Friday, March 2, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD, Special "Slumming Legends" Edition: HANGMAN (2017) and JUST GETTING STARTED (2017)

(US - 2017)

Coming off like a shelved pilot for the dumbest CBS police procedural ever, the barely-released HANGMAN, aka DIPSHIT SE7EN, is easily one of the most idiotic, nonsensical, and intelligence-insulting thrillers to come down the pike in some time. There's no logic in its structure or how its characters obtain the clues that lead them to the next crime scene. They just go where the script needs them to go to advance whatever semblance of a plot the filmmakers have concocted. In a non-descript Southern city (this was shot in Georgia but might be New Orleans, as "House of the Rising Sun" is heard a few times because of course it is), former FBI profiler-turned-homicide detective Ruiney (Karl Urban) is assigned to babysit New York Times reporter Christi Davies (Brittany Snow), who's doing a ride-along for an investigative piece centered on her hometown. It isn't long before Ruiney stumbles onto the kind of elaborately-staged, time-intensive murder scene that only exists in movies and TV: a woman hanging outside a school with an "O" carved in her chest, and inside in a classroom, mannequins arranged like students, staring at the blackboard displaying the letter "O" in a ten-letter game of "Hangman." And carved into the teacher's desk?  The badge numbers of Ruiney and his retired ex-partner Archer (Al Pacino). Archer has nothing going on except sitting in his parked car people-watching and doing Latin crossword puzzles, so he ends up tagging along on the investigation, which gets more gruesome and exponentially illogical with each new victim and letter.

Where to even start? I guess this is as good a spot as any: why don't they ever try to solve the puzzle? The whole "Hangman" element is ultimately a moot point, and when the word is finally revealed, they don't even explain what it means. The word is Latin, but how does the killer know Archer enjoys doing Latin crossword puzzles? Ruiney is provided with a tragic backstory about his wife's unsolved murder, but it takes Christi catching a nanosecond glance at her file to see the huge "V" carved into Mrs. Ruiney's torso to conclude that she must've been the Hangman's first victim. How could Ruiney and Archer never put that together? Even Archer mumbles "I missed it!" Why? Because the plot needed him to be stupid. Why is such a high-profile serial killer case being investigated by just one active cop, one retired cop, and a "Pulitzer Prize-winning" (as she mentions numerous times) reporter who has no business traipsing through blood-splattered crime scenes? And how does the killer know Ruiney's and Archer's badge numbers? When they finally confront the killer, the Hangman has no idea who Archer is, but then confesses that his whole M.O. is based on a childhood incident involving Archer 20 years ago when Archer was, if the flashback and makeup job on Pacino is to be believed, a 57-year-old rookie patrolman. The story and the motivations don't even make sense from shot to shot, let alone with plot developments and character arcs over the course of the movie. 77-year-old Pacino looks so groggy and sleepy here that he could easily be doing that old Three Stooges trick of drawing eyes on his closed eyelids. He's also dusting off the same inconsistent "Foghorn Leghorn Goes to Mardi Gras" drawl ("He sod-swapped mah caah!") that he used in MISCONDUCT, another instantly-forgotten VOD clunker from a couple years back. It's easily the worst performance of his career, simply because he isn't even motivated enough to liven things up with some vintage Pacino shouting (even junk thrillers like 88 MINUTES and RIGHTEOUS KILL got a little boost from Pacino's unbeatable combo of random yelling and his crazy hair). Remember great Pacino cop vs. serial killer thrillers like SEA OF LOVE and INSOMNIA? Does Pacino remember them? A scowling Urban doesn't fare much better, but he at least does a passable job of looking awake. And if you don't find the story lazy enough, then check out a CGI train wreck midway through where director Johnny Martin (VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY) and the production design team don't even bother to stage any debris, metal, or anything resembling an accident scene. A train crashes into a car, there's a huge fake explosion, and then...there's nothing there except dirt and track. Even a 25 mph fender-bender will probably leave some plastic from a busted taillight. No one associated with this movie cares about anything. Over two decades after SE7EN, HANGMAN is still trying to scrounge for serial killer table scraps, but even a formulaic, by-the-numbers thriller has to have some kind of internal logic. This is just terrible storytelling, terrible filmmaking, and terrible acting from a slumming living legend who shouldn't have to resort to drek like this to get a lead role. (R, 98 mins)

(US - 2017)

Writer/director Ron Shelton hasn't made a feature film since the 2003 Harrison Ford/Josh Hartnett action-comedy HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE (you forgot all about that one, didn't you?). With that in mind, it's hard telling what prompted the maker of BULL DURHAM, WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP, and TIN CUP to end a 14-year big-screen sabbatical with something as generic and depressingly uninspired as the Christmas 2017 box- office bomb JUST GETTING STARTED. Starring in yet another geezer comedy after LAST VEGAS and the pointless remake of GOING IN STYLE, Morgan Freeman is Duke Diver, the freewheeling, fun-loving resident manager of Villa Capri, a posh retirement community in Palm Springs. He's got a pretty good gig: he's well-liked by everyone, treats the petty cash fund like his personal ATM, cleans up at his weekly poker game, and has a rotating cast of lovely retired ladies succumbing to his charms. His party comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of Suzie (Rene Russo), an internal auditor sent by the corporation that owns Villa Capri to take a look at Duke's creative accounting and fire him if necessary. But an even bigger annoyance to Duke is new resident Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), a wealthy mystery man in a ten-gallon hat who's spent time in the military, and regales Duke's lady friends--Roberta (Sheryl Lee Ralph), Lily (Elizabeth Ashley), and Marguerite (the late Glenne Headly in her next-to-last film; she died six months before the film's release)--by quoting Baudelaire and telling tales of his adventures in Machu Picchu. Duke and Leo begin a childish competition trying to one-up the other in chess, golf, weightlifting, and romance, with both vying for the attention of Johnny Mathis superfan Suzie, who finds herself falling for Duke's charms after he manages to get Mathis (playing himself) to play a gig at Villa Capri.

The GRUMPY OLD MEN-derived storyline eventually gets sidelined once the other plot is introduced: Duke is in witness protection. He's a former New Jersey mob lawyer who ratted out his boss and a hit's been put on him by that boss' vengeful wife (Jane Seymour). There's probably supposed to be some mystery as to whether Leo is the hit man, but of course he's not, as Shelton turns the film into a poor man's MIDNIGHT RUN, with Leo and Duke hitting the road and bonding as they evade the assassin sent after Duke. The comedic elements of JUST GETTING STARTED are so lackluster that the film never once displays any real amusement or spark of life. Sequence after sequence passes with jokes that don't land or weren't there in the first place. And the very premise doesn't stand up to any scrutiny: early on, Duke wins some local "Man of the Year" award and declines to go to the awards luncheon, presumably because he's in witness protection and doesn't want to risk being seen outside of his Villa Capri comfort zone. Makes sense. So why then, would he allow himself to be seen smiling at the camera in a nationally-broadcast Villa Capri TV commercial that Seymour's character happens to catch, thus setting the entire story into motion? And hasn't Palm Springs historically been a big mob hangout and vacation destination? What FBI handler would put him there in the first place?  Other than the unusual casting of Seymour--which Shelton squanders by completely forgetting about her--no one shines here, certainly not Freeman, Jones, and Russo, who have never looked more lethargic and ambivalent than they do here. Lots of things might read better on paper than they play out in execution. No one sets out to make a terrible film, but sometimes you can watch actors in a movie and you can see on their faces that they know it's just not working. But they're professionals, so they grit their teeth, do what they've been paid to do, and just get it over with. This is such an occasion, as JUST GETTING STARTED simply never does. (PG-13, 91 mins)

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