Monday, August 28, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: CHUCK (2017) and KILL SWITCH (2017)

(US - 2017)

The kind of modest, uncomplicated programmer that just can't find a place in today's blockbuster-driven, franchise-focused business model, CHUCK is a film that should've been given a chance to be the sleeper hit it was obviously made to be. A long-in-the-works pet project of veteran actor Liev Schreiber, who also co-produced and co-wrote the script, CHUCK is a biopic of boxer Chuck Wepner, aka "The Bayonne Bleeder," the heavyweight champ of New Jersey. Wepner was never a major player in boxing outside of the Garden State but he made it far enough to get a shot at the title, almost going the distance at 36 years of age in a 1975 fight with Muhammad Ali, ultimately losing by TKO when the fight was stopped with 19 seconds left in the final round. Wepner's career fizzled for a few more years, when he would often be reduced to exhibition bouts with bears and, in one famous 1976 stunt, legendary wrestler Andre the Giant. Wepner retired from the ring in 1978, around the time he began benefiting from the notoriety of Sylvester Stallone and ROCKY when word started going around that Stallone's script was inspired by Wepner's bout with Ali. Stallone (played here by a surprisingly well-cast Morgan Spector) never confirmed it, but Wepner dined out on his tenuous connection to ROCKY for years, even getting an audition for a small part in ROCKY II and blowing it when he shows up late and coked-up and having not even taken a cursory glance at Stallone's script.

Schreiber worked on the script with Jerry Stahl (PERMANENT MIDNIGHT), Michael Cristofer (GIA), and Jeff Feuerzeig, a Wepner authority who directed the documentary THE REAL ROCKY for ESPN's 30 FOR 30 series. CHUCK doesn't sugarcoat its subject: he's obnoxious, self-absorbed, and a total bullshit artist. His wandering eye and his need to always be putting on a show drives his wife Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss) and daughter Kimberly (Sadie Sink) away. He's also all too eager to dive into the hedonistic, coke-fueled excess of the disco era '70s until he's eventually caught in an a drug sting and sent to prison in the 1980s. Schreiber is terrific as Wepner, and while nothing here is particularly fresh--Quebecois director Philippe Falardeau has obviously studied every move in the Martin Scorsese playbook--CHUCK works the biopic formula perfectly. Excellent performances all around give it a tremendous boost--Naomi Watts as a sassy bartender eyed by Chuck, Michael Rapaport as his estranged brother, Jim Gaffigan as his best buddy and chief enabler, and a scene-stealing Ron Perlman as his grouchy, Mickey-like trainer--and the period detail is convincing without being oversold. That's a pleasant surprise considering that it's produced by Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage, and while much of it was shot in NYC, the involvement of Avi Lerner means there was some work at the Nu Boyana Studios in Bulgaria, and from the looks of it, they were probably the boxing sequences and the exhibition bouts set in the strip club run by Chuck's sleazy pal (former DAILY SHOW correspondent Jason Jones), which take place on a set that should look familiar to anyone who's seen an UNDISPUTED sequel. CHUCK isn't award-caliber filmmaking, but it's solid entertainment that's well-acted, unpretentious, and doesn't overstay its welcome. In a summer filled with underperforming "sure things," a movie like CHUCK might've caught on and been a minor hit. But hey, whatever...I guess we needed another TRANSFORMERS loitering on four screens at a theater near you. (R, 98 mins)

(US/Netherlands - 2017)

If you're a follower of gut instinct, you may be ready to dismiss KILL SWITCH before it even begins once you're aware that director Tim Smit stylizes his palindrome name as "TimSmiT." But even if you give TimSmiT a pass, there's still plenty of reason to not even bother with KILL SWITCH, a tedious and abrasively off-putting hard sci-fi outing that borrows tons of ideas from other movies and TV shows but can't weave any of them into a story that's even remotely coherent. Shot in 2014 as REDIVIDER and probably only released at all because of Dan Stevens' starring turn in the live-action Disney blockbuster BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, KILL SWITCH takes place in a near-future where the world has run out of all energy resources. Physicist and former astronaut Will Porter (Stevens) is summoned to Holland by Abigail Vos (SKYFALL'S Berenice Marlohe), a representative of Alterplex Energy, a mysterious corporation run by billionaire Reynard (Gijs Scholten van Aschat). They've built a massive tower in Amsterdam that's a portal to "The Echo," an alternate, mirror image Earth created by Alterplex to be used to pool endless resources and energy for the real Earth. Just after the Tower goes live, the screen fades to black and Porter wakes up inside The Echo in possession of the "Redivider," a box designed to destroy The Echo's mainframe. It seems miscalculations were made by Reynard, and now one of the worlds--Earth or The Echo--must be destroyed to save the other. Judging from what's on display here, maybe TimSmiT should've considered annihilating both to save audiences from KILL SWITCH.

Making his directing debut, TimSmiT, a veteran special effects designer on films on recent VOD/DTV titles like LAST PASSENGER and TIGER HOUSE, takes an almost Murphy's Law approach. Other than some decent visual effects--no surprise since that's his day job--whatever can go wrong does as TimSmiT makes one bad decision after another. His attempt to turn it into a first-person shooter POV video game might predate the already forgotten HARDCORE HENRY, but by cutting back and forth between timelines with the first-person POV in The Echo and scenes on Earth with Porter and his sister (Charity Wakefield, one of the most awesomely British names this side of Benedict Cumberbatch) and her special needs son (Kasper van Groesen), TimSmiT kills any momentum that he might be building. The time element is a completely incomprehensible jumble, the rules of The Echo are never really established, and a potentially interesting character like underground rebel leader Hugo (Mike Libanon) is killed off almost immediately after he's introduced. KILL SWITCH is a miserable experience of SKYLINE proportions that starts in a confusing fashion and never gets its act together, stumbling all the way to an unsatisfying finish. The dumbest thing TimSmiT does--aside from doing that with his name--is having a charismatic and intense actor like Stevens (who was so great in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES and THE GUEST) at his disposal and leaving him offscreen for most of the movie. Stevens only worked on this for four days as TimSmiT cranked out his Earth scenes quickly and then used a stand-in to wear the GoPro for the first-person POV shots, then had Stevens revoice the stand-in a two-hour recording session after the rest of the film was finished. It's a level of commitment usually reserved for the likes of Bruce Willis or Steven Seagal, and it's kind of trifle that Stevens probably wishes he never made, with the end result being a sci-fi film so irritating that its only surprise is that Sharlto Copley isn't in it. (R, 92 mins)

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