Friday, August 31, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: HEADHUNTERS (2011) and LOVELY MOLLY (2012)

(Sweden/Norway/Denmark/Germany - 2011; 2012 US release)

HEADHUNTERS, a delightfully deranged thriller based on a novel by Scandinavian mystery writer Jo Nesbo, pits an outwardly arrogant but deeply insecure corporate recruiter (Aksel Hennie) who doubles as an art thief, against a potential target (GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a former GPS tech company CEO who turns out to be far more dangerous than he ever imagined.  Hennie steals and fences expensive art as a way of maintaining the illusion of an upper-class, high-rolling lifestyle and to stay in the good graces of his stunning wife (Synnove Macody Lund), who he constantly fears will leave him for a taller, more handsome man.  He's got a great set-up going with a sleazebag partner (Eivind Sander) who works at a security company and can override alarm codes.  But Coster-Waldau is no fool.  In fact, he's a total psycho, and Hennie's greed and insecurity lead to him being plunged into a sick and often darkly amusing game of cat-and-mouse with an increasingly high body count and one detour that literally leads him into the shit.  While almost certainly inspired by the success of the Stieg Larsson-based DRAGON TATTOO trilogy, HEADHUNTERS feels more like a Scandinavian Coen Brothers film, with one ridiculous yet oddly plausible nightmare scenario after another for Hennie. It's dark, twisted, and extremely violent, but fans of this kind of stuff will find it to be terrific fun all around. (R, 100 mins)

(US - 2012)

Eduardo Sanchez forever cemented his place in horror history by co-writing and co-directing THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), and judging from his latest solo effort, he's still coasting on it.  A derivative and ultimately frustrating supernatural slow-burner, LOVELY MOLLY wastes a brave, committed performance by newcomer Gretchen Lodge in the title role.  Recently married to truck driver Tim (Johnny Lewis, best known as Half-Sack in the early seasons of SONS OF ANARCHY) and relocated to her childhood home, Molly finds herself haunted--psychologically and spiritually--by traumas and ghosts of the past, which includes heroin addiction and abuse by her father, who was killed by her protective older sister Hannah (Alexandra Holden). With Tim gone for days at a time, and footsteps and strange sounds following her around the house, it doesn't take long for Molly to start cracking.  Is she crazy?  Is she using again?  Or is her father's vengeful spirit still in the house?  Sanchez fashions LOVELY MOLLY as a sort of update on Roman Polanski's REPULSION, which was also heavily referenced in this year's earlier and similarly stale SILENT HOUSE, with some bonus PARANORMAL ACTIVITY because, well, that seems to be required these days.  Sanchez establishes an ominous, unsettling, dread-soaked mood for a while, and Lodge is often nothing short of remarkable, but once you see where the story's going, it's just another tired retread, right down to Molly busting out her handheld camcorder to try and document the supernatural disturbances, resulting in a lot of shaky-cam and angles and imagery that won't surprise or scare anyone who's seen a horror movie in the last decade and change. The bonus features are even worse, as Sanchez assembles a pointless faux documentary detailing the occult history of Molly's house dating back to colonial times, robbing the film of its ambiguity, which, other than Lodge, is about all it had going for it. (R, 100 mins)

In Theaters: THE POSSESSION (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Ole Bornedal.  Written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White.  Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Matisyahu, Grant Show, Natasha Calis, Madison Davenport, Jay Brazeau. (PG-13, 92 mins)

It's been nearly 40 years since the release of THE EXORCIST, and the knockoffs show no signs of slowing down.  Produced by Sam Raimi, THE POSSESSION is better than most, with an experienced figure behind the camera in veteran Danish horror/suspense director Ole Bornedal (1994's NIGHTWATCH and its 1998 US remake), but except for one nicely-done scare and some impressive production design, there's little here we haven't seen before.  Written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White (KNOWING), THE POSSESSION utilizes most of the standard-issue possession motifs (or as much as its PG-13 rating will allow) fused with more J-Horror imagery (are we done with this yet?), and relies too much on loud crashes and piercing music cues in place of actual tension and scares.  However, Bornedal does a nice job establishing an unexpected, almost European look to the film in the early going (featuring the most Kubrickian-looking basketball practice gym you'll ever see), with some impressive camera movements and lighting and lots of interesting technical aspects that, for a while, set THE POSSESSION apart from the usual DTV-level time-killer that it eventually becomes.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan dares to open the Dybbuk box.
In this "true story" (inspired by a 2003 eBay listing) set in upstate New York, college basketball coach Clyde Brenek (a strong performance by the underrated Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is recently divorced from ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and gets his daughters--Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Emily (Natasha Calis)--on the weekends.  The girls, particularly Emily, are having some difficulty with the disruption in their lives, and things get really complicated when Clyde and the girls stop at a yard sale and Emily is drawn to a mysterious, sealed wooden box with strange lettering carved into it.  Emily soon becomes slavishly devoted to and fiercely protective of the box, and often erupts in violence if anyone comes near it.  After Emily has a shrieking fit where she repeatedly smacks herself in the face, Clyde is accused of abusing her and Stephanie gets a restraining order.  When Stephanie and her new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show) start observing Emily's continued strange behavior, Clyde does some research and finds out the lettering on the box is Hebrew, and seeks the guidance of Tzadok (Hasidic reggae beatboxer Matisyahu), who turns out to be the demonic possession genre's hippest exorcist.  Tzadok says the box is a Dybbuk Box, used to house an ancient Jewish demon called the "dybbuk."  Tzadok defies the wishes of his elderly rabbi father and agrees to perform an exorcism on Emily.

Natasha Calis as the possessed Emily
The "dybbuk" is an interesting concept, and it's handled better here than in the 2009 film THE UNBORN, which featured Gary Oldman as a rabbi who battles a dybbuk by blowing into a shofar  The casting of Matisyahu as the exorcist is a distraction that's hard to get over, but he has a loose and engaging presence that makes one wish he had more screen time.  THE POSSESSION's problems start when the script begins requiring otherwise intelligent characters to start behaving stupidly.  Clyde should be a little more alarmed when Emily stabs him with a fork at breakfast for no reason.   Why is it that parents of possessed children in movies are always way too slow on the uptake when it comes to these matters?  Haven't any of these people seen THE EXORCIST? 

Madison Davenport and Kyra Sedgwick
There's also stupid contrivances that are there only to advance the plot in the easiest way possible.  In one scene, Emily is on the phone with Clyde and asking him if the box is OK and telling him to not to go near it (it's at his house).  In the next scene, Emily has the box with her at school and attacks a classmate who tries to steal it from her. Emily is sent home and the box is left at school. That night, the dybbuk attacks and kills Emily's teacher (this film's obligatory Burke Dennings stand-in), who's there, alone, late at night, grading papers next to a tiny lamp at her desk.  Are the screenwriters even trying?  Does this woman not have a home?  With better lighting?  Also, what happens to Brett?  He's last seen being attacked by a possessed Emily as all of his teeth start falling out, then getting into his car and driving it in reverse as Emily has a seizure on the front lawn and Hannah calls 9-1-1, and they're off to the hospital. Where does Brett go?  Is he dead?  Alive and still driving around in reverse, all bloody and toothless?  I'm glad Grant Show is getting paid post-MELROSE PLACE, but his character is so irrelevant that even the filmmakers forget about him.

Exorcist Tzadok (Matisyahu) tries to save Emily
When the script isn't dumbing things down, Bornedal and his regular cinematographer Dan Laustsen have a great-looking film on their hands.  And I liked the little shout-outs to past demonic possession films, like Emily's right eye moving on its own while the other stares straight ahead (from the 1975 Italian EXORCIST ripoff BEYOND THE DOOR) and a nicely-CGI'd swarm of moths surrounding a still Emily that looked a lot like the climactic bird attack in the 1979 OMEN/CLOSE ENCOUNTERS-inspired cult classic THE VISITOR).  There is one very good, almost great jolt when Emily is getting an MRI and something pops up unexpectedly in the resulting scan.  Those bits, Bornedal's direction, and the fine performances by both Morgan and Calis nudge THE POSSESSION a bit beyond the typical genre offering, but after a while, it's done in by a script that just feels illogical and half-baked.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

In Theaters: LAWLESS (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by John Hillcoat.  Written by Nick Cave.  Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan, Noah Taylor, Lew Temple, Bill Camp, Tim Tolin.  (R, 116 mins)

Director John Hillcoat and musician/screenwriter Nick Cave previously collaborated on the viscerally brutal 2006 western THE PROPOSITION and reunite for this adaptation of Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World.  Bondurant's book was loosely based on the Prohibition-era bootlegging experiences of his grandfather Jack and his two great-uncles Howard and Forrest Bondurant, who ran a major moonshine operation in Franklin County, Virginia.  LAWLESS has a lot of the same grim, stomach-turning violence that made THE PROPOSITION so memorable, but as a whole, it's not quite as good.  It wants to be a 1930s gangster version of THE PROPOSITION, but it has commercial obligations to fulfill, and it's not as well-constructed, with a propensity for corny one-liners and implausible characterization, and a villain who's ultimately too over-the-top for his own good.   It's certainly an entertaining film, but it often feels like its issues stemmed more from the editing and not the writing.  THE PROPOSITION was a great film, while LAWLESS is merely a good one.

Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf as
two of the Bondurant brothers
In 1930-31 Franklin County, the moonshining Bondurant brothers--Howard (Jason Clarke), the oldest; Forrest (Tom Hardy), the middle brother and the leader/brains of the operation; and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest and most eager to make his mark--are doing well until the local prosecutor brings in Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a Chicago-based "Special Deputy" who's not there to clean up the operation, merely to help himself and the prosecutor profit from it.  They want their cut and the Bondurants aren't going to budge.  In between the war with the corrupt lawmen, Forrest gets involved with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a former Chicago dance-hall girl who needed to get away to a quiet life and lands a job at the Bondurants' general store, and Jack courts local Amish girl Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).  One of the film's biggest problems is the paper-thin characterization of the women.  Yes, it's a film about men and their guns, but whether by Cave's scripting or the assembling of the film, Maggie and Bertha are both very ill-defined and not very believable.  Wasikowska, especially, is saddled with a character that just never seems real: the flirty, sassy Amish girl "who always had a rebellious streak in her," according to Jack.

Guy Pearce as the evil Charlie Rakes
Hardy's performance is strange but effective.  He plays Forrest as a very quiet, withdrawn type who's prone to bursts of savage violence when pushed, and he seems a lot like Nick Nolte, but with more grunting.  LaBeouf, who often comes off as, well, a total douche both onscreen and off, does some of his best work and it's a case of Hillcoat using LaBeouf's persona and/or limitations to the film's advantage.  Jack is a cocky, inexperienced, and occasionally arrogant whippersnapper who often seems in over his head, and LaBeouf embodies that perfectly.  It's similar to how everyone said Josh Hartnett was too bland a leading man for THE BLACK DAHLIA, when in fact, it as an inspired move by Brian De Palma where the character's flaws and weaknesses matched the audience's perception of the actor (Hartnett's casting was one of the few successful things about that film).  I haven't been a fan of LaBeouf in the past, but with LAWLESS and his recent casting in Lars Von Trier's next project, he seems to be taking steps toward being Taken Seriously, and he does a very solid, credible job here.  Gary Oldman has a small role as dapper big-city mobster Floyd Banner, who forms an uneasy alliance with Jack when it means taking on Rakes.  Which brings us to Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes.  With his jet-black hair slicked back and his eyebrows shaved, sporting a bow-tie and dress gloves, too much cologne, and a broad Chicago accent through pursed lips, the prissy, sneering Rakes gives Pearce the kind of despicable, over-the-top bad guy that actors love to sink their teeth into.  Make no mistake, Pearce makes Rakes a memorably sadistic villain, but ultimately, it's the kind of villain that doesn't really belong in this movie, and by the end, he's too much of a cartoon, spouting the kind of snarky one-liners that seem more akin to a blockbuster action movie than a 1930s period piece.  This doesn't make it a bad movie, but no matter how much fun Pearce is to watch here--and he is a blast--these issues keep it from rising to the level of THE PROPOSITION.  I guess it's an issue of finding the right tone and staying consistent, and neither Hillcoat nor Cave are as disciplined on this project as they were on their last one.

Gary Oldman as big-time gangster Floyd Banner
THE PROPOSITION is known for its often shocking violence, and Hillcoat and Cave certainly maintain consistency in that area.  Whether it's Jack getting a savage beating from Rakes, or various throat slicings, bullets through flesh, shovels to the head, or Rakes getting a gift-wrapped package containing the severed testicles of one of his flunkies, LAWLESS has no shortage of wince-inducing violence and gore.  Also returning from the previous Hillcoat/Cave collaboration is cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who brings the same kind of visually stunning beauty to drab, dusty surroundings, with the imagery matched perfectly to the rustic score by Cave and Warren Ellis, with vocal contributions from Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Mark Lanegan.  LAWLESS is not without problems, and it falls short of being a new classic of gangster cinema, but it's well-made, looks great, has good performances, and is much better than most of the studio product that normally gets dumped in theaters around Labor Day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: FIST OF THE REICH (2012)

(Germany/Croatia - 2010; US release 2012)

Directed by Uwe Boll.  Written by Timo Berndt.  Cast: Henry Maske, Heino Ferch, Suzanne Wuest, Vladimir Weigl, Yoan Pablo Hernandez, Arved Birnbaum, Arthur Abraham, Enad Licina. (Unrated, 123 mins)

Absurdly retitled FIST OF THE REICH for its straight-to-DVD US release, MAX SCHMELING was a longtime pet project of bad movie icon Uwe Boll, long mocked for his awful video game film adaptations (ALONE IN THE DARK, etc) and various attention-seeking publicity stunts (shit-talking his actors on commentary tracks, challenging his detractors to boxing matches) that border on performance art.  After going several years without the German tax shelter loopholes that enabled him to spend large amounts of money to hire slumming name actors like Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, and Burt Reynolds (IN THE NAME OF THE KING) and Ben Kingsley (BLOODRAYNE), there's been a marked decline in not just the "entertainment" value of Boll's films, but also his budgets.  Lately, Boll's idea of a big name is getting Edward Furlong or Michael Pare.  These lower budgets inspired Boll for a while--1968 TUNNEL RATS and POSTAL were alright and the grim prison drama STOIC was actually, dare I say it, good.  But lately, Boll hasn't even been trying:  BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH was awful and the simultaneously-shot BLUBBERELLA was his career nadir, which for Uwe Boll, is really saying something.  A couple of years ago, Boll got a co-production deal with a Croatian company and shot at least four films back-to-back on the same trip to Zagreb:  MAX SCHMELING was his priority, but he also got BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH and BLUBBERELLA done next, and his still-unreleased-in-the-US Holocaust drama AUSCHWITZ was shot right after.

Yoan Pablo Hernandez as Joe Louis,
fighting Max Schmeling (Henry Maske)

Boll is delusional enough that he probably thought MAX SCHMELING was the kind of sincere, reverent biopic that would put him in the same league as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.  Schmeling (1905-2005) is arguably the most famous boxer in German history, one who became a major celebrity in early 1930s Germany due to his own success as well as his marriage to popular Czech-born German movie star Anny Ondra.  Schmeling came to America and fought (and befriended) the great Joe Louis (their friendship was the subject of the 2002 film JOE AND MAX) and other American boxers (Jack Sharkey, Max Baer) before retiring from boxing and serving as a paratrooper in the Luftwaffe during WWII, though he never supported Hitler or the Nazis.  He attempted a comeback after WWII (when he was already over 40), but it was short-lived and after leaving boxing for good, became an executive with Coca-Cola's German office and lived out his years as boxing royalty before he died in 2005 at the age of 99.

Schmeling's life is a fascinating one and deserves more than the tired, cliche-filled treatment it gets from Boll.  In a move straight out of a Bad Idea Jeans ad, Boll cast boxer and 1988 Summer Olympics East German gold medalist Henry Maske as Schmeling, which would've worked if Maske was an actor.  For the sake of a film, it's probably easier to have an actor pretend to be a boxer than it is for a boxer to pretend to be an actor.  Though Maske tries, he's hopelessly wooden, with a deer-in-the-headlights expression for much of the film.  All of the boxers in the film are played by actual boxers, which should theoretically make the boxing sequences exciting, right?  Wrong.  The ring scenes in MAX SCHMELING are badly choreographed and completely inept in their execution.  They're staged horribly and they're performed even worse.  And these are real boxers!

Suzanne Wuest as Max's actress wife Anny Ondra
Even worse are the cheap sets for the major bouts.  Regardless of where a match is taking place--Cleveland, Madison Square Garden, or Yankee Stadium--it's all obviously the same set and looks like a ring just put up in a gym somewhere.  And later in the film, when Max attempts his post-war comeback, it's amazing how all of the rinky-dink venues in which he's boxing all look like--you guessed it--"Madison Square Garden" and "Yankee Stadium," which I hate to break to Dr. Boll, was never an indoor stadium.  Also a distraction:  the film is in German with English subtitles (the DVD has a badly-dubbed English audio track), and it's never NOT in German with English subtitles.  Was Boll trying to go for a genuine 1930s feel here, where every nationality spoke the same language in movies?  If you want to make a believable story, don't have the Yankee Stadium ring announcer speaking German.  Why is Joe Louis speaking German?  Why are American boxers and their trainers speaking German to one another?   Now, I'm sure one could say the same thing about, say, Tom Cruise and a bunch of British actors speaking English while playing Nazi offers in VALKYRIE, but for some reason, it just seems very silly for Yankee Stadium officials to be speaking German in MAX SCHMELING.

Heino Ferch as trainer Max Manoch
No one in the cast really fares all that well (Vladimir Weigl as Max's cigar-chomping Jewish manager is a total boxing movie cliche, and you can't miss Boll's stick-poking by portraying this character as constantly broke, making a production out of patting his pockets when the check arrives, and waiting for Max to pay the bill).  The one bright spot is provided by veteran German actor Heino Ferch (DOWNFALL, THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX) as Max's trainer Max Manoch.  He not only brings some warmth and humanity to the film but he also makes a valiant effort to help the non-actor Maske.  He doesn't succeed, but you can see Ferch is trying and giving this film a lot more than he's going to get in return.  You can almost sense him giving up during the climax when Schmeling announces his retirement--in the middle of a bout, no less--and the script requires Ferch to lead the arena in--wait for it!--the slow clap!

Not the one used in the film, but another pic
of the real Max Schmeling, with Henry Maske.
Maybe Boll was sincere with what he wanted to accomplish with MAX SCHMELING, but it's just too predictable, too bullet-pointed in its plot structure (screenwriter Timo Berndt's research seems to have been limited to checking out Schmeling's Wikipedia page), and just too embarrassingly hokey and creaky.  It's hard to pull off making an "old" movie in today's cinematic world.  Spielberg did a great job of it with WAR HORSE.  But Uwe Boll is Uwe Boll.  And for this being such a long-planned dream project of his, is there any reasonable explanation for his bailing on the commentary 72 minutes in?  I didn't listen to all of it, but the film concludes with its best shot--a poignant and moving undated photo of an aged Schmeling in conversation with none other than Maske, probably sometime in late 1980s or early 1990s.  I switched over to the commentary to hear what Boll had to say about this photo.  Nothing.  He's not talking.  I kept toggling back through the chapters.  I finally heard his voice around the 60-minute mark, and after a few minutes of some typically self-aggrandizing comments about his IMDb critics, and how "I've made some really good movies!" he just says he's done and bids farewell. 

What the hell?  Who leaves the commentary track of their pet project just over halfway through the film?   Sure, this is a guy who regularly answers his cell phone and eats cheeseburgers during commentary tracks, but this is an ostensibly serious film.  Boll doesn't give a shit.  Why should we?  I guess we should just be thankful that he resisted the urge and waited until BLUBBERELLA to cast himself as Hitler.

"Here's what I think of sticking around for the whole commentary!"

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS (2011) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (2011)

(Australia - 2011; 2012 US release)

This harrowing, profoundly disturbing chronicle of the worst serial killings in Australia's history is appropriately grim and bleak, but director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant do assume that the viewer is already familiar with the story.  And that's to be expected for a film made for Australian audiences.  I'd strongly advise reading up on the case via Wikipedia or chances are you'll find it impossible to follow the convoluted story and keep up with who's who and how they relate to other characters.  The film centers on teenager Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway, who looks like a cross between Heath Ledger and Andy Samberg), living a downtrodden, Aussie white trash life with his mom (Louise Harvey) and two younger siblings.  When one of the mom's potential suitors turns out to be a pedophile, a friend introduces the neighborhood to John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who gets on everyone's good side by endlessly harassing the child molester to the point where the creep packs up and leaves town.  Bunting is alternately funny, chummy, ingratiating, aggressively pushy, and ruthlessly manipulative, and soon has everyone in this close-knit group of friends and neighbors under his thumb and ready to go along with anything he suggests.  Slowly revealing an intense dislike of not just pedophiles, but also homosexuals and anyone he deems "not right" (like drug users and the mentally challenged), Bunting and his friend Robert Taylor (Aaron Viergever) start murdering people, and with the help of dim-witted neighbor Mark Haydon (David Walker), and a traumatized Jamie (introduced to killing when Bunting bullies him into shooting his dog), dispose the bodies in acid-filled tubs and store them in the vault of an abandoned bank in nearby Snowtown.  Filled with much disturbing imagery and an almost suffocating sense of hopelessness, THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a grueling and upsetting experience, filled with murder, torture, drug abuse, and child molestation (Jamie is also raped by an older half-brother at one point).  But even as confusing as it often is, Pittaway and especially Henshall are so good that you can't take your eyes off of it.  Henshall brings to mind a diabolical Ricky Gervais in his portrayal of Bunting, who's currently serving ten life sentences for his crimes.  THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is brutal and horrifying without being exploitative, though it will almost certainly leave a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  (Unrated, 120 mins)

(Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina - 2011; 2012 US release)

Fascinating, challenging film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (CLIMATES) is a murder mystery and police procedural that unfolds very deliberately and expects its audience to pay attention.  It's a long and demanding work that pays off for the patient viewer who takes the time to invest in the characters and their traits, the dialogue and its rhythms, and just how it all impacts the gut-punch of a finale.  Ceylan explains some things, but not all, as ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA is the kind of film with plot threads intentionally left open to interpretation.  In the dusk and eventual darkness of an evening, three police vehicles travel a total of 37 kilometers out of their jurisdiction in search of a body that's buried somewhere in the vast hills of the Anatolian steppes of Turkey (the cinematography by Gokhan Tiryaki is stunning).  In the three cars are, among others, the irate lead detective (Yilmaz Erdegan), the prosecutor from Ankara (Tanar Birsel), a local doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), and the murder suspect (Firat Tanis).  Erdegan feels Tanis is wasting their time, taking them to numerous locations before claiming he was drunk and can't remember where he buried the body.  Birsel shares a story about the sudden death of a beautiful woman with Uzuner, who seems perpelexed that the prosecutor never ordered an autopsy.  Some of the men argue about mundane subjects like yogurt and crack inappropriate jokes as a coping mechanism for the grimness of their job.  Erdegan confesses to the doctor that he'd rather spend all his time at work than deal with his autistic son.  Conversations seem to meander all over the place and some are certain to get frustrated and view this as a cinematic endurance test.  But it all has a point and it all pays off with a devastating final shot that recalls Paul Thomas Anderson's HARD EIGHT in a strange way.  Admittedly not for the casual viewer looking to kick back with a flick, but ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA is a compelling and original piece of cinema.  (Unrated, 157 mins)

Friday, August 24, 2012

In Theaters: PREMIUM RUSH (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by David Koepp.  Written by David Koepp & John Kamps.  Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung, Aasif Mandvi, Wole Parks, Henry O, Christopher Place. (PG-13, 90 mins)

While never quite crashing and burning, PREMIUM RUSH gets off to such an exhilirating, entertaining start that it feels a little more disheartening than you'd expect when it starts sputtering around the midpoint.  The major problem is that director/co-writer David Koepp (veteran journeyman screenwriter of films as varied as APARTMENT ZERO, JURASSIC PARK, CARLITO'S WAY, PANIC ROOM, and SPIDER-MAN among many others) can't settle on a tone, and has so many balls juggling throughout that he eventually just gives up and PREMIUM RUSH falls victim to what almost every real-time thriller succumbs:  the complete abandonment of anything resembling a plausible time element.  This is an inherently cartoonish thriller, starting with the central character's name, but Koepp plays so fast and loose with time that it becomes too distracting and too ludicrous to ignore.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Wilee, nicknamed "The Coyote," NYC's top bike messenger.  He's a law school graduate who never took the Bar because he thrives on the adrenaline, hates the idea of wearing a suit and working in an office, and just needs to ride!  It's what he does.  Around 5:15 pm, Wilee is dispatched to Columbia University to deliver an envelope from office employee Nima (Jamie Chung), who happens to be the roommate of Wilee's ex Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), with whom he happens to work, to an address in Chinatown by 7:00 pm, which means Wilee must essentially travel the entire length of NYC in under two hours, during rush hour.  With his fixed-gear, no-brake bike, Wilee sees it as a quick job, but things get complicated by the persistent interference of deranged detective Monday (Michael Shannon), who wants what's in Nima's envelope.  This sets the film off on what's essentially one long car vs. bike chase through the streets of Manhattan, and a lot of it is very exciting and impressively constructed, even with some subtle CGI enhancements.  Koepp occasionally pauses the action when Wilee hits an obstacle (red light, taxi door, pedestrian with a stroller, etc) so he can make a split-second decision on which way to go, and for a while, PREMIUM RUSH has the same sort of adrenalized feel of 2006's CRANK.  There's also some inside jokes for movie nerds, with one chase clearly referencing THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and a great running gag with a cackling, twitchy Monday, who's deep in debt to some loan sharks and Triad gangsters and thinks what's in the envelope will bail him out, repeatedly introducing himself as "Forrest J. Ackerman, from the Internal Revenue Service."

But this fun, freewheeling, over-the-top feel is ultimately discarded and the film becomes increasingly predictable and formulaic, and there's simply no way that all of this could take place in the time allotted by Koepp and John Kamps' script. Maybe we're not supposed to notice the bumper-to-bumper rush hour NYC traffic where Monday is still somehow magically able to drive his car beside the bike-riding Wilee at fast speeds while the two engage in back-and-forth smartass banter.  Koepp occasionally has a clock appear on the screen and he'll backtrack to earlier that day, to show, for instance, how Monday got into his predicament.  It's here where the cracks start to show, right around the time one of these backtracks seems to put Vanessa in two places at once. It's established that she's at work, but the script needs her to be back at her apartment in the middle of the workday--packing her belongings, no less, because Nima has asked her to move out, for reasons that have to do with what's in the envelope.  And right about that same time, Vanessa is shown leaving the messenger service's office to go on a delivery.  But the worst is when Koepp expects us to believe that Wilee collides with a taxi at 6:33 pm, and is then placed in an ambulance, driven in the ambulance while having a long conversation with a desperate, enraged Monday, then ends up in the backseat of Monday's car as the two drive to another location...by 6:38 pm?  In NYC?  And about four hours worth of incidents happen before Wilee, of course, just meets the 7:00 pm deadline, and it's already dark outside.  Dark at 6:59 pm, Eastern time?  On what's clearly established as a hot summer day?

At least Gordon-Levitt and Shannon are fun to watch, and Koepp makes effective use of NYC locations.  Shannon, in particular, is having a blast as the more-than-slightly unbalanced Monday in a performance that's fitting for the guy who's frequently been called his generation's Christopher Walken.  It's just too bad that PREMIUM RUSH falls victim to such lazy writing, which is shocking for someone with Koepp's level of experience.  Ultimately, the film's most interesting scene is an outtake early in the closing credits, showing the aftermath of a stunt gone awry when Gordon-Levitt flew off his bike and into the back window of a taxi.  The actor is shown with a gash down his right arm that required 31 stitches (the injury is written into the film, as Gordon-Levitt's arm is wrapped in some of the later scenes), and you can hear Koepp say "I think we better get you to the hospital."  The long-delayed PREMIUM RUSH was shot two years ago (as evidenced by a huge Times Square billboard for the endlessly-hyped, short-lived, and already-forgotten NBC series THE EVENT), and was originally set to be released in January 2012 before being bumped to late summer, most likely in an attempt to capitalize on Gordon-Levitt's supporting role in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

Gordon-Levitt immediately after an accident during filming

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: Slumming Actors Triple Feature: FREELANCERS (2012), ONE IN THE CHAMBER (2012), and ASSASSIN'S BULLET (2012)

(US - 2012)

FREELANCERS got a contractually-mandated "select theaters" release on probably a single-digit number of screens 11 days before its DVD/Blu-ray release, but don't let that fool you into thinking this isn't yet another garbage Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson DTV outing with a terrible screenplay and shoddy production values that make the Master P rapsploitation flicks of the mid '90s look professional by comparison.  FREELANCERS, a dreary, cliche-filled combo ripoff of TRAINING DAY and STREET KINGS, has received a little more attention than most Fiddy vehicles because of the baffling presence of Robert De Niro in a prominent supporting role.  Fiddy is rookie cop Jonas Maldonado, an ex-thug who gets pulled in with a squad of rogue cops led by his late cop dad's ex-partner Sarcone (De Niro), whose crew is brazenly on the take and answers to no one expect powerful drug lord Baez (the late Pedro Armendariz, in his last film).  Jonas is paired with coked-up psycho cop LaRue (an embarrassing Forest Whitaker, who was actually in STREET KINGS and seems to be turning into the African-American Nic Cage) and quickly spirals into a life of drugs and corruption until he teams up with a DEA agent (Michael McGrady) to bring down Sarcone. 

Everything here is the definition of by-the-numbers and the only surprise is that Val Kilmer is nowhere in sight. The script by L. Philippe Casseus is riddled with cumbersome exposition, laughable contrivances and no character consistency at all (Jonas: "Sarcone's been like a father to me!" Really?  Because you just met him; and Jonas doesn't recall that he witnessed his father's murder until the plot requires him to), and the amateur-night direction by Jessy Terrero (reuniting with Fiddy after their GUN triumph) is filled with continuity errors and he makes no effort at all to rein in an overacting Whitaker, turning in another in an alarming string of excruciatingly awful performances after THE EXPERIMENT and CATCH .44.  Whitaker does little more here than yell, twitch, snort blow, strut, and wave a gun around while barking absurd lines like "I can make you vanish!  POOF!"  What's going on with him?  THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND was only six years ago, folks.  And of course, being that Fiddy is one of 29 (!) credited producers, he gives himself a gratutious sex scene with hot bartender Beau Garrett (who co-starred with Whitaker on the awful CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR).  Vinnie Jones shows up long enough to do his "Fookin' 'ell, mate!" schtick as a Sarcone-Baez go-between who seems to be making a killing on old-ass 1990s computer monitors.  Dana Delany appears briefly as the wife of a dead D.A. and is rewarded with 19th billing and her name misspelled "Delaney" in the closing credits.  But the real story with FREELANCERS--other than the shocking decline in Forest Whitaker's acting ability--is a totally disinterested De Niro in the "Richard Harris-in-STRIKE COMMANDO 2" role of his career.  De Niro sleepwalks through this and looks mildly irritable throughout, forced to utter lines like "This is about money, fear, and respect!"  Eternal respect, Mr. De Niro, but I fear this one is just about the money. (R, 96 mins)

(US - 2012)

Dull and derivative Romania-shot thriller has hired assassin Carver (Cuba Gooding, Jr) botching a job and inadvertantly starting a war between rival Eastern European mob families.  One family calls in a second assassin, a burly Russian known as "The Wolf" (Dolph Lundgren) to finish Carver's job as well as Carver himself.  Any chances they'll come to some mutual respect and understanding and turn on the guys who hired them?  Maybe...if they don't kill each other first!  The confusing script leaves a lot unresolved or at the very least underwritten (Gooding's near-stalking of expat American Claudia Bassols is explained, but still doesn't make much sense), and Gooding is just a brooding bore throughout.  ONE IN THE CHAMBER is buoyed considerably by a funny and inspired performance by Lundgren as The Wolf.  Wearing loud Hawaiian-style tourist shirts and various porkpie hats, and with a cute dog sidekick he acquires from a target early on, Lundgren pretty easily walks away with the whole film, and you almost wish he was the central character.  He doesn't appear until nearly 30 minutes in, and from that point on, things really drag when he's offscreen.  Lundgren and the dog aside, ONE IN THE CHAMBER is generic and forgettable, but a step up from director William Kaufman's previous efforts, 2011's lame THE HIT LIST (also with Gooding), and the awful SINNERS AND SAINTS from earlier this year. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2012)

With insane DTV cult hits like U.S. SEALS II (2001), UNDISPUTED II: REDEMPTION (2006), and UNDISPUTED III: LAST MAN STANDING (2010), director Isaac Florentine has built a reputation as a genuine auteur in the world of straight-to-DVD.  It's hard to tell what he's up to with the painfully bad ASSASSIN'S BULLET.  A two-decades-late LA FEMME NIKITA redux fused with vaguely Hitchcockian elements, ASSASSIN'S BULLET might be Florentine trying to go "serious," but the results are simply dreadful.  There's a couple of passable foot chases, complete with Florentine's trademark zooms and whooshes, and one spectacularly-staged fight scene early on, but those high hopes are soon deflated.  Busy DTV star Christian Slater, who's starting to make Michael Madsen look choosy, is Robert Diggs, an attache at the US embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria.  Diggs is a former FBI agent who ran as far away from the job--and apparently, from common sense--as he could when his wife was killed by bullets meant for him.  He's recruited by Ashdown (Donald Sutherland), the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, to work with the Sofia police to search for a vigilante who's been offing suspected terrorists.  The vigilante is a brunette in tight leather pants and shades (Bulgarian actress/writer Elika Portnoy, who gets a "Story by" credit), who looks a lot like Vicky, the wife of a Sofia businessman as well as Ursula, a dancer at an area "folk club" with whom Diggs falls in love. 

It all has something to do with multiple personalities and brainwashing, and of course, you can never trust any big name actor who doesn't appear to have a lot to do with the plot, especially when he has the hero join up with people we know are killers and tell him "Your life's in their hands!" as the camera zooms in on his untrustworthy, grinning face. Slater and Sutherland are competent pros who are just on working Eastern European vacations here, but the film's biggest problem is Portnoy, who's not only a terrible actress, but--and there's no way to say this without sounding like a total dick--she has a bit of a crooked face and just looks...odd.  Which would be fine if she weren't playing a role that requires the hero to not know that she's wearing disguises. It's never believable for a second that a former FBI agent (or anyone with functioning eyesight) can't tell that blonde Vicky and red-wigged Ursula are the same person, especially when they both have a rather large mole above their right eye.


And who the hell watches an Isaac Florentine joint for scenes with Slater sensitively strumming an acoustic guitar as Portnoy improvs a Bulgarian folk song?  Florentine is the man when it comes to crazy DTV action, but he's seriously out of his element here and it feels like an Elika Portnoy vanity project that he simply ended up directing.  Also featuring Timothy Spall for some reason, ASSASSIN'S BULLET is a major disappointment from Florentine, and easily the director's worst film. (R, 91 mins)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: THE TURIN HORSE (2011)

(Hungary/France/Switzerland/Germany/US - 2011; 2012 US release)

Directed by Bela Tarr, Agnes Hranitzky.  Written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Bela Tarr.  Cast: Erika Bok, Janos Derszi, Mihaly Kormos, Ricsi.  (Unrated, 155 mins)

Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr, best known for the seven-and-a-half hour epic SATANTANGO (1994), announced his retirement from filmmaking with THE TURIN HORSE, which runs a relatively brief 155 minutes.  THE TURIN HORSE is grim, oppressive, slow, and monotonous, but Tarr finds beauty in the bleakness, with rich, stark, black & white cinematography that reveals every detail in the harsh confines of the characters' lives. 

Using the 1889 mental breakdown of Friedrich Nietzsche as its springboard (Nietzsche allegedly lost his mind after coming to the aid of a stubborn horse being whipped by its owner), THE TURIN HORSE follows the horse's aged owner (Janos Derszi) back to his home in the middle of a barren nowhere, where he lives with his dutiful daughter (Erika Bok).  We see the repetitions of their day over the course of a week.  Getting dressed, getting water from the well, boiling potatoes for breakfast and dinner, washing clothes by hand, chopping wood, and trying to tend to the obviously dying horse, who stops eating around day 3.  The deterioration quickly spreads like a disease. The horse can't pull the cart into town.  The well goes dry, which means they can't boil potatoes.  They can't get away because of a seemingly perpetual dust storm that never ceases raging.

THE TURIN HORSE sounds a lot like the kind of depressing foreign film that THE SIMPSONS mocked when Bart prank-called a bar in Sweden and asked for someone named "Olaf Myfriendsaregay."  That joke had a punchline where the bartender realizes it's a hoax and grimly thanks Bart for "showing me the futility of human endeavor."  That quote is very applicable to THE TURIN HORSE.  I was also reminded of Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN (1975) in the sense of showing how daily, clockwork routines and patterns get thrown off course and cause a chain reaction of increasingly dire circumstances.  The film also brought to mind Kelly Reichardt's MEEK'S CUTOFF (2011) in the way that it shows the processes of these days in seemingly real time.  There's a memorable scene in MEEK'S CUTOFF where 1840s frontier settler Michelle Williams spends about four minutes of screen time loading a shotgun...because that's how long it would really take.  Tarr and co-director Agnes Hranitzky started shooting THE TURIN HORSE in 2008, and it was a long, arduous process itself, as Tarr didn't complete the film until 2011.  As harsh and unflinchingly real as it is, THE TURIN HORSE has an almost hypnotic element to it.  Tarr's trademark long Steadicam takes are on full display, abetted by an unforgettable score by Mihaly Vig. Shots linger, sometimes in silence (there's very little dialogue) and for so long that you think you're looking at an old black & white photograph.  It's a dark, somber, and depressing film, but it's also a strangely beautiful one.

Monday, August 20, 2012

TONY SCOTT (1944-2012)

There's not much I can add to what's already been said over the course of the day.  The shocking bridge-jump suicide of veteran director Tony Scott has led to an outpouring of grief and condolences from all over the world.  Adding to the tragedy: Monday afternoon brought reports that the 68-year-old Scott was recently diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.

Tony Scott with favorite star Denzel Washington.  The pair
collaborated on five films from 1995-2010.

Until one takes a good look at his list of credits, it's easy to forget just how many hit films he made over the last 30 years, despite constantly being in the shadow of his more critically-acclaimed older brother Ridley Scott.  In the eyes of the critics, Ridley was always the visionary, Tony the journeyman hack.  And that is true to a certain extent, but considered as a whole, Tony Scott made some entertaining movies.  His were often a triumph of style over substance, and over the last decade, his style often relied on hyperactive camera work, sudden changes in film stock, and other jarring directorial tricks that, for better or worse, proved to be an influence on younger filmmakers.   Tony Scott made his mark, and had the kind of financially successful career of which most aspiring filmmakers can only dream.  Scott's TRUE ROMANCE (1993) is generally regarded as the closest he came to making a legitimate, critically-validated "classic" but he will never be considered a "great" director.  He wasn't John Ford.  He wasn't Akira Kurosawa.  He wasn't Stanley Kubrick.  His films never won any prestigious awards.  And like any director with a long career, he had his share of misfires (I've never been a TOP GUN fan, but I'd probably cite the headache-inducing 2009 remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 as his worst film), but Tony Scott made entertaining movies that audiences liked.  He made the kinds of movies that you happen upon while channel-surfing and end up watching all the way to the end, even if you've seen them multiple times already.  If you stumble on something like this scene from 1995's CRIMSON TIDE, there's no way you're not watching the rest of the movie.

While Scott served as a producer (through he and Ridley's Scott Free Productions) on a few projects that have yet to be released, the riveting 2010 runaway train thriller UNSTOPPABLE, starring his favorite actor Denzel Washington, is as good a film as any for him to go out on.  Tony Scott movies have been such a common presence for the last 30 years that it's hard to believe there won't be any more.

**UPDATE: Tony Scott's family has denied that he was suffering from brain cancer.**


TOP GUN (1986)


REVENGE (1990)





THE FAN (1996)


SPY GAME (2001)

MAN ON FIRE (2004)

DOMINO (2005)

DEJA VU (2006)