Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In Theaters: BRICK MANSIONS (2014)

(France/Canada - 2014)

Directed by Camille Delamarre.  Written by Luc Besson. Cast: Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy, Catalina Denis, Ayisha Issa, Carlo Rota, Bruce Ramsay, Andreas Apergis, Frank Fontaine, Richard Zeman, Robert Maillet, Ron Lea, Mark Camacho. (PG-13, 90 mins)

The 2004 French-language Luc Besson production BANLIEUE 13 became a blockbuster hit in Europe before its 2006 US release as DISTRICT B13 (which led to the 2009 sequel DISTRICT B13: ULTIMATUM) and succeeded in both the mainstreaming of parkour and putting Besson protege and future TAKEN director Pierre Morel on the map.  Given the ubiquitousness of parkour over the subsequent years--including a memorable action sequence in 2006's 007 reboot CASINO ROYALE--it seems odd that Besson would not only fashion a belated, demanded-by-no-one English-language remake now but also that he would utilize one of BANLIEUE's stars, French parkour master David Belle, in the same role he played a decade ago. Again scripted by Besson (with regular collaborator Robert Mark Kamen credited as "artistic consultant") and directed by another in the seemingly endless line of Besson disciples--in this case, his frequent editor Camille Delamarre, making his feature directing debut--BRICK MANSIONS moves the action from the slums of Paris to a walled-off housing project in the near-future war zone of Detroit in 2018.

Brick Mansions is controlled by Tremaine (RZA), a ruthless drug lord and red pepper culinary enthusiast who's enraged over a drug shipment jacked and destroyed by Lino (Belle), a do-gooder who's lived in Brick Mansions his whole life and is sick of Tremaine and his goons running things.  Brick Mansions is under constant guard by police and military personnel, all of whom are on Tremaine's payroll, which Lino finds out the hard way when he brings Tremaine to them only to be tossed in prison himself for killing a cop in the ensuing melee.  Enter undercover Detroit narcotics detective Damien Collier (the late Paul Walker), who just nabbed high-ranking gangster George the Greek (Carlo Rota, the Canadian Stanley Tucci, playing yet another variation on his Yakavetta character from THE BOONDOCK SAINTS), and has had his eyes on Tremaine for a while:  Collier's dad was a legendary Detroit cop killed by Tremaine during a botched raid on Brick Mansions years earlier.  The mayor (Bruce Ramsay) and the top Detroit brass send Collier into Brick Mansions in classic Snake Plissken-style when Tremaine gains possession of a neutron bomb that's set to go off in ten hours.  Posing as a prisoner, Collier finds himself in a transport with Lino, who's determined to rescue his ex (Catalina Denis), who's being held captive by Tremaine, who's also demanding $30 million in his Hawaiian bank account (?) to not launch the neutron bomb right at downtown Detroit.  Amidst bickering and constant disagreement, Collier and Lino team up to take out Tremaine and his Brick Mansions army and stop the bomb from going off...

...if they don't kill each other first!

As far as empty calories entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse than BRICK MANSIONS. It moves fast and there's some entertaining action sequences when Delamarre can keep the camera somewhat still.  Yes, most of the action is of the dizzying, quick-cut shaky-cam variety, with bonus pointless stutter zooms (even with all of Belle's by-now familiar parkour antics, the highlight is Collier's extended pursuit of George the Greek). Cliches and silliness abound:  every shitbag in Detroit is a parkour expert, George the Greek acts like he's the first crime boss to use a shark tank as a ham-fisted metaphor, and it's a wonder Tremaine has any empire at all with incompetent flunkies like the hapless K2 (Gouchy Boy) and psycho-bitch Rayzah (Ayisha Issa) in his employ. Besson does take things in an unexpected--and dumber--direction than BANLIEUE in his handling of Tremaine, who faced a much different fate in the original film (that film's co-writer Bibi Naceri played the same character, then called Taha Bemamud).  Here, RZA plays Tremaine as someone equally cold-blooded as Taha, but Tremaine's eleventh-hour transformation into not just a good guy (which is what happened to K2 in the original film), but a noble hero who doesn't have to pay for his crimes reeks of fast and furious post-production revision, as if Besson wanted him along for the ride in case there's a sequel. Another decision clearly made after the fact is the distracting dubbing of many of the French and Quebecois supporting players (only some second-unit establishing shots were done in Detroit; the rest of the film was shot in Montreal).  The dubbing is most obvious with Belle, whose thick accent has been completely revoiced, making the constant references to his nationality--like calling him "Frenchy" or "French asshole"--meaningless. There's an unsubstantiated rumor making the rounds that it's Vin Diesel dubbing Belle, but as of this writing, nothing's been confirmed.

Paul Walker (1973-2013)
In his last completed role before his tragic death in a car crash in November 2013 (CGI and his two brothers serving as doubles will be used to finish his performance in FAST & FURIOUS 7, due out in April 2015), Walker is game for the intense action and his fans will certainly want to check this out.  While it's not really a stretch for him, BRICK MANSIONS provides a better showcase for the actor than recent junk like VEHICLE 19 and the unwatchable PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES. Much like the planned English-language remake of Gareth Evans' Indonesian THE RAID, a film with which BRICK MANSIONS shares some "high-rise mayhem" similarities, there's little reason to rework a foreign-language film that's not only better but was already embraced by action enthusiasts and didn't feel the need to dub over a French lead actor's performance as a French guy to ensure that he didn't sound French, a decision that fully summarizes the inherent pointlessness of BRICK MANSIONS.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


(Israel - 2013; US release 2014)

Quentin Tarantino cited this Israeli import as his favorite film of 2013, and it's no wonder.  It's not only the work of a directing team (Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) that obviously loves movies, but it's also frequently a slobbering fan letter to Tarantino himself. Not only is there a foot chase that replicates some shots of the Marcellus/Butch chase in PULP FICTION, but the second half of the film is essentially an extended homage to the RESERVOIR DOGS torture scene. Despite no hard evidence, loose cannon cop Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) is convinced that mild-mannered schoolteacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) is the pedophile serial killer who's been raping and killing young girls, decapitating them, leaving the bodies for the cops, and burying the heads in a secret place. Micki and some thuggish cops take Dror to an abandoned warehouse to beat a confession out of him, but a kid hanging around films them and posts the video on YouTube.  After he's read the riot act and busted down to traffic--burly captain Tsvika (Dvir Benedek) actually says "I'm gonna bust you down to traffic"--Micki starts tailing Dror on his own time, and is given a wink and silent approval by Tsvika to "deal with" Dror in any way he sees fit.  Micki's plan is derailed by Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the enraged father of the latest victim, who has his own plans for Dror and won't let Micki get in the way.  Gidi follows Micki following Dror, incapacitates both men and takes them to a house in the woods in the middle of nowhere, a house he bought for the sole purpose of taking Dror there to torture him and put him through what all of the dead girls have gone through.  He agrees to split the duties with Micki, at least until Micki realizes Gidi is a madman and instead forms a shaky alliance with Dror, the man he was going to kill on his own in the first place. Then things go from bad to worse when Gidi's aging father Yoram (Dov Glickman) unexpectedly shows up.

The filmmakers want to invoke a sense of Israel's history, and the occasional appearances by an affable Arab man on horseback ("Why do you Jews always think that we all want to kill you?") pay lip service to that, but really, BIG BAD WOLVES is just another vigilante movie, complete with broken and smashed appendages, cutting and slicing, yanked fingernails and toenails, and various blowtorchings, and while it's better than most, being in Israeli with English subtitles doesn't add a layer of arthouse cred or meaningful depth. There's no denying it's a very well-made film anchored by four terrific performances, and the directors get things off to a hypnotically powerful start with a hauntingly graceful De Palma-esque sequence of kids playing hide-and-seek.  There's also some amusing bits of dark humor throughout--the Arab stranger, circumstances forcing Micki to ride a kids bicycle, Tsvika and his young son ("It's take-your-child-to-work day") tearing into Micki over his initial handling of Dror (Benedek is a real scene-stealer)--and while some will decry it as little more than torture porn, it's a bit above that.  I don't think there's as much substance here as the filmmakers believe there to be, but enthusiastic filmmaking, an unabashed love of cinema, top-notch performances, and many instances of genuine suspense give BIG BAD WOLVES much credibility just as a solid, straightforward thriller, albeit one that's quite wince-inducing.  (Unrated, 110 mins)

(US/Romania/Belgium/Germany/France - 2013; US release 2014)

Based on the novel The Death of Ipu by Titus Popovici, who scripted the original 1971 Romanian film version THEN I SENTENCED THEM ALL TO DEATH, A FAREWELL TO FOOLS is a heavy-handed WWII-set morality tale that has too many mood swings to work effectively. The grim subject matter doesn't really mesh with the frequently comic presentation, complete with a bouncy, lighthearted score that sounds a lot like the sequence in THE GODFATHER PART II when young Vito Corleone and Clemenza broke into a house to steal an expensive rug. In a relentlessly hammy performance, Gerard Depardieu is Ipu, the idiot in a Nazi-occupied Romanian village who lives with a bullet from WWI lodged in his head and is regarded as a genial goof by the rest of the citizens. Ipu farms and does fix-it jobs and spends his free time playing war with lonely, mischievous orphan Alex (Bogdan Iancu), who lives with his aunt Margherita (Laura Morante) and minister uncle Johannes (a seriously miscast Harvey Keitel).  On the edges of the village, a friendly German soldier (Andrei Seusan) lets Alex ride his motorcycle, and when Alex finishes taking it for a brief spin, he finds the soldier lying dead with his throat slit.  The Germans in charge demand a confession from the guilty party or ten of the village's top authority figures and their wives will be executed at 5:00 the next morning. Rather than investigate the murder, Johannes and the rest--Margherita, the mayor, the police chief, the doctor, the notary public, etc., hatch a plan to invite Ipu over for dinner, butter him up, fill him with food and drink and convince him to take the fall, even though Johannes admits "Ipu was working with me all afternoon" when the soldier was murdered.

Johannes and the others are a reprehensible lot, and it's rather amusing watching them realize that Ipu isn't as dumb as he seems, but that's another problem with the film: Depardieu has been directed to play Ipu as whatever a particular scene needs him to be: lovable oaf, mischievous scamp, shell-shocked battle vet, or sly, duplicitous manipulator. Given significant latitude by director Bogdan Dreyer, the actor is all too happy to oblige and chew the scenery throughout, and Depardieu's gregarious presence is enjoyable even when it doesn't always make sense. It's possible that Ipu has been playing them to some extent all along, but 30 years is a long time to keep a ruse going (it also doesn't help that, at just 84 minutes, the film feels like it's been hacked down).  Morante does little more than shriek and act hysterical, while Keitel just looks tired, sounds hoarse, and has no business playing a Bronx-accented Romanian priest (Keitel has never been good with accents).  A FAREWELL TO FOOLS isn't a bad film, it's just a confused one that never finds a balance between its wildly varying tones of downbeat drama, biting satire, and borderline slapstick. Filmed in 2011, this bombed in its European release and only made it to a few theaters and VOD during its US dumping in early 2014. (PG-13, 84 mins)

(UK/US - 2014)

An overbearing would-be satire of office politics, WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is noteworthy only for the presence of a self-deprecating Jean-Claude Van Damme. JCVD plays Storm, a survivalist hired by an advertising CEO (Dennis Haysbert) to take the underlings in his firm to a distant island for a weekend team-building retreat in the wilderness.  The pilot keels over after they land, and Storm is mauled by a tiger, which prompts a battle of wills between nice-guy Chris (Adam Brody) and asshole Phil (Rob Huebel) as the staff splits into LORD OF THE FLIES factions. Phil rechristens himself "Orco" and turns the island into an orgiastic SURVIVOR nightmare that makes the Kurtz compound in APOCALYPSE NOW look cozy and inviting, while Chris, office hottie crush Lisa (THE BLACKLIST's Megan Boone), bunny-obsessed quirky girl Brenda (Kristen Schaal), and stoner Jared (Eric Edelstein) try to figure out how to get off the island. That description sounds a lot darker than the film really is, as director Rob Meltzer and writer Jeff Kauffman consistently go for the cheapest laughs, usually involving orifices and things that come out of them. The comparisons between cut-throat world of the workplace and "the jungle" are forced and obvious, and the early office scenes play like a tired retread of HORRIBLE BOSSES or OFFICE SPACE. There's nothing here other than the novelty of seeing Van Damme in a comedy, but the movie isn't that funny and doesn't make very good use of him as he's absent for long stretches--Storm survives the tiger mauling and turns up again later, only to disappear once more until the climax--which probably has more to do with the filmmakers only having him for a limited time (of course, as per his usual package deal, he's brought along the dead weight duo of son Kristopher Van Varenberg--one of the film's 29 credited producers--and stunningly untalented daughter Bianca Bree).  The Chris vs. Phil plot line is bland and predictable, and WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE feels a lot like a rambling SNL skit that won't end. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Friday, April 25, 2014

In Theaters: THE QUIET ONES (2014)

(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by John Pogue.  Written by Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and John Pogue.  Cast: Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Laurie Calvert, Aldo Maland. (PG-13, 98 mins)

The 2007 revival of the legendary Hammer Films was much-hyped in horror circles, but in the ensuing seven years, it's only resulted in five films and BEYOND THE RAVE, a 20-part serial that debuted on MySpace in 2008.  Of those five films, LET ME IN, the 2010 remake of the Swedish vampire hit LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and 2012's THE WOMAN IN BLACK were the undisputed standouts, with the Hilary Swank stalker thriller THE RESIDENT (which featured Hammer icon Christopher Lee in a prominent supporting role) and the subpar WAKE WOOD not doing much to herald Hammer as a force in today's horror. Two years after their last production and two years after it was shot, Hammer's latest offering, THE QUIET ONES, has finally arrived and it seems to encapsulate every doubt I've had about this new "Hammer."  Specifically, it's not Hammer. Sure, it's the name "Hammer," but that's all it is.  These aren't being made by the same talents that gave us all of those old classics with Lee and Peter Cushing and the rest.  Of course, most of those people are no longer with us, but this new Hammer is simply coasting on nostalgia and brand recognition, much like its barely reanimated rival Amicus, which has only managed to churn out two films since its 2005 rebirth.  There's no continuity or sense of tradition with the current Hammer, though THE WOMAN IN BLACK was a thoroughly enjoyable throwback chiller that has thus far come closest to being worthy of the name by replicating what a vintage Hammer production should be. THE QUIET ONES is, for lack of a better term, poseur Hammer, a film that thinks it's being old-school just because it has a British cast and is set in 1974, but it doesn't do anything with that setting.  In fact, it seems to go out of its way to placate today's audiences with a 2014 assembly-line product. And unless you're part of a focus group, that's not a good thing.

Arrogant Oxford psychology prof Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) is trying to prove that ghosts and supernatural occurrences are simply manifestations of psychological and emotional trauma.  His case study is Jane (Olivia Cooke), a troubled young woman who's been shuffled from one foster home to another.  Jane believes she's possessed by the spirit of a child named Evey.  When the university cuts his funding, Coupland moves the study to a middle-of-nowhere country estate, taking along two student researchers, Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), and Krissi (Erin Richards, doing a decent job of channeling a coquettish Judy Geeson), who spend their free time having rambunctious, bed-breaking sex, as well as cameraman-for-hire Brian (Sam Claflin).  Coupland blasts glam rock at high volume to keep Jane awake (Slade's "Cum on Feel the Noize" and T. Rex's "Telegram Sam" get some airplay) in the hopes that it will prompt Evey to show herself.  It doesn't take Jane long to cast a spell of sorts on Brian, who finds himself not exactly falling for her, but certainly wishing to save her from the increasingly unethical "treatment" of Coupland and his assistants.  Of course, it's inevitable that Evey will eventually make her presence known and her true intentions revealed, and rest assured, it's nothing you haven't seen a hundred times before.

Familiarity is the least of THE QUIET ONES' problems.  It succumbs to stupidity on too many occasions (if Coupland is concerned about Jane manipulating Brian, then why does he allow Brian to sit in and film her while she's bathing?), and when Coupland's ultimate goal behind his experiment is revealed, it lands with a thud because we're just done caring about him by that point.  But the film's biggest issue, and one that makes its 1974 setting nothing more than retro-cool window dressing, is that the bulk of the film is seen through the lens of Brian's camera while he's filming, a terrible decision that seems to have been made simply to appease the found-footage crowd.  So, of course, a good chunk of the horror histrionics are presented in de rigeur shaky-cam, and the attached light allows for an extended sequence of running through the dark house in a 1970s approximation of night-vision.  Gussying things up with a faded color palette, wide lapels, hot pants, gaudy wallpaper, and having people chain-smoking in now-inappropriate settings are only cosmetic elements. Hammer was about blazing trails, and even when they followed trends and added more sex and gore to films like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, they were still distinctly Hammer.  There's nothing Hammer here. There's no reason other than commercial pandering to set the film up in this fashion, which negates the whole sense of nostalgia that Hammer and director/co-writer John Pogue (QUARANTINE 2: TERMINAL, which oddly enough, abandoned the found-footage angle of its predecessor) are ostensibly pursuing even more than recycling the vomiting CGI ectoplasm effect from THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT, which is really where THE QUIET ONES jumps the shark. Maybe the vintage 1970s aura is something that existed in the original script by Tom De Ville, which was apparently rewritten by the committee of Pogue, Craig Rosenberg (LOST, THE UNINVITED), and the unlikely Oren Moverman, whose past credits for films like I'M NOT THERE, THE MESSENGER, and RAMPART don't exactly make him the go-to guy for Hammer horror.  I can only assume that an odd credit like "Based on the original screenplay by Tom De Ville" means that none of De Ville's script made it to the completed version.  The film is also "inspired by actual events," which means it was vaguely influenced by what's known as the "Phillip Experiment," where Canadian researchers tried to conjure a ghost on their own.  It was ultimately revealed to be a hoax, not unlike the current incarnation of "Hammer," which will henceforth be accompanied by quote marks when referenced.

Cooke does some solid work as the haunted Jane, and in many ways reminds you of a younger Eva Green, but the best thing about THE QUIET ONES is easily the performance of Harris. The veteran character actor gets a rare lead role here and sinks his teeth into it, turning Dr. Coupland into an extended tribute to his father, the late, great Richard Harris.  Jared Harris sounds so much like his old man and has inherited so many of his vocal inflections, that even though he doesn't have the strongest physical resemblance, you can absolutely see his dad in his mannerisms and hear him in his words. As the spiritual shit hits the fan later on, Harris also throws a little Oliver Reed and Patrick Magee into the mix, and whatever fun THE QUIET ONES offers largely comes from watching him.  It's too bad his efforts are wasted on something so blandly unworthy.  THE QUIET ONES is little more than background noise, atmospheric to an extent and filled with predictable jump scares punctuated by loud music cues.  If you're looking for some legitimate chills of the old-fashioned variety in a film that doesn't feel the need to cop to stale trends that refuse to die, give OCULUS a look if hasn't already left your area theaters.  That's a film set in the present day that could've been made in the 1970s. If you're watching THE QUIET ONES for some sense of 1970s eerieness, you're better off just watching any random Hammer production from 1974. Or maybe 1973's THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.  Or hell, just watch Edgar Wright's DON'T trailer. In under 90 seconds, that perfectly nails the concept of "1974 British horror" better than all 98 minutes of "Hammer"'s THE QUIET ONES.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In Theaters: TRANSCENDENCE (2014)

(US/China - 2014)

Directed by Wally Pfister.  Written by Jack Paglen. Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Stewart, Lukas Haas, Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Wallace Langham. (PG-13, 119 mins)

Since his 2000 breakthrough MEMENTO, Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer has been Wally Pfister, who got his start working second unit camera crews on Roger Corman productions like BODY CHEMISTRY and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III before photographing early 1990s straight-to-video erotic thriller "classics" like SECRET GAMES and ANIMAL INSTINCTS. Pfister got an Oscar for his work on Nolan's INCEPTION, and makes his directing debut with TRANSCENDENCE, which lists Nolan as an executive producer, features several Nolan vets in the cast (Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Josh Stewart, Lukas Haas), and has a very Nolan-like concept courtesy of first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen. Paglen's script is muddled, and though it's probably meant to be a gray area, there's no consistency in the characterizations or who the villain is really supposed to be. There's an argument for ambiguity but given how hopelessly convoluted and downright silly the whole film is, the answer could very well be that the filmmakers simply don't know.  Considering its pedigree, TRANSCENDENCE is a misfire of catastrophic proportions, a supposedly cutting-edge vision filled with hard sci-fi techno-jargon, but it continually proclaims the most rudimentary messages that sound like Paglen's cribbing from a college freshman's Intro to Philosophy essay exam.  It makes thuddingly obvious observations about the internet and our reliance on technology, with paranoid lip service paid to government surveillance and the lack of privacy in social media, tossing out buzzwords like "upload" and "off the grid" and even throws a bone to those who might still be losing sleep over Y2K. How old is this script? And how many times did it get shuffled to the bottom of Nolan's slush pile before he got sick of coming across it and punked his buddy Pfister into making it?

In a performance so somnambulant that Pfister should've just used a picture of him with a Conan O'Brien superimposed, talking mouth, Johnny Depp is Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence pioneer who, with his work partner and wife Evelyn (Hall) and their associate Max (Paul Bettany), has designed PINN, a fully sentient computer system. Will is targeted by a "neo-Luddite" anti-technology terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence from Technology) with members who have infiltrated his own research team and plotted a series of computer lab bombings across the country. After giving a speech at a university, Will is shot by one such activist (Haas), though the bullet only grazes him.  The damage is done however, as he soon grows deathly ill and it's revealed the bullet was poisoned with radiation that's now in his bloodstream.  Given five weeks to live, Will abandons his research until Evelyn comes up with the idea of wiring into his brain and loading his consciousness into PINN.  Will dies, and soon begins communicating with Evelyn and Max through the computer system, instructing her to download "him" to the internet.  Max is alarmed by the suddenly megalomaniacal Will and when he voices his objections, Evelyn sends him on his way to be abducted by R.I.F.T., and he eventually join forces with them. Meanwhile, Will, alive online and seen MAX HEADROOM-style on computer monitors, hacks into various global computer systems, clearing out Wall Street and depositing the money into an account for Evelyn to buy Brightwood, a nearly-deserted desert ghost town, converting it into their high-tech base of operations for a complete technological takeover.  The virtual Will evolves at such an accelerated rate that he's able to heal the sick and disabled, who are then linked to his source code, synched with him to function as living, tangible extensions of himself.  He's creating an army of Will Casters, with the government, led by FBI agent Buchanan (Murphy) and Will's old colleague Tagger (Freeman), aligned with Max and R.I.F.T. in hot pursuit.

This film is an absolute mess. What is Christopher Nolan doing shepherding what amounts to little more than a $100 million remake of THE LAWNMOWER MAN? Paglen's script is an incoherent, nonsensical jumble.  The film opens in a dystopian CHILDREN OF MEN-type setting, with keyboards being used as doorstops and Max mentioning that "there might be phone service in Denver." Will's death and subsequent online reanimation happened five years earlier, and the Brightwood plotline two years after that.  Brightwood was funded with money stolen by "Will" and Evelyn.  When Buchanan drags Tagger to Brightwood two years later, how is it possible that he hasn't brought along the entire bureau to arrest her? Instead, she introduces them to the virtual Will and then they leave to plot a military attack, with help from R.I.F.T.  What the hell is the government doing working with a domestic terror organization?  Especially the one that caused all the trouble by killing Will in the first place?  We learn so little about Buchanan and R.I.F.T. leader Bree (Kate Mara) that it's probable that neither Pfister nor Paglen know, either. Does anyone pay for their crimes in TRANSCENDENCE's world? 

It's been said that no one sets out to make a bad movie, that sometimes they just happen. Watching TRANSCENDENCE, you can actualy see the actors wearing defeat throughout. You can see on Freeman's face and hear in his line deliveries that he knows this is a dud. While it's nice to see Depp sans the Tim Burton security blanket of white pancake makeup and silly costumes and not crutching on eccentricities and assorted Hunter S. Thompson affectations, this is probably his worst performance.  It's one that reflects his utter lack of engagement with the material--and you could hardly blame him--and is not that of an actor, but rather a bored celebrity who already has more money than he'll ever spend in a lifetime. Sure, the material is stale and dated, but at least a Nolan regular like Christian Bale would've brought something to the role, like a pulse, perhaps. Hall is OK but suffers playing a sketchily-designed character, but she at least fares better than Bettany, Murphy, and Mara, who are saddled with even less. Considering that he's a cinematographer first, you'd think Pfister would at least give the film a great look, but it's not even very interesting on that level. There's a lot of long, ominous corridors and expansive labs of the antiseptic, dehumanized Kubrick variety, but they're shot very plainly by HOT FUZZ cinematographer Jess Hall. TRANSCENDENCE stumbles out of the gate and never finds its footing, and it only gets more pretentious, ponderous, and hokey as it proceeds.

Going back to the silent era, there's no shortage of great cinematographers who became accomplished filmmakers--Karl Freund, Freddie Francis (who quit directing and went back to cinematography late in his career, winning an Oscar for GLORY), Jack Cardiff, Mario Bava, Nicolas Roeg, and Jan de Bont to name just a few. Gordon Willis photographed some of the most iconic films of the 1970s (KLUTE, THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN) before making his directorial debut with the 1980 suspense thriller WINDOWS.  It was the first major release of its year, opening to universally toxic reviews and was all but buried by its studio for over 30 years before getting an MOD DVD release. Willis was arguably the top D.P. in American cinema for a decade, got his shot at running the show and blew it. He promptly licked his wounds and returned to his old gig, keeping busy and eventually retiring in 1997.  He never directed a second film. WINDOWS is a bad movie but it looks terrific.  TRANSCENDENCE doesn't even have that going for it. I guess what I'm saying is this: TRANSCENDENCE is Wally Pfister's WINDOWS.

Monday, April 21, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING (2014), WRONG COPS (2013); and IN FEAR (2014)

(US/UK - 2012; US release 2014)

Universal buried this dismal Simon Pegg horror comedy after its disastrous UK opening in the summer of 2012, and it took another two years before indie Indomina gave it an apathetic VOD dumping in the US. Pegg is a great talent, and his performance in last year's THE WORLD'S END should've been up for some awards, but he hasn't really fared well outside of his beloved collaborations with buddies Edgar Wright and Nick Frost as well as his roles in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and STAR TREK franchises (does anyone remember BIG NOTHING, RUN FATBOY RUN, HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS & ALIENATE PEOPLE, or BURKE AND HARE?), but A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING is just the pits, with Pegg as an agoraphobic former childrens book author named Jack Nife, who's been so obsessed with writing a TV script about 19th century serial killers that he's grown paranoid that someone is trying to kill him. A disheveled-looking Pegg spends the first half of the film freaking out and puttering about in a tattered robe and dirty tighty-whities and talking to himself in his filthy, cluttered hovel of an apartment. It's essentially a one-man show until he dares to venture out to do laundry, which ultimately brings him face-to-face with both his lifelong issues (his mother abandoned him at a launderette when he was a boy) and a serial killer known as The Hanoi Handshake (the actor in this role seems so much like Frost that I wonder if the character was written with him in mind).  In between, there's a meeting with his agent (HELLRAISER's Clare Higgins), an emergency phone call with his shrink Dr. Friedkin (Paul Freeman), the killer passionately defending the artistic merits of Europe's "The Final Countdown," an animation sequence featuring a hedgehog that looks like Ron Jeremy, and maybe one or two laughs over 100 tedious minutes (the bit about "The Ocular Stare" is amusing, as is an incredulous Jack Nife's reaction to meeting the killer: "The Hanoi Handshake?!  That sounds like two men meeting in a public convenience!"). Directors Crispian Mills (son of Hayley and frontman of Brit rockers Kula Shaker) and Chris Hopewell channel numerous horror influences, with a particular affinity for Hitchcock's PSYCHO, plus some Tim Burton and a little Roman Polanski, and the shout-out to William Friedkin with Freeman's character, but honestly, most of the film comes off like a Larry Blamire tribute to the forgotten 1988 Whoopi Goldberg bomb THE TELEPHONE.  A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING is unbelievably bad, though there's no denying Pegg throws himself into the role. Unfortunately, even with his usually engaging screen presence and his natural, innate likability, even the most devoted Pegg stalkers will find that a little of him goes a very long way here.  (R, 100 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(France/Russia/Portugal - 2013)

The latest from absurdist French auteur Quentin Dupieux, director of RUBBER, the world's greatest killer-tire movie, is an agonizingly unfunny collection of shock-value vignettes detailing the activities of a squad of "wacky" Los Angeles cops who would have even the Bad Lieutenant making a call to Internal Affairs. WRONG COPS is tenuously connected to Dupieux's last film WRONG with the presence of abrasive Officer Duke (Mark Burnham).  Duke doesn't do much police work, instead focusing his energy on selling weed stashed in rat carcasses and dead fish and trying to find a way to get rid of the body of his mom's (Grace Zabriskie) almost-dead neighbor (SCANNER COP's Daniel Quinn) after he accidentally shoots him.  He also gets blowjobs from streetwalkers and tries to molest an awkward teenage boy played by Marilyn Manson (yes, that Marilyn Manson). The other cops in the squad include one-eyed Rough (Eric Judor), who's trying to land a record deal for his synth music; Sunshine (Steve Little), a family-man desk jockey who has a secret past in gay porn; DeLuca (Eric Wareheim), who's obsessed with nabbing women on bogus charges so he can force them to show him their breasts; and Holmes (Ardin Myrin), who raids fridges when she goes on calls and tries to blackmail Sunshine about his gay porn days. There's also Ray Wise as the police chief, on his cell phone at a cop's funeral and kicking the casket into the ground when it gets stuck being lowered, Agnes Bruckner as one of DeLuca's targets, and Eric Roberts, cast radically against type as a Hollywood washout buying weed from Duke.  I'm all for misanthropic, absurdist humor, but nothing is funny in WRONG COPS, especially the pointless overuse of the '70s zoom-in and the grating Burnham, who comes off like the loathsome offspring of Rainn Wilson and Billy Bob Thornton. Dupieux showed some cult movie promise with RUBBER, but WRONG felt too indebted to Michel Gondry to really work on its own. It's hard to imagine he'll ever make a film worse than the self-indulgent, unwatchable tire fire that is WRONG COPS, and the whole thing is bad enough that it's probably not too early to conclude that whatever Dupieux had to say, he said it with RUBBER.  (Unrated, 82 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(France/UK - 2013; US release 2014)

The feature debut of British TV director Jeremy Lovering (MI-5, SHERLOCK), who's part of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg clique (he handled second unit duties on HOT FUZZ), IN FEAR has an intriguing premise that's ultimately its downfall.  Working without a script (no screenwriter is credited), Lovering kept the direction of the story secret from his stars in order to get legitimate shock and surprise in their reactions. It works for a while--there are several undeniably terrifying, dread-filled moments in the much better first half--but the cracks start to show and Lovering is forced to cram in many dumb things that have to happen by the end as plot convenience and stupidity become the general rule, all the way to an unsatisfying wrap-up that only succeeds in making you realize how illogical the whole thing was in the first place.  New couple Tom (AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Iain De Castecker) and Lucy (BEAUTIFUL CREATURES' Alice Englert) are on their way to a music festival when Tom surprises her by booking an overnight stay at the Kilairney House Hotel, an off-the-grid bed & breakfast in the middle of nowhere (though they have a web site).  They're guided down the narrow, hedge-lined back country roads by an unseen driver in a truck, who points them down a path and goes about his business in the opposite direction.  Following the signs to the hotel only leads them in circles down endless roads in an elaborate maze, their phones stop getting reception, and the GPS isn't working. A tree almost falls on them, clothes neatly laid upon the road actually belong to Lucy, and Lucy catches brief glimpses of figures, including a man in a white mask standing very near Tom as he takes a leak on the side of the road.  Tensions start to rise, the fuel's getting low, night falls and the rain starts pouring, and that's when they almost run over Max (DOWNTON ABBEY's Allen Leech), who's already battered and bloodied when he climbs into their car and says "They're coming...we have to get out of here now!"

So who--or what--is coming?  Does it have something to do with Tom offending some blokes at the local pub early on in an incident we don't see and about which Tom is hesitant to discuss?  Does it have something to do with a brief shot of an eye in a peephole watching while Lucy was in the ladies' room?  Does Max know more than he's letting on?  Once Max is introduced, the collapse begins.  As a thriller, it was working beautifully when it was just Tom and Lucy in the car, but once Lovering has to start putting the pieces of the story together, it becomes very obvious that he doesn't have much beyond the set-up. I don't want to go into spoilers, but this is one of those films where many people have disappeared over an extended period of time, drawn to a place of business that has a traceable online presence, and yet, no one ever puts the pieces together and no one--family, police, private investigators--ever comes to investigate. Also, if you're out of gas and go wandering in the woods after what's already been a hellish ordeal of being toyed with all night by an unseen menace and return to your car to find a full gas can waiting for you in the driver's seat, wouldn't it occur to you that this might be a trap?  IN FEAR is beautifully shot and makes terrific use of locations in Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, and while a basic outline and letting your actors riff might work for, say, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM or a Christopher Guest mockumentary populated by gifted and experienced improvisation vets, it probably isn't the best way to construct a tight suspense thriller. It's an admirable effort, the actors are fine, and Lovering's got some definite chops, but he should probably resort to a script next time.  They usually help.  (R, 85 mins)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Demonic Daddy Issues" Edition: THE ANTICHRIST (1974) and bonus film THE NIGHT CHILD (1975)

(Italy - 1974; US release 1978)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, and Alberto De Martino. Cast: Carla Gravina, Mel Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, George Coulouris, Alida Valli, Umberto Orsini, Mario Scaccia, Anita Strindberg, Remo Girone, Ernesto Colli, Lea Lander. (Unrated, 112 mins; R-rated US theatrical cut, 96 mins)

When THE EXORCIST opened in December 1973 and became a worldwide phenomenon well into the next year, it gave birth to a seemingly endless parade of imitations and blatant ripoffs, some from the US, but mostly from Europe, and Italy in particular.  As they would later demonstrate with zombies, CONAN, and RAMBO ripoffs, the Italians latched on to the EXORCIST formula and beat it to death with films like 1974's BEYOND THE DOOR, 1974's THE TORMENTED (also released as THE SEXORCIST but best known under its 1978 ROCKY HORROR-inspired US release title THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), and the subgenre's absolute nadir, 1975's pathetic NAKED EXORCISM, aka THE RETURN OF THE EXORCIST (it was later shamelessly retitled THE EXORCIST III: CRIES AND SHADOWS for its UK video release), which showcased a possessed teenage boy howling "I've had it up to here with your mumbo-jumbo!" to an exorcist played by visibly embarrassed GODFATHER co-star Richard Conte, looking very frail in his final screen appearance (he was dead for two years when the film was released in the US in 1977 as THE POSSESSOR).  Even the legendary Mario Bava's then-shelved 1973 pet project LISA AND THE DEVIL was infamously retooled with new footage featuring Robert Alda as an exorcist for its 1976 release as THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM. BEYOND THE DOOR was a surprise box office hit when it was released in the US in 1975, and even prompted an unsuccessful lawsuit from Warner Bros., though they did manage to get AIP's 1974 blaxorcist take ABBY (with BLACULA's great William Marshall as the exorcist) yanked from screens.  The ripoffs weren't limited to Italy:  Spain got into the game with the Paul Naschy-starring EXORCISM (1975) and BLIND DEAD mastermind Amando de Ossorio's DEMON WITCH CHILD (1975), released in the US in 1976 as THE POSSESSED.  And Walter Boos took a break from SCHOOLGIRL REPORT installments to direct the West German MAGDALENA: POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL (1974), released in the US in 1976 as BEYOND THE DARKNESS and featuring THE EXORCIST's Rudolf Schundler (who played the servant Karl) as--go figure--the exorcist.

By the time many of these post-EXORCIST copycats made it to the US, the craze had passed.  Along with BEYOND THE DOOR, Alberto De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST was among the first Italian EXORCIST ripoffs produced (they opened in Italy within days of one another), though it was one of the last to hit the US when it arrived in American grindhouses and drive-ins courtesy of Avco Embassy in the fall of 1978 as THE TEMPTER, shorn of 16 minutes of mostly exposition but of some other salacious material that almost certainly would've earned it an X rating. As these films went on, they seemed to be attempting to outdo one another with the sleaze and shock value, but none of Italy's EXORCIST knockoffs were quite as unabashedly blasphemous as THE ANTICHRIST.  If you can get by the frequently rudimentary visual effects, there's actually a legitimate, beautifully-shot, and provocative film lurking within THE ANTICHRIST's stunning and gleefully exploitative displays of sexual frustration, inventive profanity ("You stinking pots of shiiiiiit!"), slut-shaming ("You had so many cocks you can't remember, and you liked it!"), orgies, incest, headless toads, an image of a grinning Jesus sporting a raging erection, and the possession victim ranting as gobs of demon semen hang from her chin.  All of that is just a warm-up for the film's most infamous sequence, an act of bestiality as the possessed woman performs something that could best be described as "goatilingus" (© Stacie Ponder).  Not everything in THE ANTICHRIST works, but time and again in its bold and often obscene depiction of demonic possession, De Martino is willing to take it places that even something as groundbreaking as THE EXORCIST didn't dare tread.  The film is loaded with many "Did that shit just happen?!" moments and, in its uncensored European form, goes about as far as a demonic possession film can go.

Where THE EXORCIST dealt with evil reaffirming the faith of troubled Father Damien Karras, THE ANTICHRIST is much more fervently Catholic in its presentation and its faith never in doubt, which makes its many transgressions all the more shocking. Wheelchair-bound Ippolita Oderisi (Carla Gravina) has been unable to walk since a childhood car accident that claimed the life of her mother.  Around 30 years of age, Ippolita still lives in the family home with her father, Prince Massimo (Mel Ferrer), and seems well on her way to spinsterdom, telling her high-ranking Bishop uncle Ascanio (Arthur Kennedy) that no man has ever taken an interest in her and that a part of her would sell her soul to the devil just for the experience of intimacy.  She's furiously possessive of her father and insanely jealous over his relationship with his secretary Gretel (Anita Strindberg).  Offering to say a mass for her, Bishop Ascanio tells Ippolita that her jealousy is "absurd" and that she needs to realize that her widower father needs to move on with his life as well.  He also hyperbolically expresses his concern to his brother Massimo that Ippolita may have fallen in with a sect of devil worshippers. Oh, it's way worse than that: thanks to some hypnosis sessions with parapsychologist Dr. Sinibaldi (Umberto Orsini), who believes her disability to be psychosomatic, horny Ippolita has been possessed by a spirit that has been lying dormant in her subconscious, an Inquisition-era Oderisi ancestor, also named Ippolita, who ran off with a Satanic cult the night before she was to be sent to a convent.  She was branded a witch and burned, though she renounced Satan and pledged herself to God at the last moment.  The demon that possessed the past Ippolita has taken over the present-day Ippolita, taking advantage of her secret feelings for her father (she writhes around on her bed, rubbing a photo of her father over her crotch) and her intense sexual frustration.  Ippolita has an out-of-body experience where she goes through the same ritual as her ancestor, which involves a black mass/orgy where, among countless copulating Satanists, she eats the severed head of a toad, drinks toad's blood, and performs analingus on a goat before being sexually violated by the devil himself.

Things go from bad to worse as the demonic Ippolita now takes over as De Martino (HOLOCAUST 2000, THE PUMAMAN) and the screenwriters bring things more in line with the usual EXORCIST shenanigans:  there's the requisite projectile green vomit, both in the face of family caregiver Irene (Alida Valli) and a handful that she force-feeds a bogus faith healer (Mario Scaccia). Ippolita goes an astonishingly profane tirade at dinner, seduces her playboy brother Filippo (Remo Girone), and tries to strangle her father.  She taunts Ascanio, croaking "She's a big whore, your Ippolita...she'd lay you as well!  She'd pluck gladly from under your tunic that innocent little nestling that never has flown," before exposing herself and bellowing "Dip your limp bird in holy water and bless me!" After all that, authorization is finally given for a formal exorcism, and, arriving out of the shadows Father Merrin-style is Austrian monk Father Mittner (George Coulouris), who has popped up on the fringes throughout, usually shaking a can for change, and is also seen in the Inquisition flashbacks and may be the reincarnation of the priest who saved the older Ippolita's soul.

THE ANTICHRIST is much more devout in its religious aspects than THE EXORCIST.  There's much debate over theology vs. science, and though he considers Sinibaldi a fine doctor, Ascanio dismisses him as a "skeptic and a non-believer."   Eventually, Prince Massimo relieves Sinibaldi of his duties, more or less admitting that only the power of Christ can compel Ippolita.  The bluntly religious messages throughout are a bizarre mix with some of the blasphemous imagery and graphic sexuality, not to mention the unexplored plot point that Ippolita and Filippo clearly did some messing around together when they were teenagers (Ippolita: "Remember when we were children...how you made me feel special?").  The possessed Ippolita spills the beans to Massimo ("My brother and I fucked!") and Irene has witnessed it (she also deliberately doesn't tell Ippolita about Massimo and Gretel, so she's good at keeping secrets), but it's never again addressed, unless Massimo gives them a "devil made them do it" pass.  And what about Ippolita's obvious designs on her father? Here lies the difference in the culture that produced THE EXORCIST and the one to which THE ANTICHRIST was born:  the Oderisi family is one that's been waiting to have its ass handed to it by a scandalous past long buried.  The past Ippolita has come to collect payment for generations of Oderisi hypocrisy and bourgeois decadence, not to mention weakness, represented by Ascanio' procrastination and cowardice in addressing his niece's ordeal. But it sort-of lets them all off the hook by the end--all sins forgiven--and emerging through the plethora of perversion on display throughout THE ANTICHRIST is a film that's perhaps too rooted in centuries-old reverence and tradition when it comes to its kid-gloves treatment of both the Catholic church and Italian nobility. Improbably enough, De Martino made a film that includes a scene of a goat having its ass eaten out, yet somehow still finds a way to pull its punches.

The production design in THE ANTICHRIST is spectacular and the ornate interiors (Bishop Ascanio's office is a sight to behold) beautifully shot by Aristide Massaccesi/Joe D'Amato.  The score by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is a piercing cacophony of screeching violins and organ music, augmented by eerie hisses, whispers, and deep gasps.  It's a cut above the usual slapdash, exploitative EXORCIST ripoff, with a committed, vanity-free performance by Gravina, whose intensity comes through even though she's dubbed even prior to the possession scenes (SPEED RACER completists will be interested to know that the English dub was supervised by Peter Fernandez, who also voiced the possessed Ippolita; Ferrer, Kennedy, and Coulouris dub themselves) and would likely be taken a lot more seriously if the special effects weren't so terrible.  The levitation scenes and the visual effects involving the moving furniture and Ippolita's disembodied hand strangling the faith healer are some of the most bush-league traveling mattes ever committed to celluloid.  As an aside, I wonder if some of the more tawdry elements of THE ANTICHRIST were kept from the old pros in the cast (it's doubtful Ferrer and Kennedy ever envisioned reuniting on this after Fritz Lang's 1952 classic RANCHO NOTORIOUS).  I can't imagine George Coulouris--the same year he co-starred in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS--getting the script for this and thinking "OK, possession, levitation, green vomit, and uh, what?  Rimjob on a goat? Well, I was in CITIZEN KANE...why not?"

(Italy - 1975; US release 1976)

Directed by Max Dallamano (Massimo Dallamano). Written by Max Dallamano (Massimo Dallamano) and Jan Hartman. Cast: Richard Johnson, Joanna Cassidy, Lila Kedrova, Evelyn Stuart (Ida Galli), Edmund Purdom, Nicole Elmi (Nicoletta Elmi), Richard Garrone, Dana Ghia, Tom Felleghy. (R, 89 mins)

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? director Massimo Dallamano's THE NIGHT CHILD is often lumped in with the string of Italian EXORCIST knockoffs, but it's more like a DON'T LOOK NOW ripoff with subtle EXORCIST elements.  That didn't stop Edward L. Montoro and Film Ventures International from selling it as such for its 1976 US release, where they really played up the success of BEYOND THE DOOR ("Beyond the door of madness..."), emphasizing the presence of that film's star Richard Johnson and even using very similar font in the one-sheet design.  In fact, THE NIGHT CHILD is rather low-key and surprisingly restrained as far as these things go--it's almost more of an art film than an outright horror film--and with no child turning monstrous and no levitation or any of the standard possession histrionics on display, it had to thoroughly bore grindhouse audiences expecting another barf-happy, "Let Jesus fuck you!" EXORCIST clone.  Widower BBC documentary filmmaker Michael Williams (Richard Johnson) gets into all sorts of devilish trouble when he decides to take his daughter Emily (FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and DEEP RED's Nicoletta Elmi, the marvelously expressive, red-haired child actress who had the Creepy Kid market cornered in '70s Italian horror) and her nanny Jill (Ida Galli) to Italy with him for his latest project, a documentary entitled "Diabolical Art."  His focus is a mysterious painting depicting a young girl who died 200 years earlier, and it has a profound effect on Emily, who also wears an allegedly cursed medallion that once belonged to her late mother.  A local psychic (ZORBA THE GREEK Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova), senses that Emily is the reincarnation of Emilia, the girl's whose death is depicted in the painting, and that Michael's wife was killed by a hateful supernatural force with a connection to the medallion.

Also complicating matters is Michael's romance with his production manager Joanna, played by Joanna Cassidy, pulling some surprise Eurotrash duty, taking this gig after she was fired from THE STEPFORD WIVES and replaced by Paula Prentiss.  Like Ippolita's fixation on Massimo, Emily is overly possessive of her father, in ways that a doctor (Edmund Purdom, with about a minute and a half of screen time) says "has all the elements of a neurosis." Like Ippolita's rage at Gretel, Emily wants nothing to do with Joanna, but THE NIGHT CHILD adds some unrequited love with the unspoken feelings Jill has for Michael.  While Johnson's O-face as Cassidy disappears out of frame to go down on him is arguably as disturbing as anything in THE ANTICHRIST, you can see some similar themes developing between it and THE NIGHT CHILD: widower father, jealous daughter, reawakening of a vengeful spirit from centuries past, and useless doctors unable to do anything helpful.  Both films take place in lush palazzos (though THE NIGHT CHILD makes greater use of some natural lighting in Franco Delli Colli's cinematography), both films feature characters dying in falls against amateurishly-integrated rearscreen matte work, and both films climax with the possessed females being chased out of their residence and through the streets by their desperate fathers.  It's interesting that THE ANTICHRIST ends on an uplifting note thanks to divine intervention, the acceptance of God, and letting the pillars of society off the hook while things take a more agnostic turn in THE NIGHT CHILD, which doesn't feature an exorcism or even a priest, and its conclusion is downbeat, depressing, and godless.  You can fuck your brother, try to kill your father, regurgitate some devil-cum, and enthusiastically toss a goat's salad in THE ANTICHRIST, but all is forgiven if you just believe and accept. There is no such salvation for the doomed protagonists of THE NIGHT CHILD.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In Theaters: OCULUS (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Mike Flanagan.  Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard.  Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan Ewald, Miguel Sandoval, James Lafferty, Kate Siegel.  (R, 104 mins)

The concept of a haunted mirror is about as hoary a horror cliche as one can fathom, so the biggest surprise about OCULUS is what an effective little gem it is.  It's light on in-your-face scares and pretty conservative with the bloodshed, but where director/co-writer Mike Flanagan (ABSENTIA) really scores is the way he establishes such an ominous, foreboding mood throughout and confidently juggles multiple timelines in a story that could quickly grow unwieldy and fly off the rails. OCULUS isn't a film that sets out to reinvent the wheel, but it does succeed in showing that it's possible to make a good, solid, old-fashioned horror film that, were it to lose some of its more modern conveniences, could easily have been an Amicus offering from the early '70s, or perhaps a restrained late '70s/early '80s Italian horror film.  Flanagan wears his influences on his sleeve--there's some AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE SHINING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS in there as well--but to make something like that and get some distributor support in 2014 is a massive accomplishment in and of itself. You know at some point in the production, some or perhaps a few of the individuals among the boatload of credited producers called Flanagan in for a meeting and tried to sell him on going the found-footage route, probably showing him some cost analysis reports and some preview screening feedback cards of other recent films of that sort already forgotten. OCULUS is a film that mostly takes place in the present day and yet feels out of its own time.  The characters and the performances are straight-faced and deadly serious.  There's no hit songs on the soundtracks, there's no CGI gore, and there's no ironic snark. I don't want to come off like an old man telling the few remaining fans of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise to get off my lawn, but it's a sad state of affairs when something as traditional and straightforward as OCULUS manages to stick out from the crowd simply for being old-school and not fitted with any bullshit, trend-hopping bells & whistles to accommodate "the kids."

Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a mental institution on his 21st birthday, 11 years after shooting and killing his father Alan (Rory Cochrane).  Having psychologically sorted out the incidents that led up to that horrific event, Tim is ready to start his new life but is reminded by his 23-year-old sister Kaylie (DOCTOR WHO's Karen Gillan) of a promise they made to one another when they were kids.  Karen works for an auction house and has gone to great lengths to secure a 300-year-old antique known as the Lasser Glass, a large mirror that's left a seemingly endless string of madness and murder in its wake.  As it changes hands through the centuries, it claims more victims, drawing power from the lifeforce of humans, pets, and plants in its vicinity, and using that power to psychologically manipulate and torment its owners.  Alan bought the Lasser Glass to adorn his office in the family's new home in 2002, and almost immediately, strange phenomena began to occur:  the kids (Annalise Basso plays young Kaylie, Garrett Ryan Ewald plays young Tim) see Alan talking to a strange woman named Marisol (Kate Siegel), Alan starts behaving irrationally, the family dog gets sick, plants start dying, and mom Marie (Katie Sackhoff) stands transfixed in front of the Lasser Glass.  Marie, believing Alan is having an affair, confronts him, prompting Alan to go berserk, beat her, and keep her chained in their bedroom.  Then he goes after the kids.

Flanagan deftly handles the mixing of past and present, with some very precise editing that allows the adult Kaylie and Tim to be in the same place as the actors playing their younger selves, never directly interacting, but as a clever way for them to revisit the trauma of their childhood.  One of the underlying themes of OCULUS is how, through the haze of time and the flexibility of memory, events can be recalled differently by various people who jointly experience them (Kaylie remembers the dog disappearing into the Lasser Glass while Tim recalls it getting sick and being put down by the vet).  The Lasser Glass has a way of playing tricks, distorting the perception and subsequent memories, and altering the reality of the people around it.  It's a gateway to another world and it goes in both directions, and no matter how many Rube Goldberg-esque precautions the obsessed Kaylie takes, one can never be sure what's real and what isn't once the Lasser Glass is no longer dormant.

It's a tricky plot that Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard, expanding Flanagan's 2006 short film OCULUS: THE MAN WITH THE PLAN, do an overall excellent job of mapping out.  Late in the film, when all hell breaks loose, it almost spins out of control but they pull it back in for a gut-wrenching finale.  While there are a few jump-scares, none of them are cheap and the sequences of the children being pursued through the house by both their haunted father and the monstrous Marie are terrifying. The sudden appearances of the spectral figures from inside the Lasser Glass are a lot more frightening when you just happen to see them standing there rather than having a jarring music cue announcing their presence. It also helps that the filmmakers let the story build and the characters grow, and they take a genuine risk in making Kaylie largely unsympathetic even though, of course, she's right.  Gillan's fiery performance anchors the first third of the film--she's as no-nonsense a horror heroine as you've seen in years when she goes through her rundown of how to combat the Lasser Glass and methodically lays out its backstory--though the whole ensemble does fine work.  There's enough going on in OCULUS to warrant repeat viewings, and while it's not groundbreaking in any way, it transcends the played-out trends of its era and strikes me as a film that will enjoy a long shelf life with fright fans who like their horror on the moody and atmospheric side.

And please.  No sequels.  No prequels.  No OCULUS: ORIGINS or some such nonsense.  It's a nice, nifty little film on its own.  Can't we just leave it at that?

Monday, April 14, 2014

In Theaters: DRAFT DAY (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Ivan Reitman.  Written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman.  Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Ellen Burstyn, Sam Elliott, Tom Welling, Sean Combs, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Josh Pence, Timothy Simons, David Ramsey, Wade Williams, Chi McBride, Patrick St. Esprit, Rosanna Arquette, Brad William Henke, Kevin Dunn, Griffin Newman, W. Earl Brown, Pat Healy. (PG-13, 108 mins)

It's only April and DRAFT DAY is already the third major release this year to star the busy Kevin Costner, after taking the aging mentor role in JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT and trying a Liam Neeson-styled Luc Besson actioner with 3 DAYS TO KILL.  DRAFT DAY is more in line with vintage Costner, a sort-of "give the fans what they want" move that finds him back in the realm of the sports dramedy, where he's had some of his biggest successes. DRAFT DAY's beleaguered Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr. is cut from the same cloth as BULL DURHAM's Crash Davis, TIN CUP's Ray McAvoy, and FOR LOVE OF THE GAME's unsubtly-named Billy Chapel: the no-bullshit straight-shooter who got where he is by going against the grain, following his gut, being his own man, and doing what's right.  Sonny also has something to prove: it's 2014 draft day, he's in his third year with the team and he's still in rebuilding mode.  He's also living in the shadow of his legendary father Sonny Sr., a former Browns coach who just died a week earlier, just a year after retiring from football--a retirement that he got after he was fired by his own son.  He's got an irate new head coach in Penn (Denis Leary), who got a Super Bowl ring coaching the Cowboys and wants more say in the direction of the team. He's got a flashy billionaire owner in Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) who doesn't care about the team's strategic needs and just wants a superstar draft pick and the media circus guaranteed to follow. He'd rather make linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) their top draft pick but he already had to make a deal with the Seahawks to trade draft picks so he can please Molina and secure Heisman Trophy winning QB Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), even though he senses some red flags and they already have a top-notch QB in Brian Drew (Tom Welling).  And finally, he's got a secret relationship with Browns front-office financial exec Ali (Jennifer Garner) and she just told him she's pregnant.

DRAFT DAY juggles a lot of story for a film that takes place over just a 12-hour period, but it effectively portrays the hectic nature of the business world that exists behind the scenes of the NFL.  Sure, the script by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman is completely formulaic in its structure, but director Ivan Reitman keeps the pace fast and the story compelling, even when the film has to stop and overexplain things for non-football fans, like the opening shot of the Space Needle accompanied by the caption "Seattle," a whoosh, and "home of the Seahawks." Though he's got a large supporting cast working under him (perhaps too large as Ellen Burstyn just seems to drop in for her few scenes as Sonny's mom, and a prominently-billed Sam Elliott has just one scene as a grumbly college coach), this is completely Costner's show, and enough time has gone by that we can forget about all the rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling he did in the mid '90s when, post-DANCES WITH WOLVES and THE BODYGUARD, hubris and bloated films like WATERWORLD and THE POSTMAN turned him into a punchline bordering on pariah.  Starting with 2003's OPEN RANGE, he very slowly started to rebuild his career and while there were a few missteps along the way (I'm still not convinced anyone in the world has actually seen SWING VOTE, including myself) and even a dumped-on-DVD horror movie (THE NEW DAUGHTER), he's turned in some excellent performances in underappreciated films like THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (2006) and MR. BROOKS (2007).  More recently, he did terrific work on the History Channel's HATFIELDS & MCCOYS miniseries and his performance as Pa Kent was one of the better things in the otherwise disappointing MAN OF STEEL.  He's got a likably laconic, almost Gary Cooper-like screen persona that, in the right movie, always gets you on his side.  DRAFT DAY isn't anywhere near the level of a BULL DURHAM or a FIELD OF DREAMS, but Costner, pushing 60, still has that screen presence that a genuine movie star never loses, and that's not something you see enough of these days. The DRAFT DAY Costner is the kind of actor who's smart enough to not worry about capturing a demographic, choosing instead to play mostly to an adult audience that's aged and matured with him, and some of his best years might actually still lie ahead if he chooses the right projects.  Yeah, it's comfort food to a certain extent, but it's entertaining, and when Costner's in his wheelhouse like this, he's awfully hard to dislike.

While it secured the cooperation and involvement of the NFL for maximum realism--including appearances by commissioner Roger Goodell and numerous on-air personalities like Chris Berman, Jon Gruden, and Mel Kiper, and even a brief bit by Browns legend Jim Brown--it's important to note, from the perspective of a die-hard NFL fan, just how deeply entrenched in the realm of wish-fulfillment fantasy DRAFT DAY can be.  While it gets the business and boardroom elements down, it's also a pipe dream of a movie that Cleveland-area sons and daughters will be giving their perpetually-disappointed Browns superfan dads on Father's Day for decades to come.  It's a love letter to the perpetually hapless, "This is our year!" Browns while acknowledging that the team's pursuit of a championship is largely futile.  As they are, the Browns are incapable of having anyone in their organization with as much draft day savvy as Sonny Weaver Jr.  Also, no promising college star entering the draft wants to play for Cleveland.  But perhaps most hilariously, in a plot point so utterly absured that it threatens to take the film into the realm of science fiction, DRAFT DAY insists on playing along with the myth that the Dallas Cowboys are a feared team that consistently wins championships.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: JOE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by David Gordon Green.  Written by Gary Hawkins.  Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Milton Fountain. (R, 118 mins)

At first glance, the rural drama JOE--not a reimagining of John G. Avildsen's controversial 1970 film--would appear to be a lot like last year's MUD, starting with Tye Sheridan again cast as a troubled kid who finds an unlikely role model played by an actor with something to prove. Where MUD saw Sheridan bearing witness to the McConnaisance, JOE finds the gifted young actor--who also co-starred in Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE--paired with Nicolas Cage in his best role in years, turning in the kind of performance that made him such a captivating presence in his younger days up to his Oscar-winning turn in LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995). Cage seemed to stop exerting himself once "Academy Award winner" was guaranteed to preface his name for the rest of his life. Sure, there were entertaining popcorn movies--it's hard to argue with the likes of THE ROCK (1996), FACE/OFF (1997), and CON AIR (1997), and the NATIONAL TREASURE films were dumb fun.  But in recent years, Cage has become a case study in talent-squandering starting with the ill-advised remake of THE WICKER MAN (2006), which has become a modern-day bad-movie classic, and continuing with a string of increasingly phoned-in and decreasingly distributed paycheck gigs brought on mostly by the actor's serious financial issues in the late '00s.  But even amidst the drek, there were some good performances in films like THE WEATHER MAN (2005), LORD OF WAR (2005), Werner Herzog's insane THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009) and KICK-ASS (2010).  Looking over his credits from the last decade, there's numerous examples of Cage either not giving a shit (BANGKOK DANGEROUS, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, SEASON OF THE WITCH, STOLEN) or hamming it up to provide material for future YouTube videos of his overacting, but are his list of duds and misfires worse than any other coasting A-lister in a career lull? One could certainly argue that we've been a little too hard on Cage, but it's only because he, like the frequently-criticized Robert De Niro, is capable of so much more than what he's been doing. If you miss the Cage of old, the Cage that made LEAVING LAS VEGAS so devastating, the Cage that existed prior to the line "Killing me won't bring back your goddamn honey!" then JOE will be a most welcome surprise.

It's interesting that Cage's comeback effort is helmed by indie darling-turned-pariah David Gordon Green, the GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000) and ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003) auteur who's spent the last several years in the stoner-comedy orbit of James Franco and Danny McBride with PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008) and the universally-loathed YOUR HIGHNESS (2011), in addition to producing and directing HBO's EASTBOUND AND DOWN.  Green's been derided as everything from a hack to a sellout for his commercial endeavors, but it only lasted three films (he also made the instantly forgotten Jonah Hill vehicle THE SITTER) before he got back to business with last year's acclaimed but little-seen PRINCE AVALANCHE.  Green's shift to commercial comedy was surprising, but perhaps he was just setting himself up with enough of a financial cushion so he'd be free to make the films he wanted to make.  If he should be criticized for anything, it's refusing to abandon his doomed plan to remake Dario Argento's 1977 classic SUSPIRIA.

Green shot JOE in the outskirts of Austin, TX, and like his earliest efforts, it captures a genuine grittiness and displays a strong sense of local color.  With the exception of Cage, Sheridan, Ronnie Gene Blevins, and Adriene Mishler, the cast is made up of non-professionals from Austin and surrounding towns who contribute a very palpable feeling of reality to the characters they play.  Green understands these folks and he's taken the time to get to know them and get them acclimated to being on a movie set. These are not sophisticated, big-city types with cinematic aspirations.  JOE takes place in what looks like a destitute area that in many ways is as isolated as the Cahulawassee River region of DELIVERANCE. Even the bit players are three-dimensional characters and not caricatures where most Hollywood films would play the white trash, hillbilly cliches--barely literate, bad teeth, ramshackle homes--for easy laughs. A Hollywood film would've worked in a subplot where Cage busted up a meth lab.  JOE takes place in a part of Texas that's decidedly off the beaten path, where misfits blend in among misfits and other societal cast-offs, the kind of place where Harry Dean Stanton's Travis from Wim Wenders' PARIS, TEXAS probably could've disappeared unnoticed.

Sheridan is 15-year-old Gary, looking for a job to support his mom and mute sister while his abusive dad "G-Daawg" (Gary Poulter) beats him, drinks, and is generally useless around their dilapidated backwoods shack of a home.  He gets a job working for Joe (Cage), who runs a crew of under-the-table guys who poison trees so lumber companies can come through and cut them down. Pacing the film like a good book, Green only reveals Joe's character in a very gradual fashion.  We learn that he has anger management issues, spent some time in prison, drinks too much, and is the kind of guy who uses black electrical tape to secure a bandage over a bullet wound, but he treats his employees well, has a reputation as a stand-up guy and a straight-shooter, and sees in Gary someone very much like himself, a good person who's been dealt the same shitty cards and seems doomed to have his ass beaten by life.  There's unspoken darkness in Joe's past:  you can see him mustering all of his strength to control his temper (being that it's Cage, you constantly wait for him to erupt--which he does, but not in the fashion you expect from "Nicolas Cage"), he has very specific demands when he visits prostitute Merle (Sue Rock) at the skeeziest brothel to hit the screens in a long time, and there's a reason the local cops always seem to be on his case. It's no surprise that Joe and Gary will bond and that Joe will intervene in problems that eventually intersect to affect both of them (Blevins plays a local idiot who has an axe to grind with Joe, but he also has a run-in Gary that will prove fateful), giving Joe the obligatory One Last Shot at Redemption, but what makes JOE special is the unique way Green, the actors, and screenwriter Gary Hawkins (working from a novel by Larry Brown) tell the story.

Given Sheridan's presence and the surface similarities, comparisons to MUD are inevitable and not unwarranted. But JOE, despite lighthearted moments in the scenes with Joe and his workers busting each others' chops (the locals who make up his crew have a very improvisational rapport with Cage that's a joy to watch), is much more grim and dark.  A lot of this is due to the stunning work done by Poulter, in what sadly turned out to be his only film.  Poulter was a homeless man discovered by casting associates whose only experience was once being a background extra on THIRTYSOMETHING 25 years earlier.  He was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after filming wrapped, and was found lying dead in shallow water a month after that. For someone who had no acting experience, Poulter commands the screen like a veteran pro. Knowing Poulter's own unfortunate story, it's impossible to watch his terrifying performance and not imagine the dark shit he'd experienced in his life.  He was only 54 when he died, but looks about two decades older. There's a simmering rage behind Poulter's eyes that's disturbingly real in his scenes with Sheridan, as G-Daawg verbally and physically abuses Gary before stealing his hard-earned money.  You'll hate G-Daawg like you've hated few movie villains in recent memory (Blevins' pathetic Willie-Russell is just as awful a human being), and Poulter is so good here that he manages to steal the film from the two stars.

Lionsgate isn't giving JOE much of a rollout, relegating it to its "Roadside Attractions" arthouse division and sending it on the VOD route.  There's no reason that this couldn't be the same kind of sleeper hit that MUD was a year ago.  It's a more difficult film and its slow-burn nature may make it inaccessible to some, but it's one of the year's best films, and as much as I'd love to think it's the first step of a Cageaissance, he does have some typically dubious-looking films coming down the pike, including a remake of the Kirk Cameron Rapture cheesefest LEFT BEHIND, which can't possibly be good.  Hey, whatever pays the bills, but it would be an unfortunate missed opportunity if the 50-year-old Cage doesn't build on the artistic momentum of JOE for a middle-aged revitalization that shows the world why he was so special when he was a young man. JOE is as essential a Cage performance as RAISING ARIZONA or LEAVING LAS VEGAS, Sheridan is a remarkable actor who's going on to a great career, and Poulter will give you chills. JOE is one of those low-key sleepers that sneak up on you as you find yourself thinking about it days after seeing it.