff Brody dealing with the karate school kids who keep "karate-ing" that old islander's fence down. If they remade THE EXORCIST, they'd spend the first 90 minutes of the film focusing on the trials and tribulations of Chris MacNeil and Burke Dennings ironing out the script details for the movie they're shooting in Georgetown. If they made a ROCKY reboot, it would focus on Adrian working at the pet store, with Rocky occasionally mentioned and maybe dropping in once or twice to say hello. These guys are so actively against giving the audience what they came for that they wouldn't even have Rocky say "Yo, Adrian."

MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT focuses on a trio of Detroit guys who are part of a military unit deployed to the Middle East, where they're taken under the wing of battle-hardended Sgt. Frater (Johnny Harris, in an intense performance) and captured by insurgents after numerous combat sequences. The monsters are offscreen for long stretches, and when they're seen, they're just sort of doing their thing in the background, now an accepted part of the scenery after a decade of migrating over the world. With a few CGI touch-ups to remove shots of the monsters, this could just as easily be called THE HURT LOCKER II: DARK CONTINENT. Green's insistence on keeping the monsters--you know, the title of the movie--offscreen and out of the action is initially baffling and ultimately infuriating. Edwards' minimalist approach to the monster element with the overrated first film was annoying, but at least he got to them eventually. Green doesn't even give us that, instead letting the whole film build up to a showdown between a crazed, shell-shocked Frater and young soldier Parkes (Sam Keeley), while a couple of skyscraper-high creatures dick around in the background, seemingly as confused as the viewer as to exactly what they're doing here. Green is clearly more interested in making a war drama than a sci-fi/horror film, and while the dramatic elements aren't bad (and Harris is very good), it still begs the question: what is the point of this movie? Is there some allegorical, "I wonder who the real monsters are" statement about the American military presence in the Middle East? Green neither knows nor cares. If he's not interested in making a giant monster movie, then why is he wasting his time and ours?  Green made an ostensible sequel to MONSTERS, with the word "monsters" in the title, but what he's got is a Middle East-set combat movie with very sporadic shots of creatures lingering the background, having no effect on the story whatsoever. I'm sure there's apologists out there prepping bullshit MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT think pieces about "subverting genre expectations" in a hapless attempt to defend this pathetic sham of a movie, but here's the deal: rarely in modern cinema has a film so stubbornly refused to live up to its end of the bargain. (R, 119 mins)

(Spain - 2014)

On the surface, the Spanish horror film ASMODEXIA is yet another in a seemingly endless parade of possession potboilers, with aging exorcist Eloy (Lluis Marco) traveling around Spain with his 15-year-old granddaughter and partner-in-exorcism Alba (Claudia Pons). They're drawn to possession victims and perform exorcisms on their way to an unspoken destination in the days leading up to 12-21-12, the Mayan calendar end of the world.  There are parallel storylines involving an institutionalized woman (Irene Montala), and that woman's sister (Marta Belmonte), a Barcelona detective who's frantically searching for Eloy and Alba, as well as a hooded figure and a black van that also make sporadic appearances. Screenwriters Marc Carrete (who also directed) and Mike Hostench (who scripted a couple of Brian Yuzna's Spanish horror films a decade ago) take a pretty much in medias res approach to the story and it's a good 45 of the film's 81 minutes before all of the pieces are in place and things start making sense. The demonic possession angle is a bait-and-switch as Carrete and Hostench just start throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. There's some Fulci, there's some of THE SENTINEL, there's a little of THE KEEP, and there's a great twist late in the film that up-ends everything, but Carrete has some serious pacing issues, the script is entirely too convoluted, and the filmmakers try to take it in more directions than 81 minutes will allow. There's some good ideas in ASMODEXIA but the execution is lacking. The script needed another draft and the film could actually use maybe five or ten more minutes to give it some breathing room to flow  and maybe clarify some plot points to eliminate some of the confusion that dominates the sometimes frustrating opening half. As it is, ASMODEXIA is constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. There's something here, but it really could've been a lot better. (Unrated, 81 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

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