Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE HUMANITY BUREAU (2018); JOSIE (2018); and STEPHANIE (2018)

(Canada/US/UK - 2018)

Nicolas Cage is in total coast mode in this lifeless and embarrassingly cheap-looking post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia dud. Set in a future America being rebuilt 30 years after a second Civil War, famine, and nuclear fallout wreaked nationwide destruction, THE HUMANITY BUREAU has Cage as Noah Kross, an agent with the titular government organization. They're in charge of weeding out and investigating those who aren't contributing their fair share to New America, where the rule is that you must give more than you take. These laws primarily affect the lower class, making the very concept a Fox News wet dream, but THE HUMANITY BUREAU can't be bothered to muster up any political subtext, unless you count one minor character being Photoshopped into that creepy pic of Donald Trump and Mitt Romney at dinner. Those who are deemed burdens on society are sent packing to a controlled welfare community called New Eden. Now, anyone who's seen a future dystopian sci-fi movie before will instantly figure out that New Eden is really a concentration camp set up for the genocidal extermination of the lower and underclass undesirables. It's a great concept for a film that gave a shit and maybe tried, but that's not THE HUMANITY BUREAU. Instead, glum Kross, who's shocked--shocked!--to learn what New Eden really is (watch Cage gravely intone "What have we done?" when he finds out, long after anyone watching does), decides to go against his ruthless boss Adam (Hugh Dillon as Stanley Tucci as Dean Norris) and protect single mom Rachel Weller (Sarah Lind) and her 11-year-old son Lucas (Jakob Davies) when they're deemed New Eden-worthy. They head to Canada in Kross' improbably still-functional late '70s El Camino, with Adam and comic relief agent Porter (Vicellous Shannon, who saw better days as a child actor when he starred opposite Denzel Washington in THE HURRICANE) in lukewarm pursuit.

Like Andrew Niccol's just-released Netflix film ANON, THE HUMANITY BUREAU feels like a high-concept sci-fi film that might've been something in 2001 or 2002, when Cage was still an A-lister. But with most of the budget obviously going to its star, the film never effectively conveys a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There's a ton of scenes with Cage laughably fake driving his El Camino against an amateurishly phony digital backdrop that looks like it was done by Mattel's My First Greenscreen. There's a lot of interior scenes and the exteriors just look like remote areas of Canada, where the film was shot. People live a normal life considering how hellish it was just three decades earlier according to Rachel, who tells Kross stories of neighbors selling their children for quick cash or eating them to survive (wait--he was alive then...wouldn't he know that?). Any of that would've made a more compelling film than somber Nic Cage in his new limited edition Christopher Lee Memorial Hairpiece pretending to drive a car or bonding with an obnoxious kid. Speaking of Lucas, at one point Rachel begs Kross to delay their shipping out to New Eden because Lucas has a recital the next day for which he's been "rehearsing for months."  Kross agrees and shows up at the recital to watch. Never mind that this film doesn't even seem to exist in its own world--the recital is filled with suburban middle-class parents supposedly living in a post-nuke dystopia where water is still a scarce commodity--but the big performance? Lucas and his class singing "Amazing Grace" and Lucas getting a solo dramatic reading of...The Pledge of Allegiance? This took months of preparation? Lucas is 11 years old. These kids are in 5th or 6th grade. Is this movie even trying? No, it's not. As MOM AND DAD showed earlier this year, Cage is still capable of bringing his A-game when he gives a shit, but to say he brought his even C-game to THE HUMANITY BUREAU would be charitable. He hasn't been this disinterested and disengaged with the material since BANGKOK DANGEROUS. Screenwriter Dave Schultz appears to show some affinity for CHINATOWN by giving Cage's character a name that riffs on John Huston's despicable Noah Cross, but other than that? Forget it, Jake. It's THE HUMANITY BUREAU. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2018)

It seems that much of today's film criticism consists of writers trying to out-"woke" one another by airing grievances, looking for reasons to be outraged, and listing ways in which they were offended instead of reviewing the movie itself. I consciously avoid that unless the film's offenses are so upfront and blatant that addressing them is unavoidable and thus making it impossible to separate the art from the artist. One time in which that kind of review approach was unfortunately justified was back in 2014, when I reviewed the indie horror film CONTRACTED. Click here for more about that, but in short, the film's chronicle of the degenerative body and STD-related horrors that result from a young bisexual woman's acquaintance rape at a party came across as heavy-handed and frankly gross slut-shaming on the part of director Eric England, largely because the film keeps referring to the inciting act as a "one-night stand," when it clearly isn't. I was unfamiliar with England's work at that point, but upon seeing CONTRACTED, a film that willfully refuses to differentiate rape and a one-night stand and subsequently blames its heroine for the venereal horrors that result from it, it was uncomfortably obvious that this guy seemed to have some issues with women. Cut to 2018, and just as England's latest film JOSIE was going straight to VOD and the #MeToo movement was well-established as a powerful force in the entertainment industry, allegations by his ex-girlfriend Katie Stegeman (who appeared in CONTRACTED and his earlier film MADISON COUNTY) surfaced on social media detailing several years of physical and psychological abuse. Her story is quite harrowing, and if it's true (like JOSIE, any resulting scandal pretty much vanished instantly because nobody knows or cares who Eric England is), then it's safe to infer that England is every bit the creep that CONTRACTED went out of its way to reveal him to be.

I missed England's 2017 kidnapping-gone-awry dark comedy GET THE GIRL (whose cast featured convention regulars like Noah Segan and Scout Taylor-Compton), but JOSIE is a step up, at least in terms of relative prestige, as it marks the first time England's got some well-known and reasonably big-ish names who may or may not regret being in it now. In a small, depressing California town, Hank (Dylan McDermott) is a quiet loner living in a dive motel and working as a parking monitor at the local high school, where he's derisively referred to as "Spank" by a student body who look and act like they missed a casting call for Larry Clark's BULLY. Hank goes home to his dingy room, where two turtles are his only companions, and is annoyed when his nosy neighbors won't leave him alone. Hank comes out of his shell with the arrival of Josie (GAME OF THRONES' Sophie Turner), a tattooed high-schooler from the wrong side of the tracks who's new in town and arrives alone (her mom is on her way, she claims), quickly befriending Hank as well as Marcus (Jack Kilmer, Val's son), Hank's chief tormenter at school. Josie gets Hank to open up about his dark past and what drove him to choose a life of isolation and solitude, while Hank sees--though he knows he shouldn't--the possibility for something more. It isn't long before things come to a head, with Marcus vandalizing Hank's truck and boat and Josie ditching Hank to have sex with Marcus to make Hank jealous. Anyone who's ever seen a movie with a femme fatale will figure out precisely what Josie's up to at exactly the midway point and the only suspense really comes from watching how she's got both Hank and Marcus wrapped around her finger. And around the time of the climax, as things play out in the worst way possible for lonely, hapless Hank and dense, horny Marcus, that CONTRACTED ugliness and rage and England's alleged violence against Stegeman pops into your head. In fairness, JOSIE is an accomplished and more disciplined film compared to CONTRACTED, and it gets a lot of mileage from an excellent performance by McDermott, who's often achingly sad to watch as Hank talks to his turtles, is the butt of jokes and pranks at the high school, and plays some old-school country music while he puts on his best cowboy duds and slow dances by himself as he gets ready to have dinner with Josie only to find out Marcus is already in her room, leaving him to stand outside and listen to them fuck. And if you listen closely, you can probably hear England just out of camera range muttering "Yeah...that fucking bitch." (R, 87 mins)

(US - 2018)

There has to be fascinating story about what went wrong with STEPHANIE because the signs are all there that this had to be a total clusterfuck behind the scenes. Curiously short running time, with super-slow closing credits rolling at 78 minutes? Check. Produced by profitable horror factory Blumhouse and left to gather dust on a Universal shelf for three years before getting a stealth VOD debut two weeks before hitting Blu-ray? Check. The least-finished-looking visual effects this side of A SOUND OF THUNDER? Check. Familiar names present in the IMDb cast listing (Harold Perrineau, Kenneth Choi, Alexa Mansour) but nowhere to be seen in the released film? Directed by Oscar-winning mercenary screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)? Check. It's all too apparent that Universal had no clue what to do with this movie, which doesn't even have a real trailer (see below--it's just one out-of-context clip), and doesn't even look finished, exhibiting an abundance of evidence that it was just abandoned and completely given up on by everyone involved. That's too bad, because it gets off to an odd and interesting start, with the entire opening half-hour being a one-girl show for young Shree Crooks (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) in the title role. She's alone in nice-looking suburban house and seems to have been left there for a while. Food is rotting in the fridge, she's down to pretzels and slices of American cheese, and she spends her time watching TV and talking to her stuffed toy turtle Francis. She's wary of periodic appearances of "the monster," and we see occasional flickering shadows of something around a corner, but she hides in her room and it goes away. There may or may not be the dead body of her older brother Paul in his room, and TV news reports show brief snippets of catastrophic disasters all over the world. Her parents (Frank Grillo of the PURGE sequels and FRINGE's Anna Torv) finally return home from wherever they were, casting concerned glances at Stephanie and seemingly shocked that she's alive. Talk soon turns to dealing with "the monster" as STEPHANIE proceeds to move at a glacial pace while doling out details to a story that never really comes together.

Goldsman, who doesn't have a writing credit here (that's left for the team of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who went on to script the cult indie SUPER DARK TIMES), gives us the what but the rest--the why and the how--remain frustrating mysteries, and not in a cleverly ambiguous or thoughtfully enigmatic way. It seems to use the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode "It's a Good Life" as a springboard but it just doesn't make sense on any narrative or logical level. Apparently, a much different cut of STEPHANIE screened at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, containing a framing device and a ton of exposition about the setting being a dystopian 2027 (this is where Perrineau's character appeared), but that's all gone in this version. It'll be obvious to anyone who watches enough movies even without knowing that Perrineau and others have been cut from the movie that huge chunks of this thing have been hacked away seemingly willy-nilly. There's a few positives barely salvaged in the wreckage--Crooks is very good and looks so much like Torv that the two of them playing mother and daughter is inspired casting; and there's one intense bit involving a blender--but the climactic CGI display is a bush-league embarrassment and the released film (I hesitate to call it "completed") is a botched shitshow that looks like Universal said "Hey, what's going on with this?" and Jason Blum and everyone involved shouted "Not it!" and went home. (R, 86 mins)

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