Saturday, November 30, 2013

In Theaters: OLDBOY (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Spike Lee.  Written by Mark Protosevich.  Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, Lance Reddick, Hannah Ware, Richard Portnow, Elvis Nolasco, Rami Malek, Caitlin Dulany, Cinque Lee. (R, 104 mins)

Park Chan-wook's 2003 film OLDBOY was the second part of the director's "Vengeance" trilogy of stand-alone films connected by the common theme of obsessive revenge, coming between 2002's SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and 2005's LADY VENGEANCE.  OLDBOY was the first to be released in the US, in the spring of 2005, and it became an immediate hit with cult and arthouse audiences for its savage violence, stylish direction, and creative set pieces, most notably a long, single-take sequence where the hero takes on an endless hallway full of thugs while armed with just a hammer, plus an instantly-legendary scene where the lead actor eats a live octopus.  Anchored by a galvanizing, ferocious performance by Choi Min-Sik and a devastating plot twist near the end, OLDBOY is almost universally considered a modern classic, so an American remake was inevitable.  It marks an unusual project for Spike Lee, who's in total director-for-hire mode here, bringing none of his usual style to the proceedings (it's very telling that it's "A Spike Lee Film" and not "A Spike Lee Joint").  After a moderate level of hype in past months, FilmDistrict dumped this on just 500 screens for Thanksgiving with almost no publicity other than star Josh Brolin entering rehab just a few days prior, and both Brolin and Lee voicing their displeasure that the producers took the project away from Lee during post-production, cutting anywhere from 35 to 60 minutes out of it, depending on who's telling the story.  This is also noteworthy as FilmDistrict's last release before folding and being absorbed by Focus Features, so it's obvious they're just doing the bare minimum here.  As far as American remakes for the subtitle-phobic go, OLDBOY isn't bad.  It frequently blunders and miscalculates, but admirably doesn't water-down or sugarcoat the shocking major reveal.  Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich (THE CELL, I AM LEGEND) also alter the rationale for the villain's actions, and believe it or not, that particular element is even more dark and twisted than in Park's original version.

In 1993, Joe Doucett (Brolin) is an alcoholic, asshole ad exec and deadbeat dad who's late with child support payments and his ex-wife is running out of patience.  After losing a lucrative deal when he drunkenly hits on the client's wife, Joe wanders around town in a stupor until he's abducted and held prisoner in a dingy hotel room.  There are no windows and he's fed twice a day and given a bottle of vodka.  He sees a news report that his ex-wife has been murdered and his DNA is all over the crime scene.  Days, weeks, years pass.  Every night, gas is released in the room and he passes out.  He watches TV (the inaugurations of Clinton and Bush and the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina indicate how much time is passing), befriends a family of mice that's ultimately served to him for dinner, uses the time to quit drinking, clear his head, and exercise obsessively.  He writes letters to his daughter Mia--who's been adopted by a new family and, as he learns from a TV show about his wife's murder and his own disappearance, grows up to be a cellist of some repute--vowing to prove his innocence and be a better father when he gets out. He writes an endless list of names of people he's wronged.  He watches the inauguration of Barack Obama.  After 20 years in this one room with no human contact, he's set free with a smartphone and wallet filled with money as he tries to piece together what happened and who is responsible.  He meets Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a recovering addict who works as a nurse at a free clinic, and after reading his letters to Mia, decides to help him in his quest for answers.

If you've seen Park's OLDBOY, then you know where the primary plot is headed.  And yes, Lee stages his own version of the hallway/hammer fight (which was previously ripped off by the forgettable Jude Law sci-fi dud REPO MEN) that goes on longer and is more elaborate but doesn't work as well.  Also not working as well is Lee's reliance on what looks like the finest CGI splatter technology that 1997 has to offer (one shotgun blast to the head is just embarrassing).  While Choi's performance in Park's film is hard to top, Brolin's level of commitment is undeniably impressive.  He both gained and lost weight for the role, then bulked up the muscle (in some scenes, he looks a lot like Brad Davis in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS).  While Joe adapts to 2013 life rather quickly (this may have played out more believably in Lee's original cut), Brolin is very good with his halting walk and confusing looks, almost looking like an animal at times.  There's even some chance for humor in some of his dialogue, as he incredulously asks Marie "I need to look at the Yellow Pages...where are all the pay phones?"  Olsen is charming as the kind-hearted Marie, a damaged soul who sees a strangely kindred spirit in this helpless man who's lost two decades of his life.  Where the film's biggest problems arise are with its villains.  Samuel L. Jackson has a minor supporting role as the guy overseeing Joe's imprisonment, but he's just an employee.  The real antagonist is billionaire Adrian Pryce, played by Sharlto Copley in a performance that can be charitably described as "odd."  In the original film, Yu Ji-tae played the villainous Lee Woo-jin as ruthless and mocking.  With perfectly-sculpted facial hair and eyebrows, and long, manicured fingernails, Copley plays Pryce as a preening, prissy hybrid of Vincent Price, Dr. Evil, and Paul Lynde.  Lee Woo-jin is cold and calculating.  Adrian Pryce is an effeminate, over-the-top Bond villain.  It doesn't work at all, and while Copley's only doing what he's been directed and scripted to do, his performance is an unmitigated disaster.  If I thought Lee watched any Eurotrash flicks at all, I'd swear he had Copley pattern his performance on some of cult actor John Steiner's more colorful turns in gems like SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS.

Lee and Protosevich ditch the original film's hypnotism element, which proves to be another big mistake.  By abandoning the hypnotism angle, they create some plausibility issues that Park managed to skate away from--for Pryce's plan to work, a lot of coincidences have to fall perfectly into place.  And in compiling his list of those he's harmed, it never occurs to Joe or his childhood buddy Chucky (Michael Imperioli) to think of Pryce?  The guy's a billionaire, so it's not like he lives an anonymous life.  And Pryce can just walk right into Chucky's bar and Chucky doesn't recognize this billionaire with whom he went to school?  And what did Chucky do with his private school education that he's now running a shitty bar?  And how does Pryce have a camera set up in the backroom of Chucky's shitty bar?  See?  Too many things fall perfectly into place.  At least in Park's version, you could say "Well, they were hypnotized and programmed to react a certain way when they heard this or saw that."  But in Lee's version--at least in its released state, that is-- it's just a string of ludicrously easy trips to Plot Convenience Playhouse.

Brolin's performance makes OLDBOY worth watching, but Lee's film still pales in comparison to Park's original.  Given the post-production tinkering and FilmDistrict's eventual dumping of it anyway, it has to be disheartening for the actor to have obviously invested a large amount of mental and physical exertion into his work only to have it go largely unnoticed if not outright dismissed.  Choi is an impossible act to follow as the protagonist of OLDBOY, but Brolin does his damnedest to match him and almost makes it.  It's too bad the same can't be said for the rest of the film.  Unlike some remakes, OLDBOY doesn't insult its source, but it doesn't add much to it, either.  Fans of the original will probably find it an interesting curio if nothing else.

In Theaters: HOMEFRONT (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Gary Fleder.  Written by Sylvester Stallone.  Cast: Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth, Izabela Vidovic, Frank Grillo, Clancy Brown, Rachelle Lefevre, Omar Benson Miller, Chuck Zito, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Marcus Hester, Lance E. Nichols. (R, 100 mins)

Based on a 2006 novel by Chuck Logan, HOMEFRONT was scripted by Sylvester Stallone, who intended to star before deciding he was too old for the lead and handed the project over to his fellow Expendable Jason Statham.  Stallone's script takes some liberties with Logan's novel, one of a series of thrillers featuring former Minnesota cop Phil Broker.  In the book, Broker, his wife, and daughter move to rural Minnesota as Broker tangles with local meth cookers.  In the movie, Broker (Statham) is a widower who moves with his ten-year-old daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic) to rural Louisiana two years after leading an undercover bust that resulted in the death of the son of biker kingpin Danny T (Chuck Zito).  When Maddy decks a bully at recess, it sets off a chain reaction of violence and revenge.  The bully's mother is white-trash tweaker Cassie Klum (Kate Bosworth), who goads her spineless husband Jimmy (Marcus Hester) into a fight with Broker, who easily kicks Jimmy's ass.  Broker approaches Jimmy at his job and apologizes and the two men agree to let it go, but Cassie isn't satisfied and approaches her older brother and local meth lord Gator Bodine (James Franco). When Broker easily handles a pair of Gator's stooges, Gator pops into the Broker home and snoops around, stealing Maddy's cat, a stuffed animal, and some Danny T files in Broker's basement.  Needing a powerful organization like Danny T's MC to help his meth distribution network, Gator enlists the aid of biker groupie and meth whore Sheryl (Winona Ryder) to bring in the incarcerated Danny T's crew, headed by the psychotic Cyrus (Frank Grillo), to take care of Broker and set up a sweet deal for himself in the process.  Obviously, things don't go according to plan for Gator or the bikers.

Looking a bit like what might happen if Statham was dropped into the middle of WINTER'S BONE by way of STRAW DOGS, HOMEFRONT is one of the action star's stronger efforts, and he's helped by an unusual supporting cast and some unexpected turns in the script.  I liked the way that the role of the antagonist kept shifting throughout the film:  first, it's Cassie, and when she runs to Gator after Broker kicks her husband's ass, Gator has other things to do and isn't really interested in her Broker issues but does it because he's her brother.  When Broker reaches a tentative truce with Cassie and her husband, it's too late to stop Gator, who now knows who Broker is and tries to use him to set up his deal with the bikers.  When crazed Cyrus enters the story about an hour in, he's so obsessed with vengeance that even Gator decides to keep his distance from what's about to go down.  For a few minutes, even Sheryl takes center stage as the villain when she kidnaps Maddy.  Some of the character arcs--Cassie, especially--aren't the most plausible and organic, but there's enough good things in Stallone's script to help you overlook some of its dumber elements:  maybe Broker should've found a better storage place for stacks of Bankers Boxes filled with top-secret DEA files than his basement.  More importantly, if he wants to avoid the vengeful biker gang that's vowed revenge for his being a narc, perhaps Phil Broker should be hiding under a more stealthy name than "Phil Broker."

Other than young Vidovic, who seems like a natural and works very well with Statham, nobody really stretches their talents here, though the idea of Franco as the bad guy in a Jason Statham action movie works better than it sounds.  Workaholic Franco (who has 12 IMDb credits for 2013 and ten for 2014) seems like an actor who will try every kind of movie once, and he handles the stock bad guy role well.  There was a time when the idea of Ryder taking a supporting role in a macho action flick would've seemed unthinkable.  Her career may not be where it once was, but she brings some credibility to the proceedings, and it's a nice to see her and Franco working together in a real movie after their LETTER triumph from last year.  A frighteningly thin Bosworth doesn't have a lot to do after the initial plot set-up, but she really nails the bad-tempered, chip-on-her-shoulder, pissed-off-about-everything nature of her character.  Director Gary Fleder (THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD, KISS THE GIRLS, DON'T SAY A WORD, RUNAWAY JURY) isn't really an "action" guy but he's in journeyman mode here, and gets the job done for the most part, except for a couple of unfortunate instances of shaky-cam and one dubious CGI car roll courtesy of executive producer Avi Lerner's usual Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


(US - 2013)

After a nine-year hiatus, Chucky is back for the sixth entry in the 25-year-old CHILD'S PLAY franchise.  For the most part, CURSE OF CHUCKY plays it surprisingly serious--as serious as a movie about a doll possessed by a serial killer can be--largely jettisoning the direction into outright comedy that writer Don Mancini took with 1998's BRIDE OF CHUCKY and as the director of 2004's SEED OF CHUCKY.  It's hard to make Chucky threatening again after showing him getting caught jerking off to an issue of Fangoria, but CURSE is a mostly straight-faced and above-average DTV outing that allows Mancini to wear his love of cult horror on his sleeve.  Filled with countless homages and winking references to things like PSYCHO, the "disabled woman in peril" and "old dark house" formulas, gialli, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, Pino Donaggio, elaborately-staged and very splattery OMEN-style murders, and one nicely-done shot that manages to include a shout-out to Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS while pulling off a De Palma split-diopter, CURSE OF CHUCKY has plenty more going on for horror fans than just the titular character's antics.

When her mother apparently commits suicide shortly after receiving the Chucky doll in an anonymous package, paraplegic Nica (Fiona Dourif, daughter of Chucky voice actor Brad) can't shake her odd feeling about the doll's strange presence.  Nica is also dealing with her high-strung, control-freak older sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti) who's pressuring her to sell their mother's house because she and her husband (Brennan Elliott) are having serious financial problems that still don't prevent them from employing a full-time au pair (Maitland McConnell) for their daughter Alice (Summer Howell).  After poisoning a family friend and local priest (A Martinez), it doesn't take long for Chucky to prowl through the house and start offing the obnoxious family members one by one before his final showdown with Nica.  Chucky is still a wisecracking smartass (after electrocuting a female character, he quips "Women...can't live with 'em.  Period"), but Mancini tones down the comedy significantly, and for much of its running time, CURSE almost functions as if BRIDE and SEED didn't happen.  It frequently references "Andy Barclay," the young character played by Alex Vincent in the first two films and by Justin Whalin in the third, and goes into some events that led to Chucky storing the soul of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, now 63, sports a hilariously terrible black wig and looks like THE ROOM's Tommy Wiseau in a couple of newly-shot flashback sequences) prior to the events of CHILD'S PLAY.  Only very late in the game does Mancini drop the ball when he starts piling on one false ending after another to make BRIDE and SEED tie in, and the final ending (well, not counting the additional post-credits ending that's only in the unrated cut) is pretty lame.  While it doesn't work all the way through, CURSE OF CHUCKY is unexpectedly solid and unpredictable for a straight-to-DVD sixth entry in an aging franchise, Fiona Dourif makes a very appealing heroine, and horror fans will really enjoy spotting the many shout-outs and references.  (R, 95 mins/Unrated, 97 mins)

(US - 2013)

At the end of the 1969 classic EASY RIDER, when two shotgun-toting rednecks blew away bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), do you remember thinking "Great flick, but I need to know more...like the backstory of Wyatt's younger brother and their cranky dad!"?  Yeah, neither do I.  But that didn't stop Cincinnati attorney and EASY RIDER superfan Phil Pitzer from somehow clearing the legal hurdles and self-financing one of the most unwarranted sequels in the history of cinema.  Filmed in California and Ohio in 2009, the long-delayed (but not long enough) EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK is an amateur-night clusterfuck from the start, a total vanity project for Pitzer, who co-wrote the script and stars as Wyatt's brother Morgan.  40 years after Wyatt was killed, Morgan is summoned by his younger sister Shane (Sheree J. Wilson, who also co-produced), who tells him that their father Hickok (Newell Alexander) is near death.  Riding Wyatt's refurbished old bike, Morgan hits the road with his buddy West Coast (Jeff Fahey), traveling cross-country to Shane's to reconcile with the old man.  Through a series of confusing flashbacks, we see that Hickok, who still suffers from WWII-related PTSD and refuses to enter Shane's house until she raises a flag, was proud of the Vietnam service of his eldest son Virgil (yes, they're all named after the Earps), but resented Wyatt, who left home after the death of their mother.  Wyatt was a big influence on young Morgan, who became what Hickok deemed a "gutless hippie" when he burned his draft notice and refused to serve in Vietnam.  Virgil returned from Vietnam a changed man and disappeared, and with Morgan and the old man estranged, it's been up to Shane, who lost her son in Iraq, to take care of the irascible Hickok, who's still mad about how the 1960s destroyed his family.

Jesus, this movie is awful.  In the hands of Pitzer and director/co-writer Dustin Rikert, a veteran of many of those no-budget westerns you see in the DVD new releases at Wal-Mart, this is really just R-rated, maudlin Hallmark Channel sentimentality that tries to shamelessly cash in on the legacy of an iconic film.  Even if the film had a reason to exist, there's still no excuse for the wretched and appallingly wrong-headed execution.  The mumbling Pitzer is one of the worst actors you'll ever see, immediately taking his place beside Tommy Wiseau in THE ROOM and John De Hart in GETEVEN in delusional vanity project infamy.  Pitzer, who apparently didn't allot any of the film's budget to go toward acting lessons for himself, is so bad that he brings everyone else around him down, especially Wilson, who's not exactly Meryl Streep but the DALLAS and WALKER: TEXAS RANGER co-star has always been at least competent and professional.  A scenery-chewing Fahey is limited to little more than "Woo-hoo"'s and "Yee-haaaah!"'s as West Coast, and if your TV screen is dusty and you squint really hard, he and Pitzer almost resemble Hopper and Fonda in their endless riding scenes set to generic country-rock songs that sound like watered-down Don Henley.  Michael Nouri also turns up as Shane's asshole ex-husband, Cincinnati Reds great Johnny Bench has a bit as a baseball scout (is Pitzer his lawyer?), and Ron Howard's dad Rance plays one of Hickok's old war buddies, prompting even Clint Howard to look away in shame.  There's no sense of filmmaking ability or competence on any level.  The sound is so off that Pitzer, in what I strongly suspect will be a one-and-done venture into the movies, is often barely audible, and with no one around to stop him from going all-in on every self-indulgent whim, you get things like Morgan stopping off at a deserted ghost town while some Michael Bolton knock-off sings a piano-accompanied version of "America the Beautiful" as Pitzer's voiceover warns "We've got to start taking better care of this planet."  Whatever it was that Pitzer was attempting here, he blew it. (R, 99 mins)

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Theaters: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

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On DVD/Blu-ray: VIOLET & DAISY (2013) and DEAD IN TOMBSTONE (2013)

(US - 2013)

The directing debut of Oscar-winning PRECIOUS screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, VIOLET & DAISY is an oddity that starts as an almost chick-flick version of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS before becoming a stagy character study.  It's a little too "cute" at times, only very rarely crossing the line into "quirky." It could almost be a play, and it definitely feels like the kind of movie made by a screenwriter stepping behind the camera for the first time.  Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are two teenaged assassins about to start a much-deserved vacation when they get a call about a quick-money hit from their handler Russ (Danny Trejo):  rub out a guy who stole some money from their boss.  Wanting some time off but needing some extra money to buy matching dresses from the trendy clothing line of teen pop sensation Barbie Sunday (Cody Horn), Violet and Daisy take the assignment.  Arriving at the target's apartment only to find he's out, they wait for him but fall asleep on his couch.  When the schlubby target (James Gandolfini) arrives home, he covers them with a blanket and gives them cookies and milk when they wake up.  The girls unexpectedly bond with the target, who turns out to be a nice guy who's had some shitty luck, and find it difficult to pull the trigger, causing them to re-examine their own friendship and working partnership while the boss sends his top assassin (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to trail them in case they can't complete the job.

VIOLET & DAISY doesn't always work, and it belongs to that KILLING THEM SOFTLY and THE AMERICAN school of denying audiences the kind of payoff that the set-up seems to ensure (I imagine this would've gotten an "F" from the insipid CinemaScore had it opened wide), but it has its moments amid the inconsistencies.  Ronan and Bledel are quite good, and they get a great intro dressed as nuns, mowing down a roomful of mobsters to the tune of Merrilee Rush's version of "Angel of the Morning."  Other odd touches include the pair being prone to hopscotch and lollipops, riding a large tricycle to a job, and Daisy playing patty-cake with Russ while talking over their assignment.  The joke, of course, is that they're basically little girls in a cold, violent profession, though Violet--played by a well-cast Bledel, who's about a decade older than she looks--hides that she's a bit more hard-edged and worldly and tries to shield that from the naïve and childlike Daisy; Violet is almost like a few-years-older version of Natalie Portman's Matilda from Luc Besson's THE PROFESSIONAL.  At times, there's a bit of a SUCKER PUNCH thing going on here as well, though VIOLET & DAISY was shot in 2010, well before that film's release.  It's also worth a look for the always-excellent work of the late and already much-missed Gandolfini, who died two weeks after the film's belated, 17-screen theatrical release in June 2013.  At just 88 minutes, the film feels a bit hacked down (a pre-OFFICE and MAGIC MIKE Horn is in the credits but is only seen on a magazine cover and a billboard) and hits and misses in equal measure, but the fine performances of the leads make it an interesting curiosity, as does Gandolfini's brief reunion with his SOPRANOS co-star John Ventimiglia.  (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2013)

With films like DEATH RACE 2, DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO, THE MARINE 2, and THE SCORPION KING 3 to his credit, Dutch director Roel Reine is usually mentioned along with Isaac Florentine and John Hyams as a top name in the world of straight-to-DVD.  The surprisingly entertaining DEATH RACE 3, in particular, demonstrated that Reine--who frequently functions as his own cinematographer and camera operator--was adept at making low-budget action films look like big-screen contenders.  The idea of Reine helming a supernatural western is full of potential, but DEAD IN TOMBSTONE is a disappointment, primarily because he falls into the trap of shaky-cam action sequences that reduce everything to jittery, headache-inducing incoherence.  Reine's camera never stops moving and swirling, and he also gets a little too distracted with directorial wankery, usually in the form of bizarre POV shots that bring to mind what a spaghetti western might look like if Sergio Leone had access to a Skycam.

The outlaw Blackwater Gang, led by Guerrero de la Cruz (Danny Trejo) and his half-brother Red Cavanaugh (Anthony Michael Hall), arrives in the small mining town of Edendale to steal some gold from a bank vault.  They successfully steal the gold, but the psychotic Red kills the sheriff (Daniel Lapaine) and goads the rest of the gang into killing Guerrero.  Trapped in a Purgatory that looks like a leftover SILENT HILL set, Guerrero makes a deal with the Devil--who appears in the form of a philosophical blacksmith (Mickey Rourke)--to save his soul in exchange for the six remaining members of the Blackwater Gang.  A year later, Guerrero pulls a HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and shows up in Edendale--now taken over by the power-mad Red and renamed Tombstone--to exact his revenge.  There's no reason that this shouldn't be a fun B-movie, but Reine can't restrain himself and just shoot a sequence in a straightforward fashion.  He wants to go for a classic Sam Raimi feel with a contemporary, video-game aesthetic--Reine's a talented genre director but he's not Raimi and the results are simply eye-glazingly dull.  If he'd just buckled down and made a normal-looking western, he might've had a minor cult movie on his hands instead of the forgettable DTV throwaway it turned out to be. Trejo is perfectly cast, Hall has some fun playing a dastardly villain, and Dina Meyer is good as the sheriff's vengeance-obsessed widow.  Rourke, presumably here because he torched the last remaining bridge built after his short-lived WRESTLER renaissance by walking off of SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and trash-talking its director, Martin McDonagh (Woody Harrelson replaced him), looks even worse here than he did in JAVA HEAT.  Reine directed the 2008 Steven Seagal dud PISTOL WHIPPED and seems to employ some classic Seagal tactics here as he has a bloated Rourke a) wearing a big duster in a hapless attempt to conceal his gut, and b) dubbed by someone else in most of his scenes.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why Rourke--who has a distinct sound--has an obviously different voice on and off throughout.  Perhaps a plot point was changed and this was the best they could do rather than deal with him coming back to record some new dialogue?   DEAD IN TOMBSTONE makes impressive use of some unlikely locations in Romania, utilizing some still-standing COLD MOUNTAIN sets that have been seen in several westerns since (the History Channel miniseries HATFIELDS & MCCOYS was also shot in Romania), but when it's all said and done, it's unfortunately a missed opportunity.  Available in both R-rated and unrated versions, the R-rated running 99:59 and the unrated 99:58.  What the hell is that all about?  (R/Unrated, both 100 mins)

Friday, November 15, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: FRANCES HA (2013) and I DECLARE WAR (2013)

(Brazil/US - 2013)

Since his acclaimed 1995 debut KICKING AND SCREAMING, writer/director Noah Baumbach has made a name for himself in indie circles but is probably still best known for his two screenwriting collaborations with friend Wes Anderson on the latter's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004) and FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009).  I've always found Baumbach the more interesting filmmaker, often coming off like the dark side of Anderson, though I realize I'm in the minority by not buying much of what Anderson is selling.  Baumbach got a lot of attention for his devastating THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), but his next film, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007) proved too caustically abrasive for most audiences to handle, and though it features a career-best Nicole Kidman performance, it's almost unbearably uncomfortable at times, which is why it might be Baumbach's masterpiece.  2010's GREENBERG followed along those same lines, though the uncharacteristically dark Ben Stiller vehicle was stolen by co-star Greta Gerwig.  Gerwig, generally considered the face of the indie "mumblecore"  movement, brought out a more uplifting side to Baumbach's filmmaking that really resonates in the director's latest film, FRANCES HA, which Baumbach co-wrote with the actress.

Drawing inspiration from the French New Wave and Woody Allen, the black & white FRANCES HA is also a sort-of mumblecore ANNIE HALL, though comparisons to the HBO series GIRLS would probably be appropriate (Gerwig isn't the provocateur that Lena Dunham is).  Frances (Gerwig) is a 27-year-old college graduate and aspiring dancer in NYC who can't seem to get her act together.  Her shaky semblance of stability falls apart when she can't commit to moving in with her boyfriend, which ends the relationship, and then her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter) decides to move to Tribeca, an area Frances can't afford.  Unable to pay the rent on her own, Frances jumps from one temporary living arrangement to another, starting with two platonic male friends, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), who share a $4000/month loft with apparent help from a parental allowance (unemployed Benji spends his days penning unsolicited scripts for SNL and a third GREMLINS movie), and moving on to a dance academy acquaintance (Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep's lookalike daughter).  Frances often behaves erratically and seems emotionally stunted, and especially can't handle Sophie getting serious with boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger), since she always felt the two of them were like "an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex anymore."  Sophie is ready for adulthood and Frances is not (one of Lev's friends tells Frances "You look a lot older than Sophie, but you act a lot younger").  Unlike past Baumbach protagonists, Frances seems to have his sympathy and even when she's frustrating and obnoxious, which is a lot of the time, Gerwig makes you like this character.  She's struggling to find her place and like many of her friends, she's been coddled her entire life.  Very few of these people have jobs that can support their lifestyles (for a far more bitterly misanthropic look at this very NYC phenomenon, check out the Williamsburg hipster/trust-fund-kid-eviscerating THE COMEDY).  Perpetually irresponsible Frances impulsively flies off to Paris for two days--spending the bulk of it sleeping off the jetlag--simply because she got a new credit card in the mail.  But she means well.  Gerwig brings out the sweet side of Baumbach, never one to shy away from depicting people at their ugliest.  She's an actress who can be off-putting when you first experience her style, but she's very good at balancing the charming and grating elements of a character's personality, and she does it without being "quirky."  There's a lot of funny lines--Frances complaining about being poor and Benji telling her "You calling yourself poor is an insult to poor people," and Frances, allowed to smoke in Lev's apartment, quipping "This makes me feel like a bad mother in 1987"--but FRANCES HA (the title doesn't make sense until the very last shot) is perhaps a bit on the overrated side.  It's a good film, but I'm just not sold on it being a great one.  I'm not sure it's worthy of already being a Criterion Collection release, though that could be Baumbach's association with Criterion darling Anderson.  (R, 86 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

(Canada - 2013)

Mixing elements of STAND BY ME with LORD OF THE FLIES and the 1994 cult film WAR OF THE BUTTONS, the Canadian indie I DECLARE WAR offers an inventive concept and some disturbingly subversive imagery but eventually belabors its point into heavy-handedness.  It's an interesting film, but I'm just not sure there's enough there to carry it to feature-length.  Directed by Jason Lepeyre and Robert Wilson, and scripted by Lepeyre, I DECLARE WAR has a group of kids playing Capture the Flag in a wooded area.  As if putting the viewer in the mindset of the kids, the directors show them firing guns and blowing each other away, but they're alive again after they count to ten.  We know they're just playing with sticks and branches, but in their heads, they're using weaponry.  Lepeyre's script also has them using war-movie jargon that's intermittently broken up by things like "Wanna come over after War?"  One side is represented by the strategy-obsessed P.K. (Gage Munroe), a military history fanatic whose side has never lost.  His opponent is Quinn (Aiden Gouveia), who's overthrown and "killed" (with a red water balloon "grenade") in a coup engineered by the angry Skinner (Michael Friend).  Skinner takes P.K.'s best friend Kwon (Siam Yu) as a prisoner of war to lure P.K. to their base.  Skinner uses "enhanced interrogation" on Kwon and clearly has a personal beef with both Kwon and P.K. and uses this day's game of Capture the Flag to exact his vengeance.

I DECLARE WAR showcases some fine young actors, all of whom are excellent, even if a major subplot about the one tomboyish female participant, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), is a bit hazy and not very fleshed-out (she has a crush on Quinn, imagining herself spending the afternoon with him as he appears as a "ghost" to her because he's "dead"--he actually just went home after Skinner "killed" him).  But even when the script stumbles, the cast have a natural screen presence that's often quite remarkable.  While they may not always succeed with their story, Lepeyre and Wilson did an outstanding job of picking their actors (Munroe is excellent as P.K., the kind of kid who bores all of his friends by making them watch PATTON when they come over to his house).  There's a lot of strengths to I DECLARE WAR, but it's an allegorical story that would probably play much better as a short story than as a 90-minute film where, once the central conceit is established and you're over the shock of seeing kids mowing one another down in a "game," it just starts to feel overly contrived and keeps spinning its wheels to a certain degree.  (Unrated, 94 mins)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: GRABBERS (2013) and DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS (2013)

(Ireland/UK - 2012; 2013 US release)

The Irish import GRABBERS is a throwback to the kind of fun, crowd-pleasing monster movies that you don't see much of these days.  The pace lags at times and it doesn't balance the humor and horror as deftly as say, an Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg film, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable B-movie that's made for fans, by fans.  After a strange object crashes into the sea off the coast of the small and distant Erin Island, three fisherman are killed by tentacled creatures who attack from the water.  Meanwhile, the local Garda chief is going on vacation for two weeks, leaving the island's only other cop, depressed alcoholic O'Shea (Richard Coyle, from the recent PUSHER remake) in charge, with temporary fill-in Lisa (Ruth Bradley) on loan from the mainland.  As the tentacled creatures--and their hatching eggs--are working their way to the island, drunk local fisherman Paddy (Lalor Roddy) manages to capture one of them after it starts to attack him but stops as if falling suddenly ill.  When the same captured creature--dubbed a "grabber" by Paddy--attacks a drunk-on-duty O'Shea and again becomes violently ill, scientist Dr. Smith (Russell Tovey) deduces that the Grabbers are allergic to alcohol.  With the waters too infested for help to come from the mainland, and with the Grabbers rapidly making their way to Erin Island to chow down on the locals, O'Shea comes up with the only way at his disposal to immediately take them on:  have everyone on the island meet at the local pub and get completely shitfaced.

From the close proximity of the term "grabber" to "graboid," 1990's sleeper hit TREMORS is probably the foremost influence on GRABBERS.  But there's also a lot of James Gunn's underappreciated 2006 gem SLITHER in there as well, plus JAWS and even some GREMLINS once the baby Grabbers hatch.  There's also a hilarious ALIENS riff as a forklift-driving Lisa confronts a giant Grabber ("Get away from him, ya cunt!").  As if those weren't enough, the score by Christian Henson is equal parts John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Akira Ikufube.  Coyle is a likable hero and he and Bradley make a good team--of course his O'Shea will grow up and her uptight Lisa will loosen up as the movie goes on.  The CGI work on the Grabbers is surprisingly well-done and the overall feeling of GRABBERS is one of an old-school monster movie--the kind that would've been really popular in the late '80s.  The gore is very minimal, and if you take away the F-and-C-bombs, it could easily be a PG-13 hit in 1988 from the Spielberg camp or from a director like a Joe Dante, a Robert Zemeckis, or maybe a Fred Dekker.  Director Jon Wright and screenwriter Kevin Lehane demonstrate a strong affinity for this type of film and is shows from start to finish, even when the midsection drags a little more than it should.  Suspenseful and with engaging characters and actors, and an occasionally sick sense of humor (I love the bit where a smarter-than-you'd-think Grabber uses a human as a puppet-on-a-string bait to lure a hapless islander out of his house), GRABBERS hits a lot more than it misses and fans will find it well worth their time.  (Unrated, 94 mins)

(US - 2013)

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM's Jeff Garlin co-wrote, directed, and stars in this self-indulgent home movie that serves no real purpose other than allowing him to hang out with some of his comedy friends.  There's a sharp satire to be made about aggressively over-involved parents sucking all the fun out of Little League baseball, but the dull and pointless DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS isn't it.  Essentially playing himself, Garlin is Max, a comedian who can't believe the boorish behavior of some of the parents at his son's baseball games.  So he decides to interview them individually to see if he can mine some material for a possible movie project.  The rest of the film--other than a climactic meltdown that's easily the most painfully unfunny moment of Garlin's career--is Max meeting up with the parents and the coaches as Garlin steps aside and lets the various actors riff and improv.  Imagine a Christopher Guest mockumentary where nearly every joke landed with a thud and you'll get some idea of what an endless slog this feels like.  Some of the cast members provide fleeting moments of mild amusement:  Richard Kind makes the line "Take a ride in my brand new Camry" sound funny, Fred Willard--whose presence just reminds you that Guest could've worked wonders with such a premise--really sells the term "charity romp," and Jami Gertz, wearing a shirt that reads "Team Mom," viciously nails the high-strung, helicopter-parenting, control-freak supermom who's just way too into it.   But you know everyone's having an off-day when guys like J.B. Smoove and Bob Odenkirk just babble on without getting any laughs.  Also with Gina Gershon and Kerri Kenney-Silver as lesbian parents, Nia Vardalos as Max's wife, Vardalos' husband Ian Gomez as the Little League commissioner Gordon, which gives Garlin a chance to make Batman references so forced and awkward that you can practically hear crickets chirping, and Timothy Olyphant as the ghost of Max's dad.  Don't ask.  Better yet, don't watch.  Garlin's a funny guy and a great straight man, and his MARTY-inspired 2007 film I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH is a funny and heartfelt little sleeper, but DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS is just a DOA dud from the start.  (Unrated, 87 mins)

Friday, November 8, 2013

In Theaters: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Steve McQueen.  Written by John Ridley.  Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Garret Dillahunt, Adepero Oduye, Michael Kenneth Williams, J.D. Evermore, Andy Dylan, Kelsey Scott, Quevenzhane Wallis, Bill Camp, Chris Chalk, Tony Bentley, Christopher Berry, Liza J. Bennett.  (R, 134 mins)

Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir is adapted into a typically brutal and unflinching offering from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who previously gave us the similarly harrowing hunger-strike chronicle HUNGER (2008) and the NC-17 sex addiction drama SHAME (2011).  McQueen has already made his mark as a noteworthy modern filmmaker, but 12 YEARS A SLAVE shows he can make a commercial, mainstream film without watering down his pursuit of graphic and ugly realism.  This is a gut-wrenching, upsetting, and horrifying film, and arguably the most unblinking, in-your-face depiction of slavery that you're likely to see.  It's not hyperbole to compare it to SCHINDLER'S LIST as the final cinematic word on a specific subject. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northrup, a free black man in 1841 Saratoga, known and respected throughout the community as a violinist, artist, and family man.  When his wife is out of town with their two children, Solomon meets two circus performers (Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam), who talk him into taking a lucrative gig in Washington, D.C.  They get him drunk and he wakes up chained in a room.  Rechristened Platt, Solomon is taken to Louisiana and sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Ford is a slave owner, but is relatively kindly, and respects "Platt" for his obvious intelligence and his construction skills after he takes charge of devising a more efficient waterway transport for him.  This angers Tibeats (Paul Dano), a sadistic Ford plantation overseer who tries to lynch Platt after starting a fight with him and embarrassingly losing.  Realizing he can't have Platt and Tibeats working together, Ford transfers the debt of Platt's acquisition to cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, who starred in HUNGER and SHAME).  Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) are a monstrous couple, abusive to their slaves, whipping them if they fall short of the 200 lb/day cotton quota.  Epps has also been forcing himself on slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), which causes her to be a constant target of Mistress Epps' jealous rages.  Before arriving at Epps' plantation, Solomon/Platt repeatedly tries to explain that he's a free man, but it only gets him into trouble, as does his inability to stand idly by while those around him are being treated so unjustly.

Working from a script by John Ridley (THREE KINGS, UNDERCOVER BROTHER, RED TAILS), McQueen pulls no punches with 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  The language and imagery are harsh, as they should be (Patsey is given the most vicious whipping this side of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST).  It's hard not to get angry as Solomon is let down by nearly everyone:  the circus performers (it's odd to see SNL standout Taran Killam as one of the film's chief villains), people in positions of power who won't listen to him, even the kindly Ford, who cares about Platt to some extent but still puts profits before the slave's well-being.  When Platt pleads with Ford to not give him to Epps and starts to explain that he's a free man from Saratoga, Ford can only say "I don't want to know."  When Solomon/Platt is sold to the Fords along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a single mother who has her two children taken away from her by a cruel slave trader (Paul Giamatti), Eliza can't stop crying, and Ford's wife (Liza J. Bennett) brushes her off with "Get some sleep and some food and you'll forget those children soon enough."

12 YEARS A SLAVE features career-best work from Ejiofor, and Fassbender, who should've gotten Oscar nods for both HUNGER and SHAME, turns in yet another performance that demonstrates he's one of the best actors at work today.  Where most directors handling a subject like this would have the villains played as cackling moustache-twirlers, McQueen makes them ugly and real.  Fassbender and Paulson create one of the most loathsome screen couples in ages.  I also liked what McQueen did with Cumberbatch's Ford, presenting him as conflicted about his feelings but still cynically putting himself and his money first.  There's a number of familiar faces in smaller roles:  Alfre Woodard as a former slave who pragmatically became a plantation mistress; Michael Kenneth Williams (BOARDWALK EMPIRE's Chalky White) as a too-small bit as a rebellious slave; and Brad Pitt as Bass, a Canadian carpenter who warns Epps that the slave owner's day of reckoning is coming.  Difficult to watch and impossible to forget, 12 YEARS A SLAVE suffers from occasionally stilted dialogue but is otherwise masterful moviemaking and one of the year's best films.

In Theaters: ALL IS LOST (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor.  Cast: Robert Redford. (PG-13, 105 mins)

A stellar late-career achievement for 77-year-old Robert Redford, ALL IS LOST contains the most sparse use of dialogue of any major release since THE ARTIST.  Redford is the entire cast in this harrowing saga of a man adrift in a yacht in the Indian Ocean.  The film opens with an unseen Redford narrating a letter written by the character:  "I'm sorry.  I know that means little at this point, but I tried."  Cut to eight days earlier, as Redford is stirred awake by a stray shipping container colliding with the yacht and creating a hole in the hull.  Water pours in, but Redford (the character is billed as "Our Man") calmly and methodically goes to work patching the hole and draining the water from the boat.  Most of his equipment is damaged and he's unable to radio for help.  He's soon faced with inclement weather and a torrential storm, which capsizes the yacht and damages it beyond repair.  He opts for the life raft with little rations or hope of imminent rescue, using his nautical skills to chart when he'll drift into commercial shipping territory and out of the open water.

ALL IS LOST sounds like it would be a dull and dry CAST AWAY retread, but in the hands of writer/director J.C. Chandor (MARGIN CALL), it's fast-paced and exciting.  Every creak and gurgle in the sinking yacht and every splashing wave ratchets up the tension.  Its only real stumble is some typically unconvincing greenscreen CGI during a storm when Redford is trying to steer the yacht.  Of course, it's Redford, in his best role in years, that makes it work as well as it does. We learn very little about "Our Man," other than what we can deduce: he's regretful of past decisions that have hurt loved ones, he's resourceful, and he prefers (or accepts) solitude.  With a career going back over 50 years, Redford's never been a showy actor known for "big" scenes or iconic one-liners (his only Oscar nomination for acting came for 1973's THE STING; he lost to Jack Lemmon in SAVE THE TIGER).  Among his legendary contemporaries who hit their stride in the 1970s, Redford doesn't have a "You talkin' to me?" or "You can't handle the truth!" or "Hoo-aaah!" or "Go ahead, make my day" moment for his career highlight reel.  His acting style has always been sparse and his work in ALL IS LOST is about as internalized as it gets.  Chandor stays focused on the actor throughout, letting Redford's actions, his eyes, and the lines in his aged face tell the story.  Of any living legends, De Niro, Nicholson, Pacino, or Eastwood couldn't have played this part as effectively. I could see Paul Newman pulling it off if it had it been made 10 or 15 years ago, and again, his acting style was similar to Redford's.  But you don't hire those other guys so they can be quiet.  On his Facebook page, filmmaker Rod Lurie, who directed Redford in 2001's THE LAST CASTLE, praised his performance in ALL IS LOST and wrote that "When we made THE LAST CASTLE, Bob sat down with me and we went through the script page by page, and he took a red marker and started crossing off lines and whole sections of his dialogue, saying 'I can sell this without saying it.'"   And other than the brief opening voiceover, two failed attempts at calling for help on the radio and a cry for help at a passing ship that doesn't see him, the only dialogue Redford has is, after several days at sea and reaching his breaking point, an anguished and enraged "FUUUUUUUUUCK!" which may very well be his YouTube-worthy moment of over-the-top emoting.