Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In Theaters: GET OUT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lil Rel Howery, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander, Trey Burvant. (R, 104 mins)

GET OUT is getting the best reviews of any 2017 release thus far, and when a genre film shows any degree of insight and razor-sharp social commentary, it's easy to overrate it. But GET OUT is one of the best and smartest fright flicks to come along in a while--caustic, uncomfortable, and refusing to pull punches, but remembering to be entertaining and witty at the same time. It deftly balances the majority of its time being genuinely unnerving but also with more than its share of funny moments, some engineered to make you laugh out loud and others designed to make you uneasy. The directing debut of KEY AND PEELE's Jordan Peele, who also scripted, GET OUT stars Daniel Kaluuya (SICARIO and the "Fifteen Million Merits" episode of BLACK MIRROR) as Chris Washington, a 26-year-old photographer who's about to go away for the weekend to meet the parents of Rose Armitage (GIRLS' Allison Willliams), his girlfriend of four months. He's a bit nervous--he's black, she's white, and she hasn't told them--but she assures him that they won't have a problem with him. The ride there includes a collision with a deer and an unpleasant run-in with a local cop (Chris is quick to comply, realizing it doesn't take much for a situation to escalate from zero to Trayvon Martin), but once at the estate of the wealthy Armitages, things are pleasant if awkward. Rose's mom Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist who wants to hypnotize Chris to help him quit smoking, and her neurologist dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) means well but tries too hard to ingratiate himself, with everything from repeatedly calling Chris "My man," to numerous mentions that he "would've voted for Obama a third time," and asking how long Chris and Rose's "thaaang" has been going on.

Chris has a strange dinner conversation with Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) where Jeremy tells him he has the physique to be a monster MMA fighter. He's also taken aback by the presence of two oddly-behaving black employees--groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel)--who aren't very good at conversation and have dead, vacant stares in their eyes. Dean says he hired them to help out when his parents were ailing and after they died, he didn't have the heart to let them go ("I know how it looks," Dean says). The Armitages hold a party for all of their wealthy and almost across-the-board elderly friends, all of whom try too hard to appeal to Chris, whether it's feeling his biceps, mentioning how much they like Tiger Woods, or making winking assumptions about how well-endowed he must be. Chris seems to be used to well-intentioned whites trying too hard but something isn't sitting well with him. He believes Missy hypnotized him without his knowledge and he recognizes Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), the young black companion of a 30-years-older white woman, as Andre, an old acquaintance of a friend of a friend who went missing six months ago. Chris takes a pic of him to send to his dog-sitting buddy Rod (a scene-stealing Lil Rel Howell) but he forgets to turn off the flash and it causes a brief seizure where Logan, who dresses like an old man and has no idea how to fist-bump, snaps out of his stupor and seems to briefly take on another personality until he's attended to by Missy. Rod theorizes that "rich white people are brainwashing brothers into becoming sex slaves," and while Chris laughs it off, his paranoia grows more intense by the minute and he can't ignore his gut feeling that something is very wrong here.

Of course, something is wrong but GET OUT doesn't quite go in the direction the trailers and your initial assumptions might indicate. It invokes a few classics from the 1970s, from THE WICKER MAN to MESSIAH OF EVIL and one in particular that's too much of a spoiler to mention. Despite its modern themes, it actually feels like a 1970s movie in both its working in of social issues and the emphasis on building suspense instead of focusing on gore and cheap jump scares (though a couple of jump scares here work quite well). In the end, GET OUT ends up being more about class division than racial injustice, a scathing rebuke not just of white privilege but also the entitlement of the wealthy for whom money--and people--are no object. No one is immune from criticism--even Chris is shown time and again to be a pushover and someone who doesn't want to rock the boat. Peele's script piles on the unease and the dread until it's almost suffocating, broken up by Rod's comic relief that's actually a welcome breather from the choking tension (Rod's Jeffrey Dahmer rant is one for the ages). Performances are pitch perfect across the board, whether it's Whitford's vaguely passive-aggressive glad-handing as Dean or Gabriel's often heartbreaking turn as Georgina, whose constant smile always seems a little too forced, masking a sadness that isn't lost on Chris. Alternately frightening, funny, and thought-provoking, with the kind of crowd-pleasing finale that horror movies used to know how to deliver, GET OUT isn't a quite an instant classic, but it's one of the stronger genre offerings of late, and one that establishes Peele, already a respected comedian and satirist, as a serious filmmaker to watch.

Monday, February 27, 2017


(UK - 2016; US release 2017)

Directed by Colm McCarthy. Written by Mike Carey. Cast: Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Sennia Nanua, Anamaria Marinca, Fisayo Akinade, Anthony Welsh, Dominique Tipper. (R, 111 mins)

Based on the 2014 novel and scripted by its author M.R. Carey, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is one of the more thoughtful and intelligent offerings in the overcrowded zombie genre, approaching its subject from a unique perspective and benefiting from refreshingly unpredictable and very human character arcs. Set in an apocalyptic, near-future England, the film opens in a bunker at a military installation where restrained children are kept in maximum security cells before being taken to their lessons restrained in wheelchairs. The soldiers point guns at them at all times and don't engage in conversation, even though young Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is polite, articulate, and eager to please. Outside the gates of the base, hordes of zombies, or "hungries," linger about, ferociously seeking any kind of food and turned into mindless flesh-eaters by a deadly fungal virus that spread across the globe. The children being kept at the base are second generation "hungries" who transformed in utero and burrowed out of their mothers' wombs after devouring their insides. The virus is transmitted through bites and body fluids, but the second generation hungries--the children--still display the capacity for humanity. They're able to talk and learn and their feral side only comes out when they're hungry (they're fed live worms) and catch the scent of a human. The soldiers and the others running the base cover themselves in a blocker gel that stifles their scent, but that still doesn't provide enough security for Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) who simply regards them as inhuman hungries and doesn't care about their more human side seen by their teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Helen is in the minority with her views on attempting to treat the second generation hungries like children, especially when it comes to Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), the research scientist working on a vaccine for the virus, which often involves killing and dissecting the young hungries. "They're children!" Helen argues, with Caldwell countering "They present as children!"

Caldwell is about to vivisect Melanie when Helen intervenes and the marauding hungries outside tear down the barrier and overtake the base. Almost everyone is slaughtered, with Caldwell, Parks, Helen, Private Kieran (Fisayo Akinade), and Melanie getting away, Melanie kept on top of the transport vehicle, restrained and wearing a clear Hannibal Lecter-type muzzle shield. It's here that THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS settles into a more comparatively routine, sprinting undead 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER situation, with the small band of survivors making their way across the apocalyptic landscape that was once England (aerial views were shot by drones flown over the abandoned Chernobyl town of Pripyat), though Carey and veteran British TV director Colm McCarthy (RIPPER STREET, PEAKY BLINDERS) offer enough unique elements to keep things from feeling too rote and stale. The relationship that develops between Melanie and the others is unexpected, with even the hard-bitten Parks begrudgingly seeing the girl's human side after she does numerous things to help them, such as scouting paths to safe places since the hungries will leave her alone. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS gets a lot from an often-remarkable debut performance from young Nanua. She's terrifying when her feral instincts take over and quite touching in fleeting instances where she's allowed to be a kid (Melanie's utter joy in putting on a pair of sneakers and communicating with Parks over a walkie-talkie is very nicely played by Nanua). Even Close's ostensible antagonist displays signs of empathy as their journey goes on, no matter how heartlessly matter-of-fact she is at times (Close spitting out "Was that cathartic?" when Caldwell is cracked across the face by Helen is a highlight). It's hard to do anything original with the zombie genre at this point, and indeed, a lot of the scenes play like any random episode of THE WALKING DEAD. But with a quartet of strong performances at its core (not to mention the sight of Glenn Close killing zombies) and some original ideas in its foundation as well its ultimate revelation, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS manages to separate itself from the rest of the horde.

Saturday, February 25, 2017


(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Macon Blair. Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Jane Levy, Devon Graye, Christine Woods, Robert Longstreet, Gary Anthony Williams, Jason Manuel Olazabal, Derek Mears, Myron Natwick, Lee Eddy, Matt Orduna, Macon Blair. (Unrated, 97 mins)

"Everyone is an asshole" - Ruth Kimke

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the Netflix pickup I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE (not to be confused with  I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER or Netflix's I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE) is the directing debut of actor Macon Blair, who should be familiar to fans of the acclaimed Jeremy Saulnier films BLUE RUIN (2014) and GREEN ROOM (2016). Blair (the driven but hapless "hero" of BLUE RUIN and the incompetent manager of the skinhead venue in GREEN ROOM) doesn't deviate too far from the formula of his buddy Saulnier, and ANYMORE certainly belongs in that burgeoning indie subgenre depicting the seedy underbelly of rural and back roads America with Saulnier's films and Zeke & Simon Hawkins' flawed but interesting BAD TURN WORSE (2014). Blair's film takes more of a Coen Bros. approach, especially in the early-going, which is filled with dark humor and occasional bits of cringe comedy to around the midpoint, at which time things get more serious and the humor takes on a decidedly macabre bent that wouldn't be out of place in BLOOD SIMPLE and FARGO. Blair wears his love of the Coen Bros. on his sleeve (even the set-up has a shaggy dog-like BIG LEBOWSKI feel to it), so while it doesn't win many points for originality, it has something to say about these troubling times and Blair pulls it off with enough panache that it works beautifully.

Depressed, lonely nurse's assistant Ruth Kimke (a perfectly cast Melanie Lynskey) spends her time moping around the house and reading fantasy novels. She's growing increasingly agitated by the boorish behavior of others, whether it's a huge pickup truck obnoxiously "rolling coal" at a red light, the same neighborhood dog shitting in her yard, people being inconsiderate to others in stores, guys who say "Deez Nuts," and a total stranger (Blair in a cameo) sidling up to her at a bar and spoiling a huge plot twist that's much further into the book she's sitting there reading. Things just get worse when she gets home from work and finds her house has been burglarized, with her laptop, her prescriptions, and her late grandmother's silver dinnerware missing, And with that, Ruth reaches her breaking point, telling her friend Angie (Lee Eddy) that she's tired of "the way people treat each other...they're disgusting and it's all 'mine mine and fuck you,'" adding "Everyone is an asshole." Fed up with lack of interest by the cop assigned to her case, one Det. William Bendix (Gary Anthony Williams), she manages to track down her laptop and cajoles her eccentric neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood)--a would-be martial arts doofus with a rat-tail and a Saxon shirt who's introduced jamming to Pentagram's "Forever My Queen"--into coming along as backup on a mission to retrieve it. But the perps bought it from a flea market, where the skeezy owner Killer Sills (Myron Natwick) has been buying stolen merchandise from Christian Rumack (Devon Graye), a bratty fuck-up from a rich family who's one of a trio of small-time, lowlife criminals that includes ex-con Marshall (Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) and Dez (Jane Levy of DON'T BREATHE).

Online sleuthing and some good guesswork lead them to the home of Christian's wealthy, obnoxious father Chris Sr. (Robert Longstreet), who's more or less written off his son and refuses to take any responsibility for the shitbag he's become. Marshall has noticed Ruth and Tony following them around and after one major character makes an abrupt and shocking exit, all parties converge at the elder Rumack's house for one of the most inspired and audaciously over-the-top showdowns that the Coen Bros. never concocted, mixing it up with guns, knives, ninja stars, and projectile vomiting. Once it becomes apparent that Ruth and Tony are storming into a world with which they're not prepared to deal, there's some initial trepidation on the part of the viewer over the abrupt shift in tone, but Blair quickly regains control and smooths over the rough spots in the transition. He finds a perfect balance between the more dark-humored elements of Ruth's situation--such as her growing misanthropy and a quest for her belongings not unlike the Dude's pursuit of his peed-on rug in THE BIG LEBOWSKI--and the genuine sense of fear and danger that surrounds Ruth and Tony as they keep tangling with Marshall, whether intentionally or unintentionally. As good as it is, I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE wouldn't work nearly as well as it does were it not for the pitch-perfect performance by Lynskey, who impressed over 20 years ago with her debut in  Peter Jackson's 1994 film HEAVENLY CREATURES and here creates a character that's every bit as memorable as her Pauline Parker from that film. Lynskey conveys the frustration, the anger, and the sadness in her character while never overdoing it, and while we never get Ruth's backstory, it's not really needed. She's getting by and she finds fleeting enjoyment in little things, but she's a loner who leads a solitary life and feels isolated from a world that she no longer understands. She gets able support from Wood, who gets to play the more goofy sidekick character but, like his co-star, underplays it for the most part. Where Ruth is a mordant, sad sack Dude, Tony is a more stoical but just as furious Walter Sobchak, again drawing comparisons to THE BIG LEBOWSKI and the Coens, albeit in a more low-key fashion (also worth mentioning is HELLO LADIES' Christine Woods, who steals all of her scenes as Chris Sr's booze-swilling second wife). A funny, twisted, and suspenseful film that goes in some genuinely unpredictable directions, I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE is an impressive debut for Blair, and a perfect showcase for the underrated Lynskey.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Retro Review: WILD BEASTS (1984)

(Italy - 1984; US release 1985)

Written and directed by Franco E. Prosperi. Cast: Lorraine De Selle, John Aldrich (Tony DeLeo), Ugo Bologna, Louisa Lloyd, John Stacy, Enzo Pizzu, Monica Nickel, Stefania Pinna, Frederico Volocia, Leslie Thomas. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Back in the day, Italian exploitation filmmakers were always quick to pounce on a Hollywood trend and milk it for all it was worth. Whether it was the torrent of exorcism movies that spewed forth following THE EXORCIST, the endless zombie gutmunchers that came after DAWN OF THE DEAD, the truckload of post-nukes after MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the countless barbarian adventures that resulted from CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the Italians were the undisputed kings of the shameless ripoff. Though you could go back as far as FROGS and NIGHT OF THE LEPUS from 1972, the late 1970s saw a brief ecological, "nature-run-amok" craze with films like 1976's THE FOOD OF THE GODS, 1977's DAY OF THE ANIMALS, 1977's KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, 1978's THE SWARM, and 1979's PROPHECY, among many others.There were a few stragglers over the years, like three different rat movies coming out from 1982-83 with DEADLY EYES, OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, and the final segment of the anthology film NIGHTMARES, but generally the fad, arguably popularized by JAWS in 1975, quickly passed. The Italians were fashionably late to the party when it came to the nature-run-amok subgenre. 1982 saw the release of Enzo G. Castellari's JAWS ripoff GREAT WHITE and the Ovidio G. Assonitis-produced PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, which debuting director and future King of the World James Cameron still insists is "the greatest flying piranha movie ever made," and in 1984, Bruno Mattei directed the incredible RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, a bizarre fusion of post-nuke and nature-runs-amok made unforgettable by one of the most ridiculous closing shots in all of Italian exploitation. 1984 also gave us WILD BEASTS, directed by Franco E. Prosperi, one of two Franco Prosperis known to Italian exploitation enthusiasts. One was a journeyman genre-hopper (MEET HIM AND DIE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH), while the WILD BEASTS Prosperi, along with Gualtiero Jacopetti, was one of the leading figures in the "Mondo" documentary scene that began with 1963's MONDO CANE. Prosperi and Jacopetti made several Mondo films over the next decade, ending with 1971's revolting ADDIO ZIO TOM, released in the US as FAREWELL, UNCLE TOM, an exploitative, shock value re-enactment of the slave trade in which the pair essentially function as the early 1970s drive-in equivalent of trolls in a comments section.

Other than 1975's MONDO CANDIDO, a Mondo spoof inspired by Voltaire's Candide that he co-directed with Jacopetti, WILD BEASTS remains this Franco Prosperi's only foray into both the horror genre and non-Mondo-related narrative. It's also the final work to date for the 88-year-old filmmaker, who's still with us and present for an interview on Severin's new Blu-ray release of the film. Though a narrative work of fiction, Prosperi uses his experience as a documentary filmmaker throughout WILD BEASTS, a ludicrous story of PCP-contaminated industrial waste polluting the water supply of "a northern European city" that's obviously Frankfurt judging from all the Frankfurt signs visible throughout. The contamination results in rapidly escalating aggression in animals, from a seeing-eye dog attacking a blind man to rats overtaking a parked car and devouring the canoodling couple inside to the animals in the zoo breaking out of their cages and pens and going on a city-wide rampage. The zoo's leading veterinarian Dr. Rupert Berner (Tony DeLeo, billed as "John Aldrich," and a discomforting mix of Christopher McDonald and Yanni) teams with constantly-snacking detective Braun (Ugo Bologna), following the trail of carnage as enraged animals run rampant throughout the city. There's a cheetah chasing down a driver (after she almost drives into them, Berner exclaims "She's not crazy! She's being chased by a cheetah!"), cows stampeding through an arcade, and elephants running through the streets, causing cars to pile up or go airborne, crashing into a places like a lamp and chandelier store in scenes of almost Blake Edwardsian destruction before they overtake an airport runway and cause a plane to crash (don't ask). Meanwhile, Berner's journalist girlfriend Laura Schwarz (CANNIBAL FEROX's Lorraine De Selle) is desperately trying to get to her daughter Suzy (Louisa Lloyd), who's trapped at dance class with other kids as a hungry polar bear wanders the halls.

Prosperi fumbles a bit in the middle with some pacing issues that a more experienced genre figure could've alleviated, but WILD BEASTS is an overall entertaining bit of batshit exploitation that doesn't skimp on the gore or other WTF? factors. The relationship between workaholic, absent mother Laura and sarcastic, self-reliant daughter Suzy has some passive-aggressive dysfunction that could use more exploration, and Lloyd is up there with Paige Conner in THE VISITOR, Veronica Zinny in MACABRE, the children in BEYOND THE DOOR, and Nicoletta Elmi in anything as one of the strangest and most off-putting kids in any Italian horror movie. And I haven't even mentioned the bizarre shift in the climax when things take a decidedly WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?-esque turn. Even with some staged sequences in the Mondo films, Prosperi is still a documentarian at heart and that's evident throughout WILD BEASTS in his sometimes distracting interest in extended shots of a newspaper going to press, firefighters and emergency responders on the job, animals attacking one another, and other mayhem presented in stock footage. He also captures some shots of the Frankfurt underbelly, from a trash-strewn street with a prominent Burger King bag to some CHRISTIANE F-inspired images of used needles along the steps exiting the Frankfurt U-Bahn.

Prosperi also careens into the arguably irresponsible, insisting on putting his actors in the same shots as dangerous animals (the reason non-acting circus performer DeLeo got the lead role--he had experience working with these animals and this remains his only film) or having streets closed off to accommodate elephants and bears running around (the cheetah vs. car sequence was actually shot in Johannesburg, South Africa). This commitment to realism is especially alarming late in the film when two child actors are clearly in the same shot as the polar bear chasing them down a school hallway. Prosperi kept a team of animal wranglers with tranquilizer guns and darts just out of camera view throughout shooting to prevent WILD BEASTS from becoming the second coming of ROAR, and it would seem that some of the animals might be slightly sedated at times (that polar bear in the school is moving, but he doesn't look like he's at 100%), but it's still representative of the kind of jaw-dropping risk-taking that no producer would sign off on today. Severin's new Blu-ray is packed with extras, including interviews with a still-vibrant Prosperi (who retired from directing after this film), an affable DeLeo, and editor Mario Morra. It's a nice package for such a relatively obscure film that was on the shelf of every video store in America back in the '80s (with a Lightning Video box that erroneously credited score composer Daniele Patucchi as the director), but has fallen off the radar in the decades since. It's a little clunky at times and the story calls for a Ruggero Deodato or an Umberto Lenzi to keep it focused, but flaws and all, it's Prosperi's, for better or worse, devotion to realism and his willingness to put his actors in harm's way that gives WILD BEASTS its cult appeal.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

In Theaters: THE GREAT WALL (2016)

(US/China - 2016; US release 2017)

Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Cast: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Hanyu, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Lin Gengxin, Junkai Wang, Zheng Kai, Xuan Huang, Pilou Asbaek, Yiu Xintian, Liu Qiong. (PG-13, 103 mins)

The prolific Zhang Yimou is arguably the most famous figure in the Chinese film industry, his filmography a mix of serious human drama (his numerous collaborations with Gong Li, the Meryl Streep of China, include 1987's RED SORGHUM, 1990's JU DOU, 1991's RAISE THE RED LANTERN, 1994's TO LIVE, and 1995's SHANGHAI TRIAD) and some of the best post-CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON wuxia epics like 2002's HERO, 2004's HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and 2007's CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. He was also commissioned to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and that experience was a major influence on his latest film THE GREAT WALL, which already became a blockbuster in Asia over the 2016 holiday season and is just now being released stateside. An epic $150 million co-production with Universal and Legendary that currently ranks as the most expensive Chinese film ever made, it doesn't represent the serious and "important" side of Zhang, but offers briskly-paced entertainment and stunning eye candy. It's filled with bright colors, large-scale and often jawdropping action sequences, and it allows Zhang to have a lot of fun with 3-D as arrows, swords, axes, flaming cannonballs and CGI monsters fly off the screen and into your face, just as 3-D should.

It also offers the jarring sight of Matt Damon in a medieval Asian period epic set in the 11th century, and his involvement in the film has generated some controversy over potential "whitewashing." Considering the film is pure fantasy inspired by a legend of the Great Wall of China, the "white savior" notion seems absurd to bring up in this context and only seems to be a thorn in the side of those looking for something to find offensive. Damon is William, a soldier of fortune who, along with his cohort Tovar (Pedro Pascal, memorable as Oberyn Martell on GAME OF THRONES), are in search of black powder when they're attacked by a creature in the night that takes a tumble down a cliff after William hacks off its reptilian, claw-like appendage. They're captured by soldiers of The Nameless Order, a fortress along the Great Wall overseen by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu). One of Shao's underlings, Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), and top adviser Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) speak English, and after some initial misgivings, Wang concludes they're telling the truth about the attack. Shao's forces know of the creatures: the Nameless Order is a secret sect devoted to preparing and training to repel the onslaught of the Tao Tei--reptilian, lizard-like alien monsters that rise every 60 years. Shao has no intention of ever letting them leave, but when William and Tovar prove themselves adept with weaponry, they join in the fight against the Tao Tei, who attack in a horde as far as the eye can see, all under the radar-like control of their "queen."

The CGI has its dodgy moments, but the visual effects are mostly top-notch, with an appropriate level of gross-out digital splatter involving the green-blooded Tao Tei. Zhang seems more concerned with the spectacular presentation of the military pageantry, from the five color-coordinated factions of the Nameless Order and their various inspired weapons to some innovative battle sequences with female bungee jumpers diving off bows perched off the fortress to man-powered, oscillating rotor blades that emerge from the Great Wall to slice and dice Tao Tei as they ascend the wall. Damon's William is an active participant later on, but mostly he spends his time marveling at the Nameless Order's brilliant display of battle might and making goo-goo eyes at Lin Mae while never really nailing down whatever accent he's trying to use. It's a wildly inconsistent Irish brogue that vacillates between the more plausible Pierce Brosnan/Brendan Gleeson side of things but occasionally veers off into full-on, "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" QUIET MAN territory.

It doesn't help the stalled romance subplot that Damon has more chemistry with Pascal than with Jing. The script--credited to Damon's BOURNE buddy Tony Gilroy and NARCOS creators Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, with Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and World War Z author Max Brooks sharing story credit based on a earlier draft that wasn't used--seems to be bringing William and Lin Mae together but it never happens, while there's some funny banter and ballbusting between William and Tovar (Tovar: "You think they'll hang us now?" William: "I could use the rest"). Lau (who starred in the 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller INFERNAL AFFAIRS, which was remade in the US in 2006 as THE DEPARTED with Damon essaying his role) brings appropriate gravitas to his role as the practical and wise Strategist Wang and Asian pop star Lu Han has some heartfelt moments as a quiet soldier whose bravery is constantly being called into question by people who never see his heroic actions. There's also American guest star Willem Dafoe, underused in a minor supporting role as Ballard, a scheming westerner who was captured 25 years earlier by the Nameless Order during his search for black powder and has been held prisoner to ensure the purpose of the sect is kept secret. He accepts his fate to teach English to the warriors, but sees William and Tovar as a possible means of escape. In the end, THE GREAT WALL is a triumph of style over substance, brainless B-movie material that's heavy on stylized CGI, elevated considerably by inventive action choreography and entertaining usage of 3-D, and brilliant cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (BLACKHAT) and frequent Zhang collaborator Zhao Xiaoding.

Monday, February 20, 2017

In Theaters: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

(US/Germany - 2017)

Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Justin Haythe. Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener, Celia Imrie, Ivo Nandi, Carl Lumbly, David Bishins, Lisa Banes, Adrian Schiller, Tomas Norstrom, Ashok Mandanna, Magnus Krepper, Johannes Krisch, Susanne Wuest, Rebecca Street, Craig Wroe. (R, 146 mins)

It's a safe bet there won't be a more ambitious, audacious, and flat-out weird major-studio horror movie to hit multiplexes this year than A CURE FOR WELLNESS. That title probably isn't going to do it any favors, but in an era where horror films are typified by Blumhouse jump scares, found-footage fatigue, and the unbridled sycophancy of horror hipster scenesters, A CURE FOR WELLNESS seems like it's borne of another time and place. A modern-day gothic throwback, it seems to have been made with little concern for mainstream appeal by Gore Verbinski, who established his genre bona fides with the 2002 RINGU remake THE RING but soon became synonymous with bloated, mega-budget summer fare like the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films. Perhaps seeking a fresh start after the costly flop that was 2013's THE LONE RANGER, Verbinski was obviously allowed to make the film he wanted to make with A CURE FOR WELLNESS, even if 20th Century Fox was only willing to put up half of the $40 million budget, necessitating the involvement of German co-producers Studio Babelsberg. Headlined by recognizable actors but no expensive big names, it's a film so exquisitely crafted and meticulously detailed that it looks like it could've easily cost $200 million. Working from a script by REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and LONE RANGER screenwriter Justin Haythe, Verbinski wears his love of high-class horror on his sleeve throughout: themes and imagery conjure memories of everything from Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING, the dreamlike scenarios of Andrei Tarkovsky, the claustrophobic anxiety of Roman Polanski classics like REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY (especially that lullaby-like theme), and THE TENANT, and the gothic Italian chillers of the 1960s by genre legends like Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti, with the climax especially feeling like a gushing love letter to a certain early 1970s Bava film. Verbinski's playing the long game with A CURE FOR WELLNESS, a film likely to alienate casual moviegoers but one that's intended more for the more hardcore horror devotee to appreciate and dissect for many years to come.

At a major NYC financial investment firm, young hotshot broker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is given a promotion and a corner office after his predecessor in the job drops dead of a heart attack. It's not long before he's called into the office by acting boss Green (David Bishins): a merger is imminent and Lockhart's been cooking the books. He's threatened with prison ("Have you ever had a 12-inch black dick up your ass?" one of the other honchos spits at him) unless he can retrieve the real boss, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener). Pembroke's been MIA since having a breakdown and checking into the Volmer Institute, a luxurious "wellness spa" housed in a castle in the remote mountains of the Swiss Alps. Green instructs Lockhart to travel to Switzerland and bring Pembroke back to NYC so he can sign off on the merger and pin all the malfeasance--Lockhart's and their own--on him. Once at the spa, Lockhart is stone-walled and given the run-around by everyone, including the spa's head doctor Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Volmer insists Pembroke is not well enough to leave and when Lockhart finally encounters his colleague, Pembroke agrees to get his things together but is quickly admitted to another section of the hospital, with Volmer explaining his "condition" has taken a turn for the worse. Lockhart ends up being admitted to the institute following a horrific car crash when Volmer's driver (Ivo Nandi) hits a deer while taking him to a hotel, and even from inside as a patient, he isn't given any access to Pembroke. While most of the patients are elderly, Lockhart is intrigued by the young and enigmatic Hannah (NYMPHOMANIAC's Mia Goth), a special patient whose parents died years earlier and who has been in Volmer's care since. Lockhart is subjected to bizarre treatments, including time spent in a sensory deprivation tank and an iron lung, and is haunted by recurring visions of large eels, with himself and all the patients constantly instructed to drink plenty of the purifying water and take regular eye-dropper oral doses of the liquid vitamin that Volmer insists is vital to their wellness.

You can count all the great two-and-half-hour horror movies on one hand, and while it's easy for an excitable and enthused genre fan to overrate something like A CURE FOR WELLNESS (some of the plot doesn't hold up under intense scrutiny, especially when it comes to Lockhart's bosses' slow response to his extended absence), it's also a near-certainty that you've never seen a genre mash-up quite like this one. Refreshingly, it's played completely straight and dead serious, never going for winking irony, cheap quips, or lazy references. Verbinski and Haythe set the ominous mood from the get-go, and it just gets more freakishly bizarre with each new plot turn as it crescendos into a symphony of absolute madness by the final act. Lockhart spends much of the film convinced Volmer and the staff are trying to drive him insane, but with the help of another patient, puzzle enthusiast Victoria (Celia Imrie), he discovers that the compound is a 200-year-old castle built over the partial ruins of another, the ancestral home of the demented Baron von Reichmerl, a 19th century nobleman killed by the villagers over his obsession with creating a pure and incestuous bloodline with his sister. A CURE FOR WELLNESS is set in the present day but seems to come from the 1970s. It's a triumph of chilling atmosphere, with ornate sets and carefully composed shots that give it a vivid feeling of cold, classic Kubrick. The three leads are fantastic, from the waif-like Goth conveying the naive innocence of Hannah to the historically annoying DeHaan, who's matured as an actor since the overrated CHRONICLE, which established him as a sort of excruciatingly whiny Emo DiCaprio. Isaacs has a blast in a vintage mad doctor role, relishing the sinister machinations of Volmer (what a classic-sounding mad doctor name) but never going overboard into hammy scenery-chewing. Indeed, in his controlled performance and the way Volmer plays his cards close to the vest, Isaacs is very reminiscent of a mid-career Christopher Plummer (I wouldn't be surprised if a studio suit at some point in the planning stages suggested Verbinski get Johnny Depp to play Volmer). A CURE FOR WELLNESS isn't for everyone, and if it's not your thing, then its 146 minutes will be an endurance test. But for the schooled and well-traveled horror scholar, it's probably the giddiest time you'll have with a genre offering this year. I don't care if this tanks in theaters--the fact that it even exists and I could see it in a theater in the year 2017 is a small miracle worth celebrating.

Friday, February 17, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016); KING COBRA (2016); and THE CRASH (2017)

(US/China - 2016)

Philip Roth has been a lion of American literature since the 1950s, though that success hasn't always translated to the screen, with a common description of Roth's writing being "unfilmable." 1969's GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, adapted from Roth's 1959 National Book Award winner, was a critical and commercial hit that put Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw on the map. But when Benjamin was tapped to star in another Roth adaptation with 1972's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, lightning didn't strike twice and the results were so disastrous that it would be over 30 years before anyone attempted another big-screen take on Roth. Robert Benton's THE HUMAN STAIN opened to middling reviews in 2003, and Barry Levinson's THE HUMBLING (based on one of Roth's most critically panned works) only made it to a handful of theaters in 2015. Other than GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, the only Roth adaptations to receive any notable degree of acclaim were 2008's ELEGY, based on his 2001 novel The Dying Animal, and 2016's INDIGNATION. 2016 also saw the release of the long-planned AMERICAN PASTORAL, based on Roth's 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner about a well-to-do family falling into turmoil in the late 1960s. In various stages of development since 2003, filming actually began on a version in 2012 with Fisher Stevens at the helm and husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly starring, but the project fell apart and was scrapped almost immediately. It got rolling again in 2015 with some help from Chinese co-producers TIK Films, with Connelly still attached and now heading the cast with Ewan McGregor in place of Bettany, but when director Philip Noyce quit during pre-production, McGregor himself stepped in to make his directorial debut. AMERICAN PASTORAL was touted as a major 2016 awards contender but that never panned out, as the initial reviews were so overwhelmingly negative that Lionsgate bailed on the film, pulling the plug on its nationwide rollout and stalling its release at just 70 screens for a gross of $550,000.

Considering its internationally revered source novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL the film is a complete disaster, the kind of transparently phony awards bait that wears its bloated sense of self-importance on its sleeve. You can actually see the film completely collapse around the 23-minute mark, when we get our first look at stuttering 16-year-old Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning) as she's cooking burgers in the kitchen. She's having a pleasant conversation with her father Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor) when the sight of LBJ on TV provokes a profane, hysterical meltdown. She excoriates Swede and her mother Dawn (Connelly) over their upper-middle class complacence, with Swede running his dad's (Peter Riegert in cartoonish Oy, vey! mode) Newark glove factory and Dawn having her own cow pasture on their expansive property in rural Old Rimrock. When Dawn tells Merry "You're not anti-war...you're anti-everything!," Merry concludes this bug-eyed, out-of-nowhere tirade by shouting "And you're pro-cow!," spitting her burger on the floor and storming out of the house, prompting Swede to go into her bedroom to find the walls plastered with anti-war, Weather Underground-like pamphlets and flyers calling for revolution as Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" cues up on the soundtrack, modern cinema's universal sign that the times they-are-a-changin' and it's...the Sixties, man! AMERICAN PASTORAL never recovers from this jaw-droppingly awful scene, as the Levovs' cushy existence is upended when Merry becomes a fugitive after blowing up the Old Rimrock post office and killing the local mailman. This leads to endless malaise and ennui in the lives of the Jewish Swede, a high-school football legend, and the Catholic Dawn, a shiksa who was Miss New Jersey in the 1947 Miss America pageant.

McGregor and journeyman screenwriter John Romano (who's had a long career in writing for TV on everything from HILL STREET BLUES to the recent HELL ON WHEELS) cut out huge chunks of Roth's novel willy-nilly to focus on how the general sense of the Sixties, man! takes its toll on the Levovs, though they do leave in a 2002-set framing device with recurring Roth character Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) that really doesn't add anything to the story. AMERICAN PASTORAL relies on trite cliches and overwrought hysteria, with McGregor demonstrating no clue how to direct himself or his actors: Fanning's vein-popping overacting through clenched teech and flared nostrils is actually embarrassing to watch, especially since that palpable rage comes out of nowhere and wasn't present in the 12-year-old Merry we see played by a younger actress in earlier scenes. The first time we see Fanning, she's boiling with uncontrollable, shrieking fury and we don't know why. Even Connelly is terrible here, saddled with an unplayable character whose big scene has her showing up at Swede's factory, off her meds and babbling incoherently, dancing around totally nude except for her Miss New Jersey sash. At one point, a cop tells Swede "You've done everything wrong you possibly could've." I think that actor was breaking character and speaking directly to McGregor. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a botched misfire, but hey, congrats to PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT: you're no longer the worst big-screen Philip Roth adaptation. (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2016)

Though it frequently succumbs to the cliches that come with almost any post-BOOGIE NIGHTS look at the seedy underbelly of the porn world, KING COBRA shifts gears into a grim and bleak thriller that benefits from the twists and turns of the real-life events on which it's based. Based on Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway's true crime chronicle Cobra Killer: Gay Porn Murder, the film follows wide-eyed innocent Sean Paul Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) as he arrives in the relatively non-descript northeastern Pennsylvania from San Diego, intent on becoming a star for Cobra Video, a web-based gay porn production company owned by Stephen (Christian Slater). Middle-aged Stephen (a character based on Cobra Video head Bryan Kocis) is drawn to young, late-teens "twinks," and he has a particular affinity for Sean, growing extremely jealous when he shows interest in other men. Stephen directs a series of videos with Sean starring under the name "Brent Corrigan," and after a falling out when Sean begins aggressively demanding more money and objecting to Stephen's controlling attitude, the pair part ways in an acrimonious split that jeopardizes both of their careers when Sean reveals he lied about his age and was only 17 when Stephen directed his first videos. Meanwhile, Joe Kerekes (James Franco, one of 29 credited producers) and Harlow Cuadra (Keegan Allen), a pair of sketchy escorts and amateur gay porn entrepreneurs running a low-rent company called Viper Boyz, are trying to break into the big time, living way beyond their means convincing themselves that they're on the level of Cobra Video. $500,000 in debt and increasingly desperate, the unstable and manipulative Joe reaches out to "Brent" to forge a business partnership based on the "Brent Corrigan" name, but Sean isn't legally allowed to use it since Stephen had the name copyrighted as a property of Cobra Video. While Sean tries to broker a peaceful agreement with Stephen, Joe and Harlow decide to deal with it in a manner that befits their thoughtless, volatile nature: they kill Stephen and set his house on fire in a half-assed attempt to cover it up.

All of this occurred from 2004 to 2007, and other than changing the name of Slater's character, it gets all the pertinent details down, albeit a bit glossed over and rushed considering the film only runs 90 minutes. It's a rare instance of a movie that could've been improved if it ran a little longer, with some more time allotted to explore the smaller details. Writer-director Justin Kelly keeps things moving briskly and copies from the best, with much of the film having that same tense vibe as the section of BOOGIE NIGHTS where everyone's hitting bottom (Dirk hustling, Rollergirl in the limo, etc). He gets mostly strong performances from his cast, with a really skeezy Franco doing his best to channel Willem Dafoe in AUTO-FOCUS mode but sometimes going overboard, and Clayton and Allen doing solid work as the naive and, in the case of Allen's Harlow, dumb young twinks being manipulated by the older men projecting their neuroses on to them. Molly Ringwald has a small role as Stephen's wholesome, oblivious sister and if you want to feel really old, Alicia Silverstone plays Sean's mom (yes, Alicia Silverstone is 40 now). But the real standout is Slater who, between Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC and his Golden Globe-winning work on the acclaimed TV series MR. ROBOT, has very quietly been taking his career seriously again in between his frequent gig as a guest co-host on LIVE WITH KELLY. Slater sells every facet of Stephen's mercurial personality. He puts up a front for his sister and his neighbors, pretending he makes a living as a photographer at kids' birthday parties, but when it comes to Cobra Video, he stops at nothing to get what he wants. He's soft-spoken and sensitive, insanely jealous, a creepy manipulator of barely-legal boys far away from their homes, and a ruthless businessman who never hesitates to remind Sean/"Brent" that he owns him. It's a complex and fearless performance by Slater, who manages to make you feel some degree of sympathy for Stephen--he fears growing old alone and Sean did lie about his age with a very well-crafted and believable fake ID. KING COBRA has to get to the circumstances surrounding Stephen's murder, but it loses something once Slater exits the movie with about 30 minutes to go. He's so good here that you almost wonder if a more interesting film could've been made by just focusing on his Bryan Kocis-inspired character. As it is, KING COBRA is a decent film, and one of the more relatively accessible James Franco indie productions of late (more than, say, INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR., for example), and the story is so intriguing that it may leave you wanting more substantive details into the world of Cobra Video. (Unrated, 92 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2017)

A financial thriller set in the near future that plays like the 1981 flop ROLLOVER if remade by the most annoying Ron Paul supporter in your Facebook newsfeed, THE CRASH is a lecture disguised as a movie. Written and directed by Aram Rappaport, last seen watering down 2013's SYRUP, a pointless adaptation of Max Barry's scathing 1999 novel satirizing corporate marketing and branding, THE CRASH renders itself dated immediately as it assumes Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, with "Madame President" a fleetingly-seen character (played by Laurie Larson) late in the film. After cyber-terrorists hack the NYSE and threaten to bring down the global economy in 48 hours, Treasury Secretary Sarah Schwab (Mary McCormack) only sees one option: hiring master hacker and market manipulator Guy Clifton (Frank Grillo, also one of 29 credited producers) to thwart the attack. Clifton's currently facing SEC charges of hacking the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to benefit his own companies and previously hacked into the NYSE. He's somehow not in prison but he'll be granted immunity on the latest charges if he and his crack team of computer wizards and financial experts can stop the cyber attack and keep the economy stable. This mostly involves Clifton and his cohorts--sultry market analyst Amelia Rhondart (Dianna Agron), ALS-afflicted hacker George Diebold (John Leguizamo), and genius programmer Ben Collins (Ed Westwick)--spouting endless financial jargon while staring at monitors in the makeshift command center set up in Clifton's mansion. Clifton's got other things on his plate: his wife Shannon (Minnie Driver) isn't convinced this will keep him out of prison, and his 18-year-old daughter Creason (AnnaSophia Robb) is suffering from cancer and isn't responding to chemo. And she just got dumped by her secret boyfriend Ben.

THE CRASH runs just 84 minutes--and even then it's padded with super-slow-moving end credits kicking in around the 78-minute mark--yet it feels roughly three hours long. There's a way to make financial thrillers intriguing and suspenseful--BLACKHAT and the little-seen AUGUST come to mind--but Rappaport still feels the need throw in some disease-of-the-week TV-movie melodrama with Creason, and relies on too much in-your-face shaky cam, perhaps with the intention of making the viewer feel as backed-against-the-wall as Clifton, but it doesn't work. The more the film goes on, the more preachy and obvious it gets, especially with a corrupt, sneering Federal Reserve chairman named Richard Del Banco, who any seasoned moviegoer will correctly deduce is a scheming Dick from the Bank the moment they see he's being played by Christopher McDonald. By the end, with a mole inside Clifton's team planting a virus that creates a domino effect of collapsing world economies (of course, there's still time for Clifton and Ben to have a heart-to-heart and reach an understanding about dumping Creason) as "Madame President" stands around helplessly while her aides scramble and freak out, Clifton has a change of heart and just lets it fail, followed by an end crawl passive-aggressively advocating the abolishing of the Federal Reserve. Considering what I've seen of his work with SYRUP and now THE CRASH, I think the bigger priority is abolishing Aram Rappaport's DGA membership. (Unrated, 84 mins)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


(UK - 2016; US release 2017)

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Dan Basden, Jo Hartley, Tom Bennett, Andrew Brooke, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Mandeep Dhillon, Miles Chapman, Abbie Murphy, Rebecca Gethings, Nina Sosanya, Diane Morgan. (Unrated, 96 mins)

With only 12 episodes over its two series and a two-part Christmas special to wrap things up, the original UK version of THE OFFICE ran from 2001 to 2003 and didn't have a chance to wear out its welcome. Ricky Gervais doesn't seem to realize that, so now we have the feature film spinoff DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD, making its US debut as a Netflix Original after opening to lukewarm reviews in the UK last summer. Gervais and Stephen Merchant created the show, but Gervais is flying solo here, resurrecting his OFFICE character David Brent, the well-meaning but socially inept and endlessly delusional and self-aggrandizing office manager of the Slough branch of the Wernham Hogg paper company, perpetually playing to the cameras documenting the office's day-to-day activities for a BBC documentary series. It's been 13 years since the Christmas special, which found the hapless Brent trying to parlay his dubious TV documentary fame into a pop music career by blowing his severance pay on a music video for his cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now."  In the present day, Brent's still chasing that dream, taking time off from his sales rep job peddling tampons and toilet brushes for the bathroom supply company Lavichem and bringing along another documentary crew as he assembles a new version of his extremely short-lived '80s band Foregone Conclusion to go on a three week tour.

Latching himself to rapper and acquaintance Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith, also known as British rapper and comedian Doc Brown) and sound engineer Dan (Tom Basden), Brent hires a band of mercenary session guys as the original lineup of Foregone Conclusion either has family priorities, isn't interested, or in the case of the guitarist, is in jail for sexual assault. The new Foregone Conclusion wants nothing to do with Brent, who's paying them a ridiculous amount of money and has even rented a top-of-the-line tour bus even though, as Dan informs him, the gigs are all in such close proximity that would actually be easier to drive home every night rather than waste money on hotel rooms and meals. But being a clueless poseur with an ever-present white man's overbite, Brent only knows how to overdo everything. He's also completely oblivious when the band wants nothing to do with him, even banishing him from the tour bus when he boards it invoking the ancient "Whazzzzzzuppppp?" catchphrase and is told to follow the bus in his own car. The gigs are a disaster, as Foregone Conclusion repeatedly plays to almost completely empty clubs and Brent predictably manages to alienate the few people who do show up by delivering a de facto monologue about what every song means rather than just simply playing it (Coldplay frontman Chris Martin helped Gervais write most of Foregone Conclusion's songs). Other cringe-worthy moments involve him shooting an audience member in the face with a Foregone Conclusion shirt fired in close proximity from a T-shirt gun, or a culturally tone-deaf reggae tune that Dom Johnson is embarrassed to rap over, or performing a heartfelt ballad called "Please Don't Make Fun of the Disableds," The "tour" keeps Brent cashing in his pensions and maxing out his credit card, and the band holds him in such disdain that they won't even have a drink with him after the show unless they're paid for their time and he buys the drinks.

During its original run, THE OFFICE was brilliantly funny and a standard-bearer in the comedy of grueling discomfort, but all these years later, Gervais can't really do anything new with the Brent character. He's still behaving in the same fashion, and still alienating almost everyone with whom he comes into contact (though shy Pauline, a Lavichem co-worker played by Jo Hartley, obviously and inexplicably has a crush on him), usually with insensitive jokes, as when he's called into Lavichem's HR office after back-to-back cracks involving violence against women and his doing a buck-toothed "Chinaman" impression that would've been offensive in the 1940s. Other than a few bits--getting kicked off his own tour bus, falling down on stage after trying to do a "back-to-back" stage pose with the lead guitarist--David Brent simply isn't that funny anymore and Gervais is just going through the motions. We know that, despite his idiotic behavior, everyone from the band to his Lavichem co-workers will come around to appreciating him on his own terms, giving Brent a redemptive and wholly unearned feel-good ending. Gervais seems to struggle with this sort of thing when Merchant isn't around, and while his HBO series HELLO LADIES lost its way near the end of its lone season, there was enough there in its best episodes to indicate that it was perhaps Merchant who was the secret weapon behind the signature cringe success of THE OFFICE and EXTRAS. With more than a passing resemblance to THIS IS SPINAL TAP and the underrated STILL CRAZY, there's a handful of legitimate laughs to be had with DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD and to its credit, it's better than Gervais's last Netflix Original effort (the dismal SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS). But there's an undeniable "beating a dead horse" vibe to the whole thing as the writer/director/star coasts by on past glory, falling far short of recapturing that magic from a decade and a half ago.

Monday, February 13, 2017

In Theaters: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

(US/China - 2017)

Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Franco Nero, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan, Peter Stormare, Claudia Gerini, Peter Serafinowicz, Thomas Sadoski, Tobias Segal, Wass Stevens, Luca Mosca, Chukwudi Iwuji, Simone Spinazze. (R, 122 mins)

A sleeper hit in 2014, JOHN WICK was held in such ambivalent regard by Lionsgate subsidiary Summit that it almost went straight to VOD until someone decided to arrange some test screenings and the audience response was through the roof. An electrifying, non-stop action thriller about a retired assassin--an unstoppable killing machine known to those in his profession as "The Boogeyman" and "Baba Yaga"-- on a mission of vengeance when the son of a Russian crime boss steals his car and kills his dog, JOHN WICK was filled with memorable shootouts, quotable dialogue ("Oh..."), a sly sense of humor, and an almost graphic novel-like sense of imaginative world building. In this world, the assassins have accoutrements like their own gold coin currency and they stay at the Continental, a safe sanctuary where business is conducted and violence forbidden. Friends become foes and back again, and it's understood that it's "just business." But things turned personal for John Wick (Keanu Reeves): on the day after the funeral of his cancer-stricken wife (Bridget Moynahan), his car is stolen and his dog killed by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the sniveling brat son of Wick's former boss, Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Wick declares war on Tarasov and single-handedly wipes out his entire organization over the course of the film, all while dodging an endless parade of fellow assassins after the bounty placed on his head by Viggo. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 picks up shortly after where the first film left off, with Viggo's vengeful brother Abram (Peter Stormare) waiting in his secured office as his men try--and fail--to stop Wick, who's arrived at the Tarasov warehouse to reclaim his stolen car. Wick confronts Abram and spares his life, offering him a drink as a mutually agreed peace offering.

Wick's return to retirement is short-lived however, as Italian mobster Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) presents a marker--a blood oath among assassins--demanding Wick pay a debt. D'Antonio helped Wick with the final task for Viggo Tarasov that got him his freedom, and it was under the condition that he stay retired. Since he emerged from civilian life to wipe out Viggo's organization, D'Antonio declares the marker reactivated. His demand is that Wick whack his Rome-based sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who represents the Camorra on the international council of assassins, a seat D'Antonio believes he should've inherited from his late father. Wick refuses to acknowledge the marker, prompting D'Antonio to blow up his house. Under advice from Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane), Wick concedes he has no choice but to fulfill the marker if he wants any chance of returning to retirement. He travels to Italy, where he's greeted by Julius (Franco Nero), the manager of the Continental's Rome branch. Once Gianna is eliminated, Wick is double-crossed by D'Antonio, who puts out a $7 million contract on his life to create the appearance that he must avenge his sister's murder (really, Wick should've seen that coming). Once he's back in NYC, the chase is on as Wick spends the entire second half of the movie evading every covert assassin in the city--which is everyone from homeless guys to food truck vendors to street musicians--looking to grab $7 million to take out their most lethal colleague on the planet.

With a body count somewhere between "astronomical" and "fucking ridiculous," JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 exists in a patently unreal world where no cops of any kind are visible. Returning director Chad Stahelski (going solo this time, without the original's uncredited co-director David Leitch, his name left off the film by a DGA snafu) and screenwriter Derek Kolstad go for the same approach as THE RAID 2: it's the same story, just on a significantly larger and much more grandiosely ambitious scale. The set pieces are done with even more intricate, ballet-like precision, whether it's a high-tech hall of mirrors or Gianna's top security detail Cassian (Common) and Wick having a silencer shootout in the middle of a crowded subway station where no one even hears the guns going off around them. Stahelski goes for a much more stylized look this time out, with some tracking shots that serve as some of the best Kubrick homages this side of Nicolas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES. And some garish neon color schemes coupled with the staging of the action end up concocting an unholy visual fusion of Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, and John Woo. There's amusingly bizarre touches like the call center where assassins order contracts being filled with typewriters and analog equipment and looking a lot like a 1940s switchboard exchange straight out of HIS GIRL FRIDAY. This is absolutely exhilarating and gloriously bonkers filmmaking that rewards fans of the first film with numerous callbacks (there's another ominous "Oh..." from someone and we finally get to see Wick kill multiple guys with a pencil, a story that everyone who hears the name "John Wick" seems to reference), but takes everything to a higher level of inspiration and execution. Almost everyone in the cast gets a moment to shine, whether it's Nero's Julius breaking up a THEY LIVE-level brawl between Wick and Cassian, an unusually gregarious Laurence Fishburne (MATRIX reunion!) as the Bowery King, solid turns by returning JOHN WICK vets McShane and Lance Reddick as the Continental concierge, and a silent, scene-stealing performance by Ruby Rose as Ares, a mute, androgynous D'Antonio assassin who gives an almost Oscar-caliber flutter of an eye-wink to reassure her boss that she can handle Wick (spoiler: she can't). An improvement upon an already exemplary predecessor, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 takes its place beside the elite likes of THE RAID 2 and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD among the decade's greatest achievements in action cinema. It's that good.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: LIFE ON THE LINE (2016); BLACKWAY (2016); and THE BRONX BULL (2017)

(US - 2016)

A look at the life of linemen that has all the depth and insight of a Budweiser commercial, LIFE ON THE LINE is content to rely on every cliche and tired signifier imaginable. There's twangy guitars, overripe Southern accents, shitty country ballads, empty platitudes about "walking the line" and a drinking game-worthy number of times someone emphatically declares "We're linemen...this is what we do!" Inspired by a true story, LIFE ON THE LINE, which went straight to VOD after two years on the shelf, focuses on Beau Ginner, played by a fake beard precariously glued to the face of John Travolta. Beau is a tough-as-nails Texas lineman raising his niece Bailey (Kate Bosworth) after her dad (Beau's brother) was electrocuted on the job years earlier--partially due to Beau's negligence--and her mother was killed in a car crash on her way to see him at the hospital. Tragedy seems to follow the Ginners, but they persevere because...it's what they do. Beau, as we're constantly reminded, "is the best at what he does," and just wants to run his crew of hard-working good ol' boys (including Gil Bellows as someone named "Poke Chop") and get busy replacing every inch of a 30-year-old grid before storm season comes, but he's forever dealing with tie-wearing, bottom-line pencil pushers in management telling him to speed it up. He's also dealing with Bailey's relationship with Duncan (Devon Sawa), a new recruit on the line whose father died on the job, and whose mother (Sharon Stone) is now a weepy, boozy wreck who's so insignificant to the story that the screenwriters don't even give her a name (Stone, in a nothing, two-scene role that just has her cry and sit slumped in a chair passed out, is credited with playing "Duncan's mother"). Other dilemmas: Bailey's psycho ex (Matt Bellefleur), who isn't taking the breakup well; lineman transfer Eugene (Ryan Robbins), who's still suffering from military PTSD, which drives his wife (Julie Benz) to infidelity; and Beau getting plenty pissed off when Bailey tells him she's pregnant with Duncan's child.

Oh yeah, there's also a storm coming. Any dramatic tension is completely deflated by an opening caption that reads "10 days before the storm." But when that storm comes, along with a derailed train that takes out the entire grid, the film whittles the whole disaster down Beau and Duncan setting aside their differences to get the line fixed, because pregnant Bailey is in the hospital and there's no power, and, as Beau puts it, "We gotta save our girl!" LIFE ON THE LINE obviously holds its subjects in high regard, and rightly so--the film points out that it's the fourth-most dangerous job in the US--but it doesn't really tell you anything about the lineman's world. We don't learn about the job other than it's dangerous and...it's what they do. Instead, the screenwriters and director David Hackl (SAW V, INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE) deliver what looks like a lazy, made-for-TV soaper with occasional swear words where the big storm is almost an afterthought. It's cheap-looking and sloppy (two people are credited as "Co-exexutive producers"), yet there was enough money in the budget for Travolta to have two executive assistants, a personal assistant, and a production assistant. The brave people who do this work deserve better representation than the cardboard cutout characters on display here. Save yourself an hour and a half and just listen to Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" a few times instead. For all the reverence and hero worship on display in LIFE ON THE LINE, you'd think the filmmakers would commit to creating slightly complex characters and portraying an accurate representation of this work, but unlike the linemen, they fall down on the job. I guess that's...what they do. (R, 98 mins)

(US - 2016)

Released on 11 screens and VOD with no publicity at all, BLACKWAY is a gray and gloomy non-thriller whose only surprise is the low level of urgency with which it plods to its conclusion. It plays as if Swedish director Daniel Alfredson--who directed THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, the two markedly inferior sequels to the original Swedish version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO--left out significant chunks of the script, written by Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. Gangemi and Jacobs are the guys behind the 2007 cult horror film WIND CHILL and the acclaimed Amazon series RED OAKS, and Jacobs is also a Steven Soderbergh protege who served as an assistant director on several of his films before graduating to 2015's MAGIC MIKE XXL. Whether Alfredson's streak of mediocrity continued or it just caught Gangemi and Jacobs on a bad day, BLACKWAY ends up being one of the dullest thrillers of 2016. Moving from Seattle back to the Pacific Northwest logging town of her childhood following the death of her mother, Lillian (Julia Stiles) goes to the sheriff (Dale Wilson) for help after her cat is brutally murdered. She knows the culprit is Richard Blackway (Ray Liotta), an ex-deputy turned white trash crime lord and all-around bad guy. Blackway's been stalking Lillian and the sheriff isn't in any hurry to do anything about it, instead recommending she go talk to Whizzer (Hal Holbrook), the cantankerous old mill owner who may know a guy brave enough to confront Blackway. When that guy chickens out, one of Whizzer's employees, elderly Lester (Anthony Hopkins) volunteers himself and slow-witted, stuttering new hire Nate (Alexander Ludwig) to help Lillian find Blackway. This essentially involves going all around town and having Lester repeatedly ask "Where's Blackway?" with everyone denying they've seen him or know his whereabouts. Blackway rules the town, and things escalate when Lester and Nate start a fire at a motel on the outskirts of town that's been commandeered by Blackway as the base for his gunrunning, meth-dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking operation. Simply put, Blackway is a real asshole.

It's obvious Lester has personal reasons for going after Blackway (all he says is "It needs to be done"), though even after they're explained, the reasoning still seems muddled. Nate just goes along for the ride while Lillian's character makes no sense at all. If she grew up in this town (on numerous occasions, she states "I grew up here!") where everyone knows everybody, why doesn't anyone know her? If she grew up in this town, why doesn't she know who Blackway is before he starts stalking her? Who is Blackway? What's his story? Was he kicked out of the sheriff's department? Did he run his crime operation while on duty? How did he take over the town? Do Gangemi and Jacobs know? Does Alfredson care? There's really not much to say about BLACKWAY. The kind of inconsequential time-killer that you may very well forget about while it's in progress, it drags ass and the story goes nowhere, failing as both a thriller and a character piece. Hopkins, who also starred in Alfredson's equally forgettable KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN and is becoming a regular in crummy VOD thrillers like this, MISCONDUCT (also with Stiles) and SOLACE, is visibly bored and looks half-asleep, while a short-fused Liotta is basically doing the same act he does on NBC's SHADES OF BLUE. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2017)

Exhibiting the kind of shameless chutzpah that gave us EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK, THE BRONX BULL began life as RAGING BULL II when it was initially announced way back in 2006. It was still called RAGING BULL II when cameras began rolling in 2012, which prompted a lawsuit from MGM that kept it in embroiled in legal hassles until the producers agreed to change the title. Shelved for five years and now known as THE BRONX BULL, the film was finally given a VOD dumping in January 2017 before its Blu-ray release a month later. Other than it being a story about Jake LaMotta made with the legendary boxer's blessing, the comparisons to Martin Scorsese's 1980 classic end there. Perhaps attempting to create a GODFATHER PART II-style bookend to Scorsese's film, THE BRONX BULL focuses on LaMotta's teen years in the 1930s (where he's played by Mojean Aria) and the years after what's covered in Scorsese's film, from 1967 to the present day (95-year-old LaMotta is still with us). William Forsythe plays the older LaMotta, and he's fine actor (THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) who's spent too much of his career paying the bills with B-movies, so it's easy to see why he jumped at the chance for a lead role, even if he probably rolled his eyes when he saw the script was called RAGING BULL II, a title only slightly more credible than The Asylum's TITANIC 2. After we see young Jake's tumultuous relationship with his demanding and often abusive father (Paul Sorvino, doing a bad Rod Steiger impression), he ends up in juvenile detention where he's mentored in boxing by a kindly priest (Ray Wise). Cut to years later, after he's retired (hey, nothing like a boxing biopic that skips over the boxing!), his latest wife (Natasha Henstridge) leaves him, and he's being threatened into working as a strongarm for low-level mobsters Tony (Tom Sizemore) and Jerry (Mike Starr). He's also involved in the schemes of his fast-talking filmmaker pal Rick Rosselli (Joe Mantegna), a character probably based on RAGING BULL co-producer Peter Savage. Rosselli is directing amateur porn films but wants to go legit, and ends up making a low-budget drive-in movie called CAULIFLOWER CUPIDS, in which LaMotta stars with Jane Russell (played here by a far-too-young Dahlia Waingort) and Rocky Graziano (James Russo).

Released in 1970, CAULIFLOWER CUPIDS was a real movie, and with LaMotta's involvement in the production, a lot of what transpires in THE BRONX BULL is probably legit (like RAGING BULL, it's not afraid to present its hero in a negative fashion). But NATIONAL LAMPOON'S CATTLE CALL and BENEATH THE DARKNESS director Martin Guigui's first name is about all he has in common with Scorsese. The finished film, almost Uwe Boll-esque in its amateurish execution and squandering of its overqualified cast, is so haphazardly assembled and so lacking in any momentum that it really just ends up being a collection of  random vignettes from Jake LaMotta's post-boxing life. His grown daughter Lisa shows up for a couple of scenes, but other than giving Forsythe a chance to share the screen with his own daughter Rebecca, she has no purpose. Most of the slumming names in the large cast drop by for just a scene or two: there's also Penelope Ann Miller as another Mrs. LaMotta, with Cloris Leachman as her mother; Harry Hamlin as an earlier wife's boss who gets threatened by LaMotta ("You tappin' my wife?!") after he sees them having a business lunch; Bruce Davison as a politician overseeing a committee on the mob's involvement in boxing (that storyline vanishes); Dom Irrera as comedian Joe E. Lewis; Alicia Witt as the most recent LaMotta wife; Joe Cortese as a NYC talk show host; and Robert Davi as a mystery figure who appears to a drunk LaMotta, and may or may not be real. No one here is at the top of their career (though, given his starring role in the popular, long-running CBS procedural CRIMINAL MINDS, it's surprising that Mantegna didn't have better things to do), and while nobody is overtly awful--Forsythe basically acts like Forsythe with a putty nose--it's hard to feel sorry for any of them when they knowingly signed on to an obviously suspect litigation-magnet called RAGING BULL II. Did they really think that title was gonna fly? Looking like a corner-cutting TV show (all of the exteriors appear to be shot on the same street on the NBC Studios backlot), the low-budget THE BRONX BULL started out as a cheap and dubious Scorsese knockoff and that's exactly how it finishes. (R, 94 mins)