Saturday, September 28, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: V/H/S/2 (2013) and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 (2013)

(US - 2013)

This bigger-budgeted sequel to last year's overrated horror anthology V/H/S is pretty much along the same lines:  some memorable and inspired moments mixed with some groaners.  Overall, it's slightly more satisfying than its predecessor, attempting to stick with what worked the first time around but not always exhibiting an ability to follow through.  YOU'RE NEXT screenwriter Simon Barrett handles the wraparound segment, with a private eye team (Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abbott) searching for a missing college student and finding his stash of mysterious VHS tapes--Levine checks out the house while Abbott watches the videos.  First up is "Phase 1: Clinical Trials," written by Barrett and directed by and starring YOU'RE NEXT helmer Adam Wingard, who gets an experimental camera eye after a car accident and starts seeing ghostly figures lurking around his house.  Next is "A Ride in the Park," co-directed by Eduardo Sanchez (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), where a guy attaches a camera to his helmet before heading out on a bike trail, only to be bitten by a zombie and end up allowing us a first-person, hand-held view of a zombie outbreak.  It's as tired and played out as it sounds.  Things pick up--for a while, at least--with "Safe Haven," co-directed by Gareth Huw Evans, who brings the same level of intensity demonstrated by his breakout hit THE RAID: REDEMPTION, as a team of documentary filmmakers get more than they anticipated when they're granted access to a compound to interview the leader of an Indonesian cult called Paradise Gate.  It's a slow-burner (and, at nearly 35 minutes, the longest of the stories) and Evans really ratchets up the intensity, but it completely falls apart when it devolves into--yes, you knew it was coming--yet another zombie apocalypse tale.   Like any good horror anthology, V/H/S/2 has the sense to finish big, and the highlight is "Slumber Party Alien Abduction," directed by Jason Eisener, who made the unwatchable HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN but contributed one of the stronger segments to another recent horror omnibus, THE ABCs OF DEATH.  A teenage girl and her younger brother have some friends over while their parents are away for the weekend, and in between playing increasingly cruel pranks on each other, find themselves under attack by some aggressively violent aliens of the Whitley Strieber variety. 

Of course, the wraparound segment reveals a supernatural element to the VHS tapes, but I again ask "Why the VHS angle?"  It's just lazy pandering to the hipster horror crowd that has no bearing on the stories.  Horror fans have really embraced these things and this one in particular seemed to get a lot of glowing reviews, even from critics outside the insulated horror scene.  Wingard and Barrett were among the numerous producers, and call me a party-pooper, but I think you're better off waiting for their very impressive YOU'RE NEXT--one of the year's best films and one that you probably missed in theaters--to hit Blu-ray in a couple of months.  (Unrated, 96 mins)

(US - 2013)

This "sequel" to the 2010 remake of the 1978 cult classic is really just another remake.  The same director (Steven R. Monroe) is onboard and essentially moves the action to Sofia, Bulgaria, and the only real surprise is that Avi Lerner isn't involved (though he does get a special thanks in the closing credits, because he has to be pretty much running Sofia by this point).  I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 follows the same rape/revenge template, with a little more time unfortunately spent on the rape portion than in Monroe's 2010 film.  Katie (Jemma Dallender) is a wide-eyed, naïve Midwestern farm girl trying to make it as a NYC model.  She answers an ad for a free photo session and rejects the Eastern European-accented photo crew's demands that she pose nude.  The next night, one of them, the dim-witted Georgy (Yavar Baharoff) breaks into her apartment, rapes her, and kills her nice-guy super.  Georgy calls his brothers--photographer Ivan (Joe Absolom) and Nicolay (Aleksander Aleksiev)--who drug Katie and smuggle her to their hometown of Sofia, where they keep her chained in a basement and spend days raping her, torturing her, and pissing on her.  She manages to escape and a sympathetic detective (George Zlatarev) turns her over to Ana (Mary Stockley), who runs a womens shelter.  Of course, unbeknownst to the dumb cop, Ana is actually in cahoots with the Bulgarian sickos (I think she's both mother and older sister to Georgy and Nicolay) and takes Katie right back to the torture room where the "father," the hulking Valko (Peter Silverleaf) beats her and violates her with an electric cattle prod before raping her.  They dig a hole in the basement and bury her alive, but the brothers are too stupid to realize that the building is over a tunnel, so she manages to escape and plot her revenge, which includes such highlights as slicing flesh open, tearing off nipples, drowning one in a shit-filled toilet, and putting another's testicles in a vise.

Is there a reason for this film to exist?  Monroe's 2010 remake was, surprisingly, not bad.  While it borrowed liberally from SAW and other torture-porn offshoots, it was well-made, didn't spend nearly as much time on the unpleasant rape sequences as Meir Zarchi's 1978 original, and had a visceral, powerful performance by Sarah Butler as the victim-turned-avenger.  Dallender is an incredibly cute young woman who's very charming in the introductory scenes (she looks like a girl-next-door version of Asia Argento) and handles herself well in the brutal (and brutally long) rape segments, but doesn't quite have the chops for the revenge half of the film.  She does little more than open her eyes really wide and make exaggerated faces, while quipping things like "Some guys like it tight!" as she cranks the vise on one rapist's nutsack.  Boasting a bloated run time of 106 minutes, this is pure B-movie exploitation and a story that shouldn't take more than 80 minutes to tell, but Monroe prolongs the rape sequences so much that it's over an hour into the film before Katie even starts plotting her vengeance, which is really what the I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE crowd wants to see.  I went into Monroe's 2010 remake with extraordinarily low expectations and was surprised at how compelling it proved to be at times.  That led me to approach this with a "Well, hey, the last one wasn't too bad..." mentality and found it a dull, depressing bore, with obvious foreshadowing (Katie showing her super how to create a foolproof rat trap), tired clichés (a single tear rolling down Ana's cheek as she clutches a doll and blasts an opera record to drown out Katie's screams from below), and bad acting.  One of the few things Monroe gets right is the location shooting in Brooklyn in the early scenes (I'm surprised they didn't just use Sofia for that as well; Avi Lerner would have), utilizing some areas that have remained largely unchanged for the last 30 years or so.  It's a nice gesture and much appreciated by a fan of scuzzy, old-school NYC like myself, but when that's the best thing one can say about something called I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2, then you really shouldn't have bothered. (Unrated, 106 mins)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: ROOM 237 (2013) and SIMON KILLER (2013)

ROOM 237
(US - 2013)

Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING opened largely to critical derision in the summer of 1980, with many complaining that it deviated too much from Stephen King's 1977 novel.  It was still a box office hit, thanks largely to Jack Nicholson's instantly iconic performance.  Seeing it at the drive-in with my parents that summer (they probably figured I'd just fall asleep), I was instantly hypnotized by it.  Of course, I'd seen movies before (I was seven), but nothing like this.  Not just in plot content but from a visual standpoint.  This just didn't look like any movie I'd seen up to that point.  THE SHINING is probably the movie that got me into movies.  It's my favorite film and the one I've seen more than any other (I stopped counting around the 75th viewing, and that was about 20 years ago).  THE SHINING has had a profound effect on many cinephiles, as evidenced by Rodney Ascher's often astonishing, frequently bonkers documentary/visual essay ROOM 237, which examines not just the phenomenon of THE SHINING as an enduring classic, but the various theories about the "deeper meaning" Kubrick was trying to convey.  Five theorists, heard but never seen, explain their positions on what Kubrick, arguably cinema's greatest filmmaker and most obsessively detailed, was attempting with THE SHINING.  These range from the Native American artwork in the Overlook Hotel and the Calumet baking powder in its kitchen being symbolic of American Indian genocide; the recurring number "42" (a "42" on one of Danny's shirts, Wendy and Danny watching SUMMER OF '42 on TV, the total of 2x3x7 equaling 42) being representative of the Holocaust (conceived and implemented in 1942); an examination of sexual deviance via subliminal erections and phallic imagery in carpet patterns and other interior décor.  There's also an examination of the perceptual shifts, spatial disorientations, and constructive inconsistencies in the Overlook, using detailed maps of what the hotel would look like in reality (the mention of the numerous "impossible" windows, rooms, and hallways and the presumably intentional continuity errors aren't unique to ROOM 237; check out some of "analysist" Rob Iger's "Collative Learning" videos on YouTube).  Some of the theories are surprisingly persuasive, but the more some of these people talk, the more crackpot their opinions start to sound.  When one subject starts angrily rambling on about how THE SHINING is Kubrick's confession to his complicity in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing (or, rather, insisting that while we did put a man on the moon, the footage was actually shot by Kubrick on a soundstage ahead of time), you realize the guy's gone from a largely reasonable potential interpretation of a film's subtext into a full-on tinfoil hat meltdown.

The mysteries of THE SHINING are endless--what is up with the scowling looks from hotel manager Ullman's assistant Bill Watson?   Does he represent the sinister forces of the Overlook while Ullman is just the smiling, glad-handing guy out front? Why is Jack reading an issue of Playgirl in the lobby of the Overlook?--and a brief foray into the "SHINING Forwards and Backwards" presentation (a piece of visual art that actually played in several cities after ROOM 237's release) opens up a whole new can of worms.  Sometimes the interview subjects are just flat-out wrong and simply talking out of their asses, with one saying that Kubrick had actor Barry Nelson (as Ullman) wear a toupee that made him look like JFK, when in fact, it was the same style of toupee that Nelson always wore as he got older. Nevertheless, ROOM 237 is one of the best films about a film you'll ever see, regardless of how much you buy into the things being said.  As many times as I've seen THE SHINING, I still find something new every time I watch it, and if you have anything approaching the affection for it that I do, ROOM 237 is required viewing.  (Unrated, 103 mins)

(US - 2013)

Some of the creative personnel from 2011's acclaimed MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE were involved in this enigmatic and equally intriguing character piece that didn't get nearly as much attention in the indie scene.  After earning his graduate degree in neuroscience studies, Simon (Brady Corbet) goes on a trip to Paris where he's trying to get over a painful ending to a long relationship.  Prowling the red-light district, Simon goes to a sex club and meets Victoria (Mati Diop).  After paying for sex a few times, Simon ends up crashing at her apartment and a real relationship seems to blossom.  Little by little, writer/director Antonio Campos (with story contributions from Corbet and Diop) shows the increasingly complex layers of Simon's personality and before long, it's apparent that he's at best an unreliable narrator.  The title might be an indication where things could head, but we realize something's not right when Simon intentionally drags his knuckles across a concrete wall and tells Victoria that he was attacked in the street by some punks.  He gets increasingly clingy with Victoria and even manages to rope her into a foolish blackmail plot involving her clients.  Simon is the kind of guy who says "I'm gonna need some money because I'd like to buy you something" and somehow gets away with it.

SIMON KILLER is one of those films with a vague resolution that's intentionally left open-ended.  Opening with a stunning panoramic shot of Paris, it's beautifully shot throughout, augmented by one of the year's best soundtracks.  I really liked the overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation that Campos conveys in the early-going with Simon, ear buds in place, lost in his own world and everyone around him staring blankly at their smartphones.  Campos really captures the decadent, "after dark" feel of some sections of Paris that the city's tourism board doesn't promote, and his frequent strobey dissolves between scenes create a chilling feel that comes off like a restrained Gaspar Noe.  Corbet and Diop are terrific in this cold, standoff-ish, and often unsettling film, filled with uncomfortable confrontations and some surprisingly explicit sex scenes.  It's a film that's definitely not for everyone, but if you're open to it and give it some time and space, it's one that slowly and surely gets under your skin. (Unrated, 105 mins)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

In Theaters: PRISONERS (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.  Written by Aaron Guzikowski.  Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Len Cariou, Wayne Duvall, David Dastmalchian, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons.  (R, 153 mins)

PRISONERS, the English-language debut of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES), is a riveting but frequently frustrating thriller that suffers from its own lofty ambitions.  Scripted by Aaron Guzikowski (CONTRABAND), it works very well as a thriller, but doesn't seem content with just being a thriller.  It wants to make big statements and grand proclamations, but doesn't really do anything with them.  When it focuses on being a "movie," which is what it does most of the time, it's a superbly-crafted genre piece. When it focuses on being a "film," it often succumbs to heavy-handedness.  Villeneuve is an excellent filmmaker, but he comes off as a bit of a snob. I get the feeling that he finds multiplex genre fare beneath him and tries to make this more "significant" than it needs to be, starting with its unwieldy and sometimes cumbersome 153-minute running time.  It's never dull, but it probably could've been just as effective at a more streamlined 120 or so minutes.  It's almost as if the film is long so it would be interpreted as "important." 

The film opens with deeply-religious family man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) talking his teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) through his first deer kill with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.  So, right away, we have religion and guns, and Dover also owns his own small carpentry business.  That, along with his fortifying his basement into a survivalist compound, is essentially informing us that Keller is a guy who probably watches a lot of Fox News.  Keller and his family--there's also wife Grace (Maria Bello) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich)--spend Thanksgiving with their friends the Birches from down the street--Franklin (Terrence Howard), his wife Nancy (Viola Davis), teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).  As the day goes on, Anna and Joy walk down to the Dover house but never make it.  Both disappear and Ralph remembers them playing near a parked RV that's now nowhere to be found.  The police are called, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and some officers find the RV at a truck stop, with mentally-challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano) behind the wheel.  Alex doesn't have the capacity to answer any questions and with no evidence on him or in the RV, the cops can only hold him for 48 hours.  After Alex is released into the custody of his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo),  Loki starts knocking on the doors of all the sex offenders in the area, trying to find any new potential leads, and inadvertently stumbling on to a second mystery involving a rotting corpse in the basement of a convicted pedophile priest (Len Cariou), as well as a local weirdo (David Dastmalchian) who's frequently observed buying little girl's clothing at a secondhand store. Meanwhile, an enraged Keller is convinced Alex knows where the girls are...so convinced, in fact, that he abducts Alex and holds him captive in a vacant, decrepit apartment building that was left to him by his late father, and proceeds to spend several days brutally and mercilessly beating and torturing him to get the information he wants.

For the most part, Jackman convincingly sells Keller's rage, but there are some scenes where he's a little too over-the-top, and Guzikowski's script makes the daring decision to spend a little time almost attempting to turn Keller into not the villain, but a villain, especially when his own actions start to impede Loki's investigation.  But it's here where the problems start.  It takes people way too long to comment on a high-profile kidnapping suspect going missing for days. And how long does Keller expect to get away with what he's doing when he parks his work truck with his name on the side of it near the abandoned building?  And of course the recovering alcoholic Keller falls off the wagon (with the requisite brown paper bag) and of course Grace disappears into a haze of sleeping pills and anti-depressants as Bello spends most of the remainder of the film asleep in bed. The filmmakers don't spend much time at all addressing the grief of the Birch family, but then, they don't have a patriarch who's paranoid and close to foaming at the mouth even on his best days.  It's by design that Howard's Franklin is supposed to be the voice of reason against Keller's all-consuming quest for Biblical vengeance, but the film sometimes forgets that two families are in pain here.

PRISONERS goes into some unexpectedly dark places for a mainstream, big-studio movie, but I found myself most intrigued by Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki and wished that we learned more about his backstory.  Introduced eating Thanksgiving dinner alone at a Chinese buffet, Loki, with his intense blinking tic, zodiac tats on his knuckles, a Freemason ring and neck tat, and awkwardly-fitting shirts that are at least a size too small, is one of the strangest heroes to come down the pike in a while.  He sometimes lets his inexperience show (he tails Keller at one point, but gets made when he ends up blocking traffic and people start laying on their horns), and he's also dangerously impulsive, has no qualms about telling his captain (Wayne Duvall) what he thinks ("Hey, Captain...why don't you do me a favor and go fuck yourself?"), and is a loner on the force who doesn't seem to interact very well with his colleagues.  We don't learn much about Loki's obviously troubled past other than an offhand remark about spending time in a boys' home.  That, and he seems to really personally dislike Cariou's pedophile priest, so interpret that how you will.  Loki's an odd, fascinating character and we're intentionally kept at a distance with him, yet Gyllenhaal utilizes his skills as an actor to bring added dimensions to him (Gyllenhaal has said in interviews that the blinking tic was his own idea).  It's an awards-caliber performance, and the actor's best since David Fincher's 2007 masterpiece ZODIAC.

PRISONERS doesn't disappoint as a thriller but it's flawed as something "more."  Perhaps it's the kind of film that reveals more layers of itself with repeat viewings, but after one time through, a lot of the ambitions come off as pretensions, and character developments--with the exception of Loki--come to rely too heavily on the clichéd and predictable.  Look at the film's handling of Alex:  it's not enough to say he's weird and has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old.  No, they have to dress him in the most comically-outdated clothing imaginable and give him the most aesthetically unappealing eyeglass frames in the history of cinema.  He makes Napoleon Dynamite look like Justin Timberlake.  Dano is fine in the role but the costume design department went a little overboard with his get-up, turning Alex into a cardboard cutout of a character before Dano can even do anything with it.  Flaws and all, it's still a mostly very good film that should be seen, with Roger Deakins' expectedly excellent cinematography being another standout.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New from Scream Factory: SCANNERS Double Feature

Ten years after David Cronenberg's 1981 classic SCANNERS, his former producer Pierre David got the ball rolling on two back-to-back-shot sequels that have fallen into relative obscurity until the recent release of a double feature Blu-ray/DVD combo set.  By 1991, Cronenberg was well on his way to becoming a respected filmmaker (he had NAKED LUNCH in theaters that same year) and had nothing to do with these sequels other than a "Based on characters created by" credit and presumably cashing a small paycheck.  Both films were directed by Christian Duguay, and while he's not a filmmaker of Cronenberg's caliber, he did exhibit enough flair to eventually go on to a brief career with the major studios and has a few solid cult movies to his credit.  The Canadian Duguay got his start as a camera and Steadicam operator on films like Paul Mazursky's ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY (1989) and worked in Canadian TV before making his feature directing debut with these two SCANNERS sequels.

(Canada - 1991)

Aside from some mild profanity and the rather tame splatter bits--the exploding heads aren't nearly as well-done here as in Cronenberg's film--SCANNERS II could almost be a TV-movie.  Taking place ten years after the events of the first film--though the math doesn't make sense once the entire plot is revealed--SCANNERS II focuses on David Kellum (David Hewlett), a veterinary student with Scanner abilities who gets roped into the devious machinations of Commander Forrester (Yvan Ponton), a fascist police official with designs on turning the city into his totalitarian playland.  Forrester and Dr. Morse (Tom Butler) run a secret Scanner lab where Forrester's ultimate plan is to corral the telepathic Scanners and use them to expose, control, and eliminate the criminal element.  Kellum also finds out he has a long-lost sister, Julie Vale (Deborah Raffin) and that they're both the Scanner-gene-carrying offspring of Cameron Vale and Kim Obrist, the characters played by Stephen Lack and Jennifer O'Neill in the 1981 film.  SCANNERS II largely follows the same formula as the first film, right down to an inevitable showdown between good Scanner David and evil Scanner Drak (Raoul Trujillo), who's essentially a stand-in for Michael Ironside's Darryl Revok.  Written by B.J. Nelson (LONE WOLF MCQUADE), SCANNERS II basically is what it is:  a watchable, straight-to-video-level sequel, even though it did get a limited US theatrical release in the summer of 1991 before turning up on video store shelves.  Hewlett, a regular presence in Canadian film and TV who would go on to become a fixture in the films of CUBE director Vincenzo Natali, is pretty bland here but does sport a sublime mullet.  American actress Raffin, whose career was starting to slow down by 1991 even though she was still in her late 30s, gets second billing but doesn't appear until over an hour into the film and has little to do other than show David a couple of new Scanning techniques.  That's a shame since the late actress (she died of leukemia in 2012) was a consistently appealing TV and big-screen presence who rarely got the quality roles she deserved (cult movie fans probably know her best today as Charles Bronson's doomed love interest in DEATH WISH 3).  Many of the Quebec-based cast, especially Ponton, sound dubbed, but the real standout is a scenery-chewing Trujillo as Drak, who seems to have spent a significant amount of time studying Ironside's performance and trying to top it at every turn.  Other than Trujillo's level of commitment to crazy, SCANNERS II is harmless but mostly forgettable.  In addition to a required-by-Canadian-law appearance by character actor Vlasta Vrana, the film also features an Aldo Nova-written hair metal closing credits tune, "Mind to Mind," performed by Alan Jordan, that probably could've been a hit had anyone saw the movie.  (R, 104 minutes)

(Canada - 1992)

Ditching Roman numerals for this second sequel, Duguay's SCANNERS 3 is generally considered the low point of the trilogy, but it might be time to reconsider that.  While neither film comes close to approaching Cronenberg's film--and to their credit, they don't even try--SCANNERS II generally felt like a watered-down redux.  SCANNERS 3, on the other hand and as misguided as it may be, goes for camp and comedy throughout and proves to be quite entertaining if you just shrug your shoulders and accept it.  Once more, we have a good Scanner (Steve Parrish as Alex) taking on an evil Scanner (Liliana Komorowska as Helena).  They're siblings and Alex is in self-imposed exile in Tibet after showing off some Scanner party tricks and accidentally killing his best friend.  Helena, meanwhile, is meek and mousy until she gets a dose of her scientist father's (Colin Fox) experimental new Scanner drug, which basically turns her into a fire-breathing bitch-on-wheels, strutting, vamping, and cooing across the screen as she offs her nemeses, assembles a Scanner army (the film was titled SCANNER FORCE in the UK), and discovers she can control the thoughts and minds of the population through TV signals (which also allows Duguay to pay tribute to Cronenberg's VIDEODROME).  While Parrish is a hero so bland that he makes you long for the dynamic magnetism of 1991 David Hewlett, Komorowska (who married Duguay not long after making this) just lets it rip.  It's not a good performance by the general definition of "good," but there's no denying her enthusiasm.  It's almost as if she treated this entire film as a potential demo reel to audition for an over-the-top 007 femme fatale.  Nelson is one of three credited writers for this one, along with David Preston (SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE, THE VINDICATOR) and Julie Richard, so it's hard to tell where this film's campy direction originated, but there's a clear attempt made to make Helena the quippy, snappy Freddy Krueger of the SCANNERS series, especially when Komorowska animatedly declares "I had a headache THIS big!"  There's also a scene in a posh restaurant where she telepathically forces an asshole business exec (Peter Wright) to spill wine on himself and foolishly dance around that seems more fitting in a Jim Carrey movie than in a SCANNERS film.  So, while the shift toward comedy is dubious, SCANNERS 3: THE TAKEOVER shows off much more gore and at least has more of a personality than its predecessor, with Komorowska turning in an undeniably spirited performance that's really hard to dislike.  If you catch this in the right mood, you might find yourself having an unexpectedly good time with it.  This one never made it into US theaters, instead going straight to American video stores.  (R, 100 mins)

Presented in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack by Shout! Factory offshoot Scream Factory, the SCANNERS II/SCANNERS 3 set (both films are on one Blu-ray and one DVD) isn't exactly Blu-ray demo-worthy but look nice in 1.78 transfers.  The biggest downside of the set is that it contains zero extras, not even trailers.  An interview with Duguay would've been a nice bonus feature (if for no other reason than to discuss the shift in tone with SCANNERS 3).  Duguay (born in 1959) went on to make the 1992 pre-007 Pierce Brosnan thriller LIVE WIRE before getting some acclaim in sci-fi/horror circles with 1995's SCREAMERS.  His best film is probably 1997's Carlos the Jackal-inspired THE ASSIGNMENT (with Aidan Quinn, Donald Sutherland, and Ben Kingsley), which didn't get much attention when it was released but has a small cult following thanks to its many years as a 3:00 am insomniac cable staple (check one of the lower-profile HBO or Showtime channels; it's probably on tonight).  Duguay's most widely-seen film is 2000's THE ART OF WAR, one of Wesley Snipes' better efforts from the bygone era when Wesley Snipes movies played in theaters.  After 2002's box office dud EXTREME OPS, Duguay left the major studios behind and settled into TV movies like 2008's COCO CHANEL with Shirley MacLaine.  In recent years, he's been busy directing movies and miniseries for Italian TV.  After the well-done SCREAMERS, it looked as if Duguay might've gone on to become a go-to Hollywood journeyman of the old Richard Fleischer sort to name just one, but in a changing cinematic environment, perhaps it just wasn't meant to be.  I always thought he'd have a bigger career than the one that's panned out for him.  Just on the basis of some spectacular action sequences in SCANNERS 3, there's no shortage of genre films of the last decade that could've been made better by the professional craftsmanship of an experienced vet like Duguay.

Duguay moved on to bigger things, but the SCANNERS franchise didn't end with this trilogy.  Pierre David himself directed 1994's spinoff SCANNER COP (featuring the late, great Richard Lynch), which was followed by 1995's SCANNER COP II, which was retitled SCANNERS: THE SHOWDOWN for American video stores (and it co-starred Robert Forster!).  A remake of Cronenberg's original film was announced in 2007, with SAW II/III and REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA director Darren Lynn Bousman attached, but the project fell apart.  There was also talk of a SCANNERS TV series around 2011, but thus far, nothing has materialized.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE BLING RING (2013); JAVA HEAT (2013); and PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES (2013)

(US/France/Japan/Germany - 2013)

Sofia Coppola's latest film is an account of the rash of 2008-2009 burglaries of celebrity homes in the Hollywood Hills committed by a group of privileged teenagers dubbed the "Bling Ring."  It had the unfortunate timing to be released right after Harmony Korine's more flashy and impressive SPRING BREAKERS, and despite some stinging observations of its protagonists' coddled lifestyles, it doesn't really have much to say.  It starts out fine, as troubled rich kid Marc (Israel Broussard) arrives at a new school and immediately befriends Rebecca (Katie Chang).  Historically a misfit, Marc is welcomed into Rebecca's clique--also consisting of sisters Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and their friend Chloe (Claire Julien)--and petty crimes committed out of boredom soon lead to burglarizing celebrity mansions after they read that Paris Hilton will be out of town.  They go to Hilton's home and find the keys under the mat.  Hilton is out of town so much that they go back several times, and also hit the homes of Lindsay Lohan, THE HILLS star Audrina Patridge, and Orlando Bloom, and bring along Nicki and Sam's younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock) to Megan Fox's house because she's small enough to fit through a doggy door and let everyone else in.  Like any group of young and inexperienced criminals, they get too cocky and stupid for their own good, not just in their repeat visits to Hilton's house, but posting pics of themselves with the stolen merchandise on their Facebook pages.  And of course, Rebecca, the de facto ringleader, tries to throw everyone under the bus when the shit hits the fan.

The story behind THE BLING RING is a interesting one, so it's hard to tell why the film ends up such an inert trifle, especially in the capable hands of Coppola (THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, LOST IN TRANSLATION).  Maybe it's that in her attempts to convey the shallow and vacuous lives of the "Bling Ring," Coppola inadvertently creates a shallow and vacuous film.  Once the premise and the players are established, the film becomes one montage after another of the titular group hanging out, doing drugs, clubbing, and taking selfies.  There are some high points:  Watson is very good and Leslie Mann gets some laughs as Nicki's, Sam's, and Emily's new agey, home-schooling mother whose educational curriculum is based on Rhonda Byrne's bestselling book The Secret.   There's probably a solid crime film to be made of this story, but it just plays like a less horrific, rich-kid, L.A. ennui version of Larry Clark's BULLY.  (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2013)

JAVA HEAT is a throwback actioner from the L.A.-based Margate House Films, a company owned by former political commentator Rob Allyn (producer, co-writer) and his son Conor (co-writer, director).  Though an American company, they work primarily in Indonesia, and JAVA HEAT does a nice job of capturing the look and feel of Java and Conor Allyn admirably goes for real explosions and stunt work instead of the usual CGI that we get in every other product from the Hollywood assembly line.  While the Allyns' sense of filmmaking aesthetics are admirable, their script is pretty weak and not helped at all by a bland leading man in TWILIGHT co-star Kellan Lutz.  Lutz is Jake Wilde, an AWOL Marine posing as a grad student in Indonesian art history, in Java on a personal mission to eliminate a terror cell run by a Frenchman named Malik, played by what once might've been Mickey Rourke.  Jake forms an uneasy, bickering, culture-clashing alliance with local cop and devout Muslim Hashim (Indonesian superstar Ario Bayu) to bring down Malik...if they don't kill each other first!

It's obvious that the younger Allyn is a disciple of big-budget '80s and early '90s actioners and he does an admirable job of emulating the look of those films, even in the unique (to American audiences, at least) setting.  But other than some nice, real explosions and a few decent action sequences, JAVA HEAT is pretty boring.  Some of that falls on Lutz, who's just not an interesting actor, but the story is pretty hollow and formulaic to the point of catatonia.  It's overlong and badly-paced, and doesn't make good use of cosmetic-surgery-gone-horribly-awry cautionary tale Rourke, who lumbers around like the Frankenstein monster, utilizing a horrid French accent that's so thick and garbled that he's often subtitled even when speaking English. It might've worked if he'd cut loose and played it crazy, but since Rourke is obviously bored, he creates a boring character (though there is one cool shot of him walking away from an explosion in slo-mo). Wasn't THE WRESTLER supposed to rescue him from this kind of junk?  Or has he finally burned every remaining bridge in his quest to squander all of the goodwill that brilliant performance earned?  If you want to see Rourke play the bad guy in dumb action movie, just watch DOUBLE TEAM again. Allyn shows bits of style here and there, and with a script from someone other than him and/or his dad, he might have a future as a reliable, go-to DTV action director of the Isaac Florentine variety.  But for now, JAVA HEAT doesn't really get the job done.  (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2013)

Anchor Bay barely released this incredibly awful, absurdly tardy PULP FICTION ripoff that plays like it should've gone straight-to-video in 1996.  Co-produced by Limp Bizkit mainman Fred Durst, who was originally set to direct before the job went to the once-promising Wayne Kramer (THE COOLER, RUNNING SCARED), PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES tells a trio of stories centered on a rundown pawn shop in the hillbilly south run by Vincent D'Onofrio and Chi McBride.  First off, a crew of brainless meth heads--including Paul Walker and Lukas Haas--can't get their shit together to follow through with their half-assed plan of robbing the area's top meth cooker (Norman Reedus, his face hidden behind a respirator mask).  The next has Matt Dillon ditching his new bride (Rachelle Lefevre) when he discovers his missing first wife's ring at the pawn shop, sending him on a quest for revenge and the truth behind her disappearance.  The final story involves the redemption of a hopelessly down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator (Brendan Fraser) who can't even scrape together some pocket change for a coffee at a greasy spoon.  Written by Adam Minarovich, PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES stumbles at every turn as Kramer tries to replicate the balls-out insanity and comic book mindset of RUNNING SCARED but fails miserably, and the film is so slavishly devoted to its Tarantino stylings that you quickly go from feeling sorry for it to being actively pissed off at its sheer laziness, wallowing in sleaze and would-be "shock" bits as it drags on to an exhausting 112 minutes.  Wasting an interesting supporting cast that had some cult-movie potential (there's also Thomas Jane, Pell James, Ashlee Simpson, and a vigorously masturbating Elijah Wood), while getting career-worst performances from most of the past-their-prime leads (Fraser and Dillon are terrible), the appalling, unwatchable PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES has absolutely nothing redeeming about it and offers zero entertainment value.  There's just nothing else to say:  this is a complete pile of dog shit.  (R, 112 mins)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Theaters: INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by James Wan.  Written by Leigh Whannell.  Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Steve Coulter, Ty Simpkins, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Jocelin Donahue, Andrew Astor, Michael Beach, Tom Fitzpatrick, Danielle Bisutti. (PG-13, 105 mins)

Two months after the very effective, old-school fright flick THE CONJURING, director James Wan (SAW) has a sequel to his 2011 hit INSIDIOUS in theaters.  INSIDIOUS was 2/3 of a terrific horror film that collapsed in the last third, and this follow-up is dead in the water from the start.  Everything Wan did right in INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING goes wrong here as he and screenwriter/co-star Leigh Whannell really stretch to expand a story that ran out of gas before the first film was even finished.  Weaving a complicated backstory into the first film--and pulling a page from the SAW sequels' playbook as some events here take place at the same time as the first INSIDIOUS--while relying on the same scares that were once fresh but now seem played out (look around the periphery of several scenes and you expect to find a ghostly figure lurking somewhere), everything about CHAPTER 2 feels repetitive, uninspired, and at times, downright desperate.

Picking up right where the first film left off, medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) is dead, with Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson, also in THE CONJURING) under suspicion after venturing into the purgatorial ghost world known as The Further to rescue his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), who was abducted by spirits that have followed Josh since he was a child.  Moving in with Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), Josh and wife Renai (Rose Byrne) soon find themselves under siege once more by malevolent spirits.  This time, Josh really doesn't seem like Josh, and it doesn't take long for Renai to realize that another spirit is lurking inside him.  Enter Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), Elise's wacky ghostbusting sidekicks, who team up with Carl (Steve Coulter), an old associate of Elise's, and figure out that Josh is possessed by the ghost of Parker Crane (Tom Fitzpatrick), who was a serial killer known as the Bride in Black, driven to kill by the memories of childhood abuse at the hands of his wicked mother (Danielle Bisutti).

"Shh!  Don't tell anyone

The confusing storyline doesn't make much sense, especially when Josh, trapped in The Further by Crane's spirit, starts interacting with himself and Renai in events from the first film.  He also travels back to 1986 to converse with himself as a child.  These "Further" rules and abilities seem arbitrary and made up as they go along, and do nothing to enhance the experience of the first film, which, while not following through all the way to the end, still functioned nicely on its own.   No, everything here seems like a cash-in.  Most sequels are unnecessary anyway, but this one feels especially so and is doubly disappointing considering how good THE CONJURING was.  Unlike its predecessor, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is boring and illogical, the jump-scares no longer work, and the "possessed by a serial killer" angle feels stale and seems to exist only to give Wilson a chance to act like Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING.  It's a huge step back for Wan, who really impressed with THE CONJURING, and of course, the door is left open for a third INSIDIOUS, which has already been announced.  I think I've seen enough.

Monday, September 16, 2013

In Theaters: THE FAMILY (2013)

(France/US - 2013)

Directed by Luc Besson.  Written by Luc Besson and Michael Caleo.  Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, Vincent Pastore, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Palumbo, Jon Freda, Stan Carp.  (R, 112 mins)

Perhaps more than any other working actor, Robert De Niro seems to get a lot of shit about his career choices.  While he's turned in some lazy performances in some some truly abysmal films (LITTLE FOCKERS, RED LIGHTS, FREELANCERS, and THE BIG WEDDING all come to mind), he can still bring that unique De Niro magic to a performance when he genuinely cares.  He did some very good work in 2010's STONE, 2011's underrated KILLER ELITE and 2012's barely-seen BEING FLYNN, and his Oscar-nominated turn in last year's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK was his best performance in years.  He just turned 70 and is working more than ever.  By the end of 2013, De Niro will have had seven movies released this year alone.  While some of his contemporaries, like Jack Nicholson (offscreen since 2010), Warren Beatty (offscreen since 2001), and Al Pacino (five credits since 2010) are slowing down, it doesn't seem as if De Niro is saying no to anything.  He could stand to be a little more choosy with his projects--there's no excuse for him taking third billing in a 50 Cent movie--but I don't think De Niro's career is in the dire condition his critics claim.  Lots of good actors coast through mediocre movies for easy paychecks (I'm looking at you, Nic Cage).  It just hurts a little more to see a figure as towering and iconic as De Niro, arguably the world's greatest living actor, slumming in stuff that's clearly beneath him and making no effort to hide his complete disinterest.  But you can't say De Niro has lost it when you see him in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  De Niro's still got it--he just doesn't bring it with him to every movie set.

THE FAMILY finds De Niro not exactly bringing his A-game, but he's not phoning it in, either.  No, the coasting on this one is on behalf of the great French filmmaker Luc Besson, who's spent recent years writing and producing films like the TRANSPORTER franchise, DISTRICT B13, TAKEN, FROM PARIS WITH LOVE, COLOMBIANA, and LOCKOUT for various protégés (Louis Leterrier, Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton).  During this same period, Besson has directed a few animated films and some little-seen French arthouse pieces, but THE FAMILY is his first directorial effort to get a wide US release since 1999's THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC.  THE FAMILY is ostensibly a Mafia comedy, and comedy isn't exactly Besson's specialty.  De Niro is New York mobster Giovanni Manzoni, who ratted on his associates and is now in the federal witness protection program, living in France as "Fred Blake," with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and son Warren (John D'Leo).  The Manzoni's mob habits are hard to break, and their bad tempers and quick resorting to violence usually results in them frequently having to move to another location under the watchful eye of their exasperated FBI handler Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).  Giovanni's latest blunder--killing a local baker who disrespected him--forces Stansfield to move them to a small town in Normandy to a new home with a new set of names.

Meanwhile, back home, incarcerated capo Don Luchese (Stan Carp) has dispatched hitman Rocco (Jon Freda) to find the family, who's having a hard time blending into their surroundings.  THE FAMILY tries to be a culture clash comedy, but it doesn't really work since they've been living in various parts of France for several years and should already be accustomed to the ways of that world.  Instead, we get sidetracked with Belle's crush on her math tutor, Warren's various schemes and power plays at school, and "Fred" working through bureaucratic red tape to get the plumbing in their new house fixed.  Really?  You've got a gangster icon like De Niro spoofing his image (which he already did in ANALYZE THIS and ANALYZE THAT) and you're wasting an inordinate amount of screen time having him address the situation with the aging pipes in his house?  The thing is, the four principal actors are fine and have some nice chemistry as a family (Pfeiffer, another great actor who doesn't work as often as she should, is very good), but there's just nothing noteworthy or even very funny about the script.  It's almost like writers Besson and Michael Caleo scribbled "De Niro, gangster, witness protection" on some scrap paper and figured everything would just fall into place. 

There is some humor in the discussion of the versatility of the word "fuck," and one legitimately clever sequence when Fred, who's introduced himself to his neighbors as an American writer, is asked by a local arts & culture group to do a Q&A after a screening of the Frank Sinatra film SOME CAME RUNNING, only to find that they were accidentally sent a print of GOODFELLAS instead.  Stansfield accompanies Fred to the event, and the pained look on Jones' face (I'd say he's spoofing his own image as a humorless sourpuss, but that's giving the film too much credit) is priceless as he tells De Niro "We're not gonna sit here and watch your home movies," to which De Niro replies "It's a classic!  Admit it, it's your favorite secret jerkoff movie!"  THE FAMILY comes alive most when Besson drops all attempts at comedy and things get grimly serious when Rocco and his goons show up and start mowing down the town searching for the family.  It's a tightly-edited, suspenseful set piece that recalls the climactic hotel showdown in Besson's THE PROFESSIONAL (Jones' Stansfield was also the name of Gary Oldman's corrupt DEA agent in that film), but it doesn't belong in this movie.  That, coupled with the abrupt shrug of an ending shows that Besson just doesn't seem all that interested in what he's doing here, which is a shame.  THE FAMILY isn't so much a bad movie as it's just a missed opportunity.  Between the casting of De Niro and Pfeiffer (who's got SCARFACE and MARRIED TO THE MOB to her credit) and Besson's love of classic American gangster films, this could've been a smart, inventive deconstruction of the mob movie genre, but instead, we get a squandered cast headed by De Niro trying to get his shitty plumbing fixed.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE ICEMAN (2013) and EMPIRE STATE (2013)

(US - 2013)

It's hard for any 1970s set mob thriller to not swing from Martin Scorsese's nutsack, and while THE ICEMAN, based on the true story of career hit man Richard Kuklinski, is predictably episodic and formulaic as far as these things go, it stands out from the crowd thanks to some strong performances and some unusually diligent attention to period detail.  Most of today's films that are set in NYC of 40 years ago have a pronounced CGI artifice to them that's distracting to the point of looking cartoonish.  While those techniques are used here, it's obvious that director Ariel Vroman and the production design team made the extra effort to make it look as convincing as possible.  Michael Shannon, one of modern cinema's great character actors, stars as Kuklinski who, as the film opens in 1964, is a low-level flunky dubbing movies for the porn operation of powerful Jersey mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta).  Kuklinski works his way up to hit man after Demeo shuts down the porn operation, and after he lets a witness go (he doesn't kill women or children), Demeo takes Kuklinski out of commission and refuses to give him any work.  Kuklinski, whose ruthlessness at his job is at odds with his being a devoted husband to Deborah (Winona Ryder) and loving father to their two daughters, ends up working with freelance killer Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), so-called for his driving an ice-cream truck and storing bodies for up to two years before thawing them out and chopping them into pieces.  

Taking place from 1964 to 1986 (though Vroman stops paying much attention to the specifics of the years), THE ICEMAN isn't near Scorsese's league as far as mob thrillers go, and Liotta's played this character too many times to really do much with it, but Shannon is outstanding and Ryder manages to create a well-rounded character out of the typically clichéd "mob wife who doesn't seem to notice where the money comes from."  As with most releases from Cannon cover band Millennium, THE ICEMAN got buried and didn't see much of a release (when will actors realize that signing with Avi Lerner means your movie won't get seen?), and it doesn't really break new ground as far as these things go (does every 1970s-set movie have to include ELO's "Livin' Thing" and a disco sequence with Blondie's "Heart of Glass"?), but it's worth seeing, especially for Shannon fans.  Also with James Franco (who shows up for one scene before getting killed), David Schwimmer with a ponytail and a porn stache, Robert Davi, John Ventimiglia, and Stephen Dorff, buried in the credits for one scene as Kuklinski's brother.  (R, 105 mins)

(US - 2013)

Having directed exactly one good film (2009's FIGHTING), it was only a matter of time before Dito Montiel ended up in the Emmett-Furla Films/50 Cent universe.  Fiddy's name isn't on EMPIRE STATE, but his Cheetah Vision co-produced it, and in typical fashion, it played in a handful of theaters the weekend before its DVD/Blu-ray dumping.  It's slightly better than Montiel's last film, the dreadful THE SON OF NO ONE.  Based on a true story, EMPIRE STATE deals with the 1982 robbery of NYC armored car depository.  Unlike THE ICEMAN, the period detail in EMPIRE STATE is sloppy as hell, with subpar greenscreening and fashions that look more 1970s than early '80s.  Following a bunch of lowlifes in a Greek neighborhood in the Bronx, the film focuses on Chris Potamitis (Liam Hemsworth), who can't get a job with the NYPD after a pot bust at a Black Sabbath concert several years earlier.  He settles for an armored car gig, and ends up being the night watchman at the depository.  The business is riddled with corruption and apathy, which makes it easy for him to plan out a robbery.  Things spiral out of control when his buddy Eddie (Michael Angarano) can't keep his mouth shut and before long, the mob and the cops are involved.  Much of the film is a typical Montiel "slice of life" piece, but everything is so mired in clichés that it's hard to care.  The storyline is utterly confusing, Montiel gives Angarano entirely too much space to atrociously overact, though nothing can prepare you for the egregious miscasting of Dwayne Johnson as the lead detective investigating the robbery.  The Rock only has a few scenes and it looks like he shot them while in town to plug another movie.  He looks like a time traveler from 2013, with no effort made to make him blend into the surroundings.  Johnson has proven himself to be a capable actor, but it just looks like Montiel has no idea what to do with him here.  Second-billed Emma Roberts has even less to do as a potential love interest for Chris, but it feels like most of her work was left on the cutting room floor.  A bland, boring misfire, notable only for getting Paul Ben-Victor and Chris Diamantopoulos--both actors who have played Stooge Moe Howard--onscreen together.  (R, 94 mins)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: PASSION (2013)

(France/Germany - 2013)

Directed by Brian De Palma.  Written by Brian De Palma and Natalie Carter. Cast: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth, Paul Anderson, Rainer Bock, Benjamin Sadler, Michael Rotschopf, Dominic Raacke. (R, 96 mins)

Brian De Palma's first film since the 2007 misfire REDACTED is a throwback to his stylish suspense films of old:  hardcore fans will smile and nod at Pino Donaggio's melodramatic score (conducted, of course, by Natale Massara), an early split-diopter shot, and about an hour in, one of those famous De Palma split-screen sequences.  As nice as it is to see and hear those things again, one can't help but think that the legendary director is just punching a clock with this one.  It's a remake of Alain Corneau's French film LOVE CRIME (2010), but even with the uniquely De Palma-esque elements, PASSION is rather dull before the auteur finally snaps out of his trance and starts showing off.  Few directors can manipulate an audience like De Palma and, at 73, he's at the emeritus stage of his career where any shots or scenes that look like his classic work automatically get a pass because it's just "classic De Palma."  That was sort-of the approach he took with 2002's FEMME FATALE, but PASSION is seriously lacking that masterpiece's sense of filmmaking giddiness.   It's very probable that FEMME FATALE will go down as De Palma's last great film, whereas PASSION just finds him throwing some vintage-looking De Palma bits at you and it feels more out of a sense of obligation than engagement with the material. 

A tale of backstabbing bitchiness in the marketing world, PASSION stars Rachel McAdams as American marketing executive Christine Stanford, who oversees the Berlin branch of a big-time agency.  She has a flirtatious rapport with her ambitious underling Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), who's sleeping with Christine's embezzling, Eurotrash lover Dirk (Paul Anderson).  It would seem that Christine and Dirk have an open relationship, but that doesn't stop Christine's need for control by taking credit for one of Isabelle's marketing concepts, which sets off a chain reaction of psychological and sexual head games between the two women.  First it's harmlessly passive-aggressive, but before long, it escalates into cattiness, public humiliation and, finally, of course, murder.

For its first hour, PASSION plays a lot like a Skinemax erotic thriller from the mid-to-late '90s.  That is, the boring parts between the fuck scenes.  McAdams plays Christine very much like an anachronistic nod to Sharon Stone.  She's often cartoonish but seems to be relishing the opportunity to play an alternate universe version of her MEAN GIRLS character.  It's hard to get a handle on Rapace's character and her performance.  At best, it seems like she's awkward, miscast, and occasionally overwrought, but De Palma has been known to make casting decisions like that before and have the point go over the heads of audiences (much the way he took the inherently bland screen presences of Craig Wasson in BODY DOUBLE and Josh Hartnett in THE BLACK DAHLIA and used it to each film's advantage), but I'm not sure what he was trying to accomplish with Rapace's frequently stilted performance.  Before the end of the film, you'll realize both stars are outacted by German actress Karoline Herfurth (recently seen in ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY) as Isabelle's lesbian assistant who pretty obviously has the hots for her boss. 

Ultimately, PASSION is a pretty scattershot affair.  It looks great, is very well-shot by Jose Luis Alcaine, and when those De Palma moments finally start happening, PASSION picks up considerably.  But then the director just starts getting silly with dream sequences within dream sequences, the introduction of a long-lost twin sister, and a blatant swipe from Dario Argento's TENEBRE in the climax (not the first time he's borrowed that famous shot), which ends the film on a frustrating note.  In the right film with the right script, a director staging obvious callbacks to earlier works is a beautiful thing for fans.  De Palma did it the right way with FEMME FATALE.  The story makes all the difference here, and when the too-frequently stale PASSION does it, it just feels trite and forced. It's obviously worth seeing for De Palma obsessives and even uninspired De Palma is better than the A-games of a lot of today's directors, but the "De Palma can do no wrong" crowd on IMDb and other sites needs something a little more concrete than "It's not meant to be taken seriously!" to effectively defend the master, especially since you could say that about most of De Palma's classics.  PASSION should be trashy fun, but it just isn't.