Thursday, February 28, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: BETWEEN WORLDS (2018) and A PRIVATE WAR (2018)

(US/Spain - 2018)

By now, it's pointless to find any rhyme or reason when it comes to Nicolas Cage's career choices. These days, his only A-list gigs come from voice work in animated films like SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, and every once in a while, he'll luck into a FROZEN GROUND, JOE, THE TRUST, or MOM AND DAD among his plethora of VOD clunkers. But 2018 was the year of MANDY, Panos Cosmatos' gonzo mindfuck of a midnight movie that got a lot of festival buzz and was an instant, legit cult classic right out of the gate. It immediately became an essential entry in the Cage canon and got him the most acclaim and attention he'd received in years. But any hopes that MANDY would herald a Cageassaince are dashed with BETWEEN WORLDS, a moronic and amateurish supernatural thriller that hit VOD at the tail end of last year. With enough strange ideas and Cage once again cast as a blue collar loner who finds himself caught up in all sorts of inexplicable mayhem, BETWEEN WORLDS could almost pass itself off as a distant cousin to MANDY, but it's filmed in such a basic, rudimentary fashion so devoid of style and a sense of professionalism that it actually looks, at best, like a student film that accidentally got a distribution deal. It seems the only trick that co-producer/writer/director Maria Pulera has in her arsenal--aside from somehow cajoling the great Angelo Badalamenti into composing the main theme, which I guess is there to give the film a Dipshit David Lynch vibe--is the repetitious and pointlessly wanky reliance on low-angle close-ups of everything from a coffee carafe to a bottle of beer to the hairy ass crack of an overweight convenience store clerk. That, and the ability to get real and long-established actors like Cage and Franka Potente (RUN LOLA RUN, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) to embarrass themselves in a project that's far beneath them.

In an opening filled with one of the most laboriously clumsy exposition dumps I've ever seen, Alabama trucker Joe Majors (Cage, wearing what looks like the tattered remains of his CON AIR mullet), still grieving the loss of his wife and young daughter in a recent house fire, is using the men's room at a gas station when he walks in on a burly guy strangling a woman. The woman is Julie (Potente), and Joe thinks he saved her life, but it's something else entirely: since a near-drowning experience as a child, she's had the ability to cross "between worlds," with a psychic ability to rescue those near death. She uses it sparingly, but needs it now because her grown daughter Billie (Penelope Mitchell) is in a coma after a motorcycle accident that morning. In order to go between worlds, she has to be taken to the brink of death herself, with strangling being the most convenient way, and she paid the guy to choke her. Since he ruined the connection, Joe feels obligated to choke Julie himself in order for her to save a non-responsive Billie at the hospital, and it works. Before long, Joe and Julie are a thing but something isn't right with Billie. She's soon leering at Joe, tempting him in various states of undress when Julie isn't around, and giving him under-the-blanket handjobs on the couch while they watch TV and Julie's in the kitchen making dinner. Yep, you guessed it: when Julie went between worlds, Billie's soul was switched out with that of Joe's late wife, who's now inside Billie's body, ready for action, and not at all pleased that he's hooked up with Julie.

BETWEEN WORLDS doesn't even follow its own barely-there logic, and its primary justification is simply for Cage to channel his inner Talk Show Robin Williams, with Pulera apparently so grateful that he said yes that she does nothing to rein him in. In a performance that makes his work in the long-forgotten early '90s erotic potboiler ZANDALEE seem disciplined, Cage has several absurdly over-the-top sex scenes with both Potente and Mitchell, sometimes amusing himself while thrusting away by randomly quoting and pantomiming the crucifix masturbation scene in THE EXORCIST or reading aloud from a book of erotic poetry with a cover that reads "Memories by Nicolas Cage." He ad-libs endlessly (Potente: "Want a beer?" Cage: "Does the Tin Man have a sheet-metal cock?"), and totally loses it in the finale, which has him sobbing uncontrollably and cradling his dead daughter's Jack-in-the-Box while pouring gasoline on himself to the tune of The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack." Mind you, as on-brand as this is for Nic Cage--who wouldn't wanna see the movie I just described?--none of it is ever as entertaining as it sounds. Similar to his disastrous performance in the unwatchable ARMY OF ONE, Cage's histrionics come off as exhausted and overly affected, because there's no movie here--it's just him goofing off for 90 minutes. Something more polished and professional might've made Cage's antics more palatable, but BETWEEN WORLDS is a film that displays all the production value of a high-end sex tape or hostage video, magnifying the fact that Cage has nothing to work with and really begging the question of what even attracted him and Potente to this thing in the first place. (R, 91 mins)

(US/UK/Germany - 2018)

One of the most overlooked films of the 2018 awards season, at least by the general moviegoing public, A PRIVATE WAR is a harrowing chronicle of Marie Colvin, an American expat and war correspondent who spent nearly 30 years covering the most dangerous areas of the world for the UK's Sunday Times. The film covers the post-9/11 era, where Colvin, portrayed here in a remarkable performance by Rosamund Pike, spent most of her time embedded in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, venturing into places and situations that most journalists would consider too dangerous (when asked if she's afraid, she replies "You're never gonna get to where you're going if you acknowledge fear...fear comes later"). She lost the sight in her left eye after catching shrapnel in a bomb blast in Sri Lanka in 2001--with an eye-patch subsequently providing her signature look--and after two miscarriages, two failed marriages to journalist/novelist David Irens (Greg Wise), and now too old to have children, she threw herself into her work and grew even more ambitious and addicted to the danger. After befriending photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) in Iraq, she convinces him to tag along with her and a translator, breaking the rules and moving ahead of US troops to corroborate rumors of a Saddam Hussein-ordered mass grave in Fallujah. Her actions both earn the respect and test the patience of everyone in her life, from Conley to her editor (Tom Hollander), her best friend (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and a sympathetic potential love interest (Stanley Tucci). Colvin extensively covered the Syrian civil war, and her life came to an end in the city of Homs, where she, Conroy, and journalist Remi Ochlik (Jeremie Laheurte) would be trapped in a building receiving heavy artillery fire trying to evacuate residents from the area. Only a seriously-injured Conroy survived, with Colvin and Ochlik succumbing to injuries sustained from a bomb blast. Only hours before her death, Colvin was interviewed by Anderson Cooper in prime time on CNN.

Originally intended as a project for Charlize Theron (who remained onboard as one of 34 credited producers), A PRIVATE WAR marks the narrative directing debut of acclaimed documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman (CARTEL LAND, CITY OF GHOSTS), who really nails the details when it comes to embedded journalists covering war zones. He stages one nerve-wracking sequence after another where a determined Colvin might be killed at any moment. Years of witnessing atrocities and death have taken their toll--she drinks too much, she grows more abrasive, she's diagnosed with PTSD and is briefly committed to a hospital--but it's all she knows and she can't cover the mundane assignments her editor half-heartedly suggests as alternatives ("the gardening section?"). It would've been easy to lapse into cliched melodrama and there are some times during the boozy, chain-smoking sections where it almost does, but Pike fearlessly inhabits Marie Colvin, warts and all. She keeps A PRIVATE WAR from turning into the cliched hagiography that might've resulted had a more "Hollywood" director than Heineman been handed the screenplay written by Arash Amel, whose credits include the instantly-forgotten Aaron Eckhart TAKEN knockoff ERASED and the little-loved Nicole Kidman dud GRACE OF MONACO. The last of three Pike political thrillers that bombed in theaters in 2018 (after the inexplicably dance-crazed 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE and the solid throwback BEIRUT), A PRIVATE WAR is further evidence of the actress becoming a top Flop Indicator (© Bob Cashill), but like BEIRUT, this one deserved a better reception than it got, and in a perfect world, Pike would've been nominated for an Oscar along with the similarly snubbed Toni Collette for HEREDITARY. (R, 110 mins)

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Retro Review: PARTY LINE (1988)

(US - 1988)

Directed by William Webb. Written by Richard Brandes. Cast: Richard Hatch, Shawn Weatherly, Leif Garrett, Greta Blackburn, Richard Roundtree, James O'Sullivan, Terrence McGovern, Shelli Place, Patricia Patts, Tara Hutchins, Marty Dudek, Karen Mayo Chandler, James Paradise, Angela Gibbs, Ed Corbett, West Buchanan. (R, 90 mins)

An obscurity from the VHS glory days just resurrected on a surprisingly terrific-looking Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome (because physical media is dead), PARTY LINE isn't about to be branded a lost classic, but it's not without its bizarre charms. Released in the fall of 1988 by the short-lived Sony B-movie wing SVS Films (the 1989 Eric Roberts kickboxing actioner BEST OF THE BEST was the closest thing they had to a hit), PARTY LINE arrived at a transitional time as the '80s slasher craze was largely over and the advent of the '90s sax-and-smooth jazz-driven Skinemax unrated erotic thriller era was on the horizon, and it's not lost on Vinegar Syndrome's marketing department that PARTY LINE straddles--no pun intended--both of these iconic exploitation genres. Centered on a Los Angeles-based chat line for phone sex and hookups, this pre-internet, pre-Tinder time capsule has two psycho siblings--Seth Benson (former '70s teen idol Leif Garrett) and his older sister Angelina (Greta Blackburn of 48 HRS and CHAINED HEAT)--luring horny, married men to bed with Angelina, resulting in Seth slashing their throats as part of an ongoing, codependent revenge ritual against their dead movie producer father. Dad was sexually molesting Angelina for years when she was growing up, prompting their actress mother to commit suicide and Seth, already stunted by severe Oedipal issues as a child, to kill their father and stage it as an accident. As the body count rises, disgraced cop Dan Bridges (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's Richard Hatch), busted down to vice after repeated allegations of police brutality, illegal searches, and harassing suspects, is kicked back up to homicide by the always-ballbusting Capt. Barnes (Richard Roundtree), and ordered to work the case with D.A. special investigator Stacy Sloan (1980 Miss Universe Shawn Weatherly, a year away from BAYWATCH during its one season on NBC, prior to its pop culture explosion in syndication once Pamela Anderson joined the cast).

PARTY LINE works in a surplus of extraneous subplots, including teenager Jennifer (Patricia Patts), who dials into the party line when she's babysitting for the Simmons family and develops a crush on Seth, while at the same time being consistently made a pre-#MeToo example by Mr. Simmons (Terrence McGovern), who's always pawing at her and trying to seduce her when he drives her home. After checking his phone bill, Simmons discovers the party line and uses it to attempt a hook-up with Jennifer, which sets him up as the perfect Seth/Angelina target. Stacy is constantly being propositioned by the lecherous D.A. (James O'Sullivan), who eventually takes her off the case when she won't sleep with him (in another example of PARTY LINE being a doomsday scenario for the easily outraged, one of Bridges' female colleagues in vice scores some great seats for a Lakers game and makes a soon-to-be cringe-worthy crack about sleeping with Magic Johnson to get them). And Bridges has a casual fling with self-effacing, sexy motorcycle cop Butch (Marty Dudek), who makes the mistake of pulling over a speeding Seth in his red Ferrari and gets her throat slashed in the process, which makes this--you guessed it--personal for Bridges.

Hatch isn't the most convincing plays-by-his-own-rules cop, getting little residual cred from SUDDEN IMPACT poster on his living room wall (though he does dunk a dude's head in a clogged trough urinal at one point), and his Bridges is so perpetually one-step behind that it's surprising he wasn't given the usual movie cop indignity of being busted down to records. One almost wishes Dudek was given more to do, since her brief portrayal of the funny and chipper Butch ("Butch?" Stacy asks. "Yeah, we're old fishing buddies," quips Bridges) supplies PARTY LINE with its one legitimately charming and likable character. The entire detour with Jennifer is mostly fumbled comic relief, especially since she looks all of 14 and still manages to get into a trendy nightclub and send a drink over to an undercover Bridges (again, he's not the smartest cop). The biggest reason PARTY LINE might find a cult 30 years on is for the utterly batshit antics of Seth and Angelina, vividly brought to trashy life by Garrett and Blackburn in a pair of wildly over-the-top performances.

There's some clever misdirection on the part of director William Webb (who helmed other video store staples of the day like 1987's DIRTY LAUNDRY and 1989's THE BANKER) and screenwriter Richard Brandes (the early '90s Cynthia Rothrock actioners MARTIAL LAW and MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER and the 1998 Rose McGowan thriller DEVIL IN THE FLESH) in the way you assume early on the Seth is the driving force behind the mayhem. But it's Seth who's totally under the thumb of the domineering and nasty Angelina, who routinely mocks him by calling him a mama's boy and laughing at him when he indulges in his favorite pastime (other than slashing the throats of married men) of putting on his dead mother's wedding dress and crying uncontrollably. Garrett appeared in several Webb films and without a doubt recognizes PARTY LINE for what it is, and his third-string Norman Bates-as-DRESSED TO KILL L.A.-douchebag-with-a-mullet act (Seth's personalized vanity plate reads "TEMT ME") has some undeniable panache in its execution. Likewise, Blackburn takes this rare almost-lead role and runs with it. With its endless cliches (of course, Bridges is forced to turn in his badge after disobeying an order one too many times, and of course, like any no-rules movie cop, he solves the case while on suspension) and almost soap-opera level acting and production values, PARTY LINE is not a good movie, but it's an entertaining one. You get some gratuitous nudity, a loose cannon cop, Jack Nicholson's then-girlfriend Karen Mayo Chandler as a topless murder victim named "Sugar Lips,", a coasting Richard Roundtree acting like a sedated Frank McRae, no shortage of neck-slashing splatter, late '80s L.A. sleaze, and a cross-dressing Leif Garrett. If that sounds appealing, then check out PARTY LINE. You know you want to.

PARTY LINE opening in Toledo, OH on 10/28/1988

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: AT ETERNITY'S GATE (2018), THE FRONT RUNNER (2018) and THE BOUNCER (2019)

(UK/Switzerland/Ireland/US/France - 2018)

Beautiful and ponderous in equal measures, AT ETERNITY'S GATE does have an Oscar-nominated performance by Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh to carry it most of the way. Dafoe is so good--here and in general--that he successfully manages to overcome the major obstacle of being a 62-year-old actor playing someone who died at the age of 37. Directed by artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel (BASQUIAT, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY), AT ETERNITY'S GATE focuses on the last few months of Van Gogh's life and his artistic obsession, with a lot of time devoted to his almost sycophantic clinging to his successful contemporary Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). Financially supported by his younger brother Theo (Rupert Friend), Van Gogh and his work would never be recognized in his lifetime, and while Gauguin sees potential, he feels Van Gogh is too erratic and psychologically unstable to focus and think his painting through ("You're changing things so fast that you can't even see what you've done"). It's at Gauguin's suggestion that Van Gogh leaves Paris to find inspiration in Arles in the south of France, and when Gauguin visits him and has to leave to attend to some sales of paintings back home, a devastated Van Gogh melts down and cuts off his left ear to show his devotion. After a stint in a mental hospital, Van Gogh spends his final days on a furious tear of productivity in Auvers-sur-Oise before meeting a tragic end.

Working from a script co-written with 87-year-old Jean-Claude Carriere, a frequent Luis Bunuel collaborator (DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, BELLE DE JOUR, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE) still going strong as he approaches the seventh decade of his screenwriting career, Schnabel often stages his scenes as painterly images, where the screen starts to take on the look and texture of a Van Gogh work, a technique that's reminiscent of but not quite as immersive as Lech Majewski's 2011 film THE MILL AND THE CROSS. Elsewhere, Van Gogh's increasingly fragile mental state is conveyed by the intentional repetition of many lines of dialogue just seconds apart and in a series of distorted camera angles, blurred images, extreme close-ups, and shaky-cam that wouldn't be out of place in a found-footage horror film. Falling on the side of esoteric in comparison to the 1956 Hollywood biopic LUST FOR LIFE, with Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, James Donald as Theo, and an Oscar-winning Anthony Quinn as Gauguin (or even Robert Altman's pre-comeback 1990 film VINCENT & THEO, with Tim Roth as Van Gogh, Paul Rhys as Theo, and Wladimir Yordanoff as Gauguin), but AT ETERNITY'S GATE is sometimes standoffish to a fault, with Schnabel's techniques growing self-indulgent and tedious after a while. Not surprisingly, it works best when he takes a break from the directorial wankery and lets Dafoe work his magic, whether it's a long monologue or in scenes with Isaac, Friend, Mads Mikkelsen as a priest counseling Van Gogh at the mental hospital, and Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Ginoux, the "Woman from Arles" who inspired Van Gogh's famed series of "L'Arlesienne" paintings. (PG-13, 111 mins)

(US/Canada - 2018)

Hitting a handful of theaters on Election Day 2018, THE FRONT RUNNER didn't really catch on and only got a half-hearted, 800-screen rollout from Sony over the next couple of weeks, its gross stalling at $2 million and the film completely forgotten by December. A chronicle of the three weeks leading up to Colorado senator Gary Hart's withdrawal from the 1988 Presidential campaign over allegations of an affair with Donna Rice, THE FRONT RUNNER isn't very subtle about making connections to present-day issues, particularly in an embarrassingly heavy-handed scene late in the film between two Washington Post reporters. Hart, played here by Hugh Jackman, doesn't think the public cares about allegations and politicians' private lives, but as his campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, cast radically against type as "J.K. Simmons") tells him, "It's not '72." In the Senate for 15 years and losing the 1984 Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale, Hart's political star was on the rise, and going into 1988, he was posited as the front runner until a Washington Post reporter (Mamoudou Athie) brings up a brief separation from his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) several years earlier. Already whispered about in political circles as a womanizer, Hart doesn't even mask his indignation and invites the press to "follow me around, put a tail on me...they'll be very bored." Following an anonymous tip, a pair of Miami Herald reporters, Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Jim Savage (BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD creator Mike Judge) do just that and see Rice (Sara Paxton) visiting Hart at his D.C. townhouse. The senator insists she was there for a job interview, though it soon surfaces that they met a short time earlier in Miami on a crowded booze cruise arranged by Hart's lobbyist friend Billy Broadhurst (Toby Huss), on a yacht prophetically christened "Monkey Business."

A relatively tame preview of the media circus that was the Clinton era, the Gary Hart scandal is generally considered ground zero of tabloid journalism working its way into present-day politics. Director/co-writer Jason Reitman (JUNO, UP IN THE AIR) wants to fashion THE FRONT RUNNER as a rallying cry against the 24/7 cable news coverage that was on the horizon, but the end result is superficial and strangely aloof. It takes neither a methodical, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN approach nor one of satire along the lines of VICE. It's just...there. It gets off to a clunky, plodding start and takes a while to recover and find its footing (it doesn't help that every other character seems to be named "Bill" or "Bob"), and keeps everyone at a distance, never really getting into the heads of Hart or his family, with everything reduced to melodramatic proclamations like "The public doesn't care about this!" from Hart and "I told you to never embarrass me!" from Lee. Jackman does what he can with the shallow script (he's very good in a scene where Hart talks a nervous young journalist through some mid-flight turbulence), Alfred Molina is badly miscast as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Paxton has some good moments with Hart's sympathetic top female campaign staffer (Molly Ephraim) who's quietly resentful that Hart is abandoning her to a media that paints her as a bimbo. But much of this ultimately rings hollow if you're aware that Ephraim's character, like the Post reporter played by Athie along with several others, is a composite or an outright fictional creation. There's a few worthwhile bits early on, like Hart and Rice's first meeting during the loud and rambunctious booze cruise, with their conversation barely audible and being drowned out by Boston's "Long Time" (watch Jackson's face when Hart first sees her and immediately turns on the charm), but THE FRONT RUNNER plays like a forgettable HBO biopic, offering about as much insight into the scandal and its impact on future political news coverage as Gary Hart's Wikipedia entry. (R, 113 mins)

(France/Belgium - 2018; US release 2019)

Released in Europe last summer as LUKAS, THE BOUNCER finds Jean-Claude Van Damme in the kind of serious actor mode he's generally avoided since his 2008 meta arthouse confessional JCVD. It comes at the right time, as he's really been skidding in his headlining action vehicles of late, littered with forgettable duds like POUND OF FLESH, KILL 'EM ALL and BLACK WATER in between the rebooted KICKBOXER nostalgia trips. Dumped on US VOD in early January, the French-Belgian co-production THE BOUNCER is a bit different from the film's LUKAS cut in that it's shortened by several minutes and all of the characters have been dubbed into English, where LUKAS had a mix of English, French, and Flemish. Van Damme is speaking both English and French in the overseas LUKAS trailer, but it's all English in THE BOUNCER, and while he's dubbing himself, the obvious revoicing of the French-speaking actors does this version a bit of a disservice. That hiccup aside, THE BOUNCER is Van Damme's best film in years, a surprising departure in a grim, gritty, somber character piece with shocking bursts of violence and some Alfonso Cuaron-inspired tracking shots and unbroken takes by director Julian Leclercq (CHRYSALIS). In Brussels, Lukas (Van Damme) is a bouncer in a club that looks like a Gaspar Noe wet dream. He's tossing out an unruly patron for roughing up a waitress, and a scuffle ensues when the kid plays the "Do you know who I am?" card, ending up with a serious head injury after taking a swing at Lukas, and even though he was defending himself, Lukas still gets fired. He's a widower and single dad with a vague past as a bodyguard in South Africa, struggling to get by and raise his eight-year-old daughter Sarah (Alice Verset). Though he's a loving and doting father, he has no job skills other than beating the shit out of people, and as a result, he ends up looking for work as a bouncer at a strip joint where the job interview consists of six guys locked in a dimly-lit, Tyler Durden-esque basement and the last man standing gets the job. Of course, Lukas gets the job.

The club is owned by Jan Dekkers (Sam Louwyck of EX-DRUMMER), who's known in the Brussels underworld as "The Dutchman" and is running a counterfeiting ring. This puts Lukas in the sights of ambitious cop Maxim Zeroual (Sami Bouajila), who offers to take care of the pending assault charges from his last job if he works as an informant supplying information about The Dutchman and his chief henchman Geert (Kevin Janssens of REVENGE). Story-wise, THE BOUNCER doesn't really bring anything new to the table, but director Leclercq succeeds in creating a bleak and oppressive atmosphere as Lukas gets in too deep, with Van Damme turning in an effective and very internalized performance and using every line and wrinkle in his aged, weathered face to convey just how weary and tired and beaten-down-by-life Lukas has become. During the '00s when he was cranking out some quality DTV actioners and nobody was paying any attention, Van Damme very quietly became a character actor disguised as an action star. Lately, he's been coasting, but THE BOUNCER is a welcome look at the direction his career should've taken after JCVD. That's why it's too bad the only version that's available stateside has all of his scenes with Bouajila and young Verset dubbed into English (quite badly in Bouajila's case) when they were in French in the LUKAS cut. Still, THE BOUNCER is a must-see for JCVD fans interested in seeing him stretch beyond the confines of his usual Redbox fare. He's a much better actor than he's ever gotten credit for being. (R, 87 mins)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

In Theaters: COLD PURSUIT (2019)

(France/UK - 2019)

Directed by Hans Petter Moland. Written by Frank Baldwin. Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Tom Jackson, Emmy Rossum, Domenick Lombardozzi, Julia Jones, John Doman, William Forsythe, David O'Hara, Nicholas Holmes, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Michael Eklund, Raoul Trujillo, Michael Richardson, Gus Halper, Arnold Pinnock, Bradley Stryker, Wesley MacInnes, Elizabeth Thai, Aleks Paunovic, Glen Gould, Michael Adamthwaite, Kyle Nobess, Nels Lennarson. (R, 118 mins)

An almost scene-for-scene English-language remake of the 2014 Norwegian film IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE by the same director (Hans Petter Moland, who also helmed DEPARTMENT Q: A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH), COLD PURSUIT is perfectly-tailored for the now-decade-long "revenge thriller" phase of Liam Neeson's career (the actor has said this might be his last film of this type). Its opening hijacked by the fallout of an honest but ill-advised Neeson revelation on the press junket--and really, who better to judge a reactionary, knee-jerk response to a violent incident involving a close friend from over 40 years ago by a young man who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the sociopolitical upheaval of The Troubles in Northern Ireland than uber-woke and perpetually-offended Vulture and AV Club contributors in their mid-twenties who may not even be aware of Neeson's career before TAKEN?--COLD PURSUIT would, at first glance, appear to be the now-customary winter Neeson revenge offering. But if you've seen IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE or are at least familiar with its black comedy elements, it's something else entirely. Thanks to the genre expectations that come from Neeson rather than the original film's Stellan Skarsgard, COLD PURSUIT is an irreverent, witty, and frequently laugh-out-loud absurdist revenge thriller that feels like an in-his-prime Charles Bronson starring in a Coen Bros. movie. It works at its own pace and on its own wavelength, and everything about it just feels wonderfully offbeat and a bit off-kilter. It's a risky gamble for those expecting another TAKEN and it won't appeal to everyone, but once you're in sync with its oddball stylings and rhythms--it takes some time before it's clear that you're supposed to be laughing at most of this--it's an inspired blast filled with clever callbacks to earlier incidents and numerous visual gags, and it's vividly brought to life by Neeson and a terrific ensemble cast.

In the remote Colorado skiing town of Kehoe, local snowplow driver and man-of-few-words Nels Coxman (Neeson) barely has time to celebrate being named Kehoe's Citizen of the Year for his tireless efforts at keeping the main road clear before he and his wife Grace (Laura Dern) are dealt a tragic blow: their only son Kyle (Michael Richardson, Neeson's eldest son with late wife Natasha Richardson), a baggage handler at the local airport, is found dead from a heroin overdose. Insisting his son wasn't a junkie and that there must be some explanation for his death, Coxman embarks on what's initially the usual Neeson path of vengeance but one that's quickly defined by numerous unpredictable twists and turns. He offs a couple of low-level guys who turn out to be flunkies of Denver-based drug lord Trevor Calcote, aka "Viking" (Tom Bateman). When three of his guys turn up missing (Coxman has wrapped them in chicken wire and tossed them off a gorge into the ice-cold rapids on the outskirts of Kehoe), Viking is certain it's the beginning of a turf war with White Bull (Tom Jackson, presumably because Wes Studi and Graham Greene were busy), a Native American crime boss based in Kehoe who clashed with Viking's late father decades earlier (the cultural aspects and the oft-mentioned legality of weed in Colorado are the major structural diversions from the Norwegian original). At this point unaware of Coxman, Viking has White Bull's adult, first-born son killed and strung up on a road sign outside Kehoe, an unprovoked attack that breaks decades of peace and leads to White Bull planning the retaliatory kidnapping of Viking's classical music-loving young son Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), much to the chagrin of Viking's soon-to-be-ex-wife Aya (Julia Jones). All the while, Coxman keeps upping the body count, whacking guys with names like "Speedo" and "Limbo," and even getting advice from his retired and estranged criminal brother Brock, aka "Wingman" (William Forsythe), who recommends hiring a hit man known as "The Eskimo" (Arnold Pinnock).

Coxman's killing spree mines humor from its over-the-top violence (and, yes, also his name--Skarsgard plays "Nels Dickman" in the original film), with the laughs often coming in the repetition, whether it's the soon-to-be-customary chicken-wire-wrapped corpse being thrown off the gorge ("Why chicken wire?" Brock asks his brother. "So the fish can eat enough of the body to keep it from bloating with gas and rising to the surface...I read it in a crime novel") to the names of the deceased being displayed onscreen in order of disappearance, to the point where we don't even see them being killed (maybe just a curtain being drawn or a polite request to step off an expensive rug), but the inevitability is such that it becomes a clever running gag. Other delightfully dark-humored bits range from Viking telling his bullied son to read Lord of the Flies to learn how to handle himself; local cops Gip (John Doman) and Dash (Emmy Rossum) having conflicting views on how to deal with the expanding turf war; sex-crazed Viking goon Bone (Gus Halper) endlessly crowing about the "31% success rate" of his $20 trick with motel cleaning ladies, which of course results in a great sight gag later on; young Ryan helping his father's chief henchman Mustang (Domenick Lombardozzi) with his hapless fantasy football team and pointing out that he's losing because he's starting four Cleveland Browns; and some of White Bull's crew threatening a hotel desk clerk with a bad Yelp review. Neeson is the nominal star, but he's more than willing to let almost every member of the large supporting cast get a memorable turn in the spotlight. Nels Coxman doesn't seem like he'd be a man especially adept at violence, but a throwaway line about his and Brock's father being a criminal is enough to justify his ability to navigate through this world, even though he seems to have distanced himself from it when he met Grace (the film's biggest flaw is that it gives Dern almost nothing to do). COLD PURSUIT handles its laughs without crossing the line into parody, which would've been the easy route to take for a standard-issue remake. Thankfully, this takes a more droll, tongue-in-cheek approach. Indeed, the audience seemed hesitant to laugh along at first, like they weren't sure what to make of it, but once it gets rolling and establishes itself, COLD PURSUIT won them over. Now if only people could forgive Neeson for some irrational, impulsive thoughts borne of misdirected rage that he quickly abandoned after coming to his senses decades ago.

Friday, February 8, 2019

In Theaters: THE PRODIGY (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Nicholas McCarthy. Written by Jeff Buhler. Cast: Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Colm Feore, Peter Mooney, Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, Paula Boudreau, Olunike Adeyili, Elisa Moolecherry, Michael Dyson. (R, 92 mins)

From 1956's THE BAD SEED and 1960's VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED to 1976's THE OMEN, 1984's CHILDREN OF THE CORN and 1993's THE GOOD SON to the modern era with 2009's ORPHAN to name just a select few, the "creepy kid" has been one of horror's more durable subgenres throughout the decades. Mario Bava's final film, 1977's SHOCK, released in the US in 1979 as BEYOND THE DOOR II, also had a memorable creepy kid in Marco (David Colin, Jr.), who's become possessed by the spirit of his dead father. SHOCK had an unforgettably effective jump scare in a hallway involving a practical effect pulled off simply by smart camera placement, and that moment is replicated by director Nicholas McCarthy in his latest film THE PRODIGY, the newest addition to the creepy kid pantheon. It's clearly meant as an affectionate homage, as McCarthy knows his horror history and has obviously seen SHOCK. He's also seen THE EXORCIST and THE EXORCIST III, both of which are invoked to various degrees in THE PRODIGY, but McCarthy knows better than to take the film down those familiar and over-traveled roads. Jeff Buhler (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) is the credited screenwriter (he also wrote the upcoming remakes of PET SEMATARY, JACOB'S LADDER and THE GRUDGE), but I'm curious how much of this was rewritten by McCarthy. Discounting his hired gun gig helming the 2017 Investigation Discovery docu-drama FINAL VISION, McCarthy's films thus far--2012's THE PACT, 2014's AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR, and "Easter," his segment of the 2016 horror anthology HOLIDAYS--all share common themes of strong women, usually mothers or someone (an aunt, an older sister) put in the position of being responsible for children, perhaps going to great lengths to protect them, and some level of dysfunction or trauma that haunts a family over generations, a curse often passed down like a genetic flaw. These recurring themes turn up throughout THE PRODIGY, which takes the "creepy kid" trope and incorporates it into what must be considered McCarthy's obsession. THE PACT is one of the best horror films of the last ten years, and while AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR and "Easter" weren't bad, they didn't live up to the potential McCarthy showed with his debut. The uncompromising and unpredictable THE PRODIGY feels, seven years later, like the logical follow-up to THE PACT.

It's easy to fall into a trap of thinking THE PRODIGY is showing its cards too early, but it's obviously misdirection by design on the part of the filmmakers. A cross-cutting prologue depicts a young woman (Brittany Allen) escaping from the farmhouse of a rural Ohio serial killer (Paul Fauteux) who amputates the right hands of his female victims. At the same time she leads authorities to his middle-of-nowhere home and he's killed in a blast of gunfire by the cops, a baby boy named Miles is born in Pennsylvania to Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John Blume (Peter Mooney). Even before he's a year old, Miles is saying "Da-Da," and his cognitive abilities are accelerated well beyond his age as he enters his toddler and pre-school years. By the age of eight, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, best known as the doomed Georgie in 2017's IT) is a genius requiring a special school, though Sarah is concerned that his development is behind in other areas, such as his inability to adapt in social situations with other children. Miles has moments where he isn't himself, and when a babysitter (Elisa Moolecherry) is seriously injured in a basement trap clearly set by Miles, he says he has no recollection of anything. He starts having bad dreams and Sarah records him talking in his sleep in what she initially assumes is gibberish but what's later revealed to be a form of Hungarian but in a rarely-used and archaic dialect. As his actions grow more sinister, he tries to explain to his parents that he sometimes doesn't feel like he's in his own body, to the point where Sarah and John can no longer ignore that something is very wrong with Miles.

Based on that synopsis, you're probably assuming this is another rote possession film but that's just the set-up. It's not a spoiler to say that Miles' body is inhabited by the spirit of the serial killer, as it's plainly spelled out in the opening sequence. But McCarthy's interests lie elsewhere, whether it's the escalating tension of the situation and the various stylistic ways that it's conveyed (great use of mirrors, windows, and shadows),or how Sarah's distrust of her own son grows stronger and more panicked with each passing scene (John, still silently haunted by the abuse he suffered at the hands of his own father, is largely ineffectual when it comes to handling Miles; it's also John who serves as the requisite idiot, picking the worst possible time to tell Miles that they're taking him to a mental institution). As THE PRODIGY goes on, it ventures into some places that are pretty dark and disturbing for a commercial horror outing, particularly in one sequence--a one-on-one "regression" therapy session with Miles and a psychiatrist (Colm Feore)--that provoked audible gasps from the audience (trust me, you'll never be able to predict where their conversation ends up going, and both Scott and Feore play it perfectly), and in a shocking final act where Sarah resorts to extreme methods to help her son.

If you've seen McCarthy's past films, all of those concerns reappear here--dark family secrets, abuse and trauma, the notion of a spirit overtaking a body and "wearing it like a costume," as memorably stated in AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR, and a strong, determined mother who will stop at nothing to save her child--with the "creepy kid" tropes coming into play in unexpectedly subversive ways. THE PRODIGY also benefits from a strong and believable performance by Schilling and a remarkable one from young Scott, who fearlessly dives into this, getting to say and do things that earn the R rating, and he has a penetrating glare that isn't easily shaken, more than earning his rightful place among the horror genre's great creepy kids. McCarthy is one of horror's most promising filmmakers, and while THE PRODIGY is his first effort to get a nationwide rollout, he remains a figure that serious students of horror have largely kept to themselves, And to that end, I'm glad he hasn't quite broken out into the mainstream, opting (thus far) to create a body of work that chances playing the long game instead of directing something that will be forgotten two weeks after it's released. Like, say, the upcoming remakes of PET SEMATARY and CHILD'S PLAY, two trailers that preceded THE PRODIGY.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018) and THE GUILTY (2018)

(US/France/Germany/Spain/Romania/Belgium - 2018)

The $40 million revisionist western THE SISTERS BROTHERS was an expensive flop when it opened in theaters in the fall of 2018 and grossed just $3 million. An unmarketable art-house offering that had no business being sold as commercial multplex fare, it's the English-language debut of acclaimed French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED, A PROPHET, RUST AND BONE) and is based on a 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt. It was a long-gestating pet project for star John C. Reilly, who acquired the movie rights immediately after the book was published. It took Reilly six years and funding from six countries to finally get the film made, and with picturesque exteriors shot in Romania and the old spaghetti western stomping grounds of Almeria, Spain, cinematography by the great Benoit Debie, a score by Alexandre Desplat, and costume design by the legendary Milena Canonero, the money and the prestige are certainly up there on the screen. But the story is so sluggish and its intent so indecisive that the film never quite catches fire despite some excellent work by Reilly and his co-stars. Opening in 1851 Oregon during the Gold Rush, the story has sibling gunslingers Eli (Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) assigned by their powerful robber baron boss The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, wasted in a silent cameo and seen only briefly through a window) to track down Kermit Herman Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist he claims has stolen something valuable from him. The Commodore already has another regulator, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), on Warm's trail, but the Sisters brothers are perpetually several days behind, due in large part to Charlie's heavy drinking. Eli is skeptical of the work they do for The Commodore, not really buying that so many people steal from someone so feared. Indeed, Warm has stolen nothing from The Commodore: he's invented a formula for a chemical that illuminates gold deposits when poured into a body of water, and he's got an investor in California ready to buy it from him, while The Commodore simply wants to steal it--and eliminate Warm altogether--for his own plentiful financial gain. The Sisters brothers eventually catch up with Morris and Warm, forming an uneasy alliance brought about largely by their collective loathing of The Commodore, but in particular, it's Eli who wants something different, even suggesting to Charlie that they ditch their outlaw life and "maybe open a store" (Charlie: "A store? What fucking store?!"). The good-hearted Eli longs to better himself, and Reilly really captures that sentiment in a wonderful little moment when he sees that the more sophisticated and erudite Morris also uses a toothbrush, a new and rare commodity in these environs that Eli just acquired but hasn't quite mastered.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS looks great and it's obvious that Reilly put his heart and soul into it, but maybe Audiard just wasn't the right guy for the job. He's made some terrific films, but this one can't really commit to being anything. It's too slow and dour to be a comedy, but it's also too offbeat and quirky with their bickering and brawling to be a serious western, trying to have it both ways and succeeding at neither. Both stars have worked multiple times with Paul Thomas Anderson (Reilly in HARD EIGHT, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and MAGNOLIA, and Phoenix in THE MASTER and INHERENT VICE), and I kept thinking that Anderson might've been more suited to what this seems to be going after as an introspective character piece about brotherly bonds and family trauma that stems from their abusive father. In the end, it's a noble, well-intentioned misfire that never really pulls itself together, and they seriously could've used a cardboard cutout of Rutger Hauer for as little as he's required to do in his scant seconds of screen time. (R, 121 mins)

(Denmark - 2018)

Thrillers set in one location are always tricky to pull off, largely because the filmmakers often can't wait to get away from that specific location. It's hard to not recall the acclaimed Tom Hardy-in-a-car film LOCKE while watching the Danish thriller THE GUILTY. It's also reminiscent of the Halle Berry 911 thriller THE CALL, but with the patience and the discipline to stay in one place and, more importantly, with one person. Jakob Cedergren is on camera from the beginning to the end as Asger Holm, who's working as an emergency services dispatcher. Debuting director and co-writer Gustav Moller very deliberately fills in the pieces of Asger's back story as the film proceeds, but what we know up front is that he's a Copenhagen cop and he's been temporarily busted down to emergency dispatch for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. He's nearing the end of his shift, and he displays a visible impatience bordering on contempt--for the callers, his colleagues, and generally everything. He scoffs at a guy needing an ambulance because he's tripping on speed, and almost openly mocks a caller who was mugged by a hooker in the red light district. But then a call comes from a woman that caller ID lists as Iben Ostergard (voice of Jessica Dinnage). She's talking to Asger but pretending to talk to her daughter. Asger quickly deduces that she's been abducted and she's in a moving vehicle. He notifies the nearest precinct of her approximate location, then calls her home number to talk to her young daughter Mathilde (voice of Katinka Evers-Jahnsen). She's home alone with her infant brother and tells Asger that her parents had a fight and that Mommy (Iben) left with Daddy. Checking the records of Iben's estranged husband Michael, Asger discovers he's a convicted felon with a history of assault. Despite everyone--from his supervisor to the dispatchers at various precincts--telling him that he's done his job and they'll take it from here, the detective in Asger can't let it go. He calls his partner Rashid (voice of Omar Shargawi) and has him go to Michael's address to look for clues. Cops think they found the vehicle Iben is in, but it's a false alarm. The another team of cops arrive at Iben's house and are met with a shocking discovery. And all of this plays out with Asger listening in on a headset and staying on the line.

About 30 minutes in, Asger moves from his work station into a private office, which allows other developments to come to light. Why is he taking such an intense interest in this? Is he just that dedicated to his job? Will it get him out of the doghouse with his bosses? Is it a distraction from an oft-mentioned court appearance scheduled for the next morning? Why is a reporter calling him on his phone? Moller does an exemplary job with what essentially unfolds in real time, though specific time is never referenced nor a clock ever shown. It just feels like real time without the gimmick of drawing attention to itself. THE GUILTY is the kind of film that you find yourself watching with palpable tension and baited breath to the point where even the sound of vibrating phone is enough to put you on edge. It's like an 85-minute anxiety attack, especially when everything Asger does to help the situation in his take-charge fashion inevitably ends up making it worse. This wouldn't be nearly as effective as it is if not for the sure-handed vision of Moller and the riveting performance of Cedergren, who's logged a lot of time on Scandinavian TV (he co-starred in the original Danish version of the series THE KILLING) and is probably best known to foreign film enthusiasts for the 2008 black comedy TERRIBLY HAPPY. THE GUILTY got a good amount of acclaim during its limited US theatrical run, but nobody saw it. It's waiting to be discovered on Blu-ray and eventually streaming, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if it got a neutered Hollywood remake--which would likely have Asger ditching the dispatch center 15 minutes in and going on a city-wide rampage himself to find Iben--but this under-the-radar gem is a tightly-wound, expertly-constructed, and extremely well-played exercise in stomach-knotting tension. (R, 88 mins)

Monday, February 4, 2019

On Netflix: VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, Marco Rodriguez, Mark Steger, Steven Williams, Alan Mandell, Pat Healy, Nitya Vidyasagar, Mig Macario, Sedale Threatt Jr, Andrea Marcovicci, Christopher Darga, Ian Alda. (R, 112 mins)

Since shifting to directing with 2014's acclaimed NIGHTCRAWLER, veteran journeyman screenwriter Dan Gilroy (FREEJACK, CHASERS) has demonstrated a knack for getting top-shelf performances from his actors. Jake Gyllenhaal's work in NIGHTCRAWLER remains his career-best and one of the most egregious Oscar snubs in recent memory. Gilroy guided Denzel Washington to yet another Academy Award nomination for 2017's legal thriller ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ, and while those two films share common themes, they also share similar flaws. Gyllenhaal is so great in NIGHTCRAWLER that he single-handedly allows you to overlook the borderline naivete of the film's core observation that--SPOILER--people in the news media often resort to dubious tactics for a scoop and even--find the nearest fainting couch--sensationalize stories for ratings, something that wasn't even a shocking notion when NETWORK came out in 1976. Likewise, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ is carried by the exemplary work of Washington in service of a story that blows the doors off the idea that lawyers might become cynical and greedy after years on the job and may make decisions that aren't in the best interest of their clients. There's nothing wrong with the stories of NIGHTCRAWLER and ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ in and of themselves, but while watching them, one gets the feeling that Gilroy thinks he's really on to something that no one's ever considered before. His two directorial efforts up to now are pretty good movies blessed by stars who heroically carry them on their shoulders and take them to the next level.

Gilroy's luck runs out with his latest, the Netflix Original VELVET BUZZSAW. More of an ensemble piece--he's likened it to Robert Altman's THE PLAYER, which is hubristically wishful thinking--VELVET BUZZSAW can't rely on just one actor to carry it, which only magnifies the weaknesses and, again, the obviousness of the points he's attempting to make. A bit outside Gilroy's comfort zone, VELVET BUZZSAW is a supernatural horror film set in the pretentious, self-important L.A. art world, centered mostly on snooty critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), a powerful mover-and-shaker in the scene who enjoys the constant sycophantic ass-kissing he gets from gallery owners, artists, and agents all looking for a good review. Just out of a relationship with Ed (Sedale Threatt, Jr), Morf falls hard for Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an ambitious assistant to top gallery owner and one-time '80s punk rocker Rhodora Haze (Gilroy's wife Rene Russo). Leaving for work one morning, Josephina discovers the dead body of a neighbor (Alan Mandell) in the hallway. The neighbor turns out to be an enigmatic mystery man named Vetril Dease, a janitor who left behind well over a thousand sketches and canvases in his HOARDERS-esque apartment, with specific instructions that they be destroyed upon his death. No one in the art scene has any info on Dease, but Josephina sees something in his work, steals it all from his apartment, and through shady legal machinations, ends up bringing them to Rhodora, who, along with rave blurbs from Morf, turns the late Vetril Dease into the scene's newest star. But those who come into contact with Dease's work start having bizarre hallucinations. Before long, there's a body count as everyone around Morf and Josephina start dying in inexplicable accidents involving Dease's work coming to life, almost as if part of his soul remains trapped in all of the art he's left behind.

Playing like an ill-advised collaboration between Clive Barker and Banksy, VELVET BUZZSAW (the name of Rhodora's old band, with their logo tattooed on the back of her shoulder--a cool title but it has virtually nothing to do with anything that happens) manages some occasionally decent satirical digs at L.A. art scenesters--like Morf showing up at one Dease victim's funeral and harshly critiquing the casket--but when almost every character is either an over-the-top caricature or a ruthless, self-serving asshole, it's kinda like shooting fish in a barrel. Gyllenhaal doesn't recapture his NIGHTCRAWLER mojo here, operating in two modes: incredulously condescending or Nic Cage freakout. Ashton's Josephina goes from the sympathetic moral center to heartlessly cruel viper out of nowhere, while Russo more or less plays her NIGHTCRAWLER character transferred to an art gallery. Gilroy doesn't really know what to do with either Toni Collette, as an art museum director turned buyer for Rhodora's chief rival Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), or John Malkovich, cast radically against type as "John Malkovich," playing a cynical recovering alcoholic and L.A. art legend who realizes right away that something is very wrong about Dease's work. There was some potential here, but Gilroy doesn't seem aware of the horror genre's cliches--paintings and art coming to life, Dease's work being painted with his own blood, a robotic exhibit called "Hoboman" (Mark Steger) that's an obvious attempt at creating a new Pinhead-type horror icon--and one attempted jump scare involving a roll of film on a projector might've worked if movies like SINISTER and IT didn't already exist (also, nothing here is as creepy or as unsettling as any random moment Gyllenhaal is onscreen in NIGHTCRAWLER). There's a valid point to VELVET BUZZSAW--that commerce trumps art and all anyone cares about is how much money they can make from it--but in criticizing this world in such a smug and pompous way, whether it's silly character names or a demonstrable lack of familiarity with horror in general (and the CGI splatter is really terrible), VELVET BUZZSAW is ultimately just as empty and vacuous as what it purports to be skewering. Just don't be surprised when "Hoboman" gets his own spinoff franchise.