Thursday, September 24, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: LOVE & MERCY (2015); WELCOME TO NEW YORK (2015); and ELIMINATION GAME (2015)

(US - 2015)

A Brian Wilson biopic that doesn't follow the standard formula of music biopics, LOVE & MERCY is an original and often deeply moving look at two significant periods in the life of the Beach Boys mastermind. Director Bill Pohlad, a busy producer (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, THE TREE OF LIFE, 12 YEARS A SLAVE) helming his first film since 1990's barely-released and long-forgotten OLD EXPLORERS, and screenwriters Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER) and Michael Alan Lerner structure LOVE & MERCY as two parallel, GODFATHER PART II-type narratives as we see the beginning of the 1965 psychological breakdown of young Wilson, or "Brian Past" (Paul Dano) with the fragile shell of a man that is "Brian Future" (John Cusack) in 1988. The cracks are already starting to show with Brian hearing voices in his head before retiring from touring in 1965 to work exclusively in the studio on the Beach Boys' landmark Pet Sounds, which drives a wedge between him and bandmate/cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel). In 1988, an awkward and eccentric Brian stops into a car dealership to impulsively buy a Cadillac and meets salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), when a team of handlers headed by his therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) arrive to escort him out. As Brian and Melinda grow closer, she sees Landy's mistreatment of Brian--misdiagnosing him as a paranoid schizophrenic, overmedicating him, psychologically abusing him, and bringing along his own group of hangers-on to essentially live off of Brian's fortune, even taking over Brian's larger beach house and moving him into a smaller one nearby.

Telling two stories with two different actors playing the same role (shades of the multiple Bob Dylans in I'M NOT THERE) is an unusual choice that pays off. While Dano strongly resembles Brian Past, Cusack looks nothing like Brian Future, but it doesn't matter. Dano handles the breakdown while Cusack plays the result, with their performances brilliantly complementing one another. In his best role in years, Cusack inhabits Brian Future through halting and nervous body language that never crosses the line into becoming a mannered Brian Wilson impression. He approaches the role not unlike Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford on SNL--he looks and sounds nothing like the person he's playing, but he uses his skills to bring the character alive in a way that's accurate and very believable. Many actors would've turned it into an Oscar-baiting tic-fest, but Cusack is effectively understated, reminding you what a terrific performer he can be when he's not slumming it and vaping his way through bad VOD thrillers. While Dano and Cusack are the dramatic focus, Banks also does career-best work as the emotional core of LOVE & MERCY, the woman who would become his second wife (one of the film's few missteps is the short shrift given to Brian's first wife Audree, played by a barely-there Joanna Going). Giamatti is fine, though he's largely playing "Paul Giamatti," with Landy prone to outbursts of blustery rage, which works as Landy was accurately the villain in the Wilson story, along with, to a lesser degree, the unsympathetic Love and the stern, impossible-to-please Wilson patriarch, played here by Bill Camp (COMPLIANCE). A minor word-of-mouth sleeper hit over the summer of 2015, LOVE & MERCY is, thus far, one of the standout films of the year, with performances from Cusack, Dano, and Banks that deserve to be remembered come awards season, and one that refreshingly avoids the pitfalls and cliches of the music biopic genre. (PG-13, 121 mins)

(France/US - 2014; US release 2015)

NYC auteur Abel Ferrara is no stranger to unflinching provocation and getting his actors to bare their souls and more--he is, after all, the mad genius who directed Harvey Keitel's legendary performance in 1992's BAD LIEUTENANT. A long way removed from his '80s and '90s flirtations with commercial film and television, Ferrara has spent most of the last decade and a half making documentaries and little-seen films that didn't even get any US exposure beyond a sporadic festival screening. 2012's bohemian end-of-the-world drama 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH was the first narrative Ferrara film to get US distribution in a decade. WELCOME TO NEW YORK finds Ferrara reaching back to his BAD LIEUTENANT side for a not-very-thinly-veiled account of the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, when the French economist, politician, and IMF managing director known to his friends and the media as "DSK" was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee who arrived to clean his suite at the Sofitel New York Hotel. Charges were eventually dropped due supposed credibility issues of the accuser and that much of the evidence was inconclusive, but DSK soon faced other allegations in France in what seemed to be a behavioral pattern. Gerard Depardieu stars in WELCOME TO NEW YORK as the DSK figure, here named "Devereaux," a high-powered exec at a French financial behemoth who's in NYC for one day on business. Once that's done, he decompresses in his hotel suite with an all-night-long parade of prostitutes. The next morning, a maid (Pamela Afesi) enters the suite, announces she's from housekeeping, but a showering Devereaux doesn't hear her. Once he's out of the shower, he drops his towel and pushes her down to her knees, grunting "Do you know who I am?"  He's on his way to JFK Airport when he realizes he's left his phone at the hotel, so the cops, already taking the maid's statement, intercept him at the airport under the guise of returning his phone and arrest him, forcing his long-suffering wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) to fly over from Paris to bail him out and set up a legal team while he's equipped with an ankle bracelet and confined to a $60K per month apartment she's rented.

All the while, Devereaux remains calm and relaxed, spending his house arrest watching movies under the assumption that something--his constant invocation of diplomatic immunity, his wealth and privilege, the ambitious Simone's political connections, his attorneys' manipulation of the media--will get him off the hook. Of course, he assumes correctly, but at the same time, Ferrara presents a portrait of a man both entitled and ill, who's convinced himself he's done nothing wrong while admitting he's powerless to combat what he is. Similar to the fearless work he got from Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, Ferrara convinced Depardieu to abandon all illusions of shame and modesty and literally let it all hang out. Whether he's being strip-searched or attempting to force himself into the maid's mouth--during which a shot from behind captures the legendary actor's dangling scrotum--Depardieu throws all of himself into WELCOME TO NEW YORK in ways he hasn't done for many years. Likewise for Bisset, who first appears around 40 minutes in and quickly becomes the focus of the film. Simone is a woman with social and political aspirations for her and her husband (cue obvious Clinton analogy) who comes from money but is fully aware of what kind of man she married. She accepts his excesses--the booze, his predilection for prostitutes, his sex addiction--because they need each other. Simone doesn't buy Devereaux's claim that the rape accusation is false, and his excuse of "I just jerked on her!  I just jerked on her mouth!  That's all!" doesn't win him any sympathy. Ferrara goes for ultra-realism in the early going, in terms of the profoundly uncomfortable sequence between Devereaux and the maid, and with the police pursuit of him, where Ferrara makes the decision to cast the roles of the Port Authority and NYPD cops with real Port Authority and NYPD cops, who do a very good job of lending a gritty immediacy and not coming across like amateur actors. The first half is a riveting tour de force for Depardieu and represents some of Ferrara's best filmmaking since his early '90s heyday. There's a bit of a shift once Bisset arrives and she gets a couple of astonishingly vicious tirades to remind us that she's a terrific actress who hasn't been used to the best of her ability over the years.

Things bog down a bit in the home stretch, with some ponderous voiceover by Devereaux and some arguments with Simone that start to get repetitive. The cranky Ferrara loudly complained about both US distributor IFC and French co-producer Vincent Maraval preparing a 108-minute, R-rated US cut and not releasing Ferrara's 125-minute cut that was slapped with an NC-17 rating. While some of the more salacious material may have been eliminated, mostly from an early orgy sequence (we still get Depardieu's nutbag, however), WELCOME TO NEW YORK could still use some trimming near the end, which seems a little draggy even in the cut version. The only other weakness in the film is Ferrara's odd choice of showing a prologue that has Depardieu as himself being interviewed by reporters about why he chose to take this role--it's not even a real interview, as one of the reporters is played by Ferrara's girlfriend and associate producer Shanyn Leigh, demoted to bit player after her terrible lead performance in 4:44. While what's here was released under vehement protest by its maker, WELCOME TO NEW YORK is still a welcome return to vintage form for Abel Ferrara and, if you're so inclined, an opportunity to see more of Gerard Depardieu than you ever thought possible. (R, 108 mins)

(Australia - 2014; US release 2015)

ELIMINATION GAME was released in its native Australia as TURKEY SHOOT, much like the film it remakes, Brian Trenchard-Smith's 1982 cult classic TURKEY SHOOT, released in the US in 1983 as ESCAPE 2000. A future dystopian take on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, ESCAPE 2000 was a mean and ultra-violent exploitation film that became a huge hit on cable throughout the '80s. The remake, which counts Trenchard-Smith among its producers, is an abomination: amateurishly-made and thoroughly shameless in the way it cribs from other, better movies. More of a satire on reality TV along the lines of THE RUNNING MAN and Paul W.S. Anderson's DEATH RACE, ELIMINATION GAME finds disgraced Navy SEAL Rick Tyler (a more lifeless-than-usual performance by former PRISON BREAK star and new Yoplait pitchman Dominic Purcell) rewarded for taking out a Libyan dictator (ESCAPE 2000's Roger Ward) at the behest of his commanding officer Gen. Thatcher (late 1970's TV Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond) and US President Sheila Farr (Carmen Duncan) by being thrown under the bus and sentenced to death for fabricated war crimes. Three years later, he's given a chance at freedom: being the target on "Turkey Shoot," the world's most popular TV show, which pits him in a fight for his life as expert assassins try to take him out, all for the entertainment of a global audience. Of course, Tyler manages to emerge victorious against his foes or there'd be no movie, and he's keeping top killer Ramrod (LONGMIRE's Robert Taylor, trying to make something out of nothing) alive for a reason.

ELIMINATION GAME wants to think it's perceptive satire, but its targets--vapid TV show hosts, bitch-on-wheels programming executive, corrupt government officials--are pitifully one-dimensional and obvious and its attempts to win over the audience with ESCAPE 2000 references--Ward's cameo, a scene from the 1982 film visible on someone's TV--just makes you want to watch ESCAPE 2000 instead (speaking of references to better movies, legendary Ozploitation producer Antony I. Ginnane has a cameo as Australasian president Charley Varrick). Purcell has never been worse, though putting yourself in his position, would you try? The lumbering lummox is defeated by any number of things, whether it's director/co-writer Jon Hewitt's tired use of shaky-cam, endless DOOM-like first-person shooter POV shots and crummy CGI, or letting whole sequences play out through CCTV footage and security cameras. The editing is very choppy and whole chunks of story seem to be missing. Also, for "Turkey Shoot" being as popular as it is, we never get enough of a sense of the outside world or how everyone would drop what they're doing to watch it. All of this would be petty nitpicking if ELIMINATION GAME was even reasonably clever or entertaining, or offered anything remotely worthwhile. There's no shortage of dark-humored avenues to travel if you're going to roast the concept of reality TV, but this is lazy and uninspired on an almost Friedberg/Seltzer level, and it easily supplants Mark Hartley's well-intentioned but botched PATRICK as the worst remake of an Ozploitation classic. When the best moment of your remake is a shot of the film it's remaking seen on a character's TV, then that's all the evidence you need to confirm that you really needn't have bothered. (Unrated, 90 mins)

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