Thursday, September 21, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: CARTELS (2017) and THE RECALL (2017)

(US - 2017)

Shot back in 2015 under the title KILLING SALAZAR and probably retitled to cash in on Netflix's NARCOS, CARTELS "stars" Steven Seagal but was held from release as six more Seagal movies were shat out ahead of it in 2016 (I'd list them but that would surpass the effort Seagal put forth in all seven movies total). It's hard to fathom the existence of a present-day Seagal joint that's so bad that Lionsgate delays releasing it, but CARTELS is maybe the least terrible of the bunch, though that's in no way meant to be interpreted as a recommendation. As usual, Seagal is a top-billed guest star who was probably on the set in Romania for a couple of days, while another actor--in this case, Luke Goss, still cornering the market on second-string Stathams--is the real lead. Seagal and his double are featured in a framing device as John Harrison, a covert CIA black ops mastermind interrogating US Marshal Tom Jensen (Goss) over a botched assignment involving Mexican-Russian cartel boss Joseph "El Tiburon" Salazar (Florin Piersic Jr), who's introduced ruminating over a chess board as he tells his top underling "You know why I love this game so much? Because there can only be...one king!" The CIA fakes Salazar's death in order to take him into custody after he offers to flip and go informant, turning him over to a crew of US Marshals and military personnel and holing them up in a luxury hotel in Romania to await extraction for 24 hours. Knowing Salazar has turned on them, his betrayed crew, led by second-in-command Bruno Sinclaire (Georges St-Pierre), lead an assault on the hotel, going up floor by floor in pursuit of their old boss--somehow, the hotel remains open for business--and taking out the Marshals and soldiers one by one until, of course, only the disgraced Jensen, seeking redemption after a previous assignment went south, remains to kill them all.

Seagal's usual director Keoni Waxman is on hand, and for what it's worth, he does an acceptable job handling what's basically a RIO BRAVO/ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13/THE RAID scenario. Goss is actually trying, for some reason, and creates a surprisingly credible hero, and while the fight scenes and gun battles are mostly an incoherent, quick-cut blur, Waxman at least uses a decent-looking mix of practical and CGI splatter that looks a lot wetter and splashier than in most films of this sort. CARTELS starts stumbling when it tries to get tricky, doling out increasingly ludicrous twists and double-crosses before abandoning logic altogether: the team has obviously been infiltrated by at least one mole, but when that person's identity is revealed, it certainly begs the question of whether CARTELS' version of the CIA has ever heard of a background check and wait, Seagal's character knew this person was a mole all along? Then why are you interrogating Jensen? It's no surprise that Seagal is once more the epitome of laziness, mumbling and wheezing, sporting his standard tinted glasses and a bushy goatee dyed with shoe polish, doubled in every shot where he's not facing the camera and in an embarrassing fight scene with GSP, where the MMA champ is forced to pretend he's getting his ass handed to him by the three-decades older and almost completely immobile Seagal, master of the timeless "wave your hands around and let your opponent run into them" move. CARTELS would've been an ordinary and perfectly watchable B-movie had Waxman just focused on Goss and the siege of the hotel and shitcanned the framing device. But the need to shoehorn Seagal into the movie ends up being its biggest detriment, stopping things cold every time he or the double pretending to be him shows up. The age-old question remains: Seagal doesn't give a shit. Why should we? (R, 100 mins)

(Canada/US/UK - 2017)

A muddled jumble of a sci-fi thriller, the Freestyle pickup THE RECALL can't figure out what it wants to be: alien invasion saga, CABIN IN THE WOODS ripoff, sensitive YA weepie, conspiracy movie, superhero origin story, or Wesley Snipes comeback vehicle. There's three credited writers plus someone else credited with "additional writing," so there's a big tip off to the indecisiveness and lack of focus. THE RECALL can't stop tripping over its own feet, shifting tone and direction so many times that it constantly stonewalls any momentum it generates. Five uninteresting college-age kids--two couples and a nerdy fifth wheel played by BREAKING BAD's RJ Mitte--head to a cabin for a weekend getaway only to find their plans ruined by an inconvenient alien invasion. Hothead Rob (Niko Pepaj) accidentally shoots and kills his girlfriend Kara (Hannah Rose May) and promptly gets pulled into the sky and zapped aboard a spacecraft, leaving heartbroken Charlie (someone calling himself Jedidiah Goodacre), who's still grieving after his girlfriend's death in a car crash ten months earlier, Kara's friend Annie (Laura Bilgeri), and Brendan (Mitte), to seek the protection of a local survivalist (Snipes) with a complicated backstory who's been preparing for "the arrival" for over 20 years. Snipes' character has some kind of psychic connection with a Russian prisoner (Graham Shiels) being held at a remote military base in Alaska in one of several subplots that never quite come together.

Top-billed Mitte has little to do and Snipes gets more screen time than you might expect for his "and Wesley Snipes" billing (he's also one of 22 credited producers), but the real stars are Goodacre and Bilgeri, which requires director Mauro Borrelli to frequently stop the film cold to establish their love connection and his emo bona fides. There's nothing like a violent attack by a seven-foot-tall, lizard-like alien brought to a screeching halt by a guy who picks the most inopportune times to wallow in self-pity over his dead girlfriend. Sorry for your loss, brah, but is this really the time? Borrelli has made a few low-budget DTV horror movies over the last decade in between his far more lucrative day job as a conceptual artist and illustrator on any number of big budget movies going back to the late '80s--THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, BATMAN RETURNS, a couple PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN entries, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and the upcoming STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI just to name a few--and early on, some of the visual effects and the creature design are surprisingly well-done, which isn't a surprise considering he probably has some friends in the business who did him a solid. But those guys must've had other things to do midway through production, because the effects get much shoddier as the film goes on, but it's right in line with everything else in THE RECALL that starts falling apart around the same time. The only reason to bother checking this out is Snipes, who turns in a far more spirited and amusing performance than he needed to, putting forth much more effort here than he did in most of the films leading up to his stretch in the hoosegow for tax evasion. Snipes turns the character into a bitterly sarcastic smartass ("Come on, sissy boy!" he keeps telling Brendan), though that could just be a coping mechanism once the veteran actor realized he was merely a supporting actor in a Jedidiah Goodacre movie that ends with three young characters newly imbued with otherworldly powers, looking in the distance at a gray sky with one actually saying "Looks like a storm's coming." (R, 91 mins)

Friday, September 15, 2017

In Theaters: MOTHER! (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Stephen McHattie, Emily Hampshire, Laurence Leboeuf. (R, 121 mins)

To say MOTHER! isn't for everyone is the understatement of the year. The latest film from director Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE WRESTLER, BLACK SWAN), MOTHER! might be his crowning achievement thus far. A nightmare that makes the last half-hour of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM look restrained, MOTHER! is so intricately constructed that there's too much to unpack and analyze on just one viewing. Certainly it's a film that's going to provoke debate and discussion, but most importantly, polarizing reaction. The phrase "love it or hate it" gets thrown about a bit too freely sometimes, but that's precisely the response MOTHER! is going to get. Much has been made of the horrific events in the film and they're there, but mileage may vary: genre fans who have some background in extreme horror and/or transgressive art cinema won't be as shocked as casual moviegoers who are fans of THE HUNGER GAMES and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and think they're going to see the latest Jennifer Lawrence vehicle. MOTHER! is intense, grueling, incredibly uncomfortable, and frequently off-the-charts cringe-worthy. But it's also brilliantly acted, richly textured with metaphorical interpretations and symbolism, and one of the best and most audacious films of 2017. In an era of franchises, branding, and endless reboots and remakes, major studios and A-list stars just don't make risky and provocative movies like this anymore. And they've never made one like MOTHER!

A plot synopsis is pointless, but for what it's worth: Lawrence (as "Mother") and Javier Bardem (as "Him") are a married couple who live in a large, isolated old house in the country, in the middle of a vast field with no visible roads leading to it. He's a famous author suffering from particularly difficult bout of writer's block. She's a homemaker currently deeply involved in renovating the more dilapidated parts of the house. One night, there's a knock at the door and it's Ed Harris (as "Man"), a professor who mistakes the house for a bed & breakfast. Bardem invites Harris to stay the night, even though he presumptuously lights up a cigarette in the house and seems offended when Lawrence asks him to put it out. Harris gets very ill and spends the night coughing and vomiting but in the morning, is fine and acts like nothing happened. That's when Michelle Pfeiffer (as "Woman") shows up. She's Harris wife, and is even ruder houseguest, dismissing Lawrence's life choices, going through her laundry and making derisive comments about her frumpy underwear, and questioning why she's married to such an older man. Pfeiffer makes a mess in the kitchen, leaves faucets running, and goes into Bardem's study after being told multiple times by Lawrence that he doesn't want people in there without him. When she and Harris go into Bardem's study and accidentally shatter a cherished crystallized glass piece that's of utmost important to him, they're offended about being asked to leave ("We said we were sorry!") and Lawrence walks in on them having sex in the next room five minutes later. Then their adult sons Domnhall Gleeson (as "Older Son") and Brian Gleeson (as "Younger Brother") show up, arguing about what's in Harris' will. A brotherly brawl results in the death of one of the siblings and Bardem agrees to host a post-funeral dinner gathering without telling Lawrence. More and more guests arrive without notice and from out of nowhere, help themselves to all areas of the house, try to fuck in Lawrence's and Bardem's bed, damage the kitchen sink and tear the plumbing out of the wall, and eventually, the entire house starts to resemble the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Then things just go off the rails and get really bizarre.

MOTHER! is like going through a two-hour anxiety attack. Upon a cursory glance of the trailer and the promotional material, the obvious influence is ROSEMARY'S BABY, but Aronofsky is actually paying homage to Polanski's unofficial "Apartment Trilogy"of REPULSION (1965), ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), and THE TENANT (1976). The first hour of the film has that same slow-burning intensity, escalating discomfort, and frequently dark and absurdist humor of those three Polanski films, centering on people beset by psychological demons and unwanted interlopers who keep aggressively manipulating them into submission (there's also a nod to a famous shot in Dario Argento's TENEBRAE). The second half--and the less you know about it the better--loses Harris and Pfeiffer (do they ultimately have anything to do with anything?) but goes full Luis Bunuel Apocalypse, an overwhelming and delirious nightmare of EXTERMINATING ANGEL proportions put through a Lars von Trier filter that can be interpreted as everything from a Biblical allegory and a rebuking of religious extremism to a metaphor for the creative process and a scathing auto-critique of the narcissism and self-absorption of pretentious artists. Lawrence's "Mother" is constantly denigrated and marginalized, whether it's by her husband who revels in the adoration of the fans who show up at the house while forgetting all the support she's given him when no one else was around (how much of himself is Aronofsky putting on display here?), or by the invasive throng of houseguests who refuse to leave and look at her as an intruder on their time with "The Poet" as they hang on his every word and treat him like a god. But then there's other things--heartbeats in the wall, a strange yellow powder that Lawrence mixes with water, frogs in the basement, a freshly built basement wall that hides a secret room, and a spot on a hardwood floor that becomes a festering wound that won't stop bleeding no matter what lengths Lawrence--who's never been better than she is here--will go to cover it up. And there's a toilet clogged by what looks like some kind of human organ. It's been years since a major Hollywood studio bankrolled something this unapologetically fucked-up (thanks for your service, A CURE FOR WELLNESS, but you're no longer the weirdest wide-release movie of 2017). Exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, thought-provoking, beyond audacious, and fearless about going into some extremely dark places, MOTHER! is a masterpiece. Regardless of your response to it, there's no denying that there's never been anything like it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In Theaters: IT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman. Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton, Owen Teague, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Steven Williams, Megan Charpentier, Javier Botet. (R, 134 mins)

Stephen King's gargantuan 1986 best seller was already turned into an ABC miniseries in 1990 with middling results, and the long-in-the-works big screen adaptation of half of it takes a more successful if still flawed stab at the material. I remember checking It out of the library when I was 13 and barely sleeping for the next week as I devoured over 200 pages per day, reading well into the night. At 69, King is more prolific than ever, even if his current output doesn't carry the same cache as his glory days--he's probably dusting off second-rate stuff he's had stashed away for 30 years--but in 1986, the Stephen King brand was at its ubiquitous zenith. He was cranking out what seemed like at least two books a year, and every other week, it felt like a new King movie adaptation was hitting theaters. The 1990 miniseries did what it could with some of the more graphic horrors depicted on the page, but it's hard not to think that an epic big-screen version of the novel would've been a better move 25 or 30 years ago. IT 2017 began as a project for Cary Fukunaga, best known for directing the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE. He eventually bailed over disagreements during pre-production, with Gary Dauberman (ANNABELLE) reworking Fukunaga and Chase Palmer's script and MAMA director and Guillermo del Toro protege Andy Muschietti at the helm. MAMA showed Muschietti had sufficient genre chops, and IT doesn't disappoint if you're looking for loud, constant jump scares.

But that's often its stumbling block as well. With a running time of 134 minutes--epic by horror standards--IT plays that post-INSIDIOUS/CONJURING jump scare card time and time and time again. As you might expect, it works the first few times but eventually, you'll know when they're coming and they lose more power with each one. The malevolent evil of the novel, personified by nightmarish clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, who'll be raking in serious cash on the convention circuit for the rest of his life thanks to this movie), seems more focused on the no-longer-novel concept of scary clowns, which of course got a big boost from King's book in the first place but also from cult movies like KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE and Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS. Scary clowns have always been a thing, but it's only in the relatively recent era that they've become a pop culture trope. Skarsgard is a flamboyantly terrifying Pennywise when he's allowed to act, but so many of his appearances are so heavily enhanced by CGI and digital trickery that it sometimes minimizes him until he's just part of the scenery, the shaky-cam clown attacks all becoming a bit of a blur.

IT 2017 works best when it's grounded and practical. Muschietti puts forth great effort to make this feel as much like a genuine 1980s horror movie as possible. The period detail of its 1989 setting (updated from the late '50s in King's book) is right: the decor, the cars, the hairstyles, a movie theater showing BATMAN, LETHAL WEAPON 2, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, but sometimes Muschietti oversells it. There's too many mentions of New Kids on the Block, a rock fight set to Anthrax's "Antisocial" seems too slapsticky, and a DONNIE DARKO-esque Steadicam trip through the junior high school set to The Cult's "Love Removal Machine" in place of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" all smack of the kind of lazy referencing that's supposed to be funny simply because it's old and easily-recognized. The ensemble of young actors is extremely well-cast, with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL's Jaeden Lieberher the nominal lead as Bill Denbrough, whose younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was sucked into a sewer drain by It a year earlier. The town of Derry, ME is beset by a string of child disappearances, just the latest in a series of tragedies that befall the town every 27 years. Of course, only the kids--an outcast clique dubbed "The Losers"--figure this out as they're haunted one-by-one by sudden appearances of Pennywise, sometimes as a clown and sometimes as an evil woman or a homeless leper (Javier Botet) on the outskirts of town. And this is when they aren't dealing with psychotic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, a potential William Zabka of his generation, briefly seen in a similar role in the recent King adaptation THE DARK TOWER), or abusive parents, whether it's hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) being Munchausen-by-proxy'd by his crazy mother or tomboyish Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose mother seems to be out of the picture and whose father (Stephen Bogaert) has obviously sexually molested her in the past and possibly the present. It's one of IT 2017's more intriguing elements that the most sympathetic parental figure in the film is police chief Bowers (Stuart Hughes), who knows exactly what kind of monster his son is, intervenes when he's about to shoot a helpless cat, and often turns up as a guardian angel of sorts for The Losers and doesn't hesitate to humiliate his asshole son in front of his stupid buddies. This is one of many notable departures from King's book, where Chief Bowers is depicted as an abusive loathsome racist and anti-Semite largely responsible for turning his son into the person he's becoming.

With the setting and the '80s nostalgia (this really does feel like an evil clown version of THE GOONIES at times), it's hard not to draw comparisons to last year's Netflix hit STRANGER THINGS, especially since both share co-star Finn Wolfhard though IT was already in production when STRANGER THINGS took off. The timing is unfortunate, as the novel It certainly had a hand in influencing the outcast character ensemble of STRANGER THINGS, but it's another example of IT 2017 coming years, if not decades later than it should've. A couple of the young actors--Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon, the only black kid in town, and Wyatt Oleff as Jewish Stanley Uris--get lost in the shuffle with the focus on Bill, Beverly, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight bookworm nursing a crush on Beverly, and constantly wisecracking, Coke-bottle specs-wearing nerd Richie (Wolfhard). There's some serious jolts in IT (the slideshow scene is an instant classic) and the '80s atmosphere is very well-handled, but IT leans on easy references a little too aggressively at times, sacrificing its painstaking recreation of 1989 and coming off like 2017's idea of a 1980s movie instead of an actual 1980s movie. Even going well past two hours, it feels a little rushed and with the door obviously being left open for a sequel covering the second half of the book, you can't help but wonder if it would've been smarter to adapt this as a limited series of maybe eight episodes for Netflix, Amazon, or HBO.

Friday, September 8, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE LAST FACE (2017) and SECURITY (2017)

(US - 2017)

"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)

(US - 2017)

A perfunctory, go-through-the-motions clock-punch for everyone involved, SECURITY is an instantly forgettable time-killer that probably would've played better 20-25 years ago as a Joel Silver production with the same two lead actors, someone like Peter Hyams or Renny Harlin directing, and several million additional dollars in the budget. Consider it DIE HARD IN A MALL or ASSAULT ON FOOD COURT 13, or maybe even JOHN CARPENTER'S PAUL BLART: MALL COP, but any way you slice it, the biggest takeaway from SECURITY is how hilariously inept it is at trying to pass off three bizarrely-dressed soundstages at Bulgaria's Nu Boyana Studios as a suburban American shopping mall. There's about five or six storefronts with very little in the way of merchandise, a clothing store called "Luxury Fashion," randomly placed American flags, a stairway that leads to a wall, some plants, and letters on another wall spelling "M A L L," as if shoppers don't know where they are, plus the building used for the exterior looks like an abandoned factory. But even before the action moves to the mall, the Bulgarian ruse is up when a convoy of US Marshals assemble to move a witness to safety and all are in jackets and bulletproof vests reading "U.S.A. Marshals," which looks and sounds exactly like a task left to an Eastern European prop crew with a shaky grasp of English and no one following up on the work they did before the cameras started rolling. SECURITY was produced by Millennium Films, Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band, and they regularly pass off Bulgarian sets and locations as American, and while it's usually only noticeable if you're looking for it, it's rarely been as sloppily-executed as it is here. It's as unconvincing as the Millennium-produced 2009 remake of IT'S ALIVE, shot in Bulgaria but set in New Mexico, with the interiors of the lead character's house looking like the locally-hired carpenters came up with the layout and architectural design by doing a Google image search for Chi-Chi's.

Eddie Deacon (Antonio Banderas) is a former Special Forces captain suffering from PTSD after three deployments to Afghanistan. Separated from his wife and daughter and desperate for employment, he takes a job as an overnight security guard at a dilapidated mall in the outskirts of a city that's fallen prey to economic downturns and meth labs. Immediately after meeting his cocky, dudebro boss Vance (Liam McIntyre of Starz' SPARTACUS series) and his three other co-workers--how can this rundown mall afford five overnight guards seven nights a week?--ten-year-old Jamie (Katherine Mary de la Rocha) is pounding on one of the entrances, begging to be let in. She was the cargo in the "U.S.A. Marshals" transport, set to testify against the high-powered crime organization that employed her informant father before killing him and her mother, murders that she witnessed. The criminals, led by a man who calls himself "Charlie" (Ben Kingsley) but whose name may as well be Hans Gruber, then spend the rest of the night trying to get into the mall to get Jamie, which requires taking out the security crew, now led by the take-charge Eddie, who of course, views protecting Jamie as his shot at redemption and proof that he's capable of taking care of his own daughter. Director Alain Desrochers employs a few clever touches--like Jamie chasing some of Charlie's goons with a remote control car and the security team communicating via pink, toy walkies--but the whole production is just too chintzy-looking for its own good, looking very nearly as cheap as a Bratislava-shot Albert Pyun rapsploitation trilogy. 57-year-old Banderas is still in great shape and could easily handle the transition into the 60-and-over action star field that Liam Neeson has owned for several years, but he looks bored. Kingsley brings a little class just by being Ben Kingsley, but even he can't do much with a one-dimensional villain who, at one point, stands outside a barricaded door and purrs "...and I'll huff...and I'll puff..." In the requisite Alexander Godunov henchman role, Cung Le glowers and grimaces as someone named "Dead Eyes," and you'll also get some bonus shitty CGI explosions courtesy of Lerner's usual Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX. SECURITY is hardly the worst of its type and is a perfectly acceptable way to kill 90 minutes if you're bored and you find it streaming, but any effort you exert to see it would still be more than the production design team put in to make those sets look like an actual, functioning mall. (R, 92 mins)

Monday, September 4, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: UNLOCKED (2017)

(US/Switzerland/UK - 2017)

Directed by Michael Apted. Written by Peter O'Brien. Cast: Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich, Toni Collette, Matthew Marsh, Makram J. Khoury, Brian Caspe, Philip Brodie, Michael Epp, Ayman Hamdouchi, Tosin Cole, Raffello Degruttola. (R, 98 mins)

There's a few moments of inspiration for an overqualified cast in this mostly generic terrorism/spy thriller that's been gathering dust on a shelf since it was shot back in late 2014. It was in development long before that, as Peter O'Brien's script was kicking around Hollywood as far back as 2008. There's been some updates to the story, including an overdubbed line by a minor character referencing the 2015 Paris terror attacks, which took place long after the movie was completed. Though its concerns remains topical, UNLOCKED still plays like the kind of hot-button, post-9/11 thriller that would've been more timely in 2007 instead of 2017. Living in London and suffering from PTSD after a 2012 terrorist attack in Paris for which she still blames herself for not preventing, reassigned CIA interrogator Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is pulled back in when UK-based CIA agents uncover a potential biological terror plot engineered by David Mercer (Michael Epp), a rich kid from Bloomfield Hills, MI who was radicalized by the teachings of ISIS-like extremist Yazid Khaleel (Makram J. Khoury) and now recruits disillusioned teenagers throughout Europe for his cause. One such kid is Lateef (Ayman Hamdouchi), a 19-year-old Afghanistan-born British national and Khaleel courier. Lateef is apprehended by the CIA and when their London-based interrogator is found floating face down in a hotel swimming pool, Alice is ordered back on duty. Things go south when a phone call from an old colleague midway through the interrogation--informing her that she'll be needed to interrogate a 19-year-old British national named Lateef--immediately tips her off that she's been tricked by traitorous agents who have breached CIA security.

Alice manages to escape and meets with her former mentor Eric Lasch (Michael Douglas as more or less the same character he played in Steven Soderbergh's HAYWIRE), who directs her to a safe house and is immediately killed for his trouble by the same crew of CIA impostors. At the safe house, she interrupts what she thinks is a burglar but is really covert ops agent and neck tat enthusiast Jack Alcott (Orlando Bloom), an Iraq War vet now doing dirty work for the CIA in London. It's double and triple crosses and increasingly nonsensical twists and turns from then on, with high-ranking CIA honcho Bob Hunter (John Malkovich) running point from Langley and MI-5 agent Emily Knowles (Toni Collette, looking like a dead ringer for Annie Lennox) working with Alice in London for a race against the clock to stop a bio-terror attack on an American college football game being played at Wembley Stadium in what amounts to a blimp-less version of John Frankenheimer's BLACK SUNDAY. Developments grow more preposterous as the story goes on as UNLOCKED thinks it's got some tricks up its sleeve, but any savvy moviegoer can probably figure out that Michael Douglas wouldn't be hired to play two brief scenes and get killed off 25 minutes in and that maybe--just maybe--he might turn up later in a plot twist that's telegraphed the moment Alice goes to him for help and he immediately excuses himself to another room for a good minute and we don't see what he's doing and then bad guys show up two minutes later.

UNLOCKED was directed by Michael Apted, the incredibly prolific British filmmaker behind the every-seven-years UP series of documentaries that's been going since 1964 (63 UP should be coming in 2019 if he stays on schedule). With a career currently in its sixth decade, the 76-year-old director's magnum opus is certainly the UP series, but he also pays the bills by being the J. Lee Thompson of his generation, dabbling in nearly every genre imaginable, with credits ranging from biopics like COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER and GORILLAS IN THE MIST to '90s thrillers like CLASS ACTION, BLINK and EXTREME MEASURES to Jodie Foster in NELL and Jennifer Lopez in ENOUGH to documentaries like Sting's BRING ON THE NIGHT and the Leonard Peltier chronicle INCIDENT AT OGLALA, and even big-budget franchise fare like the 007 outing THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH and the third CHRONICLES OF NARNIA film. UNLOCKED is Apted's first narrative feature since 2012's CHASING MAVERICKS, for which he shared directing credit after taking over for an ailing Curtis Hanson, and in the meantime, he's been working mostly in TV on shows like RAY DONOVAN, MASTERS OF SEX, and BLOODLINE. He brings a journeyman's sense of efficiency to UNLOCKED by keeping it moving so briskly that you hopefully won't question how needlessly convoluted or cliched it is and just roll with it (yes, Bloom tells Rapace "I'm thinkin' I'm the only friend you've got," and Douglas is heard at one point declaring that he's "getting too old for this shit"). There's a few things worthy of praise--despite the clumsiness of Douglas' reappearance that will surprise absolutely no one, and at least two other characters presumed dead but magically returning later, Apted does play with the audience in a Samuel L. Jackson-in-DEEP BLUE SEA kind of way by suddenly eliminating another major character out of nowhere, and it almost constitutes a twist when that person doesn't turn up again later. Malkovich is basically on hand to Malkovich it up to his heart's content, introduced bitching to his underlings that he's been called into the office on his anniversary and later middle-finger ad-libbing on a Skype chat with Collette's character when she isn't looking (this really does look like something Malkovich came up with and Apted let him run with it). And Rapace continues her string of committed performances after being the only good thing about the sci-fi thriller RUPTURE and playing seven different roles in this entertaining Netflix original WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY.  After the already somewhat forgotten PROMETHEUS (does anyone talk about that anymore?), Rapace has very quietly made her case to be a major female action star, but who knows if anyone's paying attention?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Retro Review: AMSTERDAMNED (1988)

(Netherlands - 1988)

Written and directed by Dick Maas. Cast: Huub Stapel, Monique van de Ven, Wim Zomer, Serge-Henri Valcke, Hidde Maas, Tanneke Hartzuiker, Lou Landre, Tatum Dagelet, Edwin Bakker, Pieter Lutz, Barbara Martijn, Door van Boekel, Lettie Oosthoek, Jaap Stobbe, Freark Smink. (R, 113 mins)

A movie guaranteed to be on the shelf of any video store you walked into in the late '80s into the mid '90s, the brilliantly-titled AMSTERDAMNED has acquired a major cult following over the decades and is finally available on Blu-ray courtesy of Blue Underground. Dutch writer/director Dick Maas cut his teeth on music videos like Golden Earring's 1982 hit "Twilight Zone"  before establishing himself with genre fans with the 1983 possessed elevator saga THE LIFT, which Blue Underground will be releasing on Blu-ray in October, along with Maas' little-seen 2001 US remake DOWN, aka THE SHAFT. After the 1986 comedy FLODDER (the first in very popular series of movies and TV spinoffs in the Netherlands), Maas returned to the thriller/horror genre with AMSTERDAMNED, an action-driven Dutch giallo, with Amsterdam in a state of panic over a string of murders committed by a maniac in scuba gear who emerges from the canals to claim his victims before going back to the water undetected. Plays-by-his-own-rules cop Eric Visser (Maas regular Huub Stapel) frantically pursues the killer, perpetually one step behind and following multiple leads that prove to be dead ends.

Maas spends a lot of time establishing characters, showing single dad Visser's home life with snarky teenage daughter Anneke (Tatum Dagelet), who he's raising alone after his wife walked out on them years earlier. He's also reluctantly partnered with canal officer John (Wim Zomer), the guy his ex-wife left for him. He also engages in some ballbusting banter with boss Vermeer (Serge-Henri Valcke) and gets involved with widowed museum guide and diving enthusiast Laura (Monique van de Ven), who he meets chasing a lead and who may be involved with a vaguely sinister shrink (Hidde Maas) who doesn't seem to like Visser very much. Despite the foreign setting and the Dutch dialogue with English subtitles (Stapel and several of the main actors dubbed themselves for the English-language version that got a limited theatrical release by Vestron in late 1988, so either option is fine, though there are some descriptive elements that get lost in the English translation), AMSTERDAMNED is very much an American-style action/suspense thriller with decidedly giallo-like elements, especially in the black diving suit and mask worn by the killer and in some of the imaginative murders. Maas' dark, macabre humor comes through in amusing ways, whether it's a murder that cuts to a shot of squeezed ketchup, a phallic knife shot that would make BODY DOUBLE-era De Palma proud, or the unforgettable scene early on when the first victim is found hanging from a bridge over a canal before being snagged by a passing tour boat and dragged across its glass ceiling in full view of horrified tourists.

Stapel is a solid hero with a very 1980s Rutger Hauer-like screen presence, but the romance with van de Ven's Laura seems superfluous at times and probably only exists to inevitably put her jeopardy. After starring in Paul Verhoeven's 1973 breakout TURKISH DELIGHT with Hauer, van de Ven would later co-star in Brian Trenchard-Smith's incredible 1978 cult film STUNT ROCK before spending the late '70s and most of the '80s alternating between Hollywood and Holland, logging guest appearances on TV shows like STARSKY AND HUTCH, REMINGTON STEELE and VOYAGERS! while also starring in Dutch films like Fons Rademakers' THE ASSAULT, the 1986 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film. In addition to the giallo-style murders, the big standout in AMSTERDAMNED is a pair of chase sequences, one involving a motorcycle that's short but extremely well-crafted, the other a stunning speedboat chase through the canals (though most of this sequence was shot in Utrecht) with some death-defying stunt work, most of which was done by Stapel himself, who was knocked out of commission for three weeks after a boat crashed into a wall in one on-location mishap. The AMSTERDAMNED speedboat chase is one of the great unheralded movie chases, thanks in large part to veteran stunt coordinator Dickey Beer, who's worked on several Bond movies among countless others (his most recent credit was for some stunt driving on XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE and he's working on the upcoming JURASSIC WORLD sequel), and stunt legend Vic Armstrong, another Bond vet who served as stunt double for Christopher Reeve on the SUPERMAN movies and for Harrison Ford's first three turns as Indiana Jones. AMSTERDAMNED runs a little long and could use some trimming in the first hour (as entertaining as Dagelet's scenes are, she doesn't really serve a purpose), but ultimately, it's a clever, atmospheric, and frequently hair-raising thrill ride that takes full advantage of its unique setting in a city with 160 canals totaling 25 miles, where a madman can literally be swimming anywhere under the surface to strike at any moment. Also, try to get the closing credits tune by Dutch pop duo Lois Lane out of your head.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

In Theaters: GOOD TIME (2017)

(US/Luxembourg - 2017)

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. Cast: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Benny Safdie, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Peter Verby, Necro, Rose Gregorio, Gladys Mathon, Saida Mansoor, Eric Paykert, Robert Clohessy, George Lee Miles. (R, 101 mins)

In the tradition of SPRING BREAKERS, THE ROVER, THE WITCH, IT COMES AT NIGHT, and A GHOST STORY, GOOD TIME is another love-it-or-hate-it A24 pickup that gets great reviews from critics but a toxic reception in wide release and almost immediately becomes a revered cult movie. A Palme d'Or contender at Cannes and the most high-profile film to date from sibling indie auteurs Josh and Benny Safdie, who earned significant acclaim for their 2014 heroin addiction drama HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Josh, the elder of the pair, got some indie buzz for his 2008 solo effort THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED), GOOD TIME is like nothing else you've seen in multiplexes this year. It's brash, ballsy, and out of its own time, and with its grainy look and a supporting cast of mostly amateur actors from Queens and Flushing, it resembles a 2017 interpretation of one of those really gritty NYC films of Abel Ferrara or Paul Morrissey, while owing a debt to the "No Wave" movement of no-budget DIY movies in the early 1980s that helped establish underground filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Eric Mitchell, Beth B, Susan Seidelman, Slava Tsukerman, and Amos Poe. The garish Argento colorgasms in Sean Price Williams' cinematography and propulsive, non-stop Tangerine Dream-ish score by Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) give it an enervating, exhilarating aura that's hypnotic and surreal, like a nightmare from which its hapless shit show of a "hero," Constantine "Connie" Nikas can't wake. As played by Robert Pattinson, whose post-TWILIGHT career choices are proof positive that he's a serious actor who's made more money than he'll ever need and is drawn to challenging projects with very little mainstream appeal, Connie is a petty criminal and a total loser who doesn't realize he's a loser. He's got big ideas and seems to pull them off but they always lead to bigger problems and end up sucking more unfortunate bystanders into his toxic orbit. Nobody has a good time in GOOD TIME, which is one of these familiar "survive the night" scenarios, but pulled off with such imaginative panache that it ends up being one of the most stylish fusions of sight and sound this side of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

After crashing a therapy session for his mentally-challenged, deaf younger brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie), Connie talks his brother into accompanying him on a Flushing bank robbery that almost works. They wear very lifelike masks that don't attract attention from the other customers and the teller follows directions and doesn't hit the panic button. Of course it's too good to be true, since the dye packs explode in their getaway car. While fleeing the cops, Connie gets away but Nick is apprehended and taken to Rikers. Connie takes the stained money to a bail bondsman, who says he still needs another $10,000 to get Nick out. The rest of the film chronicles Connie's attempts to bail Nick out, running into one problem after another, starting with his older sometime-girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hot mess in her 40s who seems to have stopped maturing at 17 and is so stupidly infatuated with Connie that she lets him badger her ("What the fuck's the problem? It's like a loan...you'll get it right back!") into unsuccessfully trying to use her mom's credit card for Nick's bail. That doesn't work, and Connie then finds out that Nick can't be bailed out anyway since he's been involved in a fight in jail and has been taken to a hospital in the city, prompting one of the least-plausible escape sequences you'll ever see, and eventually leading to the introduction of three other key characters: just-paroled Queens pusher Ray (Buddy Duress, star of HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT), 16-year-old delinquent Crystal (newcomer Taliah Webster), and security guard Dash (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi), who runs afoul of Connie and Ray when they try to recover a drug stash at a dilapidated amusement park.

GOOD TIME always keeps you on edge, with the constant use of close-ups with handheld cameras, and the grainy, 16mm-looking imagery giving it a genuinely frazzled, scuzzy vibe. An absolutely magnetic, frenetic Pattinson has never been better, seemingly going full Method by the end, where it looks like he's been awake for a week even though the film takes place over a 24-hour period (there's a couple of time flubs that undermine the flow of the story, like one character mentioning it's "almost 9:00 pm," then a bit later, someone else saying it's 7:30 pm). GOOD TIME basks in the seedy underbelly of dangerous areas of working class Queens that you really don't see much of in movies anymore, giving it a distinctly 1970s mood but coming off like Nicolas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noe, and Larry Clark teaming up to make a Michael Mann movie. The Safdies take advantage of actual locations--some shots seem to have been captured on the fly, guerrilla-style--in places that don't appear to have changed much over the last few decades. It's only fitting that this film comes off like a welcome relic from another era, a late-summer shot of adrenaline that unfortunately will be loathed by the few mainstream moviegoers who don't ignore it in the first place. It's a powerfully off-kilter moviegoing experience where nothing plays out as you expect, from the opening credits taking place over 20 minutes into the movie to the way Ray ends up entering the story and briefly hijacking it (Duress gets a long speech and flashback sequence out of nowhere that's the most inspired non-sequitur aside for a character since Victor's trip through Europe in Roger Avary's THE RULES OF ATTRACTION). There isn't much here on a narrative or subtextual level--there's probably some parallels to be drawn from Connie, Nick, and Crystal all having absentee parents and being raised by their grandmothers--and it comes up a bit short on that front, but as a character study in lowlifes and for its colorful visuals and shot compositions and aural razzle-dazzle (goddamn, that score is incredible), GOOD TIME is a gem that sticks with you and is one of the audacious films of the summer.