Friday, March 10, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: DESIERTO (2016); MAN DOWN (2016); and TRESPASS AGAINST US (2016)

(France/Mexico - 2016)

With a US president still claiming that a "great,big, beautiful wall" is going up along the US/Mexico border, it's not hard to see some prescient political subtext to a film like DESIERTO, even if it spent two years on a shelf before STX released it on just 168 screens in the US. Directed, co-written, and edited by Jonas Cuaron (who co-wrote GRAVITY with his dad Alfonso, who's a producer here), DESIERTO can easily be read as a stern if inadvertent rebuke of the Trump agenda, but it's really a mean, gritty B-movie survivalist thriller that wouldn't have been out of place at a drive-in in the late 1970s with Hugo Stiglitz and Cameron Mitchell in the lead roles instead of today's Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Bernal is Moises, one of about 19 migrants being taken through the "badlands" of the Sonoran Desert and across the border into Arizona by coyotes Lobo (Marco Perez) and Mechas (Diego Catano). The truck breaks down and they're forced to travel on foot in the baking, 120°F sun. After crossing over into the US, Mechas' smaller group ends up much further behind Lobo's, and they're forced to watch as Lobo and about 15 others are picked off one by one by Sam (Morgan), a racist vigilante who has appointed himself protector of the border. With his vicious dog Tracker at his side, Sam relentlessly pursues Moises and the scant few remaining as a game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the harsh, unforgiving elements.

DESIERTO is a simple, straightforward story that doesn't get bogged down in ham-fisted statements and Big Picture proclamations, It's a mainstream thriller that STX originally planned on opening wide but kept shuffling its release date and eventually downgraded it to a limited release, probably skittish over the tense political climate or, just as likely, commercial concerns that any of the dialogue not spoken by Morgan or, in one brief scene, Lew Temple (THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) as a border patrolman, is in Spanish with English subtitles (a French/Mexican co-production, DESIERTO was submitted to the Oscars to be Mexico's Best Foreign Language Film nominee but didn't make the cut). We don't learn much of Sam's backstory and we really don't need to. Most of Morgan's scenes are by himself or talking to Tracker, and Sam's got a real chip on his shoulder about Mexicans coming into "his" country. Moises' conscientious qualities are displayed when he intervenes when one migrant won't keep his paws off a woman who's clearly not interested, and there's some added poignancy to his situation when we learn he was already in the US and working on becoming an American citizen, but a traffic stop over a busted headlight escalated and he ended up in a detention center on his way to being deported, his wife and son still in America. He's determined to get back to them, even bringing his son his musical teddy bear that, of course, keeps going off at all the wrong times. Fast-paced and smart enough to not overstay its welcome at just 88 minutes, DESIERTO is an intense exploitation throwback with stunning desert cinematography by Damian Garcia that makes you feel every degree of the setting's sweltering temperature amidst the endless barren emptiness that gives Moises and the dwindling band of survivors little opportunity to hide from a psycho who's declared himself judge, jury, and executioner. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2016)

Military personnel returning home with severe PTSD is a serious issue that deserves a serious film, but MAN DOWN isn't that film. That's not on star Shia LaBeouf who, for all of his eccentric performance art stunts and demonstrable past douchebaggery, has emerged as a compelling actor who throws himself into roles and is willing to take chances in outside-the-box projects like Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC and Andrea Arnold's AMERICAN HONEY. No, MAN DOWN fails because of the wildly inconsistent Dito Montiel, who got some acclaim with his 2006 debut A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS (featuring a younger LaBeouf), but whose best film remains 2009's FIGHTING. Montiel has shown occasional flashes of promise (the posthumous Robin Williams drama BOULEVARD is one of his better movies), but when he's having an off day--THE SON OF NO ONE, EMPIRE STATE--his work borders on the unwatchable, and even his muse Channing Tatum, who starred in his first three films, seems to have abandoned him. MAN DOWN is closer to the bottom end of Montiel's increasingly suspect filmography, and would be a complete train wreck if not for the commitment of LaBeouf, who gives it far more than he or anyone watching will get in return.

MAN DOWN's story is told over three cross-cutting timelines haphazardly cut together with little regard for thematic overlap or storytelling rhythms. One shows Marine Gabriel Drummer (LaBeouf) and his best friend Devin Roberts (Hollywood still trying to make Jai Courtney happen) going through basic training and deployment in Afghanistan. The second is a meeting between a possibly suicidal Drummer and a military psychologist (Gary Oldman) after some traumatic incident that will be made clear later. The third is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland after a biochemical terrorist attack has wiped out most of America, with Gabriel and Devin searching for Gabriel's missing wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and young son Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell). The three narratives play out as tediously as possible, making the film feel much longer than its relatively brief 90 minutes. One storyline doesn't seem to belong and it's clear early on that Gabriel has had some kind of PTSD breakdown and maybe, just maybe, the future dystopia thread isn't really happening. But there's a bigger twist that can't be revealed without significant spoilers, and it feels cheap and insulting once it finally presents itself--not just because it demeans a serious subject but also because any experienced moviegoer will see it coming about 75 minutes before Gabriel does. MAN DOWN wants to pay respect to soldiers struggling with PTSD, but the impact veers too far from the intent. It dumbs the subject down into rote cliches and simplistic characterizations and motivations: Gabriel is ostensibly set off by one tragedy, but it seems driven more by his wife's infidelity; and his entire inspiration for joining the Marines seems to come from catching a few minutes of an O'REILLY FACTOR segment where Bill O'Reilly (credited with playing himself) warns viewers of the potential of terrorists engaging in biochemical warfare. MAN DOWN is heavy-handed and its future dystopia embarrassingly cheap-looking, but if you're a LaBeouf fan, it's probably still worth a look, if for no other reason than to see a fiercely committed performance in a futile search for a better movie. (R, 90 mins)

(UK/US/UAE - 2016)

Bland and unengaging from the word go, the crime drama TRESPASS AGAINST US recalls films like 1978's KING OF THE GYPSIES and 1997's TRAVELLER and the short-lived FX TV series THE RICHES, all of which focused on a close-knit family of con artists and criminals who are constantly on the move and scraping by on small-time schemes. Despite the presence of two great actors in Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson, TRESPASS AGAINST US never finds its footing and never gives you a reason to care about anyone or anything that's happening. Uneducated and illiterate Chad Cutler (Fassbender) has always lived in the shadow of his gregarious father Colby (Gleeson), who rules their tight-knit band of marauding West England low-lifes who have set up a semi-permanent trailer park in a vacant field. They get by on stealing cars, knocking over convenience stores, and other nickel-and-dime machinations, but Chad wants out. He wants something more for his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and their children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson), but finds it hard to escape from under the thumb of the manipulative, controlling Colby. He also has a difficult time dealing with the pressure of being trapped by his own inability to read or write, which is why he insists on putting the kids in a good school even though the Cutler clan's criminal activities cause the kids to be truant enough to get them expelled. Not much happens in TRESPASS AGAINST US: there's a lot of "fook"s and "cunt"s being thrown about in thick accents that make the film reminiscent of early Danny Boyle or earlier Gleeson roles circa I WENT DOWN. The cops, led by Lovage (Rory Kinnear) are complete buffoons who even resort to kidnapping the kids from school in order to lure Chad to the police station, which is indicative of the inability of screenwriter Alistair Siddons and debuting director Adam Smith (a veteran of music videos and British TV favorites like SKINS and DOCTOR WHO) to settle on a tone. TRESPASS AGAINST US can't decide if it's a less grim, gypsy traveller take on ANIMAL KINGDOM or a wacky, would-be Irvine Welsh-type exercise. There's ill-conceived comic relief in the form of Gordon (Sean Harris), aka "Worzel," Chad's half-wit, borderline feral brother, a character so grating that it's a shock that Sharlto Copley wasn't cast in the role. Fassbender and Gleeson are exemplary performers, but they're both on autopilot here with little to inspire them. There's nothing here, no hook to get your interest in this family of assholes, and the stars seem to know it. A total misfire. (R, 100 mins)

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