Saturday, January 21, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017); TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016); and THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (2016)

(US - 2017)

The Roger Corman-produced 1975 classic DEATH RACE 2000 already got a remake with 2008's Jason Statham-starring DEATH RACE. That film has spawned a series of DTV sequels with Luke Goss in place of Statham, with a fourth installment due out later this year. With DEATH RACE 2050, the belated DTV sequel to/unnecessary remake of the 1975 film, Universal now has two different DEATH RACE franchises going. But only DEATH RACE 2050 has the direct involvement of Corman. who wanted another DEATH RACE that recaptured the look and feel of Paul Bartel's original. The satirical element is definitely here, along with some IDIOCRACY-style roasting of American culture, self-aware Syfy snark, and over-the-top Troma levels of comedic gore. In the future of 2050, the United Corporations of America is run by the Chairman (Malcolm McDowell), and the biggest cultural event going is the Death Race, what the Chairman terms an annual celebration of "the freedom to sit on your big fat ass all day!" The top driver is Frankenstein (Manu Bennett), the reigning champion of the Death Race, where the key is to win the race but points are scored by running down pedestrians. Frankenstein's competition is comprised of macho but insecure Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead), a closet case unable to face his homosexuality; religious fanatic and right-wing domestic terrorist Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey); and rapper/sex tape celebrity Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowofoyeku). The final car is the self-driving A.B.E., the product of UCA ingenuity and the kind of technological advancement that Death Race co-host Junior (Charlie Farrell) calls a gift that "finally eliminated America's outdated burden of employment." The race is jeopardized by a Resistance movement led by disgruntled former network TV exec Alexis Hamilton (Yancy Butler), who's got a mole inside the operation in the form of Frankenstein's proxy navigator Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller).

DEATH RACE 2050 earns some goodwill by wearing its love of its predecessor on its sleeve, looking every bit as cheap as  the 1975 film, with CGI that's probably intentionally bad filling in for some old-school matte work. The jokes fly fast and furious, with Farrell's Junior an almost carbon copy of the performance by The Real Don Steele, and the same goes for the way Shanna Olsen's sycophantic co-host Grace Tickle captures the cloying ass-kissing of Joyce Jameson's Grace Pander in the old film, right down to the repeated refrain of every famous person being "a very good friend of mine." Director/co-writer G.J. Echternkamp has some fun with the renamed cities and states of 2050 (there's "Nueva York," Baltimore is now "Upper Shitville," Arkansas is "Walmartinique," and Dubai is "Washington, DC"), the subplot with Abe suddenly quitting the race to drive off and find itself after an existential AI crisis ("What am I?" the computer voice wonders) is inspired nonsense, and with his crazy toupee, crude demeanor, and being surrounded by topless women, McDowell's Chairman is obviously a 2050 incarnation of Donald Trump. But a little of DEATH RACE 2050 goes a long way. The comedy is too blunt and heavy-handed, and the referencing a little too winking for its own good. It drifts off into post-nuke MAD MAX territory by the end, probably to take advantage of being shot on Corman's old Peru stomping grounds where several of his VHS mainstays from the late '80s and early '90s were made (Luis Llosa, one of Corman's top proteges from that period, went on to direct Hollywood movies like THE SPECIALIST and ANACONDA, and gets a producer credit here). As Frankenstein, the dull Bennett doesn't even come close to the stoical badassery of David Carradine, but shows he can adequately function as a backup Scott Adkins should the first choice be unavailable. In the end, DEATH RACE 2050 has its moments, and if approached with low expectations, isn't terrible by any means, even if it's just a significantly louder and much more obnoxious DEATH RACE 2000. (R, 93 mins)

(South Korea - 2016)

At this point, there really isn't much anyone can add to the zombie genre, but the South Korean import TRAIN TO BUSAN finds ways to spruce up the familiar with clever ideas, inspired set pieces, interesting characters, and some unexpected instances of gut-wrenching emotion. Saek-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workaholic fund manager whose wife left him and their young daughter Su-an (Kim Soo-an), who's now mostly left in the care of Saek-woo's live-in mother. Upset at her father's distance and that her birthday gift is a duplicate of something he already gave her, Su-an insists on being taken by train to Busan to visit her mother. Once on the train, all hell breaks loose when a bleeding, nearly feral woman sprints about, bites a passenger, and unleashes a rapidly-spreading virus that turns victims into ferociously aggressive zombies. What follows is the usual scenario of a small band of resourceful survivors fighting their way through the train to safety, trying to outrun the contagion and the growing zombie horde as a state of emergency is declared and train station after train station is closed. An easy description of TRAIN TO BUSAN would be "WORLD WAR Z meets SNOWPIERCER," but it also plays a bit like DEMONS on a bullet train as well as demonstrating the tone of a 1970s disaster movie. Where writer Park Joo-suk and director Yeon Sang-ho help separate TRAIN TO BUSAN from the rest of the crowd is by packing it with one nail-biting sequence after another, with the stop at the Daejean train station cementing itself as an instant classic, culminating in the horrifying revelation that the military personnel sent to save them have already been infected and have turned. Other standout scenes include the devastating moment when Saek-woo calls his mother and expresses concern about the sound of her voice as her infection becomes apparent and he's forced to listen to her turn over the phone.

The bond that forms between the ever-diminishing group of survivors is strong and the actors excellent, making you really feel it when they start getting killed off. Saek-woo has an initial adversary in burly smartass Sang-hwa (a terrific performance by Ma Dong-seok), which isn't helped by Saek-woo not hesitating to leave Sang-hwa stranded in one of the cars with the zombies until the last second, but they set aside their differences, form a grudging partnership and take turns looking out for one another's loved ones, whether it's Su-an or Sang-hwa's very pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-Mi). Self-absorbed Saek-woo undergoes a transformation into a selfless hero over the course of the film, starting out by telling his daughter "Look out for yourself before anyone else" when she offers her seat to an elderly woman who reminds her of her grandmother ("Granny's knees always hurt!" the compassionate child says). His daughter shows him the error of his ways ("You only care about yourself! That's why Mommy left!") and between that and Sang-hwa's merciless ballbusting ("Fund manager? No wonder you're an asshole"), Saek-woo becomes a hero. To go with the notion of this being an updated take on a '70s disaster epic, there's also the obligatory villain who makes an already bad situation worse with his actions: loathsome businessman Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung) is this film's Richard Chamberlain from THE TOWERING INFERNO or Paul Reiser from ALIENS, an unbelievably duplicitous asshole who starts rumors, sabotages the safety of others, and puts his own well-being ahead of everyone, usually in the form of literally throwing other passengers at zombies in order to save his own ass. At one point, he even cavalierly sacrifices someone who comes to his assistance after he trips and falls running away from the zombies. This archetype is a staple of such films, and they've rarely been as off-the-charts despicable as Yong-suk, but true to TRAIN TO BUSAN's refusal to stick too closely to convention, even he gets a slightly redeeming trait by the end. The crux of the story with TRAIN TO BUSAN breaks no new ground, but there's enough tweaking and unexpected depth to its characters that it manages to separate itself from the crowd and successfully establish its own zombie bona fides. (Unrated, 118 mins)

(US - 2016)

There's a legitimately sincere attempt at a modern gothic aesthetic to THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM, but it just never takes off. It's co-written by PRISON BREAK star Wentworth Miller, who wrote Park Chan-wook's similarly gothic 2013 arthouse film STOKER, and perhaps this was intended as some sort of companion piece with its dark secrets and family tragedies. These are definitely recurring themes to Miller's work as a screenwriter, but THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM's title becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously mangled in post-production and even after it set a land-speed record for vacating multiplexes--the DVD/Blu-ray and streaming version runs seven minutes shorter than what was in theaters last fall, omitting an apparently important scene where the main character has a meltdown in front of some dinner guests; here the guests are shown waiting for her then simply leaving as if the dinner never happened--the film was also left on the shelf for two years as a casualty of Relativity's bankruptcy woes. The end result is a film that feels unfinished and abandoned, even more so now that it's missing that dinner scene.

Architect Dana (Kate Beckinsale), her Mr. Mom husband David (the unbelievably bland Mel Raido), and their young son Lucas (Duncan Joiner) move to a decrepit mansion ominously known as The Blacker House. They're trying to get away from the city and some bad memories, namely the sudden death of their infant daughter. While exploring the house, Dana moves a large armoire and discovers a hidden room that's not on the blueprints and can only be locked from the outside. She learns from a local historian (Marcia DeRousse) that it's a "disappointments room," the kind of room where wealthy families in less enlightened times would lock away a deformed or mentally challenged child that would cause social embarrassment. Dana regularly visits the room and is soon plagued by visions of a young girl with a facial deformity as well as encountering the ghost of Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney), the home's original owner, a rich and powerful local who kept his "disappointment" daughter hidden from the public. Dana goes off her meds, starts losing track of time and unknowingly becoming violent toward Lucas, all while engaging in a testy but flirtatious back-and-forth with stud handyman Ben (Lucas Till), one of many story threads that go absolutely nowhere as slowly as possible. Some of Miller's gothic intentions come through (a character is shown watching JANE EYRE on TV at one point), director D.J. Caruso (THE SALTON SEA, DISTURBIA) occasionally invokes a mood tantamount to a modern take on an early '60s AIP production, and the film seems to be trying to say something about motherhood and mental illness a la THE BABADOOK or LIGHTS OUT, but by the time the big reveal comes and the credits abruptly start rolling at 77 minutes, you're left with the realization that there's simply nothing here and the whole endeavor was just smoke and mirrors that can't even be salvaged by a pro like Beckinsale. Still, as disastrous as THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is, it has to get a little credit for the effective casting of McRaney as the ghostly villain. But that's all it's got going for it. (R, 85 mins)

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