Thursday, January 7, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: CLOSE RANGE (2015); SHANGHAI (2015); and ASHBY (2015)

(US - 2015)

The latest teaming of B-movie action icons Scott Adkins and director Isaac Florentine has about as straightforward an action movie set-up as you can get. Adkins is Colton MacReady, an on-the-run Iraq War deserter who turns up in Mexico and takes out a good chunk of the soldiers working for drug lord Fernando Garcia (Tony Perez). Among the dead are Garcia's nephew (Ray Diaz), who kidnapped MacReady's teenage niece Hailey (Madison Lawlor), after her lowlife stepfather Walt (Jake La Botz), the go-between for Garcia's operation north of the border in Arizona, stole a hefty sum of money belonging to the cartel. MacReady brings Hailey home to her mother, his sister Angela (Caitlin Keats), with what's left of Garcia's army in hot pursuit. The bad guys have some help from corrupt sheriff Calloway (Nick Chinlund), who's morally conflicted over his duty to the law and the money that being on the Garcia payroll brings him. In addition to periodic attempts to show Calloway's decent side, there's also some brief overtures at characterization in the way MacReady scolds his widowed sister for settling on a shitbag like Walt for a second husband, but Florentine wisely keeps the focus on action, with MacReady, Angela, and Hailey holed up inside the family farmhouse while Garcia keeps sending his guys in only to get roundhouse-kicked, stabbed repeatedly, or just shot in the head point-blank by MacReady.

If you've ever seen a Florentine/Adkins collaboration, you know that over-the-top action is the main focus, and CLOSE RANGE delivers to almost absurd levels. Florentine fluidly moves the camera around to keep as much of the expertly-choreographed confrontations going with as few cuts as possible. Things get a little sped up at times, as is the norm, but he makes an effort to avoid going for the quick-cut, shaky-cam approach, which showcases exactly how much work went into these sequences by the actors and the stunt crew. Story-wise, CLOSE RANGE is pretty standard and predictable--of course, MacReady deserted for the right reasons, as he was defying incompetent orders that would've disgraced his unit and led to certain death--and Florentine gets a little too winking at times with the fun but repetitive spaghetti western homages. But it steps up where it matters, and again, you're forced to wonder why Adkins isn't headlining bigger movies (Florentine likely prefers the autonomy of low-budget cinema). It's not quite on the level of their UNDISPUTED sequels or the outstanding NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR. but it's more entertaining and satisfying than a lot of what passes for major action movies these days. Short, simple, and to the point (except for a drawn-out title card intro for each minor villain, which only seems to be there in order to pad the brief run time), CLOSE RANGE's only goal is to have Scott Adkins glower and kick ass for an hour and a half, and on that end, it achieves everything it sets out to do. (R, 85 mins)

(US/China - 2015)

Filmed in Bangkok in the summer of 2008 and released in Asia and other parts of the world over 2010-2011, this lavishly-mounted, $50 million US/Chinese co-production was shelved stateside for seven years by Harvey Weinstein before getting a stealth release on 100 screens in the fall of 2015. SHANGHAI fancies itself a Far East, historical noir CASABLANCA, set in the title city that's doing its best to stave off the encroaching Japanese occupation in October 1941, but the lugubrious pacing, lackluster direction by Mikael Hafstrom (who made the Anthony Hopkins demonic possession film THE RITE and the Stallone/Schwarzenegger pairing ESCAPE PLAN in ensuing years before this finally came out) shoddy CGI, and a hopelessly muddled script by Hossein Amini (DRIVE) prove to be flaws too fatal to overcome. US Naval Intelligence spy Paul Soames (John Cusack) arrives in Shanghai, posing as a Nazi-sympathizing journalist but drawn into a murder investigation when his Navy buddy and fellow agent Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is found dead with his throat slashed. Soames is at the center of an incredibly convoluted story that involves Triad crime lord Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat) and his mysterious wife Anna (Gong Li), with whom Soames will of course have a clandestine fling. There's also Japanese Intelligence officer Capt. Tanaka (Ken Watanabe), who's suspicious of Soames' true intentions, plus Soames also seduces Leni (an underused Franka Potente), in order to get intel on her husband, a German engineer (Christopher Buchholz), who may have Nazi business to conduct with the Japanese.

A couple of months go by in what feels like real time, and all of these parties converge for a boring climax that takes place on a certain date which will live in infamy--by which I mean the bombing of Pearl Harbor and not the date that Harvey Weinstein greenlit SHANGHAI--with the exception of Leni and her husband, who are completely forgotten by the filmmakers. Rinko Kikuchi (then a recent Oscar nominee for BABEL) turns up as Conner's opium-addicted Japanese girlfriend, and David Morse has a few inconsequential scenes as Soames' contact at the US consulate in Shanghai, warning Soames to not get involved and forced to utter trite dialogue like "This isn't black or white...we're caught in the middle!" SHANGHAI is a tedious, plodding mess that never gets going and never gels together. There's no consistency to the characterizations and everyone wanders in and out of the story with the kind of clunky randomness that suggests this was a much a longer film at some point. Made when Cusack was still getting A-list work but fitting in perfectly with his current string of unseen, Cusackalypse Now paycheck gigs, SHANGHAI reunites the star with Hafstrom, who directed him in the decent 2007 Stephen King adaptation 1408. Cusack is completely unengaging as the hero here and has no chemistry with either Gong or Potente. Beyond that, a fine cast is completely stranded in this incredibly dull misfire that bombed everywhere, grossing just $46,000 in the US. (R, 104 mins)

(US/UK/UAE - 2015)

Mickey Rourke has squandered so many opportunities and burned so many bridges over the last 30 years that it's hard to feel sorry for the present state of his career. But Rourke isn't the problem with the indie comedy-drama ASHBY, an appallingly tone-deaf and wildly inconsistent quirkfest that won raves on the festival circuit because of course it did. The film gives the veteran actor his best role since his Oscar-nominated turn in THE WRESTLER, but ASHBY is an otherwise total failure that's simplistic, insulting, and absolutely insufferable whenever he's not onscreen. In one of the most loathsome performances in recent memory, Nat Wolff, the former NAKED BROTHERS BAND star and current third-string Michael Cera, plays Ed, a 17-year-old who's probably supposed to be a snarky wiseass but comes off as a smug, smirking prick. Ed lives with his divorced mom June (Sarah Silverman) and is put on the backburner by his always-too-busy dad, who traded his old family in for a new one. Ed hates jocks but inexplicably wants to be one anyway, making the football team while befriending quiet neighbor Ashby Holt (Rourke), a withdrawn man who claims to be a retired napkin salesman. Ashby has two secrets he's keeping from Ed: he was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and has three months to live, and he's really a decommissioned CIA assassin, Ed discovering the latter while snooping in Ashby's basement and promising to keep it a secret. Ashby takes Ed under his wing, teaching him how to be a better man than his self-absorbed father (though after spending 100 minutes with Ed, you'll probably at least somewhat see the deadbeat dad's side of things), and Ed improbably becomes the star of the football team while pretending he isn't falling for bespectacled, quirky, and all-around adorkable Eloise (Emma Roberts), the kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl (© Nathan Rabin) who only exists in movies like ASHBY, and whose neurologist dad has an MRI machine in their house, just in case Ashby will need to use it to prove to Ed that he's indeed terminally ill.

Writer/director Tony McNamara can't seem to decide what he wanted ASHBY to be. It's like the worst parts of Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson got jumbled in with a RUDY ripoff, a little GRAN TORINO, and a discarded draft of the Kevin Costner-as-a-terminally-ill-assassin movie 3 DAYS TO KILL. When Ashby finds out that one of his assigned contracts was not a threat to the country, but an innocent guy who got in the way of some old associates making a profit on a business deal, he starts taking those associates out--and having an oblivious Ed chauffeur him around--in order to right a wrong while he's still able. Ashby is an anguished man plagued by guilt and regret--he's already lost his wife and daughter and wants nothing more than to be absolved of his countless sins (he estimates he killed 93 people over his career) in order to be permitted into Heaven to be with them. It's a great role for Rourke, but McNamara would rather focus on Wolff's Ed, who's presented as the only smart kid in his class, and the only one with a vague notion of history but who has somehow never seen a cassette tape and, in his clueless fascination, unspools the tape on one of Ashby's Peter Frampton cassettes and smirks "I don't think I can get this back in there." Mind you, it's the entire tape. All of it. How much of the tape do you unspool before you ascertain that it's probably not a good thing?  And why would he unspool it in the first place? Is that how he found it? How can a jaded millennial douchebag like Ed not know what a goddamn cassette looks like?  Can he possibly be that stupid? And if the scene is played for laughs, then it's even worse, because now Ed is a complete dick for fucking with Ashby's Frampton tape. Wolff goes through the film with a cocky "Aren't I just a stinker?" look that renders his the most punchable face this side of Justin Bieber or the Affluenza kid. It's a wonder why Ashby would even dispense life lessons to this little turd. McNamara's characters are unreal, from Roberts' stock quirky girl who serves as whatever the story needs her to be at any given moment, to Kevin Dunn's bombastic football coach who still uses terms like "the Japs" when referencing WWII,  to Zachary Knighton's improbably hipster cool-guy priest with alt-rocker hair who says "fuck" and eats hot wings. The situations are inane, like Ed commandeering the coach's pregame speech--what coach would allow a player to rally the team with "Fuck the coaches!"? ASHBY doesn't exist on any level of reality, and speaking of which, do you know anyone Sarah Silverman's age named June?  I don't. Does she have younger sisters named Edith and Myrtle? And there's even stabs at raunch humor with Ed walking in his mom blowing a guy. Rourke brought his A-game to ASHBY, but his efforts were wasted. Rarely has such an excellent performance been stuck in a movie this bad. Paramount picked this up for distribution but the buyer's remorse must've hit quickly: they only released it on 15 screens and VOD for a total gross of $4600. (R, 103 mins)

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