Friday, February 17, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016); KING COBRA (2016); and THE CRASH (2017)

(US/China - 2016)

Philip Roth has been a lion of American literature since the 1950s, though that success hasn't always translated to the screen, with a common description of Roth's writing being "unfilmable." 1969's GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, adapted from Roth's 1959 National Book Award winner, was a critical and commercial hit that put Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw on the map. But when Benjamin was tapped to star in another Roth adaptation with 1972's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, lightning didn't strike twice and the results were so disastrous that it would be over 30 years before anyone attempted another big-screen take on Roth. Robert Benton's THE HUMAN STAIN opened to middling reviews in 2003, and Barry Levinson's THE HUMBLING (based on one of Roth's most critically panned works) only made it to a handful of theaters in 2015. Other than GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, the only Roth adaptations to receive any notable degree of acclaim were 2008's ELEGY, based on his 2001 novel The Dying Animal, and 2016's INDIGNATION. 2016 also saw the release of the long-planned AMERICAN PASTORAL, based on Roth's 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner about a well-to-do family falling into turmoil in the late 1960s. In various stages of development since 2003, filming actually began on a version in 2012 with Fisher Stevens at the helm and husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly starring, but the project fell apart and was scrapped almost immediately. It got rolling again in 2015 with some help from Chinese co-producers TIK Films, with Connelly still attached and now heading the cast with Ewan McGregor in place of Bettany, but when director Philip Noyce quit during pre-production, McGregor himself stepped in to make his directorial debut. AMERICAN PASTORAL was touted as a major 2016 awards contender but that never panned out, as the initial reviews were so overwhelmingly negative that Lionsgate bailed on the film, pulling the plug on its nationwide rollout and stalling its release at just 70 screens for a gross of $550,000.

Considering its internationally revered source novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL the film is a complete disaster, the kind of transparently phony awards bait that wears its bloated sense of self-importance on its sleeve. You can actually see the film completely collapse around the 23-minute mark, when we get our first look at stuttering 16-year-old Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning) as she's cooking burgers in the kitchen. She's having a pleasant conversation with her father Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor) when the sight of LBJ on TV provokes a profane, hysterical meltdown. She excoriates Swede and her mother Dawn (Connelly) over their upper-middle class complacence, with Swede running his dad's (Peter Riegert in cartoonish Oy, vey! mode) Newark glove factory and Dawn having her own cow pasture on their expansive property in rural Old Rimrock. When Dawn tells Merry "You're not anti-war...you're anti-everything!," Merry concludes this bug-eyed, out-of-nowhere tirade by shouting "And you're pro-cow!," spitting her burger on the floor and storming out of the house, prompting Swede to go into her bedroom to find the walls plastered with anti-war, Weather Underground-like pamphlets and flyers calling for revolution as Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" cues up on the soundtrack, modern cinema's universal sign that the times they-are-a-changin' and it's...the Sixties, man! AMERICAN PASTORAL never recovers from this jaw-droppingly awful scene, as the Levovs' cushy existence is upended when Merry becomes a fugitive after blowing up the Old Rimrock post office and killing the local mailman. This leads to endless malaise and ennui in the lives of the Jewish Swede, a high-school football legend, and the Catholic Dawn, a shiksa who was Miss New Jersey in the 1947 Miss America pageant.

McGregor and journeyman screenwriter John Romano (who's had a long career in writing for TV on everything from HILL STREET BLUES to the recent HELL ON WHEELS) cut out huge chunks of Roth's novel willy-nilly to focus on how the general sense of the Sixties, man! takes its toll on the Levovs, though they do leave in a 2002-set framing device with recurring Roth character Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) that really doesn't add anything to the story. AMERICAN PASTORAL relies on trite cliches and overwrought hysteria, with McGregor demonstrating no clue how to direct himself or his actors: Fanning's vein-popping overacting through clenched teech and flared nostrils is actually embarrassing to watch, especially since that palpable rage comes out of nowhere and wasn't present in the 12-year-old Merry we see played by a younger actress in earlier scenes. The first time we see Fanning, she's boiling with uncontrollable, shrieking fury and we don't know why. Even Connelly is terrible here, saddled with an unplayable character whose big scene has her showing up at Swede's factory, off her meds and babbling incoherently, dancing around totally nude except for her Miss New Jersey sash. At one point, a cop tells Swede "You've done everything wrong you possibly could've." I think that actor was breaking character and speaking directly to McGregor. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a botched misfire, but hey, congrats to PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT: you're no longer the worst big-screen Philip Roth adaptation. (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2016)

Though it frequently succumbs to the cliches that come with almost any post-BOOGIE NIGHTS look at the seedy underbelly of the porn world, KING COBRA shifts gears into a grim and bleak thriller that benefits from the twists and turns of the real-life events on which it's based. Based on Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway's true crime chronicle Cobra Killer: Gay Porn Murder, the film follows wide-eyed innocent Sean Paul Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) as he arrives in the relatively non-descript northeastern Pennsylvania from San Diego, intent on becoming a star for Cobra Video, a web-based gay porn production company owned by Stephen (Christian Slater). Middle-aged Stephen (a character based on Cobra Video head Bryan Kocis) is drawn to young, late-teens "twinks," and he has a particular affinity for Sean, growing extremely jealous when he shows interest in other men. Stephen directs a series of videos with Sean starring under the name "Brent Corrigan," and after a falling out when Sean begins aggressively demanding more money and objecting to Stephen's controlling attitude, the pair part ways in an acrimonious split that jeopardizes both of their careers when Sean reveals he lied about his age and was only 17 when Stephen directed his first videos. Meanwhile, Joe Kerekes (James Franco, one of 29 credited producers) and Harlow Cuadra (Keegan Allen), a pair of sketchy escorts and amateur gay porn entrepreneurs running a low-rent company called Viper Boyz, are trying to break into the big time, living way beyond their means convincing themselves that they're on the level of Cobra Video. $500,000 in debt and increasingly desperate, the unstable and manipulative Joe reaches out to "Brent" to forge a business partnership based on the "Brent Corrigan" name, but Sean isn't legally allowed to use it since Stephen had the name copyrighted as a property of Cobra Video. While Sean tries to broker a peaceful agreement with Stephen, Joe and Harlow decide to deal with it in a manner that befits their thoughtless, volatile nature: they kill Stephen and set his house on fire in a half-assed attempt to cover it up.

All of this occurred from 2004 to 2007, and other than changing the name of Slater's character, it gets all the pertinent details down, albeit a bit glossed over and rushed considering the film only runs 90 minutes. It's a rare instance of a movie that could've been improved if it ran a little longer, with some more time allotted to explore the smaller details. Writer-director Justin Kelly keeps things moving briskly and copies from the best, with much of the film having that same tense vibe as the section of BOOGIE NIGHTS where everyone's hitting bottom (Dirk hustling, Rollergirl in the limo, etc). He gets mostly strong performances from his cast, with a really skeezy Franco doing his best to channel Willem Dafoe in AUTO-FOCUS mode but sometimes going overboard, and Clayton and Allen doing solid work as the naive and, in the case of Allen's Harlow, dumb young twinks being manipulated by the older men projecting their neuroses on to them. Molly Ringwald has a small role as Stephen's wholesome, oblivious sister and if you want to feel really old, Alicia Silverstone plays Sean's mom (yes, Alicia Silverstone is 40 now). But the real standout is Slater who, between Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC and his Golden Globe-winning work on the acclaimed TV series MR. ROBOT, has very quietly been taking his career seriously again in between his frequent gig as a guest co-host on LIVE WITH KELLY. Slater sells every facet of Stephen's mercurial personality. He puts up a front for his sister and his neighbors, pretending he makes a living as a photographer at kids' birthday parties, but when it comes to Cobra Video, he stops at nothing to get what he wants. He's soft-spoken and sensitive, insanely jealous, a creepy manipulator of barely-legal boys far away from their homes, and a ruthless businessman who never hesitates to remind Sean/"Brent" that he owns him. It's a complex and fearless performance by Slater, who manages to make you feel some degree of sympathy for Stephen--he fears growing old alone and Sean did lie about his age with a very well-crafted and believable fake ID. KING COBRA has to get to the circumstances surrounding Stephen's murder, but it loses something once Slater exits the movie with about 30 minutes to go. He's so good here that you almost wonder if a more interesting film could've been made by just focusing on his Bryan Kocis-inspired character. As it is, KING COBRA is a decent film, and one of the more relatively accessible James Franco indie productions of late (more than, say, INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR., for example), and the story is so intriguing that it may leave you wanting more substantive details into the world of Cobra Video. (Unrated, 92 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2017)

A financial thriller set in the near future that plays like the 1981 flop ROLLOVER if remade by the most annoying Ron Paul supporter in your Facebook newsfeed, THE CRASH is a lecture disguised as a movie. Written and directed by Aram Rappaport, last seen watering down 2013's SYRUP, a pointless adaptation of Max Barry's scathing 1999 novel satirizing corporate marketing and branding, THE CRASH renders itself dated immediately as it assumes Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, with "Madame President" a fleetingly-seen character (played by Laurie Larson) late in the film. After cyber-terrorists hack the NYSE and threaten to bring down the global economy in 48 hours, Treasury Secretary Sarah Schwab (Mary McCormack) only sees one option: hiring master hacker and market manipulator Guy Clifton (Frank Grillo, also one of 29 credited producers) to thwart the attack. Clifton's currently facing SEC charges of hacking the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to benefit his own companies and previously hacked into the NYSE. He's somehow not in prison but he'll be granted immunity on the latest charges if he and his crack team of computer wizards and financial experts can stop the cyber attack and keep the economy stable. This mostly involves Clifton and his cohorts--sultry market analyst Amelia Rhondart (Dianna Agron), ALS-afflicted hacker George Diebold (John Leguizamo), and genius programmer Ben Collins (Ed Westwick)--spouting endless financial jargon while staring at monitors in the makeshift command center set up in Clifton's mansion. Clifton's got other things on his plate: his wife Shannon (Minnie Driver) isn't convinced this will keep him out of prison, and his 18-year-old daughter Creason (AnnaSophia Robb) is suffering from cancer and isn't responding to chemo. And she just got dumped by her secret boyfriend Ben.

THE CRASH runs just 84 minutes--and even then it's padded with super-slow-moving end credits kicking in around the 78-minute mark--yet it feels roughly three hours long. There's a way to make financial thrillers intriguing and suspenseful--BLACKHAT and the little-seen AUGUST come to mind--but Rappaport still feels the need throw in some disease-of-the-week TV-movie melodrama with Creason, and relies on too much in-your-face shaky cam, perhaps with the intention of making the viewer feel as backed-against-the-wall as Clifton, but it doesn't work. The more the film goes on, the more preachy and obvious it gets, especially with a corrupt, sneering Federal Reserve chairman named Richard Del Banco, who any seasoned moviegoer will correctly deduce is a scheming Dick from the Bank the moment they see he's being played by Christopher McDonald. By the end, with a mole inside Clifton's team planting a virus that creates a domino effect of collapsing world economies (of course, there's still time for Clifton and Ben to have a heart-to-heart and reach an understanding about dumping Creason) as "Madame President" stands around helplessly while her aides scramble and freak out, Clifton has a change of heart and just lets it fail, followed by an end crawl passive-aggressively advocating the abolishing of the Federal Reserve. Considering what I've seen of his work with SYRUP and now THE CRASH, I think the bigger priority is abolishing Aram Rappaport's DGA membership. (Unrated, 84 mins)

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