Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Cannon Files: 52 PICK-UP (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Written by Elmore Leonard and John Steppling.  Cast: Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, Vanity, John Glover, Clarence Williams III, Robert Trebor, Doug McClure, Kelly Preston, Lonny Chapman. (R, 110 mins)

"Something about your face makes me wanna slap the shit out of it" - Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell in 52 PICK-UP

Cannon honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were at the pinnacle of their success in 1985-86.  Hits like MISSING IN ACTION, AMERICAN NINJA, DEATH WISH 3, and THE DELTA FORCE, to name just a few, made Cannon titles an almost weekly presence in movie theaters.  On top of that, Golan & Globus started to get more ambitious, fancying themselves modern-day movie moguls and using the profits from their commercial hits to finance more highbrow material, and they seemed to rely on Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky to make that happen.  Sure, they occasionally tried more serious films like Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (1982), but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that Golan and Globus got serious about Cannon being a prestigious name.  In quick succession, Konchalovsky directed MARIA'S LOVERS (1984), RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), DUET FOR ONE (1986), and SHY PEOPLE (1987) for Cannon, with RUNAWAY TRAIN earning Oscar nominations for stars Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and SHY PEOPLE winning a Best Actress award for Barbara Hershey at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.  With the exception of RUNAWAY TRAIN, audiences pretty much ignored these films, and Konchalovsky moved on, unsuccessfully trying to adapt to the Hollywood game with 1989's TANGO & CASH in one of the most egregiously bizarre mismatchings of director and material in all of cinema.  It didn't work, and though Konchalovsky received sole credit as director, he was fired midway through production and replaced by PURPLE RAIN director Albert Magnoli.

Cannon continued their quest for respect from highbrow critics, with Golan & Globus producing or distributing films by the likes of Roman Polanski (1986's PIRATES), Jean-Luc Godard (1987's KING LEAR), Franco Zeffirelli (1986's OTELLO), Dusan Makavejev (1988's MANIFESTO), Emir Kusturica (1985's WHEN FATHER WAS AWAY ON BUSINESS), Liliana Cavani (1985's THE BERLIN AFFAIR), Lina Wertmuller (1986's CAMORRA), and Fons Rademakers, whose THE ASSAULT won the 1986 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  But these expensive films lost a ton of money, and soon enough, audiences grew tired of the same old Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff movies that kept Cannon afloat and despite a couple of latter-day hits with a young Jean-Claude Van Damme (BLOODSPORT and CYBORG), the company was on life support by 1989.  52 PICK-UP, released in the fall of 1986, represents somewhat of a middle ground between Cannon's commercial fare and their aspirations to be Taken Seriously.  Based on a novel by the great Elmore Leonard that Cannon liked so much that they made two versions of it in two years (1985's barely-released THE AMBASSADOR retained almost no elements of Leonard's 52 Pick-Up novel, moving the setting to the Middle East for the Israel-Palestine conflict--hardly Leonard's specialty--and is only remembered today as a trivia note for being Rock Hudson's final film), 52 PICK-UP is a crackling, nail-biting thriller that Leonard himself co-scripted, so it's fairly faithful to the book, with the biggest difference being a change in location from Detroit to Los Angeles, which was enough to make Leonard unhappy with the finished film. 
John Frankenheimer (1930-2002)
52 PICK-UP also represents a typical Cannon practice of getting veteran personnel who can still do the job but maybe aren't as in-demand as they once were:  in addition to providing regular employment for career journeymen like Michael Winner and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE director J. Lee Thompson, another good example of this is 1985's FOOL FOR LOVE, directed by Robert Altman years before his 1992 comeback with THE PLAYER.  For 52 PICK-UP, they hired the legendary John Frankenheimer, director of such classics as THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) and THE TRAIN (1964).  Frankenheimer was in a serious slump by 1986, with his career stalled by a string of mediocre films and years of alcoholism.  Frankenheimer went into rehab after shooting 1982's THE CHALLENGE and wouldn't fully rebuild his reputation until several acclaimed made-for-cable films in the mid-1990s (AGAINST THE WALL, ANDERSONVILLE, GEORGE WALLACE), followed by a major career resurgence with 1998's RONIN.  Frankenheimer died in 2002 a respected filmmaker at the top of his game (even with 1996's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU on his resume), something he most definitely wasn't when Golan & Globus hired him for 52 PICK-UP, but they took chances on people who had fallen out of favor and deserved another shot, like Altman and Norman Mailer, who directed 1987's TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE for Cannon.  52 PICK-UP was easily Frankenheimer's best film in nearly a decade.

The film centers on Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider), a successful, self-made man with blue collar roots, who got rich when the U.S. government bought his steel patent to use in manufacturing airplanes.  Mitchell's got a nice house in the suburbs, a restored Jag, and a loving wife in Barbara (Ann-Margret), who's about to launch a city council campaign at the urging of her D.A. candidate boss (Doug McClure).  Mitchell's also a sugar daddy to 22-year-old Cini (Kelly Preston), who works part-time in a Skid Row "live nude models" dump.  He's got Cini set up in a nice apartment and he's also got a problem:  he's being blackmailed with a sex tape showing him on a vacation with Cini ("You told your wife you were at a convention!") and the two of them in a motel room.  The blackmailers are a trio of drug dealers and scuzzy sycophants in the L.A. porn underworld:  ringleader Raimy (John Glover), a financial whiz and amateur pornographer who manages a XXX theater; nervous, weaselly Leo (Robert Trebor), and coke-addled psycho Bobby Shy (a terrifying Clarence Williams III).  They've got Cini and demand $105,000 from Mitchell in exchange for the tape.  Mitchell doesn't want to jeopardize Barbara's political aspirations, so he confesses the affair to her and decides he isn't paying the blackmailers, instead sending them an envelope stuffed with paper and a note reading "Bag Your Ass!"  Raimy breaks into Mitchell's house, steals a sportjacket and Mitchell's gun and uses it to kill Cini and frame Mitchell (all on videotape for Mitchell's benefit), and now demands $105,000 per year for the rest of Mitchell's life in exchange for their silence.  Mitchell, who prides himself on never relying on others, knows he'll never be rid of these shitbags but refuses to go to the cops, opting to set up an elaborate plan to deal with them himself, using his wits and street smarts and turning the three of them against one another.

It's not only a more high-minded Cannon product with a rejuvenated Frankenheimer onboard, but also with talent like Scheider and Ann-Margret heading the cast (and reunited from the 1973 French thriller THE OUTSIDE MAN).  At 54, Scheider was nearing the end of a hugely-successful decade-plus run as an A-lister, and while 46-year-old Ann-Margret wasn't exactly at the peak of her career, she brought not just name recognition but a certain degree of class to the proceedings that wasn't normally inherent in a Cannon film.  But in aiming toward comparitively older moviegoers, Cannon made the same mistakes they made in many of their Bronson films:  an overabundance of violence and sex that much of that demographic found off-putting.  Frankenheimer spends a lot of screen time with the sleazy dealings of Raimy and his cohorts, including a wild party that features cameos by several famous porn stars (Jamie Gillis, Herschel Savage, Amber Lynn, Barbara Dare, Sharon Mitchell, and, of course, Ron Jeremy), and a few nude photo shoots, etc.  52 PICK-UP is one of the sleazier Cannon outings, but the nudity, the seedy L.A. locations, the drug abuse and the general unpleasantness (an enraged Raimy abducts Barbara late in the film, shooting her full of heroin and--offscreen--raping her) are vital to the film's atmosphere and the sense that Mitchell is leading himself and his wife into a dangerous and destructive world.  Indeed, Glover, Trebor, and Williams vividly create three of the most loathsome, repulsive villains you'll ever see.

But the center of the film is the relationship between Harry and Barbara, and Scheider and Ann-Margret both do excellent work here, especially in the scene where Harry confesses the affair.  With very little dialogue, Ann-Margret conveys the pain and the hurt, saying she's sensed it for a while and quietly says "22...that's young.  We've been married 23 years.  That's longer than she's been alive."  And when Harry keeps fumblingly saying "It's not that simple," Barbara practically spits "Oh...did you play Daddy?"  Some of Leonard's trademark snappy wit shines in the script as well, with Harry explaining the situation to his trusted attorney (Lonny Chapman) and saying "I must've thought I was falling in love.  What an asshole," and when he goes to ambush Raimy at his porno theater, Harry asks the cashier "The movie...is it any good?" to which she deadpans "Beautiful...five bucks."  Scheider was an unheralded master at disposing a villain with a smartass quip or, better yet, taking a bad guy's snide catchphrase and throwing it back at him at the best possible moment.  One could argue that this started with "Smile, you son of a bitch!" from JAWS, but it was also reflected in his turning the obnoxious "Catch ya later!" back at Malcolm McDowell in 1983's BLUE THUNDER, and around the 28th time Glover's Raimy snottily calls Scheider's Mitchell "Sport" in 52 PICK-UP, you know that'll be coming back to bite him in the ass.

Ultimately, despite good reviews, many citing it as Frankenheimer's best film in years, and extensive publicity, 52 PICK-UP was a box-office dud, landing in 8th place its opening weekend and going on to gross just $5 million.  Scheider and Frankenheimer teamed up again for 1990's little-seen THE FOURTH WAR, an interesting and underrated post-Cold War thriller.  While Frankenheimer's career picked up, Scheider's wound down.  He stayed busy for the next two decades in supporting roles, straight-to-video movies, and spent a couple of years on the NBC series SEAQUEST DSV (and reportedly hated it, essentially quitting the show after two seasons but making three brief appearances in the third season after being replaced by Michael Ironside), but by the end of the decade, like Cannon, Scheider's big-screen movie-star days were essentially over.  He died in 2008.  Leonard had already seen several of his stories and novels turned into films, going back to 1957's 3:10 TO YUMA, 1967's HOMBRE, 1969's THE BIG BOUNCE (remade in 2004), 1974's MR. MAJESTYK, and 1985's STICK, among others.  The most famous big-screen Leonard adaptation is probably Quentin Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN (1997), based on the novel Rum Punch, but GET SHORTY (1995) and OUT OF SIGHT (1998) are also held in high regard, along with the FX series JUSTIFIED, with Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a character in several Leonard works.  Now 87, Leonard is still writing and still living in the suburban Detroit area, which he's called home since he was nine years old.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: HOLY MOTORS (2012), BORDER RUN (2013), and NOBODY WALKS (2012)

(France/Germany - 2012)

Spellbinding and tedious in equal measures, French auteur Leos Carax's practically impenetrable HOLY MOTORS is, in a word, difficult.  What you bring to it is a major factor in what you get from it, and the more you know about the history of French cinema, the more you can read into what's going on.  In following the mysterious Mr. Oscar (Carax regular Denis Lavant) on a series of nine "appointments" over the course of a very long day, Carax is apparently conducting an examination of "the death of cinema" in a world where technology runs rampant and everyone is "acting" all the time.  We never know the real "Mr. Oscar"--only the actor driven around Paris in a stretch limo by his dutiful assistant Celine (Edith Scob), donning makeup and disguises between appointments.  Mr. Oscar is alternately a homeless woman begging for change;  a banker;  a motion-capture performance artist supplying the moves of a CGI serpent;  the gnomish Mr. Merde, abducting fashion model Kay M (Eva Mendes); a father berating his teenage daughter; a dying old man; an assassin hired to kill his lookalike and then himself; a lonely, heartbroken man spending a few fleeting moments with a former love (Kylie Minogue) on the roof of an abandoned theater overlooking Paris.  There's even an intermission where Lavant leads an accordion jam session through a church.

"Anarchic" is a word frequently used to describe HOLY MOTORS and Carax's films in general (he's best known for 1991's THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE; HOLY MOTORS is his first feature in 13 years), but this may be his defining statement with its endless references to French cinema going back to the classics (at one point, Scob is seen donning the same mask she wore in Georges Franju's 1959 classic EYES WITHOUT A FACE) and all the way up to himself (Mr. Merde was a character played in Carax's segment of the 2008 anthology film TOKYO!).  At some point, you have to question whether Mr. Oscar is even a real person or if he's ever not playing a part (French screen legend Michel Piccoli has a brief role as what seems to be Mr. Oscar's employer).  During one "appointment," he's running behind schedule and has to leave, and the person to whom he's talking mentions she has another appointment as well.  Everyone is "acting."  Life--and everything--is one big performance.  Do we ever know our true selves?  Or is there such thing?  Or something like that.  HOLY MOTORS is intentionally vague and ambiguous and it can be a horse pill at times.  For every sequence as dazzling and stunning as the motion capture segment, there's one as meandering and plodding as Mr. Merde's, with the freakish troll showing off his monstrous, crooked erection to the mystified Kay M (Mendes does seem a little out of place here).  Combining elements of nearly every movie genre from film noir to old musicals to thrillers to gory horror, with Mr. Merde's introduction accompanied by Akira Ikufube's GODZILLA theme, HOLY MOTORS is both brilliant and maddeningly self-indulgent, demonstrating the best and worst tendencies of a genuine auteur:  it's both beautifully inspired and pompously smug.  Love it or hate it, there's never been another film like it, and Lavant is quite wonderful in about ten complex roles that require him to do just about anything you can ask from an actor.  (Unrated, 116 mins)

(US - 2013)

It's hard to believe it's been over 20 years since Sharon Stone secured her spot in film history with cinema's most famous leg-crossing in 1992's BASIC INSTINCT.  She'd been paying her dues and working her ass off for over a decade and she finally found fame at the age of 34, a relatively late bloomer by Hollywood standards.  And almost immediately, she became someone that people loved to hate and wanted to see fail, so much so that when she got an Oscar nomination just three years later for Martin Scorsese's CASINO, it was viewed as a "comeback."  Stone pops up in decent projects every now and again, most recently Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS (2005) or Nick Cassavetes' ALPHA DOG (2007), but she really hasn't been relevant since CASINO, and arguably was never an A-list box office draw at all, a point proven by 2006's truly sad and desperate BASIC INSTINCT 2.  She can be a fine actress and she's done excellent work (she's great in CASINO), but it's possible that she was doomed the moment she uncrossed her legs in that interrogation room in BASIC INSTINCT.

Stone's latest film is the straight-to-DVD thriller BORDER RUN and sorry to say, it's an almost complete embarrassment, and Stone, one of twelve credited producers, is a major reason why.  Stone is a bitch-on-wheels, right-wing TV reporter with a hardline stance on illegal immigration.  Her views change when her relief worker brother (Billy Zane) is kidnapped in Mexico.  When the INS and the government show no interest in Zane's disappearance, she heads down there herself and gets involved in a drug-and-human trafficking ring overseen by an overacting Giovanna Zacarias, who plays the part as a crazed, psycho lesbian prone to sticking her hand down a teenage captive's pants and declaring "She smells like a peach!" and is later seen stomping on a pregnant woman's stomach.  Zacarias' performance still pales in comparison to the hysterical, frothing-at-the-mouth work of Stone, who goes off the deep end after she's drugged and raped and starts to genuinely care for those trying to sneak into the US for their piece of the American dream (gee, who didn't see that coming?).  The film was shot under the title THE MULE, which actually gives away a late plot twist involving Zacarias and her cohorts pretending to be coyotes sneaking Mexicans over the border--it's all a cover for their smuggling operation and the drugs the illegals have unknowingly ingested while they were drugged.  Stone's look of gastrointestinal distress when the MARIA FULL OF GRACE pellets start to break is a sight to behold.  Not only is Stone's performance bad--her crutch seems to be to just start shrieking CASINO-style--but she's sporting a really hideous black Medusa fright wig and some very distractingly unflattering eyebrows that aren't doing her any favors in quieting her critics.  I like Sharon Stone and I think she's capable of great work in the right project with a director who can keep her contained (which Gabriela Tagliavini does not do here, most likely because she answers to producer Sharon Stone), but for whatever reason (she has been labeled "difficult"), Hollywood has all but abandoned her and she just seems lost with no idea where to turn.   She's 55, and despite the inexplicable ugly wig and bad makeup, she looks good and is still in great shape, and she even has a couple of topless shots here.  She should look at how the still-stunning Susan Sarandon has gracefully moved into character roles and is busier than ever in a ruthless business that historically casts 60-and-over actresses aside, and follow her example.  Though she's mostly culpable for it, Stone deserves better than BORDER RUN at this point in her career.  (R, 96 mins)

(US - 2012)

This low-key character piece was only on seven screens at its widest release despite being co-written by the much-hyped, divisive GIRLS creator/star Lena Dunham.  It's on the more commercial, JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME side of mumblecore and though it meanders into typical L.A. ennui, it's well-acted and offers some moments of squirming discomfort.  NYC visual artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby) arrives in L.A. to stay with Peter (John Krasinski), a movie/TV sound design specialist who's agreed to help her with sound effects on her latest short film project since his psychologist wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) knows a friend of a friend of Martine's and got him to do the young artist a favor between assignments.  Peter develops a crush on Martine, which doesn't go unnoticed by Julie, who simply says "Don't embarrass me."  Martine also gets involved with Peter and Julie's young handyman David (Rhys Wakefield), who doesn't notice how much Julie's 16-year-old daughter Kolt (India Ennenga of TREME) by her has-been rocker ex-husband Leroy (Dylan McDermott), is interested in him.  Julie also has to deal with the advances of a leering screenwriter patient (Justin Kirk).  Obviously, none of this ends pleasantly.  Directed and co-written by Ry Russo-Young, NOBODY WALKS boasts some very good performances, particularly by DeWitt (best known as Rachel of RACHEL GETTING MARRIED), who has an icy, withering glare like few others, but it's pretty slight and doesn't have much to say beyond "marriage is complicated," which is actually said by someone at one point.  There's nothing wrong with NOBODY WALKS:  it's worth a watch, and at just 83 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome, but it's the kind of film that you more or less forget as soon it's over. (R, 83 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Friday, February 22, 2013

In Theaters: SNITCH (2013)

(US/United Arab Emirates - 2013)

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.  Written by Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh.  Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Michael K. Williams, Melina Kanakeredes, Nadine Velazquez, Rafi Gavron, David Harbour, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren. (PG-13, 113 mins)

SNITCH purports to be "inspired by true events," which really means a 2004 profile on the PBS series FRONTLINE about the increase in convicted drug traffickers turning informant to get their sentences reduced.  That supplies the foundation of this preposterous but undeniably entertaining thriller with Dwayne Johnson as John Matthews, the owner of a successful Missouri construction company, a self-made man with a hot young wife (Nadine Velazquez), an impossibly adorable young daughter, and an all-around charmed life.  Matthews is informed by his ex-wife Sylvie (Melina Kanakeredes) that their 18-year-old son Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested and faces federal charges of drug trafficking after he's pressured into accepting a package of 2000 Ecstasy pills sent by his buddy.  The reluctant Jason was only supposed to "hold on to it" until his buddy got back to town, but the buddy was nabbed by the feds while trying to ship it and agreed to name Jason as a co-distributor in exchange for a lighter sentence.  Jason's lawyer (David Harbour) tells him he can do the same if he agrees to give the feds information on any other drug dealers, but he doesn't know of any and refuses to take part in setting someone up.  A desperate Matthews goes to U.S. attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) with an absurd proposition:  he'll be the snitch who infiltrates the area drug operation in exchange for getting Jason a reduced sentence.

Perhaps recognizing the implausibility of the situation, the film does include a scene where Matthews tries to pull off a sting on his own, naturally getting his ass beat in the process.  But the script by director Ric Roman Waugh and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD screenwriter Justin Haythe offers an unusual amount of character development for this type of film.  SNITCH sets up the basic premise fairly quickly but then gives the actors some time and space to establish relationships and make them into fully-realized characters that the audience can care about.  Johnson is consistently underrated as an actor and he's very good here as a man estranged from his son (who resents his father so much that he uses Sylvie's maiden name) and feeling the guilt of always being too focused on his career and his business and now that he's where he wants to be in his life, has traded in his old family for a newer, younger one in a huge house in the suburbs.  It's the guilt of never being there for his son that drives Matthews to such extreme actions now.  And he's not above using people if it means getting what he wants, particularly in the way he goads Daniel (Jon Bernthal), one of his warehouse employees, into helping him.  Daniel is an ex-con with two trafficking convictions who's trying to make a new start with his wife (Lela Loren) and son.  Daniel's got two strikes, and if he does anything, he's locked up for life.  Matthews pressures Daniel, offering him $20,000 if he gets him an introduction into the trafficking underworld, under the pretense that the business is struggling and he's looking to supply his trucks to any local organization that might require them.  Matthews tells Daniel nothing of Jason's situation, and Daniel could really use the money to move his family out of the dangerous hood where they presently reside.

Daniel introduces Matthews to area drug kingpin Malik (the great Michael K. Williams of THE WIRE and BOARDWALK EMPIRE), and eventually gets all the evidence requested by Keeghan and undercover DEA agent Cooper (Barry Pepper, sporting a ridiculous goatee), but when Malik namedrops Mexican cartel honcho El Topo (Benjamin Bratt), Cooper calls off the bust, sensing, along with the ambitious Keeghan, who's gunning for a Senate seat, a bigger fish if they wait it out.  This forces Matthews to continue lying to his family and to Daniel, and putting them all at risk by going after El Topo.

Waugh, a veteran stuntman who's directed a handful of films over the last decade or so, seems to have an interest in stories about those mishandled by the justice system:  his last film, 2008's FELON, was a mostly forgettable but occasionally interesting prison drama that had ambition beyond the usual DTV fare, with Stephen Dorff as a family man who kills a home intruder but still ends up going to prison on murder charges.  Though the film offered Val Kilmer wearing one of the worst glued-on goatees ever seen in a movie (apparently, ludicrous facial hair is to Waugh what women's feet are to Tarantino), it seemed to be trying a bit harder than most of its type, with a quietly powerful supporting performance by Sam Shepard as a retired prison guard who can't let go of the job and finds he misses talking to the lifers he's gotten to know as friends after 30 years.  SNITCH has similar levels of complex characterization, particularly with Bernthal's Daniel, and though some may regard it as unimportant and slowing the story down, it contributes to the overall impact of the film, giving the people and their situations a certain degree of gravity and consequence.  It would've been easy to just have The Rock morph overnight into a hardass vigilante single-handedly taking on a Mexican drug cartel, but Waugh finds a good balance between serious drama and hard-hitting action.  And how refreshing is it, especially after last week's cartoonishly inane A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD debacle, to find strong characterization and human fallibility in a modern action thriller?

I don't mean to make SNITCH sound like Ten Best of 2013 material or some new classic or anything.  It is dumb on occasion (do we need to see Matthews sitting at his computer reading the Wikipedia page for "Drug cartel"?), and stripped to its bare bones and required plot points, it's a compelling but largely predictable couple of hours that's a little constrained by its PG-13 rating.  But it shows that with a little care and some effort, you can take something formulaic and predictable and give it some occasional depth and create something with a little more meat to it than you might expect going in.  As a director and writer, Waugh's made some noticeable strides in the five years since FELON.  If SNITCH is any indication, he might be worth keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


(US - 2013)

Just how aggressively quirky is SMALL APARTMENTS?  In the first five minutes, we're introduced to hairless hero Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) in his filthy apartment, wearing tighty-whiteys, pulled-up tube socks and clogs, blowing into an alphorn and getting a package in the mail consisting of a cassette tape and toenail clippings.  And yet, somehow, I kept watching.  Designed as a vehicle for LITTLE BRITAIN star Lucas,  SMALL APARTMENTS eventually becomes more of an ensemble piece, with a large cast of depressed, sad-sack eccentrics and misfits in and around a shithole Los Angeles apartment building.  Franklin has a brother (James Marsden) in a psych ward and mostly spends his days spying on an aspiring stripper across the way (Juno Temple), drinking Moxie soda and eating pickles.  He accidentally kills his scuzzy landlord (Peter Stormare), who forces Franklin to fellate him when the rent's overdue.  Franklin tries disposing of the body by setting it on fire, which attracts the attention of a cynical, alcoholic fire inspector (Billy Crystal).  Other characters include Franklin's angry next-door neighbor (James Caan); a stoner convenience store clerk (Johnny Knoxville) trying to build the perfect bong in his spare time; his religious-nut mother (Amanda Plummer), and his girlfriend (Rebel Wilson); Saffron Burrows as Temple's mother; David Koechner and David Warshofsky as detectives investigating Stormare's murder; Rosie Perez as a psych ward nurse; DJ Qualls as a masturbating convienience store clerk who gives Temple free smokes in exchange for letting him cop a feel; and Dolph Lundgren, sporting slicked-back, jet-black hair and a terrible fake tan as a self-help motivational speaker. 

Directed by Jonas Akerlund (SPUN, and a ton of music videos, most notably Madonna's "Ray of Light" and The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up") and scripted by Chris Millis (from his own novel), SMALL APARTMENTS kept reminding me of Wim Wenders' THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL (2000) mixed with bits of John Waters, Wes Anderson, and post-Farrelly Brothers grossout comedy.  It's a complete mess that careens wildly from quirky to garish to disgusting to sappy and uplifting, never really establishing a tone or a purpose.  It feels very disjointed and haphazardly chopped down (Burrows is barely visible, and I don't even recall her having any dialogue) and Lucas is offscreen for much of the somewhat improved second half when the focus shifts to Crystal, who's actually quite good here in a relatively straight role.  The bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime cast makes it an interesting curiosity for movie nerds, but with that many name actors, you know something's seriously wrong when the only theatrical exposure SMALL APARTMENTS could manage before its DVD/Blu-ray dumping after two years on the shelf was a small handful of one-off screenings through web-based event promotion service Tugg.com, a move that was no doubt spun as "a bold new experimental distribution model," which is a polite euphemism for "no interest from any real distributors."  (R, 96 mins)

(France - 2011; 2012 US release)

The fact that it's a French film with mostly French dialogue immediately puts something like SPECIAL FORCES in the arthouse, but it's a pretty standard, by-the-numbers commando action film that just happens to have subtitles.  Directed by Stephane Rybojad with the same kind of hyperactive camera movement that made some of Tony Scott's films so distinctive yet so frequently headache-inducing, SPECIAL FORCES has French journalist Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger) abducted in Kabul by Taliban insurgents led by Ahmed Zaief (Raz Degan).  The French government and the military (represented by the ubiquitous Tcheky Karyo) send an elite Special Forces unit led by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou) to rescue her.  That happens fairly quickly, but what starts as a combat shoot 'em up morphs into a surviving-the-elements drama as Kovax and the unit--Lucas (Denis Menochet), Tic-Tac (Benoit Magimel), and Elias (Raphael Personnaz), among others--and Elsa are left behind when they don't arrive at the meeting point in time and are forced to journey through the harsh terrain of Afghanistan, with Zaief in hot pursuit.  Essentially a French ACT OF VALOR, SPECIAL FORCES pays tribute to French soldiers and journalists who put their lives on the line and that's great, but don't these people deserve a better movie than this?  From the shaky-cam battle sequences to the predictable character arcs (is there any chance the Special Forces guy with a kid on the way is making it to the end of this mission?) to the approximately 138 times Rybojad cuts to a circular aerial shot of the characters walking along a narrow mountain top, SPECIAL FORCES, once you factor out the novelty of it being a foreign language film (though there is a badly-dubbed English audio option), is really no different than 20 other straight-to-DVD titles of the same sort.  That is, unless you consider that it features one of the most anti-climactic and unsatisfying comeuppances for a villain in recent memory. (R, 109 mins)

Monday, February 18, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: Shout! Factory Roundup

With their Roger Corman line and their endless parade of classic TV shows among other offerings, it's been a busy couple of years for Shout! Factory, who have quietly emerged as the top genre Blu-ray/DVD label for serious cult movie fans and only look to get bigger with their "Scream Factory" offshoot and an MGM licensing deal.  Here's a look at several of their releases from the last couple of months.

CRIME STORY (Hong Kong - 1993)/
THE PROTECTOR (US/Hong Kong - 1985)

Two atypical Jackie Chan films are paired on a single disc, starting with 1993's CRIME STORY, which was released in a dubbed version in the US by Dimension Films in 1996 to capitalize Chan's RUMBLE IN THE BRONX breakthrough (this offers the English dub and the original Cantonese with English subtitles).  It's a different kind of Chan film in that it's a dark and very violent kidnapping thriller that's completely lacking his usual comedic flair.  In a role originally intended for Jet Li, Chan is Detective Eddie Chan, an honest cop trying to get to the bottom of the abduction of a millionaire construction magnate.  CRIME STORY reveals early on that the culprit is actually Chan's partner Hung (Kent Cheng) and there's a nice pre-INFERNAL AFFAIRS vibe to their game of cat & mouse as Hung gets increasingly nervous about Chan's incessant digging.  Chan found the film too dark and insisted, against the wishes of director Kirk Wong (who's interviewed on the Blu-ray) on dumping a subplot about Det. Chan's psychological issues and adding some typically acrobatic martial-arts action sequences.  These scenes don't really gel with the gritty vibe Wong was going for, and because we know in the very beginning that Hung is responsible, there isn't a whole lot of suspense in the film.  The spectacular action scenes then, are really the highpoints, so perhaps Chan was right to overrule Wong.  CRIME STORY suffers from inconsistent pacing, Chan's need to present his character as selflessly heroic as possible (not one, but two scenes where he puts his job aside to rescue someone in distress--you're the hero, we get it) and a very intrusive score, but the memorable action scenes, including one incredible car chase, make it worthwhile.  Wong came to Hollywood a few years later for the 1998 Mark Wahlberg actioner THE BIG HIT, but hasn't directed a film since 2000's THE DISCIPLES, which is credited to "Alan Smithee."

Coming a decade before Chan finally found success in the US with RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, 1985's much-maligned THE PROTECTOR was the second attempt by Golden Harvest to make Jackie Chan a star in the US.  1980's THE BIG BRAWL bombed and Chan's co-starring roles in both CANNONBALL RUN films did little to endear him to American fans.  Chan was never happy with THE PROTECTOR and reportedly clashed with writer/director James Glickenhaus (THE EXTERMINATOR) throughout the shoot and eventually ended up preparing his own version of the film for the Asian market, adding fight scenes and reshooting others, dumping the nudity and the profanity to make it a more traditional Chan film.  THE PROTECTOR tanked in the US, grossing less than $1 million, but time has been pretty kind to it.  If one approaches it as a Glickenhaus film first and a Chan film second, they'll have a better time with it.  The first 20 minutes contain some vintage Glickenhaus fused with Chan's incredible stuntwork.  Chan is NYC cop Billy Wong, who's sent to Hong Kong with crass partner Garoni (Danny Aiello) to take down the crime lord who's kidnapped the daughter of a Manhattan business partner.  THE PROTECTOR drags a bit in the middle, but Glickenhaus, one of the action genre's most underrated craftsman, is really at the top of his game here and the film is immensely enjoyable if you're into the whole trashy B-movie thing.  It's nonstop F-bombs (even one from Chan!), gratuitous nudity, insane violence, Aiello dialing his Noo Yawk schtick to 11, and every cop movie cliche known to man.  Shout's 1.85:1 Blu-ray features some nice extras, including an interview with a diplomatic Glickenhaus, who says the disagreements came after the film was finished and insists he and Chan were always amicable and professional, a great featurette showing the NYC locations then and now, and the 88-minute Chan-supervised Asian cut, dubbed in Cantonese with English subtitles.  It follows the same basic plot structure, but adds a subplot with actress Sally Yeh and has enough major differences that it qualifies as a completely different film. (CRIME STORY: Unrated, 107 mins./THE PROTECTOR: R, 95 mins; THE PROTECTOR, Chan cut: Unrated, 88 mins)

(US - 1981)

Low-key Wes Craven horror film takes its time getting revved up, but offers a few decent scares and one memorable bathtub encounter with a snake that's endeared itself to devout followers of '80s horror cinema.  After her husband dies mysteriously, pregnant Maren Jensen (the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) and her two visiting friends (GREASE's Susan Buckner and Sharon Stone in one of her earliest roles) are terrorized and persecuted by the husband's estranged family, a community of Hittites from which he was banished.  Craven does some clever misdirection and we're of course led to believe that Jensen's irate father-in-law (Ernest Borgnine) is behind all the mayhem, but that's too easy and always be wary of prominently billed actors who don't appear to have much to do with the plot.  DEADLY BLESSING almost feels like the kind of slow-burner that a lot of indie horror filmmakers are going for today (I'm surprised it hasn't been remade with some kind of Westboro Baptist Church-type extremist group in place of the Hittites), and it subverts expectations time and again.  The plot twist in the finale is genuinely unexpected in the way it changes your views of the perceived crazies and who the real antagonists of the story were.  An interesting and unusual film that's marred only by a last shot that feels like it doesn't belong, only in the sense that it takes a frightening premise essentially grounded in reality and turns it otherworldly and supernatural in a way that provides a cool shock to go out on, but also cheapens the film to some degree.  Also with Lois Nettleton, Michael Berryman (as the Hittite village idiot...or is he?), Jeff East, and "introducing" Lisa Hartman, even though she'd been in several TV movies and starred in a TV series years before doing this film.  Shout's 1.78:1 Blu-ray features a commentary with Craven and Horror's Hallowed Ground's Sean Clark (where Craven admits he hasn't seen the film in many years and is "foggy" on a lot of details but says he's always been "embarrassed" by the last shot), and interviews with Buckner and Berryman.  (R, 102 mins)

(US - 1982)

This desert-set thriller wasn't a success in theaters, coming along at the height of the slasher craze, but it's bit more restrained than most (there's some brief nudity and a couple of gory throat slicings) and feels a lot like a made-for-TV movie.  Heavy cable rotation in the mid-1980s has earned it some sentimental affection and a devoted cult following.  For the most part, it's sluggishly-paced and rather average, with an overbearing score by Dana Kaproff that really goes out of its way to mimic Bernard Herrmann at his stringiest, but it has its moments and Stephen McHattie is a memorably effective killer, pursuing young Peter Billingsley (a year before A CHRISTMAS STORY), who's vacationing in Arizona with his divorced mom (Catherine Hicks) and her new boyfriend (Paul Le Mat).  Director Dick Richards and screenwriter Richard Rothstein give us a lot of repetitious character-building scenes of young Billingsley sullenly giving Le Mat the cold shoulder before forming a tentative bond, but things pick up considerably once Le Mat and Hicks go out to dinner, leaving Billingsley alone with one of horror cinema's most useless babysitters as McHattie shows up ready to kill.  Shout's 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer looks good and there's a commentary track with Richards, best known as the producer of 1982's TOOTSIE and as the guy who got into an on-set brawl with Burt Reynolds during the making of 1987's ill-fated HEAT.  DEATH VALLEY isn't bad--it was nice to revisit it after 30 years but it's nothing special, and a good example of something whose status may be elevated somewhat because it was seen at such an impressionable age.  (R, 88 mins)

(UK - 1977)

Ridley Scott's debut feature wasn't a big box office hit but it became a major cult film and established him as enough of a visual stylist that it led to his breakthrough blockbuster ALIEN two years later.  Based on Joseph Conrad's short story "The Duel," THE DUELLISTS finds two French army officers in the Napoleonic era, D'Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Feraud (Harvey Keitel), engaged in a nearly 20-year battle over a perceived insult that neither of them even remember by the end of the film.  In 1800, the easy-going D'Hubert was assigned to find hot-tempered, bullying Feraud and place him under house arrest at the base camp after the dueling-obsessed Feraud nearly killed the local mayor's son.  An offended Feraud instead takes his frustrations out on D'Hubert and so begins a grudge match that consumes their lives over the next two decades.  Their battle is a metaphor for the madness of war, a recurrent Conrad theme that was being explored at the same time by Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), of course based on Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness.  Working with fencing choreographer William Hobbs (whose expertise also helped make 1973's THE THREE MUSKETEERS, 1974's THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, and 1981's EXCALIBUR, among others, so memorable) and debuting cinematographer Frank Tidy (who never again shot a film this beautiful), Scott makes his mark with THE DUELLISTS, showcasing intense, brutal, bloody duels (how did this manage to get a PG rating?), and utilizing the natural lighting style that made Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON (1975) so visually stunning.  Shout's Blu-ray looks very good, easily the best it's ever looked since it was in theaters, but shows some wear at times, and it's likely just inherent in the 1970s film stock.  Some of the exterior shots (particularly in the closing scene) and ornate interiors are absolutely breathtaking.  Carradine and Keitel do good work, despite both being miscast as officers in Napoleon's army.  Scott gathered a fine supporting cast:  Edward Fox, Robert Stephens, Cristina Raines, Tom Conti, Diana Quick, Alan Webb, Jenny Runacre, Alun Armstrong, Maurice Colbourne, W. Morgan Sheppard, a young Pete Postlethwaite, and Albert Finney.  Narrated by Stacy Keach. Carradine and Keitel would reunite a decade later in Damiano Damiani's ancient Rome-set religious mystery THE INQUIRY (1986). (PG, 100 mins)

(US - 1976)

The 1970s saw numerous revisionist Sherlock Holmes films, such as Billy Wilder's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) and THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971), with George C. Scott as a mental patient who thinks he's Holmes.  THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, adapted by Nicholas Meyer (TIME AFTER TIME, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) from his own novel, opens with the dark, rarely-depicted-on-screen drug-addicted side of Holmes, showing the great detective (Nicol Williamson) in the midst of a crazed cocaine binge as his brother Mycroft (Charles Gray) and Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) conspire to trick him into going to Vienna to rehab with none other than the renowned Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin).  While in Vienna, a cleaned-up, clear-thinking Holmes finds himself with Watson and Freud in pursuit of one of Freud's kidnapped patients (Vanessa Redgrave).  All of this leads to a thrilling train chase and Holmes and the villain squaring off for a swashbuckling showdown atop a speeding train.  Meyer and director Herbert Ross find the perfect balance between drama, humor, and spectacular action throughout, and while such shifts in tone might have come off as jarringly uneven, they make it a very natural and organic progression.  Williamson's Holmes ranks among the best, and while Duvall initially feels miscast as Watson, he eventually settles into the role and captures the spirit of Watson even if is his strange accent is a bit distracting.  The film is mainly played straight, especially in the early going, but has a lot of humor, such as Holmes and Watson investigating a bordello where Holmes tries to shield the proper Watson's eyes from some of the more lascivious sights on display (it plays like a moment that Williamson might have ad-libbed).  This was a big-budget release from Universal, and Meyer's script got an Oscar nomination, but these days, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is generally well-regarded but remains little known outside of cult movie circles and hardcore Holmes enthusiasts, which is a shame.  It's a rousing adventure, brilliantly acted, and prefigures Guy Ritchie's SHERLOCK HOLMES in a number of ways, and Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of Holmes owes much to Williamson's often manic interpretation of the character.  Also with Laurence Olivier as an innocent, falsely-accused Moriarty, Joel Grey, Samantha Eggar, and Jeremy Kemp, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is a richly entertaining film that's aged beautifully.  Shout's 1.85:1 transfer spotlights Ken Adam's stunning production design, and the Blu-ray/DVD combo set also offers an interview with Meyer.  (PG, 114 mins)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In Theaters: A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by John Moore.  Written by Skip Woods.  Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Rasha Bukvic, Cole Hauser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yulia Snigir, Amaury Nolasco, Sergey Kolesnikov. (R, 97 mins)

At one point in A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, the latest and by far the least of the 25-year-old action franchise, someone asks the villain "So this is about money?" to which Bruce Willis' John McClane interrupts "It's always about the money."

That pretty much sums up Willis' level of commitment to this dreary and uninspired time-waster that feels the need to justify itself by mentioning in the closing credits just how many people the project employed and how many hours they put in.  Indeed, this wasn't a scripted film with characters in a narrative.  It was put together in a strictly mechanical, assembly-line fashion with the actors being the least relevant part of the equation.  There's nothing wrong with crafting a formulaic action picture with the intention of making money, but it helps if anyone involved can at least pretend that they give a shit.

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD finds a sleepwalking Willis coasting through as McClane, heading to Moscow upon hearing news that his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney, whose bland presence here seems to indicate that Hollywood has given up trying to make Sam Worthington happen) has been imprisoned on drug charges.  McClane arrives in Moscow and immediately stumbles into a complex plot to get jailed scientist Komarov (Sebastian Koch of THE LIVES OF OTHERS) out of the country--an operation overseen by Jack, who's really a covert CIA agent.  Komarov has access to a file that implicates him and big-shot politician Chagarin (Sergey Kolesnikov) as the parties responsible for the Chernobyl disaster.  Komarov has owned up to it and wants Chagarin to pay, while Chagarin needs Komarov to disappear in order to attain his ambitious political goals.  Jack seems to be pulling off this mission with just one other CIA guy (Cole Hauser), who gets shot in the head almost immediately, putting Komarov in the hands of the bickering McClanes, who spend as much time working out their family issues as they do blowing away cartoonish Russian bad guys, led by Chagarin's top henchman Alik (Rasha Bukvic), whose tap-dancing and carrot-munching are highly ineffective quirks for a villain to demonstrate.  This all ends with a showdown at the abandoned Chernobyl facility (after the McClanes are lucky enough to steal a car with a trunk filled with automatic weapons), where the radiation can be neutralized by spraying a fine mist (apparently Febreze's new "Deus Ex Machina" scent), which is screenwriter Skip Woods' (SWORDFISH, THE A-TEAM) way of explaining how McClane Sr. and Jr. can waltz around quipping one-liners to their hearts' content with no protective gear or regard for their safety.  Last year's CHERNOBYL DIARIES was more plausible.

But that's the least of A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD's idiocies.  If you thought 2007's ill-advised LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD was inane, then wait until you see this. The John McClane of this film bears almost no resemblance to the McClane in the comparitively realistic DIE HARD (1988), a film that had heart, smart writing, and richly-drawn characters amid the action and spectacle.  That's why it's considered a classic decades later and why no one will remember A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD two weekends from now, no matter how much money it pulls in at the box office (and in one weekend, it's already grossed more than Schwarzenegger's THE LAST STAND and Stallone's BULLET TO THE HEAD combined, both of which are infinitely better films).  Five minutes after getting off the plane, McClane is commandeering a truck through the streets of Moscow and dodging a rocket that's launched at him.  He and Jack are not only immune to radiation poisoning, but they're involved in flipover accidents, hurl themselves through plate glass windows, fall through floor after floor of exterior scaffolding, and McClane dangles from a truck that's dangling from a chopper, often emerging from these incidents with little more than some scratches and always with the same "I'm on vacation!" wisecrack (Vacation?  Weren't you there to get your kid out of jail?). These action scenes are completely CGI'd and look about as convincing as one of those action/explosion FX iPhone apps.  I mean, seriously.  Look at this:

Actual shot from the film

Several people in the audience applauded at the conclusion of an utterly incoherent car chase.  Some of them emitted audible "Whoa!"s during shots like the one above.  What is wrong with these people?  Do they really think this a stunt being performed by Bruce Willis or an actual human being?  Is there anything in the above shot that's real?  What are they "Whoa!"-ing about?  It's like saying "Whoa!" when Wile E. Coyote plummets into a canyon.  This is what passes for a thrilling, aesthetically-pleasing action sequence these days?  I must confess that I wasn't completely disliking this movie in the early stages, but the sillier and more PS3-like this thing got, the more the audience was positively responding to it.  That's when I started to actively loathe it.  If you're gonna get a shit sandwich like this and sit there with your maw agape asking for seconds while ignoring BULLET TO THE HEAD, then you deserve all the terrible movies you get.  And be sure to watch them on your phone while you're at it.

And even though Willis isn't even present for some of the more "spectacular" action scenes, he's as much to blame as any of the behind-the-scenes personnel (I haven't even mentioned director John Moore yet, because, well, why?).  Willis' career is in a weird place right now.  He's been working relentlessly, doing everything from THE EXPENDABLES 2 to the critically acclaimed MOONRISE KINGDOM and LOOPER to straight-to-DVD 50 Cent productions like SET-UP, CATCH .44, and FIRE WITH FIRE, along with some barely-released duds that nobody sees (THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY and LAY THE FAVORITE).  And he's got G.I. JOE 2, RED 2, and SIN CITY 2 coming out in the next several months.  He can certainly be forgiven for being tired, but A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD just feels desperate.  He's not only tired, but he's also obviously bored.  When Schwarzenegger said "I'll be back" in THE EXPENDABLES 2, he did everything short of turn to the camera, wink to the audience, and ask if they were having a good time.  It's all in the attitude. When Willis finally lets loose with "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!" here, he does it with all the spirit and enthusiasm of someone reading a DMV eye chart.  He spends the entire film looking inconvenienced and like he'd rather be somewhere else.  And did you see Willis on THE LATE SHOW with Letterman last week?   They showed a CGI-heavy action clip and Willis looked vaguely embarrassed.  He's a smart guy.  He's made good movies, and he can be a great actor when he wants to be.  He knows this is garbage.  With all the thousands of man-hours put in by the tech crew (what a strange credit--it almost feels like pre-emptive defense), they should've just saved Willis the time and CGI'd his entire performance.

Friday, February 15, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray, Documentary Edition: BULLY (2012), SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012), THE IMPOSTER (2012), DETROPIA (2012)

(US - 2012)

Lee Hirsch's documentary on school bullying caused a controversy with the MPAA when it was given an R rating, which would've hindered children from seeing it and prevented schools from showing it.  It was eventually given a PG-13 with a few minor edits for profanity.  It's a noble, well-intentioned,  and compassionate look at several victims of bullying, though in the end, it functions more as a public service announcement than a piece of documentary cinema.  A victim of bullying himself during his childhood, there's absolutely no doubt that Hirsch's heart is in the right place with BULLY and he wants his film to make a difference and to provide comfort and support for kids and their families.  That's commendable, but he also intentionally omits important information for the sake of dramatic effect:  that 17-year-old Tyler Long endured years of bullying prior to his 2009 suicide is not in question, but it was revealed after the film's release that the suicide happened after he broke up with his girlfriend.  Of course, we don't know those circumstances, and because Hirsch wants and needs bullying to the sole reason for the suicide, we never know that young Long had a girlfriend in the first place.  Even more frustrating, Hirsch also pulls his punches when it comes to dealing with the bullies themselves.  We see one getting reprimanded by an assistant principal, and you'll undoubtedly find yourself furious with a useless, do-nothing administrator who more or less makes excuses for the bullies on a school bus seen punching, choking, and stabbing 12-year-old Alex Libby with a pencil, and in one scene, is shown breaking up a fight and giving a harder time to the victim than the aggressor, but a hard-hitting documentary would've called her out on that (she's as much of a villain as the bullies, and you'll hope she lost her job after this was released).  A hard-hitting documentary would confront these bullies and their parents and get to the root of the problem.  Bullies are often bullied themselves--why isn't that examined?  Hirsch's film is a less a documentary and more a feature-length promo reel for a grassroots, anti-bullying crusade, and that's great and it's necessary and should be shown in all schools, but does it make for a great film?   (PG-13, 98 mins)

(UK/Sweden/Belgium/Denmark/Finland - 2012)

It's hard not to like this uplifting, Oscar-nominated documentary that gives an obscure American musician the notoriety that eluded him at home for over 40 years.  Detroit singer/songwriter Rodriguez released two socially-and-politically charged albums on A&M subsidiary Sussex Records in the early 1970s.  Both received little critical attention and tanked commercially in the States and he was dropped by the label by the end of 1971.  Meanwhile, unknown to Rodriguez, his music was widely embraced by liberal, anti-establishment whites in Apartheid-era South Africa, where he eventually became a counter-cultural icon and a musical figure more popular than even the Rolling Stones and Elvis.  But Rodriguez was a mystery even to his fervently loyal South African fan base, who believed a widely-spread rumor that he committed suicide on stage in the States sometime around 1973.  Two Cape Town fans--record store owner Steve "Sugar" Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom--decided in the 1990s to get to the bottom of the Rodriguez mystery and eventually found their hero still living in Detroit, doing odd jobs in construction and demolition.  They eventually bring him to South Africa to play in sold-out arenas to adoring fans.

Director Malik Bendjelloul has been criticized by detractors who claim that he selectively reveals information and tailors the story to suit a narrative that Rodriguez has been forgotten by everyone, ignoring the fact that Rodriguez had a strong following in Australia and New Zealand until the early 1980s.  It's simply not the case when you consider that, aside from Australia and New Zealand being mentioned in passing, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is as much about Apartheid-era South Africa as it is about Rodriguez.  Bendjelloul is telling the story from the perspective of Segerman, Bartholomew-Strydom, and a legion of South African fans who were in their teens and 20s in the 1970s and who lived in an oppressive country where forward-thinking whites would get a three-year jail sentence just for openly criticizing Apartheid and the government.  And this was pre-internet.  The information South Africans received from beyond their borders was controlled and disseminated.  The South African government had a file on Rodriguez and had the more incendiary tracks on his LPs scratched with a knife so radio stations wouldn't play those particular songs.  How would these young people living under such rule be aware that Rodriguez was still relatively big in Australia and New Zealand?  Only in the film's second half does it find and introduce Rodriguez, who had no idea that he'd sold millions of records in South Africa and never saw any money from it.  This brings up another issue when the head of the South African record label says he's been dutifully been paying royalties to the long-defunct Sussex Records (which folded in 1975) and its owner Clarence Avant, who later became the chairman of Motown Records for most of the 1990s.  Avant is interviewed and goes from cordial and sentimental to extremely testy when he's asked about the royalties from Rodriguez's South African record sales.  As Rodriguez's youngest daughter says near the end of the film, "Well, somebody got the money."  But money doesn't seem to matter much to Rodriguez, who appears to walk the walk when it comes to his art and his life.  He's active in the community (including one unsuccessful 1980s mayoral bid), still does manual labor in the downtown Detroit area, and gave most of the money earned from his several subsequent South African tours to family, friends, and charities.  SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is an emotional and triumphant story of an artist who made a difference...just not where he would've ever expected.  He's a charismatic, magnetic character and the music is terrific.  (PG-13, 86 mins)

(UK/US - 2012)

Bart Layton draws obvious comparisons to the technique of Errol Morris with this riveting chronicle of a missing San Antonio teenager and a French con man.  Layton not only utilizes dramatic recreations in the vein of THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988), but he also conducts this "documentary" in as manipulative a fashion as Frederic Bourdin played a grieving Texas family.  14-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his San Antonio neighborhood in 1994 after a fight with his family.  In Linares, Spain in 1997, someone claiming to be Nicholas Barclay is found.  Layton allows Bourdin to explain himself and the improbable chain of events that led to the then-23-year-old Frenchman assuming the identity of a missing Texas teenager.  It makes for a fascinating story, but Bourdin is, at best, an unreliable narrator.  Luck and circumstance get Bourdin-as-"Nicholas" reunited with his family, and even though he looks nothing like Nicholas, speaks with a French accent, and is foggy on past events and the names of friends and relatives, they welcome "Nicholas" home with open arms and a loving heart as Bourdin spins a wild tale about being abducted by US military personnel, chloroformed, and taken overseas to be brainwashed, beaten, and raped for three years.  Bourdin is so convincing that he even fools the US Embassy in Spain and FBI agents back home.  His ruse gradually unravels after a medical exam and the dogged persistence of Charlie Wilson, a San Antonio private eye with the folksy demeanor of Matlock.  Wilson becomes obsessed with proving "Nicholas" isn't Nicholas, certain that he's a spy or a terrorist, and even after Bourdin's ruse is exposed, the FBI can't convince the family that this person living with them isn't Nicholas.

Layton, an executive producer of the SyFy reality series PARANORMAL WITNESS, pulls a Frederic Bourdin-level juggling act in his presentation of this story.  He films it as a thriller with frequent interview snippets, and like a thriller, THE IMPOSTER plays its cards close to the vest, revealing the whole story in bits and pieces in ways that probably disqualify it as a "pure" documentary, and leaving out key elements of the story (what's the deal with the mysterious older brother who hasn't been interviewed?) until it can provide a shocking twist in the tale.  It's outstanding entertainment at any rate--often as shocking and thrilling as watching THE USUAL SUSPECTS for the first time, and Layton keeps the audience on its toes by constantly making you shift your alliances.  You'll believe both Bourdin and the family and berate them in equal doses.  A fascinating film.  (R, 99 mins)

(US - 2012)

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the documentary filmmakers behind JESUS CAMP, helmed this visually fascinating but often frustrating look at the decline of Detroit, MI.  The city, once the epicenter of American manufacturing and the middle class, has lost half of its population over the last 50 years and is now at approximately 50% unemployment as entire blocks of homes have been abandoned (Mayor Dave Bing even admits "Even when people get a job, they'll eventually get the hell out of town").  Ewing and Grady stay out of the camera view and are never heard, so the information that's dispensed comes from average, everyday Detroit residents like a local video blogger or a blues club owner or the head of a local auto union.  This ground-level, man-on-the-street approach works some of the time, but it soon gives way to far too much repetition of information you've not only heard earlier in the film, but elsewhere on TV, in newspapers, online, etc.  It does offer some good moments, like the blues club owner confronting a GM rep at the Detroit Auto Show, asking why Chinese automakers have made a better electric car at half the price, but too many of the points are obvious, like Detroit representing the decline of American exceptionalism, and the notion that America had it so good for so long that it simply put its feet up and did nothing while other competing countries matched and have now surpassed it.  Where DETROPIA fares best is in its quieter moments when Ewing and Grady focus on some truly haunting images of urban decay that say infinitely more than the repetitious speechifying and opining observations of the talking heads.  Not without its powerful elements, but even at just 86 minutes, it feels padded and not unlike a college journalism/media course project rather than the work of the team who gave us the excellent JESUS CAMP.  (Unrated, 86 mins)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: BRANDED (2012) and DOOMSDAY BOOK (2012)

(Russia - 2012)

It's hard to fathom the idea that there was actually a script for the Russian sci-fi epic BRANDED.  It feels more like a pitch that the writing/directing team of Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulerain came up with between bong hits:  "OK, seriously.  Duuuude, listen.  What if the brands like, fuckin' came to life, man?  No, no, no, dude...seriously, check this shit out. Seriously, I'm not fuckin' around, just hear me out.  Like, we don't decide what to buy...but it's like the things we buy control us, man!  Dude!  The fuckin' corporations!  Am I right?  It's not science-fiction!  It's happening now!  Our thoughts are not our own! They decide, man!"  A disaster of ludicrous proportions, BRANDED was stealthily dumped into theaters for a week last fall by Lionsgate under its Roadside Attractions banner, where it somehow grossed $350,000.  I can't imagine anyone who bought a ticket was still in attendance when the closing credits rolled.  Russian marketing hotshot Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard of the UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS revival and son of Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom) has been overseeing the advertising of American products and brand names in Moscow while working under powerful ad honcho and American spy Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor).  Gibbons has some strange connection to god-like marketing guru Joseph Pascal (Max von Sydow), who's hatching some master plan from a high-tech fortress in the Polynesian Islands to alter the world's perception of beauty ("We will make fat the new fabulous!" he says).  Meanwhile, Misha is working on a side project and falls in love with Gibbons' visiting niece Abby (Leelee Sobieski), helping her produce a cosmetic surgery reality show.  That idea goes down the toilet (joining everything else about BRANDED) when their star goes into a coma during surgery.  Gibbons dies, Abby disappears, and Misha becomes a fugitive.  Six years later, Pascal's "branding" has taken hold and the overweight and obese are now the supermodels and the world's beauty standard, and Abby finds Misha working as a cow herder (with Stoppard sporting one of the worst glued-on beards ever seen), and reveals that they have a son.  Misha sacrifices a red cow and bathes in its blood, which allows him to start seeing visions of gelatinous, worm-like creatures surrounding everyone and everything, and he's convinced that these are brands coming to life and controlling our desires for products and consumption.  Misha decides to fight the power by starting a guerrilla "death cow" ad campaign that bankrupts the fast food industry.  Misha starts using the same technique on other mind-controlling corporations, which results in brands mutating into giant CGI monster form and attacking Moscow.  Oh, and the whole thing is narrated by a talking cow constellation in the sky.

This actually got funded, filmed, acquired by a major company, and distributed in theaters for people to pay money to see.  It's one of the most bewilderingly awful films to come down the pike in years, filled with actors who don't seem to understand what's going on, subpar CGI effects, toothless jabs at TV advertising, movie trailers, and the corporate power structure, and satire that's simply too heavy-handed to work.  Stoppard and Sobieski just look lost, Tambor exits halfway through and hopefully got to enjoy the rest of his paid Moscow vacation, and von Sydow is clearly elsewhere, never interacting with the main actors and in front of an unconvincing greenscreen, obviously reading lines that were just given to him moments before (there's no way he read this script--he made sure the money was deposited and showed up for a day or two, tops).  Whatever ambitions Bradshaw and Doulerain had are obliterated by their utter ineptitude as writers and directors and their complete inability to establish any kind of narrative drive or pacing of the story.  Pages upon pages of dialogue are spouted by the actors and the first half of the film feels like THEY LIVE re-enacted by marketing students forced to take an improv class.  But when the giant monsters in Misha's head start attacking Moscow GODZILLA and MOTHRA-style, the film starts to look like its makers are just baked out of their skulls and the entire project is cashed.  The stunningly bad BRANDED has to be seen to be disbelieved.  (R, 106 mins)

(South Korea - 2012)

This three-part anthology film began shooting in 2006, with segments to be directed by Yim Pil-Sung, Kim Jee-Woon (A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, I SAW THE DEVIL), and Han Jae-Rim.  Yim and Kim finished their segments but the financing fell apart before Han's contribution was started. The project was shelved until 2011 when new backers entered the picture and the third segment--different from what Han was planning--ended up being directed by Yim, with some uncredited collaboration from Kim.  Opening with Yim's "Brave New World," DOOMSDAY BOOK presents three different apocalypse scenarios, kicking off with a 28 DAYS LATER-type zombie virus outbreak in Seoul stemming from bacteria in a rotten apple that made its way through a recycling plant and into some cow feed and into the eventual beef consumed at a hibachi restaurant by the hapless Seok-woo (Ryo Seung-Byum), from whose home the apple came in the first place.  Of course, flesh-eating mayhem consumes the city in a rather tired story that makes its points in ten minutes but lasts another 30, though there is one great gag involving characters in an online video game even being infected by the virus. Things take a much more philosophical turn in Kim's "Heavenly Creature," set in a future where worker robots are commonplace.  One such robot, an outdated RU4 unit called In-Myung (voiced by THE HOST's Park Hae-Il) works at a Buddhist monastery and has achieved some kind of sentient autonomy and announces he's reached enlightenment.  A technician is called and finds nothing functionally wrong with In-Myung but the corporate CEO decides, in the best interests of the human race, that In-Myung and any RU4s still operational need to be destroyed immediately.  But the monks--who profess to live a "simple" life but all have their own cell phones--see In-Myung as a new spiritual leader.  Finally, in "Happy Birthday," the segment shot in 2011, a little girl placing a replacement order on a dubious web site for a damaged 8-ball for her billiards-obsessed dad and uncle coincides with the uncle spotting a UFO and two years later, the 8-ball is finally on its way--in the form of a giant meteor speeding toward Earth.

"Brave New World" is easily the least of the three tenuously-connected stories (though the rotten apple makes a cameo appearance in "Happy Birthday"), but the other two can almost function as stand-alone short films.  "Heavenly Creature" is beautifully shot and quite moving at times, with In-Myung earning its place as one of sci-fi cinema's most memorable robot characters.  "Happy Birthday" is the kind of inventive, clever, absurdist silliness that probably would've put a smile on Douglas Adams' face.  Even the image of a giant 8-ball in the sky looks like it belongs on the cover of a lost Adams novel.  As the poet laureate Jim Steinman once wrote for the philosopher Meat Loaf, "two out of three ain't bad," and once you get past its relatively weak opener, DOOMSDAY BOOK is an admittedly uneven but alternately powerful, profound, silly, and hilarious anthology that's well worth a look. (Unrated, 114 mins, also streaming on Netflix)