Wednesday, December 2, 2015


(Austria - 2015)

This wildly-acclaimed Austrian import ("The rebirth of Austrian horror," one blog emphatically declared ) was hailed as a new genre classic by the horror scenester echo chamber when it opened in limited release and on VOD in September of this year. Sure, there's an occasional BABADOOK or IT FOLLOWS where the hype is justified, but accolades of this sort might carry more weight if those same scenesters didn't say that about every new indie horror movie that comes out (remember every Ti West movie? Or when everyone said STARRY EYES was the next classic?  Remember how everyone was pumped about THE GALLOWS and then it was actually released?). GOODNIGHT MOMMY gets an extra love tap with the kid gloves since it's a subtitled foreign film, as if that lends it a classy sheen to help deflect the rote predictability of the entire endeavor. There's some baiting-and-switching and a big twist of a reveal at the end, but anyone not declared legally brain-dead will be able to call it by the ten-minute mark, so all that's left to do is sit and wait. Then the twist comes--and it plays out just as you predicted--and the movie's over. Giving off the stench of bargain-basement Michael Haneke, GOODNIGHT MOMMY has an interesting and disturbing set-up, but the writing/directing team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala switch gears almost immediately, turning the film into another tired "evil children" piece that just spins its wheels and turns into a stultifyingly tedious waste of time. When their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home from having some kind of vague cosmetic surgery, nine-year-old twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) are alarmed by her increasingly erratic behavior--she's prone to mood swings, demands total silence, and won't even acknowledge Lukas--and come to believe the woman whose face is covered in gauze and bandages (an admittedly unsettling image) isn't their mother. So far, so good, but then the sinister element of "Who is this woman?" is up-ended as the bandages come off and the boys go to extreme measures to get this person who looks exactly like their mother to confess her true identity, morphing into a rote "creepy kids" movie, even if it's the sensitive Elias acting under the direction of the persuasive and domineering Lukas. The twist is so embarrassingly easy to see that you figure there has to be something more, but there isn't. That is, unless you count the boys super-glueing their mother's mouth and eyes shut and blood gushing all over the place when they try to cut her lips open. A film that almost sets a land-speed record for going from intriguing to actively pissing me off, GOODNIGHT MOMMY can't even get much out of its ominous, middle-of-nowhere setting in a huge house straight out of a classic giallo. Come on, bloggers and horror fanboys. Your hype and fawning praise are meaningless if you don't start being a little more discerning and a little less concerned with keeping the free shit coming. (R, 100 mins)

(US - 2015)

For a while, the gambling drama MISSISSIPPI GRIND, the latest from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (HALF NELSON), seems like a shaggy dog road movie that doesn't appear to be ambling to anywhere in particular. But it carries itself like a '70s character study along the lines of its two primary 1974 influences: you could argue that it's a loose remake of Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT, but it also owes a lot to Karel Reisz's THE GAMBLER, right down to the brief presence of veteran filmmaker and GAMBLER screenwriter James Toback in a rare acting role. With his slumped shoulders and dark cloud perpetually hovering over his head, Ben Mendelsohn straddles the line between good-natured but unlucky sad sack and sketchy, self-serving shitbag as Gerry, a down-on-his-luck real estate agent who owes money all over Dubuque. With his soft-spoken but serious loan shark (Alfre Woodard in some unexpected casting) tells him the clock's ticking, Gerry hits the road with new acquaintance Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a confident and gregariously likable guy he recently met at a seedy dive of a casino, the kind of effortlessly smooth talker who loves to tell stories and has everybody at the poker table laughing. Once he meets Curtis, Gerry coincidentally starts winning and is convinced Curtis is his good-luck charm ("You're my leprechaun!"). Gerry splits town, helping himself to $200 in his employer's petty cash fund, dragging the goes-where-life-takes-him Curtis (Curtis to Gerry: "What?  You have a job?") on a road trip to Memphis and through Little Rock to New Orleans, by which time Gerry presumes to have earned enough money to invite himself to a secret poker game with a $25K buy-in hosted by Tony Roundtree (Toback), a big-time gambler he only knows of through Curtis' second-hand stories.

Things obviously don't pan out, as Gerry is a character played by Ben Mendelsohn, who's sort-of cornering the market on dodgy, untrustworthy skeezes and small-time scam artists (ANIMAL KINGDOM, KILLING THEM SOFTLY, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, LOST RIVER, and the Netflix series BLOODLINE). Like the Altman film it models itself on, MISSISSIPPI GRIND is about the interaction between the two main characters and how their bond brings out the best and worst in one another. Gerry is a hopeless, reckless gambler who loves the thrill of the bet but is terrible at it. So is Curtis, but his confidence carries him and compared to Gerry, he knows when to walk away. Curtis, whose financial solvency is never really explored, mainly just likes talking to people and finds poker tables are the best place to people-watch. He goes along with Gerry initially because he's got nothing else going on but eventually because he just likes him, and if Gerry believes Curtis is the source of his luck, then so be it. It's hard to get a read on Curtis, and that's by design. Reynolds again proves himself to be a much better actor than his detractors would ever be willing to admit (he was a last-minute replacement for Jake Gyllenhaal, who was delayed on another project), and he's a good match with Mendelsohn, who gets to show different shades of his character as the film progresses. He's funny and likable one moment, desperate and pathetic the next--nowhere is this more apparent than in a very uncomfortable reunion with his embittered ex-wife (Robin Weigert). Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton are saddled with underwritten and rather superfluous supporting roles as hookers-with-hearts-of-gold who capture the attention of Curtis and Gerry respectively, but other than that and an ending that's sufficient but does wrap things up a little too neat and tidy, MISSISSIPPI GRIND is an engaging, slow-burner throwback character piece that would've been right at home if it had opened 40 years ago instead of today, on just 46 screens for a total gross of $130,000. (R, 109 mins)

(US/South Africa/Spain - 2015)

The kind of movie where an establishing aerial shot features the Capitol Building in the foreground and the Washington Monument in the background and still feels the need to include the caption "Washington, D.C.," MOMENTUM is cliched almost to the point of parody. It has a hissing, snarky villain who, just before he's about to off the hero, opts to give an endless, condescending speech instead. You'd be correct in assuming a bad guy like that is also prone to hackneyed chess analogies that come back to bite him in the ass, as he of course gets the upper hand on the hero and sneers "Check!" which is pretty much an open invitation to that hero to declare "Checkmate!" just before killing him. And that's exactly how it plays out. Nevertheless, once it gets settled in after a clunky and confusing opening, MOMENTUM is stupid but reasonably entertaining action movie junk food. It's complete garbage, but it's energetic and has a pair of fun performances at its core, plus one seriously slumming surprise guest star who's not featured in the trailer, the poster art, or in any of the promotional material, and who couldn't possibly have been on the set for more than half a day, literally phoning in his performance from behind a desk.

After a botched Cape Town bank robbery where one of the criminals, Alexis (QUANTUM OF SOLACE's Olga Kurylenko) loses her mask in front of a lobby full of witnesses, a cleanup crew of hired killers led by the gleefully snide and sardonic Mr. Washington (James Purefoy) is dispatched to eliminate the entire team. Alexis had plans to disappear after this One Last Job, but now she's fighting for her life with Washington and his goons in hot pursuit. The killers are in the employ of a corrupt US senator (Morgan Freeman...yes, that Morgan Freeman), who's secretly planning a terrorist attack in Chicago in order to start a new war and secure a huge defense contract, with his entire nefarious plan laid out on a flash drive that Alexis acquired in the bank job (why a US senator would save that on a flash drive and then go through the trouble of storing it in a safety deposit box in South Africa remains a mystery). Co-written by Adam Marcus (JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D) and directed by a debuting Stephen Campanelli, a veteran camera operator who's been part of Clint Eastwood's crew since 1995's THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (MILLION DOLLAR BABY and INVICTUS star and nice guy Freeman obviously doing a solid for Campanelli, who likely wasn't going to risk getting booted off the Malpaso payroll by asking Clint to play the senator), MOMENTUM knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and it's almost nonstop action after the clumsy first act. Kurylenko displays steely gravitas as a kickass heroine who walks away from CGI explosions like a pro (team her up with Milla Jovovich!), and a constantly smirking Purefoy is having a blast as Mr. Washington ("Oh, you magnificent bitch!" he yells at Alexis when she outsmarts him yet again), There's some brutal action sequences, some winking Eastwood homages (cue the "Do you feel lucky?" speech) and self-referential auto-critiques ("I've seen this in too many movies," Washington glowers as Alexis is doing exactly what he thinks she's doing) and an inspired bit where one bad guy's head is smashed apart with a kid's Tonka Truck. A late-breaking plot development involving Alexis' background as a rogue CIA superagent recruited from the Mossad would appear to set up a BOURNE-like franchise that likely isn't happening, considering the $20 million film went straight to VOD in the US and is currently making headlines for grossing the equivalent of $69 during its ten-screen theatrical release in the UK. It's enjoyable for what it is--wait for it to turn up on Netflix Instant and queue it up on a slow night expecting nothing and you'll be entertained. (Unrated, 96 mins)

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