tenebre

tenebre

Saturday, December 29, 2018

I Watched These So You Don't Have To: THE TEN WORST FILMS OF 2018


I WATCHED THESE SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO:
THE TEN WORST FILMS OF 2018




There was a tie in one position, so there's a bonus 11th worst movie in a year with no shortage of candidates*. We've got a little bit of everything: Bruce Willis; a cheap Russian action movie with vacationing D-listers; big-budget Chinese government-funded propaganda, including one with a Mike Tyson/Steven Seagal face-off (whoever wins, we lose); plus some coasting legends, slumming rock icons, self-indulgent vanity projects, embarrassed past Oscar nominees and winners, terrible rugs, a bullshit documentary, horror franchises that refuse to die, songs by Pitbull, misspelled credits, glaring facial hair continuity errors, and not one but two films that were seized as evidence in court cases.

Also, a shout-out to John Cusack for somehow not being in any of them. And on that note, let's get this over with and get on to 2019.


10. MILE 22


A fictional offshoot of actor-turned-director Peter Berg's "Mark Wahlberg: American Hero" trilogy, MILE 22 is the worst film I saw in a theater in 2018 and sees the duo hitting rock bottom, serving as irrefutable proof that whatever potential Berg might've had is gone and he's totally regressing as a filmmaker. LONE SURVIVOR was prone to military cliches but was a solid, well-acted film overall, and the underappreciated DEEPWATER HORIZON was even better, probably because it didn't paint Wahlberg as the sole hero and gave a lot of screen time to Kurt Russell and other actors, making it more of an ensemble piece. PATRIOTS DAY, Wahlberg/Berg's laughably simplistic take on the Boston Marathon bombing, which placed Wahlberg's completely fictional everyman cop as a tough-talking Johnny On-the-Spot who's magically at the center of all the action, even barking orders at FBI guys and government officials who hold off on making their next move until they consult with him, was a huge stumble. Likewise, MILE 22 finds the pair suffocating on the toxic fumes of their alpha male bullshit. This film is atrocious on nearly every level, from its confused plot to its quick-cut action sequences, which are over-edited to the point of sheer incoherence, to Berg functioning as less of a director and more of an enabler who's derelict in his duties, doing nothing to rein in his star, who turns in one of the most embarrassingly self-indulgent performances in recent memory. It's Mark Wahlberg imploding into bad self-parody by doing a ludicrously amped-up impression of "Mark Wahlberg," and that's long before another character actually says "Say hi to your mother for me." Imagine Jason Bourne as a loud, smack-talking, motor-mouthed asshole and you'll get an idea of how insufferably grating an over-the-top Wahlberg is here. When John Malkovich yells "Stop monologuing, you bipolar fuck," one gets the impression that the line was unscripted.





Wahlberg is James Silva, the leader of an elite CIA black ops/counterterrorism unit called Ground Branch. He's supposed to be the best of the best, but as the opening sequence at a suburban American safe house of a rogue Russian terror cell and the subsequent 90 minutes demonstrate, a lot of colleagues seem to die on his watch. This isn't surprising seeing that he's almost like the perfect hero for the Trump era: a vein-popping anger management case and bellicose know-it-all prone to blowhard lectures that include long quotes from Wikipedia, frothing-at-the-mouth tantrums, dismissive insults to his colleagues, and endlessly yapping displays of bloated arrogance and self-aggrandizement that make it hard to believe anyone would work under this prick, let alone lay down their lives for him. In an unnamed Asian country, nine containers of cesium have gone missing and Silva's team is activated by remote Overwatch commander Bishop (Malkovich) to deal with Li Noor (THE RAID star Iko Uwais), a cop and former Indonesian government agent who knows the worldwide locations of the missing cesium and wants asylum to the US in exchange for the information. This leads to a sort-of DIPSHIT GAUNTLET as Silva and his team, which includes Alice (Lauren Cohan as Milla Jovovich) and Sam (Ronda Rousey), have to safeguard and escort Li on a 22-mile trip across the city to the airport, all the while evading corrupt local cops assigned to take them out.


It speaks to Berg's clueless approach to MILE 22 that he has Uwais onboard and utterly squanders the opportunity by feeling the need to edit his action sequences into a scrambled, eye-glazing blur. THE RAID and its even better sequel THE RAID 2 were perfect showcases for the Indonesian action star, and Berg must be a fan since the last half hour of MILE 22 makes a sudden switch from DIPSHIT GAUNTLET to DIPSHIT RAID, with Silva, Alice, and Li trapped in a high-rise apartment complex as corrupt local cop Axel's (Sam Medina) goons try to corner and kill them. Working from a script by Lea Carpenter that should've been redacted in pre-production, Berg has made this film a loud, headache-inducing mess, with constant shaky-cam, bizarre camera angles, an over-reliance on close-ups, characters screaming at each other for no reason, and Wahlberg allowed to run rampant, unleashed, unchecked, and completely out of control, shouting at everyone and, in his more introspective moments, constantly snapping his wristband as a way of controlling his fury (it never seems to work). There's half-assed attempts at topicality with passing mentions of "collusion" and "Russian election hacking," and at character development with Alice in a custody battle with her ex-husband, an almost instantly-abandoned subplot that seems to exist only to give Berg some brief screen time as the asshole ex. Rousey's character has nothing to do but sit and watch Silva hurl her birthday cupcake across the room in a fit of rage like a toddler who can't find his binky, and Malkovich, sporting a distracting buzzcut wig and sneakers with a suit, tries out a mannered, halting, staccato delivery that suggests Christopher Walken having a stroke. The abrupt ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel, a presumptuous way to end things that's right in line with its abrasive hero's stratospherically-inflated sense of confidence even though almost everyone bites it under his command and he never sees the big plot twist coming. Cohan shows some action potential and Uwais gives it his best shot even though his work is repeatedly sabotaged by his director, but MILE 22 is just torpedoed from the start by Wahlberg in one of the most aggressively off-putting "hero" star turns you'll ever see in a major movie. (R, 93 mins)



9. GOTTI


A longtime pet project of John Travolta's (and we know those always turn out great), the dismal GOTTI was set to be released directly to VOD in December 2017 until Lionsgate abruptly whacked it and sold it back to the producers, who were hoping for a wide release with another distributor. It didn't quite pan out that way, with Vertical Entertainment and MoviePass teaming up to get it on 500 screens, with 40% of the people who saw it theatrically being MoviePass subscribers. Couple that with some obvious juicing of the moviegoer ratings and reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (where a suspicious number of glowing GOTTI reviews were written by people who just joined the site and reviewed nothing but GOTTI), and one might assume GOTTI is not very good. And they'd be right. It's quite terrible, actually, and you know from the start that it'll be something special when two consecutively-placed credits read "Emmett Furla Oasis Films" and "Emmet (sic) Furla Oasis Films." Travolta, one of 57 (!) credited producers, spent years getting this project off the ground, but it looks just like any other straight-to-VOD, Redbox-ready clunker, with NYC mostly unconvincingly played by Cincinnati, OH. GOTTI, a film that makes KILL THE IRISHMAN look like GOODFELLAS, isn't very interested in telling a story as much as it is fashioning a John Gotti hagiography, being quite open in its admiration of the "Teflon Don" and his family, as if they were just hardworking, everyday folks getting a bum rap from the FBI. It plays like a long "Previously on..." recap from a mercifully non-existent TV series, with no drive or momentum to its narrative and instead going for a Cliffs Notes recap of major events in Gotti's life, with constant mentions of rats, respect, and "fuckin' cocksuckas!" It actually opens with Travolta in full Gotti makeup, breaking the fourth wall, standing with his back to a digital composite of the NYC skyline and addressing the viewer from beyond the grave like he's hosting a TV special: "This is New York City...MY fuckin' city!"






Somehow, it gets worse. A framing device of a terminally ill Gotti (Travolta plays these scenes sans wig) being visited in prison by his son John A. Gotti, aka "Junior" (Spencer Lofranco) comes back around only sporadically. Gotti's rise in the ranks of the Gambino crime family, mentored by underboss Neil Dellacroce (Stacy Keach), is represented by one hit in an empty bar and Carlo Gambino (Michael Cipiti) is never seen or mentioned again; there's a lot of talk about dissension in the ranks that results in the infamous Gotti-ordered 1985 assassination of boss Paul Castellano (Donald Volpenhein) outside a Manhattan steakhouse, but Castellano is seen on one or two occasions and has no dialogue, so we're never really sure what the beef is. The relationship between Gotti and his right-hand man Sammy "The Bull" Gravano (William DeMeo) is so glossed over that when Gravano eventually rats on him, the dramatic tension fails to resonate in any way. Most of the scenes of Gotti's home life involve him yelling at wife Victoria (Travolta's wife Kelly Preston) to get out of bed, as she's fallen into a deep depression after the 1980 death of their son Frankie when a neighbor accidentally hit him with his car. Like the script for GOTTI, that neighbor soon vanished and was never seen again. Given the loss of their own son Jett in 2009, there is some undeniably raw emotion in the way Preston and Travolta play the initial reaction to Frankie Gotti's death, and it's the only moment in GOTTI that comes across as genuine and real.


Years jump by and back again (yet through it all, Lofranco looks exactly the same, with no effort to make him look 15-20 years older in the later scenes), and as a result, director Kevin Connolly (best known from his days co-starring on ENTOURAGE) basically comes off as Dipshit Scorsese. He never gets any kind of pacing or rhythm going, and seems more interested in what needle-drops he can get on the soundtrack, whether it's some incongruously contemporary songs by Pitbull, or ridiculously irrelevant radio staples like the theme from SHAFT when Gotti whacks someone in the early '70s, the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" when he's strutting out of the courthouse, the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" when Gotti underling Frank DeCicco (Chris Mulkey) is blown up in his car (why is that song in that scene?), Duran Duran's "Come Undone" when Junior's house is raided and the Feds bring him in, or The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" during archival footage of the real Gotti's funeral, as if Scorsese's CASINO never happened. The screenplay is credited to occasional Steven Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs (KAFKA, THE LIMEY, HAYWIRE) and co-star Leo Rossi, though there's little evidence that any of it was used in the finished product. GOTTI doles out its exposition in casual asides (with no previous mention of the brain tumor that would ultimately kill him, Dellacroce stops in mid-sentence, rubs his forehead and mutters "Oh, this cancer!" and goes back to what he was saying) and info dumps treat both the characters and the audience like idiots. The worst example of this comes after Gotti tells Dellacroce of his planned power play to take control of the families, and Stacy Keach, a professional actor with over 50 years in the business, is actually required to say "But only if you have the support of the other Five Boroughs (pause)...Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, The Bronx." Are we really expected to believe that middle-aged, lifelong New Yorker John Gotti doesn't know what the Five Fuckin' Boroughs are and needs to have them specifically spelled out for him? (R, 104 mins)


8. THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH


The legendary William Friedkin's first film since 2012's KILLER JOE is a ridiculous "documentary" about demonic possession that has him traveling to Rome and filming a "real" exorcism conducted by 91-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic Church-sanctioned exorcist who died shortly after filming in 2016.  Of course, Friedkin directed 1973's THE EXORCIST, which Father Amorth cites as his favorite movie. THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH is barely even feature-length at 69 minutes, but Friedkin still pads it with a present-day tour of EXORCIST locations around Georgetown, archival interviews with the late William Peter Blatty, and laborious discussions with shrinks and neurosurgeons. The possessed woman's guttural shrieks are obviously effects-enhanced and simple establishing shots of buildings are accompanied by "scary" Bernard Herrmann-esque PSYCHO strings for no reason whatsoever. Worst of all is Friedkin, who doubles as narrator and onscreen host like he's auditioning for the Robert Stack gig on an UNSOLVED MYSTERIES reboot ("Could this tumor in the temporal lobe really cause signs of...demonic possession?"). Who knows what the director of masterpieces like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, SORCERER, and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. was even attempting with this pointless project that feels like a superfluous bonus feature on an EXORCIST Blu-ray re-release. Maybe it would've played better as an episode of Henry Silva's BULLSHIT OR NOT? (Unrated, 69 mins)






7. HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT and DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE (tie)


Seven years ago, Dimension Films was planning a remake of HELLRAISER that was stalled in development for so long that they realized they were dangerously close to the deadline where they'd lose the rights to the entire franchise if they didn't get something released quickly. The result was the unwatchable sequel HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS, a legal obligation disguised as a movie, and produced under such cynical circumstances (less than two weeks to shoot with a budget of $300,000 on a set that looked like a crew member's barely-redressed garage) that franchise fixture Doug Bradley refused to reprise his iconic role as Pinhead. It's unanimously regarded as the worst film in the series, so bad that even the most forgiving, "Everything is awesome!" horror fanboys have yet to convince themselves that it's an unsung classic that just needs to be appreciated on its own terms. Well, it's 2018, the remake still hasn't happened, and the clock must've been ticking once again for Dimension to release something, because now we've got HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT, the tenth film in the series going back to Clive Barker's original trailblazer from 1987. Other than cashing a check and reportedly contributing to the story development of 2002's HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER (the sixth entry), Barker hasn't taken an active involvement in these since 1992's HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH. The franchise now seems to be in the hands of Gary J. Tunnicliffe, a veteran special effects guy who's been part of the series since HELLRAISER III and also worked on CANDYMAN and the Barker-directed LORD OF ILLUSIONS. He wrote the script for REVELATIONS and is now the writer and director of JUDGMENT, the promotion to shot-caller apparently his reward for publicly admitting his involvement in REVELATIONS.





Dimension kept the HELLRAISER franchise going in the '00s by essentially taking existing scripts and shoehorning Pinhead into them. With the Oklahoma-shot JUDGMENT, Tunnicliffe is basically going for a do-over, pretending REVELATIONS didn't happen and almost rebooting the series to a degree. That said, it feels just like every other straight-to-video HELLRAISER sequel where Pinhead seems like a post-production addition. After an introduction where Pinhead (now played by Paul T. Taylor, who's no Doug Bradley but he's a definite improvement over REVELATIONS' hapless Stephan Smith Collins) declares "Obsolete...irrelevant!" over the Cenobites' dwindling necessity in an increasingly perverse world but could just as easily be commenting on the current state of the HELLRAISER franchise, the story shifts to two detective brothers after a serial killer known as "The Preceptor." The killer is patterning his murders on the Ten Commandments and has killed 14 people so far, apparently unaware of both the meaning of "Thou shalt not kill," and how to count to ten. There's also a dilapidated house on Ludovico St, a sort-of inter-dimensional, Kafka-meets-William S. Burroughs halfway house where a demonic emissary known as The Auditor (played by Tunnicliffe, who must think he's M. Night Shyamalan) works as a go-between with Pinhead, luring the worst of society to the house to see if they're deserving of Cenobite judgment. But Pinhead is sidelined for most of the movie, with the focus on the boring procedural, with set design and murders straight out of SE7EN (one victim has her live dog--named "Baby"--sewn into her belly) and death traps on loan from SAW.


The whole movie plays like a drab homage to '90s horror, starting with the SE7EN ripoff opening credits, somehow still being copied 23 years later. There's also pandering to the fanboys with cameos by FEAST director John Gulager and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Heather Langenkamp as a grouchy landlady (what, were Larry Fessenden and Maria Olson unavailable?). HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT pulls numerous dei ex machina out of its ass, like introducing a sultry, echoing angel near the end just so Pinhead can ignore her orders and have The Auditor declare "Did you forget? She's the angel who banished them from the Garden of Eden!" Yeah? And? And why is Pinhead suddenly in a position where he's answering to other figures? Tunnicliffe delivers the gore and the grim atmosphere, but in his quest to create an all-new mythos around the HELLRAISER concept and the figure of Pinhead, he just overwhelms himself and completely loses the plot. On one hand, with its bizarre, surrealistic imagery in the Ludovico house, JUDGMENT deserves a little credit for trying since that's more than REVELATIONS ever did, but you don't get a pass when that ingenuity is quickly jettisoned and the end result is a derivative, convoluted mess that plays like HELLRAISER fan fiction. Maybe Dimension should just let this franchise go, since they clearly have no idea what to do with it. (Unrated, 81 mins)



How long do Robert and James Dudelson plan on dining out on the legacy of George A. Romero? The heads of Taurus Entertainment secured the rights to a couple of Romero films via the company's formation in the late '80s, which resulted from a merger that involved what was left of United Film Distribution, the company that produced Romero's films CREEPSHOW (1982) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Taurus hasn't done much in the last couple of decades other than shamelessly exploit their extremely tenuous connection to Romero's work with all the scrupulous pride of copper wire thieves: 2007's CREEPSHOW 3 was bad enough, but they've gone back for DAY OF THE DEAD scraps three times now, first with a crummy 2005 "sequel" DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM, then a DAY OF THE DEAD remake in 2008, and now another remake titled DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE, which plays like a bad episode of THE WALKING DEAD. They co-produced both DAY remakes with Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium and managed to secure a few recognizable names for the 2008 travesty (a slumming Steve Miner directed, and the cast was headlined by Mena Suvari, Ving Rhames, and, for some reason, Nick Cannon). All DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE has in the way of star power is Johnathon Scheach in the "Bub" role. This time he goes by Max, and in a prologue, he's a creep with a rare abundance of antibodies in his blood, which is being regularly tested and studied by med school research team. Max is fixated on one student, Zoe (Sophie Skelton), and he's even carved her name into his right arm. He attempts to rape her after a blood draw but he's cock-blocked by a re-animated corpse, which kicks off cinema's umpteenth zombie apocalypse, this time on the unconvincing "normal American city" streets of the Nu Boyana backlot in Bulgaria.






Five years later, Zoe is a doctor at High Rock, a military installation and refugee camp where survivors live under the rule of commander Miguel (Jeff Gum, which may be a secret code word for "Almost Joe Pilato") while the zombie horde--aka "Rotters"--are kept outside behind a massive fence. When a young girl comes down with a new strain of bacterial pneumonia that threatens to infect the entire facility, Zoe and some of Miguel's soldiers--including his younger brother and her boyfriend Baca (Marcus Vanco)--take some Humvees to the abandoned med school for some vaccines and antiobiotics. Why they wouldn't have attempted this five years earlier remains a mystery, but a zombified Max is still at the hospital, and secretly hitches a ride under one of the Humvees. This allows him to easily infiltrate High Rock undetected, hiding in the vent shafts and plotting his pursuit of Zoe. That's right--he's a zombie, but he's still obsessed with Zoe. Once he's discovered, she recalls his rare blood condition and believes he could be useful in developing a Rotter vaccine. Max, meanwhile, just wants Zoe. With the exception of Schaech and Gum, the entire cast sounds dubbed, but aside from that, DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE is plenty gory and, from a tech standpoint, it's professionally put together by Spanish director Hector Hernandez Vicens, whose THE CORPSE OF ANNA FRITZ generated some festival buzz a few years ago. It would just be another dumb and forgettable zombie movie if was simply called BLOODLINE, but the invoking of Romero is cheap and lazy. And if that wasn't offensive enough, the original tag line for this was a LOVE STORY-inspired "Love means never having to say you're zombie," which is pretty tone-deaf considering the rapey nature of Max's obsession. He was a rapist before turning, and in the #MeToo and Time's Up era, maybe now's not the best time for zombies to be committing sexual assault. Of course, we lost George A. Romero in the period between this being shot in 2016 and its release in 2018, and yeah, Romero was more than willing to throw his name on dubious projects during his lifetime for quick and easy cash, as anyone who's seen the two GEORGE A. ROMERO PRESENTS DEADTIME STORIES horror anthologies can attest. That said, maybe now that Romero is gone, it should also be Time's Up for the Dudelsons and their cynical cash-ins on his name and his legend. Considering the Bulgarian locations and crew, Lerner's Millennium gang was probably more involved in the day-to-day operation of this shoot, but the Dudelsons are still getting paid. They own the remake rights. And if that wasn't bad enough, do you really want to know how little these guys care? The fucking name of their company is misspelled "Tauras" in the credits. No one involved in this movie gives a shit. Neither should you. (R, 91 mins)


6. AIR STRIKE


Shot in 2015 and initially known as both the prophetically self-fulfilling THE BOMBING and later as the more inspirational UNBREAKABLE SPIRIT, with a price tag reported to be anywhere between $65-$90 million, this mega-budget Chinese government-funded epic has been hacked down by about 25 minutes for its straight-to-VOD US release under the generic, Redbox-ready title AIR STRIKE. Embarrassingly cheap-looking despite being the most expensive Chinese film ever made at the time it went into production (it was also shot in 3-D, but that was scrapped during post), with aerial dogfight sequences and visual effects that resemble the most state-of-the-art computer animation that the early 1990s had to offer, AIR STRIKE looks like INCHON if remade by The Asylum. The making of the film seems far more interesting than anything that ended up onscreen, a jumbled hodgepodge of characters and events taking place in 1939 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, where Japan launched near-constant bombing raids that decimated Chongqing. There's three different storylines, with characters sometimes intersecting and ending up in places and you have no idea how they got there (the Chinese characters are badly dubbed in English, while the Japanese villains get subtitles). There's former pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu), injured on a mission and reassigned to military intelligence, where he's to ensure that a truck with a secret McGuffin cargo must gets to Chongqing, complete with a half-assed WAGES OF FEAR crossing over a precarious bridge. There's a team of fighter pilots overseen by constipated-looking US military adviser Col. Jack Johnson (top-billed export value Bruce Willis), who barks orders and has to whip them into shape. And there's tons of gratuitous mahjong at a local bar.






The fact that Lionsgate is AIR STRIKE's US distributor might make it a backdoor installment in the studio's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series, but he's onscreen quite a bit here and actually takes part in some of the--albeit mostly greenscreen--action sequences. But he finds other ways to indulge his now customary display of his utter contempt for what he does for a living, whether it's vacillating between several-day stubble and being clean-shaven in a single scene with no regard for continuity (this happens several times, and what kind of by-the-book US military honcho in 1939 sported trendy stubble?), or, in one scene that has to be seen to be believed, breaking out an anachronistic, open-mic-night-level Christopher Walken impression when the Chinese pilots throw him a surprise birthday party, going off on an obviously improvised monologue about a watch his father gave him. Did Chinese director Xiao Feng even realize his star was amusing himself by dropping a PULP FICTION reference into the middle of a scene? Willis is even visibly smirking while he's doing it. His daughter Rumer gets third billing for a 20-second bit part as a nurse, and she's been unconvincingly dubbed over with a British accent. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody turns up for two brief scenes in the not-even-remotely-pivotal role of "Steve," an American volunteering at a Chongqing orphanage and getting blown up before we even figure out who he is (an entire subplot with his character was cut for the US release, perhaps as a bizarre tribute to the actor's mostly scrapped work in Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE). Bingbing Fan, the hugely popular actress, model, pop singer, and China's highest-paid multimedia superstar, also puts in a few sporadic appearances. Her summer 2018 disappearance and subsequent re-emergence and tax evasion scandal (she's reportedly been fined the equivalent of $130 million by the Chinese government), combined with one-time producer Zhi Jianxiang being a fugitive on the country's most wanted list after fleeing China when he was hit with fraud and money laundering charges related to this project and 2015's IP MAN 3, resulted in the cancellation of the long-shelved film's belated Chinese release just a week before its American debut.





"Consultant" Mel Gibson on the set
with director Xiao Feng
It's hard to imagine AIR STRIKE being good in any incarnation. The original Chinese version reportedly ran 120 minutes, but given its legal issues at home, the truncated, 96-minute American cut, supervised by veteran editor Robert A. Ferretti (TANGO & CASH, DIE HARD 2, UNDER SIEGE) might be the only one available for the foreseeable future. Prior to taking on this massive epic, director Xiao Feng only had one other film to his credit, the 2012 war drama HUSHED ROAR, which was unreleased outside of China. Helping out under the credited guise of "consultant" and creative adviser is the unlikely Mel Gibson, then in one of his periodic Hollywood pariah periods prior to his Oscar-nominated resurgence as a filmmaker with 2016's HACKSAW RIDGE. Ostensibly brought aboard because of his experience in hard-hitting battle scenes, it's possible Gibson had a hand in directing Willis and Brody, as almost all of the combat and action sequences are just a blurred blizzard of atrocious and aggressively unconvincing CGI. Other experienced Hollywood pros were hired by the Chinese producers in an advisory capacity, including cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (PANIC ROOM, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN), credited as "special effects consultant," and the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond as a "cinematography consultant" to the film's own D.P. Shu Yang. An Academy Award-winner for his work on 1977's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and also the renowned cinematographer of MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, DELIVERANCE, and THE DEER HUNTER among many others, Zsigmond was a legend in his field when he died in 2016 at the age of 85. Sadly, AIR STRIKE will go down as his final work, though there's nothing here to indicate that he, Hall, or Gibson were able to help in any way. The kind of movie where six screenwriters are credited and the best any of them can come up with is the one man who knows the contents of the truck's secret cargo's last, dying words being "The truck...is carrying...aaaaggghh..." as he keels over, AIR STRIKE is one of the most bewilderingly awful films of the year. I mean, seriously. What the fuck happened here? What can you say about a movie that's such a garbage fire that 2018 Bruce Willis counts as one of its positives? (R, 96 mins)





5. SHOWDOWN IN MANILA


Even among those fringe-dwelling American action fans who scour the deep cuts of streaming services and deign to examine the merchandise near the bottom of the new release rack at Walmart, Alexander Nevsky remains an enigma. A well-known bodybuilder and media personality in his native Russia, with a towering 6' 6" frame and a passing resemblance to Dwayne Johnson, the 46-year-old Nevsky has been plugging away in DIY fashion for about a decade and a half, overseeing an empire of sorts and trying to establish his action star bona fides the best way he can: by cranking out one movie after another and being wealthy enough that the quality of the films and whether anyone actually likes them are non-factors. After a secondary role as a bad guy in the 2003 Russian-made Roy Scheider/Michael Pare thriller RED SERPENT, Nevsky wrote, produced, and starred in MOSCOW HEAT, which got a straight-to-DVD release in the US in 2005. MOSCOW HEAT set the Nevsky template: he has a genuine affection for cop/buddy movies of the 1980s and 1990s and tries to replicate that whole Joel Silver/Shane Black sort-of vibe. He has access to enough money that he can lure several past-their-prime big names or career C-listers, as MOSCOW HEAT found Nevsky managing to fly Michael York, Joanna Pacula, Richard Tyson, Andrew Divoff, and Adrian Paul over for a Russian vacation. Future Nevsky productions featured recurring BFFs like Tyson, Divoff, and Paul, but also Sherilyn Fenn and David Carradine (2007's NATIONAL TREASURE ripoff TREASURE RAIDERS), Billy Zane, Robert Davi, Bai Ling, and Armand Assante (2010's MAGIC MAN), and Kristanna Loken and Matthias Hues (2014's BLACK ROSE, belatedly released in the US in 2017). For all intents and purposes, Nevsky is to present-day Russian action movies what Uwe Boll was to German tax loopholes in the '00s.






2018 saw the US release of Nevsky's SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, which bombed in Russian theaters way back in 2016. It's partly an homage to the kind of jungle/explosion movies that Antonio Margheriti and Cirio H. Santiago made back in the '80s, crossbred with an '80s/'90s cop buddy movie, but lacking even the basic competence to be remotely engaging on any level. Nevsky is Nick Peyton, the leader of VCU (Violent Crimes Unit) Strike Force, an elite unit targeting a human trafficking operation run by an international criminal known as "The Wraith" (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). After a botched raid on The Wraith's Manila compound results in the death of his entire team, a devastated Peyton quits VCU in disgrace. Two years later, vacationing FBI agent Matthew Wells (Mark Dacascos, who also makes his directing debut) and his wife (Tia Carrere) run into The Wraith and his chief henchman Dorn (Hues) at a Manila resort, resulting in Wells' death and his wife's abduction and eventual escape. When the cops prove useless, Mrs. Wells hires Peyton, now in a private eye partnership with wisecracking, horndog buddy Charlie (Casper Van Dien). Eventually, Peyton and Charlie bring in the big guns to join them in an assault on The Wraith's base of operation: a quartet of badass mercenaries that includes '90s video store legends Don "The Dragon" Wilson (BLOODFIST), Cynthia Rothrock (CHINA O'BRIEN), and Olivier Gruner (NEMESIS) for what amounts to an EXPENDABLES knockoff that might as well be called THE AVAILABLES.


SHOWDOWN IN MANILA boasts the late Cirio H. Santiago's son and longtime assistant Christopher as a co-producer (also among the producers is Andrzej Bartkowiak who, once upon a time, directed real action movies like ROMEO MUST DIE and EXIT WOUNDS), and back-in-the-day Filipino B-movie fixture Don Gordon Bell has a small role, showing that Nevsky's affection for these sorts of things is sincere (Vic Diaz would certainly be in this if he was still with us), but holy shit, comrade. Between his garbled accent, his wooden delivery, and possessing absolutely zero screen presence, Nevsky is pretty close to the worst actor you'll ever see. Checking his social media feeds, Nevsky seems to be an all-around nice guy who loves '80s and '90s action movies, and numerous on-set photos look like everyone's having a blast, but Alexander Nevsky will never headline an action movie not produced and written by Alexander Nevsky. Van Dien tries to liven things up and seems to be having a genuinely good time (there is one big laugh early on when he turns up on surveillance video having sex with the wife of the cuckolded client who hired them to catch her cheating and tries to explain it away with "I thought the camera was off!"), but he's eventually relegated to the background. Dacascos directs with the same sense of style and mise-en-scene usually reserved for Russian dashcam videos, and he and Nevsky stage one haplessly inept action sequence after another. The CGI explosions are laughable and the fight choreography is so badly-handled that even veteran warhorses like Wilson, Rothrock, and Gruner look like inexperienced amateurs. It's hard telling where Nevsky gets the funding for these things--later in 2018, he unveiled another "star"-studded vanity project with MAXIMUM IMPACT, whose cast includes Danny Trejo, Eric Roberts, William Baldwin, and Tom Arnold, that went and will remain unseen by me--but make no mistake: SHOWDOWN IN MANILA is the worst Russian production to come down the pike since the 2016 Presidential election. (Unrated, 90 mins)


4. PARADOX


Neil Young's most ill-advised contribution to pop culture since his LAST WALTZ coke booger, the Netflix Original film PARADOX is an insufferably self-indulgent, borderline unwatchable home movie from Young and muse (now wife) Daryl Hannah. Hannah makes her feature film writing and directing debut, though she's credited with "auteur," which should tell you all you need to know about whether you can make it all the way through. Shot during some downtime when Young and his current backing band Promise of the Real arrived in Colorado for a show that was three days away, PARADOX looks and feels every bit like an improvised project thrown together in 72 hours. It ostensibly deals with a group of outlaws apparently on the lam in a vaguely phantasmagorical frontier realm, either running from a robbery or planning one, as they sit around their makeshift camp cooking, eating marmot stew, playing cards, philosophizing, and listening to their leader The Man in the Black Hat (Young) strum an acoustic guitar. When one of the gang, Cowboy Elliot (Elliot Roberts, Young's longtime manager) says "That's the Man in the Black Hat...I heard he can be kinda shakey," you'll already be groaning if you know of Young's occasional pseudonym "Bernard Shakey." The rest of the gang is played mostly by members of Promise of the Real, a band led by Lukas and Micah Nelson, the youngest sons of Willie Nelson. Lukas plays "Jailtime" and Micah "The Particle Kid," and the latter's big scene involves sharing a two-seated outhouse with Happy (Anthony LoGerfo) and dropping this deuce of wisdom: "Life is like a fart. If ya gotta force it, it's probably shit." Or a Netflix Original film called PARADOX.






After more pseudo-insightful musings ("Sometimes things gotta go south before they can go north"), the gang wanders through the woods and encounters a tent with present-day instruments and Young's sound crew as the film pauses so the band can do a run-through of the recent Young song "Peace Trail." Then Hannah cuts to about 20 minutes of live footage from Young and Promise of the Real's appearance at the 2016 Desert Trip in California. After that, they wander around some more, look for treasure, quote Nietzsche and talk about how music is "a preacher and a teacher" before the musicians' wives, girlfriends, and kids spend some time playing in a field and Young's tour bus makes a cameo, ending with Young laughing and strumming a ukulele with a rope tied around his waist, dragging a floating Daryl Hannah behind him. Like his legendary contemporary Bob Dylan, whose own films like 1978's four-hour RENALDO AND CLARA and 2003's MASKED AND ANONYMOUS are hallmarks of testing the endurance of apologist superfans, Young has dabbled in experimental, weirdo cinema before, most notably co-directing (as "Bernard Shakey") 1982's barely-released "nuclear comedy" HUMAN HIGHWAY with Dean Stockwell, the two heading a cast that also included Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Sally Kirkland, and Devo. PARADOX is Young's first cinematic vanity project since 2003's GREENDALE, a feature-length music video intended to accompany his album of the same name, a collaboration with his best-known backing band, Crazy Horse. Like GREENDALE, PARADOX is more or less a musical collage (or, in Hannah's words, a "loud poem") with seemingly random selections of Young songs old and new, but it's a tedious, pretentious chore to sit through even at 73 minutes. To give you an idea of just how smug and self-satisfied PARADOX is, there's meaningless chapter titles ("II: Time To Feed the Good Wolf"), and at the end, the screen actually fades to black, followed by a "Fin." In 2018.


These days, Hannah's main concern seems to be her political and environmental activism. Her career hasn't exactly been on fire in recent years. Other than appearing in the Wachowskis' Netflix series SENSE8, she hasn't been in anything noteworthy since Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL and John Sayles' SILVER CITY back in 2004. She's made at least a dozen DTV actioners with Michael Madsen in the ensuing years, including the Italian post-nuke throwback DEATH SQUAD, aka 2047: SIGHTS OF DEATH. Thanks to BLADE RUNNER, SPLASH, and KILL BILL, her place in film history is secure, but her directing style makes you long for the commercial accessibility of James Franco's American lit adaptations. Hannah, Young, and Promise of the Real are having a good time, and Willie Nelson briefly shows up to help The Man in the Black Hat rob a bank, but the only thing saving PARADOX from complete ruin is the music, especially the kickass Desert Trip jam randomly thrown in the middle of the film. Everything else around it serves as further proof that Netflix just needs to stay away from acquiring anything with the word "paradox" in the title. (Unrated, 73 mins)




3. CHINA SALESMAN


It's pretty clear from the moment CHINA SALESMAN begins that it's gonna be something special. There's an opening certification stating that it's commissioned by the Chinese government; one of the 16 (!) production companies is represented by a typo ("Gloden" God Video & Culture); there's 72 (!!) credited producers; and former action star and probable sleeper agent Steven Seagal is credited as "Steve Segal" (!!!). A $20 million epic that tanked in China a year earlier, CHINA SALESMAN was picked up for the US by Cleopatra Entertainment--the company that gave us 2017's worst film, the Kazakh shitshow-in-a-dumpster-fire DIAMOND CARTEL--and prominently features Seagal and Mike Tyson in its advertising, making it a veritable Who's Who of #MeToo. But the American guest stars have relatively minor roles, with the focus on Li Dongxue as Yan Jian, an ambitious representative from Chinese tech company DH Telecom, who's in Uganda trying to negotiate a lucrative contract to establish 3G wireless communication at newly-constructed cell phone towers in the civil war-torn country. Pretty scintillating stuff, with a lot of screen time devoted to captivating meetings and boardroom backstabbing as Yan Jian and his associate Ruan Ling (Li Ai) are in constant danger of being railroaded by duplicitous Eurotrash shitbag Michael Duchamp (Clovis Fouin), who's also trying to close the deal for his company and seems to be on the good side of Susanna (Janicke Askevold), the head of the independent committee charged with deciding the victor in the 3G bidding war. But Susanna eventually sides with Yan Jian, who's heroically depicted as the only person who can save Uganda, right down to a patently ridiculous scene where he risks life and limb to plant a Chinese flag, which he and Susanna then passionately wave as they drive past cheering Ugandan soldiers.





Steven Seagal's character has a framed
action still of Steven Seagal on his desk. 
Tyson, who relooped his dialogue but still can't match his own lip movements, plays Kabbah, a religious mercenary from an unnamed African country who ends up as a flunky for Duchamp. Seagal has little more than a cameo as Lauder, an expat bar owner ("Of all the gin joints in the world...") and arms dealer on the side who, for some reason, has a framed action still of Steven Seagal on his desk. CHINA SALESMAN shows its only signs of life in the first ten minutes during an out-of-nowhere bar brawl between Tyson and Seagal's double, which starts when Kabbah refuses a drink for religious reasons, prompting Lauder to have one of his goons piss in a mug and try to force him to drink it. There's an admittedly amusing moment when Seagal('s double) flicks Tyson's ear in a way that has to be an Evander Holyfield dig, but what perfectly caps the scene is an enraged Kabbah shouting "You serve me pee...YOU DIE!" Beyond that, CHINA SALESMAN is an oppressively overlong bore, filled with the kind of crummy greenscreen and CGI that only Chinese visual effects teams can pull off, and populated by actors so stiff and uncomfortable with English (even Tyson) that Seagal ends up looking like Daniel Day-Lewis by default. (Unrated, 111 mins)


2. THE CON IS ON


It's a rare find in movies when you encounter a comedy lacking in anything even approaching a semblance of a chuckle, THE CON IS ON is a would-be screwball farce put through a '90s post-Tarantino filter complete with QT vets Uma Thurman and Tim Roth heading the cast. Dumped on VOD by Lionsgate after three years on the shelf, THE CON IS ON (shot as THE BRITS ARE COMING) manages to go its entire miserable 95-minute duration without anything even resembling humor, leaving an overqualified cast mugging shamelessly as they feebly try to make something out of nothing. Married British con artists Harriet (Thurman) and Peter Fox (Roth) have made off with a fortune belonging to lethal international assassin Irina (Maggie Q). They make their way to L.A. and stage an accident to get a free room at the Chateau Marmont, where they get the idea to swipe a priceless ring from Peter's ex-wife Jackie (Alice Eve), whose pretentious film director husband Gabriel (Crispin Glover) is having affairs with both his clingy personal assistant Gina (Parker Posey) and terrible actress Vivien (Sofia Vergara), the sultry star of his latest film LE ROUGE ET LE NOIR. Throw in a subplot with Harriet posing as a "dog whisperer" and Stephen Fry as a pedophile priest and opium smuggler and you get...well, nothing.





Directed and co-written by James Haslam, whose previous film THE DEVIL YOU KNOW was shelved for eight (!) years before its 2013 release and only resurfaced because it featured an unknown-in-2005 Jennifer Lawrence in a supporting role (also, should it have been a premonition that he's the stepson of Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the historically hapless and mildly resurgent Cleveland Browns?), THE CON IS ON abandons its stars in one unfunny situation after another, leaving them little to do but fall back on various vulgarities or, in Posey's case, flail around and generally embarrass herself. It's apparently supposed to be funny that Harriet and Peter are such unrepentant misanthropes, but isn't it key to any kind of screwball comedy that the central characters have some element of charm? Thurman is glamorous enough but Roth looks genuinely defeated by the futility of the whole endeavor, and it's the kind of film that thinks an establishing shot of an Asian dry cleaning establishment should be accompanied by the sound of a gong, a punchline that was past its sell-by date roughly around the time of THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU. Considering the quality of its cast, THE CON IS ON is truly, unbelievably bad. Stunningly bad. The only reason it'll get any attention at all going forward is for a brief and largely-implied but admittedly bold sex scene that features a topless Thurman being pleasured by a salad-tossing Maggie Q, but it comes early and is hardly worth enduring the entire film. There's also a brief Melissa Sue Anderson sighting, if any LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE or HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME superfans give a shit. (R, 95 mins)



And the worst film of 2018...



1. CON MAN

There wasn't a more egregiously disingenuous con job of a film in 2018 than CON MAN, a total bullshit biopic of Barry Minkow, a 1980s teenage business phenom whose entrepreneurial skills led him down the slippery slope of Ponzi schemes, securities fraud, insider trading, and other felonies that will keep him in prison until June 2019 at the earliest. As WOLF OF WALL STREET-ish as Minkow's story is, it's not nearly as interesting--or infuriating--as what happened during the making of this movie. If you see the plethora of down-on-their-luck stars getting the most dubious paycheck of their careers and think they look a little younger than they currently are, that's because CON MAN was filmed in 2009 and took nearly a decade to get released. Not just because it's terrible (which it is), but because it was seized as evidence in a federal case involving Minkow embezzling millions from a church that hired him as a pastor upon his parole after he--wait for it--found God while in prison. Beginning in 1984, young Minkow (Justin Baldoni) works part-time at a gym and borrows money from a roid-raging loan shark (Bill Goldberg) to start ZZZZ Best, a carpet cleaning company that he runs out of his parents' garage. With his ingenuity for cooking the books, "check kiting," and creating fraudulent work orders to the tune of $400 million, ZZZZ Best is worth $100 million on paper by the time Minkow graduates from high school. His mom (Talia Shire) and dad (Mark Hamill) are concerned that he's in over his head, but Minkow is addicted to the rush, and at the urging of his construction magnate uncle (Michael Nouri), he partners with mobster Jack Saxon (Armand Assante), which catches the attention of dogged FBI agent Gamble (James Caan). Minkow's scheme eventually and inevitably collapses due to his hubris and, as his mom cries, "You don't have anything because you don't have God!" In 1988, at just 20 years of age, he's sentenced to 25 years in prison on 57 counts of fraud and ordered to pay restitution in excess of $26 million.





Here's where CON MAN, shot under the title MINKOW, gets interesting. Not in terms of the movie itself, which is a jumbled, badly-edited mess and all-around amateur hour, but in terms of what happened behind-the-scenes. Minkow found religion in prison through prison protector Peanut (Ving Rhames) but also because of cellmate Michael Franzese, a mob boss and former B-movie distributor who became a Christian motivational speaker and is a real-life talking head in periodic documentary-style cutaways. Minkow financed much of CON MAN himself, and once he's sentenced to prison, there's a time jump to the early 2000s and a paroled Barry Minkow is now played by...Barry Minkow. In addition to working with the FBI on training agents in spotting financial fraud and being a semi-regular on cable news business shows, he becomes a pastor at a church and dedicates his life to helping others, including an elderly parishioner (Nicolas Coster) who thinks he's been scammed out of his retirement savings in a hedge fund overseen by a known Ponzi schemer (Gianni Russo). Minkow then steps in and risks everything to recover his parishioner's $250,000 retirement fund in one of the most ludicrously self-aggrandizing hero scenarios you'll ever see ("I'm doing the work of God! Protecting the weak!" he shouts at one point). It's ludicrous because it was revealed after the film was completed that devout Christian and all-around Man of God Minkow was bilking his own congregation of money for its funding by embezzling from the church and engaging in all sorts of insider trading and investment and securities fraud. During production, according to a 2012 Fortune article, Minkow was even picked up on a hot mic between takes bragging to Caan about how he financed the movie by "clipping" companies. Minkow denied saying anything, even daring someone to produce the tape, forcing director/co-writer Bruce Caulk to do just that and turn the recording over as evidence. And yes, Minkow said it. Because of course he did.



2014 news report of Minkow's sentencing


Director Bruce Caulk on the set with James Caan in 2009:
"Bruce, did you hear what Minkow just told me?" 

Minkow's arrest left the completed film in limbo, since it was intended to be an uplifting--occasionally veering into full-on faithsploitation--look at a criminal's redemption (complete with ridiculous sequences of Minkow, wearing a wire, chasing some bad guys through a hotel like he's an action hero and, in a prison yard football game, getting the full Rudy Ruettiger treatment after throwing the game-winning TD) and its very existence was due to the crimes he committed to get it made. After the climactic sequence with Minkow looking like a savior by risking his life to save an old man's retirement savings, the film half-assedly addresses his fall from grace faster than THE ITCHY & SCRATCHY SHOW got rid of Poochie. I guess if you're a GODFATHER fan, you can feel really depressed at seeing Caan, Shire, and Russo back together in the same movie (Caan and Russo do share a scene near the end, and it would've been nice to see Sonny Corleone and Carlo Rizzi set aside their differences to collaborate on a merciless beatdown of Barry Minkow), but CON MAN is a con job itself, nothing more than Barry Minkow furiously jerking himself off to Barry Minkow fan fiction concocted by Barry Minkow himself. Fuck Barry Minkow. (Unrated, 100 mins)



Other 2018 films to avoid: BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS, BAYOU CAVIAR, BEL CANTO, BLACK WATER, BLEEDING STEEL, THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, DARK CRIMES, DISTORTED, THE ESCAPE OF PRISONER 614, ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES, THE FIRST PURGE, FIRST WE TAKE BROOKLYN, FUTURE WORLD, THE HUMANITY BUREAU, KINGS, MOHAWK, REPRISAL, SIBERIA, SPEED KILLS, STEPHANIE, SUBMERGENCE, and 2036: ORIGIN UNKNOWN



*Note: Given its apocalyptically bad reviews, it bears mentioning that I haven't seen HOLMES & WATSON. Let's just assume it would make the cut. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

In Theaters: VICE (2018)


VICE
(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Adam McKay. Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Fay Masterson, John Hillner, Paul Yoo, Joseph Beck, Tony Graham. (R, 132 mins)

ANCHORMAN director and Will Ferrell BFF Adam McKay took the leap to "serious filmmaker" with 2015's THE BIG SHORT, an angry and irreverent autopsy of the housing market collapse. He takes the same approach and nets less consistent results with the Dick Cheney biopic VICE, which covers the life of George W. Bush's vice president from his days as a hard-drinking college dropout and all-around fuck-up in 1963, through the events of 9/11 to his heart transplant in 2012. Regardless of how one feels about Cheney and where you stand politically, the one thing everyone can agree on in these more-divisive-than-ever times is that Christian Bale completely disappears onscreen and all you see is Dick Cheney. Sporting Oscar-worthy makeup and an extra 45-50 lbs, the Oscar-winning actor, known for his startling transformations in past films like THE MACHINIST, THE FIGHTER, and AMERICAN HUSTLE, absolutely becomes Cheney. Bale carries VICE on his shoulders, and it's a good thing he does, because without the level of obsessive, Day-Lewisian dedication in his performance/metamorphosis, the film's shortcomings and inconsistencies would be a lot more glaring than they already are.





Counting Ferrell and Brad Pitt among its producers, VICE is entertaining, but McKay too often succumbs to Michael Moore agitprop with all the subtlety of a jackhammer or, perhaps, Ron Burgundy. Tonally, it's all over the place, with the grim seriousness of 9/11 juxtaposed with the kind of meta jokes that wouldn't have been out of place on something like MR. SHOW or FUNNY OR DIE (like a focus group stopping the movie to address its liberal bias). There's a ruthless, Lady Macbeth quality to Lynne Cheney, played here by Amy Adams, leading to Adams and Bale playing an entire scene in emphatic, scenery-chewing Shakespearean dialogue. McKay also takes the story into a hypothetical direction about 40 minutes in, just prior to Cheney accepting an offer to be Bush's VP where he, Lynne, and their extended family live happily ever after as historical footnotes,  never to be heard from again as an inspiring score cue swells and the closing credits begin rolling before abruptly resetting and bringing the film back to reality. There's a scattershot, throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to VICE that's worked for McKay in the past (ANCHORMAN, THE OTHER GUYS) and has also completely backfired (ANCHORMAN 2). It splits the difference here because it is funny, but the comedy only spotlights the fact that VICE is never sure what it wants to be. Bale is diving into this and losing himself in the way he deftly captures everything about Cheney physically and psychologically, while Adams is stuck playing a one-dimensional Lynne Cheney who's defined almost exclusively by her shrewd opportunism and the Cheney image (when their daughter Mary, played by Alison Pill, comes out as gay, it's Dick who immediately embraces her and offers his support while Lynne stands there, already questioning how this affects Dick's political career). Others are doing convincing impressions that look like SNL on a good night, like Steve Carell's obnoxious and loathed-throughout-DC Donald Rumsfeld, Tyler Perry's Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan's Paul Wolfowitz, and Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush, seen here as an easygoing goofball who only seems to be in politics to earn his dad's respect.


There is a clever framing device involving an onscreen narrator (Jesse Plemons), and the story jumps back and forth through the years, chronicling Cheney's time as a protege of presidential adviser Rumsfeld in the pre-Watergate Nixon White House, and his eventual return as White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) in the 1975 "Halloween Massacre," a gig he gets after swooping in to scavenge for table scraps left by everyone tainted by the Watergate fiasco. He's also the Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush and the film glosses over his tenure as CEO of Halliburton before he's persuaded to be George W. Bush's running mate. Throughout VICE, Cheney is accurately depicted as a Machiavellian mover and shaker, fixated on finding loopholes and reinterpretations to skirt around the Constitution and the law to find ways to grant the executive branch previously untapped levels of power, secrecy, and unaccountability. He's always working behind the scenes, quietly plotting, and never drawing attention to himself, qualities that come into play when he manipulates the younger Bush into letting him take on a much more significant role in policy and day-to-day operations than VPs have historically played ("The president and I have an understanding," he says whenever someone asks him if he's overstepping his boundaries).


The film's second half focuses almost entirely on the post 9/11 era, with the the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, "enhanced interrogation," Cheney's vengeful outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, and other decisions that resonate to this day (the infamous incident where Cheney shot a guy in the face is also shown, along with a reminder that the only apology that ever came from it was from the victim to Cheney), but therein lies the core problem with VICE: you're not going to leave the theater knowing anything you didn't already know going in. And to that end, it's rather shallow and superficial, and lacking the focused rage of THE BIG SHORT (the most vicious jab is aimed not at Dick Cheney, but at the apathetic and easily-distracted general public, and it comes at the very end, so stick around for that stinger that comes early in the closing credits). It's a triumph of makeup and a testament to Christian Bale's many gifts as an actor and his complete devotion to his craft. He makes efforts to show Cheney's human side and doesn't play him a cartoonish Bond villain, but a long, "no apologies" monologue near the end might make you wonder if this wouldn't have made a more insightful film if it was a one-man show like James Whitmore as Harry S. Truman in 1975's GIVE 'EM HELL, HARRY! or Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's 1984 film SECRET HONOR.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

In Theaters: THE FAVOURITE (2018)


THE FAVOURITE
(US/UK/Ireland - 2018)

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Jenny Rainsford, Carolyn Saint-Pe. (R, 119 mins)

"As it turns out, I'm capable of much unpleasantness." 

After his controversial 2009 international breakthrough DOGTOOTH, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos shifted to English-language films but has lost none of his gift for the caustic and the confrontational. Whether it's the Kafka-esque, absurdist nightmare of THE LOBSTER or the bitterly cold Kubrickian chill of THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, Lanthimos pulls no punches and takes no prisoners, and though he didn't write his latest film, the 18th century period piece THE FAVOURITE, it's very much in his wheelhouse while at the same time being his most commercially accessible work yet. With its setting and its use of natural lighting, it recalls Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON, and that also extends to its self-serving characters, key among them a core trio of mean girls in an environment of garish opulence that often masks the grotesque, with nearly every bodily function on display at some point. It frequently feels like Jane Austen adapted by Kubrick in a really nasty mood, but Lanthimos takes a much more aggressive technical approach beyond the long Steadicam and tracking shots, often utilizing super wide-angle and fish-eye lenses for conveying the sense of disorienting madness that comes with being enmeshed in the dysfunctional world of Queen Anne, played here by relentlessly busy British TV vet Olivia Colman, in what should be a star-making performance.






It's 1708 and England is at war with France, but a disconnected Anne remains largely isolated in her chamber, uninterested in politics, emotionally needy, depressed, and psychologically unstable, prone to off-the-handle raging and binge-eating. She's widowed and spends her time caring for her 17 rabbits, one for each child she lost through either natural causes, stillbirth, or miscarriage. All of her official business is conducted by her chief adviser and close confidante Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Pragmatic, shrewd, and ruthless, Sarah keeps the Queen blissfully ignorant and under her thumb, using the power of the throne and her close access to further her own agenda, which is closely tied to her military general husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss). As such, Sarah pushes for more war and higher taxes, always getting the Queen to go along with it, much to the chagrin of foppish, ambitious opposition party leader Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Sarah's control over Queen Anne turns unexpectedly precarious with the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), her cousin whose own once-noble family fell on hard times, culminating in Abigail's drunkard father losing her in a card game when she was 15, not long before he was killed in a fire. Sarah gets Abigail a job as a lowly scullery maid, but she ends up getting the Queen's attention when her skills with a natural herb remedy prove effective in relieving her chronic pain from gout. Before long, Abigail is spending more time with the Queen as Sarah is gradually frozen out, prompting an increasingly vicious game of one-upmanship between the cousins that doesn't go unnoticed by Her Royal Highness, who revels in the attention and the distraction it provides from her own misery and toxic insecurities.


Much of THE FAVOURITE is a comedy that's dark, bile-soaked and extraordinarily mean. At the same time, the competition that existed between Sarah and Abigail is historically accurate, with Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara going into specific detail on things that were merely whispered about through history, namely the extent of the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah, in addition to the psychosexual games the cousins played with the queen, both going to intimate extremes to "service" her, win her favor, and preserve the privilege of power that comes with being by her side. Though it's a film populated by characters doing some truly despicable things, part of what makes THE FAVOURITE so fascinating is how it humanizes each of the three protagonists--not exactly justifying their actions, but certainly revealing qualities that cause seismic shifts in the audience's alliance. The roles are in almost constant flux over the course of the film, as the merciless Sarah, who never steps down from an argument and can cut down anyone and everyone in the room (her lacerating sparring with the pompous and cartoonishly over-dressed Harley--at one point taunting him with "Your mascara's running, would you like to go fix it?" before a nose-to-nose staredown that provokes him into a full-on tantrum--is priceless), becomes increasingly victimized by the scheming machinations of Abigail, who isn't nearly as sweet and innocent as she initially seems. Weisz is matched by Stone, but it takes the entire film to realize the true impact of Colman's performance, letting it simmer to a boil for nearly two hours before a haunting final scene that's hard to shake, especially once Elton John's achingly appropriate, original harpsichord version of "Skyline Pigeon" plays over the closing credits (this is the second Lanthimos project for Weisz and Colman, both of whom were in THE LOBSTER). Beautifully shot, razor-sharp, and unabashedly rude and vulgar (no other film in 2018 throws the C-word around with such wild abandon), THE FAVOURITE is another masterwork from Lanthimos, who has firmly cemented his place in the upper echelon of the world's great contemporary filmmakers.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

On Netflix: BIRD BOX (2018)


BIRD BOX
(US - 2018)

Directed by Susanne Bier. Written by Eric Heisserer. Cast: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Daniele Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, David Dastmalchian, Happy Anderson. (R, 124 mins)

Based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, the frontman for Detroit indie rockers The High Strung, the Netflix Original film BIRD BOX has an intriguing concept that was probably conveyed more effectively on the page than on the screen, where its ideas come off as tired riffs on the overly familiar. Comparisons to this year's earlier A QUIET PLACE are inevitable, and there's also some of PONTYPOOL and the apocalyptic horror feel of THE WALKING DEAD, but it mostly plays like a less preachy retread of M. Night Shyamalan's little-loved THE HAPPENING, which seems an unlikely choice for any film to emulate, especially a decade later and with no apparent sense of revisionist affection on the horizon. Jumping back and forth between the present day and five years earlier, BIRD BOX takes time to piece its story together but you'll ahead of the game all the way, predicting all of its punches and reveals long before they're apparent to its characters. It opens with Malorie (Sandra Bullock, who also produced) coldly and methodically blindfolding two children, named "Boy" (Julian Edwards) and "Girl" (Vivien Lyra Blair), and loading them, some supplies, and three birds in a box into a small boat for an arduous journey along a dangerous river. She dons a blindfold herself and warns them to not speak or remove the blindfolds no matter what they hear.






Cut to five years ago, as a strange mass suicide phenomenon stemming from Russia and Eastern Europe makes its way to the US: people stopping dead in their tracks, their eyes changing color, and impulsively killing themselves by the quickest means at their disposal, spurred on by voices that only they can hear, often those of friends and family encouraging their actions. The force's presence is indicated by increased wind gusts and sensed by birds. Malorie, a single, misanthropic artist who's pregnant and largely in denial about it, is in an SUV with her sister Shannon (Sarah Paulson) when the "virus" breaks out. Shannon is behind the wheel and overtaken by the force, loses control, gets out and, as if under some kind of mind control, wanders directly into the path of a speeding truck. In the ensuing panic and chaos, a woman (Rebecca Pidgeon) walks out of a house to rescue Malorie but is herself "taken over," answering to her unseen mother and self-immolating by getting into a car already engulfed in flames. Malorie is taken into the house, whose kind-hearted owner Greg (BD Wong) has turned into a shelter for his neighbors and uninfected passersby, among them the woman's abrasive husband Douglas (John Malkovich), who's already no fan of Malorie since his wife died trying to rescue her, ex-military Tom (Trevante Rhodes), Cheryl (Jacki Weaver), Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), Lucy (Rosa Salazar), and Felix (Colson Baker, better known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly).


BIRD BOX continues to cut back and forth between the post-outbreak of five years earlier and Malorie, Boy, and Girl's journey on the river, presumably to some known area of safety while pre-spoiling who doesn't make it. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (ARRIVAL) and Danish director Susanne Bier, making her first film since the long-shelved and barely-released 2015 Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence bomb SERENA, do manage to convey a nerve-wracking intensity in the early outbreak scenes and in the bits where the survivors go out for food and supplies blindfolded, forced to feel their way around and at the mercy of voices constantly badgering them to "look." But the more the film goes on, the more predictable and silly it becomes. They let another pregnant woman, Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), in the house against Douglas' wishes, but when odd, twitchy Gary (Tom Hollander) shows up, it should be immediately apparent that he's bad news, which only Douglas--BIRD BOX's de facto Harry Cooper--seems to pick up on. Things really start collapsing around the time Malorie and Olympia go into labor at the same time. When the backstory is told and the third act goes forward with the river journey, the film turns into an eye-rolling metaphor for...I don't know...motherhood, I guess? Malorie is distant, unlikable, and often cruel to Boy and Girl, so much so that they're five years old and don't even have names. It's eye-rollingly ludicrous when she has her Come to Jesus moment as "it" surrounds them but is held at bay when Malorie defiantly declares "Leave my children alone!" That's even before a Shyamalanian reveal and the absurd reappearance of a minor character who only seems to exist to give a nod of affirmation that, yes, Malorie is indeed a good mother. BIRD BOX has an effective score by always-reliable team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the closing credits theme really gets its John Carpenter groove on), and it benefits from an ensemble of fine actors--and Machine Gun Kelly--doing what they do. Bullock and Paulson display a terrific and very natural sibling chemistry until Paulson's early and abrupt exit, Howery is essentially playing the same comic relief exposition guy he perfected in GET OUT, and Malkovich is cast radically against type as "John Malkovich." But it doesn't offer much in the way of originality, and seems specifically designed to be a horror movie for people who don't watch horror movies and therefore won't recognize just how many ideas it's recycling.