Thursday, April 28, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: JANE GOT A GUN (2016); BACKTRACK (2016); and #HORROR (2015)

(US - 2016)

An infamously troubled production that changed directors and cinematographers and went through multiple rewrites and several cast switch-ups before filming began and then spent nearly three years on a Weinstein Company shelf before bombing in theaters, JANE GOT A GUN is rivaled only by EXPOSED and FLIGHT 7500 as the biggest catastrophe of the first quarter of 2016. A longtime pet project of Natalie Portman (one of 31 credited producers), JANE was set to go in early 2013 with director Lynne Ramsey (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) at the helm, and with SEVEN and frequent Woody Allen collaborator Darius Khondji as director of photography. Even before Ramsey quit over a dispute with one of the producers over final cut and Khondji left with her, co-star Michael Fassbender was forced to back out over a scheduling conflict with X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Joel Edgerton was already cast as the villain, but that role was given to Jude Law and Edgerton was shifted over to Fassbender's vacated role. Law signed on specifically to work with Ramsey, and when she left, he followed suit. Gavin O'Connor (WARRIOR) took over as director and Bradley Cooper signed on to replace Law, but quit over a scheduling conflict with AMERICAN HUSTLE and was replaced by Ewan McGregor (now the fourth actor to be cast in the villain role). In addition, Edgerton pulled double duty by rewriting Brian Duffield's original screenplay. Filming was completed in the fall of 2013, and after multiple canceled release dates that stretched back to summer 2014, the $25 million production was finally released in theaters in January 2016, grossing just $1.5 million.

JANE GOT A GUN has all the hallmarks of compromise, clashing ideas, and behind-the-scenes rancor: released with little fanfare after languishing in limbo, a truncated running time, choppy editing, slack pacing and stretches where important scenes seem to be missing, and a couple of prominently-billed actors who are barely in the movie. In the New Mexico territory in 1871, feisty rancher Jane Hammond (Portman) tends to bullet wounds on her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich), who informs her that the gang of outlaw John Baxter (McGregor) is headed their way. She enlists the help of ex-fiance and hired gun Dan Frost (Edgerton), while flashbacks fill in the complicated backstory of the quartet of characters. It's filled with darkness and tragedy, from Civil War prison camps to sex slavery to a dead child, with Jane forced into a hellish life servicing Baxter's gang until she's rescued and whisked away by one of his men, the kind-hearted Bill. For obvious reasons, Baxter remains enraged at the couple and when some of his men spot Bill and soon pay with their lives when Bill guns them down, he leads the rest of the gang after them for revenge (it does beg the question, if Bill ran into the gang and killed some of them, how does he manage to get several days ahead of the rest, back to his ranch with time to warn Jane that they're coming?). While Bill lies immobile in bed, Jane and Dan fortify the ranch and get their guns ready for the showdown. This should've been a RIO BRAVO situation, but it plays out in almost total darkness with intermittent breaks for flashbacks and long dialogue scenes that are incoherently mumbled by Portman and Edgerton. McGregor's appearances are so fleeting and brief that he has no chance to make any kind of impact as a threatening presence, and the best you can say for it is that it looks nice for a while, but even that ceases to help by the climax since you can't see a damn thing. Nothing works in JANE GOT A GUN, a doomed project plagued by pre-production turmoil from which it never recovered. Stick with HANNIE CAULDER instead. (R, 98 mins)

(Australia/UK/UAE - 2016)

A horror movie that feels like it should've gone straight to video in 2002, BACKTRACK is a shameless ripoff of THE SIXTH SENSE, with some STIR OF ECHOES, JU-ON/THE GRUDGE, and INSIDIOUS thrown in, perhaps to prevent M. Night Shyamalan from suing. Continuing his post-Oscar slide into irrelevance, Adrien Brody offers a fairly credible accent as Peter Bower, an Australian psychologist who's still reeling over the tragic death of his daughter Evie a year earlier when she was hit by a truck while riding her bike. While Peter is at least doing slightly better than his shattered wife Carol (Jenni Baird), who can't even get out of bed, he's haunted by visions of a dead girl named Elizabeth Valentine (Chloe Bayliss), and the realization that all of the patients referred him by his mentor Duncan (Sam Neill) seem to be people who died in an accident on July 12, 1987. This prompts him to return to his childhood home and visit his estranged father (George Shevtsov), triggering memories of a traumatic incident from his teen years (lemme guess...July 12, 1987?) that may have indirectly had a hand in his daughter's eventual death nearly 30 years later. Writer/director Michael Petroni (who scripted QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, THE RITE, and THE BOOK THIEF) thinks he's being clever by introducing incredibly hackneyed elements that would be painfully obvious twists to any seasoned viewer and revealing them almost immediately, like Elizabeth Valentine's initials E.V. sounding out "Evie" and that Duncan's really a ghost, which isn't a spoiler since it's revealed 20 minutes in. But he just keeps piling on one coincidence and absurd contrivance after another until you're too busy rolling your eyes and shaking your head to catch all the post-INSIDIOUS jump scares preceded by that distinctive JU-ON croak, which is something filmmakers in 2016 are still fucking doing. Some shoddy greenscreen work and a hilariously awful CGI train derailment provide some unintentional laughs, but BACKTRACK is stale, cliched, and dated, obviously a script Petroni's had stashed in a drawer for at least a decade. Though it does provide a brief role for THE ROAD WARRIOR's Bruce Spence as a ghost, there's not much to recommend with BACKTRACK, which continues Brody's fool's quest to become Nicolas Cage. I see dead careers. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2015)

Actress and artist Tara Subkoff, best known as the kidnapping victim in 2000's THE CELL, makes her writing and directing debut with this ambitious horror indie that succeeds and stumbles in equal measure, amounting to 98 uneven minutes. It's a social media-savvy slasher film that admirably doesn't approach its subject with snarky irony, but too often overstates its message to the point of harping. It's set over one night at a sleepover at the isolated Connecticut mansion of bitchy Sofia (Bridget McGarry), the 12-year-old queen of a group of Mean Girls who tear one another down in vicious hashtags using a Bejeweled Blitz-type app (Subkoff really overuses this visual motif), tagged to their endless postings of selfies. Their targets change by the minute, whether it's Cat (Hayley Murphy), whose mother recently died; overweight Georgie (Emma Adler), who they've fat-shamed into bulimia; tomboyish Francesca (Mina Sundwall), who they've labeled a "dyke," or lesser-income Sam (Sadie Seelert), who's new to their school and has cut scars on her arm from past self-harming. And these girls are friends. When Cat tears into Georgie about her weight in a way that even Sofia thinks is over the line, Cat is expelled from the party. She leaves a hysterical message on the voice mail of her preoccupied cosmetic surgeon dad (a furious Timothy Hutton), while Sofia's alcoholic, ennui-drowning mom (Chloe Sevigny) leaves the girls alone to go through the motions at an AA meeting, completely unaware that her philandering husband (Balthazar Getty) has had his throat slashed by the same maniac who's now in the house and offing the girls one by one.

Let's address the elephant in the room that is the terrible title, which does the film no favors and makes it tempting to dismiss outright. And things get off to a dubious start with the gimmicky ENTER THE VOID-style opening credits that look like a bunch of rapid-fire Candy Crush images. But amidst the catty bitchery of the mostly overprivileged, underparented kids, Subkoff manages some small accomplishments that start to add up. The massive house is a great location that allows Subkoff to really take advantage of open space in the 2.35:1 image, especially when the creepy-masked killer starts materializing anywhere in the frame. The film takes place in the dead of winter and there's a vividly chilling, uniquely Canadian-inspired coldness that's conveyed in striking imagery both outside in the snowy setting and inside in the Cronenberg-like design and decor of the house (I'm willing to bet Subkoff is a big fan of the 1983 cult classic CURTAINS). There's also a pronounced giallo influence, particularly in one Argento-styled murder that takes place in a glass-enclosed tennis court, and it's all supplemented by an unsettling, driving score by EMA. Subkoff does such a solid job with the horror elements that you wish it didn't take her 70 minutes to get to them. With the exception of the opening murder (Getty's in the film for about seven seconds), the first hour and change focuses on the Mean Girl bullying, with the girls supporting and turning on one another with no notice, exploiting weaknesses and pushing to the breaking point, and it goes on long after Subkoff has made her point. The young actresses are convincingly unlikable, and Hutton is outstanding in his few scenes, one in particular when he barrels through the house in a frothing rage searching for Cat. Hutton plays it like a vein-popping homage to Alec Baldwin, screaming at the girls and shredding them for their shallow, nasty actions, and it's a scene that's destined to become a YouTube favorite. There's a lot to appreciate in #HORROR, especially a devastating reveal at the very end, but there's a lot of missteps as well. Call it a flawed but nonetheless interesting film that shows it's worth keeping an eye on what Subkoff does next. Incidentally, nothing's made me feel older lately than seeing Sevigny, Getty, and Natasha Lyonne now playing the parents in a horror movie. (R, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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