Friday, August 29, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: LIFE OF CRIME (2014)

(US/United Arab Emirates - 2014)

Written and directed by Daniel Schechter. Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, yasiin bey, Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Mark Boone Junior, Kevin Corrigan, Clea Lewis, Charlie Tahan, Kofi Boakye, Nathan Purdee. (R, 100 mins)

For nearly 60 years, Hollywood's been adapting the novels and stories of the great crime and western writer Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) with varying degrees of success and, more often than not, the dismissive derision of the author himself. Leonard understood that film was a different medium--he also wrote screenplays for films like JOE KIDD (1972) and MR. MAJESTYK (1974)--and that changes were sometimes necessary. While he had a hard time abiding those changes--even an exemplary adaptation like John Frankenheimer's 52 PICK-UP (1986) was criticized by Leonard simply because the filmmakers moved the setting from Detroit to Los Angeles--he would state numerous times in interviews over the years that "getting paid is the most important thing."  The mid '90s saw a major cinematic resurgence of interest in Leonard's work, with Barry Sonnenfeld's GET SHORTY (1995), Quentin Tarantino's Rum Punch adaptation JACKIE BROWN (1997), and Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998) setting the standard of Leonard-done-right for the big screen (there was also Paul Schrader's little-seen and much less successful 1997 adaptation of TOUCH, based on an atypical Leonard novel and primarily remembered, if at all, for Dave Grohl composing the score). More recently, Leonard's work has been the basis of the acclaimed FX series JUSTIFIED, with Timothy Olyphant as recurring Leonard character Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens. But for every film version that satisfied Leonard, there were numerous others--THE AMBASSADOR (1985), an adaptation of 52 Pick-Up that had nothing whatsoever to do with 52 Pick-Up, the Showtime movie PRONTO (1997), featuring James Le Gros in an early incarnation of Raylan Givens, and the short-lived 1998 ABC series MAXIMUM BOB, or troubled productions like Burt Reynolds' STICK (1985), Abel Ferrara's CAT CHASER (1989), or John Madden's KILLSHOT, released in 2009 after four years on the shelf--that left him sour on Hollywood. Leonard died shortly after production wrapped on LIFE OF CRIME, based on his 1978 novel The Switch. While he never got to see the completed film, he was shown snippets of scenes and, by all accounts, was pleased with what he saw, both as the writer of the source novel and as a co-producer on the film.

Leonard was always a master storyteller who cut to the chase, direct and unpretentious and uninterested in making grand artistic statements. That's what writer/director Daniel Schechter goes for here, but the results are frequently as flat as the generic retitling. As demonstrated by guys like Frankenheimer, Sonnenfeld, Tarantino, and Soderbergh, Leonard adaptations work best when a gifted filmmaker is able to put their unique stamp on the material. Of course, being a different medium, that's where deviations may occur. Schechter's approach involves being slavishly devoted to Leonard by pretty much putting the book in script form. While that may explain why Leonard was so happy with what he saw, it doesn't make for a particularly thrilling thriller. Schechter brings no style or personality to the proceedings other than a couple of minor nods to JACKIE BROWN, as both films feature the lowlife trio of Ordell Robbie, Louis Gara, and Melanie Ralston, recurring characters in several Leonard novels. Played in JACKIE BROWN by, respectively, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda, the characters are seen here at an earlier time in their lives, with yasiin bey, formerly known as Mos Def, as Ordell, John Hawkes as Louis, and Isla Fisher as Melanie. While LIFE OF CRIME isn't meant to be a direct prequel to JACKIE BROWN, the Tarantino film was obviously studied by the actors, especially bey, who clearly bases his interpretation of Ordell on Jackson's performance. As LIFE opens, Ordell and Louis are planning the half-baked kidnapping of wealthy Detroit housewife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), with the intent of blackmailing her wealthy and corrupt businessman husband Frank (Tim Robbins, who stepped in when Dennis Quaid dropped out of the project) into paying a $1 million ransom. Holding Mickey captive at the home of their idiotic white supremacist cohort Richard (Mark Boone Junior), Ordell and Louis are shocked to learn that Frank has taken off to the Bahamas with his mistress Melanie (at this point in the timeline of Leonard's novels, they don't know her) and has just filed for divorce. He has no intention of paying the ransom and really doesn't care if he ever sees Mickey again. Of course, double crosses ensue as unplanned alliances form and Mickey finds herself unexpectedly bonding with Louis.

It's interesting to note that The Switch was originally set to be made way back in 1986 with Diane Keaton as Mickey, but it was cancelled during pre-production when 20th Century Fox execs deemed it too similar to the then-current box office hit RUTHLESS PEOPLE. LIFE OF CRIME has solid performances and it's interesting to see Hawkes as a younger, smarter, and much more assertive Louis than the beaten-down-by-life schlub De Niro played in JACKIE BROWN, but there's very little excitement or fun here. Schechter does a serviceable, workmanlike job at the helm and the whole film is efficiently assembled, but it's very low-energy and has little spark. It lacks the snap of GET SHORTY, JACKIE BROWN, and OUT OF SIGHT, and often feels like a costumed table read. There's nothing wrong with anything, and Hawkes and bey stand out while Will Forte has some amusing bits as a Dawson family friend who carries a torch for Mickey, but comparisons to JACKIE BROWN are unfortunately inevitable and Daniel Schechter is no Quentin Tarantino. Its biggest issue is its blandness, and that's not a word you typically use to describe anything connected to Elmore Leonard. Even the twists and turns are executed in the most perfunctory of fashions, and the film has the aura of a TV-movie with F-bombs. Budgeted at just $12 million--pocket change by today's standards--it's obviously a labor of love for some (Aniston is among the film's 27 credited producers), it's dedicated to Leonard, and it's nice to know that he enjoyed what little he saw, but other than a funny opening sequence and some well-done 1978 period detail throughout, this is really a pretty forgettable entry in the Leonard big-screen pantheon, about on the level of George Armitage's 2004 shrugger THE BIG BOUNCE. It's easy to see why Lionsgate is dumping it in limited release and on VOD. In the days of old, this would be the very definition of "Eh, just wait for it to come out on video."  It's by no means a bad movie, but...eh, just wait for it to turn up on Netflix Instant, or in Wal-Mart's $5 DVD bin, where you'll likely find it by Christmas.

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DOUBLE (2014); A GOOD MAN (2014); and DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

(UK/Germany/Australia - 2014)

This visually striking adaptation of Dostoyevsky's 1846 novella uses the title and the concept of the self, but really ventures off into its own dystopian nightmare black comedy scenario more akin to the likes of George Orwell and Franz Kafka. The retro-futurist production design recalls the drab and bleak worlds of Terry Gilliam's classic BRAZIL (1985) and Orson Welles' Kafka adaptation THE TRIAL (1962). There's also a lot of THE TRIAL in one of two performances by Jesse Eisenberg, who does a remarkable job of channeling Anthony Perkins' Josef K. in his portrayal of meek office drone Simon James. Afraid of his own shadow, Simon is employed by a bureaucratic company called ColLoc and works in a dreary, gray, overcrowded, and oppressively hot office building. He gets hassled by the security guard, who still doesn't recognize him after seven years of employment.  His co-workers and his demanding boss Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) rarely seem to notice him and if they do, they get his name wrong ("Stanley!"). Simon would rather keep quiet and look down, and on the rare occasions he considers speaking, he can't get a word out, especially around his cold mother (Phyllis Somerville), who can't even point him out when he's clearly visible in an improbably upbeat ColLoc TV commercial. He secretly pines for co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), finding excuses to visit her department for painfully awkward interaction or just spying on her through his telescope, as her apartment building is adjacent to his own. Simon's tenuous grip on his world is jeopardized when Mr. Papadopoulous hires James Simon (also Eisenberg), a doppelganger who looks just like Simon but is his opposite in every other way: brash and egotistical where Simon is quiet and withdrawn, James is Simon's id run rampant. His gregarious personality wins over the office. He coasts by on Simon's hard work. He bullies a waitress (Cathy Moriarty) into bringing him breakfast after they've stopped serving while she can't even be bothered to bring Simon a Coke. He seduces Hannah and the boss' daughter (Yasmin Paige) and demands a copy of Simon's apartment key so he can arrange other trysts he wants to keep secret from Hannah ("I'll also be taking other women up there, in case you start noticing different smells"). Obviously, Simon can only be pushed so far.

A cursory glance at some of the names associated with THE DOUBLE guarantees it'll at the very least be an interesting experience.  Directed and co-written by comedian, music video director, and THE IT CROWD co-star Richard Ayoade, the film also lists Michael Caine and Harmony Korine among its producers, it's co-written by Korine's younger brother Avi, and in addition to Shawn and Moriarty, its eclectic supporting cast features, among others, James Fox, Noah Taylor, Rade Serbedzija, Chris O'Dowd, and Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis as an irate janitor. THE DOUBLE obviously owes a huge debt to Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but it still manages to be a unique and very well-executed bit of paranoia, dark comedy, and bleak misanthropy, anchored by two brilliant Eisenberg performances that play to both of his screen personas and allow him to take them into some dark places. Only released on 16 screens and VOD, THE DOUBLE didn't get much of a push from Magnolia and grossed just $200,000, but it shouldn't take very long for it to become a word-of-mouth cult item. (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2014)

For most casual moviegoers, Steven Seagal probably fell off the pop culture radar around 2002, the last time one of his own headlining vehicles (HALF PAST DEAD) made it into theaters. In the years since, his A&E reality series STEVEN SEAGAL: LAWMAN and his jokey supporting turn as a villain in Robert Rodriguez's MACHETE (2010) have alerted the general public to his continued existence, but only hardcore denizens of the DTV gutter know that Seagal's been consistently cranking out a ton of low-budget and mostly terrible actioners, starring in no less than 25 nearly interchangeable straight-to-DVD titles in the 12 years since HALF PAST DEAD served as an unintentionally prophetic description of his big-screen career. Seagal doesn't seem to be well-liked by his peers--he was never invited to take part in any EXPENDABLES entries--and the only time he makes the news now is when he releases a hilariously awful blues album or is seen hanging out with his close personal friend Vladimir Putin. Most of Seagal's DTV titles are thoroughly worthless, with the once-engaging action icon setting new benchmarks in apathy by letting his obvious double handle everything from strenuous fight scenes to simple shots where his back is to the camera and he answers questions by nodding. If you see enough of these, you start to notice that it's frequently only really Seagal if he has a close-up or if it's a two-shot and he's talking, and even then, sometimes the co-star is much shorter and "Seagal"'s head is out of the frame. There were even a few instances in the mid-2000s where his performance was badly dubbed over by someone else for some unexplained reason. Seagal puts the bare minimum amount of work into most of these productions but, like a broken clock being right twice a day, a couple of them have been accidentally decent, like 2009's THE KEEPER and 2010's A DANGEROUS MAN, the latter being better than most of what he had in theaters during his late '90s decline before 2001's EXIT WOUNDS gave him a very brief comeback.

A GOOD MAN is typical of Seagal's straight-to-DVD output. It's hardly the worst of the lot, but that doesn't exactly merit a recommendation. Rather than being aggressively shitty, it's merely predictable and boring, with Seagal as Alexander, codename "Ghost," an ex-covert ops guy living off the grid in "Eastern Europe" (like many of Seagal's movies these days, this was shot on-the-cheap in Romania) after a raid on a Middle East terrorist compound went south two years earlier. Ghost involves himself in the troubles of attractive neighbor Lena (Iulia Verdes) and her kid sister Mya (Sofia Nicolaescu), whose safety is jeopardized by their American half-brother Sasha's (Victor Webster) involvement with Russian mobster Vladimir (Claudiu Bleont). Sasha owes Vladimir a ton of money via a debt accrued by his late father, and Ghost sees this as the perfect opportunity to start a war between Vladimir and terror cell financier Mr. Chen (Tzi Ma, best known for the Coen Bros. remake of THE LADYKILLERS), who was responsible for what went down in the Middle East two years earlier. A GOOD MAN offers everything you expect from modern-day Seagal: the star using a ridiculously affected and completely inappropriate accent, thankfully abandoning his N'awlins drawl of recent years but resorting to an even more ludicrous-sounding hip-hop dialect that sounds like Drexl Spivey after a root canal. This leads to a mush-mouthed Seagal shouting things like "All y'all muthafuckaz," and "I wondah how much pussy he get?" proving that at no point during filming did director Keoni Waxman pull his star aside and remind him that he's 62 years old. There's also the now-standard Seagal fighting style, which consists of being there for the close-ups and sticking his arm out so a bad guy can run into it while Waxman shakes the camera around to simulate "fighting action" before cutting to actual fighting with "Seagal" shot from behind as his younger and more svelte double does the heavy lifting. Finally, about an hour or so in, we get another signature move in the modern Seagal repertoire: the mid-film sabbatical where he disappears for 20 or more minutes while a co-star--in this case, Webster--advances the plot and gets a bunch of action scenes. Seagal stars in a lot of movies, but he's one of the laziest actors in the business and A GOOD MAN does nothing to counter that reputation and halt his ongoing free-fall into irrelevance. (R, 103 mins)


(UK - 2013; US release 2014)

Writer/director Richard Shepard scored an acclaimed indie sleeper hit with 2005's THE MATADOR, with Pierce Brosnan as a lethal assassin and all-around bad guy having a crisis of conscience when he befriends nice-guy salesman Greg Kinnear. Shepard explores somewhat similar territory--at least the redemption aspect--in DOM HEMINGWAY, which opens as strong as any film this year with an introductory rant by the title character (Jude Law) and a punchline that won't soon be forgotten and sets the tone right from the start that it's not going to be playing things safe. Law is all maniacal bluster, fusing elements of Dennis Hopper in BLUE VELVET, Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST, and Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK into one memorable madman. Safecracker Dom is released from a British prison, where he's been locked up for 12 years after refusing to rat on crime boss Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bichir). Teaming up with his best friend/handler Dickie (Richard E. Grant), Dom heads to St. Tropez to collect the money he feels Fontaine owes him for his work and his silence. Unfortunately, Dom can't keep his volcanic temper in check and ends up endlessly insulting Fontaine, his girlfriend Paolina (Madalena Ghenea), and Dickie. He succeeds in making amends, and Fontaine gives him more money than he ever expected. After a drunken car wreck results in Paolina running off with his money, Dom makes his way back to London and tries reconnecting with his estranged daughter Evelyn (GAME OF THRONES' Emilia Clarke), who resents him for spending 12 years behind bars and not being there when her mother--Dom's wife--was dying of cancer. Evelyn has a young son with whom Dom tries to get acquainted, and while he wants to go straight, he shoots his mouth off and ends up tangling with Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), Fontaine's chief rival and a man who has a score to settle with Dom.

DOM HEMINGWAY starts off so darkly hilarous and gloriously foul and profane that it's dispiriting when it veers off into the realm of feelgood redemption dramedy at its midpoint. Law's performance--one of his best--keeps things afloat but the shift in tone is cumbersome, to say the least. It's hard not to laugh at Dom incorporating James Taylor lyrics into a bile-soaked tirade that also has him threatening to "throat-fuck" Fontaine, but it's awfully difficult to buy him getting all misty over the grandson he never knew shortly after. It's not that a sociopath like Dom can't find genuine emotions of that sort deep within himself--it's that the film doesn't feel genuine in the journey of its central character. Dom is whatever the plot needs him to be at any given time, and even Evelyn's change of heart about her dad doesn't really ring true. The first half of DOM HEMINGWAY is outrageously entertaining, but it fizzles once Evelyn enters the story and never regains its footing. It's too bad because until the film starts stumbling and bumbling, it features some of the finest work of Law's career, and he gets some excellent support from Grant as his perpetually suffering yet always loyal sidekick. It's not always successful, but they make it worth seeing. (R, 93 mins)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Theaters: THE NOVEMBER MAN (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Roger Donaldson. Written by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek. Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Will Patton, Caterina Scorsone, Amila Terzemehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Patrick Kennedy, Eliza Taylor, Tara Jevrosimovic. (R, 109 mins)

Pierce Brosnan has dual purposes with THE NOVEMBER MAN: 1) to remind everyone that yes, he was once James Bond, and 2) to hitch a ride on the "aging action guy" bandwagon with his own Liam Neeson-esque action vehicle. The now 61-year-old Brosnan played 007 in four films: GOLDENEYE (1995), TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997), THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999), and DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002).  All were huge hits and Brosnan was a popular 007 at the time, but in the years since his departure from the role, his stock among fans has plummeted. There was a time many years ago that George Lazenby was everyone's least favorite Bond, at least until some point in the 1980s when those who dismissed his lone Bond outing, 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, finally got around to actually watching it and found it was one of the best films in the series and easily ranked alongside the best of the undisputed greatest of all Bonds, Sean Connery. And when Brosnan was firmly ensconced in the role, Bond fans usually never passed up an opportunity to bash the short-lived Timothy Dalton era (1987's THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and 1989's LICENCE TO KILL). But once Daniel Craig took over with 2006's CASINO ROYALE, there seemed to be a resurgence of interest in the Dalton films, especially LICENCE TO KILL, which was the most violent 007 film up to that time, with Dalton's Bond uncharacteristically cold, unsympathetic, and hell-bent on revenge. In the late '80s, Dalton was criticized for many of the same reasons Craig would be praised two decades later.

So now, all these years later, with one-and-done Lazenby having earned everyone's respect, fans finally showing appreciation for Dalton's tenure, and we all seem to be cool with the relative lightheartedness of the Roger Moore years, Brosnan has become the odd man out and the Bond that people now suddenly don't like. None of his films are anyone's idea of an essential Bond, though GOLDENEYE is very good and comes the closest. The negativity toward Brosnan probably stems from DIE ANOTHER DAY supplanting 1979's MOONRAKER as the world's least-favorite Bond film, with its terrible CGI, the invisible car, and the Madonna cameo. DIE ANOTHER DAY is terrible, but it's not Brosnan's fault. He was always a good mix of Connery and Moore, playing it mostly straight but able to deliver a corny, smutty double entendre with the panache of Moore at his most winkingly self-aware ("I thought Christmas only came once a year," Brosnan's 007 smirks before another round with Denise Richards' sexy nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH). I'm not sure why we have to have a worst Bond or why it's Brosnan's turn to hold the dishonor--all of the Bond actors had their stumbles. Have you seen 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE lately? Connery isn't even hiding his utter boredom with the entire project and it's without question his worst performance as 007. And sure, Moore scraped bottom with MOONRAKER but you can't dismiss THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) or FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981).  The point is, the idea of Brosnan in another spy thriller is a great idea. Yes, there's the 007 connection,  but it's something that fits him well and he's good at it.

By that same token, it's impossible to not draw comparisons, but THE NOVEMBER MAN starts out by working hard to distance Brosnan from his 007 years. Based on the 1987 novel There Are No Spies, the seventh book in the "November Man' spy series by Bill Granger, THE NOVEMBER MAN opens with CIA killing machine Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) and his youthful protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) botching a job in Montenegro where Devereaux goes incognito as the US Ambassador to thwart an assassination attempt but failing to stop a stray bullet that manages to kill a small child. Five years later, Devereaux is in self-imposed exile in Switzerland but is Pulled Back Into The Game for One Last Job by gruff CIA chief Hanley (an enjoyably scenery-chewing turn by veteran character actor Bill Smitrovich). Devereaux's old Russian flame Natalia (Medina Musliovic) is a double agent working undercover for the CIA to dig up info on Gen. Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), an infamous figure in the second Chechen War who's gunning to be Russia's next president. Natalia has information that ties Federov to human rights atrocities and child prostitution, and Devereaux is supposed to extract her and get her over the border into Finland. The job goes to shit when Federov figures out what Natalia's been up to and sends the military after her, but they're intercepted by none other than Simon, who has orders from Hanley's Langley-based boss Weinstein (Will Patton) to kill Natalia. He does, which starts a game of cat-and-mouse between teacher and pupil, with Devereaux on the run with human rights worker Alice Fournier (QUANTUM OF SOLACE Bond girl Olga Kurylenko)--whose name came up in some of Natalia's files--with the CIA, Mason, and lethal Russian assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic) in hot pursuit.

THE NOVEMBER MAN gets off to a relentlessly fast-paced start, with one exciting chase sequence after another. Journeyman director Roger Donaldson, who's done everything from crackling thrillers (1987's NO WAY OUT) to the worst blockbuster hit of the 1980s (1988's COCKTAIL) and everything in between (1995's SPECIES, 2000's THIRTEEN DAYS, and 2005's THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN), and previously worked with Brosnan on the 1997 volcano disaster movie DANTE'S PEAK, stages the action in an admirably coherent way, with nothing in the way of quick cuts and shaky-cam. Unlike the 007 films, THE NOVEMBER MAN is action of the hard-R variety, with bone crushing fights and copious amounts of blood and splatter. In a way, with its extreme violence and glimpses of the seamier side of Eastern Europe (this was shot in Belgrade), it brings to mind a very high-end Millennium/NuImage production that follows the Cannon ethos of the late '80s. Indeed, if Brosnan had hypothetically teamed up with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to make his own knockoff 007 movie 25 years ago before he got the actual gig, modern technology aside, it probably would've come out looking a lot like THE NOVEMBER MAN, give or take a J. Lee Thompson, a Herbert Lom, or a Yehuda Efroni. Sure, it's routine and of course, it's got "Badasses walking away from explosions" if you're playing the action cliche drinking game, but for a good while, it's perfectly entertaining escapism. But about 3/4 of the way in, things starts falling apart. Plot conveniences abound, twists emerge out of nowhere, characters start knowing things they can't possibly know, behaving in contradictory fashion, and in one case, disappearing completely, and one new character is so arbitrarily and haphazardly shoehorned in for the climax that they practically scream "Hastily added during reshoots." And just when things should really get cooking, the film becomes hopelessly muddled and confusing and it feels like cuts have been made at random. Scenes seem to be missing. Devereaux addresses someone by another name at one crucial moment and, the way it's presented, he has no way of knowing that information. It's a shame, because for about 75 minutes, THE NOVEMBER MAN was looking like the kind of no-bullshit, throwback action flick that we don't see nearly enough of on the big screen these days.

Co-producer Brosnan, who bought the rights to the book after he was dismissed as 007 and first tried to put the project together back in 2006, carries the film like the old pro that he is, relishing a chance to engage in some mean, gritty action. He's quite believable as the cynical, weathered, seen-it-all type and he and Bracey (who has the Keanu Reeves role in the forthcoming POINT BREAK remake) play the bickering, back-and-forth ballbusting well, particularly when the experienced Devereaux gets the edge on Mason time and again. It's unfortunate that the last section of the film plays out in such a choppy and sloppy fashion. It's doubtful Granger's novel was written that way or that the script, credited to Michael Finch (PREDATORS) and Karl Gajdusek (OBLIVION), was constructed in that fashion. No, the late implosion of THE NOVEMBER MAN reeks of distributor interference and too many cooks in the kitchen and, as is usually the case in such situations, a perfectly good thing was spoiled.

Monday, August 25, 2014

In Theaters: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

(US/Russia/France/UK - 2014)

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Written by Frank Miller. Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach, Jaime King, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Juno Temple, Lady Gaga, Marton Csokas, Julia Garner, Alexa PenaVega, Jude Ciccolella, Johnny Reno. (R, 102 mins)

When the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller collaboration SIN CITY was released in 2005, it was hailed as a groundbreaking visual triumph and a trendsetting example of how to adapt a graphic novel--in this case, Miller's legendary series--to the big screen. Nine years later, it holds up beautifully in terms of visuals and its very effective use of CGI, as well as with its loving tribute to the gutsy, hard-boiled prose of a bygone era. While the success of SIN CITY paved the way for other successful graphic novel adaptations like Zack Snyder's 300 (2007), its style is the kind of thing that can't really be repeated without feeling like a tired retread. Look no further than Miller's own disastrous solo directorial outing THE SPIRIT (2008), an excruciatingly awful adaptation of Will Eisner's graphic novel series that came off like a cheap, amateurish ripoff of SIN CITY and was rejected by even the most ardent Miller fanboys. Shot in 2012 and bumped nearly a year from its original October 2013 release date, the belated prequel/sequel combo SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR wasn't really warranted or demanded, and, this far removed from the first film, can't help but pale in comparison to what was so fresh and innovative nearly a decade ago. Rodriguez and Miller seem to recognize that and try to counter it by using 3-D. It makes for some occasionally striking imagery, but remove that superfluous cosmetic addition and you've got a perfectly watchable but thoroughly disposable revamp that plays like a SIN CITY knockoff rather than a follow-up by the same filmmakers. It's almost like a rock band that knocked it out of the park with one instant classic album and followed it with a cash-in comprised of leftover songs that weren't strong enough to make the cut the first time around.

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR has four segments, only one of which, "A Dame to Kill For," is based on a published Miller work, while the others were written specifically for the film. The time element can be a bit confusing--sometimes it's set in the film's present, other times in the past, which explains the return of some characters killed off in the first film. Ex-boxer and 300-lb killing machine Marv (Mickey Rourke, whose character makeup combined with his own plastic surgery in the years since SIN CITY now have Marv looking like a roid-raging Lionel Stander) disposes of some douchebag college kids who get their kicks by setting bums on fire. Wiseass card sharp Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wins a bundle from evil Sen. Roark (Powers Boothe reprises his role) in a backroom card game and lives to regret it. In the longest section, based on "A Dame to Kill For," photographer Dwight (Josh Brolin, replacing Clive Owen), is duped by his femme fatale ex Ava (Eva Green) when she kills her husband (Marton Csokas) and tries to frame him. After being beaten to a pulp by Ava's bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan), Dwight teams up with Marv, old flame Gail (a returning Rosario Dawson) and silent assassin Miho (Jamie Chung, replacing Devon Aoki) to exact his revenge. Ava, meanwhile, seduces and manipulates honest cop Mort (Christopher Meloni), despite the warnings of his cynical partner Bob (Jeremy Piven, replacing Michael Madsen). Finally, stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba also returns) is watched over at the sleazy dive bar Kadie's by the ever-present Marv, but she's really waiting for the perfect opportunity to kill Roark, the father of the first film's vicious serial killer The Yellow Bastard. Roark made sure his son's heinous crimes were pinned on pushing-60-with-a-bum-ticker cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis reappears, barely), who was Nancy's guardian angel father figure and was driven to suicide after killing the Yellow Bastard and ensuring her safety.

While SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR has its reasonably entertaining moments and it's never dull, it can't help but feel stale and tired most of the time. Much like the slo-mo and the speed-ramping of 300 have made that the most tired cliche going, the SIN CITY look is something that can only blaze a trail once before everything that comes after is simply following in its path. Miller's writing isn't nearly as good this time around, with the tough-guy narration sounding like cheesy posturing, and there's an almost-total absence of great hard-boiled one-liners that filled the first film, like Hartigan's "When it comes to reassuring a traumatized 19-year-old, I'm as expert as a palsy victim doing brain surgery with a pipe wrench," or Marv, strapped in the electric chair bellowing "Would you get a move on? I ain't got all night!" to a prison chaplain issuing the last rites.

The film does feature some strong performances by a snarling Boothe and a vamping, typically crazy-eyed and frequently nude Green, who almost single-handedly made a must-see film out of 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, another unnecessary sequel from earlier this year. There's a large cast of familiar faces here, but very few of them are put to any substantive use. Rourke and Willis were terrific back in 2005, but they're just clocking in for this one (it's easy to forget that, three years before THE WRESTLER, it was his performance in SIN CITY that started the now-squandered Rourkeassaince). Willis' Hartigan only appears fleetingly as a ghost. He has maybe two minutes of screen time and I'd be surprised if he was on the set for more than a day. An unrecognizable Stacy Keach, sporting some Jabba the Hutt-inspired makeup, gets about a minute as big shot mobster Wallenquist. Ray Liotta briefly appears as a philandering businessman in love with a young hooker (Juno Temple). Blink and you'll miss Christopher Lloyd as a drug-addicted, back-alley doc who helps reset Johnny's broken fingers. And Lady Gaga cruises through as a hash-slinging waitress at a skeezy all-night diner. With SIN CITY, even those actors in the smallest roles made an impression (remember Nicky Katt's hapless Stuka and his "Heeeey!" reaction to an arrow through the chest?) because that was a film made with care and precision, but here, they're just distractions (Lady Gaga?) popping into Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in Austin for a cameo and a quick run by the craft services table, with their driver presumably leaving the limo running outside. Rodriguez, Miller, and the returning actors don't seem very engaged with the second-rate material that consequently fails to provide much in the way of inspiration for the new cast members. SIN CITY was budgeted at $40 million in 2005, still looks terrific and has aged beautifully.  SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR cost $70 million and, factoring out the use of 3-D, more often than not looks and feels like a slipshod, straight-to-DVD knockoff. I didn't hate SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR but unlike its predecessor, it's nothing I'll feel the need to watch again. If nothing else, I guess the best praise to bestow upon it is that it's a masterpiece compared to THE SPIRIT.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

In Theaters: BOYHOOD (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Tamara Jolaine, Zoe Graham, Libby Vallari, Marco Perella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal, Brad Hawkins, Charlie Sexton, Richard Robichaux, Tom McTigue, Jessi Mechler. (R, 166 mins)

There are countless examples of film franchises or TV series where we've seen adults and children age through the years, but nothing quite like what Richard Linklater pulls off with his latest film, BOYHOOD. For 12 years starting in 2002, he had his core cast reconvene in Texas for a few days annually, improvising and shooting short vignettes and then, in 2013, piecing it together in a nearly three-hour narrative feature where the characters age and change over the course of the film. Lars von Trier attempted something like this with the more cumbersomely ambitious DIMENSION 1991-2024, which began shooting in 1991 with a plan to film three minutes a year for 33 years. Von Trier lost one of his stars when 79-year-old Eddie Constantine--who had very little chance of making it to the 2024 completion anyway--died in 1993 and he eventually abandoned the project by 2000 (it now exists as a 27-minute short film). Though BOYHOOD has a structure, Linklater was less concerned with a linear plot and goes for a more slice-of-life portrait of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to 18. Sequences organically flow from one year to the next and it takes a couple of these segues before you get into the film's distinct rhythm. One thing that makes BOYHOOD fascinating is how much we learn just from seeing snapshots of these people over a 12-year period. We miss key events as Linklater focuses on the everyday aspects.  Life is the time in between the milestones, and Linklater captures it in a way few others have. Particularly with the younger actors--Coltrane and Linklater's daughter Lorelei as Mason's older sister Samantha--we don't see what most films would label the "defining moments" of their lives. We hear about Mason's first kiss, but don't see it.  We know he's lost his virginity but it's not shown. The performances are very natural and unaffected, at least until the teen years when kids shed their childlike demeanor and develop affectations and personas. Coltrane's performance remains largely natural throughout as goes from cute kid to sullen and sometimes pretentious teenager, but Linklater's daughter does seem a bit less into it as the years go on: an expressive and enthusiastic scene-stealer in the early going, she grows rather bland and dull as the story goes on and she's given less to do.

Though the film is nominally about Mason, it's really about his entire family: his parents are divorced and mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette in a career-best performance) is struggling as a single breadwinner while dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) disappears for months at a time and doesn't seem to be paying any child support. As much as we see Mason Jr. and Samantha grow and change, so do the parents. Olivia goes to college and goes through a succession of bad relationships, accruing two bad-tempered, drunk husbands while Mason Sr. grows up, gets his shit together, and starts a new family with Tammy (Tamara Jolaine) in an attempt to get it right the second time. Linklater jumps from year to year and we don't see any of these marriages or divorces. Much like life, there are people who are always there, who float in and out of the picture, and who disappear altogether. In an early segment, Olivia moves to Houston with the kids and Mason doesn't get to say goodbye to his best friend, who waves to their passing car from his bicycle. That's the last we see of that kid. Mason and Samantha develop close bonds with stepsiblings Mindy (Jamie Howard) and Randy (Andrew Villarreal) when Olivia marries one of her professors (Marco Perella). When the prof is ultimately revealed to be an abusive drunk--Linklater shows him secretly drinking in one vignette, and openly swilling from a whiskey bottle in the next; that's all we need to see to realize how the situation has deteriorated--Olivia packs up her kids and leaves. "What about Mindy and Randy?" Samantha asks. "I'm not their mother," Olivia replies.  Samantha asks "Will we ever see them again?" Olivia: "I don't know."

Linklater has little interest in a formulaic coming-of-age story. BOYHOOD focuses on the little things and fills in the details that a formulaic film would gloss over or skip past entirely, and that's why it works so well. It also does a marvelous job of incorporating the cultural touchstones of the years, be it Britney Spears (Lorelei Linklater's rendition of "Oops, I Did it Again," in an early segment is priceless), a Harry Potter book release party, or technological signposts like YouTube, texting, and Facebook. BOYHOOD has its sporadic draggy sections and there's instances where some more context might have helped--Mason's relationship with girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) is one example--but again, this is not a story with a Point-A to Point-B line. Like life, it's sometimes confusing and messy but it's in constant motion and always propelling forward. A rare example of a film being carved and structured as it goes along and only coming together as time went on and some semblance of a story took shape, BOYHOOD is a singularly unique experiment where the characters and the performances actually transcend the gimmick. Through the BEFORE trilogy, Hawke and Richard Linklater obviously go way back, but in getting together annually to work on this (there's one segment where Mason Sr's appearance is via a Skype chat with Mason, obviously because Hawke was unable to make it to that year's shoot), you can see, even with the occasional weakness in the younger Linklater's performance, the bond develop between the four main actors over the 12 years of production, making this a rare slice-of-life chronicle that actually feels honest and real.

Ellar Coltrane over the 12 years of BOYHOOD's production

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


(UK/Germany/Greece/France - 2014)

A moody, melancholy vampire film as only Jim Jarmusch could make, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE has almost no concern with the horror angle or any other genre trends. Jarmusch's centuries-old protagonists--Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston)--have loved one another through time and have been witness to countless historical and cultural touchstones: they knew Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, Adam worked with Nikola Tesla, ghost-composed pieces for Schubert, and was an early supporter of his friend Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. They've drifted apart, with Eve living in Tangier and Adam in Detroit. She passes her days devouring great literature and he holes up in his dilapidated Brush Park mansion with his extensive collection of guitars, recording shoegazing garage rock instrumentals. A limitlessly-wealthy shut-in, he gets his necessities from local rock club kid Ian (Anton Yelchin) and procures blood at a local hospital from hematologist Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). Bored in Tangier, seemingly destined to live forever, and encouraged by her vampire mentor and blood supplier Marlowe (John Hurt), Eve flies to Detroit to rekindle her romance with Adam, but everything gets thrown in jeopardy with the arrival of her irresponsible, hard-partying sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) from Los Angeles.

Jarmusch tells his tale with a significant amount of dark and deadpan humor that could come across as "cute" in the wrong hands but he plays it perfectly, with everything from Eve and Adam enjoying frozen bloodcicles to Adam sounding not at all like the cultured immortal he is when he expresses his everyman hate for his de-facto sister-in-law and complains that their uninvited, imposing houseguest is "drinking all the O-negative." Jarmusch makes very effective use of Detroit locations, not merely shooting there but incorporating the city's culture, blight, and wasteland-like surroundings into the story. Adam takes Eve on a tour of crumbling and decaying Detroit landmarks like the Packard Plant and the old Michigan Theater, and they serve as metaphors for relics of a long-gone day, much like Adam and Eve themselves.  Unlike the misanthropic, dour Adam, Eve sees beauty in the ruins and its cultural significance ("I love Jack White!" she exclaims as Adam shows her the musician's childhood home in a now-rundown neighborhood). Swinton and Hiddleston are excellent in this very offbeat genre piece that's unlike any vampire film you've seen. Like most Jarmusch films, it's extremely slowly-paced, very much the distinct work of its maker, and mostly quite rewarding in the end. (R, 123 mins)

(US - 2014)

An odd, low-key comedy written, directed by, and starring John Turturro, FADING GIGOLO seems like it's going for goofy and raunchy early on, but it settles into a very quiet and leisurely-paced (almost to a fault) character piece. Turturro's film is set in the kind of Brooklyn you don't see much of in the movies anymore, very nicely shot by Marco Pontecorvo, son of legendary Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo (THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS) and has a definite Woody Allen influence, which even extends to Allen co-starring in one of the rare occasions over his 50-year career that he's acting in a film he didn't write and/or direct (the last were Douglas McGrath's barely-released COMPANY MAN and Alfonso Arau's even less-seen PICKING UP THE PIECES, both back in 2000). Allen is Murray Schwartz, an aging Brooklyn bookstore owner who's closing up shop and in dire need of money. His bisexual dermatologist (Sharon Stone) happens to tell him that she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) are interested in a menage-a-trois, prompting Murray to offer the services of his nice-guy florist pal Fioravante (Turturro). Before long, Fioravante becomes a sought-after Brooklyn gigolo with Murray his unlikely pimp (if this sounds like a nebbishy version of the HBO series HUNG, you're right), but things get complicated when Fioravante develops feelings for a Rabbi's widow (a de-glammed Vanessa Paradis), who's being courted by an angry Hasidic beat cop (Liev Schreiber).

The premise starts out like an R-rated sitcom and has some funny moments from Allen, coming up with would-be intimidating pimp names for himself, such as "Iceberg," and "Bookmaster Moe." But once Fioravante starts pining for the widow, the laughs get dialed down quite a bit and a somber Turturro frequently comes off like a black hole in the center of his own movie, almost like he knew Allen would steal all the scenes, so he's not even going to try. But even some of Allen's scenes don't work all that well, particularly a dreadful sequence where he's hauled off to some Hasidic kangaroo court with his lawyer (Bob Balaban). Fioravante's transformation from shy homebody to sexual dynamo seems forced, as does Turturro casting himself as someone that Brooklyn's sexiest, richest wives can't resist. FADING GIGOLO is a strange film that never settles on a tone and never really comes together, but Allen seems to be enjoying himself, even if this is just a minor footnote to his long and storied career. Allen's onscreen appearances, even in his own films, are a rarity these days and maybe if this was called FADING PIMP and focused on him, it would've been a bit more successful. This ended up being a small arthouse sleeper hit for Cannon cover band Millennium over the spring and summer of 2014, almost breaking into wide release like the company's BERNIE after landing in the top 15 on just 356 screens. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2014)

Ti West got a lot of attention in the cult horror scene with his impressive THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), a very creepy and very methodically-paced '80s throwback that seems to have spawned a "slow-burn" movement in the genre:  films where long periods of time pass with very little happening. An assured director uses this to ramp up the tension, and while it worked with THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, it failed with West's follow-up THE INNKEEPERS (2012), an inexplicably acclaimed horror film that was all slow-burn and nothing else. West, in many ways the Wes Anderson of horror, is so revered and coddled so gingerly with kid gloves by both critics and cult horror hipsters that it often seems like his career was granted by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. On the basis of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, I want to like Ti West's films (he also directed and disowned the long-shelved CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER), but I just can't get on the bandwagon. Something's just not working for me when it comes to his films and I don't know if it's the films themselves or that everyone seems to be seeing some kind of magic that's eluding me.

Boasting the opening credit "Eli Roth Presents," which is probably the point where the target audience had seen enough to conclude that it was a new masterpiece of modern horror and the Academy should bestow its first Participation Oscar to its maker, West's latest, THE SACRAMENT, may be the most pointless film of the year. And in using the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in Guyana as the story template, I can't imagine a more dead-on metaphor for the Kool-Aid guzzling, fanboy adoration of West's work. Here we have a film specifically engineered for the uninformed or those younger genre fans who are blithely unaware of anything that happened prior to their lifetime. If you've been waiting patiently for Jonestown recreated as a found footage/faux-doc--and if you have, then you're not quite ready to run with the grownups--then THE SACRAMENT is for you. Sure, it's set in the present day and has two Vice staffers (AJ Bowen and the inevitable Joe Swanberg) tagging along to make a doc with a colleague (Kentucker Audley) whose recovering drug addict sister (Amy Seimetz) has run off with the cult. And yes, it changes the name of the cult's compound from Jonestown to Eden Parish and the messianic leader is known simply as "Father," but he's Jim Jones, right down to the folksy drawl, the black hair, and the dark glasses. Gene Jones (best known as the gas station clerk in the "friendo" coin toss scene in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) is OK in the role, but he doesn't do anything that Powers Boothe didn't already do in the then-topical 1980 TV-movie GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES or, for that matter, Stuart Whitman as "Jim Johnson" in the spectacularly trashy GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED (also 1980). But everything you know about Jonestown, right down to the cult members being held captive, the brainwashing, the Kool-Aid, the sex, and the drugs, is all here. There's nothing surprising. If you know the story of Jonestown, then you know what's exactly what's going to happen in THE SACRAMENT. So who is this movie for? Why does it exist? Why retell this story now, in this fashion? If West thinks the faux-doc angle with obligatory CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST/BLAIR WITCH PROJECT dropped-camera shots justifies a rudimentary, connect-the-dots, Wikipedia retelling of the story--and even the would-be doc stuff is handled erratically and inconsistently--then I'm calling bullshit on the entire Ti West mythos. In fact, I may even take it one step further and go full ROOM 237 and say THE SACRAMENT is West's confession that he's all smoke and mirrors, that he's been punking us all along, and that there really is nothing there. (R, 99 mins)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In Theaters: MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Hardin, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Jacki Weaver, Catherine McCormack, Erica Leerhsen, Jeremy Shamos, Ute Lemper. (PG-13, 97 mins)

The annual visit from Woody Allen finds the great filmmaker firmly in "pleasant trifle" mode with MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. A year after directing Cate Blanchett to an Oscar for the devastating BLUE JASMINE, Allen goes light and breezy in another attempt to recapture the unexpected blockbuster success of 2011's out-of-nowhere MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.  MAGIC is certainly enjoyable but is yet another effort that falls squarely in the middle, along with other diverting-at-the-time-but-forgettable-after trifles like SCOOP (2006), the overrated VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), WHATEVER WORKS (2009), and YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (2010). Aside from the occasional MATCH POINT (2005) or BLUE JASMINE, Allen's work at this point more or less functions as comfort food, a reminder than even with the ever-shifting and unpredictable ways of cinematic finance and distribution, those Windsor font opening credits with the alphabetically-listed cast, accompanied by a scratchy old jazz or big band standard (in this case, Leo Reisman & His Orchestra's 1929 version of Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me") are always there to remind us that some things haven't changed if Woody's still cranking them out year after year (incredibly, 1981 was the last year without a new Allen film). Even when he's coasting and repeating himself, a new Woody Allen movie is--almost, other than, say, 2012's TO ROME WITH LOVE, one of his worst films--always welcome.

In 1928 Berlin, world-famous, mysterious Oriental magician Wei Ling Soo astounds a captive audience with his repertoire of tricks and illusions. Backstage, he's revealed to be disguised Brit Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a snobbish misanthrope who considers most of his fan base to be uncultured rubes. An expert medium and spirit world-debunker outside of his Wei Ling Soo persona, Stanley is persuaded by his friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney, the Roddy McDowall of his generation) to accompany him to the French Riviera to investigate an American medium who's enthralled the region with her uncanny abilities. The medium is Kalamazoo, MI native Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who's captured the hearts of the wealthy Catledge family and is engaged to be married to scion Brice (Hamish Linklater), a ukulele-strumming romantic who serenades her regularly and promises her all that money can buy. Stanley is suspicious from the start, but as Sophie's ability to know some of Stanley's most private secrets as well as those of his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) becomes apparent, Stanley goes from sneering and dismissive to a smitten believer, even after rebuffing Sophie's advances since he's engaged to Olivia (Catherine McCormack), who's back home in London.

Magic, mysticism and fantasy are not new subjects to Allen. He's covered them in various ways in films like THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of NEW YORK STORIES (1989), ALICE (1990), THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (2001), SCOOP, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and TO ROME WITH LOVE, to name a few. To that end, there's not really anything particularly new or noteworthy about MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT.  As expected, Stone is as appealing a presence as ever, and while she initially seems miscast, Allen wisely takes that and uses it to her character's advantage as a transplanted Midwesterner who doesn't really belong with the high society on the Cote d'Azur, but is lovingly accepted anyway by the smothering Brice and his mother Grace (Jacki Weaver). Firth has a good time playing a droll, acid-tongued grouch, and just when you think Allen is going too schmaltzy with his character, he has something happen that pulls him back into being the bitter crank he's been for the previous hour. But these are characters and situations we've seen in any number of Allen's previous 45 films as a writer/director. For its first half, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is witty and often quite amusing, but then I was reminded of his surprise 2000 hit SMALL TIME CROOKS (about once a decade in the years since his commercial heyday ended in the mid '80s, Allen has a breakout smash that gets embraced by more moviegoers than usual), which spent half of its running time as a hilarious comedy of errors about an ineptly-plotted heist only to switch gears and morph into another sappy, analytical relationship comedy between Allen and Tracey Ullman. Similarly, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT bogs down considerably once Stanley believes in Sophie's abilities and she expresses her feelings for him. Do we need another Woody Allen movie with a younger woman falling for a man 30 years her senior? I suppose it could be worse--Allen could've cast himself as Stanley--and Firth doesn't look 53 years old, but Allen's older man/younger woman motif has been one of the more blatantly self-referential and increasingly peculiar tropes of his filmography. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is diverting late summer entertainment, Firth and Stone are fine, the locations, production design, and period detail are terrific, and Atkins is a delight as Aunt Vanessa, but like most of Allen's output over the last decade or two, there's an unavoidable sense of familiarity, like he's just shuffling pages of random older scripts together and cobbling new movies out of previously explored ideas.

Friday, August 15, 2014

In Theaters: THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Patrick Hughes. Written by Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jet Li, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi. (PG-13, 127 mins)

The third installment of Sylvester Stallone's throwback-to-'80s-action franchise is decidedly the weakest for a variety of reasons, starting with the PG-13 rating. One of the most enjoyable things about the previous two films was its absurdly over-the-top violence, even if the splatter was unconvincingly digital (though an effort was made to wetten things up in THE EXPENDABLES 2), something Stallone has seemed to embrace since turning 2008's RAMBO into the goriest jungle actioner that Ruggero Deodato never made. Both prior EXPENDABLES films were huge hits domestically and internationally, so it's a mystery why distributor Lionsgate and Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage insist on watering things down to appeal to younger audiences. If the paltry box office of THE LAST STAND, BULLET TO THE HEAD, ESCAPE PLAN, GRUDGE MATCH, and SABOTAGE prove anything, it's that today's teenagers aren't going to see '80s action dinosaurs in theaters. Liken it to a washed-up '80s hair metal band going on tour: if they go out solo, they're playing shitty dive bars with 20 people in the crowd. Send them out on a four or five-band nostalgia package tour, they can book arenas all summer long. Casual moviegoers no longer care about new solo efforts from Stallone or Arnold Schwarzengger or Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme, but throw them on the same bill, and you've got a hit.

Nearly bloodless action and a PG-13 rating aren't going to bring in the kids, nor is the presence of Kellan Lutz, whose tip-frosted turn in the unwatchable THE LEGEND OF HERCULES should've clued Millennium chief Avi Lerner in to the fact that Kellan Lutz isn't happening. But they attempt it here anyway as the aging Expendables are sidelined for the entire middle of the film after Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) is nearly killed and head honcho Barney Ross (Stallone) breaks up the band to bring in new blood in his vengeance-fueled pursuit of international arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). With the help of wisecracking government operative Bonaparte ('80s action icon Kelsey Grammer), Ross puts together a younger, fresher, high-tech team that includes Smilee (Lutz), Luna (MMA fighter Ronda Rousey), Mars (boxer Victor Ortiz), and Thorn (Glen Powell). It's personal for Ross--when isn't it?--since Stonebanks, long presumed dead, is an original Expendable who turned against his brothers and went rogue for the money. They apprehend Stonebanks at the behest of CIA chief Drummer (Harrison Ford, looking constipated), who orders Ross to bring him in alive because he's set to be tried for war crimes at The Hague. Of course, Stonebanks' goons manage to rescue him since no one bothered to see if he had a GPS tracker on his person, and Ross is left for dead as The Expendables: The Next Generation are kidnapped by Stonebanks. Of course, this means he reluctantly puts the band back together to rescue the newbies, being held at Stonebanks' secret stronghold in "Izmenistan."

Stallone co-wrote the screenplay with the team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, whose lone previous credit is scripting another Millennium production, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013). It hardly matters that Australian director Patrick Hughes (RED HILL) is at the helm, since every Millennium/NuImage joint looks the same, regardless of the cost. They all have dubious-looking greenscreen and amateurish CGI courtesy of the Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX. Other than attracting bigger stars with bigger salaries--which is really where the money goes--there's little difference between an EXPENDABLES movie and any random straight-to-video NuImage title from the 1990s. The explosions are all distractingly phony, and shots of Powell parachuting off a cliff and Stallone running along the top of a building as it collapses look like haphazardly-executed cartoon effects. Plainly visible Bulgarian license plates in scenes set in Arizona and Las Vegas exhibit a carelessness more suited to a 20-year-old Frank Zagarino cheapie than a $90 million summer action movie. The heavy lifting has been farmed out to various FX crews and everyone involved is mostly doing the bare minimum.

That's not to say there aren't things to appreciate throughout. It's nice to see Wesley Snipes on the big screen again, as an imprisoned ex-Expendable known as "Doctor Death," broken out of an off-the-grid Russian prison in a prologue that essentially functions as a Welcome Back party for Stallone's formerly-incarcerated DEMOLITION MAN co-star ("What were you in for?" he's asked. The reply--of course--"tax evasion"). Stallone manages some legitimately heartfelt observations about staying relevant with the onset of age that surprisingly don't rely on quips and one-liners. Ford has an amusing running gag about not being able to understand Statham's accent. There's so many players in the game that almost everyone ends up standing around with little to do. Antonio Banderas is initially amusing as motor-mouthed mercenary Galgo, who desperately wants to be an Expendable (or, as Gibson's Stonebanks calls them, "The Deleteables"), but he overdoes it and a little of him goes a long way. An embalmed-looking Schwarzenegger returns as Trench, but was obviously only around for a few days, since he pops in and out of the story and sits out most of the action, usually waiting with the plane while everyone else goes off for action.  Did you ever think you'd see the day where Arnold Schwarzenegger was chauffeuring other action stars around their movie?  He still has more to do than Jet Li, who turns up very late in the film and doesn't even seem to know his dialogue. Gibson probably comes off the best as Stonebanks, taking the role far more seriously than is necessary. Banderas tries too hard, but where everyone else is awkwardly delivering one-liners that clang to the ground more often than not, Gibson brings some gravitas and a legitimate sense of menace, even though he had a similar megalomaniacal villain role in last year's MACHETE KILLS. Say what you will about Gibson the man--yeah, he's a racist, an anti-Semite, has anger management issues, and is probably an all-around asshole, and several instances of very public and very ugly meltdowns have all but guaranteed these are the only types of roles he's going to get--but there's no denying he's a star and he's still got it.

THE EXPENDABLES 3 has its enjoyable moments, but it's a letdown after the highly entertaining second film, which was really the only one to explore the dinosaur action star notion to its fullest potential. A PG-13 EXPENDABLES with much of the focus on younger additions is tantamount to willful ignorance on the part of Lionsgate, an example of pointlessly fixing what isn't broken. It's defeating the very purpose of the franchise's existence, which was a sort-of winking, self-referential victory lap for aging '80s and '90s action icons. No one's going to see THE EXPENDABLES 3 to watch Stallone pass the torch to Kellan Lutz. If anything, he should be passing it to Scott Adkins--who did appear as a villainous Van Damme's henchman in EXPENDABLES 2--and it should be in a film directed by Isaac Florentine. Not terrible, but way overlong and easily the least of the series, THE EXPENDABLES 3 has taken this fun franchise one film past its sell-by date and made its name a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On DVD/Blu-ray: RAGE (2014); LOCKE (2014); and PROXY (2014)

(US - 2014)

Almost as if his potentially career-reviving turn in JOE never happened--which it feels like anyway considering how Lionsgate seemingly went out of their way to ensure nobody knew about it--Nicolas Cage is back with another phoned-in actioner ready-made for one of those random eight-movie "Action Marathon" sets you find in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart.  By now, Cage has racked up almost enough of these DTV-quality programmers to make an entire set of his own--anyone remember TRESPASS, SEEKING JUSTICE or STOLEN?  Of his recent work, only JOE and the surprisingly engaging and similarly distributor-abandoned THE FROZEN GROUND have given Cage the quality projects he's still clearly capable of doing. RAGE is every bit as generic as its title suggests, at least until a legitimately unpredictable twist ending that's undermined by a pointless coda that plays along with the closing credits. Cage is Paul Maguire, a successful building developer who's managed to bury his criminal past with the Irish mob. He went legit years earlier when his wife died of cancer and someone needed to be around for their daughter Caitlin (Aubrey Peeples). Now married to the much younger Vanessa (Rachel Nichols), Paul is a loving but stern father who wants the best for his little girl. While Paul and Vanessa are out at a business dinner, Vanessa has some friends over but the party comes to an abrupt end during a home invasion by three gunmen who abduct her. When the cops find Caitlin dead, Paul knows his past has come back to haunt him: years earlier (Cage's son Weston plays Paul in flashbacks), he and his buddies Danny (Michael McGrady) and Kane (Max Ryan) robbed and killed the younger brother of Russian mob chief Chernov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff) and got away with it. Believing Chernov knows their secret and is finally exacting his vengeance, Paul and his still-connected pals embark on a citywide rampage taking out Chernov's crew, despite the warnings of weary, dogged detective St. John (a weary, dogged-looking Danny Glover, who finally does look too old for this shit) and aging, wheelchair-bound old mob boss Francis O'Connell, played by Swedish Peter Stormare using a vague and inexplicable Eastern European accent as if the filmmakers neglected to inform him that he was supposed to be Irish.

Director Paco Cabezas stages a couple of interesting action sequences, like Paul taking out a bunch of Russian mob flunkies while armed only with a hunting knife, but then blows it with a tiresome shaky-cam foot chase that ends in--where else?--an abandoned warehouse. Other than the intriguing twist that unfortunately doesn't deliver for those expecting an explosive finish, the script by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller (the writers of Dario Argento's Adrien Brody/Byron Deidra buddy movie GIALLO) is just a cut-and-paste job from hundreds of other such revenge thrillers.  Not even 20 minutes in, and we've already heard Cage declare "I'm out of the game...you know that!", McGrady bellow "Knock knock, asshole!" while barging through a door, and someone asking Cage "How deep do you wanna take this?" to which he growls "How deep is Hell?" Of course, Nichols, who has nothing to do, pleads "Talk to me!  Please don't shut me out!" and Glover warns "You can't go around tearin' up the city!"  Sporting what looks like a vintage 1970 Christopher Lee hairpiece, Cage mostly goes through the motions here but indulges in a couple of classic Nic Cage meltdowns, presumably to keep himself awake ("You're a rat!  RAT! RAT! RAAAAT!"), and in one ridiculous scene, smashes a guy's head into the ground ten times, empties an entire clip into him, then kicks his head again, all while screaming at the top of his lungs. Such histrionics indicate not only that Cage knows this is garbage, but also that he's fully aware of what his fans want and is just giving them more material for future "Nic Cage Freaks Out!" clips on YouTube. It's passably entertaining and never boring, but if you've seen JOE, it's depressing all the same, and the future doesn't look promising with the upcoming LEFT BEHIND reboot.  RAGE isn't good and it isn't bad.  It just is. Watch JOE or THE FROZEN GROUND instead. (R, 98 mins)

(US/UK - 2014)

Steven Knight is best known for his Oscar-nominated script for 2002's DIRTY PRETTY THINGS as well as writing David Cronenberg's 2007 drama EASTERN PROMISES. These were the first two films in a loose trilogy of London's exploited and downtrodden that also includes Jason Statham's 2013 departure vehicle REDEMPTION, which marked Knight's directing debut. Knight, also the creator of the original British version of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE, took six years off between EASTERN PROMISES and REDEMPTION, and has been a veritable workaholic since. He wrote last year's flop legal thriller CLOSED CIRCUIT and the current THE HUNDRED-YEAR JOURNEY, and was recently hired to script the sequel to WORLD WAR Z. He's also written and directed LOCKE, his most ambitious project yet. It's difficult to put a guy in a car taking phone calls during a real-time 80-minute road trip and not just adhering to the premise, but also making it compelling, and Knight and star Tom Hardy pull it off. Obviously dealing with a badly-timed cold that was worked into the story as the film was shot over eight consecutive nights, Hardy is Ivan Locke, a prominent and successful Birmingham builder who's got the biggest, most expensive concrete pour of his career taking place bright and early the next morning, a 55-story, $100 million skyscraper commissioned by a corporation based in Chicago. But he's delegating it to an underling and making a late-night drive to London to be with Bethan (voiced by Olivia Colman on speakerphone), who's about to give birth to his child. The problem is, Locke has been married to Katrina (Ruth Wilson) for 15 years and they have two sons. Locke had a drunken one-nighter with the older Olivia, a lonely, socially awkward woman who'd given up on happiness. He has no interest in being with her, but he feels that being there for the birth and being a presence in the child's life is the right thing to do, much like overseeing the final details of the concrete pour as he speeds down the highway, fielding a constant barrage of phone calls from Bethan, Katrina, his oblivious sons giving him football updates, his frazzled second-in-command who's picked the wrong time to get drunk, an irate boss, and overseers in Chicago who want him fired.

In the rare moments he isn't taking or making calls, Locke, symbolically enough, looks to the rearview mirror to address his unseen and long-dead father, a deadbeat dad who walked out on him and was never there. That's the past Locke's speeding away from as he careens to his future, however bleak it might be considering how he's jeopardized his marriage and his career. Sniffling his way through the film in the best real-cold-written-into-the-film bit since John Malkovich's one day on the set in JENNIFER 8 (1992), Hardy is dynamic as the beleaguered Locke, trying to keep his cool as he faces the consequences of one mistake that's causing his entire life to collapse. Knight's a little heavy-handed with the metaphors (yes, Locke constructs sturdy buildings but his own is a shambles with crumbling foundation!), and some of the actors on speakerphone, particularly Wilson as Katrina, sound a little too rehearsed (Locke: "This only happened once." Katrina: "The difference between once and never is everything!"), but he does a marvelous job of wringing suspense and tension from something as simple as an incoming call notification. In the end, it's still a gimmick, but unlike stunts of this sort, it sticks to its established rules and doesn't cut any corners, and the real time element indeed feels real. The problem most filmmakers run into when they have a premise like "He's in the car for the whole movie!" is that they can't wait to get him out of the car, and Knight admirably avoids that trap. (R, 85 mins)

(US - 2014)

The obfuscation and misdirection start immediately in PROXY with the introduction of the very pregnant Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen), whose surname would seem to indicate that she's in store for a ROSEMARY'S BABY predicament, but that would be too easy. Director/co-writer Zack Parker has other things in mind when Esther is violently assaulted two weeks before her due date. The baby dies and Esther, a loner who used an anonymous sperm donor, has no family or friends and finds herself hanging around in hospital waiting rooms to find some sense of security. Things look up for her when she starts attending a support group for grieving mothers and meets Melanie (Alexa Havins), and PROXY is the kind of film where revealing any further plot details would be a disservice to a potential viewer. What I've described here is approximately the opening 15 minutes, and this is a film best seen knowing as little as possible other than the essentials: it's not for everyone, it's often extraordinarily uncomfortable, it's absolutely riveting, and you won't soon forget it. It's an audacious and chilling psychological thriller that begins as a painful examination of grief before a focused and assured Parker sends it into increasingly unpredictable and, for the most part, plausible directions. Every time you think you know where PROXY is going, Parker has something wholly unexpected in store for you. It only stumbles with a couple of contrivances that reek of plot convenience, but it recovers nicely for its terrific finish. PROXY is populated by complex and extremely damaged characters with equally complex motivations whose lives of secrets, deception, and neuroses intersect in tragic and shocking ways. Parker even manages to pull off a Hitchcock trick at one point and not have it blow up in his face, but he also throws in little bits of Kubrick (fans of THE SHINING will spot one obvious homage), and one long sequence in a department store that's total De Palma, right down to the Newton Brothers' blatantly Pino Donaggio-esque score. Some scenes of domestic discord have a Cassavetes-level of emotional rawness to them. One stunning sequence resorts to a jaw-dropping, over-the-top fusion of Argento splatter and Peckinpah bloodletting. Rasmussen and Havins are remarkable in very difficult roles (Rasmussen's in particular), and they get solid support from Kristina Klebe as someone who figures into the story in a major way (again, anything is a spoiler here).  Of the four leads, only DIY indie auteur Joe Swanberg doesn't really work, and it's largely because he just doesn't have the dramatic chops (he's fine as the comically arrogant blowhard in YOU'RE NEXT) to pull off the arc his character endures. You've never seen anything quite like PROXY, one of the boldest and most unusual films of the year, and perhaps the most impressive breakout genre offering since Nicholas McCarthy's THE PACT. This is going to become a major cult movie. (Unrated, 122 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)