Monday, July 11, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: CODE OF HONOR (2016); TERM LIFE (2016); and BY THE SEA (2015)

(US - 2016)

Released on VOD and, somehow, in a few theaters this past May, CODE OF HONOR was the second of three Steven Seagal vehicles to drop in a ten-day period, coming three days after the straight-to-DVD SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS and a week before the VOD release of THE ASIAN CONNECTION. Don't let that fool you into thinking that Seagal's been busy, because his participation in CODE OF HONOR is, as you'd correctly assume, as minimal as it can be while still actually being in the movie. Written and directed by Michael Winnick, who previously gifted us the unwatchable, 15-years-too-late Tarantino knockoff GUNS, GIRLS & GAMBLING (2012), which had the dubious distinction of being the second terrible movie to star Christian Slater that involved Elvis impersonators pulling off a casino heist, CODE OF HONOR is so bad that a seemingly narcoleptic Seagal is the least of its problems. It's a film that makes no effort to hide its cheapness, and seems to do everything it can to exploit it, from the worst-you'll-ever-see CGI squibs and splatter that practically hover over the targets BIRDEMIC-style, to scenes of the mayor of a major city under siege calling a press conference where one reporter and seven or eight people are gathered. The CGI guys can't even be bothered to create a crowd to put in front of whatever building is passing for City Hall. Scenes uncomfortably linger past the point of necessity, and the blurry cinematography and constant repetitive beats underscoring the action recall the finer moments in Albert Pyun and Ice-T's landmark "Gangstas Wandering Around an Abandoned Warehouse" trilogy (© Nathan Rabin)

The plot owes a lot to The Punisher, with Seagal starring as Col. Robert Sikes, a former Special Forces legend long MIA, who's resurfaced in Salt Lake City to take out the trash. Perching himself on rooftops, sniper Sikes takes out all the city's scumbags, from drug dealers to gang leaders to pimps to corrupt politicians, and every evil-doer in between, including powerful mobster Romano (James Russo). It's all part of an elaborate revenge plan after his wife and son were killed in a driveby. Irate cop Peterson (Louis Mandylor) is at a loss, and things aren't helped by the interference of eccentric, alcoholic, knife-happy FBI agent Porter, played by once-promising actor-turned-barely recognizable cosmetic surgery cautionary tale Craig Sheffer (remember when he got top billing over Brad Pitt in Robert Redford's A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT?). Ex-military Porter knows Sikes ("He's trained to be a ghost...a shadow!") and spent time with him in Afghanistan, so he knows what he's up against ("To stop him, I must become him"). But before you can say Porter is the Trautman to Sikes' Rambo, Winnick throws in a plot twist that's hilariously stupid but takes such chutzpah that you can't help but begrudgingly admire it, if for no other reason than it's the most inventive way yet that a Seagal director has dealt with an actor whose laziness knows no limits. As usual, Seagal is always shot solo and never directly interacting with a co-star, never more apparent than when he and Sheffer awkwardly come to blows and Winnick valiantly tries--and fails--to work around the fact that the actors in a fight scene aren't there at the same time. It's too bad Winnick doesn't have the balls to stick with the twist, introducing it and almost immediately walking it back in a way that's unsatisfying and makes no sense. Even if the twist worked and Winnick followed through with it, CODE OF HONOR ranks among the worst Seagal films, which is saying something. It's so sloppy and unprofessional--the CGI is bush-league; a shot of a rappelling Seagal against a Hanna-Barbera-looking greenscreen is laughable; the producers can't even gather a reasonable number of Salt Lake City pedestrians to create a convincing crowd shot (probably too cheap to give them lunch); recurring shots of newscasters on TV are just bad actors reading their lines off of laptops--that it's a Master P or Silkk the Shocker cameo away from being an I'M BOUT IT rapsploitation homage. (R, 107 mins)

(US - 2016)

It's not every day you get Vince Vaughn in a combination Moe Howard/Beatles moptop rug with botched heists, corrupt cops, and bloody shootouts in a crime thriller directed by Ralphie from A CHRISTMAS STORY, so it's too bad TERM LIFE completely fails to live up to its batshit potential. Making his grand entrance into the world of VOD, Vaughn headlines this uneven and generic non-thriller that made it to just 50 screens after Universal kept it on a shelf for two years, eventually and inexplicably releasing it through their foreign/arthouse "Focus World" division. Vaughn and his hairpiece star as Nick Barrow, an Atlanta heist coordinator who plots elaborate break-ins and sells them to the highest bidder. His latest customer is Alejandro (William Levy), a seemingly small-time criminal whose cohorts rob the cash from police evidence room and are immediately massacred by a crew of corrupt cops led by Keenan (Bill Paxton). Unbeknownst to everyone, Alejandro's father is Viktor Vasquez (Jordi Molla), a major south-of-the-border cartel boss who arrives in town looking to avenge his son's murder. Sold out by the contacts who put him in touch with Alejandro, Barrow assumes he doesn't have long to live and takes out a huge life insurance policy to leave to his estranged 16-year-old daughter Cate (TRUE GRIT Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld). The policy won't go into effect for three weeks, so he and a rebellious Cate hit the road and lay low, attempting to evade both Viktor and Keenan. The chase leaves a trail of dead bodies and superfluous guest appearances: Vaughn's buddy Jon Favreau as his scheming go-between, Terrence Howard as a clueless sheriff, Taraji P. Henson as the insurance agent, Shea Whigham and Mike Epps as Keenan's partners in crime, plus a nice supporting turn by the great Jonathan Banks as Nick's fatherly friend Harper. In the hands of a renowned action thriller director like Peter Billingsley (COUPLES RETREAT), the plot is extremely predictable, with bland, monotone narration by Vaughn to cover up the holes and attempt to keep it moving. Far too much time is spent on father-daughter arguments and maudlin bonding, as the pair are supposed to holed up in their motel room to avoid being seen, but of course go out for ice cream and on the ferris wheel at a carnival and get seen. It's the kind of movie where people have to do incredibly stupid shit to keep the story advancing. This is about as run-of-the-mill and forgettable as they come, aside from Vaughn's ridiculous pelt, which would have even Nicolas Cage looking away in embarrassment. (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2015)

BY THE SEA was supposed to be a major holiday movie season awards contender at the end of 2015, but then someone from Universal must've actually watched it and quite obviously saw this tedious, self-indulgent Brangelina vanity project for what it was. The studio pretty much bailed on it, stalling its release at just 142 screens in the US for a gross of $530,000. There's a reason you've probably never even heard of this Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie home movie: BY THE SEA completely fell off the radar and became an afterthought even to its own distributor, taking an unusually long seven months to hit DVD/Blu-ray. Now going by Angelina Jolie Pitt, the Oscar-winning actress also wrote and directed this scenically lovely but utterly inert exercise in channeling her inner Michelangelo Antonioni. She captures the look and feel of that sort of cold and distant late 1960s/early 1970s European art film (plus a good chunk of the dialogue--whenever Pitt or Jolie interact with the supporting cast--is in French with English subtitles) and fuses it with a presumably very personal John Cassavetes-style examination of marital dysfunction (Jolie cited the great Gena Rowlands as an inspiration, and the screen legend appears with the star couple in one of the bonus features). But when it's all said and done, it's a thoroughly empty experience, alienating but not in the Antonioni way Jolie likely intended. It's a well-crafted forgery that looks like a 45-year-old film, from the 1970s Universal logo that opens it to the characters chain-smoking while wearing gaudy, oversized eyewear, but to what end? Jolie nails the look, but the script is trite and predictable and the characters not only unlikable but completely uninteresting. It's a boring, ponderous slog, the kind of movie where Jolie's character returning from a walk and announcing "They made fresh pastries" constitutes a major plot development.

Arriving at a seaside French hotel, blocked writer Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie) are looking to get away, primarily from each other. She spends the days moping around the hotel room and sobbing while Roland drinks himself into a daily stupor at a nearby bar, getting sage advice from kindly widower bartender Michel (Niels Arestrup). Vague references to a recent tragedy and Friedkin-esque subliminal flashes hint at the divide between them, and it grows wider when they meet Francois (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Melanie Laurent), the newlyweds who've checked into the neighboring suite. Through a small pipe hole in the wall left by a removed radiator, Vanessa voyeuristically watches the young couple. Roland eventually joins her, the two becoming a peeper version of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, drawn together and taking tentative steps toward reforming their bond after observing Francois and Lea having anal sex (a LAST TANGO IN PARIS nod, perhaps?). It's still not enough for Roland and Vanessa to overcome their malaise, ennui, self-pity, self-loathing, and their general shittiness as human beings, as they continue to tear one another down in hurtful ways, with Vanessa going so far as to sabotage Francois and Lea's marriage as a way of dealing with her own pain. "Am I a bad person?" Vanessa asks Roland. "Sometimes," he replies, adding "We have to stop being such assholes." Not making BY THE SEA would've been a good start. (R, 122 mins)

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