Monday, August 31, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: SKIN TRADE (2015) and EJECTA (2015)

(Thailand/US - 2015)

The globetrotting actioner SKIN TRADE is a bloody, bone-crushingly entertaining throwback to the mismatched buddy/cop movies of the late '80s and early '90s. It occasionally suffers from budget limitations and has more plot and extraneous characters than it really needs, but it delivers the goods where it matters, and has its heart in the right place with an obviously sincere concern for human trafficking on the part of producer/co-writer/star Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren is Nick Cassidy, a plays-by-his-own-rules Newark cop obsessed with nailing Serbian crime lord Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman) who, with his four sons, oversees a global operation involving the trafficking of drugs, young women and teenage girls. Meanwhile, Bangkok detective Tony Vitayakul (ONG BAK's Tony Jaa) has lost contact with his girlfriend/informant Min (Celina Jade), who went undercover to be abducted by the Cambodia wing of Dragovic's operation. Back in Newark, Cassidy nabs Dragovic at a shipyard after a shootout results in the death of one of the criminal's sons, but Dragovic jumps bail to Cambodia after his goons blow up Cassidy's house with a rocket launcher, killing his wife and daughter. Clinging to life and without the knowledge of his boss Costello (Peter Weller) and FBI agent Reed (BLACK DYNAMITE's Michael Jai White), Cassidy flees both the hospital and the country, heading to Southeast Asia to exact revenge on Dragovic and bring down his operation. The Feds are in hot pursuit, and through a convoluted set of circumstances, Vitayakul spends a good chunk of time thinking Cassidy killed his partner, but eventually they team up to take out Dragovic...if they don't kill each other first!

A DTV-level film that somehow made it into some theaters, SKIN TRADE suffers from some dubious-looking greenscreen and digital work, though only Lundgren can convincingly pull off looking cool as he walks away from a CGI explosion. A weathered and craggy-looking Lundgren, augmented by some facial scarring makeup, is an engagingly gritty hero and convincingly sells Cassidy's obsessive rage (Lundgren is a better actor than people think). He works well with Jaa, especially in a pair of extensive fight scenes, but it's nearly an hour into the film before they even pair up, as the script works through a lot of backstory and characters. One wishes White had a little more to do--one pivotal plot point hinges on his character, but because he's such an engaging screen presence in action films (and a solid actor as well) that it does seem like he's getting table scraps here with an overall minor supporting role. Perlman chews the scenery with a thick Eastern European accent, and Weller gets a couple of dyspeptic outbursts as Cassidy's pissed-off lieutenant (disappointingly, the filmmakers deprive Weller of the chance to demand Cassidy's gun and shield to stash away in the top drawer of his desk). Director Ekachai Uekrongtham previously helmed the 2004 Muay Thai boxing drama BEAUTIFUL BOXER, but otherwise has little experience is this genre, with most of his work being straight drama aside from the 2008 horror film THE COFFIN. He does a good job with the actors, but one suspects Lundgren and Jaa--both experienced directors themselves--had significant input in the staging of the action. SKIN TRADE doesn't really offer anything new, but it does enthusiastically deliver exactly what it promises. (R, 96 mins)

(Canada - 2015)

Fans of the linguistic viral zombie outbreak cult classic PONTYPOOL (2008) will be interested in EJECTA, as both were scripted by Tony Burgess and feature Lisa Houle (PONTYPOOL's radio station manager Sydney Briar) in a key role. Much the way PONTYPOOL offered a rare lead for a familiar and constantly jobbing familiar face (Stephen McHattie), EJECTA does the same for veteran Canadian character actor Julian Richings. Richings is William Cassidy, a loner still haunted by an alien abduction he experienced 39 years earlier. Cassidy also blogs about UFO sightings, alien encounters, and government conspiracies under the name "Spider Nevi," and he reaches out to young documentary filmmaker and Spider Nevi superfan Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold) about an upcoming Carrington Event or "mass ejection," a solar flare that may throw Earth off its orbit. Instead, they encounter an alien running rampant through the woods, and something--exactly what doesn't become clear until much later--happens that lands Cassidy in a Guantanamo-like bunker where he's interrogated and tortured by the sadistic Dr. Tobin (Houle, in a quite a menacing contrast to her PONTYPOOL character), an operative for a mysterious shadow wing of the government who doesn't hesitate to shoot military personnel in the head if she doesn't like the answers they give or if they fail to respond to her requests with appropriate speed.

Burgess and directors Matt Wiele and Chad Archibald juggle three overlapping stories: Cassidy and Sullivan encountering an alien in the woods; Tobin's soldiers looking for the missing Sullivan; and the psychological and physical torture of Cassidy by Tobin. It's the Cassidy-Tobin dynamic that's the most interesting element of EJECTA, so of course it takes a back seat until late in the game as the directors instead focus more on the other two storylines, which seem to exist simply to pander to the found-footage and hand-held crowd, whether it's Sullivan's documentary about "Spider Nevi" or the military search, which plays out entirely in green night-vision. There's some thought-provoking ideas in the Cassidy-Tobin sections of the film, particularly in the way Cassidy withstands every brutality Tobin has inflicted on him because after what he experienced 39 years ago, nothing can terrify or hurt him, and in fact, her abuse only makes him stronger. In the end, despite some unexpected elements in the home stretch--including some unabashed KEEP-worship in some of the music and visuals--and a pair of terrific performances by Richings and Houle, EJECTA isn't much more than yet another shaky-cam, faux-doc, found footage alien invasion movie with some pretty dodgy visual effects. Fans of PONTYPOOL--one of the best horror films of the last decade--will find it frustrating because, like that film, EJECTA could've brought something new to a played-out subgenre. It's still better than any SKYLINE or AREA 51 or most of its type. Despite its many problems, it's worth one watch for the work of Richings and Houle, and I have to admit that the shout-out to THE KEEP was a pleasant surprise that won some points in its favor. (Unrated, 82 mins)

Friday, August 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE RUNNER (2015); BIG GAME (2015); and THE WATER DIVINER (2015)

(US - 2015)

The possibilities seem limitless when you think of the entertainment potential of Nicolas Cage playing a Louisiana politician embroiled in a sex scandal.  But THE RUNNER, the Oscar-winning actor's latest straight-to-VOD trifle, demonstrates barely enough oomph to be classified as lukewarm. Playing like a really boring season of HOUSE OF CARDS whittled down to 90 minutes and missing all the good parts, THE RUNNER is set in 2010 just after the BP oil spill and offers Cage, with a wildly on-and-off N'awlins drawl, as Colin Bryce, a little-known New Orleans-based congressman who makes headlines after delivering an impassioned speech shredding BP during a televised hearing. A rising star with Senate ambitions crashes quickly when hotel security footage shows him in an elevator dalliance with the wife of a local fisherman. Bryce's PR-savvy wife Deborah (Connie Nielsen) has overlooked his past infidelities in their 25-year business arrangement of a marriage and is willing to stick with him as long as he doesn't resign and start back at square one. He does resign, she leaves him, and he stops just short of going full TIGHTROPE with New Orleans prostitutes (the camera pans down to a wad of bills and a couple of Trojans just to let us know he's safe about it) before a whirlwind romance with his married-but-separated consultant Kate Haber (Sarah Paulson). Bryce then rebuilds his career as a pro-bono attorney working on lawsuits against BP until his attempt to get back in politics forces him to realize that it's all about schmoozing lobbyists and greasing palms or corporate benefactors in the arena of political gamesmanship.

Who cares? Where's the story here?  Where's the hook? As a drama, it's uninteresting, and as a character study, it doesn't even qualify as one-dimensional. You have to gladhand and sell part of your soul to be a politician? Thank you, writer/director Austin Stark for blowing the lid off that one. Cage plays it completely straight in a story that's begging for him to conjure some of his manic BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS craziness. I respect Cage wanting to play something straight, and it's probably not fair to criticize THE RUNNER for not being the film I wish it was, but if it offered anything substantive or even slightly intriguing, I wouldn't have to wish it was something else. What's most difficult in assessing THE RUNNER is that there's really nothing wrong with it in its presentation or its filmmaking: the performances are fine--there's also Wendell Pierce as Bryce's chief advisor and Peter Fonda as Bryce's alcoholic father, a beloved progressive 1970's New Orleans mayor whose legend casts a long shadow-- and there's nothing bad in Stark's direction, but there's just no meat to the story. THE RUNNER tries to be Cage's THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN, but there's two problems with that: nobody remembers THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN and the end result is about as exciting as watching Nicolas Cage watch C-SPAN. (R, 90 mins)

(Finland/UK/Germany/US - 2015)

With some more convincing visual effects and better distribution, the high-concept, dumb-but-fun BIG GAME could've been a decent-sized hit. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander (the Finnish holiday horror cult hit RARE EXPORTS), BIG GAME is short (the closing credits start rolling at 77 minutes), and it's the kind of movie that dads and their preteen sons would really enjoy. Instead, Anchor Bay rolled it out on a whopping 11 screens and VOD, even with star Samuel L. Jackson riding high on KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. Jackson is strictly in paycheck mode--yes, he does get one obscured-by-an-explosion "motherfucker"--as lame-duck US President William Alan Moore, dealing with declining approval ratings and a calculated effort by his opponents to smear him as "wimpy." He's already survived one assassination attempt, which left a bullet lodged near the heart of his top Secret Service agent Morris (Ray Stevenson). Moore is on his way back from a summit when Air Force One is shot down over the mountains of Finland. Morris, bitter about taking a bullet for a man he perceives to be a spineless coward, sabotaged the parachutes of the other agents and is revealed to be in cahoots with psychotic terrorist Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) in a plot to kill the President. Moore's escape pod is discovered by 13-year-old Oskari (RARE EXPORTS' Onni Tommila), who's hunting in the forest alone to prove his manhood to his father and the small village's close-knit hunter-gatherer types. Oskari steps up to help the President and get him through the forest to show his father he's a worthy outdoorsman and the President shakes off his wussiness to take on Morris, Hazar, and their associates who will stop at nothing to eliminate him.

Sort-of like a family-friendly OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, BIG GAME is the very definition of a harmless diversion. Jackson isn't very convincing playing a doormat, and may have only signed on for the free trip to Helsinki, but he has a nice rapport with young Tommila. Stevenson and Kurtulus are pretty one-dimensional bad guys (Stevenson seems to be amusing himself by doing an Alec Baldwin impression), but you also get a character actor summit back home, with Victor Garber as the VP, Jim Broadbent as a CIA terrorism expert, Felicity Huffman as the CIA director, and Ted Levine as the Joint Chiefs chair. Helander pulls off a couple of imaginative action sequences--one involving Moore and Oskari huddled inside a runaway freezer--that succeed in spite of some greenscreen work that looks rushed. The kind of movie where no one can off a bad guy without a snarky quip of some kind, BIG GAME is brainless fun if you're in the right mood, and an earnest attempt at showing us what a low-budget Finnish Jerry Bruckheimer production might look like. (PG-13, 87 mins)

(US/Australia - 2014; 2015 US release)

It doesn't seem like that long ago that an Oscar-winning actor like Russell Crowe making his narrative directing debut with an epic period piece would've been instant awards-season material. Indeed, THE WATER DIVINER was a big Christmas Day 2014 opening in Australia and other parts of the world, but Warner Bros. sat on it for several more months in the US before giving it a limited release on just 385 screens in April 2015, making it the Oscar-winning actor's least-seen film since 2009's instantly obscure (and deservedly so) TENDERNESS. It's that awards season presumptuousness that's the first step in hindering the film, which leisurely strolls out of the gate and unfolds at the speed of Merchant-Ivory, seemingly already assuming it's an Oscar front-runner. Set in 1919, the film also stars Crowe as Joshua Connor, a rugged Australian farmer and father of three sons who were killed on the same day in the Battle of Gallipoli four years earlier. Connor's still-grieving wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) has lost her grip on reality and still talks about their sons as if they were boys, fixing their shoes and darning their socks, and even insisting that Connor read a bedtime story to them in their empty room at night. After Eliza commits suicide, Connor heads to Turkey to recover the remains of his boys and bring them home to be buried next to their mother. The Gallipoli battle site is declared off limits by occupying British forces, but Connor finds an unlikely ally in Major Hasam (Yilmaz Erdogan of ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA), a leader for the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli but now working as a Turkish liaison with the Australia-New Zealand ANZAC forces on locating and identifying remains at the battle site's mass burial. At his hotel in Istanbul, Connor also bonds with proprietor Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her young son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades). Ayshe, who also lost her husband at Gallipoli, initially resents the Australian "enemy" but comes to sympathize with him upon learning that he's lost his wife and his sons, and their growing friendship stirs resentment in Omer (Steve Bastoni), Ayshe's controlling brother-in-law to whom she has essentially been handed over as property and is arranged to be married when she decides her grieving period is over.

Crowe's film is sincere but inert and predictable, from the mutual, it's-nothing-personal-just-war understanding and respect that Connor and Hasam come to as they become friends, to the slowly blossoming romance between Connor and Ayshe. THE WATER DIVINER takes a turn for the silly when Connor's keen ability for locating ground water becomes a Spidey Sense of sorts when he uses it to ascertain the exact spot where his sons were killed. It's also hard to buy Connor's flashbacks to Gallipoli events that he couldn't possibly be remembering but rather, sees them as paranormal visions. Are screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios trying to take the leap that Connor's talent for water divining leads to something more spiritually divine?  If so, it doesn't work. The cramming in of the romantic subplot is soap-opera material at best, especially with a ludicrous dinner-by-500-candlelights scene that's unintentionally hilarious, as are some terrible CGI explosions that look like they were done using an app on Crowe's iPhone. The ending is weak, rushed, and unsatisfying, though there are moments throughout where the film almost pulls it together before bumbling and stumbling again. Crowe's performance is fine, and he has a good "buddy" chemistry with Erdogan, and when sequences aren't being thwarted by too-obvious greenscreen backgrounds, the location shooting in Australia and Turkey looks very good thanks to regular Peter Jackson cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose last film this was--the 59-year-old Oscar winner for FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING died of a heart attack just three days after the film's US opening. At the end of the day, THE WATER DIVINER is a well-intentioned but leadenly-paced and meandering misfire. (R, 111 mins)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

In Theaters: NO ESCAPE (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by John Erick Dowdle. Written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Sahajak Boonthanakit. (R, 103 mins)

NO ESCAPE was originally titled THE COUP when it was scheduled for release in early 2015, but was sent back for some retooling and a title change when stupid test audiences didn't know the meaning of the word "coup." That damning example of real-world IDIOCRACY proves to be the most memorable thing about a largely generic action movie that constantly sabotages itself with bad editing, ill-advised slo-mo, and a complete leave from reality every time it gets some honest, serious momentum going. Filmed in Thailand and obviously set there even though all references to the country have been removed by the Weinstein Co. lest they risk offending a sizable portion of the always-lucrative Asian box office, NO ESCAPE takes place in a now-unidentified far east country where American engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is moving his family when his new employer, a corporate mega-conglomerate called Cardiff, ships him and two others to take charge of a clean-water project. Jack lost his last job in Austin, TX and while he and wife Annie (Lake Bell) and daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and "The Beeze" (Claire Geare) aren't ecstatic about the move, it was the best offer he had. It's a bad omen when the Dwyers arrive and the TV and electricity are out, and no one from Cardiff has made any attempt to meet him at the airport or touch base with him after his arrival. While walking around the business district near the hotel, Jack finds himself in a middle of a riot when armed revolutionaries take on the police and the military.  The Prime Minister, friendly to American business interests, has been assassinated and his regime toppled, and the revolutionaries are coming specifically for the Cardiff engineers to show the company that they aren't welcome. Jack sees one of the engineers shot in the head, and the revolutionaries pursue him through the streets and through the hotel, forcing the family to do everything they can to survive the siege, get out of the hotel, and somehow make it to the US Embassy.

There are quite a few solid, intense sequences throughout NO ESCAPE, but they're consistently undermined by the film's stretching of time to suit its own needs: when the Dwyers make their way to the roof of the hotel and decide they need to jump to the neighboring building, it provides some serious nailbiting suspense until you notice how absurdly long it's taking for the revolutionaries to get across the roof in an attempt to stop them. And when they finally do, the only person who gets shot is the nameless local schlub with no dialogue who dutifully helps the Americans only to get shot in the back for his selfless efforts, tumbling off the ledge and going splat on the ground ten stories down. The prologue showing the Prime Minister's assassination is a complete botch, with some incredibly slapdash editing that makes it appear the PM has somehow made it to the clear opposite end of the hotel in a matter of seconds (Kevin Smith associate Scott Mosier gets a prominent "Additional editing by" credit in the closing crawl, indicating that he was likely brought in to sort out a mess). When the revolutionaries are taking over the hotel, it's chaos wherever they are, but business as usual where they aren't, sometimes alternating from floor to floor--if they've already worked their to hacking people to pieces way up to the eighth floor, then how are things calm and normal on the fourth, where Lucy is swimming in the pool?  The film's most ridiculous scene has all four family members covering their faces with scarves and hopping on a moped and slowly moving through a huge crowd of anti-American protesters undetected, all of them failing to notice Jack's blond hair dangling out of his hat. The Dwyers basically go from building to building in their trek to the American Embassy, and sometimes the streets are filled with rioters and sometimes they're empty--depends on what the filmmakers want to do in that particular scene.

NO ESCAPE is directed by John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote with his brother Drew. The team, aka The Brothers Dowdle, are best known for their horror movies like the [REC] remake QUARANTINE (2008), the M. Night Shyamalan-produced DEVIL (2010), and the found-footage AS ABOVE, SO BELOW (2014). The Dowdles bring that horror sensibility to a number of sequences in which they let the suspense build, like letting Jack's ride up a slow elevator to the eighth floor play out in real time with the camera planted on Wilson's face, which does a very effective job of cranking up the tension since we have no idea what awaits him when those doors open. But there's just too much implausible silliness, like the way they're always hiding in plain sight underneath a table or something as the bad guys wander right on by. NO ESCAPE also drops the ball by squandering Pierce Brosnan in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo as a gregarious, hard-drinking mystery man named Hammond, who knows the country and offers some helpful tips to Jack. Brosnan is absent for a long stretch after his first early appearance, where he makes a memorable impression belting out a karaoke version of Huey Lewis' "Heart and Soul." It's obvious that he'll come into play later, but even when he does, he isn't well-utilized. Brosnan delivers a colorful, enjoyable turn as Hammond that sees him riffing on his wildly-praised-at-the-time but largely forgotten performance in THE MATADOR (2005), and his scenes with Thai actor Sahajik Boonthanakit, as Hammond's cab driving buddy Kenny Rogers (his cab business is named "Kenny Roger Taxi") are a lot of fun. The Dowdles should've made better use of both of them instead of scene after scene of Wilson saying "Now, come on girls, we've gotta stick together!" when the daughters complain that they're hungry or have to go potty, or repeatedly do things that put the family's lives in danger. NO ESCAPE doesn't really have enough depth to offer any sort of commentary (nor does it explore the sinister suggestion that the execs at Cardiff, who never do make contact with Jack, have left him there to die), so what you're left with is a rather run-of-the-mill, VOD-ready, end-of-summer action movie that doesn't seem to hang together all that well. On the plus side, it's never boring and there's enough to keep it briskly entertaining, but it just seems content to do the bare minimum it needs to do to get by, and sometimes not even that much.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: MIRACLE MILE (1989) and CHERRY 2000 (1988)

(US - 1989)

Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Mykel T. Williamson, Denise Crosby, Kelly Minter, Kurt Fuller, O-Lan Jones, Robert DoQui, Earl Boen, Danny De La Paz, Claude Earl Jones, Alan Rosenberg, Diane Delano, Alan Berger, Brian Thompson, Jenette Goldstein, Edward Bunker, Howard Swain, voice of Raphael Sbarge. (R, 88 mins)

Despite rave reviews from critics, MIRACLE MILE wasted no time vacating theaters as quickly as possible. Opening on May 19, 1989, the last weekend before that year's big summer kickoff (back when Memorial Day weekend signified the beginning of the summer movie season) and the same day as the immortal ROAD HOUSE, the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL, the inferior horror sequel FRIGHT NIGHT PART II, and the teen comedy HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE, it landed with a thud in 15th place. A box-office bomb, MIRACLE MILE has gone on to become one of the essential cult films of the 1980s and has just been released on an extras-packed Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. An apocalyptic AFTER HOURS or DR. STRANGELOVE remade as a meet-cute date movie that also prefigures Don McKellar's 1998 film LAST NIGHT, MIRACLE MILE has lovestruck trombone player Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards, also the star of HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE) charming waitress Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) after spotting her at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. As Julie goes to her night shift at a coffee shop, Harry tells her he'll meet her outside when she's off at midnight, but a power outage causes him to oversleep and he doesn't get there until nearly 4:00 am. Julie's long gone and after leaving a desperate message for her, a romantic comedy enters the TWILIGHT ZONE as he picks up a ringing pay phone. On the other end of the line is Chip (voice of Raphael Sbarge), who's calling from a missile solo, frantically explaining that the nukes have been launched and they've got an hour before they hit. Chip thinks he's talking to his father, but dialed the wrong area code. Chip's ranting goes silent when Harry hears gunshots, followed by a voice warning "Forget everything you've heard and go back to sleep."

Still not sure if it's an elaborate prank, Harry describes the phone call to Julie's co-workers and overnight regulars at the diner. Disbelief escalates when a well-dressed coffee shop regular (Denise Crosby) makes some calls and finds out that many of America's politicians are mysteriously away in South America. Panic immediately ensues, with cook Fred (Robert DoQui) herding everyone into his food truck and heading to the airport, where the well-dressed woman has chartered several flights out of L.A. Fred refuses to go the opposite direction so Harry can pick up Julie, so Harry jumps out of the back of the truck and begins an hour-long odyssey into the night to get Julie--the woman he's waited his entire life to find--and get out of L.A., which is rapidly descending into a state of lawless chaos as the word of the world's end has quickly spread, making Harry wonder if he's needlessly incited a Chicken Little panic.

Steve De Jarnatt at a recent MIRACLE MILE screening
Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, MIRACLE MILE took nearly a decade to get made the way its creator intended. A hot property coming out of film school with his acclaimed 1978 short film TARZANA (with cult actors Timothy Carey and Eddie Constantine), De Jarnatt started shopping his MIRACLE MILE script shortly after, generating plenty of buzz but always getting the same reaction: the ending had to be changed. To De Jarnatt, the bleak ending was key to what made the film work, and the near-decade-long ordeal in making the MIRACLE MILE he wanted to make likely had a major hand in him shifting gears and abandoning feature films to focus on TV series work. While MIRACLE MILE languished in perpetual turnaround throughout the 1980s, De Jarnatt sought out journeyman gigs--he scored a co-writing credit on the 1983 SCTV cult comedy STRANGE BREW and directed the "Man from the South" episode of the rebooted ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS on NBC. He was offered films like THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER (1981) and PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) and he was in talks to direct DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985) before he left the project and was replaced by Susan Seidelman. De Jarnatt ultimately bought back the MIRACLE MILE script to ensure it would be made his way or not at all (on the MIRACLE MILE Blu-ray commentary with film critic Walter Chaw, De Jarnatt says "I was perceived as being arrogant, but I wasn't being arrogant...I just wanted to make my movie"). Still lacking the pull to get MIRACLE MILE made, De Jarnatt stashed it away and went to work on the post-apocalyptic action/romance hybrid CHERRY 2000 for Orion, who shelved it for three years before sending it straight to video in late 1988. By the time CHERRY 2000's belated and unceremonious release came about, De Jarnatt already had MIRACLE MILE in the can.

Support came from Hemdale Film Corporation, the indie that had just hit the respectable big time by backing Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning PLATOON (1986). Not only did Hemdale chief John Daly love De Jarnatt's script, he insisted that the downbeat ending remain intact. Figuring he'd have to make some concessions, De Jarnatt shot a somewhat less bleak--but still bleak--ending and Daly disapproved. "No," the supportive producer advised. "Let's rip their hearts out." Hemdale's credits included favorites like THE TERMINATOR (1984) and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), but they were hitting their artistic and commercial pinnacle around the time they gave the green light to MIRACLE MILE. Over 1986-87, the company produced the feel-good sleeper hit HOOSIERS, Oliver Stone's SALVADOR and PLATOON, Tim Hunter's grim RIVER'S EDGE, and Bernardo Bertolucci's epic THE LAST EMPEROR. Their fortunes would quickly wane over 1988-89 with box-office under-performers like CRIMINAL LAW, SHAG, and STAYING TOGETHER, and outright bombs like HOTEL COLONIAL, BUSTER, THE BOOST, COHEN AND TATE, THE TIME GUARDIAN, and the Nicolas Cage-eats-a-cockroach classic VAMPIRE'S KISS. They never had a moneymaker after THE LAST EMPEROR, and by the time MIRACLE MILE came out in 1989, nearly two years after it was shot, Hemdale was starting to run on fumes before sputtering to a quiet end in 1994 with the animated film THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN.

"It seems every year, more people find it," De Jarnatt explains on the commentary. Like most Hemdale releases in 1989, MIRACLE MILE played to empty theaters, but it's managed to find a place in the consciousness of the cult movie collective. Along with the NYC-set AFTER HOURS and John Landis' L.A.-set INTO THE NIGHT (1985), it's one of the great "night" movies of the 1980s, the kind of film that brilliantly captures the look and feel of a city in the wee hours of the morning and that distinct L.A. flavor with its desolate streets ("New York is the city that never sleeps," De Jarnatt says, "but L.A. goes to bed at ten o'clock"), oddball characters, absurdist humor ("Fuck Joyce Brothers!"), and its extremely effective score by Tangerine Dream (De Jarnatt only worked at night while writing the script, and did so while listening to the duo's soundtrack to William Friedkin's SORCERER). It's a distinct product of its era--with pay phones, TV stations that sign off after 2:00 am, and the all-consuming fear of nuclear war--but it's aged very well. Sure, some of the visual effects reveal just how little money with which De Jarnatt had to work, and the fashions unquestionably date the film in the late '80s, but the best things about it stand the test of time, particularly the vivid performances of the cast. Everyone from Edwards and Winningham down to the character player with the smallest bit all get their moments--from the ensemble at the diner (most of the surviving supporting actors all reunite for a group interview on the bonus features) to '50s western and sci-fi hero John Agar, who's just terrific as Julie's grandfather, setting aside his 15-year argument with his estranged wife (Lou Hancock) as the two reconcile on what Harry knows will be the last night of their lives. MIRACLE MILE is a film that has stuck with the few people who saw it in 1989, and it's obviously an important one to everyone involved (Edwards and Winningham also have an intervew on the Blu-ray), all of whom look back on it with nothing but fond memories and are clearly happy that its reputation has grown.

(US - 1988)

Directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Written by Michael Almereyda. Cast: Melanie Griffith, David Andrews, Ben Johnson, Tim Thomerson, Pamela Gidley, Harry Carey Jr., Brion James, Michael C. Gwynne, Larry Fishburne, Marshall Bell, Jennifer Mayo, Cameron Milzer, Robert Z'Dar, Jack Thibeau, Howard Swain. (PG-13, 99 mins)

Prior to MIRACLE MILE, De Jarnatt made his feature directing debut with CHERRY 2000, a dystopian action sci-fi romance that at times seems to be going for some ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI-style eccentricity. Orion Pictures had no idea what to do with CHERRY 2000, which completed filming in 1985 and saw its release date shuffled multiple times throughout 1986 and 1987 before it was shelved indefinitely. Orion ultimately released it directly to video in November 1988, seven months before the already-completed MIRACLE MILE hit screens and just a month before star Melanie Griffith's breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Nichols' WORKING GIRL.

In the year 2017 with most of America a desert wasteland and unemployment at 40%, Sam Treadwell (David Andrews), a successful white-collar exec at a recycling business, is heartbroken when his cherished robot lover Cherry (Pamela Gidley) short-circuits and fries during a bout of vigorous lovemaking on a floor flooded by an overflowing dishwasher. Cherry was one of the last of the priceless 2000 line, and when Sam manages to salvage her data chip, he becomes obsessed with doing whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to find a pristine Cherry 2000 to replace his beloved unit. To do this requires the toughest tracker in the area to get him to Zone 7, the location of the last remaining Cherry warehouse, and he finds her in the desolate helltown of Glory Hole: renowned bounty hunter E. Johnson (Griffith). On their way to Zone, located in what was once Las Vegas, they bicker back and forth, with E. Johnson chiding Sam for loving a robot and Sam developing feelings for E. Johnson but unable to let go of his cherished Cherry. They eventually get some help from wily old tracker Six-Fingered Jake (Ben Johnson) and cross paths with treacherous Snappy Tom (Harry Carey Jr), the owner of the Last Chance Brothel & Gas before the introduction of chief villain Lester (Tim Thomerson), who rules what's left of a sand-covered Vegas.

Written not by De Jarnatt but Michael Almereyda (best known for his modern update of HAMLET with Ethan Hawke) from a story by Lloyd Fonvielle (THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE), CHERRY 2000 is a little silly at times, but it gets a lot of mileage out of a very likable performance by Griffith as the tough and charming E. Johnson, and it really picks up with the arrival of Thomerson, then fresh off TRANCERS, as the ruthless but hapless Lester. It's also enjoyable to see old-school western stalwarts like Johnson and Carey dropped into the middle of such a goofy setting, but CHERRY 2000 has a hard time getting by the black hole in the center that is human charisma vacuum David Andrews. Had the studio's original choice for Sam--a then-little-known Kevin Costner, who backed out after doing FANDANGO, SILVERADO, and AMERICAN FLYERS in quick succession--made himself available, the film likely would've had a more magnetic hero and more box office potential once THE UNTOUCHABLES and NO WAY OUT became big hits in 1987. Andrews has had a busy career in supporting roles and guest spots on TV--with his major series lead coming on NBC's short-lived MANN AND MACHINE in 1992--but there's a reason he never became a star. He plays Sam as whiny, needy, and even a little bit creepy, and while it still would've been silly, Costner would've at least been able to more convincingly sell Sam's devotion to Cherry without coming off in such an unappealing way. Still, CHERRY 2000 plays a bit better now than it did in 1988. It works it fits and starts, but it's a generally enjoyable and appealingly odd fusion of love story, western, and post-apocalypse, and shows what could've been a recurrent De Jarnatt theme of romance blossoming under the unlikeliest of circumstances. When the filmmaker seemingly removed himself from the game after the box-office failure of MIRACLE MILE, making ends meet with TV assignments on shows like THE X-FILES, ER, and LIZZIE MCGUIRE, cult cinema's had a potentially unique voice largely silenced for 25 years. With the Blu-ray releases of De Jarnatt's two forgotten late '80s gems, perhaps it's time for that voice to be heard again.

Friday, August 21, 2015

In Theaters: SINISTER 2 (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Ciarin Foy. Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Nick King, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumann, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley. (R, 97 mins)

Scott Derrickson's SINISTER (2012) was a dark, grim shocker with at least one instant-classic sequence and ranks as one of the better horror films to come off the Blumhouse assembly line.  Derrickson co-wrote the first film with C. Robert Cargill, and both return to script the sequel, though Derrickson has delegated directing duties to Irish filmmaker Ciarin Foy. Foy wrote and directed the intermittently interesting 2012 high-rise horror indie CITADEL, a film with some effectively eerie sequences that just never quite gelled as a whole despite several terrifying moments. The intent of the script and the intent of the director often appear to be working at cross purposes throughout SINISTER 2: Derrickson and Cargill obviously want a modern horror movie filled with piercing jump scares and seem determined to turn boogeyman Bughuul (Nick King) into the next great horror icon, while Foy finds horror in the grounded reality of psychological trauma, much like his widower lead character in CITADEL, a timid man forced to protect himself and his infant child from a marauding gang of feral children prowling the building and seemingly singling him out to terrorize. Foy has said that CITADEL's story was born from a horrific mugging he endured where he violently beaten and stuck with a syringe, and while CITADEL had some undeniably frightening moments, Foy never quite pulled it all together, almost like his script needed one more draft before he got it right. There's a similar feeling throughout SINISTER 2: there's scary elements here, but they're the elements that don't involve the Bughuul silliness and the ghost children.

Taking place a few months after the events of the first film and the tragic fate of the family of celebrity true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), SINISTER's unnamed "Deputy So & So" (James Ransone), the Barney Fife-ish sheriff's deputy and Ellison Oswalt superfan, is promoted to lead character for SINISTER 2. Fired from his job and working as a private eye to make ends meet, So & So is actually on a personal mission to locate and burn down the abandoned homes of families murdered by children in order to prevent future supernatural influence of Bughuul. The exact intent of Bughuul, the corpse-painted boogeyman who looks like the frontman for a Scandinavian black metal band, is a little hazy, but he basically, via ghosts of other dead children, cajoles impressionable kids to carefully plan the elaborately-staged murder of their entire family and film it on Super 8. A lot of this is just an excuse for some inherently creepy, grainy sequences of families being burned alive, electrocuted, or having rats gnaw through them all to the tune of some droning, nerve-jangling music by the duo of tomandandy. So & So ends up at a farmhouse in rural Illinois that he believes to be vacant but is actually occupied by Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon), who is more or less squatting there with her twin sons Dylan (Robert Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), the three of them hiding from her estranged, abusive husband Clint (Lea Coco). The house's previous occupants were killed in the barn behind the house and troubled Dylan is already being haunted by visions of Bughuul and dead children convincing him to murder his family.

Where the first film was primarily about Oswalt's investigation into the murders of his house's previous owners, Bughuul was seen only fleetingly, which made his infrequent appearances that much more jarring. Here, Derrickson (also a producer) and Cargill have Foy showing entirely too much of Bughuul, to the point where he ceases to be scary. Indeed, if there's a SINISTER 3, they'll likely have him start talking and dropping the kind of snarky bon mots that turned A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Freddy Krueger from a frightening and relatively quiet dream demon to a motor-mouthed stand-up comedian by the third and fourth entries in the series. No, the truly scary parts of SINISTER 2 lie beyond Bughuul, and it starts with the effective casting of the young Sloan boys (they're actually part of a set of triplets--they have a sister as well). They aren't completely identical and each is very good in challenging roles. As the introverted Dylan, the chief target of his father's abuse, the thinner, ganglier Robert Sloan perfectly conveys the slump-shouldered sadness of his character, a boy practically afraid of his own shadow and who reflexively wets himself at the sight of his bullying father. The stockier Dartanian plays the more outgoing and less book-smart Zach, the kind of pushy competitor that identifies him as his dad's favorite. The real sense of horror and suffocating tension in SINISTER 2 arrives with the appearance of Coco, who in just three or four short scenes is more terrifying than any of the times we see Bughuul. Sossamon and the Sloans also do their best acting in the scenes later in the film with Coco, whose control-freak Clint won't even allow anyone else at dinner to eat until he's taken his first bite, and is a man crude enough to announce "Now, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go fuck my wife" after he beats the shit out of So & So, who shows up unannounced to warn him that they're all in danger. Coco is the secret weapon of SINISTER 2, so much so that you'll actually feel your adrenaline pumping in the extreme discomfort his performance incites. It's he--not the grimacing Bughuul--who's the most frightening thing in the film.

There's a stronger, thematically deeper, and more disturbing film to be made with SINISTER 2 had the focus been entirely on the Collins family and its victimization by Clint--and to an extent Zach, who's clearly on his way to being just like his old man--and how that victimization and the cycle of abuse make it so easy for Bughuul and his supernatural acolytes to sway Dylan. Ransone is likable enough in a second-string Luke Wilson kind-of way as the affable So & So, but did his character even need to return? The filmmakers really drop the ball in the climax in a way that can't properly be described without massive spoilers, but let's just say it takes some leaps and is a tremendous letdown and feels like a scene or two seems to be missing. Foy's voice made itself heard in CITADEL but it was hampered by a script that wasn't quite ready for prime time. Here, that same voice is present but it's muffled by Derrickson's and Cargill's need to turn Bughuul into the face of a franchise. There's some real horror here grounded in everyday, ugly reality, but SINISTER 2 is more concerned with tired jump scares and CGI ghosts.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

In Theaters: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant, Alicia Vikander, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov. (PG-13, 116 mins)

With rare exception, the list of 1960s TV shows turned into big-budget event movies in the mid '90s to the early '00s is a pretty dire roll call of failure. For every MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or THE FUGITIVE, there's a slew of duds like WILD WILD WEST, THE SAINT, I SPY, BEWITCHED, THE MOD SQUAD, GET SMART, LOST IN SPACE, MCHALE'S NAVY, and THE AVENGERS, among others. In an age when every superhero is getting their own movie, 2015 seems a tad late to hop on the TV reboot bandwagon and bring THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. to the big screen as a $75 million summer movie. It's even more surprising that it retains the period 1960s setting during the Cold War. The film was a long-in-gestation project, languishing in development hell for at least a decade, with Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and Tom Cruise all attached at various times. On the heels of his career reinvention as a Hollywood franchise guy with Robert Downey Jr's SHERLOCK HOLMES films, the former LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS wunderkind Guy Ritchie fashions his U.N.C.L.E. as an extremely enjoyable retro '60s spy movie that's funny while successfully avoiding the camp and kitsch of a straight-up AUSTIN POWERS spoof. Other than some CGI work and some minor quick-cutting in some of the action sequences, Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. looks and feels like it could've been made in 1965, with the same level of outstanding production design, atmosphere, and attention to detail he brought to his semi-steampunk interpretation of SHERLOCK HOLMES. The fact is, nobody needed a MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. reboot and the idea sounded less than promising, almost like the film was setting itself up to bomb and clean up at the Razzies next spring. There's no reason this thing should be as giddily entertaining as it is, but it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer.

The question is, will it matter? The target audience has to be older by default--how many in today's prime multiplex demographic even know what THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was? The spy series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as, respectively, U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, and Leo G. Carroll as their boss Waverly, aired on NBC from 1964-1968. It was a response to the 007 phenomenon (then hitting its stride with the much-anticipated release of GOLDFINGER, followed by the Bondmania zenith THUNDERBALL in 1965) and even had Ian Fleming onboard as a creative consultant until his death a month before the series premiere. It was so popular that NBC even edited episodes together, padded them with new or unused footage, and released them as feature films that became hits. That's right--U.N.C.L.E. fans went to the theater and paid to see re-edited versions of things they already saw on TV. Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. serves as an origin story for Solo (MAN OF STEEL's Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (THE LONE RANGER's Armie Hammer), who begin the film as nemeses. It's 1963, and Solo is in East Berlin to smuggle mechanic Gaby Teller (EX MACHINA's Alicia Vikander) to the west. Gaby is the estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a scientist forced into being a Nazi collaborator during WWII. He's been in the secret employ of the US government but has gone missing and is now held prisoner by megalomaniacal shipping heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who's using him to develop a nuclear weapon. Solo and Kuryakin must become reluctant and constantly bickering allies to both protect Gaby and get her in contact with her uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth), who may know of Udo's whereabouts. As they form a begrudging respect and friendship with one another as colleagues, Solo and Kuryakin are also operating under strict orders to obtain Vinciguerra's computer files--and take the other out if the need arises.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is a lighthearted, globetrotting spy outing, filled with witty and occasionally smutty double entendres, great zingers ("For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?") and some quirky action scenes, including one that plays out in the background while Solo relaxes with a quick bite and some wine while sitting in his getaway truck. Hammer does a great job with his thick Russian accent and actually demonstrates some character depth even though Kuryakin is primarily a ball of barely-contained rage. Cavill is having a blast as the cocky, womanizing Solo, not doing a direct impression of Vaughn but beautifully nailing the great character actor's distinct vocal inflections and cadences, uttering his dialogue with a perpetually-arched eyebrow but never taking it over the line into self-aware snark (Hugh Grant plays their eventual boss Waverly, though his role is relatively brief here).Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, uncomplicated affair that's big on laughs but takes itself seriously when the situation warrants for a nice balance of serious action and intentional laughs. And that may ultimately be its commercial downfall: it's hard for 2015 audiences to accept a period piece like this at face value, without the kitsch and the parody element that an AUSTIN POWERS would bring to the table. It's one thing to wonder if the kids today know what THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was, but do they even know what the Cold War was?  Ritchie's film is terrific entertainment and the kind of movie you'll stop and watch until it's over every time you come across it while channel-surfing as it plays on HBO in perpetuity...but will anybody under 40 even care about this movie right now?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: BURYING THE EX (2015); ROBOT OVERLORDS (2015); and bonus Netflix Instant exclusive STATEN ISLAND SUMMER (2015)

(US - 2015)

While he pays the bills and makes a comfortable living in television directing episodes of shows like HAWAII FIVE-O and SALEM and has a ubiquitous, fan-friendly presence on the internet through the Trailers from Hell web site, it would be nice if Joe Dante could get better feature film offers as he enters his emeritus years. A distinguished graduate of the Roger Corman factory, the 68-year-old Dante made his name with cult classics like HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976), PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981) before making it to the majors with the Steven Spielberg-produced GREMLINS (1984) and EXPLORERS (1985), and later hits like THE 'BURBS (1989) and SMALL SOLDIERS (1998). Long-praised for his twisted and anarchic, Looney Tunes-inspired humor (most apparent in 1990's GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH), Dante found himself more or less blackballed after the colossal failure of 2003's LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION. Since then, he's made ends meet with TV--his politically-charged "Homecoming" was probably the best episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR--but for a beloved genre auteur, Dante's big-screen career is a shambles. He directed the wraparound segments of the dreadful anthology film TRAPPED ASHES (2008), and his 3-D '80s throwback THE HOLE (2012) was OK, but it took three years to find a distributor who only gave it very limited release. BURYING THE EX, Dante's latest attempt at a big-screen comeback, does nothing to add to his legacy. Scripted by Mark Trezza and expanded from Trezza's own 2008 short film, BURYING THE EX is yet another rom-zom-com in the vein of WARM BODIES and LIFE AFTER BETH, with a little ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE thrown in. It relies on raunch and grossout gags that are hardly Dante's milieu. Die-hards may cite the constant horror-fan shout-outs in BURYING THE EX--posters for Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and the Christopher Lee vampire comedy UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, several appearances by a 2012 issue of Video Watchdog, clips from movies like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TERROR, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, and THE GORE GORE GIRLS, and a brief appearance by the legendary Dick Miller--as evidence that Dante's back, but in the context of the film, these elements feel like desperate cries for help, like he's doing anything he can think of to put some kind of personal stamp on this flop-sweat-soaked endeavor. At some point--maybe around the time a character is covered in projectile-vomited embalming fluid or when another brags about how he needs protein after he "busts a nut"--you forget how bad the movie is and just start feeling sorry for Dante. This guy made THE HOWLING. A garbage gig like this is far beneath him.

Horror nerd Max (Anton Yelchin) has dreams of opening his own horror-themed memorabilia and costume shop, but he's also got a clingy, shrewish, domineering but super-hot girlfriend in Evelyn (Ashley Greene). A fanatical environmentalist, she forces him to eat vegan, tosses his vintage movie posters and redecorates his apartment in a way that will reduce his carbon footprint. He arranges a meeting in a park to break up with her and on her way there, she's hit by a bus and killed. Feeling guilty, Max shuts himself off from everyone until he runs into hot pop culture horror geek Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) at a New Beverly screening of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. While bonding over Val Lewton and a Fruit Brute malt at her horror-themed ice cream shop (called--what else?--I Scream), the pair quickly fall head over heels...until a slowly-decomposing Evelyn returns from the grave, revived by a promise Max made in the presence of a cursed piece of genre memorabilia to always be with her. No joke lands and no one is amusing, especially Oliver Cooper as Max's horndog half-brother, the aforementioned "nut-buster." The only saving grace is Daddario, saddled with playing a horror-con version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (© Nathan Rabin), but managing to pull it off in a way that's actually charming. Other than that, forget it. BURYING THE EX isn't scary and it isn't funny. It's the nadir of Dante's career and that's just depressing. (R, 89 mins)

(UK/Canada/Ireland - 2015)

With ROBOT JOX-ish poster art reminiscent of Charles Band and Full Moon's VHS glory days and a structure that would seem to be in the wheelhouse of an in-his-prime Joe Dante, ROBOT OVERLORDS should be a lot of fun. Instead, it's a dull, downbeat dud that doesn't seem to know what audience it's pursuing. Set three years after an invasion of Earth by a race of alien robots who are constantly on patrol and keep humanity imprisoned in their own homes, ROBOT OVERLORDS follows three teenagers--Sean (Callan McAuliffe), his buddy Nathan (James Tarpey), and Nathan's sister Alexandra (Ella Hunt)--and orphaned neighbor boy Connor (Milo Parker), who accidentally discover that a jolt from a car battery temporarily disables the behind-the-ear tracking monitors that humans are now requires to wear. This allows them to set in motion a plot to take back Earth and overthrow the robot rulers, who are aided in their takeover of the planet by traitorous collaborators. One such collaborator is the loathsome Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley), who only seems to be sucking up to the robots in order to give him leverage in his pursuit of Sean's mom Kate (Gillian Anderson), whose military officer husband (Steven Mackintosh) is missing and presumed dead. Directed and co-written by Jon Wright, whose TREMORS homage GRABBERS was an inspired and fun little monster movie, ROBOT OVERLORDS would seem to be aimed at kids but is too dark and violent for family audiences, and the longer it goes on, the more listless and generic it becomes. Kingsley, Anderson, and the younger actors are fine, but Wright fails to bring the energy and enthusiasm that made GRABBERS so enjoyable. You'd think it would be tough to make a movie called ROBOT OVERLORDS boring, but that's exactly the word to describe this barely-released misfire. (PG-13, 90 mins)

(US - 2015)

Probably the worst thing to come from the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE camp since the 1985-86 brat-pack season that brought the show as close as it's ever been to cancellation, STATEN ISLAND SUMMER was produced by Lorne Michaels, written by SNL head writer and "Weekend Update" co-anchor Colin Jost, and features many current and former SNL cast members who probably had better things to do between seasons but didn't want to piss off the boss and the head writer. Paramount buried this like a state secret, very quietly dumping it on VOD and on Netflix Instant, perhaps hoping that it'll trick less-savvy streaming viewers into confusing it with WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP. Jost's autobiographical script follows the very bland and Jost-like Danny Campbell (Graham Phillips) over his proverbial Last Summer Before College. Harvard-bound Danny and his best buddy Frank (Zack Pearlman as Jonah Hill and Josh Gad) are lifeguards at Staten Island's Great Kills Swim Club, along with lunkheaded stud Anthony (John DeLuca), hot tomboy Mary Ellen (Cecily Strong), and beer-guzzling, chain-smoking slacker Skootch (Bobby Moynihan as Zach Galifianakis as Bluto Blutarsky), and all are in constant battle against uptight, Speedo-wearing boss Chuck Casino (Mike O'Brien). Danny also spends the summer awkwardly pursuing his one-time babysitter Krystal Manicucci (Ashley Greene, not having a good 2015 between this and BURYING THE EX), the daughter of feared mob boss Leo Manicucci (Vincent Pastore as Vincent Pastore as Big Pussy). The crux of the plot deals with Danny trying to blow off a forced Disneyworld trip with his loving but clingy parents (Jim Gaffigan and Kate Walsh) to have one last blowout kegger at the pool, which the nefarious Chuck Casino keeps trying to sabotage since he wasn't invited. There's also Gina Gershon as one of the horny, wine-guzzling housewives constantly pursuing Anthony, Penny Marshall as a cranky food stand manager, Will Forte as a paraplegic ex-biker, Jost and his brother Casey as laid-back, partying cops (in no way inspired by Seth Rogen and Bill Hader in SUPERBAD), Method Man as a pot-dealing ice cream truck driver, Kate McKinnon as another horny housewife, Jackson Nicoll basically playing the same kid he played in BAD GRANDPA, and Fred Armisen as Bill Murray from CADDYSHACK, the pool club's maintenance guy who spends the movie haplessly trying to combat a rapidly-growing hornets' nest.

Jost tries to balance mawkish sentimentality with post-Farrelly/Apatow raunch but nothing gels, and the degree to which STATEN ISLAND SUMMER rips off both CADDYSHACK and SUPERBAD is utterly shameless (even the opening credits have Danny riding his bike around town like Michael O'Keefe's Danny in CADDYSHACK--all that's missing is Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright"). The much-maligned Jost has taken plenty of shots over his performance on "Weekend Update," and while he'll never be the worst WU anchor thanks to Colin Quinn, STATEN ISLAND SUMMER does nothing to win over the Jost detractors. Directed by Rhys Thomas, who handles a lot of SNL's filmed segments, STATEN ISLAND SUMMER is hopelessly self-indulgent, aggressively unfunny, and, in keeping with the Apatow influence, entirely too long at 108 minutes, almost like Jost and Thomas felt everything they wrote and shot was too hilarious to lose. With today's ever-evolving distribution patterns, some good movies get lost in the shuffle. STATEN ISLAND SUMMER is not one of them. (R, 108 mins, currently available on Netflix Instant)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: AREA 51 (2015) and WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD (2015)

(US - 2015)

Though he's written and produced other films in the years since (like the already-forgotten CHERNOBYL DIARIES), director Oren Peli is best known for 2009's PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, even though he's handed off the sequels to Christopher Landon and the CATFISH guys. When PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was hitting theaters and becoming a phenomenon (because you "demanded" to see it!),  a pleased Paramount was already onboard with Peli's next project, which had just finished shooting. It wasn't supposed to take six years to be released, but that's what happened with AREA 51, which was shot in the fall of 2009 and didn't surface until the summer of 2015. One of the more high-profile shelved projects of the last several years, AREA 51 endured a troubled production that saw Paramount bringing in actor (ARGO, SOUND OF MY VOICE) and writer/director (PRESERVATION) Christopher Denham in 2011 to rewrite the third act at the behest of underwhelmed studio execs and bored test audiences (depending on who's telling the story, Denham may have also directed the 2011 reshoots). Two years went by with no progress when Peli returned in 2013 and did some additional rewrites and reshoots, and spent the next year or so heroically trying to salvage the wreckage. Through their "Insurge" genre label, Paramount very quietly released AREA 51 on VOD and some Alamo Drafthouse locations for a weekend run, grossing $7500 against a $5 million budget. The released version still carries a 2011 copyright, so it's unknown if what's hitting Blu-ray and DVD is an earlier cut or if Paramount simply didn't care enough to update the final credits.

Is AREA 51 that bad?  Yeah, pretty much. Sure, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have gotten increasingly abysmal--no matter how great that "fan-cam" bit was in the third entry--but Peli hasn't had anything to do with them aside from a contractual producer and a superfluous "Based on characters created by" credit since his original film. There was little reason to believe that his own PA follow-up would end up being one of the worst examples of the found-footage genre. Back in 2009, before found-footage became the single most regrettable trend in modern horror cinema (along with the seemingly endless string of terrible demonic possession movies), the notion of such a film tackling the Area 51 conspiracies might've been a good idea, but Peli stumbles at every turn. He does get a few genuinely creepy images in the final ten minutes, but it takes 80 minutes to get there. Most of the time, we follow three dudebros--Reid (Reid Warner), Darrin (Darrin Bragg), and Ben (Ben Rovner) on their way to Nevada as Darrin and Ben indulge Reid's obsession with Area 51. They meet up with Jelena (Jelena Nik), an Area 51 conspiracy theorist Reid met online, and whose father worked at the base and committed suicide--of course, she thinks he was killed for asking too many questions. Once they finally and quite improbably get inside the base--this is after a ludicrous breaking-and-entering into a top security officer's home to steal his ID badge and a swipe a fingerprint off a cologne bottle in a long sequence so idiotic that the film never recovers from it--Reid, Jelena, and Darrin (Ben waits in the SUV) do a lot of walking around long corridors using night vision, which is easy since the only employees seen are occasional maintenance guys driving a cart. The climax basically takes the finale of BLAIR WITCH and adds some fleeting glimpses of the standard-issue extraterrestrials while Reid and Jelena run around and keep incessantly and breathlessly repeating "We gotta get outta here!" Had this played in theaters, there's no doubt the audience would've been right there with them in sharing that sentiment. (R, 91 mins)

(Australia - 2015)

The last thing the world needs is another zombie movie, but this Australian import is a cut above the norm for the prefab cult movie scene. It refreshingly accomplishes a little more than just showing up, making the references and waiting for the blank-check accolades to pour in from the scenesters, even though it drops the ball somewhat when it comes to exploring its more original elements to their full potential. Conceived by the Roache-Turner brothers (Kiah directed, Tristan produced and served as production designer, both scripted), WYRMWOOD unabashedly worships at the altar of old-school Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, with some bonus George Miller homages to legitimize the Ozploitation elements. They also play with the timeline to an extent, with the story being set up and then circling back to its beginning about 1/3 of the way through, then taking off in a linear fashion from there--it almost ends up like a 30-minute prologue. After a sudden zombie outbreak overnight, Barry (Jay Gallagher) kills his wife and daughter when they turn, and he takes to the road, desperately trying to get to his younger sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), who's been abducted by some military goons and is being experimented on by a mad doctor (Berynn Schwerdt). Barry ends up forming an unholy alliance of asskickers with gruff Frank (Keith Agius) and affable doofus Benny (Leon Burchill), and they take to the Outback wasteland in a souped-up, fortified, steel-encased pickup truck. They use the enclosed bed to corral zombies after discovering undead blood is both flammable and a fuel source. Most of the time, the Roache-Turners are content to riff on the EVIL DEAD movies, DEAD ALIVE, George Romero's zombie films, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and THE ROAD WARRIOR with varying degrees of cleverness, but some unexpected--and underutilized--plot developments show that they're at least interested in trying something different with a woefully played-out genre. There's a little too much quick-cut editing and shaky-cam, but there's a nice mix of digital and practical blood, the splatter is spirited and enthusiastic, Bradey might be the next great horror heroine, and even the most briefly-seen characters are well-established enough that you're bummed when they get killed (poor Chalker!). Mostly crowdfunded with a big post-production gift from Screen Australia to make it polished and cinematic, WYRMWOOD was allegedly shot on weekends over a three-year period by the Roache-Turners. It was successful enough in Australia to warrant the already-announced WYRMWOOD 2. (Unrated, 99 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

In Theaters: THE GIFT (2015)

(US/China/Australia - 2015)

Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Busy Philipps, Wendell Pierce, Beau Knapp, David Denman, Tim Griffin, Katie Aselton, Nash Edgerton, Adam Lazarre-White, Mirrah Foulkes, Susan May Pratt, PJ Byrne, David Joseph Craig. (R, 108 mins)

On its surface, THE GIFT is a throwback to the kind of glossy, post-FATAL ATTRACTION obsessive stalker thrillers that were in theaters well into the 1990s, like THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, THE CRUSH, THE TEMP, and THE TIE THAT BINDS among many others. It also utilizes the kind of inspired mid-film and third-act twist and direction shifts that became the increasingly ludicrous genre norm after THE USUAL SUSPECTS in 1995. I'd argue that, like 1974's BLACK CHRISTMAS providing the real template for the '80s slasher film even though HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) get all the credit, it was Wolfgang Petersen's SHATTERED, released in the fall of 1991, that really got the ball rolling on the insane third-act plot-twist craze that goes on to this day (I still remember the TV spots promising "Your wildest dreams can't prepare you for the ending...of SHATTERED!" and for once, something lived up to the hype). You don't see many movies like THE GIFT getting wide releases these days, especially in the blockbuster-heavy summer season. It's the kind of mid-budget film that becomes a modest success and grosses the kind of small profit--profit is still profit--that was enough to make everyone involved happy 20-25 years ago, and that's why it's such an anomaly today.

Written and directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton (WARRIOR, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS), THE GIFT spends about half of its running time being one of those glossy thrillers from yesteryear: Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall) have just moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles--where he grew up--when Simon accepts a new executive job at a tech sales firm. They're also escaping a rough patch--Robyn had a miscarriage followed by a short-lived prescription drug problem--and a new job and new home in a new place giving them the fresh start they need. While out shopping, they have a chance encounter with Gordon Mosley (Edgerton), a high school classmate of Simon's. Simon initially doesn't recognize Gordon, who seems socially awkward but friendly, and after some harmless pleasantries, Simon and Robyn jot down his phone number to be nice but have no intention of calling. Within a couple of days, Gordon leaves a bottle of wine on their doorstep, followed soon after by fish and fish food for a koi pond in their front yard. They invite him over for dinner out of obligation, and soon after, he's showing up unannounced, always when Simon is at work, and Robyn, who thinks Gordon is nice and means well, is at home alone. Then there's an odd dinner at Gordon's, the Callens' dog Mr. Bojangles vanishes, Robyn has a constant feeling that someone else is in the house, and when Simon decides it's time to "break up" with Gordon, who was apparently known as "Gordo the Weirdo" in high school, things get really interesting.

Edgerton makes his directing debut with THE GIFT, but he's written screenplays before, most notably the acclaimed 2008 thriller THE SQUARE, directed by his older brother Nash (who has a small role here as one of Simon's co-workers). He has more on his mind than a present-day homage to quarter-century old thrillers. The plot of THE GIFT can't possibly be described any further without significant spoilers, but suffice it to say Edgerton is dead-on when he cites Michael Haneke's CACHE as a chief influence (there's another big influence, but to mention it is a potential spoiler). Edgerton keeps the audience on their toes and riveted, and even two cheap jump scares work beautifully, with the audience screaming and then laughing at their overreaction. That's when you know a film is working. Amidst the red herrings (what's with that long shot of a staring Mr. Bojangles?) and sly misdirection, THE GIFT doesn't deal in black & white but rather, ambiguities and changing perceptions: Gordo is the clear antagonist for the first half of the film, at least until Simon's increasing irritability over Robyn's persistent questions forces her to start digging into her husband's past (when Gordon leaves a final note to Simon that closes with "I was willing to let bygones be bygones," Simon refuses to explain what it could mean) and even then the film doesn't go in the direction you assume it will. Edgerton manages to pull off a high-wire act of being both a creepy stalker and someone who elicits sympathy, while Bateman's Simon isn't really much of a departure from his usual smarmy, sarcastic persona as Robyn begins unearthing what can best be described as the dark side of Michael Bluth. Even when it's all over and the credits roll, your loyalties and sympathies shifting until literally the very last shot, it's the kind of film that offers little in the way of closure and absolutes and will have you replaying everything and debating the outcome (can't wait for the flood of inane thinkpieces over the next week or two). When's the last time you saw strangers exiting a theater enthusiastically dissecting the movie they just watched? Why can't movies like THE GIFT happen more often?

Friday, August 7, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE SALVATION (2015); INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE (2015); and CHILD 44 (2015)

(Denmark/UK/South Africa - 2014; US release 2015)

Produced by Lars von Trier's Zentropa Entertainments, THE SALVATION is a dark, brutal western that will please fans of films like THE PROPOSITION and the more recent THE HOMESMAN. Shot in some desolate regions of South Africa that stand in for an almost otherworldly, apocalyptic version of the 1870s Old West, the film centers on Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish immigrant and war veteran who settled in America seven years earlier with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt). Jon has finally achieved enough success and financial security that he can afford to bring over his wife Marie (Nanna Oland Fabricius) and Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke), his son who was just an infant when he left for America. When fate has them sharing a coach ride to town with two drunken louts, the Jensen family's American dream quickly goes south: the drunks attempt to rape Marie and hold a knife to Kresten's throat before throwing Jon from the coach. By the time Jon catches up to them, he finds the dead bodies of his wife and son in the road and the two men still in the coach, sleeping it off. Jon kills both men and he and Peter bury Marie and Kresten. It turns out one of the drunks was the younger brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the ruthless, cold-blooded enforcer for an oil baron looking to buy up the town and run everyone out. Delarue gives the mayor (Jonathan Pryce) and the sheriff (Douglas Henshall) two hours to find his brother's killer or they have to pick two of their own residents to sacrifice. It says a lot about this town that they don't even bother investigating and instead spend the two hours deciding which two people they'll give Delarue before settling on an old woman and a paraplegic. It doesn't take long for everyone to realize Jon is the killer, and even though they know and like Jon and know the men killed his family, they're only too eager to turn him and Peter over to Delarue, who makes the mistake of underestimating the resourcefulness and the resolve of the Jensen brothers.

Directed and co-written by von Trier's Dogme 95 colleague Kristian Levring, THE SALVATION is an absolutely riveting western that could've been a hit if it had gotten a wide release. One of the most commercially accessible films to come out of the von Trier camp--and a complete break from Dogme 95 for Levring--THE SALVATION presents one of the most dour and hellish looks at the west this side of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, and the town is populated by what may very well be the western genre's most shameless cowards--the mayor (who's also the undertaker) and the sheriff (who's also the minister) not only sacrifice a frail, elderly woman and a disabled man ("I don't bother anybody! I don't want to die!" the legless man cries) rather than do their jobs, but when Jon sells his land back to the mayor for a measly $150, the mayor tells him to keep the money in his boots strictly so he'll know where to recover his $150 when Delarue strings Jon up and lets him bake in the sun later on. And in an infuriating display of tone-deafness, the old woman's grandson (Alexander Arnold) actually calls Peter a coward for not stepping up to stop Delarue's reign of terror. Mikkelsen and Morgan make outstanding adversaries, and even playing mute doesn't make Eva Green tone down her usual crazy-eyes routine that Eva Greeniacs have come to know and love in her performance as "The Princess," the silent widow of Delarue's younger brother. She had her tongue cut out by "savages" as a little girl and has a strange relationship with Delarue where she's both co-conspirator and captive. As is the case with so many movies these days, it's some dodgy CGI late in the game (some really unconvincing fire) that takes you out of the film, but subtracting that, THE SALVATION is a must-see for western fans, a film that very effectively invokes nihilistic memories of classic spaghetti westerns--right down to its Kaspar Winding score that emulates the more somber, reflective side of Ennio Morricone--without becoming winking or self-conscious in any way. This one's a small masterpiece that's going to find a strong cult following very quickly. (R, 92 mins)

(US - 2015)

An initially OK throwback to the kind of nature-run-amok horror movie that followed in the wake of JAWS in the late '70s and early '80s, INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE, a loose remake of 1976's GRIZZLY, devolves into a laughable mess of crummy CGI and bad editing. The cutaways to the titular beast often look like haphazardly-inserted stock footage of Bart the Bear, and it's a rare occurrence where you get the feeling that the rampaging grizzly is actually in the same vicinity as the cast. By the very end, director David Hackl (SAW V) is resorting to a totally CGI'd bear and some CGI fire that would have the digital effects team at the Asylum looking away in embarrassment. This doesn't help make the case for the long-delayed INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE, which was completed in 2012, is on its second distributor (Open Road acquired it and sat on it for a year and a half before selling it to Indomitable Entertainment), and its third retitling after being known as RED MACHINE, ENDANGERED, and GRIZZLY. A movie about a bear chasing people through a forest shouldn't have this much behind-the-scenes strife. Fittingly, the film went straight to VOD, since its climax would probably get it laughed off the screen in wide release. There's ample evidence to suggest that INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE knows that it's garbage--no one's going to argue that a mauled-and-presumed dead Billy Bob Thornton reappearing with the left side of his face hanging off as he takes aim at the grizzly isn't entertaining as hell, or another character sinking into a rotting, maggot-infested deer carcass like it's quicksand doesn't deliver the gory goods, but INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE keeps stumbling every time it gets some goofy momentum going.

The script, co-written by BUNRAKU director Guy Moshe, works in entirely too much family squabbling between estranged brothers Rowan (James Marsden who, between this, THE LOFT, and ACCIDENTAL LOVE, has become the Patron Saint of Shelved Cinema) and Beckett (Thomas Jane). Rowan is an ex-con just paroled after a seven-year stretch for manslaughter, and Beckett is the deputy sheriff in their small Alaskan hometown. Rowan is back to look for local guide Johnny (Adam Beach), who's been missing with two hunters in the "Grizzly Maze" for nearly two weeks. There's evidence that a rampaging, rogue bear is on the loose, but nature-minded Beckett, who's tagged and collared numerous bears in the forest in order to protect them from being hunted, doesn't want Sheriff Sully (Scott Glenn) or eccentric local bear expert Douglass (Thornton, functioning as the "Jon Voight-in-ANACONDA" or "Henry Silva-in-ALLIGATOR" asshole) to just go in and kill it. There's some attempt at statement-making with Douglass, a Grizzly Whisperer if you will, incessantly talking about how man has upset the balance of nature and the bear is pissed off and ready to eat anything that gets in its way to restore that balance ("He's a machine. He doesn't give a shit. You all taste the same to him!"). Beckett, Rowan, and local medic Kaley (Michaela McManus) end up joining forces, both to find the bear and to locate Beckett's deaf wife Michelle (Piper Perabo), a nature photographer and conservationist who went exploring the forest to take shots for a new project, because sure, a deaf person in a forest ruled by potentially pissed-off bears who have had it with poachers and loggers is a great idea (SPOILER ALERT: the bear sneaks up behind her multiple times). Until Hackl gets way too comfortable resorting to unconvincing CGI, INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE is an intermittently fun B-movie throwback. There's a good amount of stuff to like about it: Thornton knows what kind of movie he's in and is clearly enjoying himself as the hectoring, antagonizing Douglass, who ventures into the maze on his own solo mission to exterminate the bear and keeps taunting Rowan and Beckett when they periodically cross paths, and the location shooting in Utah and in Vancouver is often breathtakingly beautiful. But there's just too much needless backstory on everyone, from Rowan and Beckett's tortured dad and cancer-stricken mom to their dad and Douglass having some falling out years earlier, to the real reasons behind Rowan's incarceration, and Sully allowing poachers into the forest because he's about to retire and needs a cushier nest egg. It's a movie about a killer grizzly...no one gives a shit about Sully's pension. The ending flies off the rails in a way that will amuse followers of bad movies, but it didn't need to be that way. Clumsy editing, subpar special effects, reshoots, and a plethora of post-production and "additional editing" credits show the tell-tale signs of a project in which no one was really sure what they wanted. You'd think it would be hard to screw up a B-horror movie about a killer bear, but INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE too often manages to do it. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2015)

Up until a week or so before its release, CHILD 44 was scheduled to bow on 2500 screens. At the eleventh hour, Summit abruptly came to its senses and downgraded it to a limited release, instead rolling it out on just 510 screens in a valiant attempt to contain the fallout. Landing in 17th place and grossing a paltry $600,000 in its opening weekend, the $50 million CHILD 44 was one of the biggest box office bombs of the year (a legit bomb--not one of those "It only grossed $80 million its opening weekend, so it's a flop" bombs that you read about every Sunday evening on Variety's web site), though it would've been even more catastrophic on five times as many screens. Produced by Ridley Scott and based on Tim Rob Smith's 2008 bestseller, CHILD 44 has a top-notch screenwriter (Richard Price, who scripted THE COLOR OF MONEY, SEA OF LOVE, and CLOCKERS among others), a solid director (Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, best known for SAFE HOUSE), and a terrific cast, but it's just lugubrious misfire from the start. The pace is mind-numbingly slow, the film absurdly overlong at 137 minutes (and it still feels like whole sections of story are missing), the cast of British and Swedish actors pays loving homage to Yakov Smirnoff with their cartoonish Boris & Natasha accents, and it takes a ridiculous 75 minutes for the main plot to even kick into gear. In the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, MGB (later known as the KGB) officials are busy burying evidence of a string of murders where the victims, all young boys, are found naked. Calling murder "a capitalist disease," the officials instead chalk all of the killings up to "train accidents," which doesn't rest well with MGB officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy). He's already butting heads with colleague Vasili (Joel Kinnamon), who starts a rumor that Demidov's wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) is a traitor. This gets the Demidovs demoted to Volsk where, months later, a similar murder catches Leo's attention and gets him in hot water with his superior General Nesterov (Gary Oldman), a company man happy to look the other way when it's obvious there's a serial killer at work. Price and Espinosa throw in a number of subplots that feel like superfluous padding, and while the period detail is excellent, there's little context in terms of where the story fits into Soviet history other than having barking officers barging through a door to find starving people in tattered clothing, huddled together as they cry and scream, which seems to happen every few minutes. There's such a lack of focus that the story becomes increasingly difficult to follow, there's a few fight scenes that are completely incoherent, and the cast of proven but defeated actors are terrible across the board. Did Espinosa spend all of his energies focusing on the production design at the expense of everything else? Aside from the gray, dreary look of the film, absolutely nothing in the miserable CHILD 44 works. One of the most oppressive film experiences of 2015. (R, running time: endless)