Thursday, May 5, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS (2016); REMEMBER (2015); and EMILIE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Despite the title, this isn't a sixth installment of the long-running Tom Berenger action franchise. Instead, it's another "Steven Seagal" movie where the 64-year-old star and co-executive producer does as little as possible, is always shot solo and never directly interacting with his co-stars, and is obviously doubled in any shot where his face isn't visible. Indeed, there's several instances here of Seagal's double using props--and in one instance, actually holding up his hand--to obscure his face as he exits a room or walks away. Filmed on some still-standing sets from AMERICAN SNIPER at the Blue Cloud Movie Ranch facility in California, SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS is written and directed by exploitation vet Fred Olen Ray who, like his contemporary Jim Wynorski, almost could've had a big(ish) career in the 1980s but has instead dabbled in any number of DTV genres under a plethora of pseudonyms. On the commentary--yes, this actually has a commentary--Ray talks of this being a return to the style of his '80s action movies like ARMED RESPONSE and that it was a special project for him, but it's really just a blatant ripoff of ACT OF VALOR (Ray says his original draft of the script was titled HOUR OF VALOR). Seagal and pro wrestler Rob Van Dam have their last names above the title (I guess hoping to confuse Redbox rubes who don't follow wrestling and don't know how to spell "Van Damme"), but the real star is third-billed Tim Abell, a Ray regular who's been carving out a living on the fringes of D-list DTV since the early '90s when he headlined a number of erotic thrillers and the syndicated series SOLDIER OF FORTUNE INC. A gravelly-voiced and DUCK DYNASTY-bearded Abell is Sgt. Vic Mosby, the head of an Army special ops unit that rescues a US senator taken hostage by Taliban insurgents. Two of their unit--sniper Jake Taylor (Seagal) and his spotter Rich Cannon (Daniel Booko)--are left behind in the skirmish, with young Rich shot and unable to feel his legs. Back at the base, the commander (ex-Marine and go-to movie military advisor Dale Dye, who's had better assignments) assigns Mosby and his men, among them second-in-command Vasquez (Van Dam), to head into dangerous territory to retrieve a stranded military truck filled with explosives and fuel.

Of course, there's extensive firefights with terrorists, who aren't after the truck as much as they are the person in the truck, Jada (Rita Khori), the daughter-in-law of a major Taliban leader. Jada has renounced her terrorist ties and is trying to find safe passage with the Americans for herself and her infant son, which makes Mosby a bit more grumbly than usual, as does the presence of stowaway photojournalist Janet (Charlene Amoia). Mosby hatches a plan to use Jada as leverage to ensure the safe release of Taylor and Cannon, who are still holed up and under siege where Mosby was forced to leave them behind. In other words, what you have with SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS, is really a Tim Abell movie where he tries to rescue Steven Seagal. Seagal's laziness is rivaled only by Bruce Willis, and he's in SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS even less than he is his more recent "efforts." Seagal's amusing performance in 2014's GUTSHOT STRAIGHT was a good indication that he could have a credible career as a character actor if he gave a shit, but all the hallmarks of modern-day Seagal are on display in SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS: the barely-concealed double, the mumbling, fake N'awlins accent, the mid-film sabbatical where he's gone for somewhere around 20-25 minutes of screen time. I guess SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS isn't bad as much as it is by-the-numbers. Ray's handling of the action scenes is perfunctory at best, with a 15-minute opening sequence that should have you on the edge of your seat but never builds any momentum and just meanders on its way to nowhere. Abell does what's expected of him but none of these characters are interesting and we don't really get invested in anything they're doing. It's a standard, undemanding, streaming-ready, jingoistic military actioner with a lot of "Roger, sir!" and "Copy that!" and "Let's go!" and "You got it, Sergeant!" Seagal is practically a non-factor in what's being sold as a Seagal movie, and nothing sums that up more succinctly than Ray saying almost nothing about him on the commentary, probably because he has yet to actually meet him. (R, 86 mins)

(Canada/Germany - 2015)

The wildly inconsistent Atom Egoyan is so far removed from his 1990s EXOTICA and THE SWEET HEREAFTER heyday that it's best to approach his new films with diminished expectations. He's been working at a fairly steady pace the last few years, with 2014's pointless West Memphis Three misfire DEVIL'S KNOT and the same year's missing child thriller THE CAPTIVE, which started good but got increasingly goofy as it went along. With REMEMBER, it's goofy pretty much from the start, its story so distant from any plausible reality that, given its subject matter, it's almost admirably tacky in its execution,  In a nursing home in New York, 90-year-old Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) is a recent widower suffering from early-onset dementia. Zev is an Auschwitz survivor, like fellow facility resident Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau). Max has to remind Zev of a plan they intended to carry out once Zev's cancer-stricken wife passed: to find and kill the Nazi blockfuhrer who ran their section of the concentration camp. The blockfuhrer goes by the name "Rudy Kurlander," and though Max, who has dedicated his life to tracking down former Nazis, has located four elderly men with that name living in the US, he's now confined to a wheelchair, hindered by emphysema, and too ill to do it himself. He gives Zev a detailed letter and a pile of cash and sends him to Cleveland, where that Rudy Kurlander (Bruno Ganz) turns out to be the wrong guy. Zev will venture through Michigan into Ontario, Canada and back into the US to Reno on his quest for the other three Rudy Kurlanders, the second being surprisingly poignant and heartfelt before Egoyan and first-time screenwriter Benjamin August (a former casting director on the reality show FEAR FACTOR) hop on the crazy train, turning REMEMBER into a bizarre and strangely compelling exercise in discomfort and disbelief, sort of what you'd get if you dropped Simon Wiesenthal into a DEATH WISH or HARRY BROWN scenario. There's a twist ending you'll probably see coming, a sweating Zev getting trapped in a place he shouldn't be and pissing himself while blowing an anti-Semite's brains out, and the great Jurgen Prochnow (as a Rudy Kurlander) sporting what might be the least convincing old-age makeup ever seen in a movie.

From the moment a visibly scattered Zev walks into a Cleveland gun shop and effortlessly walks out with a Glock, REMEMBER is pretty much full of shit but scores a few points for chutzpah. On top of that, the specific reminders in Max's letter and Zev writing "Read letter" on his arm seem too indebted to MEMENTO and it doesn't seem likely that a frail Alzheimer's patient can Leonard Shelby his way across the country on a mission of vengeance. Committed performances give this a lot more class than the story can possibly offer, with an excellent Plummer apparently under the impression that he's in an old-school Egoyan film, carrying this on his shoulders and reminding us what a great actor he's been all these years. Landau is fine in his few scenes, and Ganz and Prochnow have little more than cameos, much like the second Rudy Kurlander (Heinz Lieven), who's memorable even with very little dialogue. Henry Czerny plays Zev's concerned son who spends the entire movie trying to find him, and Dean Norris has a small role in the film's darkest and most over-the-top segment, at least until the surprise reveal in the finale. Egoyan bungles things by adding one more scene after where it should've ended, almost like he didn't trust the audience to figure out the machinations of a key character and had to explicitly spell it out for them. I'm not sure whether that's a sign of Egoyan's slipping as a filmmaker or him recognizing that he needed to dumb it down for audiences that might not be as sharp as they were circa EXOTICA. REMEMBER is better than Egoyan's most recent films, but that's a pretty low bar. He hasn't made a recognizably "Egoyan" film since 2008's ADORATION, and REMEMBER finds him in what's best described as his "trashy pulp paperback" mode, along with the sleazy, NC-17-rated WHERE THE TRUTH LIES or the laughably dated CHLOE, a decade-and-a-half-too-late contribution to the 1990s erotic thriller cycle. REMEMBER is better than those films, for what that's worth, and that's largely because of Plummer, who probably shook his head at some of the scenes as he read the script for the first time, but still gives it everything he's got. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2016)

A '90s throwback, "Babysitter-from-Hell" thriller that's frequently quite unsettling in its early stages until it simply gives up, stops trying, and acquiesces to plot convenience and outright stupidity, EMELIE was nonetheless predictably hailed by fanboys as the Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson) of its week when it hit VOD in early March. In a strong performance, Irish actress Sarah Bolger (THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, THE TUDORS) is Emelie, who's first seen with a male accomplice (Robert Bozek) abducting teenage Anna (Randi Langdon), who's on her way to a babysitting job for the Thompsons, Joyce (Susan Pourfar) and Joe (Frank Rossi). They're going out to dinner for their anniversary, and their regular sitter is unavailable and recommended her friend Anna. Emelie poses as Anna and initially lets the kids--sullen 11-year-old Jacob (Joshua Rush), 9-year-old Sally (Carly Adams), and 4-year-old Christopher (Thomas Bair)--do whatever they want, whether it's grounded Jacob playing with his PSP and scarfing down a box of cookies or Sally and Christopher guzzling all the sugary drinks they want and painting and drawing all over the living room wall. While the kids play, Emelie snoops around the house, and it's Jacob who first notices something isn't right when he walks into the bathroom to find Emelie on the toilet, telling him about her period, and asking for a tampon before changing it right in front of him. Things escalate from there, with Emelie finding a sex tape Joe and Joyce made long before any of the kids came along and showing it to Sally and Christopher ("Daddy's naked!" Christopher laughs as the camera stays on a traumatized Sally while we hear endless moaning and flesh slapping against flesh), and later letting Christopher feed Sally's hamster to Jacob's snake. Over the evening, Emelie develops a fixation on Christopher, calling him her "cubby," determined to keep him for herself and kill anyone who stands in her way.

Directed by veteran live concert DVD director Michael Thelin and written by J.J. Abrams protege Richard Raymond Harry Herbeck (is all that necessary?), EMELIE works best in its ballsy early stages, where it seems like it's willing to go into some pretty dark places (there's also a cringe-inducing scene of young Christopher playing with Joe's gun that Emelie found in a closet and left out).  But it starts collapsing midway through, with Emelie's motivation being traumatic but handled in a much stronger fashion in the very disturbing PROXY from a couple of years ago. Once the pieces are in place, it's ultimately nothing more than HOME ALONE re-imagined as an R-rated psychological/home invasion thriller, with the smart Emelie suddenly required to do stupid things in order to keep the story moving. But all that's just a warm-up for the climax, which kicks off with her accomplice doing something so impulsive and recklessly idiotic that it undermines all of the careful planning they've done, all leading up to a dumb non-ending that lands with a resounding thud. Bolger is terrific as the psychotic Emelie, and young Rush does a solid job as a pre-teen just starting to rebel (and explore other things, as Joe expresses concern to Joyce about the boy's web browsing history) and stepping up to protect his younger siblings. Thelin and Richard Harris Raymond Burr Tom Dick Harry Dean Stanton Herbeck offer an intriguing set-up (even though we're not sure how Emelie knows Anna or that she'd be filling in for her friend at the Thompsons, but it's not really a necessary detail) that becomes increasingly ordinary and dumb as it fizzles to its conclusion. (Unrated, 82 mins)

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