Friday, April 14, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: TONI ERDMANN (2016); WAR ON EVERYONE (2016); and TANK 432 (2016)

(Germany/Austria - 2016)

Nominated for 2016's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (it lost to Asghar Farhadi's THE SALESMAN), TONI ERDMANN was one of the most critically-praised arthouse titles of last year. The third film from acclaimed German writer/director Maren Ade, and her first since 2009's EVERYONE ELSE, TONI ERDMANN has some amusing moments, heartfelt observations, and fine performances from its two leads, but at an absurdly bloated 162 minutes, there's simply too much of it, as Ade obviously loved everything she shot so much that she wasn't willing to part with any of it. Winfried Conradi (Austrian actor Peter Simonischek) is a retired, widower music teacher and an affable eccentric, an incessant prankster who's introduced answering the door for a package and telling the delivery driver it was ordered by his brother, who's just been paroled from prison where he was serving time for sending mail bombs. He excuses himself to get his brother, who's revealed to just be Winfried in a different robe, with a wig and fake teeth. The set of fake teeth is his go-to prop, and when his beloved, elderly, and blind dog Willi dies, Winfried is sure to take them with him to Bucharest, where he drops in for an unannounced visit with his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller, so memorable in 2006's REQUIEM). Ines is a consultant for firm dealing in oil export, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that her goofball dad gets in the way despite her insistence that he keep his silliness at a distance. Winfried is a free spirit who wants to enjoy the moments as they happen and not take life so seriously. He tries to pass this philosophy on to Ines, but she's only focused on her work, and the two have a falling out ("Do you have any plans in life other than slipping fart cushions under people?") after she misses an important meeting because she dozed off and Winfried didn't wake her.

That's the first hour of TONI ERDMANN. There's a lot of insider talk about the corporate world and how the structure is such that Ines has to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to make an impression, and even after she delivers a presentation to her boss Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), he concludes the meeting with "Well, gents," choosing only to address the men in the room. Ade makes salient points like this, but belabors them. It's roughly 65 minutes in before we finally meet "Toni Erdmann," who shows up at a bar where Ines is having drinks with two female colleagues. "Toni" is clearly Winfried in his most grandiose prank yet, with a shaggy black wig and those same fake teeth, the Tony Clifton to his Andy Kaufman, claiming to be a life coach visiting Bucharest for the funeral of his Italian dentist friend's turtle. This kind of absurdist humor provides the highlights of TONI ERDMANN, but these moments are too sporadic. As "Toni," Winfried keeps following Ines around, meddling in her work life, eventually working his way into her office to act as a life coach for Henneborg and later trying to pass himself off as the German ambassador to Romania. Ade eventually caves to shock comedy with a pair of much-talked about scenes that really aren't that funny: one in a hotel room where Ines denies sex to workplace friend-with-benefits Tim (Trystan Putter), forcing him to masturbate and ejaculate on to a tray of petits four brought up by room service, after which she scarfs down one of the semen-covered appetizers. The other is the impromptu "naked party" sequence that was hailed as a set piece of Blake Edwards-ian genius but is really just awkward, uncomfortable, and not funny, especially when Winfried crashes it wearing a Bulgarian kukeri costume. Of course, it goes for sentiment at the end when father and daughter reach an understanding, but should it have taken a meandering and punishing two hours and 40 minutes to get there? TONI ERDMANN has already been deemed a modern classic, and yeah, there's some big laughs scattered throughout, Huller has a great incredulous, deadpan glare and convincingly belts out an impressive version of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All," and Simonischek often demonstrates a kind of Peter Sellers-meets-Sasha Baron Cohen quality with his endless antics (though his "Toni Erdmann" get-up really looks a lot like the late, great Alan Bates). With a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm obviously in the minority by not adoring this film, but by the two-hour point, part of me was hoping Winfried would choke to death on those goddamn fake teeth the next time he slipped them into his mouth with an impish grin. A Hollywood remake is already in the works, with Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson in his first film since 2010's HOW DO YOU KNOW? (R, 162 mins)

(UK/UAE - 2016; 2017 US release)

An equal opportunity offender, the aptly-titled WAR ON EVERYONE is a bile-soaked, misanthropic screed of a buddy/cop movie from Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh (THE GUARD, CALVARY). The story centers on two outrageously dirty cops running rampant in Albuquerque, New Mexico: brainy and philosophical Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) and impulsive anger management case Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Sort of like a well-dressed STARSKY AND HUTCH filtered through BAD LIEUTENANT, Bolano and Monroe are introduced deliberately running over a mime and telling a witness that they can get away with because they're cops. They've just been taken off suspension by the perpetually flustered Lt. Stanton (Paul Reiser) after allegations of bribery and corruption and an unfortunate incident involving Bolano beating the shit out of a racist colleague who called him a "wetback," with Stanton explaining "This is the police department! We're surrounded by racist pigs!" but empathizing by explaining "I get it that he's racist...I understand. I'm married to a chink. I have chink kids." That's WAR ON EVERYONE in a nutshell: a feature-length trigger warning that wallows in cheap shots not just at Asians, but at African-Americans, homosexuals, transgender, Muslims, Quakers, dyslexics, overweight kids, people with MS, bad British teeth, the mentally ill, Stephen Hawking, and the Irish, just to show McDonagh's not excluding anyone. Much of it is admittedly funny in a "Did they just go there?" kind-of way, but WAR ON EVERYONE's convoluted plot feels like a half-baked rough draft that Shane Black scribbled out and would've tossed aside until he could devote his full attention to it. After framing an informant named Reggie X (Malcolm Barrett) with drug possession, Reggie coughs up some info: he was the getaway driver for a $1 million racetrack heist orchestrated by sleazy, heroin-addicted British dignitary Lord James Mangan (Theo James). After numerous run-ins with Mangan and his fey underling, strip club manager Russell Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones as old-school Crispin Glover), Bolano and Monroe plot to steal the racetrack take for themselves which, naturally, leaves a trail of corpses all over Albuquerque.

There's also time for Monroe to have a romance with stripper Jackie (Tessa Thompson of CREED), and for him to find the caring soul within when it comes to Danny (Zion Leyba), a nice kid whose mother's been arrested for killing his father for reasons that are deliberately left obscure but, of course, will tie into the main plot much later. There's a lot in WAR ON EVERYONE that's amusing, but too much of it is just posturing attitude and characters saying things just to see how offensive the film can get. Elsewhere, McDonagh (the older brother of IN BRUGES writer/director Martin McDonagh) tries too hard to do some post-Tarantino pop culture riffing, with Monroe being an obsessive Glen Campbell fanatic (there's a Monroe/Jackie dance number set to "Rhinestone Cowboy"), Bolano and Reggie griping that "you can't see Jennifer Lopez's tits" in OUT OF SIGHT, and Monroe trying to recall if the first movie he ever saw was THE BLUE LAGOON or DOC SAVAGE: MAN OF BRONZE. There's scattered moments where WAR ON EVERYONE gets some momentum going and scores an occasional sterling bit of quotable dialogue ("European jizz?"), and James (the DIVERGENT series) makes a truly loathsome villain, but McDonagh probably should've given his script another polish before rolling the cameras. (R, 98 mins)

TANK 432
(UK - 2016)

There's a strong sense of the familiar with TANK 432. It's produced by cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley (KILL LIST, HIGH-RISE, the upcoming FREE FIRE), and it's the feature writing/directing debut of protege Nick Gillespie, who's served as a camera operator on all of Wheatley's films. The plot begins with faint echoes of Neal Marshall's DOG SOLDIERS before becoming something more surreal and psychological and by the end, it feels like a longer-than-usual episode of BLACK MIRROR, something that's probably inevitable in UK genre fare given the show's popularity and fervent following. An enemy is closing in on a team of mercenaries led by blustery, barking Smith (Gordon Kennedy), who orders everyone to retreat and leave injured Capper (Wheatley semi-regular Michael Smiley) behind with a bone jutting out of his leg. Smith has two hooded prisoners in orange jumpsuits and they pick up another tag-along in an unnamed woman (Alex March), who they find in utter hysterics until she's sedated by medic Karlsson (Deirdre Mullins). The squad is rounded out by unstable Gantz (Steve Garry), who's already seeing flashing visions of a barely-discernible creature following them, and requisite voice-of-reason Reeves (Rupert Evans, of Amazon's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE), who's struggling to hold it together. After finding several headless bodies of decapitated mercenaries in a barn, Smith leads everyone--minus one of the two prisoners who's killed a scuffle, leaving only Annabella (April Pearson) as the recovered quarry in their unspecified assignment--to an abandoned tank in the middle of an empty field. Deciding it's the safest place to take refuge from whatever is pursuing them, they all pile into its cramped, claustrophobic confines.

It isn't long before everyone's sanity starts to crumble, especially once they're inside and the only door in or out is jammed and no one can pry it open. Whatever's after them taunts them from outside, clanging and banging on the tank. Gantz unsuccessfully tries to start the tank, shits himself, and goes catatonic after being exposed to a strange orange powder. And Karlsson finds a box filled with files--on each of them. Too much of TANK 432 is just everyone shouting at one another, and Gillespie tips his hand too early with constant shots of Smith eyeballing everyone, scribbling in a notebook, and being evasive whenever anyone asks what he's writing, making it fairly obvious that things aren't what they seem, there's some kind of secret, and that Smith is on it. When that secret is finally revealed, it's hardly worth the elaborate and shouty buildup. Gillespie does a decent job establishing a tense atmosphere early on, but the film eventually grows tedious, and by the time Capper improbably reappears, Gillespie and Wheatley just let their buddy Smiley run rampant, ranting and yelling and basically hijacking the climax. (Unrated, 88 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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