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)

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