Monday, September 29, 2014

In Theaters: THE EQUALIZER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Richard Wenk. Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, Haley Bennett, Johnny Skourtis, David Meunier, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, Johnny Messner. (R, 134 mins)

There's been a growing sentiment that Denzel Washington has spent too much time squandering his talents in too many films that are beneath him. While there's little doubt that he's partaken in some forgettable junk that's been elevated simply by his presence--1995's VIRTUOSITY, 2002's JOHN Q, 2009's terrible remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123--his career by and large represents a nicely balanced mix of serious and strictly commercial fare done right. He does a lot of mainstream, popcorn entertainment but he's not so ubiquitous that he starts phoning it in and the audience gets tired of seeing him (I'm looking at you, Nic Cage, Bruce Willis, and Johnny Depp). Moviegoers typically see Washington once, occasionally twice a year, and maybe that's where the "squandering his talent" idea comes into play. He works less frequently than a lot of A-listers, and if he's going to act once a year, the argument is that maybe it should be in something a bit more substantive than 2 GUNS. While Washington is unquestionably one of our greatest actors, there's been a desire by the media and his peers to declare him the Sidney Poitier of his generation. He's always seemed to resist that label, likely out of humble deference as he's frequently professed his love and respect for the trailblazing screen legend (and, it should be noted, Poitier took his share of money gigs in his day, both as an actor and a director). Washington can handle Shakespeare (1993's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING), and serious, socially-conscious, "important" films (1987's CRY FREEDOM, 1989's GLORY, 1992's MALCOLM X) as well as any actor that's ever stepped onto a movie set. But maybe he just likes making one or two entertaining genre pictures every year or two. Maybe he never wanted the baggage and the artistic expectation and the responsibility that comes with being "the Sidney Poitier of his generation." He elevates commercial fare into higher-quality cinema--no one ever accused 2001's TRAINING DAY of being high art, and yet he won his second Oscar for it. Even when it comes to mainstream genre work, he seems to choose his projects carefully and doesn't jump at any script his agent hands him. When Washington starts turning up in 50 Cent-produced cop thrillers with Forest Whitaker and Robert De Niro or in straight-to-DVD, Eastern Europe-lensed actioners with Dominic Purcell, then we can talk about him squandering his talents.

Besides, we like seeing Washington do his Washington thing. The glowering, the intense stare, the argumentative yet calm tone, that indredulous, derisive laughter and the "Alright, alright!" and the "Ha HAA!" just before he explodes. He's the thinking man's badass. Based on the revered, Golden Globe-winning 1985-1989 CBS series that starred Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a retired government intelligence agent who has an ad in the classifieds offering help to those in dire situations ("Odds against you? Need help? Call The Equalizer"), THE EQUALIZER only somewhat resembles the TV show (it's also worth noting that Woodward portrayed a seemingly much older McCall than Washington's, yet 59-year-old Washington is currently the same age Woodward was when the show ended). Taking the ending into consideration, it can feasibly be termed an origin story of sorts and possibly Washington's first franchise if it's a big enough hit. Washington's McCall is a Boston widower who leads a quiet, solitary life outside of his job at the Home Depot-like Home Mart. Demonstrating a significant degree of OCD, McCall times everything, has to place objects a certain way, and never deviates from his routine. Suffering from insomnia, he spends the wee hours at a neighborhood diner where he drinks tea and reads literary classics like The Old Man and the Sea while making small talk with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute with aspirations of being a singer. McCall takes note when a bruised and battered Teri is roughed up by some Russian mobsters and when she eventually gets beaten so badly that she ends up in a coma, he pays a visit to her pimp Slavi (David Meunier). McCall offers Slavi $9800 for Teri's freedom. Slavi dismisses McCall's offer, prompting McCall's Spidey Sense to kick in as he single-handedly takes out Slavi and a roomful of cackling Russian goons in just under 30 seconds, disappointed in himself that he estimated it would take just 19 seconds.

McCall's heroic actions have consequences, which arrive in the form of Teddy (Marton Csokas, looking a lot like Kevin Spacey here), a "fixer" for powerful Russian crime lord Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). The merciless Teddy stops at nothing to find out who took out Slavi and his crew, eventually tracking down McCall, which sets off a war where McCall goes full One Man Army against Teddy and the Russian mob, as well as Det. Masters (David Harbour) and other corrupt Boston cops on Pushkin's payroll. Whether its taking out enforcers, disrupting Pushkin's lucrative businesses, or exposing the cops, judges, and politicians getting kickbacks from Pushkin over his various drug, prostitution, human trafficking, and whatever other nefarious activities, McCall vows to dismantle Pushkin's empire "brick by brick, dollar by dollar, body by body."

THE EQUALIZER reunites Washington with his TRAINING DAY director Antoine Fuqua, who often ends up helming by-the-numbers trifles like SHOOTER (2007) and OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013), but sometimes manages to turn out a TRAINING DAY or something like the tragically underrated BROOKLYN'S FINEST (2010). Script duties are handled by Richard Wenk, who's penned the Jason Statham remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) and THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012). Though covered in a big-budget, A-list sheen, THE EQUALIZER's roots are less in the TV show and more in vintage vigilante fare. Admirably demonstrating balls where something like THE EXPENDABLES 3 felt neutered, the film wears its R rating like a badge of honor as Washington's McCall goes on the kind of rampage that would leave THE EXTERMINATOR cringing: almost nothing is off limits here, as McCall becomes an unleashed animal who fires point blank, opens arteries, and drives a wine corkscrew under a guy's jaw (as Fuqua makes sure we see the impaled utensil rooting around the poor bastard's blood-gushing mouth). And that's just a warm-up for the protracted finale, where Teddy and his men track down McCall to the closed Home Mart, a store whose inventory includes no shortage of gardening shears, drills, nail guns and other lethally handy tools for him to use. Some of the kills in THE EQUALIZER are brutally prolonged and unusually sadistic for a mainstream, studio release.

Of course, that's something that works in its favor, but for the film to really work, you have to be onboard with the star, and Washington displays more than enough gravitas to make the film mostly successful. There's a certain persona that Washington projects in this kind of escapist entertainment, and all of the mannerisms in his playbook are on display throughout. Familiar though they may be, they work because we don't see him in three or four movies a year, doing the same thing. For a Washington fan, when something like SAFE HOUSE (2012), 2 GUNS (2013) or THE EQUALIZER comes along, it's like a welcome visit from an old friend. I'll take Popcorn Denzel over transparent awards bait like FLIGHT (2012), a film that seemed overly calculated to get him another Oscar nomination. At 2 ¼ hours, THE EQUALIZER goes on much longer than is necessary, the primary climax takes place in almost total darkness, and it has an almost Peter Jackson-number of endings. Some details get glossed over, like McCall asking Teddy "How did you find me?" when he shows up at his front door, and never getting an answer.  That may be by design and perhaps Fuqua and Wenk are indeed borrowing more from THE EXTERMINATOR (1980) than just the ferocity of McCall's kill methods. In THE EXTERMINATOR, vigilante John Eastland (Robert Ginty) kicks off his spree of vengeance with writer/director James Glickenhaus cutting from one scene straight to Eastland in the middle of torturing one of the punks who killed his best friend. We don't know how Eastland found him and on the Blu-ray commentary, Glickenhaus said that jump was intentional because we know what Eastland is capable of and the audience can just make the leap. It works in THE EXTERMINATOR, and Fuqua and Wenk utilize it here, both with Teddy's ability to find McCall, who more or less lives off the grid other than holding down a job, and in the way we sometimes--despite the film's graphic, over-the-top violence--don't see what McCall does.  Maybe we only see the bodies left in McCall's wake or, in the case of a dirtbag robbing Home Mart and stealing an employee's ring, Fuqua shows McCall grabbing a hammer, then cuts to the next day as the employee finds the stolen ring in her cash drawer and McCall cleans off the hammer before returning it to the shelf.  We don't need to see what happened. The filmmakers trust us to make the leap, and the acknowledgment of such gets audible laughter from the audience.

Wenk also works in some literary allusions with the premise of The Old Man and the Sea, and Fuqua spends more time than usual developing McCall's character and his routine. It works because it allows Washington to flex his thespian muscles before turning into a relentless killing machine. Also, witness the way insomniac McCall gets his first good night's sleep in ages after wiping out Slavi's crew. More so than many a vigilante genre protagonist, McCall can put up a good front when it comes to living a "normal" life and being part of society, but he really only finds inner peace during conflict. Wenk's script also draws parallels between McCall and Teddy (thankfully sparing us from Teddy gravely intoning "We're alike...you and I" to McCall), and it demonstrates just how focused on McCall's character and his world Fuqua is that Csokas doesn't even appear until 40 minutes into the film. This slow buildup works, but as the film goes on, some of the extraneous subplots, especially two involving McCall's overweight co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis)--who wants to get in shape for a security job and has a restaurant-owning mom who's being shaken down for protection money by a pair of on-the-take cops who have nothing to do with Pushkin or Teddy--only serve to drag the story down once all the pieces are in place. Much of the second-half plot details are filler that could've been dumped with no damage being done, along with a scene of McCall walking away from a CGI explosion that's almost Asylum-esque in its inexcusable shittiness. Melissa Leo has a small role as McCall's old agency boss, but then we also get a few scenes with her husband--played by Bill Pullman, who looks like he's ready to duke it out with Treat Williams over who gets the lead in THE MITT ROMNEY STORY--which does absolutely nothing to advance any element of the story whatsoever. THE EQUALIZER is an entertaining film with Washington at his most commanding, but it's merely pretty good where there's a potentially very good film that could've come from a little tightening.  McCall spends a lot of time riding Ralphie about dropping some pounds.  It's too bad Washington didn't get on Fuqua about shedding maybe 25 minutes of bloat from THE EQUALIZER.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


(Canada/US - 2014)

After nearly 45 years in the industry, 66-year-old Susan Sarandon has spent the last several years dealing with the unforgivable sin of being an aging woman in Hollywood essentially by staying in the game and taking whatever roles come her way. It doesn't seem like it was that long ago that she was still headlining major movies, but now she usually turns up in supporting roles as somebody's mother or grandmother. Lead roles have been few and far between for the Oscar-winning actress of late, so one can see why she might jump at something like the modestly-budgeted thriller THE CALLING. Sarandon stars as Hazel Micallef, a hard-drinking, pill-popping detective in Fort Dundas, a small town outside of Hamilton, ON. Also functioning as the de facto police chief, Hazel is confronted with a rare homicide in one of those sleepy towns where everybody knows everybody (it's fictional, though there is a Dundas, ON, where most of this was shot) when an elderly family friend is found with her throat slashed and her mouth set open in an unnatural way that the medical examiner says was staged post-mortem. A victim killed under similar circumstances is found in a nearby town, and Hazel, partner Ray Green (Gil Bellows), and big-city transfer Ben Wingate (Topher Grace) are convinced they're dealing with a serial killer after finding links between their victims and seven other unsolved murders across Canada.

THE CALLING starts falling apart about midway through, but for a while, it seems like it'll shape up to be a genuine sleeper. It's sort of like a less grim SE7EN restaged in the snowy environment of a FARGO, with a legitimately unusual set of clues that set things in motion: the killer (nicely underplayed by a well-cast Christopher Heyerdahl) has positioned the mouths of the victims in a way that forms silent words when autopsy head shots are viewed in quick succession in the order they were killed. Using the autopsy photos like a morbid flip book, the detectives are forced to sound out and decode the killer's message to them. They discover this a little too easily and it's a gimmick straight out of a CBS procedural, but it's off-the-wall enough to be intriguingly creepy. THE CALLING went straight to VOD in early August and ended up in a few theaters on the last weekend of summer with no publicity whatsoever. In the late '90s, it probably would've been a big hit but today, there's just no mainstream, multiplex market for serious, straightforward genre pictures for adults, especially one focused on a 66-year-old star, regardless of the fact that she looks a decade younger. But it's eventually all for naught, as rampant stupidity takes over, whether Hazel drives a great distance to visit a linguistics expert priest (Donald Sutherland) to get the definition of a Latin term when she could've just as easily called him or Googled it. Or when Wingate voluntarily traipses all over Canada to do some snooping and Hazel recklessly orders him into a dangerous situation with no backup that, of course, doesn't pan out well for him (this is after telling him to withhold information from neighboring police departments). THE CALLING starts out with smarts but eventually turns into the kind of thriller where the killer taunts Hazel over the phone with a "Did you get my package?" as the camera pans to an unopened package right in the middle of her desk that she's just left there untouched for just such a plot convenience. The killer's motives involve a misguided religious obsession about sacrifice and resurrection, though it eventually becomes overly concerned with Hazel's redemption at the expense of the suspense and the mystery that's been building. Hazel is a damaged and broken woman with a bad back that surgery still hasn't corrected and a tumultuous, on-and-off relationship with a married man, much to the disapproval of her concerned mother (Ellen Burstyn), with whom she lives. Granted, Sarandon looks a good bit younger than 66, and 81-year-old Burstyn (also looking younger than her age) could logistically be her mother, but the casting just doesn't work and the filmmakers (director Jason Stone and screenwriter Scott Abramovitch) give the great Burstyn absolutely nothing to do.  THE CALLING gets off to a promising start but never recovers once it starts skidding, though it does give Sarandon the opportunity to deliver a priceless line of dialogue like "I think I found the stomach." (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2014)

There's style and ambition to this twisty, low-budget mind-bender that only made it to 120 screens over the summer but seems destined for cult status. Or, more accurately, director/co-writer William Eubank seems destined for bigger things. Eubank and his crew work wonders with a $4 million budget, assembling something that looks better than a lot of films that cost 25 times as much. It's too bad THE SIGNAL (not to be confused with the overrated 2008 horror film) gets bogged down with a draggy pacing (yes, this one's a slow-burner) and a twist ending that creates more questions than it answers, wanting to be Shane Carruth but ending up feeling more like M. Night Shyamalan at his most eye-rolling. There's a lot going on in THE SIGNAL that probably warrants a second viewing, but there's a lot of frustrating misdirection and time-killing as well, and the one twist prior to the big twist is entirely too easy to figure out. Three MIT students--Nic (Brenton Thwaites of OCULUS and THE GIVER), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke, one of the few positives of THE QUIET ONES), and their friend Jonah (Beau Knapp)--are road-tripping to California, where Haley is transferring to a new school. Nic was recently diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and is using forearm crutches, and is certain that Haley is using this opportunity to distance herself from him. The three were nearly expelled after a computer hacker known as "Nomad" got into the MIT servers and left evidence pointing to them. Nic and Jonah are also using the trip to track down Nomad, who they've traced to somewhere in the Nevada desert. While searching Nomad's shack of a house in the middle of nowhere, Haley is lifted into the air by an unseen force, Jonah vanishes, and Nic blacks out.  He awakens in a sterile, underground government bunker with "" tattooed on his arm and is interrogated by HazMat-suited scientist Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who informs Nic that the three of them encountered an EBE (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity) and may be contaminated. Damon is intentionally evasive with Nic and is constantly changing his story. Nic eventually finds Haley in another part of the facility and manages to escape, with Damon warning "I can protect you down here...I can't protect you from what's up there."

Nor can Eubank protect himself from hackneyed plot developments and other contrivances. Visually, the film has moments that recall the work of Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull, Andrei Tarkovsky, and, to cite a more recent example, Duncan Jones. While arresting visuals show that Eubank is a contender, THE SIGNAL isn't nearly as successful on the script end as its numerous cerebral, hard sci-fi influences such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SILENT RUNNING, or SOLARIS. Thwaites and Cooke are engaging leads, and Fishburne is appropriately obfuscating in his demeanor, but at some point, you start to feel like you're being strung along and ultimately, the reveal isn't worth the incredibly elaborate buildup. Still, there's a lot to appreciate in THE SIGNAL. Judging from what he's done here, with a better script, there's no limit to what Eubank is capable of achieving in the sci-fi genre. He's not quite there, but he's well on his way. (PG-13, 97 mins)

(Canada - 2014)

A gushing love letter to mass shooters everywhere, Uwe Boll's RAMPAGE: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT is too heavy-handed to pass as satire and too dumb to even be deemed irresponsible. This sequel to Boll's RAMPAGE (2010) with thematic ties to his ASSAULT ON WALL STREET (2013) finds the filmmaker in full-on "poking people with sticks" mode as "hero" Bill Williamson (Brendan Fletcher) emerges from hiding after the first film's titular killing spree to take on American corruption and hypocrisy. He starts by sitting in an alley and picking off random pedestrians (Boll, ever ready for a sick joke, makes sure a Target location is prominently displayed in the background) before shooting up the local TV station and taking gasbag news anchor Chip Parker (Lochlyn Munro) and some staffers hostage. Bill wants Chip to play his DVD manifesto and get his message out nationwide, which basically involves Fletcher (who shares a writing credit with Boll) getting far too much self-indulgent wiggle room as Bill expresses his admiration for Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and rants about topics as varied as the Bush and Obama administrations, politicians, lawyers, global warming, Wall Street, reality TV, Hollywood actors, Steven Spielberg, Anderson Cooper, and Botox.

Like most Boll movies, RAMPAGE was terrible, but the short-statured Fletcher was well cast as a ticking time bomb with a huge chip on his shoulder. The film was little more than FALLING DOWN JR, as Bill, seething with disenfranchised white-guy rage courtesy of cable news and right-wing talk radio, stockpiled weapons and went on a killing spree throughout his city. Here, Boll and Fletcher try to turn him into a modern messiah. Boll at least seems to briefly recognize that Bill is a deranged madman and a hypocrite--witness the way Bill rails against the insipid nature of media hype while spending hostage situation downtime checking his Twitter feed--but the filmmaker clearly still likes him. Whatever valid points Boll has to make--and there are some--are drowned out by the endless repetition of Fletcher's over-the-top performance as Bill quickly becomes your most humorless and annoying Facebook friend from high school. But even beyond that, RAMPAGE: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT is sunk by stupidity and tastelessness, like Bill's babbling on about "extermination" and "cleansing," obviously more transparent Holocaust jabs that Boll loves so much. Boll and Fletcher's script is wildly inconsistent: Bill chooses Chip Parker because he's "the Voice of America," yet it's established early on that Parker is just a local news star, plus Boll himself plays the greedy and unscrupulous station manager, selling footage of the hostage situation to the networks for millions. Also, after blowing up his house, Bill gets in his car and pays a visit to the first film's bingo "centre" where he spared a group of elderly folks from his rampage because they're "already dead." The bingo centre is closed, but it leads to an interesting observation beyond Boll neglecting to disguise his Canadian locations:  Bill is a fugitive responsible for the largest mass shooting in American history depicted in the first film, and judging from the opening sequences of the sequel, he seems to have been on the run by...hiding out in the same town where he's always lived. And where does he get his money to have guns and bombs and cars stationed all over town?  He was working part-time and living with his parents in the first film.

But nevermind--RAMPAGE: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT isn't about logic, it's about Boll shamelessly panhandling for attention and controversy. Certainly there was a way to turn Bill into a modern-day Howard Beale without having him take pleasure in killing an untold number of innocent people. Boll's misanthropy lacks the nuance and focus of a NETWORK and instead too often comes off like a tantrum-throwing child in desperate need of a time-out. Boll and Fletcher think they're being edgy and subversive, but they really look like assholes by the end of this thing. At least with ASSAULT ON WALL STREET--however bungled it was--the audience was supposed to take some degree of cathartic pleasure in watching Dominic Purcell mow down financial industry sociopaths. What are you supposed to take from something like this? What's next for Boll and Fletcher? The Columbine massacre reimagined as a wacky buddy comedy?  A dramatization of the Aurora tragedy where the victims had it coming for paying to see a Hollywood product like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES? (Unrated, 93 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In Theaters: TUSK (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Cast: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy LaPointe, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, Jennifer Schwalbach. (R, 107 mins)

Since becoming one of the iconic faces of the '90s indie cinema explosion, Kevin Smith has spent the better part of the last decade trying to find a niche as a filmmaker ambling into his 40s. His 2004 film JERSEY GIRL got caught up in the post-GIGLI, "Bennifer" backlash. 2006's CLERKS II was a likable if unnecessary sequel, and 2008's ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO was accused of being a Judd Apatow ripoff. After parting ways with Harvey Weinstein and dropping his View Askew production banner, Smith helmed the laughless Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy cop comedy COP OUT (2010) and self-released the ambitious but not always successful thriller RED STATE (2011), a complete departure from his previous work that found him taking aim at the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church. Smith spends a lot of time on speaking engagements and his SMODCAST podcast, which led him to make his latest, the horror film TUSK. In the SMODCAST episode titled "The Walrus and the Carpenter," Smith and producer Scott Mosier were pranked by a classified ad that involved someone getting free room and board if they dressed like a walrus. They spent an hour of the "Walrus" episode batting around hypothetical ideas and at the end, Smith asked listeners to tweet "#WalrusYes" if he should make the movie and "#WalrusNo" if he shouldn't.  Of course, "#WalrusYes" won out and now we have TUSK.

Shot in quickie fashion in a mere two and a half weeks in November 2013, TUSK may not have the shitty special effects of a SHARKNADO, but it's still every bit as much of a prefab cult/midnight movie and Smith should be smart enough to know that true cult movies aren't conceived as cult movies. Like any of the SyFy or Asylum silliness, TUSK would make a much better two-and-a-half minute fake trailer than an hour-and-45-minute movie. Obnoxious podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) co-hosts the raunchy and offensive THE NOT-SEE PARTY with his best friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment). Their premise is that Wallace goes around and gathers stories and conveys them to the travel-phobic Teddy, who refuses to leave Los Angeles, a podcast premise about as flimsy as that of TUSK.  Anyway, Wallace is heading to Winnipeg to interview "The Kill Bill Kid," a viral video sensation who sliced off his own leg with a sword while doing half-assed martial arts moves in his garage. Wallace arrives at the guy's house only to find that his and Teddy's constant podcast mockery has driven the man to suicide. Hoping it's not a wasted trip, Wallace does some snooping around and finds a flyer advertising free room and board to anyone who listens to the homeowner's tales of seafaring adventure. The old sea salt is Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of Hemingway and quotes from Coleridge and a long, emotional story about how his life was saved by a friendly walrus after a shipwreck. Wallace realizes too late that Howe has drugged him. When he wakes up, he's missing a leg as Howe reveals his ultimate plan: he misses his walrus friend--dubbed Mr. Tusk--so much that he's going to surgically reconfigure Wallace's body and sew him into a suit, allowing him to go "full walrus" and keep him captive in a secret basement aquarium.

The idea of a walrus-obsessed psycho going balls-out HUMAN CENTIPEDE on a self-absorbed hipster dipshit has endless possibilities for dark humor and the macabre, but Smith is plowing through this thing so quickly that there's no focus. The whole film is obviously a tossed-off goof for Smith, though admittedly, seeing Wallace's hipster mustache being used for walrus whiskers is hilarious. Smith gets a good amount of credible menace from Parks, who's enjoyed a busy cult rebirth since a Quentin Tarantino rescue mission led to his being cast as grumbly Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in the opening sequence of Robert Rodriguez's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996). Now 76, Parks has an inherently off-kilter speaking and acting style that wasn't fully appreciated in his youth, but guys like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Smith, and especially Jim Mickle in the 2013 remake of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, have made good use of him in his elder statesman years. Smith cast Parks as a deranged, Fred Phelps-inspired evangelical madman in RED STATE, and TUSK gives the veteran actor his meatiest role in years, waxing rhapsodic about the sea, whiskey, women, and yes, walruses. But a little of it goes a long way, and once Long's Wallace is surgically mutilated, his tongue removed, and the femurs in his legs shaped into walrus tusks, the film has pretty much made its point and played all of its batshit cards but still has nearly an hour to go.

Much of that second hour is devoted to, and completely derailed by, the arrival of Quebecois private eye Guy LaPointe, played by one Guy LaPointe. It's a mystery guest star, and since the cat's pretty much out of the bag and a visit to TUSK's IMDb page spoils it anyway, LaPointe is actually a cross-eyed, chain-smoking Johnny Depp, sporting a beret, a wig, a fake goatee, and the most intentionally ridiculous French accent this side of Pepe Le Pew. Looking like a homeless, meth-addled Inspector Clouseau, LaPointe assists Wallace's girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy in their search when Wallace manages to leave frantic voice mails for them. LaPointe has been pursuing serial killer Howe, the latest in a long line of false identities, for years, estimating that he's killed and dismembered 23 people.  Depp only worked on the film for two days at the very end of the shoot, which was more than enough time for Smith to let him completely run rampant with his grab-bag of affectations, ad-libbing and rambling on endlessly, especially in a painfully tedious flashback scene where he actually meets Howe. There's been much evidence of late to suggest that audiences are getting bored with Depp and his mannered performances, and while he's only in the last 30 or so minutes of TUSK, he's a key factor in it stopping dead in its tracks. That's also on Smith, who gets a dread-filled momentum going in the relationship between Howe and the transformed Wallace and steers it straight into a ditch by being far too accommodating with Depp's worst tendencies as the increasingly hammy actor seems hellbent on fast-tracking it to the Nic Cage self-parody phase of his career.

Scenes of Howe and the walrusified Wallace swimming together, Howe singing to Wallace, and the climactic battle between Wallace and a walrus-costumed Howe set to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" are the kind of things that belong in a fake trailer. Character development is sketchy--we learn through periodic cutaways that Wallace is a cheating asshole who probably loves Ally but can't resist the "road head" that his travels offer--and Rodriguez has a very good scene where she delivers a long monologue, spilling her feelings about Wallace directly to the camera, but it belongs in another movie. The more TUSK goes on, the more it starts to resemble the kind of prank that inspired it in the first place, like something its maker never really thought through or didn't fully understand how to approach. An unsettling, Cronenberg-ian body-horror film could've been made here, but instead, Smith opted for a self-indulgent home movie that only he and his buddies find funny. TUSK barely hangs together and it's a coin flip whether this or COP OUT is Smith's worst film, but everyone here apparently had so much fun that they're reconvening in his action comedy YOGA HOSERS, due out next summer, with Depp unfortunately returning as Guy LaPointe, which I don't see becoming his next Jack Sparrow.

Monday, September 22, 2014


(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Scott Frank. Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Mark Consuelos, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, Eric Nelsen, Maurice Compte, Leon Addison Brown, Danielle Rose Russell. (R, 115 mins)

Based on a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES marks the second attempt at bringing Block's Matt Scudder character to the big screen. A disgraced, alcoholic NYPD cop who gets sober and becomes an unlicensed, off-the-books private detective, Scudder has been the protagonist of 17 Block novels dating back to 1976.  1986's barely-released 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE, based on Block's 1982 novel, starred Jeff Bridges as a Los Angeles-based Scudder and was the final and arguably worst film of the great Hal Ashby (HAROLD AND MAUDE, BEING THERE). Ashby was nearing the end of a cocaine-fueled decline (he died in 1988) and completely ignored the script by Oliver Stone and future ROAD HOUSE poet laureate David Lee Henry, which itself had little to do with Block's book. The cast, headed by Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, and a pre-UNTOUCHABLES Andy Garcia, was encouraged to improvise and appear to be directing themselves, and the film features the single worst "showdown at an abandoned warehouse"--with Bridges and Garcia shouting at one another from opposite ends of a warehouse that appears to be the length of five football fields--in movie history. Maybe the whole thing was meant to be a goof, but at any rate, Ashby was fired immediately after shooting wrapped and the film was edited without his involvement, not that it would've mattered by that point. There's a reason it's taken nearly 30 years for someone to attempt a new Scudder adaptation: displaying approximately eight million ways to kill Ashby's career, 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE really is that bad.

Fortunately, in the hands of director and veteran screenwriter Scott Frank and star Liam Neeson, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is a major improvement. Frank scripted the Elmore Leonard adaptations GET SHORTY (1995) and OUT OF SIGHT (1998) for Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Soderbergh, respectively, and made his directorial debut with the sleeper gem THE LOOKOUT (2007). Frank updates the novel's setting to 1999, presumably in order to retain Block's NYC flavor and Scudder's pavement-pounding investigative techniques. It also allows some references to what was considered a looming catastrophe with Y2K, with Neeson's Scudder expressing an apprehension about using computers and cell phones, and to a NYC that had no idea 9/11 was on the horizon. A CGI'd Twin Towers are seen near the end, and when one of the villains smugly tells the other "People are afraid of the wrong things," it's no accident that Frank immediately cuts to a jet preparing its descent against the NYC skyline. Like the recent THE DROP, TOMBSTONES makes excellent use of areas of the Five Boroughs that have remained relatively unaltered amidst the last quarter century of changes to NYC, and it really captures the gritty essence of the kind of Big Apple thriller that was commonplace in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Given its grim subject matter, it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn TOMBSTONES into the kind of Times Square grindhouse exploitation film whose title would've adorned marquees of 42nd Street theaters way back when.

After a brief 1991-set prologue that shows a hard-drinking Scudder gunning down three shitbags who shoot up a cop bar, Frank cuts to 1999 as an eight-years-sober Scudder lives a solitary life in a small apartment and attends daily AA meetings. He's approached by recovering junkie and Desert Storm vet Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), who knows he deals in off-the-radar private investigation. Peter's brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) is a high-end drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped the night before. Kenny paid the $400,000 ransom but they killed her anyway, sending him all over the city to make sure he didn't have the cops in tow, ending up in a run-down neighborhood where he finds the pieces of his wife's body tied up in trash bags in the trunk of an abandoned car. Given his source of income, Kenny doesn't want to go to the feds, so Scudder reluctantly accepts the job to the tune of $40,000. In his microfiche research at a library, Scudder encounters homeless teenager TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley) making use of the newfangled internet. Scudder finds links between the murder of Kenny's wife and that of numerous other killings going back to 1997, starting with a DEA agent whose body was found in a similar dismembered fashion in a pond at Green-Wood Cemetery. Other victims have ties to major NYC drug traffickers, and Scudder comes to believe that the killers are rogue or former DEA agents ("Why former?" Scudder is asked, to which he replies "Because they're insane"). When the young daughter (Danielle Rose Russell) of a Russian drug boss (Sebastian Roche) is abducted, Scudder and his eager apprentice TJ, along with the Kristo brothers, take action.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is a more subdued, low-key vehicle for Neeson, who still kicks ass, but doesn't do it in a TAKEN sort-of way. As played by Neeson, Scudder is appropriately tired and weary and unable to mask a sense of overwhelming regret over a tragedy that haunts him nearly every waking moment. It's unlike Bridges' portrayal, which, once his Scudder was sober, was more along the lines of a laid-back, affably smart-assed SoCal beach bum-type, not exactly "Dude"-like, but pointed in that direction. Given that there isn't much in the way of big-name co-stars, it's surprising how much of an ensemble piece TOMBSTONES becomes once Scudder and his piecemeal crew take shape. There's also a brief but memorable performance by Olafur Darri Olafsson as a creepy cemetery groundskeeper who became a reluctant accessory to the killers, a pair of truly vile, loathsome sadists played by--it's not a spoiler, as their identities aren't kept secret--David Harbour and Adam David Thompson (the trailer does stupidly reveal Olafsson's fate, thereby depriving anyone who's seen it of one of the film's most unexpected and shocking moments). The film is superbly directed throughout, with some well-done 1990s ambience and period detail, effective framing of actors and structures, and the greatest use of Donovan's "Atlantis" this side of GOODFELLAS. Between "Atlantis" here and "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" kicking off David Fincher's ZODIAC, it's obvious that Donovan tunes make the most chilling accompaniment to serial killing. The throwback flavor of films like TOMBSTONES and THE DROP are a hopeful indication that these sorts of adult-aimed dramas are making a bit of a comeback. This won't have the mass appeal of a TAKEN, but it's a nice compromise between the action hero and serious actor sides of its immensely popular star.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: THE ZERO THEOREM (2014)

(UK/Romania/France - 2014)

Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Pat Rushin and Terry Gilliam. Cast: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Peter Stormare, Emil Hostina, Pavlic Nemes, Dana Rogoz. (R, 106 mins)

A Terry Gilliam film for those who have never seen a Terry Gilliam film, THE ZERO THEOREM is the sort of dystopian sci-fi nightmare that can't help but feel like reheated leftovers coming from the guy who gave us the 1985 masterpiece BRAZIL. For longtime Gilliam devotees who have followed the auteur's post-Monty Python work for the last 35 or so years, THE ZERO THEOREM will have the distinct feeling of a classic rock act releasing a "give 'em what they want" record after several years away. Known as much for his groundbreaking vision as for the obstacles that have stood in his way over the years--battling Universal execs over BRAZIL, the collapse of his THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE chronicled in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002), clashing with Harvey Weinstein over THE BROTHERS GRIMM (2005), and restructuring THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009) when Heath Ledger died a third of the way into filming--the independently-financed THE ZERO THEOREM is a rare example of Gilliam being able to make exactly the film he wanted to make, with minimal interference. That's all the more reason that the underwhelming result is a bit on the disappointing side. With a budget reportedly in the vicinity of just $10 million--shoestring by today's standards--Gilliam has miraculously fashioned an arresting visual experience. But when a sci-fi film is released in 2014 and much of the plot hinges on virtual reality, it's a pretty safe bet you're working from a script that's been kicking around for a while. University of Central Florida English prof and screenwriting neophyte Pat Rushin gave his ZERO THEOREM script to producer Richard Zanuck way back in 2004. It didn't end up in Gilliam's hands until 2009 and it's hard telling just how much of Rushin's original script remains (Gilliam is also credited with "additional dialogues"). But even if you factor out the dated subject of virtual reality, Gilliam just doesn't seem like he's bringing his A-game to this one.

That's not to say it's a bad movie, but Gilliam just has nothing significant to say. THE ZERO THEOREM is packed with visual and thematic callbacks to earlier Gilliam films (most notably BRAZIL, 1991's THE FISHER KING and 1995's 12 MONKEYS, and eagle-eyed viewers will spot a quick cameo by Gilliam's late FISHER KING star Robin Williams), but not in a way that advances the film or Gilliam as an artist. Instead, it's done in a way that makes what was once innovative and groundbreaking seem uninspired and stale. In a future that's equal parts BRAZIL, BLADE RUNNER and the Martian red-light district in Paul Verhoeven's TOTAL RECALL, ManCom worker drone/"entity cruncher" Qohan Leth (Christoph Waltz) lives in the ruins of a fire-ravaged church that was abandoned by a sect of monks who took a vow of silence (in one of the film's few inspired moments, Leth quips that "No one broke the silence to yell 'Fire!'"). Leth works as a mathematician of sorts at a Kafka-esque workspace that looks like a video game console. He pleads for a work-at-home assignment because he's waiting for a special phone call--a phone call he's been waiting on for years--and doesn't want to miss it. He gets his wish, and is assigned by his jokey ("I'm a few raisins short of a full scoop!") but condescending supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to work on finding "The Zero Theorem," a guaranteed dead-end of an equation that manages to defeat anyone who attempts to solve it. Leth slowly loses his mind as he obsessively tries and fails to conquer the Zero Theorem, all while dealing with the impossibly demanding upload schedule, represented by calls from a judgmental-sounding automated computer voice. Sensing that Leth is stressed out, Joby has Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) visit him. Leth once met Bainsley at a party of Joby's that he reluctantly attended, and he's crushed when he eventually learns she's a sex worker who was paid to see him. He also gets intrusive visits from ManCom intern Bob (Lucas Hedges), the 15-year-old son of ManCom manager Management (Matt Damon).

That Damon's cold, unfeeling manager character is actually named "Management" is a pretty solid indicator of just how heavy-handed the dark-humored elements of THE ZERO THEOREM can be. Tilda Swinton also turns up, still sporting her SNOWPIERCER teeth, as Leth's online therapist, named "Dr. Shrink-ROM." Really? Subtlety is not the name of Gilliam's game here. The dated concepts, the Gilliam's Greatest Hits selections (at least three supporting characters are almost identical variants of those seen in BRAZIL), and the ham-fisted ways he demonstrates the dehumanized nature of Leth's corporate-saturated world that's a garish interpretation of our own conspire to present a Terry Gilliam that may have reached that late-period Stanley Kubrick or present-day George Romero/Terrence Malick tipping point where an influential, trail-blazing genius is getting a little older and is starting to come off like a guy who doesn't seem to get out much.

While it has a sizable number of issues on the writing front, THE ZERO THEOREM does score in a strictly visual sense. The decaying church that Leth calls home is marvel of production design, and a ghoulish, hairless Waltz, looking like a futuristic Nosferatu, has never been creepier. Waltz plays Leth as aggressively unlikable as possible and it's a challenge for the actor to keep the audience focused on a thoroughly irritating and unappealing character who generates little sympathy. Leth speaks in plurals, constantly referring to himself as "we" and "us," and he's always testing the patience of those around him with his extreme OCD ways. It's a tough performance, and even though the endless tics and mannerisms bring to mind Brad Pitt's Jeffrey Goines in 12 MONKEYS, the great Waltz is up to the task, which helps as it's largely The Christoph Waltz Show throughout. The actors and the production design team persevere through a bit of a misfire that has a difficult time overcoming its "been there, done that" vibe. Gilliam is past the point of proving himself, and by no means is THE ZERO THEOREM an exercise in futility like, say, a new Dario Argento film. At 73, Gilliam has every right to coast into his emeritus years by raiding his back catalog if that's what he wants to do, but I don't think it's demanding too much to expect something a little more substantive from someone of his stature. But then, it's not like Gilliam's been on a roll lately: PARNASSUS was his first good film since 1998's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, with 2005 giving us the Gilliam career-nadir double-shot of THE BROTHERS GRIMM and TIDELAND. PARNASSUS was a welcome return to the filmmaker's fun, ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN side and a step in the right direction. Five years later with THE ZERO THEOREM, and Gilliam is simply running in place.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: MERCENARIES (2014); PALO ALTO (2014); and SWELTER (2014)

(US - 2014)

One of the very few titles from The Asylum to actually be released in theaters (not counting one-off crowd-participation SHARKNADO screenings for people who think SHARKNADO is a cult movie), MERCENARIES is a little more straight-faced than the typical pre-fab cult movie nonsense to roll off the company's mockbuster assembly line. Whether it's cheesy monster movies along the lines of the SHARKNADO phenomenon, MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS and MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID, or shameless no-budget knockoffs like I AM OMEGA, TRANSMORPHERS, SUNDAY SCHOOL MUSICAL, STREET RACER, and TITANIC II, The Asylum has become synonymous with self-aware shittiness. MERCENARIES is their EXPENDABLES mockbuster, given a limited release on a handful of screens and VOD a week before THE EXPENDABLES 3, and the twist is that the heroes are all ass-kicking women in a bid to beat Sylvester Stallone's proposed EXPENDABELLES spinoff to screens (which probably isn't going to happen anyway). MERCENARIES has what probably passes for witty, self-referential dialogue, at least as much as screenwriter Edward DeRuiter is capable of pulling off, but it generally plays it straight and keeps the winking snark to a minimum. It's obvious The Asylum was taking this one a little more seriously than most of their productions and were using it to see if they could compete with the big dogs at the multiplex.  Alas, they can't. The opening credits are video-burned and the explosions all look like they were done with the Action Movie FX app on director Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray's iPhone. Ray is the son of veteran hack Fred Olen Ray, who's cranked out around 150 action and exploitation films under various names since the late '70s. The elder Ray almost had a real career at one point in the late '80s when he was giving prominent roles to aging, past-their-prime actors years before Quentin Tarantino made it trendy, but now he and Jim Wynorski pretty much have the market cornered on helming the kind of no-budget Skinemax films that run on cable at 3:00 am or terrible kiddie movies that have their world premieres on Netflix Instant. Christopher proves that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as he's found consistent work as one of the in-house Asylum guys, and there's a few fleeting moments where MERCENARIES looks like a perfectly acceptable DTV-level actioner like his old man used to make, at least until the crappy CGI and digital blood start derailing it. MERCENARIES' biggest sin is that it's just boring, with an endless, talky mid-section that brings the whole thing to a standstill.

The film has a game cast, headed by DEATH PROOF's Zoe Bell, TERMINATOR 3 star and Uwe Boll regular Kristanna Loken, KILL BILL star-turned-TV fixture Vivica A. Fox, and BRING IT ON's Nicole Bilderback as a team of disgraced military and CIA washouts sprung from prison by NSA head Kendall ('90s DTV action star Cynthia Rothrock) when the President's daughter (Tiffany Panhilason) is abducted by international terrorist Ulrika (Stallone ex-wife and RED SONJA herself, Brigitte Nielsen). Their job: rescue the First Daughter and bring Ulrika in alive and get full pardons for their past offenses. Bell fares better here than in the unwatchable RAZE, and the others seem to be enjoying themselves, but MERCENARIES isn't nearly as fun as it should be. Some instances of ridiculous dialogue provide some occasional amusement--Rothrock describing Nielsen as "an Amazonian she-bitch in the backwoods of Shitholistan" and Fox declaring "Hell, I might even fuck George Clooney...with a strap-on!"--and segues between scenes being depicted as comic book panels show that Ray and The Asylum have the right idea, but MERCENARIES needs a better director, a better script, and a bigger budget. The action scenes are mostly competently-staged but unexciting and for every quotable zinger we get, there's ten than clang to the ground ("I don't know who's the bigger bitch...you or her" and Bell replying to "So what's the plan?" with "We go PMS From Hell on this place!"). The title quartet is fine, Rothrock is funny, and Nielsen attacks her role with gusto, so on one hand, being that it's an Asylum joint, MERCENARIES is marginally better than you might expect, but as far as theatrical releases go, they still aren't ready for the big leagues. The cast came ready to party--it's too bad the material didn't match their enthusiasm. (Unrated, 89 mins)

(US - 2014)

James Franco produced and co-stars in this adaptation of his short story collection Palo Alto Stories, a film that marks the writing and directing debut of Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola. Gia inspired and helped shape her grandfather's most recent film, the personal  TWIXT (2012), and the pair have always shared a special and tragic bond: Gia's father Gio Coppola was killed in a speedboat accident in 1986, seven months before she was born. There's no doubt Grandfather Francis takes extra pride in seeing Gia represent the next generation in the Coppola legacy.  PALO ALTO isn't a particularly distinguished debut--some good performances carry it through but the storylines have a too-familiar feel to them. We've seen too many films like this before and PALO ALTO has nothing new to say. Nevertheless, it's well-made and it's nice to see the sense of genuine love and support of Coppola family members putting in appearances in support of the first-time director. Franco's book and Coppola's film follow a loosely-connected narrative of teen angst and excess. Adults are difficult to find in this world, and the ones that are around are ineffective and irresponsible. Virginal nice-girl April (Emma Roberts) is on the soccer team and has a crush on affable stoner Teddy (a debuting Jack Kilmer, Val's lookalike son). Teddy constantly falls victim to the bad influence of his obnoxious buddy Fred (Nat Wolff of THE NAKED BROTHERS BAND), who's using April's promiscuous friend Emily (Zoe Levin). April also finds herself drawn to Mr. B (Franco), her soccer coach and a single dad who frequently has her babysit his young son. Not nearly as caustic and abrasive as Larry Clark's 1995 "wake-up call to the world" KIDS, PALO ALTO is cut from the same cloth as hard-R post-KIDS teen dramas like THIRTEEN (2003), HAVOC (2005) and TWELVE (2010), which also co-starred Roberts. It's perfectly watchable but fairly standard-issue and forgettable, though Roberts is good and young Kilmer shows promise. The large cast of familiar faces also includes Val Kilmer as April's stoner stepdad, Chris Messina, Colleen Camp, Marshall Bell, Janet Jones Gretzky, Don Novello, Margaret Qualley (THE LEFTOVERS), Christian Madsen (son of Michael), Ana Bogdanovich (Peter's sister), and Coppola family members Talia Shire, Jacqui Getty (Gia's mom), and the voice of Francis as a judge sentencing Teddy to community service after a DUI hit and run. (R, 100 mins)

(US - 2014)

Meeting a demand that doesn't exist, SWELTER arrives in 2014 looking and feeling a lot like any number of Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez knockoffs that were taking up space on video store shelves in the late 1990s. It's got a quartet of criminals in matching black suits to remind you of RESERVOIR DOGS. It's got a shitkicker bar to remind you of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. It's got hip pop culture dissertations and references to people like Joey Bishop and Jayne Mansfield to remind you of other possible waiters and waitresses at Jack Rabbit Slim's in PULP FICTION. And it also wears its western influences--Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, in particular--on its sleeve. But writer/director Keith Parmer doesn't come close to emulating the style, pace, and filmmaking skills of Tarantino or an in-his-prime Rodriguez, and despite some potential and one standout supporting performance, SWELTER is a draggy, dreary, and dull endurance test of a thriller. After ten years in prison for a Vegas casino heist they pulled off while wearing Rat Pack masks that look nothing like the members of the Rat Pack, a crew of vengeful criminals have arrived in the "middle of fucking nowhere" Death Valley town of Baker in the midst of a record-shattering heat wave. There's leader Cole (Grant Bowler of the SyFy series DEFIANCE) and his psychotic younger brother Kane (co-producer Daniele Favilli), who are in no way characters influenced by the Gecko brothers in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, along with hot-tempered Boyd (Josh Henderson) and the calm, reserved Stillman (Jean-Claude Van Damme in some offbeat and ultimately squandered casting). They're in Baker looking for Sheriff Bishop (busy TV actor Lennie James), who suffers from amnesia and can't remember the events that brought him to Baker a decade earlier. It turns out he used to be known as Pike (also, "Pike Bishop" being the name of William Holden's character in THE WILD BUNCH) and was the fifth member of Cole's Rat Pack crew. Bishop/Pike made off with the $10 million but suffered a head injury in the escape and can't remember what he did with the loot. That's not a good enough excuse for Cole, who wants his money and Bishop's girlfriend (MARIA FULL OF GRACE Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno)--his ex--back.

It's clear that Parmer is a fan of old westerns and running that through a late '90s indie crime thriller filter isn't a bad idea in theory, but nothing in SWELTER works. The pace is extremely slow, the characters are cardboard cutouts, and only a slumming Alfred Molina as the drunk town doc manages to hold your attention, but he's not in it nearly enough. It's nice to see British actor James getting the lead role in a feature, but he's been better-utilized elsewhere. Parmer's biggest blunder is wasting an opportunity to let Van Damme show his range. Van Damme appearing in character actor mode is a significant departure from the norm for him, so I'm utterly bewildered as to why he's saddled with the thankless role of Grant Bowler's sidekick. Bowler's OK in a third-string Sean Bean kind-of way, but not having Van Damme play the chief villain is an absolutely boneheaded decision on everyone's part. Subplots about Bishop's girlfriend's daughter (Freya Tingley) and the town preacher (Arie Verveen) only exist to pad the running time until the final showdown between Bishop and Cole, complete with a background windmill making the same creaking noise as the one in the opening sequence of a ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The references are nice and Parmer is obviously a movie nerd who knows his shit, but you have to bring more to the table than that. Giving Van Damme a reason to be in the movie other than serving as the most prominently displayed cast member in the DVD cover art would've been a good first step. At one point, Van Damme groans "I'm getting too old for this shit." Indeed you are, sir. (R, 100 mins)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

In Theaters: THE DROP (2014)

(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by Michael R. Roskam. Written by Dennis Lehane. Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Michael Aranov, Ann Dowd, Elizabeth Rodriguez, James Frecheville, Morgan Spector. (R, 107 mins)

Best-selling novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) scripted this adaptation of his short story "Animal Rescue" (also the film's working title) and moved the location from his usual haunt of Boston to the kind of blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood that hasn't changed in decades. THE DROP is one of those low-key crime dramas from the FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE school that focuses on the "working-class stiff" element of the underworld, populated by guys who know guys with names like "Fitz" and "Sully" and barely scrape by as they nickel-and-dime their way through life. The characters in THE DROP have seen better days, and while some have made peace with their past and where it's taken them, others can't move on and do what they can do revisit a time that's never coming back. There's a profound sense of melancholy throughout THE DROP that's made even more poignant by the presence of the late James Gandolfini in his last film. Gandolfini, who died about three months after filming wrapped, isn't the central focus, but his presence--both his character and the actor himself--is felt in nearly every scene. Gandolfini was a distinctive actor who could also convey volumes with just a glance or a facial expression. Of course, he could also bellow like the best of them, and when he delivers the kind of line that a million other actors have delivered but sounds especially awesome when yelled by James Gandolfini ("What the fuck are you talkin' about?"), it's a joy for his fans to see that he went out with a good role in a good film that utilized him in the best possible fashion.  He'll be missed.

THE DROP refers to a "drop bar," a rotating list of mob-owned bars in the Brooklyn area that serve as money drop-off and pickup points. Cousin Marv's is such a bar, and Marv (Gandolfini) still manages the place even though he was muscled out as owner a decade earlier when some Chechan gangsters took over. Now he answers to Chovka (Michael Aranov) and barely scrapes by serving shots to his dwindling number of regulars. His only regular employee is his cousin Bob (Tom Hardy). Bob is a quiet, introverted, church-going loner who shuffles around and only speaks when he absolutely has to. He has a kind heart, which gets him in trouble with Marv when he keeps giving free drinks to an area homeless woman, allowing her just a few hours each day to hang out in a quiet corner of the bar where she doesn't bother anyone. Bob's kindness extends to taking care of an injured, bloodied pit bull puppy he discovers in a trashcan in the yard of waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace) on his walk home from work one night. The dog belongs to Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intimidating neighborhood goon who used to date Nadia. Deeds beat the dog and threw it in Nadia's trash and keeps following Bob and showing up at his house demanding he turn it over to him. Deeds' stalking of Bob coincides with Bob and Marv getting some heat from Chovka after Cousin Marv's is robbed by a couple of masked gunmen who make off with $5000. Chovka wants his money and hasn't ruled out Bob and Marv pulling off an inside job, and Bob is also forced to contend with the skeptical detective (John Ortiz) investigating the robbery.

THE DROP is directed by Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam, making his Hollywood debut. Roskam's arthouse breakthrough came with the brilliant 2011 film BULLHEAD, an Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film that featured a stunning performance by Schoenaerts, a gifted Belgian actor (he also played a similar Brooklyn tough guy role in this year's little-seen BLOOD TIES) who you can expect to be hearing a lot more from in years to come. Roskam does a terrific job of capturing a seedy side of Brooklyn that you don't see much of onscreen anymore in these days of hipster gentrification. The focus is more on character than action, and while the film isn't quite the mainstream audience alienator that something like, say, KILLING THEM SOFTLY was, it's certainly in that vicinity in terms of style and tone. In many ways, THE DROP feels a bit like something Sidney Lumet might've made in the late '90s or early '00s. It's a small-scale, simple little film that doesn't rely much on style, instead focusing on mood and atmosphere. This is a Brooklyn where homes have been in the family since post-WWII and sales of plastic furniture covers are still strong (and Marv still lives with his doting older sister, played by Ann Dowd). Hardy's performance is a case study in tightly-coiled tension, a time-bomb waiting to go off but doing so in a way that defies expectation. Like the film, Bob plays his cards close to the vest, and while he seems a little slow-witted at times and some even treat him as such, it comes to be seen as a defense mechanism. Bob has a past that he doesn't want to relive--note the calm and matter-of-fact way he deals with the discovery of a severed arm--and lives as solitary a life as possible to hold off the inevitable forces that he fears will eventually pull him back into that world. He never tries to be a hero until he's exhausted every other possible option. In LOCKE, Hardy played a pressured man boxed in by the confines of his car, but in THE DROP, his pressured character is boxed in by his own design. Rapace's Nadia is equally guarded about her own past, which includes Deeds as well as a nasty scar on her neck. They bond through the puppy, whom Nadia names Rocco, but both are shy, reserved, and hesitant to take anything further. Rapace played a somewhat similar role in last year's underappreciated DEAD MAN DOWN, and while she's a fine actress, she seems a bit miscast here, struggling and failing to hide her Swedish accent while Schoenaerts nails an absolutely perfect Brooklyn tone.

THE DROP will likely bore those looking for a gangster shoot-'em-up, and it's the kind of modestly-budgeted studio film that plays more like an indie. It's familiar, but overall, it's a fine film with an almost-throwback mentality to it. Roskam doesn't seek to break new ground in the crime genre and doesn't pretend his is the first film with a reluctant anti-hero pulled back into a life he's spent years trying to flee. While there are fleeting bursts of action and graphic violence, THE DROP is more concerned with being a compelling character piece and on that front, it's a success, anchored by the always-intriguing Hardy with excellent support from Schoenaerts and Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini (1961-2013)