Friday, December 30, 2016

On Netflix: SPECTRAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Nic Mathieu. Written by George Nolfi. Cast: James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood, Max Martini, Cory Hardrict, Clayne Crawford, Gonzalo Menendez, Ursula Parker, Stephen Root, Aaron Serban, Dylan Smith, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Ryan Robbins, Jimmy Akingbola. (Unrated, 108 mins)

After over a year on the shelf, SPECTRAL, a $70 million Legendary Pictures-produced sci-fi horror actioner, was set to open in theaters nationwide in August 2016. That never happened, as it was abruptly yanked from the release schedule a few weeks earlier after Legendary's WARCRAFT bombed and distributor Universal grew skittish about having another expensive summer flop on its hands, even though WARCRAFT was a hit everywhere in the world but America. They shopped SPECTRAL around to other studios and found a taker in Netflix, who are now streaming it as a "Netflix Original." It's not a great movie by any means, and it likely would've ended up tanking in theaters just as Universal feared, especially being a summer movie lacking any big name draws in front of or behind the camera. In that respect, Netflix seems like perfect platform for SPECTRAL, where it's free from box office expectations and can earn the minor cult following it's inevitably going to get. Military-contracted science researcher Dr. Mark Clyne (James Badge Dale, a solid supporting actor, but c'mon, who puts a $70 million summer sci-fi action movie on the shoulders of James Badge Dale?) is summoned to Moldova to help a tactical unit that's been using high-tech "spectral" combat helmet cam goggles that he designed. He's informed by Gen. Orland (Bruce Greenwood) and CIA operative Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) that the cameras have been picking up images of apparitions--termed "hyperspectral anomalies"--who have attacked and killed several members of the Delta Force team, led by Sgt. Sessions (Max Martini, Dale's 13 HOURS co-star). Orland and Madison believe it's a cloaking device being used by enemy insurgents, which Clyne dismisses since the US hasn't even come close to achieving that capability. Orland orders Clyne and Madison to accompany Sessions and what's left of the Delta team to find another unit that went missing the day before, obviously taken out by the "anomalies," ghostly specters that can only be seen through the combat goggles or the light from a hyperspectral camera that Clyne creates on the fly when most of the goggles are destroyed in a paranormal skirmish.

Written by George Nolfi (a good buddy of Matt Damon's who co-scripted OCEAN'S TWELVE and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, and wrote and directed THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU) and directed by feature-debuting TV commercial vet Nic Mathieu, SPECTRAL dives pretty deep into hard sci-fi with Clyne's theories on the origin of the anomalies. They're impervious to weapons and can travel through any surface except iron and ceramic, which leads Clyne to believe they're man-made via bosons hovering near absolute zero with a cooled gas of extremely low density and known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate, which is not something Joe Multiplex normally expects to be name-dropped in a big-budget summer action movie. SPECTRAL has some great ideas, but while Nolfi's script talks a big game, it doesn't really have the brains to back it up. The scene where Clyne explains everything to Madison and the soldiers turns into a momentum-killing monologue because Dale has a difficult time selling it when he just keeps anxiously repeating "ceramic" and "condensate." He doesn't sound like he knows what he's talking about, probably because Nolfi doesn't either and should probably be sharing the screenplay credit with Wikipedia. Nevertheless, SPECTRAL is very well-made, and with location shooting in Hungary, Slovakia, and Israel, it definitely looks like a "bigger" movie than one usually associates with "Netflix Original." It also boasts some impressive visual effects and refreshingly coherent combat sequences, and with its stark, ominous Eastern European setting (most of this was shot in Bucharest) and some lighting and cinematography techniques, it would appear that SPECTRAL owes a stylistic debt to Michael Mann's 1983 cult classic THE KEEP. The biggest structural influence is obviously James Cameron's 1986 masterpiece ALIENS, right down to the discovery of a little Moldovan orphan girl (Ursula Parker, one of the daughters on LOUIE) who isn't named "Newt," but might as well be (all that's missing is a scheming Paul Reiser to sabotage the mission). Feeling like BLACK HAWK DOWN retooled as a John Ringo or David Weber military sci-fi novel published by Baen Books, SPECTRAL isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but its ambition is appreciated. It delivers if you're looking for action, special effects, and atmosphere, so this really is custom-made for Netflix streaming.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: GOAT (2016); PET (2016); and DAD'S ARMY (2016)

(US/UK - 2016)

GOAT is a harrowing chronicle of fraternity hazing, based on the 2004 memoir by Brad Land. Director Andrew Neel (the LARP documentary DARKON) and co-writer David Gordon Green (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) take some significant liberties with the book, playing a little fast and loose with the facts as to what happened to Land and what he did regarding the fraternity. Taken on its own terms, GOAT is frequently very powerful, with a pair of strong performances as its core by Ben Schnetzer (the acclaimed but short-lived series HAPPY TOWN) as Brad and Nick Jonas as his older brother Brett (though he looks younger, Schnetzer is actually two years older than Jonas). In the summer after graduating high school, Brad visits Brett at his Phi Sigma Mu frat house at Brookman University (the frat and Brookman are fictional; the actual university was Clemson) and is talked into giving a ride to two sketchy-looking townies who steal his car and nearly beat him to death. Still traumatized by the incident and unwilling to cooperate with police, Brad has all of his masculine insecurities brought to the forefront, questioning why he gave them a ride and why he never tried to fight back ("Am I a pussy?" he drunkenly wonders). Though Brett doesn't think it's the answer, Brad decides to pledge Phi Sigma Mu and is joined by his sensitive new roommate Fitch (Danny Flaherty), both freshmen needing to feel like they belong somewhere and needing to feel bolstered and reinforced by the power and prestige that comes with being in a popular frat ("I'm having sex for the first time in my life!" Fitch keeps saying). Neel doesn't shy away from the brutal hazing of Hell Week, an endless series of increasingly degrading and dehumanizing rituals that make it seem like a collegiate version of SALO could break out at any moment. The pledges are terrorized, forced to drink gallons of alcohol until they puke and black out, tied up and locked in animal cages, urinated on, threatened with forced bestiality with a goat if they don't finish a keg in a certain amount of time, and one comparatively harmless prank involves a blindfolded Brad believing he's being forced to eat a turd out of a toilet bowl, but it's only a banana. The hazing by frat leaders Chance (Gus Halper) and the sadistic Dixon (Jake Picking) goes over the line to the point where even Brett is growing disillusioned with the whole thing, asking Chance at one point "Is this getting a little weird this year?"

Weird eventually escalates to tragic, but all the while, Brad is willing to look the other way because the more he endures, the less of a "pussy" he feels. It's his way of getting back at the guys who assaulted him, even as he ignores calls from the cops to come in and ID two guys who match the description and have been picked up for another crime. The changes made by Green and Neel are strange--in the book, Brad put his foot down and quit the fraternity while Brett was presented as, for lack of a better term, an antagonist who resented his brother. In the film, Brad is so concerned with asserting his manhood that he refuses to give up on the frat even as Brett pleads with him to do so, and it's Brett who grows tired of Chance's and Dixon's antics. It's an odd decision that may create some dramatic tension between the brothers but sort of undermines Brad's role in what was supposed to be his own story and his own expose. The story works in the context of the film, but it's a bizarre artistic choice by the filmmakers, unless someone thought making Nick Jonas the hero might secure a better distribution deal. It hardly mattered--the Cincinnati-shot GOAT only played in a few theaters and on VOD, but it's a sleeper that's certain to find an audience on streaming services, as difficult as it is to endure at times. Schnetzer and Jonas are both excellent (Jonas is a real surprise here, though he might've fared even better as an actor if the filmmakers stuck to the book), but producer James Franco gives himself a cameo as an aging frat god from years earlier who still periodically stops by the house to chug some beers and reminisce with the younger guys about his glory days. Franco basically turns up for a few minutes to play a dudebro combination of "James Franco" and "Matthew McConaughey's Wooderson" for a few minutes, and it's distracting to say the least, but hey, he's the producer, so what are you gonna do? (R, 102 mins)

(US/Spain - 2016)

There's some intriguing ideas in this sort-of extreme horror variation on the John Fowles novel The Collector, famously made into a 1965 film with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar. What begins as a standard-issue psycho-stalker movie gets a major boost from a mid-film reveal that just ends up fizzling by the end, when screenwriter Jeremy Slater (a writer and producer on the Fox TV series THE EXORCIST) and director Carles Torrens (the found-footage possession movie APARTMENT 143) go for one too many twists and contrivances as things wrap up with a groan instead of a jolt. Seth (Dominic Monaghan, whose American accent needs some work) is a lonely and awkward man who works as an attendant at a Los Angeles animal shelter. On the bus ride home from work one evening, he spots Holly (Ksenia Solo), an aspiring writer and high school classmate who doesn't remember him. He makes bumbling small-talk and is oblivious to the fact that she's clearly not interested, but he stalks her on social media, shows up at the greasy spoon where she waits tables asks her to a Ben Folds show, and follows her to a bar where he's promptly beaten up by her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nathan Parsons). Repeatedly reprimanded at work for getting too attached to the animals and failing at any attempt at male bonding with imposing security guard Nate (Da'Vone McDonald), a desperate Seth finds a closed-off room in the shelter basement, complete with a large cage, which he deems the perfect place to keep Holly until she realizes how perfect they are for one another.

PET is pretty standard up to that point, but Slater and Torrens pull one of 2016's better bait-and-switches that up-ends both Seth's motive for doing what he does and the audience's perception of Holly. We're not talking a USUAL SUSPECTS-level game-changer here, but as far as twists go in 2016 movies, this one is pretty audacious. But the filmmakers stumble on the follow-through, with PET completely collapsing in the final act, trying to go for ambiguity as an excuse to cover up the trail of implausibilities that's left them completely backed into a corner. Seth's devotion and Holly's behavior ultimately make little logical sense, and PET turns into one of those movies where everyone from Seth's bosses to the cops are required to be incredibly careless and unbelievably stupid in order to keep the plot moving. Still, there's enough good intentions in the building blocks of PET's construction and in an outstanding performance by Solo that it's worth a look, even if it ultimately misses the mark and 40-year-old Monaghan looks entirely too old to have gone to high school with Solo. (R, 94 mins)

(UK - 2016)

Running from 1968 to 1977, the BBC series DAD'S ARMY remains one of the most beloved sitcoms in the history of British television. Giving career roles to great British character actor ringers like Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier, DAD'S ARMY dealt with the wacky antics of a platoon of misfit Home Guard volunteers in a small English town in WWII. With its slapstick comedy and quotable catchphrases, it was so popular that it spawned a 1971 feature film spinoff in the middle of its run. Nostalgia would seem to be the only reason to produce a remake nearly 40 years after the show went off the air, and with absolutely no reason to exist, the 2016 version of DAD'S ARMY is painfully unfunny and would be completely unwatchable if not for a distinguished cast that's hopefully having a lot more fun than the audience. In 1944, in the days before D-Day, Walmington-at-Sea's Home Guard leader Capt. Mainwaring (Toby Jones in Lowe's role) and his right-hand Sgt. Wilson (Bill Nighy in Le Mesurier's role) are informed by their commander Theakes (Mark Gatiss) that they're to patrol an Allied base at Dover that's being targeted for invasion by high-ranking Nazi Admiral Canaris (Oliver Tobias), who's sent a spy to infiltrate the area. Meanwhile, sultry reporter Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta-Jones) arrives to do a story on the Home Guard, which results in Mainwaring and Wilson trying to one-up the other in their hapless attempts to woo her, which naturally infuriates their henpecking wives. Also among Mainwaring's Home Guard troops are doddering Jones (Tom Courtenay), senile Godfrey (Michael Gambon), crotchety Frazer (Bill Paterson), and youngsters like the womanizing Walker (Daniel Mays) and goofball Pike (Blake Harrison).

With that cast and a script by frequent Rowan Atkinson collaborator Hamish McColl (MR. BEAN'S HOLIDAY, JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN) working under the direction of Oliver Parker (the 1995 OTHELLO with Laurence Fishburne, AN IDEAL HUSBAND), it's hard to believe DAD'S ARMY is as terrible as it is. Joke after joke lands with a thud, the pace is laborious, and the greenscreen work and CGI look unfinished. Who is the audience for this movie? Older people who fondly remember the TV show probably won't go for the more contemporary vulgar elements, whether it's a confused Godfrey relieving himself on what he thinks is a tree but is really Jones in disguise (I'm pretty sure that when Tom Courtenay received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO 50 years ago, he never envisioned Michael Gambon pissing on him in their emeritus years), or Paterson's Frazer dropping trou and mooning a U-boat crew. The increased toilet humor seems to be there to draw a younger crowd who I'm certain has no interest in seeing an otherwise dated and creaky WWII comedy headlined by Bill Nighy, Toby Jones, and Tom Courtenay. DAD'S ARMY resurrects the catchphrases ("You stupid boy!") and gives cameos to the series' two surviving cast members (Ian Lavendar, the original Pike, appears as a general, and Frank Williams reprises his role as the town's vicar), but it was panned by British critics and flatly rejected by UK audiences, bombing when it was released there in early 2016. With the TV show known only by the most ardent Anglophile TV fans in the US, Universal had no viable strategy on how to sell this to American audiences, even with familiar faces like Nighy and Zeta-Jones, so they ended up releasing it straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray with no publicity at all.  A rare movie that's made for absolutely no one and whose very existence is an inexplicable mystery, DAD'S ARMY's only point of interest is that it was produced by Alan Parker (MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, FAME, PINK FLOYD: THE WALL, MISSISSIPPI BURNING), who's been MIA since directing 2003's THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE. He's no relation to Oliver Parker, which would at least explain his involvement. Alan Parker disappears for 13 years and this is what inspired him to emerge from self-imposed exile? You know a comedy is bad when even the end credits blooper reel isn't funny. (Unrated, 100 mins)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


(Denmark/Germany - 2013; US release 2016)

Based on a series of six (to date) Department Q novels by Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen, 2013's THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES was the first of thus far three movie adaptations. Huge post-GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO hits in Scandinavia, the first three DEPARTMENT Q movies were released simultaneously in the US by IFC Films/Sundance Selects in the summer of 2016. Being in Danish with English subtitles, the films are relegated to the arthouse circuit, but they're very commercial police procedurals that will appeal to any fan of the original DRAGON TATTOO trilogy and American TV shows like LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT and more recent offerings like THE KILLING and TRUE DETECTIVE. Lone wolf homicide cop (is there any other kind?) Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a plays-by-his-own-rules type who impulsively leads a raid on a perp's residence without waiting for backup. His impatience results in a shootout that gets one cop killed and his only friend Hardy (Troels Lyby) paralyzed, and Morck himself gets grazed by a bullet that leaves him with a scar on his forehead and noticeable tremors in his left hand. Morck's irate boss Marcus (Soren Pilmark) refuses to put him back on homicide and busts him down to Department Q, a newly-created cold-case unit buried in the basement. Morck's job is to sign off on two cases a week and Marcus sees it as a way to eliminate some bureaucratic red tape and keep Morck out of sight and out of mind, since no one likes him anyway. He's paired in Department Q with Assad (Fares Fares of ZERO DARK THIRTY), a good cop who's never been given a chance because anti-Muslim prejudice has made him as much of an outcast pariah to his colleagues as Morck. Assad sees this as an opportunity but Morck is furious and feels it's beneath him, until he becomes intrigued by the case of Merete Lynggaard (Sonia Richter), an aspiring politician who disappeared from a ferry five years earlier and was presumed to be a suicide by drowning. She was on the ferry with her Uffe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), her disabled, brain-damaged younger brother, and her body was never found.

Morck doesn't buy that Merete would kill herself and leave her brother alone on the ferry, and of course, he's right. She was abducted from the ferry and has been held captive for five years in a small, pressurized room. Morck and Assad butt heads and go through all the formulaic business that mismatched cop partners do (Assad doesn't understand why Morck is so miserable, while Morck can't stand Assad's coffee), but they very gradually form a grudging respect for one another as they dig deeper and deeper into Merete's past, uncovering info that the detectives who caught the case never bothered to pursue and incurring the wrath of Marcus, who just wants the cold cases closed but not necessarily investigated (of course, he reads them the riot act and makes them both hand over their badges and, like every movie cop who's ever been ordered to hand over his badge, they just carry on with the investigation on their own time). There isn't much in the way of surprises as far as characters and plot construction are concerned, but when these sorts of things are done right, they're pretty hard to resist, and THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES is fast-moving and thoroughly engrossing from the start, thanks to an economically-constructed and no-bullshit screenplay adaptation by Nikolaj Arcel. Arcel also scripted the original 2009 version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, wrote and directed the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-nominee A ROYAL AFFAIR, and will make his Hollywood debut in 2017 by writing and directing THE DARK TOWER, based on the first book in Stephen King's epic series. Produced by Lars von Trier's Zentropa Entertainments, THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES was directed by Mikkel Norgaard, best known to cult comedy fans for helming KLOWN and its sequel KLOWN FOREVER. Norgaard and Arcel would return for the 2014 sequel THE ABSENT ONE. (Unrated, 97 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Denmark/Germany/Sweden - 2014; US release 2016)

With its central mystery dealing with a traumatic incident in the life of a teenage girl two decades back and a climax involving the heroes being held prisoner in a rich psycho's secret lair, THE ABSENT ONE can't help but draw comparisons to either version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Here, Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares) are spinning their wheels in Department Q, earning scorn and disdain from fellow cops who dismiss them as "The Arab and the Drunk." At a party for their boss Marcus (Soren Pilmark), Morck is confronted by Henning Jorgensen (Hans Henrik Voetmann), a former cop whose career imploded when his twin son and daughter were murdered at an exclusive boarding school. One of their classmates, Bjarne Thorgersen (Kristian Hogh Jeppesen) was convicted, but only served three years thanks to a high-powered defense lawyer clearly out of Thorgersen's parents' price range. The surprisingly light sentence is enough to get Morck to take another look at the case, especially when he's overcome by guilt when Jorgensen commits suicide two hours after Morck has him thrown out of the party. Morck is convinced Thorgersen was the fall guy and he and Assad start looking at other students who were there at the time. Chief among the alumni is Ditlev Pram (Pilou Asbaek, best known to American audiences as Euron Greyjoy on GAME OF THRONES), the wealthy owner of a hotel chain and an all-around shitbag who still pals around with equally wealthy and even sleazier boarding school buddy Ulrik Dybbol (David Dencik, who was in the American remake of DRAGON TATTOO). Pram and Dybbol have a dark, murderous past they want kept under wraps, with Pram even going so far as to hire security expert and freelance hit man Alberg (Peter Christofferson) to kill Kimmie (Danica Curcic), who briefly dated Pram in school and whose life completely derailed into homelessness and prostitution after the murder of Jorgensen's twins. She knows something and Pram wants her dead, which sends Morck and Assad on a frantic search to find her.

THE ABSENT ONE isn't quite as good as THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES. The pace is slower, the presentation a little muddled, a subplot involving Pram's jealousy over his wife's extramarital affairs just bloats the running time, and the story just seems to be a too-formulaic variant on Stieg Larsson. Kaas and Fares are still a winning team who play well off one another (Morck still can't stand Assad's coffee), with Fares' Assad getting a bit more assertive when the situation calls for it. Morck and Assad are joined in the office by Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt), their new secretary who proves to be a very observant and resourceful addition to the team and one who's hopefully used a little more in the next installment, A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH. (Unrated, 120 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Denmark/Germany/Norway - 2016)

Screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel was set to direct this third film in the DEPARTMENT Q series, but Hollywood beckoned with the offer to helm THE DARK TOWER, so the job was given to veteran Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, best known for the 1995 cult film ZERO KELVIN. While Mikkel Norgaard focused on the procedural elements of the investigation, Moland brings a more action-oriented sensibility to DEPARTMENT Q, with no less than two masterful chase/suspense set pieces--a ransom drop from a speeding train and a hospital pursuit of a killer disguised as a doctor--that rank among the most nail-biting sequences of 2016. If familiarity was already creeping in with THE ABSENT ONE, Moland definitely shakes things up with the faster pace and different, more outdoor setting of A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH, without skimping on the grim, grunt detective work that makes Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares) such a solid team. As this film opens, Assad is temporarily overseeing things in Department Q with dutiful secretary Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt), while a down and depressed Morck is on a medical leave following the events at the end of THE ABSENT ONE. When a literal message in a bottle is found washed up on a shoreline, the police bring it in to Assad, almost as a sarcastic joke considering how little respect Department Q gets from the rest of the force. Assad and Rose examine the cryptic eight-year-old message, written in blood, and mentioning "Jehovah." Judging from the misspellings and the grammar, Assad theorizes that it was written by a child and wants to investigate all cases of missing children from the last ten years, but a returning and intrigued Morck tells him there have only been two cases, both closed.

Meanwhile, in another town, a report is made of two siblings being abducted by a stranger in a car. Their parents, Elias (Jakob Ulrik Lohmann) and Rakel (Amanda Collin) belong to a tight-knit religious sect known as "The Lord's Disciples" and insist their kids are visiting Elias' sister. When that doesn't check out, Elias, who refuses to speak with Muslim Assad, confesses that the kids are being held for ransom by Johannes (Pal Sverre Hagen), a charismatic, phony minister who visited the area and took the children. Johannes also matches the description given to police by Trygve (Louis Sylvester Larsen), a 15-year-old who was kidnapped with his brother--who wrote the message in a bottle--eight years ago. Trygve managed to get away but his brother was killed by Johannes. Morck and Assad are convinced history is repeating itself, and that Johannes is a serial kidnapper and murderer. He's also a practicing Satanist who preys on fanatically religious families, usually correctly assuming they'll follow his directions because they have more faith in God and His plans than they do in the police. And in Johannes' twisted mind, by ruthlessly murdering children even after their parents have cooperated, he is robbing the religious of the faith they hold so dear. A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH is a bit thematically deeper than its predecessors, with atheist Morck and religious Assad engaging in a couple of thoughtful theological debates, but there's also some amusing and/or off-the-wall touches, like a short-fused Morck shutting down an enthusiastic forensics nerd who's more interested in explaining his technique than the results, and a church choir performing an oddly unsettling, Danish-language rendition of Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" at a baptism. With a memorably despicable villain in Hagen's Johannes, the chemistry between Kaas and Fares stronger than ever, some exciting action sequences, and a change in approach and style courtesy of Moland, A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH is the best entry yet in the DEPARTMENT Q franchise. (Unrated, 112 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Friday, December 23, 2016

In Theaters: PASSENGERS (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Jon Spaihts. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia. (PG-13, 116 mins)

The sci-fi epic PASSENGERS is a triumph of production design weighed down by a script that feels like its second half was hastily rewritten after focus groups said more shit needed to blow up. Its intriguing opening act does a commendable job of replicating that unique Kubrickian chilliness and isolation, with a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY vessel seemingly revamped by an interior decorator whose favorite movie was THE SHINING. Even the pattern on a wall matches the carpeting where Danny is playing with his cars outside Room 237. Set in a future where people are looking to move beyond an overcrowded Earth, PASSENGERS opens aboard the Starship Avalon, with 5000 passengers and a crew of 238 in hibernation on a 120-year voyage to a planet colony called Homestead II. 30 years into the voyage, a minor collision with an asteroid causes a brief disruption in the computer system that results in engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) being awakened from his hibernation pod. It takes him a while to realize he's up 90 years too early, but going back into hibernation is impossible, a message sent to Homestead headquarters back on Earth will take 19 years to arrive, and his only company for what's looking like the rest of his life is affable robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), who in no way reminds one of Lloyd in the Gold Ballroom of the Overlook Hotel.

An increasingly disheveled and depressed Jim spends the next 15 months alone, growing increasingly despondent by the day. He's contemplating suicide by shooting himself through an airlock and out into space, but notices hibernating Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in her pod. Checking the passenger manifest and watching her video file, a desperate Jim falls in love with her and with the idea of having a companion. He agonizes over the decision for months, spending his days sitting by her pod and talking to her and when he's reached his breaking point, he reworks the pod mechanism so she's awakened. Letting Aurora think her pod malfunctioned just like his, Jim gives her time to accept the circumstances but after a while, they inevitably go from friends to lovers, with Jim still leaving her in the dark about what he did. Of course, she'll eventually find out, but that becomes a secondary issue after slowly-developing malfunctions and glitches, all snowballing since the initial asteroid collision that caused Jim's pod to open, start to jeopardize not just their solitary--and now hostile--living situation but also the lives of the crew and passengers, who still have 88 years before they reach their destination.

The next paragraph contains SPOILERS.

The early scenes of PASSENGERS are the strongest, with Jim realizing the seriousness of his situation while wandering around the most visually stunning spaceship we've seen in quite some time, accompanied by a frequently John Carpenter-meets-Vangelis-sounding score by Thomas Newman that works like a charm. It stumbles a bit during Jim's disheveled phase, where Pratt is required to wear an awful wig and what might be cinema's least-convincing fake beard, which looks like someone glued a stunt bush from a community theater production of BOOGIE NIGHTS to his face. Once Aurora is awake, there's considerable tension as Jim is wracked with guilt over his decision to mislead her, but screenwriter Jon Spaihts (PROMETHEUS) and Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (HEADHUNTERS, THE IMITATION GAME) quickly lose interest in exploring this ethical dilemma. After a period of not speaking, they more or less agree to set aside their differences when they're joined by Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne), a Chief Deck Officer whose hibernation pod has also malfunctioned. It's here that PASSENGERS shows that it doesn't have the courage of its convictions, abandoning a serious moral quandary in order to restage key elements of GRAVITY and THE MARTIAN out of an apparent need to make Pratt the hero. Some reviews have responded harshly to Jim's actions, likening him to a creep, a stalker, and a psycho, and taking offense over the perceived notion that Aurora is more or less Stockholm Syndromed into falling for him. These sound like the imaginary concerns of people looking for something to outrage them. Jim does what he does out of loneliness, desperation, and slowly encroaching insanity. He doesn't approach it lightly, but he can't fathom the idea of spending the rest of his life. It's wrong and more or less indefensible and he shortens Aurora's life, but it's an extreme situation. And, it's worth mentioning, even if it's ultimately a plot convenience that lets Jim off the hook, they all would've died anyway since Jim ultimately can't save the ship and the other 5000+ people without Aurora's help. It's doubtful the same criticisms would be leveled at PASSENGERS had it been Aurora who woke early and decided to open Jim's pod 89 years early, or if Jim was played by say, Michael Shannon or Steve Buscemi or Clark Duke and it would be easier to grasp Jim's actions because he's being played by an oddball character actor or a dweeby-looking comedian and not Chris Pratt. Focusing on Jim's decision certainly would've made a more interesting film on a psychological thriller level--and it could've given Pratt a chance to show some range--but this is a $100 million holiday movie with two of the most attractive and popular celebrities on the planet.

I'm not asking for Tarkovsky's SOLARIS here, but PASSENGERS could've tried a little harder. The second half wants to be a big, epic, special effects crowd-pleaser and the abrupt tone shift leaves Lawrence and Pratt stranded, which is shame because in the more character-driven sections, their performances are quite good. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Sheen is amusing, Fishburne is fine with his limited screen time, and Andy Garcia has been almost completely cut from the film since his entire role as the ship's captain consists of him walking through a sliding door and looking up, giving him about five seconds of screen time with no dialogue for what must be the most frivolous big-name, prominently-billed cameo since Albert Finney's eight-second appearance in a YouTube video in 2012's THE BOURNE LEGACY.  He had to have a larger role initially. You don't hire Oscar-nominated Andy Garcia, a respected actor for the last 30 years, to walk through a door and look confused, unless he's also wondering what he's doing in this movie. In the end, PASSENGERS is always fascinating to look at, but it abandons its thought-provoking aspects and is riddled with rampant lapses in logic. For instance, why is Arthur online and tending bar for no one?  Why is the liquor opened when no one would be drinking it for 120 years? And if the crew is scheduled to be awakened a month before the passengers, who's been maintaining the pool for the first 30 years of the voyage? Wouldn't switching on Arthur and opening the booze and filling the pool and chlorinating it be something the crew did in the month before the passengers were revived?  How fresh is the sushi that Aurora is eating? Is that the smartest thing to have on the menu?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

In Theaters: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Cast; Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Tom Kemp, Kenneth Lonergan. (R, 137 mins)

Acclaimed writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's pay-the-bills gigs have included scripting films like ANALYZE THIS and GANGS OF NEW YORK, but he's best known for his 2000 indie YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, which got Laura Linney an Oscar nomination and was the first big break for Mark Ruffalo. But then it all fell apart as Lonergan's follow-up, MARGARET, was shot in 2005 and languished on the shelf for six years, mired in editing issues and lawsuits. It finally got released on just 14 screens in 2011, and that was only after Lonergan mentor Martin Scorsese intervened and supervised an exactly 150-minute recut that met the distributor's demand of a 150-minute film that Lonergan refused to deliver. Lonergan was allowed to prepare his own 186-minute director's cut for the Blu-ray and while the film met with significant acclaim, he was subsequently viewed as everything from difficult at best to unstable at worst, and for a while, it appeared as though his career might be finished. Five years after the MARGARET debacle came to an end, and with the help of producer pal Matt Damon, Lonergan is back with MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, a distinctly Lonergan character piece that takes the complex family dynamics of YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and the gut-wrenching emotional trauma of MARGARET to make what's probably his defining auteur statement yet.

Turning in the sort of internalized, anguished performance whose power might not hit you right away, Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, an apartment janitor and handyman in Quincy, just outside of Boston. He keeps to himself, drinks too much, isn't pleasant with tenants, and looks for fights at the neighborhood bar. He's going about his routine when he gets a call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who lives 90 minutes away in Manchester, has been hospitalized. Joe dies before Lee can get to the hospital, his heart finally just giving out after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure at an unusually young age a few years earlier. There's the usual affairs to get in order--Joe's business, his boat, and the burial, which can't take place until spring because it's the dead of winter and the ground is too frozen, forcing Joe's body to be kept in a hospital freezer until the ground begins to thaw--but Lee's primary concern is Joe's 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Joe explicitly stated in his will that Lee is to become Patrick's guardian, a decision never discussed with Lee, who was under the impression that their uncle would raise Patrick if anything happened to Joe, but Joe changed the will when that uncle moved to Minnesota. With Patrick's mother, Joe's alcoholic ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), out of the picture, Lee tries to get Joe's best friend George (C.J. Wilson) to take Patrick, but decides that he'll just have to move back to Quincy with him. This upsets Patrick, who has friends, two girlfriends, school, and sports in Manchester, along with his being the lead guitarist in a not-very-good band. The situation is forcing the closed-off Lee to take charge and confront actual feelings again, several years after his life fell apart in a tragic incident that was too much for his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) to handle.

Lonergan reveals Lee's past in bits and pieces, flashing back to various incidents from Patrick's childhood, the early stages of Joe's diagnosis, and scenes depicting Lee's happily married life with Randi. What happened to Lee and Randi is operatically tragic, a bit of drunken absent-mindedness that changed the Chandler family's lives forever, and one that still causes the Manchester townies to speak of Lee in hushed tones when he returns for Joe's funeral, some old friends offering condolences, others wanting nothing to do with him. This incident is revealed in a long flashback that's almost too difficult to watch, but Lonergan belabors the point a little by blaring Albinioni's Adagio in G Minor so loud and so long that it actually starts to undermine the effectiveness. It's really the only misstep in an otherwise exemplary and profoundly, achingly moving film, anchored by powerful performances from Affleck and Hedges, as well as Williams, who only has a few scenes but makes every one count. Lonergan dives right into the action, but then lets things play out in natural, unaffected ways, allowing us to get to know everything we need to know about these characters, even the minor ones like Elise's second husband, played in a one-scene cameo by Lonergan regular Matthew Broderick. Affleck and Hedges beautifully portray the back-and-forth love and resentment between a broken man who just wants to be left alone and the nephew who used to look up to him and wants to be independent but needs his uncle more than he realizes. It's a raw and unflinching film but it's sprinkled with some surprisingly funny moments, whether it's Lee trying to grasp how Patrick can juggle two girlfriends or how the uncle and nephew find dark humor in a period of intense mourning (Patrick, inside Lee's freezing cold car: "Maybe we can just put my dad back here." Lee: "Shut the fuck up"). MARGARET was an ambitious but sometimes unwieldy mess that got away from him, but Lonergan has crafted his finest work yet with MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, one of 2016's best films.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Theaters: ROGUE ONE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O'Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Fares Fares, Valene King, Anthony Daniels, Spencer Wilding, Daniel Naprous, Guy Henry, Paul Kasey, Warwick Davis, Ingvild Deila, Ian McIlhinney, Michael Smiley, Angus MacInnes, Drewe Henley, voices of James Earl Jones, Stephen Stanton. (PG-13, 134 mins)

The first standalone STAR WARS film chronicles the events leading up to Princess Leia getting the plans for the Death Star at the beginning of A NEW HOPE back in 1977. ROGUE ONE had a notoriously troubled production, with a major script overhaul by BOURNE series screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who was also rumored to have supervised extensive reshoots, with a particular focus on the last 30 minutes, after no one was satisfied with director Gareth Edwards' rough cut. Indeed, many shots and some dialogue ("I rebel") from the first teaser trailer are nowhere to be seen and heard in the finished film, and with three credited editors along with an "additional editing" credit for veteran Stuart Baird, who's long had a reputation as Hollywood's go-to guy to work his magic in salvaging a wreckage, it's obvious to anyone schooled in today's cinema that the making of ROGUE ONE was far from smooth sailing (post-production ended on November 28, 2016, 18 days before the film's release date). Edwards, whose MONSTERS was a monster movie with very little in the way of monsters, and whose GODZILLA relegated Godzilla to little more than a cameo, is a director who takes unpredictability to a detrimental extreme. He seems to go out of his way to avoid giving the audience what they came to see, and for some reason, this has earned him accolades. Right from the start, it's apparent that Edwards is attempting to make ROGUE ONE his own by not including the iconic opening crawl that's been a staple of the STAR WARS canon for nearly 40 years.

The film gets off to the clunkiest start this side of RULES DON'T APPLY, jumping from location to location until the pieces are in place and the plot finally set in motion. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist involved in the creation of the Death Star, the Imperial Forces' "planet destroyer" and a project with which he morally disagrees but worked on it since it was going to be built with or without him. Erso's wife is killed and he's taken prisoner by Imperial weapons director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), while his young daughter Jyn is taken in by Rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). 15 years later, the grown Jyn (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner given a shot at freedom if she agrees to accompany Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on a mission to find her father. Believing Erso is working with Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry, whose face has been replaced by a CGI recreation of the late Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin in STAR WARS and died in 1994), Andor's actual orders, unbeknownst to Jyn, are to kill Erso. Assembling a ragtag motley crew of outcasts and miscreants--reconditioned droid K-2SO (motion-captured by Alan Tudyk), Zatoichi-like blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and defector Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)--they embark on their search for Galen Erso, with Andor having a change of heart once it's known that yes, Erso took a major role in designing the Death Star, but he included a flaw in its exhaust system to give it a major weakness and render it ultimately ineffective.

ROGUE ONE has a lot of shout-outs and callbacks to the rest of the franchise, whether it's appearances by Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) or Dr. Evazan (played here by Michael Smiley), who was famously bounced from the Mos Eisley Cantina in the 1977 film, or the decision to use outtake footage of actors Angus MacInnes and Drewe Henley (who died in early 2016), who played the Gold and Red leaders, respectively, in A NEW HOPE. Darth Vader (played by both Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous, and again voiced by James Earl Jones) appears, and there's a very brief walk-on for C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2. The epic battle between the Imperial Forces and the Rebel Alliance fleet recalls some of the best moments from the original film and Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (ZERO DARK THIRTY) put forth a concerted effort to match the look and style of the nearly 40-year-old franchise kickoff. But Vader's intro is weak, and 85-year-old Jones' legendary voice just doesn't have the rumbling power that it possessed in his younger years. Vader's big scene at the end is most likely a reshoot (perhaps that explains why two actors are credited with the role when the character only has two scenes), and I'd be willing to bet that the most crowd-pleasing elements of what's on display here were the work of Gilroy rather than Edwards--things that were added after it was determined that what Edwards was doing simply wasn't working (it's also worth noting that one of the credited editors is Tony Gilroy's brother John).

One thing that doesn't work in ROGUE ONE is the CGI recreation of Peter Cushing, done with the blessing of a trust overseen by his secretary and personal assistant. The face is convincingly done on a technical level, but the ruse is up the moment Tarkin starts talking and moving and it just doesn't look quite right. It's not a matter of it being done out of necessity, like when Oliver Reed died during the filming of GLADIATOR and Ridley Scott used outtakes to have his face CGI'd onto a double's body to finish a handful of remaining shots. 2004's SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW infamously used digitally manipulated footage of a young Laurence Oliver, who died in 1989, to function as the film's villain and it wasn't met with a favorable response then, so it's a mystery as to why a full-on CGI version of a long-deceased actor is being done here, unless the goal was just seeing if it could be done. Like almost all CGI, it comes close at times but generally misses the mark, primarily because we see too much of it. Tarkin doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the digital Cushing is seen enough that it's a distraction. We also get a CGI version of young Carrie Fisher for one scene as Princess Leia (played on set by Ingvild Deila), but at least it's brief enough to serve its purpose without becoming completely off-putting. At 134 minutes, ROGUE ONE is occasionally sluggish and could use some tightening, but it comes alive in the second half with the action and battle scenes. However, other than Jyn Erso, the characters aren't very fleshed out and we never feel the closeness to them that we did with Leia, Luke Skywalker, or Han Solo back in the day (I didn't even know Wen's character was named "Baze Malbus" until the closing credits). It does earn some points for ending on the most grim and downbeat note for the STAR WARS universe since THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but that sense of fatalism--this can't end any other way--was a given considering the circumstances under which Leia gets the Death Star plans. In the end, ROGUE ONE has its moments, but won't go down as anyone's favorite STAR WARS film, and while I like the idea of standalone STAR WARS films, this never manages to feel like much more than big-budget fan fiction.

Monday, December 19, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016); SHELLEY (2016); and BROTHER NATURE (2016)

(Ireland/UK - 2016)

Based on the 2009 novel by Dan Wells, which led to five books thus far centered on protagonist John Wayne Cleaver, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER is one of the best genre offerings of 2016, an eclectic mix of teen angst, detective story, and supernatural horror. John (Max Records, who's grown a bit since his first big role in 2009's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) lives in Clayton County in the rural outskirts of Minneapolis. It's a small industrial town where everyone knows everyone, and John is the weird, bullied outcast at school because his single mother April (Laura Fraser) owns and operates the funeral home which, whether it was nature or nurture, has had a profound impact on him. His therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) has diagnosed him as a sociopath, the school is concerned because he wrote a term paper about BTK serial killer Dennis Rader. John believes that he has the innate psychological capacity for serial killing, but he does things to keep his impulses in check. These include repeating a reassuring mantra, hanging out with his only friend Max (Raymond Brandstrom), because goofing off and playing video games makes him feel normal, and regularly chatting with and helping out friendly, elderly neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). John's fascination with death leads to his investigating a series of brutal murders that have rocked the small community. The victims are found dead, often with vital organs missing. Eating lunch in the town's greasy spoon, John spots Crowley talking to a drifter and offering him a ride. Following them on his bike at a distance, John witnesses Crowley slaughter and disembowel the drifter, then removing several of his organs and appearing to eat them. There's an oil like residue left at all of the murder scenes, and as John follows Crowley as he claims other victims over the next several weeks, thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse, as John, fighting his own sociopathic impulses and desperately trying to be a good person, leaves a note on Crowley's windshield reading "I know what you are," but he really has no idea exactly what his seemingly normal neighbor really is.

An Irish-British co-production, directed and co-written by Irish Billy O'Brien and shot in Minnesota, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER first and foremost establishes its starkly effective atmosphere with its gray color palette, overcast skies, and plumes of smoke and steam billowing from factories. Much like Italian filmmakers really nailing the seediness of NYC in their guerrilla-shot excursions of the early 1980s, O'Brien captures the midwestern dreariness in a way that only outsiders with different eyes sometimes can. With the lonely and isolated small-town atmosphere (John riding his bike around town accompanied by the song "On Your Side" by The Family Dog is maybe the best opening credits sequence of the year) and the teen angst despair, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER manages to evoke memories of everything from PHANTASM to DONNIE DARKO. But it's not all downbeat navel-gazing, as there's some darkly funny touches throughout, like John following Crowley and his wife (Dee Noah) to a Chinese buffet and running into his mom and Dr. Neblin on a date. Records is terrific as John and Lloyd takes the best role he's had in years and just runs with it. A thoughtful, insightful, smart, and often terrifying genre-bending mash-up, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER juggles a lot but keeps focus and emerges as an original piece of work that deserves all the cult movie glory it's going to get. (Unrated, 103 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Denmark/France/Sweden - 2016)

There's a vividly Scandinavian chill in this horror film that looks like what might've hypothetically happened had Ingmar Bergman made ROSEMARY'S BABY. Married, well-to-do couple Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) live in a very remote and isolated cabin, largely off the grid and living off the land. They raise their own chickens, get water from a well, and eschew the modern benefits of things like TVs, computers, and even electricity. This is a jarring adjustment to Elena (Cosmina Stratan), a Romanian immigrant and single mother who left her child with her parents while she headed to other parts of Europe to find work. They've hired Elena to do housework and farming chores, as Kasper is often away and Louise is recovering from surgery after her most recent miscarriage. Louise and Kasper are both pushing 40 and have endured multiple miscarriages, the most recent resulting in a hysterectomy. With a lot of down time and little in the way of leisure activities other than reading, Elena finds herself bonding with Louise, who then reveals the real intention they hired her: to be a surrogate mother and have the child she isn't capable of carrying. The financially secure couple offers Elena significant compensation and enough money to move her young son and her struggling parents to Denmark. Elena agrees, and for a while, everything is fine. But before long, Elena's morning sickness becomes something else. She grows increasingly ill, suffers from horrifying nightmares, starts behaving erratically, and is convinced something is wrong with the unborn child.

A plot synopsis makes SHELLEY sound a lot more formulaic and commercial than it really is. Director/co-writer Ali Abbasi ends up leaving the viewer with more questions than answers, with the unfolding story ambiguous almost to a fault. Strange occurrences are never explained and elements are introduced and never expanded upon. It's by design and it works in creating a sense of unease and menace in the way Elena is never really sure what's happening to her and what is real. Abbasi also has you questioning the characters in the way they'll lose and regain your sympathy: are Louise and Kasper fully aware of what's happening to Elena? Is it part of a plan? They even say they know they should call her family but put her health further in jeopardy by not doing so because they're afraid Elena's family will keep the baby. And just as we begin to worry for Elena, we see she's sneaking cigarettes during her daily walks through the surrounding forest (during one such walk, she's confronted by a wild dog who just stares at her, almost silently judging--we never see this dog again). It's never really clear what's going on in SHELLEY, but Abbasi excels at maintaining an ominous tone throughout, whether it's the stark atmosphere of the interiors that allow for a BARRY LYNDON sense of a natural lighting look thanks to the candles and the lanterns, the way he uses the light and the shadows (the scene where Louise finds a feral Elena cowering in the basement is terrifying) or the unsettling rumblings on the soundtrack. Similar in some ways to the profoundly disturbing PROXY but not quite as good, SHELLEY is a slow-burner that may frustrate those looking for a commercial horror movie, but for those whose fright-film tastes lean toward the arthouse side of things, it's worth a look. (Unrated, 92 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2016)

Another buried SNL/Lorne Michaels production to go along with last year's Colin Jost pet project STATEN ISLAND SUMMER, BROTHER NATURE has former SNL cast member Taran Killam (a veteran who abruptly departed the show prior to the current season) as Roger Fellner, the uptight, control-freak Chief of Staff to beloved Seattle congressman Frank McLaren (Giancarlo Esposito). When McLaren announces his intention to retire from politics, he tells Roger that he wants him to run for his seat. But first, Roger is off on vacation at a remote lake with his girlfriend Gwen (Gillian Jacobs) and her wacky, vulgar family. Roger intends to propose on the trip, but can't find any alone time thanks to Todd Dotchman (Bobby Moynihan), the loud, obnoxious boyfriend of Gwen's sister Margie (Sarah Burns). Growing up as the baby of the family with six older lesbian sisters, Todd is desperate for male bonding and comes on a little too strong, but with one mishap after another, Roger manages to alienate the entire family. He causes skunks to spray a cabin, rendering it uninhabitable; he high-fives Gwen's nephew who has a splinter in his palm; he walks in on Gwen's parents (Bill Pullman, Rita Wilson) having sex; he eats some pot-laced potato chips that Todd bought for the sisters' sciatica-suffering grandmother; he gets covered in ants and bitten all over after Todd uses Coke to clean up spilled ice cream near where Roger is sleeping; and he gets preoccupied with work when word leaks of McLaren's retirement and is forced to announce his candidacy live from the lake while covered in ant bites, which of course Todd intrudes upon and becomes a media sensation even though a humiliated Roger feels his career is ruined.

There's definitely a GREAT OUTDOORS and WHAT ABOUT BOB? influence on BROTHER NATURE, especially in the way Killam's increasingly shrieking performance draws from Richard Dreyfuss' masterful raging in WHAT ABOUT BOB?  BROTHER NATURE means well, but it's simply not very funny, with the script by Killam and current SNL writer/cast member Mikey Day (the guy behind "David S. Pumpkins") just too formulaic and filled with too many gags that land with a thud. Few of Roger's mishaps are amusing, and a little of Todd--with Moynihan in total Belushi/Blutarsky mode--goes a long way. Of course Todd is the main reason Roger's life falls apart, but everyone loves Todd and blames Roger, even though Todd a) accidentally throws the engagement ring into the lake, and b) usurps all the attention by proposing to Margie before Roger has a chance to propose to Gwen. We saw all of this in WHAT ABOUT BOB? so Killam and Day add other jokes that go nowhere, like Gwen's mom using the term "nut" but not knowing it means "to ejaculate," and Pullman's character telling a heartwarming story about being hospitalized for shoulder surgery and getting a handjob from his wife. A running gag about the Spin Doctors' hit "Two Princes" plays as lazy '90s nostalgia that leaves no doubt that you're getting a cameo by the band. There are a couple of funny bits--Todd grew up in Reno and can only sleep with a white noise machine programmed with casino sounds, and the ultimate fate of the beloved Gill the Fish is an absurdly over-the-top grossout gag that works (regular SNL viewers will be reminded of last season's "Farewell Mr. Bunting" filmed piece)--but two solid jokes can't carry an otherwise painfully unfunny 97 minutes. Even with ringers like Rachael Harris and WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER mastermind David Wain, along with SNL cast members Day, Kenan Thompson, and Aidy Bryant in supporting roles, BROTHER NATURE just whiffs too much to be even remotely successful. The film was directed by Matt Villines and Oz Rodriguez, the "Matt and Oz" team behind the SNL commercials and filmed bits. Sadly, Villines died in July 2016 at just 39 after a two-year battle with kidney cancer, two months before Paramount dumped this on 17 screens and VOD with no publicity at all. (R, 97 mins)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: SOLACE (2016)

(US/Switzerland - 2016)

Directed by Afonso Poyart. Written by Sean Bailey and Ted Griffin. Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Abbie Cornish, Marley Shelton, Xander Berkeley, Sharon Lawrence, Janine Turner, Matt Gerald, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Josh Close, Kenny Johnson, Luisa Moraes, Autumn Dial. (R, 101 mins)

Completed over three years ago and arriving at the end of 2016 as a Lionsgate VOD dumpjob sporting a 2014 copyright in the credits, SOLACE is the kind of high-concept serial killer thriller that was commonplace in multiplexes in the 1990s, at least until the barrage of CSI-inspired network TV procedurals stole their thunder. Even as recently as a few years ago, it would've seemed impossible to believe this kind of movie could be completely abandoned by its distributor (part of the reason for its delay was the bankruptcy of Relativity Media, who sold it to Lionsgate), especially with a cast headlined by several name actors. Even more surprising is that SOLACE's script, credited to producer Sean Bailey (TRON: LEGACY) and veteran screenwriter Ted Griffin (RAVENOUS, OCEAN'S ELEVEN, MATCHSTICK MEN), had been in development for so long that it was initially reworked by New Line Cinema to be a sequel to SE7EN for Morgan Freeman, titled--wait for it--EI8HT. The idea was flatly rejected by David Fincher, which put the whole project in turnaround. It was eventually dusted off and given further uncredited rewrites by James Vanderbilt (ZODIAC) and Peter Morgan (FROST/NIXON) before ending up in its current state as one of the silliest thrillers to come down the pike in some time.

After a string of murders where the victims are killed instantly by a long needle piercing their medulla oblongota, baffled FBI agent Joe Merriweather (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) resorts to a Hail Mary against the wishes of his skeptical partner Elizabeth Cowles (Abbie Cornish). He reaches out to retired colleague Dr. John Clancy (Anthony Hopkins), a former FBI consultant who's also a psychic who helped Merriweather crack a number of cases. Clancy has been living like a hermit since his daughter died of leukemia and his wife (Janine Turner) left him, but of course, he's drawn to the case because...it's what he does. All Clancy has to do is come into physical contact with a victim to deduce the circumstances surrounding their death, and he can even see an entire person's life--past and future--just by touching them. Why this guy isn't solving every crime everywhere is the real mystery. The agents always seem to be one step behind in their investigation and eventually, Clancy comes to realize that the killer, one Charles Ambrose (Colin Farrell), is a super-psychic whose powers surpass even his own. Clancy must devise a way to outwit Ambrose, whose targets are those who are terminally ill and don't yet realize it (a child with an undiagnosed brain tumor, a woman unaware that her adulterous, bisexual husband has given her HIV that will become AIDS), thereby justifying--in his eyes--his murders as acts of mercy to save the victims from future suffering.

SOLACE, which opens with an onscreen definition of the word "solace" because of course it does, plays like the pilot of what should be a CBS procedural about a psychic cop. It starts out intriguing enough, especially with the way that Hopkins relies on familiar elements of his Hannibal Lecter persona (variations on that inimitable "Claaaarice..." purr), only this time as a good guy. He does get to spit out one great "...getting all the way...to the F...B...I!" takedown of an incredulous Cowles, running through every sordid secret of her past and thus, finally convincing her that he's the real deal. But once director Afonso Poyart goes all in on the psychic battle of wits between Clancy and Ambrose, SOLACE just becomes one eye-rolling contrivance after another. The highlight of the film is the psychic car chase, with Cowles behind the wheel and Clancy riding shotgun, barking "Turn left now!" and "Turn right now!" and finally "Stop right here!" when Clancy senses the other car in the vicinity, so they proceed to just wait until the guy they're chasing passes them, to which Clancy barks "There! Go!" In at least his fourth dumb thriller to hit VOD this year (you almost certainly missed MISCONDUCT, BLACKWAY, and COLLIDE), Hopkins isn't even pretending to give a shit anymore, but even though the movies have become junk, he's one of the very few actors in his age group--he'll be 80 in 2017--who's still getting lead roles. Farrell doesn't turn up until a little past the one-hour mark, with his role requiring him to do little more than speak in ominous riddles with a wide-eyed glare (yes, he gets the obligatory "We're not so different, you and I" monologue) and strike occasional Jesus Christ poses in Clancy's psychic visions. SOLACE is an absolutely inessential movie but it's always watchable, even if it's only for a few unintended laughs. I mean, come on. That psychic car chase is like a live-action FAMILY GUY cutaway.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray, Special All-Seagal Edition: END OF A GUN (2016) and THE PERFECT WEAPON (2016)

(US - 2016)

Only Steven Seagal could star in seven movies in one year and still be the laziest actor alive while still finding time to secure Russian citizenship from his BFF Vladimir Putin. Two Seagals have been released on DVD/Blu-ray in the last week, along with a third (CONTRACT TO KILL) hitting VOD. END OF A GUN is a rarity for present-day Seagal in that, while he's doubled in some fight scenes by his more svelte stuntman being shot from the neck down as bad guys just walk into him and get knocked on their ass, his character is actually in the whole movie and doesn't take the customary mid-film sabbatical where the star vanishes for 25 minutes of screen time. While Seagal is capable of colorful supporting turns (he did a nice job in as a cranky loan shark in the indie GUTSHOT STRAIGHT), he pretty much stopped giving a shit years ago. END OF A GUN is another one of his Romania walk-throughs, mumbling his dialogue in a barely audible whisper and keepin' it real by wheezing terms like "ho"'s and "y'all muh-fuckaz." Seagal is Michael Decker, a undercover DEA agent in Paris (of course, the city is played by Bucharest with repeated time-lapse stock footage shots of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe) who saves stripper Lisa (Jade Ewen) from a beating by a shitbag club manager, who pulls a gun on Decker and promptly gets shot in the head for his trouble. A grateful Lisa lets Decker in on her plan to steal $2 million from the trunk of a car being stored in a parking garage. The car belongs to the dead club manager's criminal boss Gage (Florin Piersic Jr.), who works for Vargas, a Texas-based meth lord who Decker's been trying to bust for years (so why is he in Paris?). Decker finds himself falling for Lisa and is forced to take action when she's kidnapped by Gage and his goons, as Gage understandably wants his money back. I probably don't even need to point out that all of this will lead to a climactic shootout at an abandoned warehouse.

Director/co-writer Keoni Waxman has helmed some of the (relatively speaking) better latter-day Seagal vehicles, like 2010's surprisingly solid A DANGEROUS MAN. But Waxman seems to have given up trying to get anything out of his star. Seagal is totally sleepwalking through this, which is a shame, because Waxman approaches this not like a Seagal shoot 'em up with some bits of what passes for the star doing Aikido (though it ends up there), but rather, a heist thriller with distinctly Steven Soderbergh/OCEAN'S ELEVEN touches. There's a bouncy jazz score, multiple characters followed via split-screen, and even a couple of half-hearted attempts at the kind of non-linear editing that Soderbergh famously used in OUT OF SIGHT and THE LIMEY.  Waxman doesn't necessarily pull it off, mainly because he's not very gifted, the story's not that interesting, and his lead actor's range is somewhere between Mushmouth and Mannequin Challenge. But Waxman is at least trying to make something out of nothing, though perhaps he could explain why Vargas is always shot from behind and with a dubbed voice, deliberately hiding his face as if putting the pieces in play for a big reveal that never comes. Piersic plays a stock Eurotrash villain but he puts forth some effort, and the stunning Ewen is a gorgeous femme fatale, so everyone seems at least somewhat invested in this except the star who simply can't be bothered to wake up. Man, remember ABOVE THE LAW and OUT FOR JUSTICE? Where did that guy go? (R, 87 mins)

(US/UK - 2016)

Not to be confused with the 1989 martial arts actioner that served as the intro to Jeff Speakman's short-lived big-screen career, THE PERFECT WEAPON is set in the gloomy dystopia of America 2029. It's filled with rainy neon and sub-BLADE RUNNER cityscapes with the mandatory giant TV screens on the sides of skyscrapers. Here, Seagal is "The Director," the totalitarian overlord who rules this future world via surveillance and "conditioning" to control innate human weakness and emotion. Condor (Johnny Messner) is one of The Director's chief enforcers, a killing machine charged with taking out The Director's enemies, including a corrupt politico (Lance E. Nichols) plotting an insurrection. When Condor makes a heat-of-the-moment decision and chooses to not terminate a female witness to one of his hits, his handler Controller (Richard Tyson) is ordered by The Director to terminate him, as his innate humanity has made "reconditioning" impossible and he's simply outlived his usefulness. Going on the run after finding his presumed-dead-but-still-alive wife Nina (Sasha Jackson), Condor is branded a traitor to The Director and must deal with Controller as well as The Interrogator (an embalmed-looking Vernon Wells, best known as THE ROAD WARRIOR's Wez), the kind of sadist who puts out a cigar on Condor's chest ("That...was just foreplay!") and threatens to pay a visit to Nina while licking a razor blade and purring "I can be very persuasive."

Starting with Messner's wardrobe and shaven-headed appearance, it's obvious from the start that director/co-writer Titus Paar (a Swedish music video director who gives himself two supporting roles and is credited with "harsh vocals" on the metalcore closing credits tune) has fashioned THE PERFECT WEAPON as a blatant and very tardy HITMAN ripoff fused with every bleak future dystopia cliche you can imagine. Seagal, also an executive producer, puts in a few sporadic appearances, barely awake, visibly bored, mumbling nonsense and interacting with his co-stars as little as possible. The storyline is muddled and there's about five endings, and that's before a ridiculous last-shot twist that rather presumptuously leaves the door open for a sequel. Filled with endlessly recycled genre tropes, crummy CGI, and laughable dialogue (Controller, to The Interrogator, as he hold a razor blade to Condor's junk: "I won't have you slicing off his manhood for your own amusement!"), THE PERFECT WEAPON is cheap, lazy, and doesn't even try. In other words, it's everything you expect from 2016 Steven Seagal. (Unrated, 87 mins)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In Theaters: MISS SLOANE (2016)

(France/US/UK - 2016)

Directed by John Madden. Written by Jonathan Perera. Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston, Jake Lacy, Christine Baranski, David Wilson Barnes, Chuck Shamata, Dylan Baker, Ennis Esmer, Raoul Bhaneja, Douglas Smith, Meghann Fahy, Lucy Owen, Michael Cram, Joe Pingue. (R, 132 mins)

A sort-of MICHAEL CLAYTON take on the gun control lobby, MISS SLOANE is fairly transparent end-of-the-year awards bait that works more often than it doesn't and serves as a reminder that movies for grown-ups used to not be such a rare commodity. The crammed story perhaps bites off more than it can chew yet still seems a little long running past the two-hour mark, and frequently seems like it could've been better served as an HBO or FX series. It also can't help but feel like Aaron Sorkin fan fiction, with debuting screenwriter Jonathan Perera slavishly devoted to the Sorkin style, from every line of dialogue sounding like an over-rehearsed proclamation to the presence of NEWSROOM co-stars Sam Waterston and Alison Pill to dubiously silly character names, though in fairness to Perera, neither "Rodolfo Schmidt" nor "Esme Manucharian" seem quite as improbable as Olivia Munn as THE NEWSROOM's chief financial reporter "Sloan Sabbith," though a point is made of Schmidt's middle name being "Vittorio." Though dealing with a topical subject matter, director John Madden (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL) gives MISS SLOANE  a '70s aesthetic in its matter-of-fact, Alan J. Pakula-esque presentation, right down to a clandestine meeting in a dimly-lit Washington, D.C. parking garage that's straight out of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain in icy and driven ZERO DARK THIRTY mode) is a top shark for a powerful D.C. lobbying firm run by George Dupont (Waterston). Dupont wants her to work with Bob Sandford (Chuck Shamata), a representative from an NRA-type organization looking to bring women aboard the pro-gun movement. Elizabeth derisively dismisses the idea, with everyone wrongfully assuming she lost a loved one in a mass shooting. Her rationale is simple: she has the skills and the power plays to sell anything on Capitol Hill, but pushing to make gun access easier is where she draws the line and grows a conscience. She quits Dupont's firm in protest and joins a smaller outfit owned by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that's backing a mandatory background check bill that Dupont and his new top gun Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) are working to help Sandford shut down. Elizabeth pulls out every trick in the book, putting the cause before all else, including outing colleague Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as a survivor of a high school massacre 20 years ago, something Esme has kept buried from everyone except Schmidt. As Elizabeth's former colleagues--Dupont, Connors, and Jane Molloy (Pill)--plot her downfall with a forgotten incident in her past involving paying for a congressman's overseas trip as part of a lobby for palm oil tariffs (way too much time spent on that scintillating subject), Miss Sloane sets her own plan in motion that exemplifies her core philosophy: play your trump card right after they play theirs and make sure you surprise them.

Chastain commits to the character even as Perera's script has her go through all the predictable arcs. We learn little about Miss Sloane as a person other than she's a loner who doesn't relate to people, thinks only of her work, abuses prescription pills, and frequently enlists the services of male escorts when she needs a release or to "fantasize about the life I didn't want." When her usual appointment skips town, she meets his replacement Forde (Jake Lacy), and it's all business until he starts to sense real feelings in her, and she of course shuts down and sends him away, her illusion of emotionless isolation shattered. You see moments like this coming, and others like the desk-clearing fit of rage when her back's against the wall, the opposition is beating her, and she's questioning her entire career. Told mostly in a series of flashbacks as Elizabeth is testifying before a Congressional hearing overseen by a vindictive senator (John Lithgow) and not following her attorney's (David Wilson Barnes) advice and invoking the Fifth, MISS SLOANE sometimes suffers from its characters giving speeches in lieu of having actual, real-life conversations, but it does a mostly commendable job of replicating an "issues" movie from back in the day, fused with the least grating tendencies of its obvious inspiration in Aaron Sorkin. Madden and Perera succeed in making it less about taking sides on the gun issue and more about the characters while keeping the preachy, hectoring sanctimony (like, everything that ever came out of the mouth of Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy on THE NEWSROOM) that's often Sorkin's Achilles heel, to a minimum.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Retro Review: BIGGLES (1986)

(UK - 1986; US release 1988)

Directed by John Hough. Written by John Groves and Kent Walwin. Cast: Neil Dickson, Alex Hyde-White, Peter Cushing, Fiona Hutchison, Marcus Gilbert, William Hootkins, Alan Polonsky, Francesca Gonshaw, Michael Siberry, James Saxon, Daniel Flynn. (PG, 93 mins)

Based on Captain W.E. Johns' long-running series of Biggles adventures for young readers, published from 1932 until several years after Johns' death in 1968, BIGGLES had a strong foundation in British pop culture, even though the books--nearly 100 altogether--were largely unknown in the US. Focusing on the ongoing adventures of WWI fighter pilot James "Biggles" Bigglesworth, the books moved ahead with the times (Biggles would later fight in WWII, and so on), and remained popular throughout its publishing run. There was a short-lived British TV series in 1960, but wasn't until the mid-1980s until someone attempted a movie adaptation and by then, Biggles had grown passe and British youth had moved on. To make it more commercially appealing to the savvy, video-game kids of the '80s, the producers of BIGGLES decided to add sci-fi and time-traveling to the script since BACK TO THE FUTURE was a huge hit at the time. Now, before we get to Biggles himself, we're introduced to this film's Marty McFly in Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), a rising TV-dinner executive in NYC who's repeatedly sucked back in time to WWI France, where he keeps meeting Biggles (Neil Dickson). Ferguson is informed by elderly Col. Raymond (Peter Cushing), who was Biggles' commanding officer in the war, that he and Biggles are "time twins," with one summoned through holes in time to help when the other is in life-threatening danger. Ferguson eventually travels to London to be instructed in the ways of time travel by Raymond, and goes back to 1917 to accompany Biggles and his pals Algy (Michael Sibbery), Bertie (James Saxon), and Ginger (Daniel Flynn) on their mission to thwart evil German pilot and recurring Biggles villain Eric Van Stalhein (Marcus Gilbert), who has created a lethal sound weapon whose intensity is such that it can burn and melt flesh.

Though competently made and inoffensively watchable, BIGGLES is an almost total misfire. It's never able to overcome the black hole at the center that is Hyde-White's bland, boring shrug of a performance. Ferguson is a passive observer throughout the film, so much so that the time travel element is completely superfluous and comes off as exactly what it is: an obvious, desperate attempt to collect some BACK TO THE FUTURE table scraps. Ferguson never really serves a purpose once he's back in 1917 with Biggles other than functioning as anachronistic comic relief, such as when he hurls an electric razor at some German soldiers and they think it's a bomb. And humor's really the only reason for Biggles to eventually go through a hole in time and end up in present-day London, where he flies a high-tech helicopter back through to 1917 and promptly freaks everyone out with what they call a "flying windmill." British kids weren't reading Biggles adventures by 1986 anymore and the sci-fi and time travel elements come off as cynical ploys to cash in on a recognizable brand name. Someone like Terry Gilliam probably could've made a fun BIGGLES that was true to the stories, or at the very least, made the time-travel angle work, but John Hough, a journeyman who's made some revered cult classics over his career (TWINS OF EVIL, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY), is in total yes-man, director-for-hire mode here. It looks pretty cheap, too, with some stock footage shots of NYC followed by an obvious London backlot that looks even less convincing than the NYC neighborhood of DEATH WISH 3, and the "lightning bolt" time travel visual effects are rudimentary at best. While Hyde-White is a complete blank as Ferguson, Dickson, who went on to a busy career in ADR and video game voice work, has some fun as Biggles, and the iconic Cushing, in what would prove to be his final film appearance (he retired from acting after BIGGLES and died in 1994), lends some authoritarian gravitas and genuine emotion to his few sporadic appearances as Raymond.

The film kicks off in the most 1986 way imaginable, with a rarity in the theme song "Do You Want To Be a Hero?" by then-Yes frontman Jon Anderson. There's also contributions from Deep Purple ("Knocking at Your Back Door") and Motley Crue ("Knock 'Em Dead Kid"), and the closing credits song "No Turning Back" ended up being the entire output of The Immortals, a one-off supergroup assembled just for the soundtrack, featuring Queen bassist John Deacon and occasional Alan Parsons Project vocalist Lenny Zakatek. BIGGLES tries to be a hip adventure epic for '80s audiences, but the dated source material just doesn't gel with the hard rock, special effects presentation. It was also another in a brief craze of wartime aviation adventure stories being made at the time: in addition to BIGGLES, there was SKY BANDITS and the John Hargreaves-starring SKY PIRATES, all of which bombed at the box office in 1986. Even boasting a tie-in video game, BIGGLES was an expensive flop in its native UK and it took two years before the short-lived New Century/Vista dumped it in a few US theaters with no publicity at all in early 1988. Running 108 minutes in the UK, the film was cut down to 93 and rechristened BIGGLES: ADVENTURES IN TIME for America, since no one in the States knew anything about the Biggles stories. Upon a cursory mention, the goofy name "Biggles" might've even led people to think it was another GREMLINS knockoff along the lines of GHOULIES and MUNCHIES. While it never really comes together as far as purpose and storytelling are concerned, BIGGLES does earn a little cred for some spectacular aerial sequences and some effective use of the ruins of the Beckton Gasworks, a location memorably featured as Hue City in the second half of Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET. BIGGLES was recently rescued from obscurity by Kino Lorber, who released it on Blu-ray in its 93-minute American cut (the packaging erroneously lists it as the 108-minute version), with new interviews with Dickson and Hyde-White, both of whom have fond memories of the shoot and working with the legendary Cushing, even if the movie wasn't a success. The genre-hopping Hough, who enjoyed a brief tenure in the late '70s and early '80s as a go-to guy for Disney live action (he directed ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, and THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS), next helmed a pair of 1988 horror films--the underrated AMERICAN GOTHIC and the dismal HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE--before mainly focusing on TV movies. Now 76 and apparently retired, he hasn't directed since the low-budget 2002 Patsy Kensit horror movie HELL'S GATE.