Friday, June 23, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: MINE (2017); BITTER HARVEST (2017); and ALTITUDE (2017)

(Spain/Italy/US - 2017)

Even though he showed himself to be a credible actor as the Winklevoss twins in 2010's THE SOCIAL NETWORK and other serious films like J. EDGAR and THE BIRTH OF A NATION, it's easy to see what drew Armie Hammer to a project like MINE. It's the kind of Acting-with-a-capital-A exercise toward which an actor generally known for undemanding commercial fare like THE LONE RANGER and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. gravitates when they want to demonstrate some real chops. But after establishing its nail-biting premise that echoes a variety of other films (127 HOURS, BURIED, PHONE BOOTH, OPEN WATER, THE SHALLOWS, LIBERTY STANDS STILL), MINE blows up in Hammer's face thanks to the hackneyed choices made by the Italian filmmaking team "Fabio & Fabio"--writers/directors Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro. In North Africa, Marine sniper Mike Stevens (Hammer) and his buddy Tommy (Tom Cullen) are perched atop a cliff overlooking a desert wedding, with orders to take out a man (Agustin Rodriguez) believed to be the leader of a major Middle East terror cell. Mike botches the operation when he gets a clear shot and hesitates. A skirmish results and Mike and Tommy are left to walk through a long stretch of desert to get to the nearest safe haven--a stretch that a discarded sign in the sand warns of being filled with mines. Sure enough, a cocky Tommy steps on one and it blows off his legs. Taking a step to help him, Mike feels a click under his left foot and realizes he's stepped on one as well. With Tommy soon out of the picture and sandstorms plus, it would seem, retaliatory petulance over the bungled mission preventing an attempted extraction for 52 hours, Mike must keep his left foot planted on the mine, standing as still as possible until help arrives.

That's the first 20 minutes of MINE, and it's around the 21st minute that it falls apart. There's significant suspense to be generated by Mike's predicament, but Fabio & Fabio instead have him reflect--on his fiancee (Annabelle Wallis), his cancer-victim mother (Juliet Aubrey), his drunkard father (Geoff Bell), whose physical and psychological abuse sent Mike running off to escape to the military in the first place, and all the things he should've done differently, like Dewey Cox having to think about his entire life before he goes on stage. MINE works just fine when it deals directly with Mike battling thirst, the elements, exhaustion, and unseen threats in the darkness at night, but that momentum is constantly interrupted either by hallucinations or the periodic appearances of a good-natured berber (Clint Dyer), who gives him the equivalent of pep talks with a bunch of inspiring platitudes straight of a self-help book. The shifts are jarring, to say the least, and the attempts to expand the story with cutaways and people real and imagined only lead to tedium, with Fabio & Fabio seemingly unaware that MINE is working just fine when the camera's planted on the star. Hammer gives this everything he's got, but his above-and-beyond efforts are sabotaged by his indecisive and unfocused filmmakers. (Unrated, 106 mins)

(Canada - 2017)

After a long career spent in exploitation movies and television, one gets the feeling that journeyman Canadian director George Mendeluk saw BITTER HARVEST as a magnum opus of sorts, a serious, sweeping historical epic that showed the world that a hired gun pushing 70 was perhaps a secret auteur who just never got his chance. To that end, BITTER HARVEST is about the best you can expect a serious, sweeping historical epic from the director of 1987's MEATBALLS III to be. It deals with a subject that's only been tackled by a couple of Russian films to this point: the Holodomor, the forced, man-made famine inflicted on the Ukrainian people from 1932-33 by Joseph Stalin (played here by GAME OF THRONES' Gary Oliver, looking suspiciously like a heftier Soup Nazi), after he declared that the farmers of the region must supply grain for all of the Soviet people while leaving themselves hungry and dying. Historians have debated the cause of the genocide and a majority agree that it was Stalin's way of quashing a Ukrainian independence movement, ultimately claiming the lives of anywhere between seven and ten million Ukrainians. Those people deserve something better than BITTER HARVEST, a heavy-handed and insipid melodrama that uses the Holodomor as a backdrop for the old standby of one man trying to get home to the woman he loves. Yuri (Max Irons, Jeremy's son) is a sensitive artist who's uninterested in fighting the Stalin regime like his father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper, not the first actor who comes to mind when you're looking for a Ukrainian guy named Yaroslav) and tough-as-nails grandfather Ivan (a slumming Terence Stamp), who has no use for his soft grandson's fancy book learning. After his father is killed in a skirmish (Pepper exits the film at the 18-minute mark), Yuri marries his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks) and is forced to leave her behind as he goes off to a factory job in Kiev in order to feed his family. Jailed in a gulag and narrowly avoiding a firing squad, Yuri joins the resistance and fights to return home to fight for his wife, family, and community, who are all suffering at the hands of sadistic Stalin strongarm Sergei (Tamer Hassan).

Striving to be DOCTOR ZHIVAGO but saddled with a basic cable budget and left on the shelf since 2013, BITTER HARVEST is cliched and simplistic throughout, as evidenced in a scene where a random stranger sees Yuri sketching and emphatically declares "You are an artist! You have a duty to tell the world the truth!" The film feels like one of those mid '80s Cannon productions where Golan and Globus would indulge in some blatant historical awards-bait but it would still end up looking unmistakably Cannon (THE BERLIN AFFAIR, THE ASSISI UNDERGROUND, HANNA'S WAR). For all its high-minded aspirations of being the definitive chronicle of the Holodomor, BITTER HARVEST is still the kind of movie that has a stock, brutish, '80s-style commie bad guy in Sergei, ends with the hero mowing down scores of Soviet officers with his back to a huge explosion, and credits occasional Steven Seagal director Lauro Chartrand (BORN TO RAISE HELL) with second-unit duties (it's also produced by Oscar-nominated editor Stuart Baird, for some reason). There's nothing wrong with being a career journeyman, and while Mendeluk may have gone into BITTER HARVEST with noble intentions, his best films are still the 1980 Canadian tax-shelter two-fer of STONE COLD DEAD and THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT(R, 103 mins)

(US - 2017)

We last heard from Alex Merkin back in 2013 when he directed two movies--the horror film HOUSE OF BODIES and the Master P-style rapsploitation throwback PERCENTAGE--that quietly debuted on Netflix streaming within two weeks of one another with a level of stealth secrecy usually reserved for likes of the Baltimore Colts packing up and moving to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. Both films appeared to be micro-budgeted home movies with production values that ranked somewhere between "sex tape" and "snuff film." Neither looked to be in a releasable or even finished condition, both featured real actors (Peter Fonda and Terrence Howard in HOUSE OF BODIES, Ving Rhames and Macy Gray in PERCENTAGE), and both were inexplicably produced by Queen Latifah, who also Skyped in a cameo in HOUSE OF BODIES. The only conclusion I could draw at the time--and for a long time, mine was the only external HOUSE OF BODIES review on IMDb, making me seriously wonder if I imagined the whole thing--was that Merkin did such a consistently terrific job cleaning Queen Latifah's pool that she agreed to repay the favor by financing his two movies. PERCENTAGE is merely amateurishly awful, but HOUSE OF BODIES is so bad that it deserves to mentioned in the same breath as THE CREEPING TERROR and MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE. and regardless of Queen Latifah's career accomplishments, the only question I have for her in the event I ever meet her is "HOUSE OF BODIES and PERCENTAGE. Seriously, what the fuck?"

Needless to say, ALTITUDE ("From Director Alex Merkin," the artwork brags, with zero justification at all) is by default a better film, only because it couldn't possibly be worse. Merkin still has no business being on a movie set unless he's manning the craft services table, but ALTITUDE is, at best, barely watchable. Other than scenes involving visual effects, it at least looks like a real movie, albeit a very familiar one. If you've ever wanted to see DIE HARD ON A PLANE with Denise Richards as a hardass FBI agent, here's your chance. A plays-by-her-own-rules hostage negotiator who plays by her own rules once too often, Gretchen Blair (Richards) is busted down to desk duty and sent back to Washington. Her plane is hijacked by a crack team of jewel thieves after one of their own, Terry (Kirk Barker), who made off with their recent take and is of course, seated right next to Blair. Among the baddies are the psychotic ringleader Sadie (Greer Grammer, Kelsey's daughter), who's disguised as a flight attendant, plus burly Rawbones (Chuck Liddell, doing nothing and getting killed off early as usual), and no-nonsense Sharpe (Dolph Lundgren), who takes over as the pilot when Sadie kills the entire crew, including endlessly chipper flight attendant Rick, played by a grown-up Jonathan Lipnicki--yes, the kid from JERRY MAGUIRE--who gets fourth billing for getting his neck snapped 20 minutes in. Blair spends most of the movie hiding in the cargo hold, eliminating Sadie's bad guys one by one and getting little help from a useless air marshal (daytime soap vet Jordi Vilasuso). Somehow opening with seven (!) production company logos and boasting 40 (!!) credited producers, including Lipnicki (!!!), the impossibly cheap-looking ALTITUDE is dire even by the low standards of Redbox-ready DTV/VOD actioners. Lundgren and Liddell are just cashing checks here, but one good thing to say about the whole project is that Grammer is a surprisingly engaging villain and would've held her own in better circumstances. A more ambitious film would've done something with the possibilities of a DIE HARD/PASSENGER 57/NON-STOP scenario with female adversaries. And while Richards isn't particularly well-cast or believable, she doesn't embarrass herself, at least not until she delivers the death blow to Sadie, tossing her out of the plane while quipping "You need to check your altitude, bitch!" (R, 88 mins)

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