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)

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