Saturday, December 2, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: ACTS OF VENGEANCE (2017); REMEMORY (2017); and RED CHRISTMAS (2017)

(US - 2017)

Arriving very soon after BLACK BUTTERFLYSECURITY, and GUN SHY, ACTS OF VENGEANCE is Antonio Banderas' fourth straight-to-VOD vehicle in the last five months. Looking pretty ripped at 57, the prolific actor appears to have embraced the idea of jumping on the 60-and-over action bandwagon (he's also got something called BULLET HEAD hitting VOD in December). Shot under the title THE STOIC, ACTS OF VENGEANCE teams the busy Banderas with the great action director Isaac Florentine, the DTV legend behind US SEALS 2 and several excellent Scott Adkins actioners. Florentine is probably the best action filmmaker still stuck in low-budget B-movies, though at this point, it almost has to be by choice. Produced by Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium Films, ACTS OF VENGEANCE isn't top-shelf Florentine: the fight scenes, while outstandingly choreographed, are few and far between, and the inane script by Matt Venne (WHITE NOISE 2, MIRRORS 2) is a blatant ripoff of JOHN WICK. Smooth criminal defense attorney Frank Valera (Banderas) gets preoccupied at the office, breaking a promise to his wife Sue (Cristina Serafini) to make it to their daughter's talent show (or, as the Bulgarian production team labeled it on the marquee, "tallent (sic) show"). Hours go by and he gets concerned when they never make it home. Police arrive at the house and inform Valera that his wife and daughter were murdered. The investigation by detective Lustiger (Johnathan Scheach) goes nowhere, and Valera implodes: he takes a leave from his job, drinks to numb the pain, and voluntarily goes to a secret fight club--barely concealed in the upstairs of a bar on a busy street--to get the shit beat out of him, his way of punishing himself for not being there for his family.

He eventually has an epiphany after happening--in the most hackneyed way possible--on a paperback of the writings of Marcus Aurelius, channeling his sorrow and grief into the life of a stoic, taking a vow of silence ("Good things do happen when you shut the fuck up for a minute or two" is easily the script's most inspired line) and training with a sensai (played by martial arts expert Florentine) to condition himself in preparation of devoting his life to finding his wife and daughter's killers, refusing to utter a word until justice is served. There's a potentially interesting philosophical angle here that the film doesn't really explore aside from rudimentary analogies to samurai or ronin, but stylistically, it's all JOHN WICK. The supporting characters are poorly-defined, with Paz Vega turning up halfway through as a nurse who tries get close to Valera, but Robert Forster gets one scene, delivering a blistering, no-bullshit dressing down as Valera's father-in-law, who flat-out tells him that now that his daughter and granddaughter are dead, he wants nothing more to do with him. The big reveal involving the killer's identity involves a plot twist that calls Valera's entire competence as an attorney and even as a human being with a functioning brain into question, though it's always a good rule of thumb in these kinds of movies to pay attention to any prominently-billed, reasonably well-known actor who appears fleetingly and doesn't appear to have much to with the plot. Also with DREDD and STAR TREK's Karl Urban as a police officer who occasionally turns up at the secret fight club, ACTS OF VENGEANCE is passable as brain-dead action fare--the "NYC street" backlot at the Nu Boyana Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria is somehow even less convincing than usual--and it's at least better than Banderas' recent comedic shitshow GUN SHY. But despite allowing Florentine to work with bigger names than usual, ACTS OF VENGEANCE is one of the director's more forgettable efforts, though it's understandable if his mind was elsewhere: the film is dedicated to his late wife Barbara, who died in January 2017 after a two-year battle with cancer.  (R, 87 mins)

(UK/Canada/US - 2017)

The BLACK MIRROR episode "The Entire History of You" did a better job of exploring similar subject matter, but an excellent performance by GAME OF THRONES' Peter Dinklage makes the melancholy sci-fi drama REMEMORY worth a look. It's gray, gloomy, occasionally Cronenbergian in its production design, and vividly Canadian in its chilly mood, as introverted model maker Sam Bloom (Dinklage), still mourning and blaming himself for the death of his younger brother Dash (Matt Ellis) in a car crash in which he was behind the wheel, involves himself in a mystery when groundbreaking psychiatric genius Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan) is found dead in his office. Dunn was the CEO of Cortex, a company that created the Rememory Machine, a high-tech form of therapy in which Dunn is able to filter and record the memories of his patients down to every specific detail. It's a controversial technique that isn't without its detractors, most of whom seem to be his patients/guinea pigs, among them Wendy (Evelyne Brochu), a young woman with whom Dunn has been having an extramarital affair; Charles (Scott Hylands), a dementia-stricken man in an assisted living facility; and Todd (the late Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles), an anger management case who Sam considers the prime suspect in Dunn's death, which the police have labeled natural causes but he's convinced was murder. He ends up stealing the Rememory Machine and befriends Dunn's widow (Julia Ormond, also very good), while Dunn's sinister business partner (Henry Ian Cusick) acts suspicious and may have something to hide. Directed and co-written by Mark Palansky (who hasn't made a feature film since the 2006 Christina Ricci bomb PENELOPE), REMEMORY starts out like a mystery with deep sci-fi leanings, but eventually goes the route of Shyamalanian sentimentality, with Sam's investigation ultimately all smoke and mirrors leading to a conclusion that isn't really a surprise, as Sam obviously has secrets of his own that he's been hiding from everyone else, including the audience. In the end, it's an overlong and somewhat muddled BLACK MIRROR episode that's very well-shot, with a catchy electronic synth score, and two lead performances by Dinklage and Ormond that go the extra mile to make a minor and mostly forgettable film worth a stream on a slow night. (PG-13, 112 mins)

(Australia - 2017)

Released on three screens and VOD at the tail end of summer, the Australian RED CHRISTMAS got some buzz from scenesters eager to anoint it that week's Insta-Classic (© William Wilson) horror indie, with the added nostalgic rush of cult icon Dee Wallace once again summoning some of her CUJO maternal fury. It's great seeing the veteran actress and convention fixture in a lead role again, and it's easy to see why she jumped at the opportunity, but RED CHRISTMAS isn't worthy of her talents. Amateurishly shot, with pointlessly garish red and green, sub-Argento colorgasms, cheap splatter effects, and a muddled political subtext, RED CHRISTMAS centers on the final Christmas gathering at the isolated rural home of widowed matriarch Diane (Wallace), an American who's spent most of her life in Australia and is about to sell the house to take a long sabbatical to Europe, a last request by her cancer-stricken husband on his deathbed after she spent so many years putting everyone else first. Joining her are her infertile, ultra-conservative religious zealot daughter Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and her minister husband Peter (David Collins); bitchy, free-spirited, and very pregnant daughter Ginny (Janis McGavin) and her pot-smoking partner Scott (Bjorn Stewart); adopted, artist daughter Hope (Deelia Merial), her youngest, son Jerry (Gerard O'Dwyer), who has Down syndrome, and her medicinal marijuana enthusiast brother Joe (Geoff Morrell). A huge family argument is broken up by a stranger appearing at the front door: a cloaked figure with bandages covering face and going by the name Cletus (Sam "Bazooka" Campbell). Cletus appears to be homeless and alone but soon wears out his welcome when he begins taunting Diane with very personal information about an event 20 years earlier--a bombing at an abortion clinic where she happened to be, secretly terminating a pregnancy after learning that it was another DS baby and that her husband only had a few months to live. Unable to face raising an additional special needs child alone, she made a decision to abort, but the child somehow survived, and was taken in by the fanatical right-wing activist who bombed the clinic. And now, 20-year-old Cletus is determined to get revenge on the mother who tried to kill him by taking out her entire family one by one. And, of course, Ginny goes into labor.

There's so many ways that this could've been a creative, daring film with a thoughtful subtext. But it's pretty much amateur hour in the hands of writer/director Craig Anderson, who rushes through the set-up only to have the characters whispering and wandering around in the darkness for most of the rest of the way, often requiring them to do stupid things to get to the next kill scene. Why else would a sheriff arrive and park his car 100 yards from the house--with plenty of driveway ahead of him--unless it's to get a bear trap thrown over his head by Cletus while walking the ludicrous distance from his car to the house? There's no sense of spatial layout to the house, so it's impossible to tell where anyone is at any given time, or how Cletus manages to end up in or out of the house so much. Wallace turns in a strong performance, though it's hard to tell if we're supposed to be on her side or not. The film justifies her decision but seems intent on making her and her family suffer for it. On top of that, very few of the characters are particularly likable (Ginny picks fights with everyone, repressed Peter spies on Ginny and Scott having sex in the laundry room) with the exception of easy-going Joe and devoted Jerry, who questions his entire life after learning about the abortion and angrily confronting Diane with "Do you want to kill me too?" (O'Dwyer, who has DS and is a well-known figure in Australia, is quite good). Cletus' kills are pulled off with little imagination and style, and when his monstrous face is revealed, it looks like a MAC AND ME mask that was left out in the sun too long. RED CHRISTMAS' closing credits include a list of recommended books and movies that deal with the subject of abortion from both the pro-life and the pro-choice angle, conveniently allowing Anderson to "both sides" his way around his own movie. He should've included a list of better Christmas horror movies to watch instead of this one, but since he didn't, I will: any of them. Pick one. (Unrated, 81 mins)

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