Thursday, November 3, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: MR. CHURCH (2016); SKIPTRACE (2016); and CARNAGE PARK (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Since he first appeared on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1980, Eddie Murphy's career has been filled with so many ups and downs that he's tallied about as many comebacks as John Travolta. His meteoric success in the '80s is probably unknown to a certain age group that probably just thinks of him first and foremost as the voice of Donkey in the SHREK movies. For every box office success like THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, DR. DOLITTLE, or BOWFINGER, there's three or four VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYNs, HOLY MANs, and THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASHs. He seemed to reinvent himself as a family-friendly comedy star in the early 2000s, and his Oscar-nominated turn in 2006's DREAMGIRLS failed to reignite his career, with the combined two-fer of ditching the ceremony after he lost to Alan Arkin in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and following DREAMGIRLS with NORBIT not doing him any favors. 2011's TOWER HEIST was the first glimpse of vintage Eddie Murphy that moviegoers saw in quite some time, but again, it just led to an extended sabbatical (2012's A THOUSAND WORDS was released after TOWER HEIST, but was completed in 2008). MR. CHURCH finds Murphy in a rare dramatic role, but even its distributor didn't care: Lionsgate released it on just 354 screens for a gross of $685,000, relegating it to their "CodeBlack" niche division that markets titles to African-American audiences, like Kevin Hart's earlier concert films, WOMAN, THOU ART LOOSED, and ADDICTED. It's also the lowest-budgeted film Murphy's ever starred in, one that can't even afford to license the original recordings of The Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow," or Jefferson Starship's "With Your Love," instead going with distractingly inferior cover versions for a high school prom taking place in 1977.

MR. CHURCH isn't a very good movie, but Murphy, in a role originally intended for Samuel L. Jackson, is absolutely terrific in it. In an understated performance, Murphy is the title character, a cook who ends up working for single mom Marie (Natascha McElhone) and her young daughter Charlie (Natalie Coughlin) in 1971 Los Angeles. Marie was the mistress of Mr. Church's recently-deceased and very wealthy boss, who made a deal with Church that he'd be granted a salary for life if he took care of Marie and Charlie for six months. Why six months? Because Marie has breast cancer and has been given six months to live, and Charlie doesn't know it. Mr. Church bonds with Marie and Charlie, preparing their meals and getting young Charlie enthused about literary classics, but he's intensely private and is adamant about his personal time being his own. Marie beats the odds and lives for another six years, during which time Mr. Church dutifully remains their cook and caregiver, though they still don't even know his first name (the only thing Charlie can coax out of him other than his love of literature is that THE MALTESE FALCON is his favorite movie). Marie dies, and Charlie (now played by Britt Robertson) goes off to college in Boston after having her heart broken by high school boyfriend Owen (Xavier Samuel). She returns to L.A. a few years later, pregnant and a college dropout, and Mr. Church takes her in, becoming a father figure to her own child, Izzy (McKenna Grace).

It's a maudlin tearjerker that works on occasion, thanks to the poignant moments provided by Murphy. But as good as he is (there would be some Oscar buzz for him if this was a better movie), he's no match for the woefully predictable story arcs in the script by Susan McMartin, whose writing credits include the TV series TWO AND A HALF MEN and MOM. As the story goes from 1971 to 1986, it seems Charlie can't leave the house without running into someone she knew years ago: troubled high-school kid Landon (Christian Madsen) happens to be right there when she nearly miscarries after a collision with a skateboarder. Why? Because he was on his way to kill himself. See? She thinks Landon saved her and unborn Izzy, but they saved him! And when an aging Mr. Church finally goes to see a doctor about a persistent cough, the doctor just happens to be...a grown-up Owen! And dialogue doesn't get much worse than when Charlie has a disastrous reunion with her now rich and materialistic childhood best friend Poppy (Lucy Fry), culminating in an argument that actually requires Robertson to utter the line "Izzy's my diamond, Poppy...I'm sorry if she doesn't sparkle enough for you!" Through it all, Murphy brings a stoical dignity that commands respect (Charlie expects to be judged over her pregnancy, and when she asks if he wants to know what happened, Mr. Church simply replies "I know how girls get pregnant, Charlie," and leaves it at that), even in Mr. Church's weaker moments when Charlie hears him coming home drunk after a night at the bar, a secret neither of them ever mention. Director Bruce Beresford is mining similar territory as his Oscar-winning DRIVING MISS DAISY, with Mr. Church not that far removed from Morgan Freeman's dutiful Hoke Colburn, and Murphy is so good here that you really want MR. CHURCH to work better than it does. It's shamelessly sappy and manipulative in a way that will probably work with easy weepers, but there's an unspoken darkness to Mr. Church that a stronger, edgier film would've explored, and one that Murphy likely would've been willing to pursue. (PG-13, 105 mins)

(China - 2016)

Boasting some of the biggest names 2002 had to offer, the Chinese-made buddy-action-comedy SKIPTRACE manages to go nearly two hours with zero laughs, no chemistry between its stars, bland action, and embarrassingly bad CGI and crummy greenscreen before ending with a reaction shot from several alpacas. Understandably less inclined to do the insane stunt work of his past, 62-year-old Jackie Chan is Bennie Chan, a Hong Kong cop who's spent the last decade trying to avenge the death of his partner Yung (Eric Tsang) at the hands of a nefarious underworld crime figure known as "The Matador." Bennie believes The Matador is actually prominent businessman Victor Wong (Winston Chao), and when a botched raid goes south, his uptight captain Tang (Michael Wong) threatens to suspend him if he doesn't back off Wong. Bennie has become a father figure to Yung's now-grown orphaned daughter Samantha (Fan Bingbing), who works at a Macau casino owned by Wong and is duped out of a huge chunk of cash by on-the-run American con artist Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville). Watts has witnessed a murder committed by Wong and is about to make himself disappear when he's abducted by the goons of Russian mobster Dima (Mikhail Gorevoy), who's furious that Watts has gotten his daughter pregnant. Bennie tracks Watts down in Russia and the two are forced to work together to get back to Hong Kong, get Samantha out of trouble, and take down The Matador once and for all...if they don't kill each other first!

A bargain-basement De Niro and Grodin on a midnight stumble, Chan and Knoxville are more grating than funny, and the film tries to tug the heartstrings and score emotional points it never earns after a climax set--to no one's surprise--at an abandoned shipyard. And when they aren't ripping off MIDNIGHT RUN, they borrow some PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES for a scene where Bennie and Watts wake up spooning to the delight of shocked tourists snapping photos ("My hands are kinda warm," Watts says in lieu of "Those aren't pillows!"). Much of the action is given an unconvincing digital assist, with an aging, slower Chan doubled pretty frequently. Again, the guy's got nothing to prove to anyone when it comes to action movies, but it just makes SKIPTRACE all the more depressing to see him fumbling through one dull set piece after another and leading a group of Mongolian villagers in a rendition of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." You'd think you'd get better given the experience that DIE HARD 2, CLIFFHANGER, and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT director Renny Harlin (yes, that Renny Harlin) brings to the table, but honestly, he hasn't made a good movie since 1999's DEEP BLUE SEA and even that hasn't aged well. Casting a dark cloud over the whole misbegotten endeavor is the knowledge that veteran camera operator Chan Kwok Hung drowned when a motorized sampan capsized while shooting a sequence on some rough waters. The only winner in this Lionsgate VOD dumpjob is Seann William Scott, who was originally cast as Watts before bailing during pre-production. Is it a bad omen when even a 40-year-old Stifler has better things to do? (PG-13, 108 mins)

(US - 2016)

In the last couple of years, the prolific, 26-year-old Mickey Keating has become the indie horror hipster scene's new auteur du jour for those who think 36-year-old Ti West is an emeritus elder statesman. Since 2015, Keating has directed POD, an homage to the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS; DARLING, an homage to Roman Polanski's 1965 classic REPULSION; and now CARNAGE PARK, where he seems to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks, like spaghetti western-inspired opening credits for a movie that has nothing to do with spaghetti westerns. He may as well have done fake 007 credits. The problem with Keating is that he's all homage. In theory, it's not much different from how Quentin Tarantino established himself, but where Tarantino is a great writer, Keating is content to make his CARNAGE PARK characters sound like they're in a Tarantino movie. He even takes a FROM DUSK TILL DAWN approach by switching gears part way through the movie, opening as a RESERVOIR DOGS knockoff set in a desolate California desert county (and in 1978, for no reason at all other than pandering for grindhouse cred), with escaped cons Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert) and Lenny (Michael Villar) botching a bank robbery and fleeing the scene. Lenny's been shot in the gut and is in the backseat bleeding out as Scorpion Joe tries to keep him calm, just like the first scene of RESERVOIR DOGS. But Lenny dies and Scorpion Joe turns down a dirt road and gets his hostage, Vivian (THE LAST EXORCISM's Ashley Bell) out of the trunk. Then he's shot in the head from a distance. The shooter is Wyatt Moss (COMPLIANCE's Pat Healy), a deranged, Bible-quoting Vietnam vet who owns a huge swath of land in the desert and has it surrounded by an electric fence. He lures hitchhikers and back roads travelers into this MOST DANGEROUS GAME-esque amusement park and hunts them, often taunting them unseen over a loudspeaker system. Moss' estranged brother is the sheriff (Alan Ruck), who's been looking the other way regarding his brother's homicidal hobbies but is forced to intervene when it's reported that Vivian, the daughter of a prominent regional farming family, is missing. Vivian fights to survive as Moss pursues her, across the land and down into an abandoned mine shaft, sporting a miner's helmet to make sure you catch that he's referencing 1981's MY BLOODY VALENTINE.

The shift from a getaway thriller into a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE/Rob Zombie-type hicksploitation horror outing comes pretty early, and while Bell is a convincing heroine, CARNAGE PARK (the title likely a play on Peter Watkins' 1971 faux docudrama PUNISHMENT PARK, also a variant of the MOST DANGEROUS GAME scenario revamped as a Vietnam protest film) has very little to offer. Keating spends so much time emulating the movies in his VHS collection that he never establishes his own voice or his own style. Every few minutes, he's ripping off another movie and the recognition of such is supposed to be the reward in and of itself for the audience, along with the required-by-law cameo by Larry Fessenden, the Zelig of indie horror movies. Like so many of today's alleged "Masters of Horror," Keating is probably a lot of fun to hang out with and watching horror movies with him would be a blast, but didn't we hold our genre trailblazers to a higher standard once upon a time? Nearly a quarter century after the game-changing arrival of Tarantino, filmmakers still don't understand why he was a game-changer. They get the homage part, but that's all they get. Keating obviously has talent and knows how to direct a movie. The dusty, desert setting is effective and, until he starts using it too much, Moss' hectoring and cackling over the loudspeaker is unnerving. Keating doesn't really make a bad directorial decision until he sets the climax in the total darkness of the mine shaft, making it impossible to tell what's going on. But just on a creative level in his screenplay, there's about as much here as a Friedberg/Seltzer spoof movie. He doesn't even really take advantage of the 1978 setting other than to repeatedly include a joke 1978 copyright date in the credits. CARNAGE PARK doesn't overstay its welcome. It moves fast and it's not boring. It isn't terrible. But it sure isn't good. It just is. It makes references and says "Hey, did you get that reference?" C'mon. Try harder. (Unrated, 81 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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