Friday, August 5, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE LOBSTER (2016); I AM WRATH (2016) and SNIPER: GHOST SHOOTER (2016)

(Ireland/UK/Greece/France/Netherlands - 2015; US release 2016)

The English-language debut of Greek DOGTOOTH auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, THE LOBSTER is an absurdist, dystopian satire that's equal parts Stanley Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and Franz Kafka. Set in a near future where being romantically unattached is forbidden, college professor David (a schlubby Colin Farrell) is dumped by his wife for another guy. The authorities cuff him and escort him to The Hotel, a government-sanctioned facility where people have 45 days to find their perfect partner or they'll be turned into an animal of their choice. Accompanying David to The Hotel is his dog, who used to be his older brother until he failed to find a partner by the end of his last 45 days. The rules at The Hotel are ironclad and strictly enforced: you must have some similar physical trait with a potential mate, prompting a limping widower (Ben Whishaw)--even those whose spouses have died must report to The Hotel immediately following the funeral--to cause injuries that make his nose bleed when he's attracted to a chronic nosebleeder (Jessica Barden); sexual stimulation can only be provided by dry-humping the maid/sex therapist (Ariane Labed), and masturbation is forbidden, as a lisping man (John C. Reilly) learns when the punishment is having his hand burned in a toaster in front of everyone. The unattached can buy more days by going on daily "Hunts," where they find illegal loners in the surrounding woods and shoot them with tranquilizer guns and bring them back to The Hotel. Down to his seven days, David desperately attempts to bond with The Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), so named because she's the record holder at capturing loners and extending her stay. When that fails, he stages a daring escape and is welcomed into the woods by the Loner leader (Lea Seydoux), where he finds love with a similarly near-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz), only to find that the Loner philosophy is the exact opposite: love is forbidden.

Even that synopsis is just scratching the surface with everything going on in THE LOBSTER. Once out of The Hotel, the story takes some unexpected twists and turns, but Lanthimos also slows it down, and it isn't quite as effective as the absolutely brilliant first hour, which has some of the most bizarre and wildly inventive ideas in any movie this year. Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymus Filippou don't clearly lay out the rules of this unnamed society, though the characters themselves are aware and never seem shocked by the insanity of what's their "normal." Instead, they just drop one baffling revelation and rule after another on the audience, making David's predicament both nightmarish and darkly hilarious. It's laugh out loud funny when David turns into a total prick to convince The Heartless Woman that he's her guy, like kicking a little girl in the shin or not lifting a finger to help her when she pretends to be choking as a way to test just how much of a heartless asshole--like her--that he is. The same goes for The Heartless Woman's utterly robotic display of dirty talk ("Do you mind if we fuck in the position where I can see your face?" she asks David as she's bent over, face down on the bed). THE LOBSTER--so named because that's David's choice of animal to be turned into should he not find a partner in 45 days--loses some momentum in the "loner" half of the story, though there's interesting parallels in the way the Loner leader is just as totalitarian and barbaric as the people who run The Hotel (her ultimate revenge on the hotel manager, played by Olivia Colman, is quite good). A love it-or-hate it proposition, THE LOBSTER is a dark, disturbing, and often hysterically funny one-of-a-kind work from a consistently bold and provocative filmmaker (if you haven't seen DOGTOOTH, you need to), and an instant cult classic. I wish the second half was as strong as the first, but this is still one of the year's best films, and one that sticks with you long after it's over. (R, 119 mins)

(US - 2016)

Continuing his slide into the netherworld of VOD, John Travolta dons his CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES Big Boy helmet wig for this C-grade JOHN WICK ripoff, playing a seemingly ordinary guy avenging the murder of his wife. Shot and set in Columbus, OH, I AM WRATH has Travolta as Stanley Hall, a former auto plant manager who's jumped by three assailants, one of whom, Charley (Luis Da Silva, Jr) stabs his wife Vivian (Rebecca De Mornay) to death. Vivian was part of an independent team hired by Governor Meserve (Patrick St. Esprit) to verify the state's clean water percentages. Stanley isn't convinced it was a random attack when Charley is apprehended and useless Det. Gibson (Sam Trammell as Not Quite Colin Farrell) shrugs and lets him go with the explanation "Eh, people like him don't last long. He'll O.D. soon enough." Of course, Stanley happens to have been a lethal black-ops mercenary prior to giving that all up for Vivian, so he calls his old buddy Dennis (Christopher Meloni) to track down Charley for him so he can get to the reason Vivian was killed. Gee, is there any chance the corrupt cops are in cahoots with the governor, who didn't like the numbers Vivian turned in, therefore needing her to be silenced?  Maybe, considering it's riddled with cliched lines like "This goes all the way to the top."

Written by Paul Sloan (who plays one of the villains), I AM WRATH is the kind of movie that has zero trust in its audience, overexplaining everything and flashing back to past comments as if its simple plot is too complex to follow. It's heavy-handed to the point of self-parody, such as the shot where an enraged Stanley throws a Bible across the room and it lands with the page opened to the Jeremiah passage about "the wrath of the Lord." Gibson is one of the most absurdly and obviously corrupt cops you'll ever see in this kind of movie. There's no subtlety to the direction of Chuck Russell (THE MASK, ERASER), helming his first film since 2002's THE SCORPION KING. Travolta and Russell came onboard late, as the film was originally pitched to Nicolas Cage with William Friedkin (!) set to direct. That would've turned out better than the thoroughly generic film I AM WRATH ended up being. It's so sloppy that it can't even keep the name of its villain straight--in some scenes, he's "Meserve" and in others "Merserve." Travolta has a few scenes where he puts forth some acting effort, though it's pretty obvious that the 62-year-old icon is doubled almost Seagal-style in the the action scenes. The one bright spot in I AM WRATH, which skipped theaters entirely and debuted on VOD, is Meloni, once again busting his hump to salvage a middling, forgettable actioner (though MARAUDERS was a bit better than this). Travolta's just at the "Who gives a shit?" stage of his career, but Meloni throws in enough wiseass asides and bizarre quirks that he's always interesting to watch even when he's just standing there wondering why he ever left LAW & ORDER: SVU. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2016)

The sixth entry in the SNIPER franchise--not counting the misleadingly-titled recent Steven Seagal vehicle SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS--SNIPER: GHOST SHOOTER is the third to star the almost-lifelike Chad Michael Collins as Brandon Beckett, son of original SNIPER Thomas Beckett, played by Tom Berenger in the first, second, third, and fifth films. Berenger, who wasn't in the 2011 reboot SNIPER: RELOADED, but returned for 2014's SNIPER: LEGACY, sits this one out, though Billy Zane, who co-starred in the first and fourth films, is back as Sniper Jr's commander Richard Miller. This time, they're on a mission in Eastern Europe, surveilling the Trans-Georgian Pipeline, a terrorist-targeted gas line stretching from Georgia into Europe. All the while, every move they make, coordinated by their commander (when Dennis Haysbert announces "I'll be quarterbacking this from the JSOC office in Turkey," that's straight-to-DVD code for "I'm barely going to be in the rest of this movie") and a civilian contractor/Sniper Jr. love interest (Stephanie Vogt), is anticipated by the nefarious Gazakov (Velislav Pavlov). Gazakov is the "ghost shooter" of the title, a lethal sniper who's able to pinpoint the exact location of the American military team, indicating the operation has a mole or he's been able to hack into their network. It's never really explained how he tracks them, but it hardly makes a difference, as veteran DTV sequel director Don Michael Paul (LAKE PLACID: THE FINAL CHAPTER, JARHEAD 2, TREMORS 5, KINDERGARTEN COP 2) is more focused on firefights, digital blood, and CGI explosions. Collins is as bland as ever, and Zane has little to do other than bark orders and tough-guy jargon ("There is no next time...there's only ONE time!"), while other characters talk like people who've seen too many action movies ("Say hello to my Russian friend!" cackles a Russian liaison as he blows some bad guys away, before telling Sniper Jr "Welcome to the wild, wild east!"). SNIPER: GHOST SHOOTER is pretty standard-issue, jingoistic, DTV, shot-in-Bulgaria military porn--with Paul repeatedly letting the camera linger on fetishized shots of empty shells as they spill out of weapons--and offers little that's new or interesting beyond killing 100 minutes. You could do a lot worse, but that doesn't mean you should expect much. (R, 99 mins)

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