Thursday, July 12, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: 211 (2018); THE LEISURE SEEKER (2018); and BORG VS. MCENROE (2018)

(US - 2018)

It's DOG DAY AFTERNOON on a Bulgarian backlot with 211, the latest Nicolas Cage walk-through in what's looking like a busy 2018 for the--hang on while I check to see if it still stands...ok, yes, right--Oscar-winning actor. Produced by Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium Media, 211 doesn't get much help in the credibility department with the familiar and thoroughly un-American-looking Nu Boyana facility in Sofia, Bulgaria doubling for a small Massachusetts suburb (even though most of the license plates say Louisiana), whose downtown features a posh art gallery called Art Gallery. Inspired in part by the North Hollywood shootout over 20 years ago--itself inspired by a legendary sequence in Michael Mann's HEAT--211 juggles more characters than it can possibly handle and tries to be both a generic B actioner and a shamelessly heart-tugging American Heroes saga like WORLD TRADE CENTER or PATRIOTS DAY. Set in the fictional town of Chesterford, 211 stars Cage as Mike Chandler, a cop who's just filled out his retirement papers (oh boy), even though all he knows is being a cop, so much so that he wasn't really there for his late wife when she was battling cancer. This is still a sore subject with his daughter Lisa (Sophie Skelton), whose husband Steve "Mac" MacAvoy (Dwayne Cameron) is Mike's partner. Lisa just found out she's pregnant and Mac shares the good news with his father-in-law but that joy is short-lived as a bomb goes off in a downtown coffee shop as a decoy for a robbery going on at Unity Savings & Loan, a bank so trustworthy that the Bulgarian art department guys couldn't even be bothered to make the letters straight on the mock-up sign. The guys orchestrating the heist are ex-black ops mercenary goons led by Tre (Ori Pfeffer) after $100 million in war profits belonging to a shady contractor they killed after a botched extraction in Kabul (did Bulgaria know it would be playing dual roles here?), which attracts the attention of dogged Interpol agent Rossi (Alexandra Dinu). A chaotic situation is made even worse since Mike and Mac have a ride-along in teenager Kenny (Michael Rainey Jr), a bullied high school student in a scared straight program after a teacher walks in on him sucker-punching a douchebag who was just trying to shove his head in a toilet.

Isaac Florentine has a producer credit, and one gets the feeling that 211 might've been intended at some point to be another of his collaborations with Scott Adkins. Director York Shackleton does what he can with trying to make a Massachusetts suburb out of a Bulgarian backlot that can barely even pass for Bulgaria. The script is riddled with trite cliches and clumsy exposition, especially in a cringe-worthy early scene where Mike's backstory is laid out in an argument between Lisa and Mac, with Mac defending him while Lisa, still angry that Mike wasn't there when her mother needed him  most, shouts "It was chemo and radiation and PAIN!" In relation to Cage's recent clunkers like LOOKING GLASS and THE HUMANITY BUREAU, 211 is a very marginal step up. Shackleton handles an extended shootout better than you might expect considering what's at his disposal, and Cage, wearing one of his better hairpieces of late, has moments where he seems to be giving a shit, along with some bits where he's Cage-ing it up for his YouTube highlight reel (his outburst at the SWAT team commander has some WICKER MAN-style histrionics). Its entertainment value lies mostly in its unintentional humor and the complete lack of effort in making the surroundings look (or sound, considering the extensive and sloppy ADR work on most of the supporting cast) even slightly American, but there's some unexpectedly competent bursts of action amidst the clock-punching apathy. (R, 87 mins)

(Italy/France - 2018)

There's a few fleeting moments of raw emotion and brutal honesty in this adaptation of Michael Zadoorian's 2009 novel, and they come courtesy of a pair of cinema treasures in stars Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland. It's too bad that THE LEISURE SEEKER decides to squander them by spending too much time trying to be the geezer comedy that the more somber, serious novel wasn't. Making his English language debut, acclaimed Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzi (HUMAN CAPITAL) overcompensates and leans a little too much on the "America" thing, especially with its summer 2016 setting that allows for recurring, shoehorned-in political references to the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential showdown. The film even opens with a pickup truck driving down the street and blaring a Trump speech out of a large speaker, for no real reason at all. Married for 50 years, elderly couple Ella (Mirren, with a shaky on-and-off Southern accent) and John Spencer (Sutherland) take off in "The Leisure Seeker," their ramshackle 1975 Winnebago for a road trip from their Massachusetts home en route to her Savannah, GA birthplace to their ultimate destination: Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West, FL. John is a retired high school English teacher and is in the relatively early stages of Alzheimer's, still having stretches of clarity--especially when it comes to lecturing strangers about Hemingway and William Faulkner--but still frequently forgetting his wife's name or how old they are ("I start a sentence and by the time I get to the end of it..." John says, trailing off, suddenly lost). Ella keeps popping medication and grimacing, clearly in the midst of a mystery ailment that she seems to be hiding from John as well as their grown children Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney).

Despite his condition, John is driving the Leisure Seeker, and the trip becomes a series of misadventures that range from improbable to wacky to patently absurd, whether they're getting the upper hand on a pair of knife-wielding teens trying to rob them while they wait for AAA to fix a flat or John waltzing into a nursing home with a shotgun looking for Ella's now-dementia-addled boyfriend from over 50 years ago (the late comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who died eight months before the film's release), and somehow not being arrested. A confused John even winds up accidentally attending a Trump rally, while classic rock soundtrack cues underscore various plot developments: Carole King's "It's Too Late" plays at the beginning and Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" kicks in when John takes off from a gas station and leaves Ella behind, forcing her to get a ride from a guy on a motorcycle (how did Virzi not segue from Chicago to Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" here?). THE LEISURE SEEKER never finds the right tone (you know the trip is getting off on the wrong foot when one of the first things out of John's mouth is "Did you fart?"), but Mirren and Sutherland manage to class it up, especially in a devastating scene later on where John's mind wanders and he thinks he's talking to their neighbor Lillian (Dana Ivey) and ends up confessing to Ella a brief fling from 48 years ago. It's a scene that packs a wallop, but then Virzi blows it by having Ella react in the most hysterically overwrought way possible, leading to a conclusion that just doesn't ring true. Such is the dilemma of THE LEISURE SEEKER, a well-meaning but aimless and uneven film that's worth seeing for fans of living legends Mirren and Sutherland (who previously starred together in 1990's BETHUNE: THE MAKING OF A HERO), even though both deserve stronger material. (R, 112 mins)

(Denmark/Sweden/Czech Republic/Finland/Belgium - 2017; US release 2018)

Neon planned on rolling this out wide until they flinched shortly before the release date, ultimately limiting it to just 51 screens and VOD. Maybe it was that half of the film is in Swedish, but even subtitle-phobes maybe could've been won over by the riveting story, as BORG VS. MCENROE really could've been a sleeper hit if it had a chance. Chronicling the 1980 Wimbledon showdown between Sweden's Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason, soon to be seen opposite Claire Foy in THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB), the top-ranked player in the world and going for his fifth consecutive win, and America's John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), the brash, ill-tempered anger management case who's ranked #2. Documentary filmmaker Janus Metz, helming his first narrative feature, and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl delve deep into the psychology of sports and competition, flashing back to the formative years of both tennis greats and the ways they pressured themselves and were pressured by others. Young Borg (played as a pre-teen by Bjorn Borg's son Leo) finds a mentor in Davis Cup scout and retired player Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), who spends years conditioning Bjorn to internalize his anger and use it on the court, one point at a time. Meanwhile, young McEnroe has perfectionist parents who push him too hard (he gets a 96% on a test, finishing first in his class, and his mother asks him "What about the other 4?" and criticizes his obsession with tennis), slowly turning him into a powderkeg of nervous, uncontrolled rage. As McEnroe ascends in the world of professional tennis, his endless tantrums, meltdowns, lashing out at spectators, and arguing with line judges earn him little respect, but Borg has been watching him and sees himself in McEnroe, the difference being that Borg's fury manifests itself in his Zen/iceman persona and his obsessive-compulsive rituals that the loyal Bergelin understands, but prove alienating to Borg's fiancee Mariana Simianescu (ANNIHILATION's Tuva Novotny).

Borg and McEnroe's epic showdown unfolds over the last 30 minutes of the film, and even knowing the outcome, Metz's verite-style brings a suspenseful and exhausting immediacy to it. The actors are extraordinarily well-cast--Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg and it doesn't get much more inspired than having LaBeouf play McEnroe. Much like McEnroe, the actor is a chronic bridge-burner who seems uninterested in making friends in his profession, which is why he's so ideal. It's probably his career-best performance thus far, even though nobody saw it. It has to play a little fast and loose with the facts at times (McEnroe's iconic "You cannot be serious!" outburst at an umpire is depicted here in a semifinal against Jimmy Connors, but in reality, he shouted it at the 1981 Wimbledon against Tom Gullikson), but BORG VS. MCENROE is a thoughtful, insightful, and riveting look at what tennis fans almost universally consider the greatest match of all time. This is an under-the-radar gem worth checking out. (R, 108 mins)

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