Sunday, December 31, 2017

I Watched These So You Don't Have To: THE TEN WORST FILMS OF 2017


Ask anyone who's reviewed movies professionally or just because they love cinema, and they'll tell you the same thing: it's much more fun to write about a bad movie than it is to watch one. Sure, there's a lot wasted hours keeping up with Steven Seagal and the ongoing autopsy of John Cusack's career, but if you're lucky, the director of one will even send you a nasty e-mail that makes it all worthwhile. Here's the worst of what 2017 had to offer, and you know it's bad when not a single installment of Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis phones in his performance from his hotel room" series made the final cut. For the record, the Ten Best of 2017 list remains incomplete as several awards-season films have yet to open wide. But as far as the Ten Worst of 2017 are concerned, I've seen more than enough...


"Turgid" and "overwrought" don't begin to describe this oppressive, self-indulgent fiasco from director Sean Penn. Filmed in 2014 and laughed off the screen when it was in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, THE LAST FACE was shelved for another year before getting an unceremonious premiere on DirecTV and then expanding to VOD the same weekend that star Charlize Theron's ATOMIC BLONDE opened. A heavy-handed "message" film that makes you appreciate the comparative subtlety of Steven Seagal's climactic lecture in the 1994 eco-actioner ON DEADLY GROUND, THE LAST FACE tries to address the atrocities in war-torn areas of the world like Liberia, South Sudan, and Sierra Leone, but quickly relegates those concerns to the background to center on the torrid on-again/off-again romance between activist/doctor Wren Peterson (Theron) and Spanish playboy surgeon Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem). Dedicated to helping refugees through an aid organization set up by her late father--from whose shadow she can't seem to escape even though no one's trying to keep her there--Wren insists she doesn't need a man to complete her, then can't stop delivering anguished, Terrence Malick-inspired narration like "Before I met him, I was an idea I had." Wren's and Miguel's relationship has its ups and downs, as evidenced by three separate scenes of Wren yelling "You don't even know me!" and one where she even adds "Being inside me isn't knowing me!" Penn presents their initial, hesitant hooking up with all the grace and restraint of a daytime soap, trapping two Oscar-winning actors in the most unplayable roles of their careers. It's hard to give THE LAST FACE a chance when it opens with onscreen text that's an incoherent word salad about "the brutality of corrupted innocence" and how it ties into "the brutality of an impossible love..." (fade to black) "...shared by a man..." (fade to black) "...and a woman." Spicoli, please!

THE LAST FACE began life as a project for Penn's ex-wife Robin Wright. It was written by her close friend Erin Dignam, but when Penn's and Wright's marriage ended, Penn hung on to the script and pressed forward several years later with his then-girlfriend Theron. There's no shortage of camera adoration of Theron throughout, with Penn veering into Tarantino territory with shots of Theron's toes picking up a pencil before Bardem slithers across the floor to kiss her feet. Their relationship is consummated with a "cute" scene of making faces while they brush their teeth, and for some reason, songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers figure into the plot, with a sweaty sex scene set to "Otherside" and an earlier bit where a helicopter pilot (Penn's son Hopper Jack Penn) can't shut up about the band. There's so much RHCP love here that it wouldn't be a surprise if Flea showed up as a spazzing doctor with a sock on his dick. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR's Adele Exarchopoulos has an underwritten role as Wren's cousin and brief Miguel love interest, and reliable character actors like Jared Harris and Jean Reno disappear into the background as other doctors (Reno's character is named "Dr. Love" but he doesn't have the cure you're thinkin' of). Penn's intent may be earnest, but when he isn't haranguing the audience about how they need to pay more attention to what's going on in the world, he's sidelining what he wants you to focus on by turning the entire film into what looks like the world's most tone-deaf Harlequin romance adaptation. Penn has made some intelligent and challenging films as a director--1991's THE INDIAN RUNNER, 1995's THE CROSSING GUARD, 2001's THE PLEDGE, and 2007's INTO THE WILD--but THE LAST FACE is catastrophic less than a minute in and insufferable for the next 130. (R, 131 mins)


Released on three screens and VOD at the tail end of summer, the Australian RED CHRISTMAS got some buzz from scenesters eager to anoint it that week's Insta-Classic (© William Wilson) horror indie, with the added nostalgic rush of cult icon Dee Wallace once again summoning some of her CUJO maternal fury. It's great seeing the veteran actress and convention fixture in a lead role again, and it's easy to see why she jumped at the opportunity, but RED CHRISTMAS isn't worthy of her talents. Amateurishly shot, with pointlessly garish red and green, sub-Argento colorgasms, cheap splatter effects, and a muddled political subtext, RED CHRISTMAS centers on the final Christmas gathering at the isolated rural home of widowed matriarch Diane (Wallace), an American who's spent most of her life in Australia and is about to sell the house to take a long sabbatical to Europe, a last request by her cancer-stricken husband on his deathbed after she spent so many years putting everyone else first. Joining her are her infertile, ultra-conservative religious zealot daughter Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and her minister husband Peter (David Collins); bitchy, free-spirited, and very pregnant daughter Ginny (Janis McGavin) and her pot-smoking partner Scott (Bjorn Stewart); adopted, artist daughter Hope (Deelia Merial), her youngest, son Jerry (Gerard O'Dwyer), who has Down syndrome, and her medicinal marijuana enthusiast brother Joe (Geoff Morrell). A huge family argument is broken up by a stranger appearing at the front door: a cloaked figure with bandages covering face and going by the name Cletus (Sam "Bazooka" Campbell). Cletus appears to be homeless and alone but soon wears out his welcome when he begins taunting Diane with very personal information about an event 20 years earlier--a bombing at an abortion clinic where she happened to be, secretly terminating a pregnancy after learning that it was another DS baby and that her husband only had a few months to live. Unable to face raising an additional special needs child alone, she made a decision to abort, but the child somehow survived, and was taken in by the fanatical right-wing activist who bombed the clinic. And now, 20-year-old Cletus is determined to get revenge on the mother who tried to kill him by taking out her entire family one by one. And, of course, Ginny goes into labor.

There's so many ways that this could've been a creative, daring film with a thoughtful subtext. But it's pretty much amateur hour in the hands of writer/director Craig Anderson, who rushes through the set-up only to have the characters whispering and wandering around in the darkness for most of the rest of the way, often requiring them to do stupid things to get to the next kill scene. Why else would a sheriff arrive and park his car 100 yards from the house--with plenty of driveway ahead of him--unless it's to get a bear trap thrown over his head by Cletus while walking the ludicrous distance from his car to the house? There's no sense of spatial layout to the house, so it's impossible to tell where anyone is at any given time, or how Cletus manages to end up in or out of the house so much. Wallace turns in a strong performance, though it's hard to tell if we're supposed to be on her side or not. The film justifies her decision but seems intent on making her and her family suffer for it. On top of that, very few of the characters are particularly likable (Ginny picks fights with everyone, repressed Peter spies on Ginny and Scott having sex in the laundry room) with the exception of easy-going Joe and devoted Jerry, who questions his entire life after learning about the abortion and angrily confronting Diane with "Do you want to kill me too?" (O'Dwyer, who has DS and is a well-known figure in Australia, is quite good). Cletus' kills are pulled off with little imagination and style, and when his monstrous face is revealed, it looks like a MAC AND ME mask that was left out in the sun too long. RED CHRISTMAS' closing credits include a list of recommended books and movies that deal with the subject of abortion from both the pro-life and the pro-choice angle, conveniently allowing Anderson to "both sides" his way around his own movie. He should've included a list of better Christmas horror movies to watch instead of this one, but since he didn't, I will: any of them. Pick one. (Unrated, 81 mins)


After taking 20 years off between 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN and 1998's THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick's directorial output in the 2010s is coming at a furious pace that rivals Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. Counting the 40-minute IMAX film VOYAGE OF TIME, SONG TO SONG is his sixth movie of this decade, and the final part of a loose trilogy that began with 2013's TO THE WONDER and 2016's KNIGHT OF CUPS. Shot back-to-back with KNIGHT OF CUPS way back in 2012 and endlessly tinkered with by its maker, SONG TO SONG takes the first-world ennui of CUPS' self-absorbed Los Angeles navel-gazers and moves them to the hipster mecca of Austin, TX for maximum insufferability. Any hopes of Malick turning this into his own version of NASHVILLE are dashed the moment the film begins and it's the same kind of pained, whispered, emo journal entry voiceover by a dull ensemble of ciphers played by actors who, for some reason, still want to say they were in a Malick movie. If there's a central character--none of them are referred to by name--it's Faye (Rooney Mara), a waify aspiring musician who's seen onstage with a band a couple of times and seems to be friends with Patti Smith (as herself), but we never really see her working on music or practicing with the rest of the band. Faye's involved with Cook (Michael Fassbender), who's some kind of music industry A&R asshole (I guess), and BV (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring musician who doesn't seem to do much playing or songwriting and, like everyone in this film, appears to have significant disposable income. Faye drifts between both men, and during some downtime, the psychologically abusive Cook hooks up with teacher-turned-diner waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), and even coerces Rhonda and Faye to join him in a threesome. Faye also gets involved with Parisian transplant Zoey (Berenice Marlohe) and BV with Amanda (Cate Blanchett), while almost everyone gets their turn at center stage for some of Malick's signature vacuous ruminations of the privileged and aimless.  To wit:

  • "I thought we could roll and tumble. Live from song to song. Kiss to kiss."
  • "I love the pain. It feels like life."
  • "I'm low. I'm like the mud."
  • "Foolish me. Devil." 
  • "I was once like you. To think what I once was. What I am now."
  • "I played with the flame of life." 
  • "I feel like we're so...connected. I can't really understand. It's like..."
  • "The world built a fence around you. How do you get through?  Connect?" 
  • "You burn me. Who are you?"
  • "I need to go back and start over."

Malick should've taken that last sentiment to heart. Like KNIGHT OF CUPS, SONG TO SONG shows the revered filmmaker continuing his ongoing descent into self-parody. This does not look like the work of a 73-year-old auteur who's been making movies for 45 years. If this same movie was presented by a film school student, it would be dismissed as self-indulgent, adolescent drivel. But Malick's defenders continue to give him a pass and insist that his detractors--a contingent of former acolytes that's growing with each new Malick journey up his own ass--just can't grasp the level of genius that's being gifted to them. Bullshit. Malick was poised to stake his claim as the Greatest American Filmmaker when Stanley Kubrick died, and brilliant films like 2005's THE NEW WORLD and 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE certainly made a strong case for his inheriting the title. But over the course of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and now SONG TO SONG, Malick has offered enough evidence to suggest that the emperor has no clothes, and rather than the new Kubrick, he's really just the American Jean-Luc Godard, another filmmaking legend who's abandoned any semblance of narrative cohesion and for whom any negative criticism is strictly verboten. Malick goes into these films with no clear vision, instead hoping it comes together in post with the help of eight (!) credited editors. And, as was the case with WONDER and CUPS, a ton of name actors got cut out of the film when Malick decided they weren't needed, among them Christian Bale, Benicio del Toro, Haley Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), Boyd Holbrook (LOGAN), and Angela Bettis (MAY), along with artists Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire (when asked about this film in a 2013 interview after shooting wrapped, even Fassbender said he wasn't sure if he'd end up being in it). Iggy Pop and John Lydon turn up in SONG TO SONG, along with Smith, who gives the film one of its few legitimately worthwhile dramatic moments when she fondly speaks of her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. Alternating between wide-angle and fish-eye lenses and often using GoPro cameras to maximize the faux-experimental aura, Malick and renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki did some extensive shooting at the 2012 Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun fests, which gave Fassbender a chance to wrestle with Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and let Malick waste some screen time on that. For all the impact that the Austin events brought to the film, Malick may as well have shot scenes at that year's Gathering of the Juggalos. Holly Hunter turns up briefly as Rhonda's mom and Val Kilmer does a walk-through as a wildman rock star, onstage with the Black Lips at the Fun Fun Fun fest, cutting off clumps of his hair with a Bowie knife and chainsawing an amp during a live show while yelling "I got some uranium!" Malick would've had a significantly more entertaining movie if he'd just followed Kilmer around and filmed him being weird for two hours.

It's also nice to see Malick has entered his "pervy old man" phase, with lingering, leering shots of Mara and Marlohe caressing each other, Zoey kissing Faye's hand while she masturbates, and Cook in bed with two nude escorts in what looks like an outtake from the harrowing Fassbender sex addiction drama SHAME. It's easy to assume from his last few films that Malick has forgotten how people really communicate and interact and maybe doesn't get out much anymore, and from the looks of some of the more sordid scenes in SONG TO SONG, he's apparently just discovered Cinemax. It's possible that Malick is putting a stop to this myopic nonsense with his next film, the German-set WWII drama RADEGUND, tentatively due out sometime in 2018. Or 2022, who knows? It stars (for now) August Diehl, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, and the late Michael Nyqvist, and by all accounts, it's actually Malick doing a commercial film with a straightforward narrative. It's about time, because SONG TO SONG is a fucking embarrassment. (R, 129 mins)


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 (LaMotta lived to see the film's release before passing in September at 95). 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)


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)


A thoroughly incoherent sci-fi hodgepodge that manages to rip off BLADE RUNNER, I ROBOT, THE MATRIX, THE HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT, THE TERMINATOR, and TRANSFORMERS in its first 15 minutes, SINGULARITY's behind-the-scenes story is more interesting than the film itself. The story is a jumbled mess, dealing with Kronos, an AI program designed to save Earth, but immediately deciding on its own volition that humanity isn't worth saving and promptly blowing up everything and killing billions of people. 97 years later, the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with small clusters of humans still existing, though we only see two: Andrew (Julian Schaffner) and Cania (Jeannine Wacker), a fearless warrior with a wardrobe provided by Katniss Everdeen. They're making their way to Aurora, a supposed safe haven where humanity will attempt to rebuild itself, but Andrew is actually an advanced synthetic lifeform so real that even he's unaware that he isn't human. Their journey is overseen from a command center inside the Kronos program, where the uploaded avatars of misanthropic Kronos designer Elias Van Dorne (John Cusack) and his flunky (Carmen Argenziano) monitor their whereabouts to discover the secret location of Aurora. Savvy moviegoers will notice something strange almost immediately and it becomes glaringly apparent with each passing appearance of Van Dorne: Cusack doesn't seem to be in the same movie as everyone else, and that's because he's not.

Remember in 1984 when Paramount desperately shoehorned newly-shot footage of red-hot Eddie Murphy into the two-years-shelved Dudley Moore comedy BEST DEFENSE?  It's a similar situation here, only with an ice-cold Cusackalypse Now. SINGULARITY began life as a very low-budget Swiss sci-fi film titled AURORA, shot way back in 2013 and never released. It was written and directed by 21-year-old Robert Kouba and starred Schaffner, Wacker, and veteran character actor Argenziano, the latter probably the biggest American name the largely Kickstarter-funded production could afford. Trailers for AURORA were posted online in 2014 and 2015 but it remained shelved until US outfit Voltage Pictures acquired it and brought Kouba and Argenziano back to shoot new scenes with Cusack in Los Angeles in 2017. With the added Cusack footage, the restructured film was rechristened SINGULARITY and dumped on VOD and on eight screens in the fall of 2017. Whatever changes Voltage had Kouba make don't appear to have helped, and there's really nothing to see here unless you want to witness the depressing sight of Cusack being Raymond Burr'd into a terrible sci-fi movie that isn't improved by his barely-there presence. There's no way he was on the set for more than a day (there's a credit for "Catering, L.A." so he at least stuck around for lunch), with his entire screen time spent in front of a greenscreen and occasionally watching four-year-old footage of Schaffner and Wacker, never once coming into contact with either of them. Throughout, Cusack looks disheveled and tired, uttering nonsense like "Yes...his code continues to evolve" in ways that would make Bruce Willis look away in pity. As a fan of old-school exploitationers, there's a part of me that's amused that these kinds of GODZILLA and Roger Corman moves still occasionally go on today (for further fun, check out 2015's BLACK NOVEMBER to see Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Anne Heche, and Wyclef Jean get Raymond Burr'd into a long-shelved Nigerian-made political drama), but on the other hand: John Cusack...what the hell are you doing? There's some OK cinematography in some of AURORA's Swiss and Czech Republic location work, and the opening sequence of a neon cityscape accompanied by Vangelis-inspired synth farts courtesy of The Crystal Method's Scott Kirkland (who also wasn't involved in AURORA) might give the impression that it's a passable BLADE RUNNER riff if you're barely paying attention or you've had several beers. But in its released condition, SINGULARITY is nothing more than Cusack--once a bankable, A-list actor who could get movies made (remember HIGH FIDELITY?)--scraping bottom. If this was 1970, Cusack would be headlining Al Adamson movies. What's wrong, dude? Seriously. Should we be concerned? (PG-13, 92 mins)


There wasn't a worse comedy in 2017 than GUN SHY, a staggeringly awful adaptation of Mark Haskell Smith's 2007 novel Salty, which garnered some acclaim at the time for its Carl Hiaasen-esque comic mystery crossed with an Irvine Welsh sense of the grotesque. Smith co-wrote the screenplay, but everything that book reviewers liked about Salty appears to have been neutered into oblivion for GUN SHY. This is a film where it's abundantly clear that the endgame was a mystery for all involved. The humor here isn't clever, it isn't sly, it isn't raunchy...it isn't anything. The film plods along, gasping and wheezing to its conclusion without a single laugh or even a remotely humorous moment. Gags fall flat, the story goes nowhere, and the actors look completely stranded. It's not like there's a lack of talent here: Antonio Banderas and Olga Kurylenko are fine actors, and Simon West isn't an auteur by any means, but he's directed some entertaining movies (CON AIR, THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE MECHANIC), but GUN SHY is one of those rare instances where, whatever the intent was going in, nothing works. It's painfully unfunny and miserable to endure, and the only thing saving it from complete ruin is that Banderas actually seems to be enjoying himself. Between recent VOD duds like BLACK BUTTERFLY, FINDING ALTAMIRA, SECURITY, and now this, Banderas is due for either a new agent or an intervention.

Banderas is Turk Henry, former bassist/vocalist for the '80s hair metal band Metal Assassin, best known for their hit single "Teenage Ass Patrol." Kicked out of the band after his supermodel wife Sheila (Kurylenko) was deemed a "Yoko" by the other members, Turk's career and personal life are in the toilet. Now an emotionally needy, drunken recluse who still dresses like "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)"-era Steven Tyler, he hasn't left his Malibu mansion in two years, prompting Sheila to arrange a vacation to Turk's native Chile in an attempt to boost his spirits. Once there, she's kidnapped by a group of neophyte pirates who think they've struck gold and try to extort a huge ransom when they realize she's Turk Henry's wife. Turk's manager sends his assistant Marybeth (Aisling Loftus) and Clive Muggleton (Martin Dingle Wall), a Crocodile Dundee-like Aussie mercenary with impossibly white teeth and a serious shellfish allergy, to help Turk negotiate with pirate leader Juan Carlos (Ben Cura). US Homeland Security gets wind of the kidnapping and sends ambitious CIA agent Ben Harding (Mark Valley), who's quick to label it a terrorist act in order to boost his profile to his superiors. What follows is a lot of shameless mugging and dead air as entire sequences go by with nothing even remotely amusing, unless you count a vomiting llama, Turk getting bitten on the dick by a snake, Turk trying to dodge Harding by dressing in drag, a clueless Turk calling his GPS a "CGI," and mispronouncing easy words, like "tore-toys" for "tortoise." The novel had the vacation taking place in Thailand, with a hapless, shaggy dog Turk getting involved in busting a sex trafficking ring. Here, he's just a bumbling buffoon making an ass of himself in Santiago. There's no attempt at political satire, no attempts at physical comedy, and no attempt at any INHERENT VICE or BIG LEBOWSKI-style absurdist noir humor. No, the only thing the makers of GUN SHY had was "Antonio Banderas dressed up like a hair metal singer" and they just assumed everything would work itself out. GUN SHY is so lazy that it doesn't even have any insider, THIS IS SPINAL TAP-style jokes about the music industry. There's nothing here, though Banderas, not an actor known for his comedic skills, looks like he's having fun despite his helpless, idiotic character having absolutely nothing to do. As if GUN SHY wasn't oppressive enough, it pads out the running time by including four endings, two music videos during the closing credits, and three (!) post-credits stingers, as if anyone watching this would think "Wow, I had such a blast with these characters...just keep giving me more!" This is stunningly bad. (R, 92 mins)


Shot in 2014 as DXM, the idiotic sci-fi pastiche MINDGAMERS is about as good as you'd expect a movie produced by an energy drink to turn out. Bankrolled by Red Bull's Terra Mater Factual Films media division, MINDGAMERS really wants to be a circa-1999 Wachowski Brothers groundbreaker but ends up feeling like a decade-too-late MATRIX ripoff. Directed and co-written by Andrew Goth (the ill-fated GALLOWWALKERS, a film shelved for several years while star Wesley Snipes was incarcerated), MINDGAMERS opens in 2027 and deals with quantum technology being the next evolution of human connectivity. Renegade priest Kreutz (a visibly befuddled Sam Neill, probably getting a lifetime supply of Red Bull whether he wanted it or not), a deranged quantum physicist who only joined the church so it would fund his pseudo-theological experiments, argues with a monsignor that "the border between physics and faith is dead!" before making his point by bashing the monsignor's head in. Cut to years later at the exclusive DxM Academy ("DxM" an abbreviation for Deus Ex Machina--no, really, it is), where a group of hip and edgy young geniuses led by Jaxon (Tom Payne, now best known as Paul "Jesus" Monroe on THE WALKING DEAD) are recruited to perfect the ability to transmit thought and ability via "brain connectivity." Their case study is quadriplegic combat veteran Voltaire (Ryan Doyle) and things start progressing when new team member Stella (Melia Kreiling) taps into DxM super computer "En.o.ch." Once their minds are all linked, the DxM Xtreme Fyzzicystz (OK, that one I made up) start demonstrating as a group the levels of Voltaire's strength and agility prior to his paralysis. There's also an aged Kreutz, slowed down by a stroke, trying to hijack their discoveries for his own purposes, whatever they may be, and then everyone convenes for some kind of interpretive dance flash mob in a torrential downpour.

I'll be honest with you: I haven't the slightest idea what's going on in MINDGAMERS. But I'm not alone, because I don't think the filmmakers do either. Hard sci-fi so flaccid that it might've been better off being financed by Cialis, MINDGAMERS starts out like an extreme gamer remake of PRINCE OF DARKNESS before changing course and finally answering the never-asked question "What would WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!? look like if just got fuckin' rekt with more parkour and random Jesus Christ poses, brah?" MINDGAMERS screened at the 2015 Grimmfest in the UK, but then sat on a shelf for almost two years before Universal gave it a one-night, live-streamed theatrical release through Fathom Events in March 2017, where it was hyped that 1000 audience members nationwide could wear connectivity headbands and gather data from their thoughts as the movie unfolded. There wasn't much to report, as many of the screenings were cancelled due to no tickets being sold. There's some impressive-looking Romanian ruins used for exterior shots and the ornate sets show the movie isn't cheap, but it's a mercilessly talky, hopelessly muddled buzzkill that's pretentiously pleased with itself and completely full of shit. (R, 99 mins)


AMERICAN VIOLENCE wants to be a "message" movie taking a stance against the death penalty, but it quickly abandons its serious pretensions to become just another DTV-level crime thriller from prolific D-grade hack Timothy Woodward Jr. Woodward, whose films usually premiere on the new release shelf at Walmart, has made seven movies over the last two years, almost all of which co-star the likes of Michael Pare and Johnny Messner who, of course, are on hand in small roles here. Woodward managed to corral some unexpected names for AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but it's as cheap and inept as his other movies, demonstrating that no matter how high-minded and hard-hitting he thinks this is, Woodward still has a ways to go before he's even at the level of an Uwe Boll or an Albert Pyun. A film like this needs a strong performance at its core, and it doesn't get it from Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Texas death row inmate Jackson Michael Shea. Shea's set to be executed by lethal injection in 72 hours, and psychologist/professor Dr. Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards) has been asked by the district attorney (Columbus Short) to interview him to see if the Governor should order a stay of execution. What follows is Shea telling his story to Dr. Tyler, one that begins with him melodramatically glowering "Tick...tock...tick...tock...the sand in my hourglass has just about run out," and it just gets more trite and heavy-handed from there. As a boy, Shea was molested by his uncle. After a stint in prison, he falls in with low-level mob flunky Marty Bigg (Pare, doing his best Ray Liotta) as they team up doing small-time safecracking jobs. One of the safes belongs to loan shark Belmonte (Nick Chinlund), who strings Marty up and slashes his throat as Woodward pans the camera to an illuminated crucifix on the wall. Subtlety is not a word in Woodward's vocabulary.

After avenging Marty's death, Shea falls in love with Olivia (Emma Rigby), the daughter of Texas crime lord Charlie Rose (Patrick Kilpatrick), for whom Shea begins working. Eventually, Shea ends up in prison again where he's gang-raped in the shower before being recruited as a hired gun for corrupt warden Morton (top-billed Bruce Dern, squandering any NEBRASKA/HATEFUL EIGHT renaissance he might've had). AMERICAN VIOLENCE stacks the deck against Shea from the start, excusing everything he does to make ham-fisted points. Of course, Dr. Tyler has her own traumatic backstory--she's a death penalty advocate and widow whose cop husband was killed in the line of duty but she naturally changes her tune after spending an afternoon with perpetual victim Shea. It would be one thing if AMERICAN VIOLENCE made any convincing arguments, but it just offers sanctimonious lip service about "breaking the cycle of violence" while wallowing in every cliche imaginable and offering irrefutable proof that the only cycle that needs breaking is that which provides funding for future Timothy Woodward Jr. movies. Al Lamanda's script is atrocious, whether it's Shea having flashbacks to things he couldn't possibly have witnessed or known about to the laughable dialogue (Shea to Tyler: "Don't you get it, Doc? We're all just caged animals with animal instincts;" Belmonte to Shea: "Untie me, you pissant fuck!;" Tyler, staring off after Shea confesses to killing Belmonte and seeing the path it paved for him: "The catalyst that launched you into Hell." Lyman-Merserau can't act and Richards isn't any more believable as a college professor than she was as a nuclear physicist nearly 20 years ago in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. Dern only has a few scenes and seems to be making it up as he goes, from bitching to his wife about the poor quality of her PB&J sandwiches to licking an ice cream cone while watching Shea strip, doing anything to keep himself amused while looking mildly disgruntled that no one's yet asked him to play Bernie Sanders. You expect to see guys like Pare, Chinlund, Messner, Short, and Kilpatrick ("The Sandman" in the early JCVD actioner DEATH WARRANT) in a piece of shit like AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but what is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski doing here? Making his dramatic acting debut (he appeared as himself in ENTOURAGE) as one of Rose's strongarms, Gronk is prominently billed but has little to do after turning up about an hour in. He has a couple of scenes and is limited to dialogue like "Consider it done," and "We gotta get outta here!" and gets a slo-mo shot where he's diving sideways while firing two guns but then isn't seen again after driving Olivia off in a getaway car. Hey, Gronk--stick to clubbing in the offseason and hope Tom Brady and Bill Belichick never find out about this. (Unrated, 107 mins)

And the worst film of 2017:


The most singularly depressing film experience of 2017 and quite possibly one of the ten worst movies I've ever seen, DIAMOND CARTEL is something that doesn't even seem real, even as it's unfolding before your eyes. Directed and co-written by Salamat Mukhammed-Ali, a music video vet in his Kazakhstan homeland as well as the former frontman for the Kazakh rock band Epoch, DIAMOND CARTEL makes Albert Pyun's landmark "Gangstas Wandering Around an Abandoned Warehouse" (© Nathan Rabin) trilogy look like the work of Akira Kurosawa by comparison. It tells a story that's incredibly convoluted at best and (more likely) utterly incoherent at worst, as Aliya (Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova), a table dealer at an Almaty casino, runs afoul of her boss Mussa (Armand Assante) after she's cleaned out by a high roller and the floor boss never intervened. Mussa, a former Soviet general-turned-ruthless Kazakh crime lord, forces Aliya to become a hit woman, taking out his enemies under the tutelage of Ruslan (Alexev Frandetti), one of his soldiers who's been in a love triangle with Aliya and her childhood sweetheart Arman (Nurlan Altayev) since they were kids. Mussa is also in a turf war with Hong Kong triad boss Khazar (Cary-Hiroyuka Tagawa), the kind of lunatic who keeps a guy in a cage, over a $30 million diamond, with additional power plays coming from Mussa associate Catastrophe (Serik Bimurzin) and his henchman Cube (Murat Bissenbin). This all leads to flashbacks, followed by flashbacks within flashbacks, entire scenes played out against some embarrassingly bush-league greenscreen, some crummy CGI that wouldn't cut the mustard in a 20-year-old video game, some really sappy melodrama between Aliya and Arman, and shootouts and cartoonishly over-the-top carnage that look like outtakes from THE MACHINE GIRL and TOKYO GORE POLICE.

If you think it's strange seeing established actors like Assante and Tagawa in something like this, then take a deep breath because it gets worse: shot from 2011 to 2013, the Kazakh-financed DIAMOND CARTEL began life as THE WHOLE WORLD AT OUR FEET before some tweaking, re-editing, and dubbing was done to transform it into its current state. The newly-christened DIAMOND CARTEL actually made it into a handful of US theaters in April 2017, courtesy of the Sony-owned indie The Orchard and goth record label Cleopatra. Former Francis Ford Coppola associate and current right-wing propagandist Gray Frederickson is listed among the producers--yes, the same Gray Frederickson who won an Oscar as one of the producers of THE GODFATHER PART II and was nominated for an Oscar for producing APOCALYPSE NOW, but most recently shepherded the faithsploitationer PERSECUTED and Dinesh D'Souza's AMERICA: IMAGINE THE WORLD WITHOUT HER. The supporting cast includes Michael Madsen and Tiny Lister as a pair of criminals fencing a diamond, and they get a bullet in the head about 45 seconds after they're introduced. There's also '90s B-movie martial arts icons Don "The Dragon" Wilson (BLOODFIST) and Olivier Gruner (NEMESIS), both badly dubbed even though they're speaking English, as well as erstwhile BLOODSPORT villain Bolo Yeung, cast as an assassin named "Bulo."

But what really makes DIAMOND CARTEL something special (and by "something special," I mean "a total shit show") and gives it the ghoulish feeling of slowing down to rubberneck a car crash, is the presence of a frail-looking and horrendously dubbed Peter O'Toole in what ended up being his final film, released four years after his death in 2013. O'Toole turns up about 70 minutes in as "Boatseer" (his character is called "Tugboat" in the credits, but hey, whatever), a crusty old sea salt who agrees to help Aliya and Arman flee Mussa, only to get his throat slashed by Ruslan for his trouble (this takes place offscreen, and there's a cut to an obvious O'Toole double lying face down). The eight-time Oscar nominee looks confused and his hands are tremoring, and the voice he's been given sounds like Pinhead in HELLRAISER. It's no surprise to see guys like Assante (who's embarrassingly bad) and Madsen (who hasn't given a shit in years) in something like this, but it's almost unbearably, soul-crushingly sad to observe an obviously ailing O'Toole suffering through this demeaning sendoff. Why was he here? Who let this happen? Never mind the fact that his appearance here looks less like a hired gun acting gig and more like caught-on-camera elder abuse, but the sight of the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA legend in DIAMOND CARTEL is so jarringly unreal that it couldn't be any more conceivably absurd to imagine Daniel Day-Lewis turning up in BIRDEMIC. Don't believe me? See for yourself--this is how Peter O'Toole's career ended:

O'Toole is only in this for five minutes, but it's the kind of posthumously-released cinematic swan song that belongs in the same class as a washed-up Errol Flynn co-starring with his 17-year-old girlfriend in the pro-Castro CUBAN REBEL GIRLS, Bela Lugosi in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Boris Karloff in four Mexican horror films released two to three years after his death in 1969, and John Carradine in 1995's JACK-O, his appearance consisting of unused footage from another project inserted into a straight-to-video horror movie released seven (!) years after his passing in 1988. Though Wilson and Gruner (as well as all the Kazakh actors) are also dubbed with all the care and precision of a GODZILLA movie, the actual voices of Assante, Tagawa, Madsen, and Lister all remain intact, though it sounds like they've been run through some kind of reverb-heavy Zandor Vorkov voice modulator. DIAMOND CARTEL is the kind of half-assed, slipshod clusterfuck where even the English speaking actors' words don't match their lip movements. Hey, I get it...working actors have to work and maybe this was the best offer Assante had on the table at the time, and he and the others likely figured they'd get paid and nobody would ever see it (frankly, I'm more curious what Gray Frederickson's excuse is). But Peter O'Toole? Even the most devoted O'Toole completist and superfan has nothing to gain by enduring this amateurish fiasco. Do yourself a favor and watch any Peter O'Toole movie but this one. (Unrated, unwatchable, 100 mins)


Saturday, December 30, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: KILLING GUNTHER (2017) and MAYHEM (2017)

(US/UK/China - 2017)

Following his BROTHER NATURE triumph, former SNL star Taran Killam wrote, directed, and stars in the straight-to-VOD KILLING GUNTHER, a dismal, would-be Christopher Guest mockumentary about a camera crew following a team of hired killers as they join forces to take out Gunther Bendik, the world's deadliest and most elusive assassin. In other words, if you ever thought "You know, SMOKIN' ACES was OK, but I'd like to see it in BEST IN SHOW form," then here's your movie. The first hour slogs by with maybe one remotely inventive moment that will be completely lost on any viewers outside of Canada (a drunk karaoke take on Lawrence Gowan's 1985 hit "A Criminal Mind") as hit man Blake Hammon (Killam) assembles the crack team to help him kill Gunther: there's explosives expert Donald Piznowski (Killam's SNL pal Bobby Moynihan); sniper Sanaa "Little Nightmare" Fairouza (NEW GIRL's Hannah Simone); her overprotective father Rahmat "The Nightmare" Fairouza (Peter Kelamis); genius dweeb hacker Gabe "The Human Computer" Beales (Paul Brittain, who had a very brief SNL stint several years ago); mechanical-handed Izzat "Crusher" Bukhari (Amir Talai); chronically-vomiting "Master of Poisons" Pak Yong Qi (Aaron Yoo); and unhinged Russian siblings Mia (FARGO's Allison Tolman) and Barold Bellakalakova (SUPERSTORE's Ryan Gaul). Gunther always seems to be one step ahead of them, often sabotaging their plans and playing head games and practical jokes, such as blowing up the casket at the funeral of Blake's 104-year-old mentor Ashley (Aubrey Sixto). Also peripherally involved is Blake's ex-girlfriend, retired hit woman Lisa McCulla (Killam's wife Cobie Smulders), who hooked up with Gunther following the breakup, which is ultimately revealed to be the sole reason heartbroken Blake is obsessed with hunting him down.

KILLING GUNTHER is a near-laughless miasma of tired jokes (watch Moynihan attempt at T.J. HOOKER hood slide!), shameless mugging (almost every moment Killam is front and center), lazy references that are supposed to be funny just because of nostalgia (Moynihan doing a karaoke version of Sister Hazel's "All for You"), and bush-league CGI explosions and splatter. He was funny and versatile on SNL, but the last thing the world needed was a self-indulgent Taran Killam vanity project, and the only thing that saves KILLING GUNTHER from complete ruin is the belated arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Gunther. Top-billed on the poster, Arnold doesn't even appear until 70 minutes in (the closing credits roll at 85 minutes) but he immediately injects life into the dreary proceedings as it's revealed Gunther has assembled his own camera crew to make a documentary about Blake's documentary. Arnold has some self-deprecating fun, gets to crack a few almost-quotable zingers ("Those fucking dickholes!" and "My cappuccino is to die for!"), and even sings a twangy ditty called "Earthquake Love" under Gunther's country music alter ego "Cord Billmont." Unfortunately, his too-little, too-late third-act comedy heroics aren't enough to make KILLING GUNTHER worth a damn to anyone other than the most devout Schwarzenegger completists after they've skipped the first hour. (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2017)

An overbearing splatter satire on cutthroat office politics, MAYHEM got some of the best reviews of any genre title this year, but in the end, it's obvious, obnoxious, overrated, and far too pleased with itself in the same way that most prefab cult movies are. Combining elements of OFFICE SPACE and 28 DAYS LATER, MAYHEM takes place over one long day at the corporate headquarters of the legal behemoth Towers & Smythe Consulting, where the secret mission statement is "greed, duplicity, and moral decay" according to ambitious lawyer Derek Cho (Steven Yeun, formerly Glenn on THE WALKING DEAD). Derek wants to make it to the top, and he gets a big boost after concocting a legal defense for "redders," those infected by a rage virus that turns them into red-eyed, homicidal maniacs who, thanks to Derek, can't be held accountable for their actions. "I wanted the corner office, and for my sins, they gave me one," explains apparent APOCALYPSE NOW fan Derek. But today is not Derek's day, as shit rolls downhill and the powers that be way up the ladder have decided to scapegoat him in a botched case on which he didn't even work. Cokehead CEO Towers (Steven Brand as Sean Pertwee) won't even see him, instead delegating Derek's immediate termination to bitch-on-wheels underling Kara "The Siren" Powell (Caroline Chikezie) and emotionless HR automaton Lester "The Reaper" McGill (Dallas Roberts). On his way to being escorted out, Derek finds the building under quarantine after traces of the "redder" virus are found in the ventilation system and will take eight hours to dissipate. So begins one long work day of everyone falling victim to the virus, which triggers a breakdown of moral barriers (not to mention narrative coherence), unleashing uncontrolled anger, depression, fear, and lust that's accelerated by things like caffeine and antidepressants. Glenn is determined to make it to the top floor (symbolism!) and expose Towers and the equally devious Smythe (Kerry Fox, who starred in Jane Campion's AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE and Danny Boyle's SHALLOW GRAVE in better days) for their lies and corruption. He gets help from Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), who happened to be stuck in the building trying to get the foreclosure of her home reversed, as they arm themselves with power tools, buzzsaws, and nail guns to fight their way through the redder-infested building.

MAYHEM was directed by Joe Lynch, an indie-horror darling of the HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN generation whose previous credits include a segment of the anthology throwback CHILLERAMA and the terrible Salma Hayek actioner EVERLY. Like too many of his contemporaries, Lynch specializes in genre films that are created under the assumption that they're already cult classics right out of the gate. MAYHEM spends far too much time on boring office backstabbing and by the time the titular brouhaha begins, it's just a lot of yelling, screaming, and over-the-top violence. Nothing in MAYHEM is particularly humorous, and its observations on getting ahead in the workplace and being successful aren't exactly insightful ("I didn't have a job...my job had me" sighs Derek). There's also the obligatory pandering to the scenesters, from Steve Moore's  '80s-inspired synth score to a major characters's death being accompanied by a really loud Wilhelm Scream guaranteed to elicit fanboy chants of "Gooble gobble, one of us!" The best thing about the film is Weaving (niece of the great Hugo Weaving), who's had a busy 2017 highlighted by the surprisingly entertaining Netflix film THE BABYSITTER. She's a lot of fun in that film and she gives MAYHEM a needed boost every time she's onscreen. Weaving dives into this with spirited gusto and sense of humor (her dismissal of The Dave Matthews Band in favor of Motorhead, D.R.I. and "early Anthrax" is a highlight), compensating for the dumb script and the bland Yeun, so much so that you almost wish she was main star. This thing's currently rocking an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I'm honestly stumped as to why. Call it 28 BELKO EXPERIMENTS LATER and move on. (Unrated, 87 mins)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

In Theaters: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by David Scarpa. Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Timothy Hutton, Charlie Plummer, Marco Leonardi, Andrew Buchan, Stacy Martin, Giuseppe Bonifati, Andrea Piedimonte, Nicolas Vaporidis, Charlie Shotwell, Guglielmo Favilla, Clive Wood, Giulio Base, Riccardo de Torrebruna. (R, 132 mins)

Regardless of how the film turned out, it's inevitable that ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, a chronicle of the 1973 kidnapping of 16-year-old oil heir Paul Getty, will be remembered most for its role in "#MeToo" phenomenon and the epidemic of sexual assault and misconduct allegations that rocked the entertainment industry in the fall of 2017, beginning with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. Approximately six weeks before the Christmas release date, director Ridley Scott made the decision to remove Kevin Spacey from the completed film following numerous disturbing allegations against the Oscar-winning actor. Cast as billionaire J. Paul Getty and essaying the role under a ton of prosthetic makeup that rendered him unrecognizable, Spacey was already set as the focus of the film's big awards season push. As more accusers came forward detailing incidents with Spacey dating back to the 1980s, Scott feared that the growing scandal would only prove toxic and potentially lead to the shelving of the film and everyone's hard work being all for naught. In order to save the project, he then made the decision to cut all of Spacey's scenes and brought in Christopher Plummer--his original choice before distributor Sony pushed for Spacey--for some burning-the-midnight-oil reshoots that took place from November 20 to November 29, 2017. This decision also required stars Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg to rearrange their schedules in order to redo their Getty scenes with Plummer, and the stitches show only slightly: only in one shot does it look like Plummer's been composited into an existing scene, and in his new scenes with Plummer, Wahlberg is clearly wearing a wig and, perhaps in the middle of prepping for another role, looks noticeably thinner in the face. Late-in-the-game cast changes have happened before, for a variety of reasons: the eventually blacklisted Howard Da Silva starred in the completed 1951 western SLAUGHTER TRAIL before RKO ordered his scenes cut and reshot with Brian Donlevy after Da Silva was accused of communist leanings and refused to testify before HUAC; when Tyrone Power died 2/3 of the way through filming the 1959 Biblical epic SOLOMON AND SHEBA, his footage was scrapped and Yul Brynner was hired to reshoot all of his completed scenes. These are but two instances of quick decisions being made to save a film, but the time element makes ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD something noteworthy (and, it's worth mentioning, easier to pull off in the age of digital). The complete removal of a major star due to a scandal, so close to the release date that said scandal is still ongoing in real time as the film hits theaters is unprecedented. And for the most part, the legendary filmmaker--80 years old and showing no signs of slowing down--pulled it off.

Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa take some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes, sometimes detrimentally so, but it's an overall engrossing saga of the ordeal of Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher), who's abducted and held for ransom by a terrorist group in Rome. They demand $17 million, assuming a quick and easy payday since Paul's grandfather is oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world. Getty can make $17 million on a good day, but he's also the most miserly man in the world, the kind of penny-pincher who has a pay phone installed in his house for guests to use, with a sign advising them to keep their calls brief. Everything is a deal to Getty and he never loses, and his first assumption is that Paul staged the kidnapping himself in order to extort money since Paul often joked about doing just that. Getty's also in no hurry to help his estranged daughter-in-law Gail Harris (Williams), who divorced his son John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) several years earlier and received custody of Paul and their other three children. With Getty II now a borderline catatonic drug addict wiling away his days in Morocco, it's up to Gail to manage the negotiations with the kidnappers. She gets some assistance from ex-CIA agent and J. Paul Getty fix-it man Fletcher Chase (Wahlberg), who's been advised by the old man to retrieve his grandson and do it as cheaply as possible. Since Gail has no access to the Petty fortune--she agreed to take no cash settlement in the divorce in exchange for full custody of the kids--Paul is held captive for months due to Getty's unbending refusal to pay a single cent, and the boy is even sold to another group of kidnappers led by wealthy "investor" Mammoliti (Marco Leonardi), who eventually decides to send Paul's severed ear to a Rome newspaper in order to convince Getty that they're serious. And even then, the ruthless billionaire--who's in the midst of making the biggest profits of his life thanks to the oil crisis--only agrees to pay a significantly lesser sum once he and his lawyer Oswald Hinge (Timothy Hutton) finagle a way to make it tax-deductible.

Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty

Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty

Original poster art prior
to Spacey being cut from the film
As portrayed here by a sneering and subtly sinister Plummer, Getty is nothing short of a monster who would rather put his grandson at risk if the alternative is parting with any of his money (while the hostage negotiation is going on, he thinks nothing of dropping $1.5 million on painting). Spacey's removal from ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is probably the best thing that could've happened: initial trailers showing the actor weighed down by unconvincing makeup would've ultimately been viewed as a distraction and Oscar-baiting stunt casting. By contrast, 88-year-old Plummer plays the 81-year-old Getty with no makeup, letting you see the condescension and the unscrupulous disregard for humanity come through in the decades visible on his face. He's perfectly cast and ultimately, the best thing in the movie. Young Charlie Plummer does some solid work as Paul, and his scenes with sympathetic kidnapper Cinquanta (Romain Duris) also provide some of the film's strongest moments. Wahlberg and Williams are less convincing--Wahlberg because he doesn't so much play Chase as much as he does a stock "Mark Wahlberg" character (the scene where he finally tells off Getty feels a little too "say hi to your mother for me"), and Williams because she's uncharacteristically mannered here, with actions and vocal inflections that too often sound like she's using the film to workshop a mid-career Katharine Hepburn impression. Scott's manipulation of the time element gets eye-rollingly melodramatic by the end, which crescendos into a ludicrous finale that has Getty dying at the very moment his grandson is rescued, which has no resemblance whatsoever to the reality where Getty died nearly three years later in 1976. Despite the occasional missteps, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD gets a lot right, particularly the mood and feel of 1973 Italy, a tumultuous time that saw increased crime and Red Brigade-related terrorism take over the country. But really, the biggest reason to see it is for someone who wasn't even in it until about a month before its release. The ageless Christopher Plummer is a living legend, and on the shortest notice imaginable, created one of the most vivid and memorable characters of his long and storied career.

Monday, December 25, 2017

On Netflix: BRIGHT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by David Ayer. Written by Max Landis. Cast: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry, Ike Barinholtz, Brad Henke, Veronica Ngo, Happy Anderson, Margaret Cho, Enrique Murciano, Jay Hernandez, Alex Meraz, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Joseph Piccuiro, Scarlet Spencer, Andrea Navedo, Cle "Bone" Sloan, Brandon Larracuente. (Unrated, 117 mins)

Netflix enters the realm of the brain-dead blockbuster with the $90 million BRIGHT, the follow-up teaming of star Will Smith and director David Ayer after last year's SUICIDE SQUAD, a film that grossed $750 million worldwide despite nobody really liking it all that much. While SUICIDE SQUAD's contributions to pop culture are limited to teenage girls and MILFs dressing as Harley Quinn for Halloween and this image accompanying any article on Margot Robbie for the rest of her life, BRIGHT is a film nobody will remember a week from now. Nobody's dressing as a BRIGHT orc for Halloween. Playing like the rough draft of a gritty L.A. cop script if written by the late Gary Gygax after he just saw ALIEN NATION in 1988 and immediately ran it through his shredder, BRIGHT tries to fuse Ayer's love of cop movies into the realm of otherworldly fantasy, existing in a present-day world where humans, orcs, and elves have co-existed since the defeat of the "Dark Lord" 2000 years ago. In an effort to promote the appearance of diversity, the LAPD has given burned-out cop--is there any other kind?--Daryl Ward (Smith) an Orc partner named Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton under extensive old-school prosthetics). There's some heavy-handed allegorical implications of racism in an era of controversial police shootings of unarmed black men, with the insulated "protect the shield" attitude extending to the calculated ostracizing of Jakoby. Ward pleads with his watch commander Sgt. Ching (Margaret Cho) to get a new partner, but since nobody wants to work with him either, the two are forced to pair up...if they don't kill each other first!

Or bore the viewer to death first. Ward and Jakoby answer a call and discover a bloodbath at the hideout of the Shield of Light, a fringe underground group of renegade elves prepping to stop the resurrection of the Dark Lord. The lone survivor is Tikka (Lucy Fry as Milla Jovovich in THE FIFTH ELEMENT), a gibberish-spouting elf in possession of a magical, glowing wand that's intended for a "Bright," a standard-issue "chosen one" with the power to defeat the minions of the Dark Lord (any guesses who the Bright will be?). Ching and three other dirty cops arrive, planning to plant the wand on Jakoby and accuse him of stealing it, using that as an excuse to kill Jakoby and Ward, who hates Jakoby but refuses to go along with railroading a fellow officer. Ward ends up killing the other cops to protect Jakoby, and the three find themselves on the run, fleeing a variety of pursuers: the L.A.P.D.; villainous dark elf Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who's after the the wand and Tikka; evil Orc gang leader Dorghu (Brad Henke), and Kandemore (Edgar Ramirez), an elf agent in the FBI's "Division of Magic."

I can't even believe I just wrote that last paragraph. Who thought it was a good idea to combine a hard-R cop thriller with Dungeons & Dragons? The script is credited to Max Landis (son of John and the writer of CHRONICLE and VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN), who was faced with several sexual misconduct allegations just as Netflix rolled this out, but it's obvious Ayer rewrote significant chunks of it. Ayer's fingerprints are all over, whether it's the ballbusting banter between Ward and Jakoby, the "survive the day" motif so vital to the Ayer-penned TRAINING DAY and his much later END OF WATCH, and most glaringly, an entire plot development involving Dorghu and his son that Ayer lifted almost completely from that long, intense sequence in TRAINING DAY when Ethan Hawke's Hoyt is held in a bathtub at gunpoint by Cliff Curtis' Smiley. The glum BRIGHT is riddled with fantasy genre cliches as well: in a shocking turn of events, evil Leilah jumps from a high point and does a three-point superhero landing looking down, then lifting her head to make eye contact with Ward.

It also takes itself far too seriously for such a bonkers premise, so much so that very few of the humorous elements are successful amidst the confused mash-up of dark fantasy, horror, and cop tropes. The only big laugh comes from the revelation that Orcs like death metal, and the sight of a seething Ward watching Jakoby jam along in the police cruiser to Cannibal Corpse's "Hammer Smashed Face," calling it "one of the great love songs." Elsewhere, tiny fairies are regarded as common household pests. Ward swats one with a broom, quipping "Fairy lives don't matter today!" which is one of many Smith groaners that clang to the ground throughout (other witticisms include "A Bright came in and used the wand to magic everyone the fuck up!" and "You fucked over my life for some stupid Orc knucklehead?" and "You're gonna need to unfuck us!  Magic us to Palm Springs or some shit!"). Edgerton comes off the best, not surprising given that he's playing the most sympathetic character and one who's discriminated against by his colleagues as well as his own kind for selling out to become a cop and for being an "unblooded orc," whatever that is. BRIGHT can be summed up best by a perfectly appropriate event that takes place at exactly the halfway point: the action stops cold for a long dialogue scene that exists simply so Kandemore can deliver a mid-film exposition dump to his cynical partner Montehugh (Happy Anderson) in an attempt to catch the viewer up to speed on the incoherent plot. While it serves its purpose, it does prompt a bewildered Montehugh to offer the ultimate BRIGHT auto-critique: "What a shitshow."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: LEATHERFACE (2017) and BLOOD MONEY (2017)

(US - 2017)

2013's TEXAS CHAINSAW functioned as a direct sequel to 1974's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, negating the three previous sequels (1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2, 1990's LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, and 1997's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION) as well as the 2003 Michael Bay-produced remake THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and its 2006 prequel THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING. Even though THE BEGINNING addressed the early years of iconic chainsaw-wielding Leatherface in a prologue, LEATHERFACE sees fit to tell his origin story once more, but in feature-length detail. Shot in Bulgaria (some desolate farm areas and dirt roads doing a surprisingly credible job of doubling for Texas) in 2015 and shelved for two years before its gala premiere on DirecTV, LEATHERFACE was directed by the team of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, the French duo responsible for the 2007 cult classic INSIDE, one of the key films of France's extreme horror boom from a decade or so back. After the international notoriety of INSIDE, Maury and Bustillo were initially attached to HALLOWEEN II until Rob Zombie decided to direct it himself, and for a long time, they worked on developing a remake of HELLRAISER before finally leaving over creative differences during pre-production. LEATHERFACE marks their first English-language effort and if nothing else, they brought their gift of transgression along, with one scene involving a threesome with a decaying corpse as the third participant going down as one of the more jaw-droppingly depraved moments in a 2017 horror movie. The film was cut to avoid an NC-17, but what's here is probably still the goriest entry in the CHAINSAW canon.

While Maury and Bustillo enthusiastically throw gallons of blood all over the place (most of it the convincingly wet, practical kind), the story really leaves a lot to be desired, coming off like a half-baked retread of Rob Zombie's filmography, which serves as proof that everything comes full circle as Zombie's entire career seems like a tribute to the first two CHAINSAW movies. Owing a tremendous debt to THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and Zombie's remake of HALLOWEEN in terms of style and characterizations, LEATHERFACE (which counts the late Tobe Hooper and his back-in-the-day creative partner Kim Henkel among its army of producers) takes place in the 1950s (only the cars provide any shred of period detail; everyone else looks and talks like they're from the present day), with young Jedidiah Sawyer declared a ward of the state after being taken away from his deranged mother Verna (Lili Taylor, who really should have better things to do). He's renamed Jackson and as a teenager (played by British actor Sam Strike), he ends up as an unwitting accomplice in a mental institution breakout after Mother Firefly...er, I mean Verna incites a riot upon being denied a chance to visit her long-estranged son. Jedidiah/Jackson and new nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) escape with homicidal lovers Ike (James Bloor) and Baby Firefly...er, I mean Clarice (Jessica Madsen) and lumbering oaf Bud (Sam Coleman). Ike and Clarice hold Jedidiah and Lizzy captive and go on a killing spree, with vengeful Sheriff John Quincy Wydell...er, I mean Sheriff Harwood (Stephen Dorff as William Forsythe) in pursuit and still seeking vengeance after Verna's elder son Otis Driftwood...er, I mean Drayton (Dimo Alexiev) killed his teenage daughter years earlier. The script by Seth M. Sherwood tries to generate sympathy for young Leatherface much like Zombie's HALLOWEEN attempted to do for Michael Myers, and as in Zombie's film, it's all for naught. No one needed one Leatherface origin story, let alone an extended revisionist take a decade later. For all their insistence on staying true to their vision--the main reason they walked away from the HELLRAISER remake that has yet to materialize--you'd think Maury and Bustillo would deliver something more than stale leftovers from the tattered, dog-eared pages of the Rob Zombie playbook once they got another shot at a major horror franchise. Sure, there's some good splatter here and that necrophile menage-a-trois is legitimately shocking, but the story is rote and uninspired, a copy of a copy, and ultimately does nothing to enrich or enhance the CHAINSAW mythos. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2017)

It never quite comes together, but there's occasional flashes of a better movie trying to break free with BLOOD MONEY, the latest from MAY director Lucky McKee. A millennial TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE mixed with a survivalist thriller, BLOOD MONEY has three college-aged, childhood friends--Victor (BOYHOOD's Ellar Coltrane), Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald of the TV series SCREAM), and Jeff (GLEE's Jacob Artist)--going on a weekend rafting and camping trip. The tension is already palpable: Victor and Lynn slept together once just before graduating from high school. It was a one-time thing, but he's never gotten over it, and it doesn't take him long to figure out that Lynn and Jeff have hooked up and haven't gotten around to telling him yet. Victor's also passive-aggressively resentful that Lynn went off to college with a scholarship and Jeff comes from a rich family while he's stuck at home with a shit job and his friends calling him a "townie." Things are already nearing a boil when Lynn finds four duffel bags filled with a total of $8 million, wedged up against some logs on a riverbank. The money belongs to Miller (John Cusack), who followed it out of a plane by parachute but got separated from it on the way down. The trio periodically run into Miller, who seems to be an aimless, eccentric hiker trying to bum smokes and even strikes up a sort-of friendship with Victor after he leaves Lynn and Jeff over being a third wheel in terms of their weekend and after he's outvoted in his feeling that they should turn the money over to the police. But it soon dawns on Miller that Lynn and Jeff have the money and he forces Victor to take him to them, resulting in a game of cat-and-mouse between the bickering friends and Miller, which will of course end up in a confrontation at an abandoned grain mill.

There isn't a single likable character in BLOOD MONEY, but that might've worked if the filmmakers committed to the kind of pitch black comedy that's the specialty of the Coen Bros. There's far too much time spent on the ennui of the three friends whose longtime bond gets more frayed by the minute. It's interesting the way expectations are subverted and Lynn becomes so incredibly ruthless about keeping the money. Fitzgerald also gets a great speech near the end where she lets Lynn's long-gestating frustration rage forth, telling Victor how much better it was when they were kids and they were all happy just being friends, "but then I got my period and grew a pair of tits, and became a prize for you two to compete for." Cusack fares much better here than in his recent VOD atrocity SINGULARITY, a career low where newly-shot scenes of the actor were plugged into a long-shelved sci-fi movie from several years earlier. He still seems to exist in another movie than his co-stars for the most part but it works in context, as does his newfound disheveled look with his all-black wardrobe and bandana (he didn't bring his black cap and vape pen along for this one). Given his dubious track record in recent years, it's a rarity these days that a film is most alive when Cusack is onscreen, but he actually seems to give a shit here, spouting funny and possibly ad-libbed dialogue when he's tearing into Victor, who won't stop whining in self-pity about how he lost Lynn. He mocks him over his shitty townie job ("You think that's enough for Miss Thing?"), he dispenses unhelpful romantic advice ("Take her back to your one-room hovel and romance her on minimum wage"), and even throws in pop culture observations ("Everybody loves Metallica!"). It's in those moments where Cusack seems to channel his inner Nic Cage, and in Lynn's lashing out at Victor along with her unexpected character arc, that BLOOD MONEY hints at something better and smarter. It needed more of that to be a success, but in relative terms, it's one of the better Cusackalypse Now titles of late. Admittedly, that's a pretty low bar. (R, 85 mins)