Sunday, February 12, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: LIFE ON THE LINE (2016); BLACKWAY (2016); and THE BRONX BULL (2017)

(US - 2016)

A look at the life of linemen that has all the depth and insight of a Budweiser commercial, LIFE ON THE LINE is content to rely on every cliche and tired signifier imaginable. There's twangy guitars, overripe Southern accents, shitty country ballads, empty platitudes about "walking the line" and a drinking game-worthy number of times someone emphatically declares "We're linemen...this is what we do!" Inspired by a true story, LIFE ON THE LINE, which went straight to VOD after two years on the shelf, focuses on Beau Ginner, played by a fake beard precariously glued to the face of John Travolta. Beau is a tough-as-nails Texas lineman raising his niece Bailey (Kate Bosworth) after her dad (Beau's brother) was electrocuted on the job years earlier--partially due to Beau's negligence--and her mother was killed in a car crash on her way to see him at the hospital. Tragedy seems to follow the Ginners, but they persevere because...it's what they do. Beau, as we're constantly reminded, "is the best at what he does," and just wants to run his crew of hard-working good ol' boys (including Gil Bellows as someone named "Poke Chop") and get busy replacing every inch of a 30-year-old grid before storm season comes, but he's forever dealing with tie-wearing, bottom-line pencil pushers in management telling him to speed it up. He's also dealing with Bailey's relationship with Duncan (Devon Sawa), a new recruit on the line whose father died on the job, and whose mother (Sharon Stone) is now a weepy, boozy wreck who's so insignificant to the story that the screenwriters don't even give her a name (Stone, in a nothing, two-scene role that just has her cry and sit slumped in a chair passed out, is credited with playing "Duncan's mother"). Other dilemmas: Bailey's psycho ex (Matt Bellefleur), who isn't taking the breakup well; lineman transfer Eugene (Ryan Robbins), who's still suffering from military PTSD, which drives his wife (Julie Benz) to infidelity; and Beau getting plenty pissed off when Bailey tells him she's pregnant with Duncan's child.

Oh yeah, there's also a storm coming. Any dramatic tension is completely deflated by an opening caption that reads "10 days before the storm." But when that storm comes, along with a derailed train that takes out the entire grid, the film whittles the whole disaster down Beau and Duncan setting aside their differences to get the line fixed, because pregnant Bailey is in the hospital and there's no power, and, as Beau puts it, "We gotta save our girl!" LIFE ON THE LINE obviously holds its subjects in high regard, and rightly so--the film points out that it's the fourth-most dangerous job in the US--but it doesn't really tell you anything about the lineman's world. We don't learn about the job other than it's dangerous and...it's what they do. Instead, the screenwriters and director David Hackl (SAW V, INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE) deliver what looks like a lazy, made-for-TV soaper with occasional swear words where the big storm is almost an afterthought. It's cheap-looking and sloppy (two people are credited as "Co-exexutive producers"), yet there was enough money in the budget for Travolta to have two executive assistants, a personal assistant, and a production assistant. The brave people who do this work deserve better representation than the cardboard cutout characters on display here. Save yourself an hour and a half and just listen to Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" a few times instead. For all the reverence and hero worship on display in LIFE ON THE LINE, you'd think the filmmakers would commit to creating slightly complex characters and portraying an accurate representation of this work, but unlike the linemen, they fall down on the job. I guess that's...what they do. (R, 98 mins)

(US - 2016)

Released on 11 screens and VOD with no publicity at all, BLACKWAY is a gray and gloomy non-thriller whose only surprise is the low level of urgency with which it plods to its conclusion. It plays as if Swedish director Daniel Alfredson--who directed THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, the two markedly inferior sequels to the original Swedish version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO--left out significant chunks of the script, written by Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. Gangemi and Jacobs are the guys behind the 2007 cult horror film WIND CHILL and the acclaimed Amazon series RED OAKS, and Jacobs is also a Steven Soderbergh protege who served as an assistant director on several of his films before graduating to 2015's MAGIC MIKE XXL. Whether Alfredson's streak of mediocrity continued or it just caught Gangemi and Jacobs on a bad day, BLACKWAY ends up being one of the dullest thrillers of 2016. Moving from Seattle back to the Pacific Northwest logging town of her childhood following the death of her mother, Lillian (Julia Stiles) goes to the sheriff (Dale Wilson) for help after her cat is brutally murdered. She knows the culprit is Richard Blackway (Ray Liotta), an ex-deputy turned white trash crime lord and all-around bad guy. Blackway's been stalking Lillian and the sheriff isn't in any hurry to do anything about it, instead recommending she go talk to Whizzer (Hal Holbrook), the cantankerous old mill owner who may know a guy brave enough to confront Blackway. When that guy chickens out, one of Whizzer's employees, elderly Lester (Anthony Hopkins) volunteers himself and slow-witted, stuttering new hire Nate (Alexander Ludwig) to help Lillian find Blackway. This essentially involves going all around town and having Lester repeatedly ask "Where's Blackway?" with everyone denying they've seen him or know his whereabouts. Blackway rules the town, and things escalate when Lester and Nate start a fire at a motel on the outskirts of town that's been commandeered by Blackway as the base for his gunrunning, meth-dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking operation. Simply put, Blackway is a real asshole.

It's obvious Lester has personal reasons for going after Blackway (all he says is "It needs to be done"), though even after they're explained, the reasoning still seems muddled. Nate just goes along for the ride while Lillian's character makes no sense at all. If she grew up in this town (on numerous occasions, she states "I grew up here!") where everyone knows everybody, why doesn't anyone know her? If she grew up in this town, why doesn't she know who Blackway is before he starts stalking her? Who is Blackway? What's his story? Was he kicked out of the sheriff's department? Did he run his crime operation while on duty? How did he take over the town? Do Gangemi and Jacobs know? Does Alfredson care? There's really not much to say about BLACKWAY. The kind of inconsequential time-killer that you may very well forget about while it's in progress, it drags ass and the story goes nowhere, failing as both a thriller and a character piece. Hopkins, who also starred in Alfredson's equally forgettable KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN and is becoming a regular in crummy VOD thrillers like this, MISCONDUCT (also with Stiles) and SOLACE, is visibly bored and looks half-asleep, while a short-fused Liotta is basically doing the same act he does on NBC's SHADES OF BLUE. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2017)

Exhibiting the kind of shameless chutzpah that gave us EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK, THE BRONX BULL began life as RAGING BULL II when it was initially announced way back in 2006. It was still called RAGING BULL II when cameras began rolling in 2012, which prompted a lawsuit from MGM that kept it in embroiled in legal hassles until the producers agreed to change the title. Shelved for five years and now known as THE BRONX BULL, the film was finally given a VOD dumping in January 2017 before its Blu-ray release a month later. Other than it being a story about Jake LaMotta made with the legendary boxer's blessing, the comparisons to Martin Scorsese's 1980 classic end there. Perhaps attempting to create a GODFATHER PART II-style bookend to Scorsese's film, THE BRONX BULL focuses on LaMotta's teen years in the 1930s (where he's played by Mojean Aria) and the years after what's covered in Scorsese's film, from 1967 to the present day (95-year-old LaMotta is still with us). William Forsythe plays the older LaMotta, and he's fine actor (THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) who's spent too much of his career paying the bills with B-movies, so it's easy to see why he jumped at the chance for a lead role, even if he probably rolled his eyes when he saw the script was called RAGING BULL II, a title only slightly more credible than The Asylum's TITANIC 2. After we see young Jake's tumultuous relationship with his demanding and often abusive father (Paul Sorvino, doing a bad Rod Steiger impression), he ends up in juvenile detention where he's mentored in boxing by a kindly priest (Ray Wise). Cut to years later, after he's retired (hey, nothing like a boxing biopic that skips over the boxing!), his latest wife (Natasha Henstridge) leaves him, and he's being threatened into working as a strongarm for low-level mobsters Tony (Tom Sizemore) and Jerry (Mike Starr). He's also involved in the schemes of his fast-talking filmmaker pal Rick Rosselli (Joe Mantegna), a character probably based on RAGING BULL co-producer Peter Savage. Rosselli is directing amateur porn films but wants to go legit, and ends up making a low-budget drive-in movie called CAULIFLOWER CUPIDS, in which LaMotta stars with Jane Russell (played here by a far-too-young Dahlia Waingort) and Rocky Graziano (James Russo).

Released in 1970, CAULIFLOWER CUPIDS was a real movie, and with LaMotta's involvement in the production, a lot of what transpires in THE BRONX BULL is probably legit (like RAGING BULL, it's not afraid to present its hero in a negative fashion). But NATIONAL LAMPOON'S CATTLE CALL and BENEATH THE DARKNESS director Martin Guigui's first name is about all he has in common with Scorsese. The finished film, almost Uwe Boll-esque in its amateurish execution and squandering of its overqualified cast, is so haphazardly assembled and so lacking in any momentum that it really just ends up being a collection of  random vignettes from Jake LaMotta's post-boxing life. His grown daughter Lisa shows up for a couple of scenes, but other than giving Forsythe a chance to share the screen with his own daughter Rebecca, she has no purpose. Most of the slumming names in the large cast drop by for just a scene or two: there's also Penelope Ann Miller as another Mrs. LaMotta, with Cloris Leachman as her mother; Harry Hamlin as an earlier wife's boss who gets threatened by LaMotta ("You tappin' my wife?!") after he sees them having a business lunch; Bruce Davison as a politician overseeing a committee on the mob's involvement in boxing (that storyline vanishes); Dom Irrera as comedian Joe E. Lewis; Alicia Witt as the most recent LaMotta wife; Joe Cortese as a NYC talk show host; and Robert Davi as a mystery figure who appears to a drunk LaMotta, and may or may not be real. No one here is at the top of their career (though, given his starring role in the popular, long-running CBS procedural CRIMINAL MINDS, it's surprising that Mantegna didn't have better things to do), and while nobody is overtly awful--Forsythe basically acts like Forsythe with a putty nose--it's hard to feel sorry for any of them when they knowingly signed on to an obviously suspect litigation-magnet called RAGING BULL II. Did they really think that title was gonna fly? Looking like a corner-cutting TV show (all of the exteriors appear to be shot on the same street on the NBC Studios backlot), the low-budget THE BRONX BULL started out as a cheap and dubious Scorsese knockoff and that's exactly how it finishes. (R, 94 mins)

1 comment:

  1. Wait, so they included production of CAULIFLOWER CUPIDS (aka THE GODFATHER AND THE LADY), but again glossed over his nudie movie CONFESSIONS OF A PSYCHO CAT? For shame!