Archive for the ‘one of the year's worst’ category

Behemoth

August 29, 2021

behemoth

Peter Szewczyk (credited here as Sefchik) is a digital-effects artist who has worked on a few Star Wars films and Avatar. So in his feature directing debut Behemoth, we know the monsters and other effects will be first-rate. Unfortunately, everything else in this underpopulated mash-up of paranoid corporate thriller and trippy supernatural horror is second-rate at best. Joshua (Josh Eisenberg) is a father driven around the bend by grief and guilt over his ailing little daughter, whose disease may have been caused by the chemical company he used to work for. Along with a couple of friends, Joshua kidnaps a higher-up at the company (Paul Statman) and keeps him at a motel, hoping to force a confession: what poisoned his daughter?

This crime is all over the news, so it’s odd that the cops don’t bother to question Joshua’s wife Amy (Whitney Nielsen), who’s staying in a hospital room with their daughter. Instead, every time we hear from Amy, she lays a guilt trip on Joshua for not being there for his daughter. Meanwhile, Joshua’s friends give new meaning to the word “inept,” and an assassin from the company is closing in. There are also numerous hellish visions involving what seems to be a possessed goat, as well as sundry other beasties and Natural Born Killers-style strobe-cuts flashing gore-soaked demons and butchers. 

That last element seems to be where Szewczyk’s heart is. As I noted about Wishmaster, the directorial debut of practical-effects maestro Robert Kurtzman, such craftspeople who graduate to the director’s chair often focus on their specialty to the exclusion of all else. Behemoth gasses on a lot about the evils of corporations poisoning the land and our children, which is a valid topic for a movie if overdone, but then Szewczyk festoons it with monsters and grotesques. Is this corporation literally run by devils and ghouls? Szewczyk and his co-writer Derrick Ligas don’t really connect the theme and the plot, and frankly there’s not enough plot to power a feature-length film. The denouement further makes Behemoth feel like an extended (and bad) Twilight Zone episode.

At times, Behemoth wants us to think all the grody stuff is just in Joshua’s head. That suspicion intensifies when Joshua pops some of his friend’s MDA instead of painkillers (oh yeah, Joshua spends most of the movie contending with a bullet wound in his hip, despite which he manages to stand up and not bleed out) and hallucinates all kinds of gnarly phantasms — or are they hallucinations? There’s a story buried in there somewhere, but a lot more of it needed to be dug out of the soil. As it is, Szewczyk unearthed whatever bits would justify playing in his digital-monster sandbox but only got crumbs of anything that would have made the story meaningful, resonant. 

Some might be willing to go along with it just for the horned boogeymen, but a more concerning problem with Behemoth is that Peter Szewczyk is good at what he usually does, but simply isn’t cut out to direct. His actors listlessly chew the scenery when they’re not tossing off dead-zone line readings, and he has no sense of pace, so the movie feels much longer than it is. We’re often not sure what’s important and what isn’t (does the same actor play a newscaster and a motel manager? why? are they involved in the action or just a daydream?), and Szewczyk doesn’t seem to know, either. The narrative just grinds on unpleasantly but artlessly — except for those computer-generated nasties. They deserve to be in a better film, one that doesn’t rely so heavily on them to work, and then doesn’t work anyway. 

Werewolves Within

July 11, 2021

werewolves

Something about Werewolves Within doesn’t sit right with me. It’s a horror-comedy, which often means that people and even dogs die and you’re not asked to care much, but even so, this is a glib and breezy affair. We may find ourselves asking why we care if the characters live, either. The script, by memoirist Mishna Wolff, based on a video game, hands the actors lumpy mouthfuls of dialogue that they mostly turn into sentences that sound like real people might say them.

The cast is likable and game; the lead, Sam Richardson, is a large and huggable bundle of neuroses and kindnesses. But most of the rest of the characters are annoying, stereotypes, or both. Wolff and director Josh Ruben betray a snide contempt for flyover country, although a well-to-do gay couple also take some abuse (more for being rich than for being gay; I suppose we must be thankful for small favors). After a longer-than-necessary set-up, Werewolves Within settles into a one-location whodunit, in which evidence mounts that a large animal is savaging men, dogs, and generators in the tiny mountain town of Beaverfield.

There’s already drama in the town over a guy who wants to run a pipeline through the area, waving big paychecks. Some refuse the money; some can’t afford to. The script largely separates anti-pipeliners and pro-pipeliners into elites and Trumpsters. Werewolves Within keeps flirting with the notion of a divided-America metaphor in the whodunit mode; Knives Out did it a lot better, or at least was more enjoyable. Rian Johnson believed in his characters more purely than I believe Ruben and Wolff do, and Johnson’s cast was having a ball with the things they got to say and do. This cast seems to be working against the script. Not to mention that big, gaping traumas both emotional and physical seem far too easily gotten over (lose a husband, lose a hand, keep on truckin’). And if I never again see the gag where someone talks in the middle of the road, oblivious to the large vehicle that’s about to flatten them, I’ll feel no pain.

The plot runs over with red herrings; we figure pretty much anybody could be the culprit. When one of the more annoying and inconsistent characters comes forward and seems to admit to everything, and another character snarks that it would be a disappointment if this person turned out to be the werewolf — well, that also applies to the actual culprit. About halfway through I felt the familiar chill in my belly telling me that I didn’t honestly care who the werewolf was and that I was wasting my time. The tone is just too offensively light; it plays like the pilot of a CW show that only lasts one season. Towards the finish, people keep lurching forward and seeming to reveal themselves. It’s all amiably meaningless.

There are any number of ways Werewolves Within could’ve been about something, could’ve worked its paranoia into a statement on mistrustful America. But it’s too hip for that, too ready to score points off of ignorant small-towners who just want to open a craft shop (okay) but are willing to murder for it (wait, what?). Maybe it shouldn’t have bothered with its shallow stabs at relevance — the little attempts at commentary (rural types love their guns and beer) make it always seem on the verge of satire.

Character work at the script level might’ve helped. Michaela Watkins is a force of nature, and it’s sad to watch her playing yet another braying yahoo. Milana Vayntrub might emerge with some new fans, even though the movie betrays her. Sam Richardson comes off best — unsurprising, as he’s one of the producers — but he deserves better, too. One minute his character is bleeding badly from a gut wound; not much later, he’s flinging heavy axes at a nemesis. It’d be cool if even horror-comedies about werewolves could at least acknowledge reality, how things like bodies and blood and grief work.

Possessor

October 4, 2020

posessor Surprises abound on the movie beat. If a filmmaker’s debut feature doesn’t do it for you, a second chance might be in order, and I thought Brandon Cronenberg, who bowed with the tedious and unpleasant Antivirus eight years ago, was still serious and sincere enough to merit further scrutiny. Cronenberg’s new one, Possessor, sadly confirms my earlier response. Cronenberg, whose father is the legendary director David, is certainly no dummy, and he doesn’t go for cheap thrills, or indeed any thrills. His work sure is gory, though, and the violence is crueler than it needs to be while not really engaging our emotions — just our gag reflex. People are always slipping and sliding on bloody floors, the soles of their sneakers squeaking around in puddles of gore. You can’t say Cronenberg romanticizes murder or death at all. It’s presented as a sticky, soul-scorching and repulsive experience.

Does this mean that Cronenberg has earned a third visit from me? I’m afraid not. Possessor is bleak and cold, out of touch with ordinary feeling. Like the recent She Dies Tomorrow, the film takes off from a premise of fantasy but isn’t moved to explore the premise’s nuts and bolts, preferring to study the humans involved and create a mood. The problem is that there are no humans in Possessor, and the mood is dreary and depressing. Andrea Riseborough appears as Tasya Vos, a futuristic assassin who jacks into another person’s consciousness and rides their body around, eventually committing murder. Tasya’s main problem is that the host bodies of this neural hijacking are supposed to blow their own brains out after the job is done, and Tasya can’t bring herself to do it. The first time she does it in the movie, she engineers a suicide-by-cop. Her second assignment that we see doesn’t go quite as smoothly.

“Andrea Riseborough is worth watching in anything” is a sentence I can no longer use after Possessor. It’s not her fault; after a certain point, she enters the consciousness of a corporate lackey (Christopher Abbott), and the wounded, numb-spirited Riseborough vanishes into the glowering Abbott, who never manages to suggest being puppeted by Riseborough or even by a woman. (You’d think a filmmaker with Cronenberg’s lineage would have more fun with the concept of a female assassin who finds herself with male equipment and using it on a woman. No fun to be had here.) Riseborough-as-Abbott commits double murder, again with far more sadistic relish than seems necessary given the no-nonsense demands of an assassin; then she loses control over the body, and the body heads for Riseborough’s family’s house. But Cronenberg’s morose, dead-affect treatment of all this aborts any pleasure we might take in the twisty plot.

I understand how unfair it is to compare an artist to his parent. But David Cronenberg, no less serious or contemplative, also brings an astringent wit to his work, as well as deft pacing. David Cronenberg’s films are often hushed and eschew false, easy climaxes, but they move, and almost despite themselves they entertain. His violence, too, is never just gross or off-putting; he usually approaches it with the air of a bemused scientist. The difference between David and Brandon can clearly be seen in the way both men direct Jennifer Jason Leigh. In Cronenberg pere’s 1999 eXistenZ, Leigh had the lead as a videogame designer on the run from her fans’ fatwa, and Cronenberg provided a fun and funky adventure for her, giving her eye-candy support with Jude Law. Cronenberg fils casts Leigh as the scientist who runs this whole secret-agent deal, and here she has the same flat affect everyone else does. It could be anyone in the role. Leigh just sits around in a dark blue room and mumbles bitter mumbo-jumbo. What a waste of a still-vibrant actor! Cronenberg’s punishment should be one screening of Heart of Midnight — Leigh’s equivalent of Vampire’s Kiss — and going to bed without supper.

It could be that Brandon Cronenberg somehow can’t get interesting performances out of interesting actors because he’s not an actor’s director. In that case, he should stick to short films of ideas and avoid grasping at emotional straws that just aren’t there. The only things holding me to Possessor were its unsavory brutality and the dread of more and worse. Now and then Cronenberg tries to employ the language of film to evoke disorientation, but it comes off like a student director playing with film stock or exposure levels. And, as with Antivirus, the movie has a clever premise but offers no clue as to why it was made. We don’t feel any passion behind it, no suggestion why this story needed to be told now in this way. We feel no horror or sadness at the killings, just nausea and distaste for the killers. My only surprise at Possessor was that I managed to sit through all of it.

Force of Nature

July 5, 2020

force-of-nature-mel-gibson-movie-1590049016

Its critical reputation as a racist thriller is a little overstated, but Force of Nature is still ten pounds of ass in a five-pound bag. This is a movie whose handling of a major character’s death is so feeble — a twitching eyelid visible to the camera — we expect the supposed corpse to pop up later on, perhaps to save a loved one at the last minute. That’s about the only cliché we’re spared in a film wherein even the bad guy comments on the clichés. Filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Force of Nature unfolds during a hurricane, though it doesn’t actually need to; the hurricane really only explains why two cops show up at an apartment building to evacuate some recalcitrant tenants, only to be caught in the middle of an art heist by some armed and deadly robbers led by a guy calling himself John the Baptist.

I would like to welcome the Peruvian actor Stephanie Cayo to English-speaking films. She plays Jess, a cop trying to make a name on the San Juan force. Cayo looks all the better next to the essenceless Emile Hirsch as her cop partner, the burned-out, lackadaisical Cardillo. These two go to the apartment building and try to extricate an old German man and a retired, sickly cop, played by Mel Gibson, whose very presence in a film at this point would attract hostile skepticism no matter what the film is. Gibson is (or has been; he seems to have behaved in recent years, from what we’ve heard anyway) a terrible person, but he still has the spark of a true movie star, and so does Stephanie Cayo; their brief scenes together illustrate what this bland movie could have been.

Force of Nature would like to be the sort of invincible thriller, like Die Hard, whose every odd bit of business pays off later. I have to wonder if the screenwriter, Cory Miller, wrote this whole thing around a scene involving the bad guy, who dons a police uniform in order to get away, and something behind a multi-locked door in someone’s apartment. There’s a whole scene dealing with meat and a guy buying all of it at the supermarket, and a bit of planted information that you definitely don’t want to enter that locked room if you’re wearing a cop outfit, and so when John the Baptist forces Cardillo to swap clothes with him, all the pieces fall into place but seem stupid anyway — and then the movie cuts away before we can see the one hilariously brutal thing we’ve been spending half the idiotic film waiting to see.

Director Michael Polish started off in the late ‘90s as a Sundance-blessed indie director, but now he seems to make films just to cast his wife, Kate Bosworth — this is their fourth film together, and probably their worst. Bosworth plays Gibson’s daughter, who is also a doctor, and who can also hold her breath long enough to get her and a wounded man out of a submerged room. (We never see them find their way out; she turns up fine later, like almost everyone else, and fairly chipper despite what we’ve seen her go through.) Force of Nature’s mixed review of the thin blue line — cops may be mean and corrupt but still get the brutal job done — is accidentally poorly-timed at this cultural/political moment, but it’s no more consciously racist than a hundred action thrillers from the ‘80s. It’s meant, I think, to be a throwback to those films, and to an era where Mel Gibson was still on top, but it lacks the snap and pizzazz to close the deal. It may speak well of Michael Polish’s character that he tries to make a retro, obliviously racist thriller and fails. But the failure still reads to us as a wasted hour and a half.

Verotika

May 17, 2020

verotika A word of caution before we proceed. Some bad movies are, as they say, “so bad they’re good.” Others are just excruciatingly bad. And then there’s Verotika, the directing debut of metal musician Glenn Danzig, based on his comic books. And I’m realizing that there’s no way to describe this film that will not make some of you want to see it. I could list the endless parade of inept choices, the dialogue, the acting, the effects … Even viewed with a drunk crowd of friends, Verotika will cause pain. It was made with a great deal of sincerity, that much is clear. Danzig believes in his film. That it has become a cult film begging for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment does not make it less hazardous to your brain and soul. You have been warned.

Verotika is a horror anthology, meaning that instead of making one unwatchable short film, Danzig has made three and glued them together like a cinematic human centipede, shitting and eating shit. If the stories have a common thread, it is the kind of story one can film with a cast largely made of sex workers or similar purveyors of meretricious cheese. Most of the killing is done by female beasts; two out of the three villains are female, preying mainly on other females. It’s all part of the movie’s sub-Heavy Metal aesthetic that drenches well-endowed horror vixens in gore. None of this is uncommon in low-budget horror, which so often has to make do with what it has, and if what you have is a band of strippers and literally vats of fake blood, the result is Verotika. What’s different here is that Danzig doesn’t seem to know we’ve seen all this before. He thinks he’s really showing us something.

The first story, “The Albino Spider of Dajette,” concerns a prostitute with eyes for nipples. Her nipple tears transform a spider into a six-armed killer the police dub “Le Neck Breaker” (the story is set in Paris). Le Neck Breaker breaks les necks, all women victims, before the police finally catch up to him and plug him with lead. How anyone can make a bonkers premise like this so flat and stupefyingly dismal is beyond me, but Danzig manages it.Next up is “Change of Face,” about a stripper with a scarred face; she deals with this by killing pretty women, removing their faces, and hanging them on her wall. The press calls her either the Face Collector or the Face Ripper — Danzig apparently couldn’t decide. Finally, there’s “Drukija, Contessa of Blood,” wherein the titular woman bathes in virgins’ blood (pronouncing “virgin” to rhyme with “Bergen”). The virgins are always nude, of course, and Drukija is often topless. A virgin tries to escape, gets caught, is beheaded; Drukija adds the head to her collection of heads. Oh, and all the segments are introduced by Morella, who plucks out women’s eyes and calls us “darklings.”

If you wanted to imagine a movie fed on adolescent fantasies grounded in comic books and movies flooded with gore and T&A, what you imagine will undoubtedly be more entertaining than Verotika. That’s because Danzig takes his material so grindingly seriously he drains the fun out of it along with the blood. Danzig hasn’t learned that you have to insert comic relief or the audience will laugh at whatever else presents itself, and that’s why the movie is gaining purchase as a doofus party item. There are problems with camera movement — one time you can see the camera jiggle — and the middle segment, about the face-stealing stripper, is often bisected by harsh horizontal flare beams, sometimes three or more in a shot. I don’t know why. Neither will you.

Something like Verotika really tests me, because I have grown to believe that there can be value in even the most moth-eaten, bereft crap. Someone cared enough to make it, and there can be accidental moments of art and revelation. I refuse, for instance, to call Ed Wood’s films “bad”; no films so passionate, and with so much to express, can be called bad. Verotika might be passionate in that it scratches Danzig’s itch for babes and blood, but it really doesn’t express anything except that itch, over and over — the movie is repetitive and, finally, dull. It takes a lot of doing to take a movie full of the sort of things teen hetero boys love and make it so lifeless and dreary. Was Danzig even aroused by his own film? Russ Meyer filled his movies with buxom women, and you could feel he loved them so much it hurt, and therein lay the art. What does Glenn Danzig love so much it hurts? Women covered in blood, apparently. But he doesn’t have the art to make us love it, too. He just pulls it out again and again, flaccidly.

Lost Transmissions

March 15, 2020

lost transmissionsWhenever I get too exercised about how the Disney/Marvel/Star Wars axis will crush all other art and entertainment under their jackboots, along comes a tiny, well-meaning but terrible indie drama to reassure me that such things, however dreary and rare, still exist. This month’s proof is Lost Transmissions, and the hell of it is that it’s apparently based on writer-director Katharine O’Brien’s own experiences “trying to help a friend of ours who had gone off their medication.” So I feel like a heel for sneering at it, but damn it all, this sort of story — about a smart, creative man who also contends with schizophrenia — deserves a sharper telling. It’s a wasted opportunity, despite the impassioned performances and O’Brien’s obvious genuineness of feeling.

Set in the least sunshiny Los Angeles I’ve seen since Blade Runner, the story really centers on Hannah (Juno Temple), who answers phones by day and tinkers with songwriting in her spare time. Hannah has drifted into the orbit of gregarious music producer Theo (Simon Pegg), who spots some talent in Hannah and invites her to his recording studio. Relieved, we see that this isn’t a sleazy come-on — something in her bashful singing voice seems to have touched him, and he legitimately wants to share that. Though Theo isn’t a lech, he has other issues — a victim of a bad-acid mishap back when he used to be in a band, he’s a schizophrenic, with all the paranoid delusions and preoccupation with radio static that go with it (in movies, anyway). Theo is fine when he’s on his meds. But he has a history of going off them, and he’s just recently done it again.

Hannah herself is on meds for depression, and early on, Theo low-key shames her for being on them and muting the profound feelings that could fuel her art. This is the sort of dangerous ersatz prescription that ignores the fact that most unmedicated depressives have trouble doing anything much more ambitious than getting out of bed in the morning, much less recording the great American album, but it’s also the sort of thing a guy like Theo would say. At one point, Hannah tosses out her bottle of pills, and we wait for her abilities to help her friend to be negatively impacted as a result of her going off her meds. But that doesn’t happen, and we never see her going back on them, either. The perhaps unintended subtext is that some mental illnesses severely require chemical rebalance and … others don’t? I’m going to be charitable and chalk it up to scenes that had to come out to keep the movie at an hour-forty-five, with the result that some important connective tissue got thrown out with the bathwater.

If O’Brien wanted to make some trims for time, she might’ve begun with the whole subplot in which Hannah finds herself writing songs for a pop star (Alexandra Daddario, that lamp-eyed fan favorite). It’s not clear how much of a role Theo plays in Hannah’s getting this gig, though he honks a little bit about her selling out. This subplot leads nowhere special and could’ve been plucked out with no harm done to the essence and spine of the piece, which is how Hannah and her friends try to get Theo to a hospital or at least back on his meds. Hannah keeps getting thwarted, at one point finding him at a party and … eating some ‘shrooms, which isn’t very helpful. Pegg, in a rare dramatic outing, does some impressive emotional pirouettes, though the movie has been structured to let him do so. It’s an unavoidably plum role — the shrewd, poetically unbalanced artist who gets to natter on about “the princess of time” while everyone else in the movie weeps over his increasingly poor life choices. (In an earlier day, it would’ve been the Robin Williams role.) Juno Temple is positioned to take over the film, but her character is too glumly conceived; Hannah seems like a minor supporting character promoted to lead.

There’s got to be a middle ground between the horse hockey of something like A Beautiful Mind (which I did enjoy as metaphor, but it’s nobody’s idea of a plausible account of schizophrenia) and the rigorous art of Lodge Kerrigan’s dazzling Clean, Shaven, which put us right inside a schizophrenic’s seething, teeming head. It would’ve cost nothing extra to approach Lost Transmissions (a destined-to-be-misremembered title) on the script level more cleverly and even with more wit. Someone as sharp as Theo, who’s clearly been around the block a few times, would realistically foil any attempts to “betray” him as he sees it. What if the movie were more about what a doctor does late in the movie — earning trust by going along with Theo’s delusions? Hannah and her friends could then try to construct a counter-fantasy to point Theo towards the help he needs. It would be a thin line to tread between originality and bad taste, but whichever way the movie fell might have been more engaging than what we get here.

The Misandrists

May 7, 2018

Misandrists-7-800x499The only moment I freely enjoyed in Bruce LaBruce’s erotic satire The Misandrists comes when a woman dressed as a nun, walking on the grounds outside an all-girl school, suddenly and randomly breaks into the Charleston while music plays (coming from where? We don’t know). Then, as inexplicably as it started, the music stops, the dance is cut off, and the “nun” resumes walking. This happens roughly fifty minutes into the movie, and it’s the only bit with any spontaneity or life. The rest of The Misandrists is more porno-tinged, half-serious “radical” agitprop from LaBruce, a founding father of the queercore movement of the ‘80s, who has made this as a quasi-sequel to his 2004 film The Raspberry Reich.

For LaBruce, homosexuality is revolutionary, and he literalizes that by linking gay sex with terrorism, or at least with terrorist rhetoric. I see the point: In certain quarters of supposedly free Western societies (LaBruce hails from Ontario), if you’re LGBTQ you may as well be ISIS. So why not give homophobes something to be genuinely phobic about? Filmed in Berlin in twelve days on a Kickstarter budget, The Misandrists concerns a lesbian separatist group — the Female Liberation Army — disguised as a convent. Their leader is Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse, from Raspberry Reich), who uses gender-swapped words like “womansplain” and says things like “We must tell the world to wake up and smell the estrogen.”

If this is your cup of camp, drink up. I found it largely boring, especially a slow-motion pillow fight that goes on for eight or nine weeks, or so it seems. Filmed in early 2016, The Misandrists can’t really be faulted for not anticipating the atmosphere in which it would eventually be released (after a year or so of bouncing around festivals worldwide). You can’t read a room if you’re not expecting it to be on fire in two years. But maybe now isn’t the time for a jokey send-up of gay, female and transgender rage. Maybe it also isn’t the time for scenes like the one in which an transgender young woman is ostracized (temporarily, but still) while a wounded young man is subjected to forced gender reassignment surgery (shown in gory, leering close-ups in actual vaginoplasty footage as the man screams in pain). This may be a shot at the TERF mentality, but in this particular landscape it lands poorly. As Roger Ebert wrote about the lumberjack jokes in Blue Velvet, “Sorry, but I just couldn’t get my lips to smile.”

This sort of japery was done funnier and filthier by John Waters in the pride of his midnight-movie shining, in films like Desperate Living and Female Trouble. I’m not sure whether LaBruce wants us to chuckle politely — that dignified whitebread titter you hear in audiences for art-house flicks — or to nod in meaningful mute assent to the heavy points he’s making. One of the points is a good one: extremism used to control people is bad; used in art, as in the pornifesto the young women produce at the movie’s end, it’s good. Would that The Misandrists were an example of the latter. As it is, it employs graphic, unsimulated sex and blood for an upsy daisy assortment of self-consciously subversive blackout sketches. Which may have worked in the somewhat gentler ‘90s. These days, more is needed and deserved.

 

Braven

January 21, 2018

Braven-1
Filmed in snowy Newfoundland, the trim siege thriller Braven opens with some tasty widescreen views of the landscape. Tasty, but forbidding: You wouldn’t want to live out here, much less die out here. “If I’m gonna get shot I’d rather it’s hot than cold,” said a minor character in Unforgiven. “It hurts more when it’s cold. You know how if you hit your thumb when it’s cold” — and then someone tells him to shut up. But yes. We know. Thrillers or noirs set in the deep freeze have a physical heaviness and more intense painfulness than similar films set in San Diego. So in Braven, when men are stabbed and slashed and bashed and bled, our involuntary sympathetic wincing may feel sharper.

Physical solidity is about all Braven has going for it, but for a low-fat, no-frills sprinter like this, that might be enough, if only it weren’t so stoically laughable. Jason Momoa stars as Joe Braven, who lives up to his name, because you kind of have to. Joe’s pops (Stephen Lang), though neurologically disabled from a brain injury, is also Braven, as are Joe’s wife (Jill Wagner) and young daughter (Sasha Rossof). If the family name were, say, Wimpen, the movie would be even shorter and more anticlimactic. But here, Joe Braven isn’t only a loving husband, affectionate dad, and bringer of pain to lowlifes — he’s also a lumberjack. The sheer number of macho-noble signifiers built into this role Momoa produced for himself is breathtaking and more than a little funny, though the movie seems serenely unaware of the joke.

Joe finishes a hard, robust day of lumberjacking, and his co-worker slinks off to deliver some heroin; when the guy’s lumber truck flips, he finds Joe’s cabin and stashes the drugs there. This would be a better idea if Joe weren’t arriving shortly at the cabin with his addled dad and, unbeknownst to him, little daughter hiding in the back of the truck. Soon enough, bad men led by Garret Dillahunt converge on the cabin looking for the stash. And it’s then that the movie gets weird, because every single good guy in it seems to have secret lives where they had years of top-quality paramilitary training. Joe and his wife both know how to use a bow and arrow, and do so to damaging effect. Joe’s father, in his moments of lucidity, out of nowhere reveals sniper skills that would shame Charles Whitman. Too bad the kid mostly just runs and hides, because otherwise this is a whole hilarious family of expertly skilled killers.

Is Braven a stealth comedy? I mean, Jason Momoa seems to have some sense of humor, and the joshing here could be incredibly deadpan … or it could be presented in utmost monkish seriousness, which of course only makes it all the funnier. The climax involves a bear trap and a cliff, and plays like an unused alternate ending for The Revenant. At one point you’ve got Jason Momoa hanging painfully upside down, blood dripping up his nose, and that would be the ideal time to have him say something like “Man, I really didn’t think this through.” Dwayne Johnson would have. Dwayne Johnson is also maybe the biggest movie star in the world right now, and he headlines nine-figure blockbusters while Momoa gets a Canadian thriller so tightly budgeted it offers a truly cheapjack approximation of a truck crash. Go and do likewise, Jason.

I may have made Braven in its po-faced sincerity and obliviousness to its own goofiness sound more entertaining than it is. In the midst of the somber clownishness Stephen Lang brings vivid fear and pathos to his scenes as the disoriented Grandpa Braven. Joe, grappling with the certainty that his father will need to be “put in a home,” seems like a realistically troubled fellow. “I don’t want to fight, I just want to talk,” Joe tells his dad, not long before he stops talking and starts fighting. I’m not sure why all this painful background is included, except that ultimately Joe’s decision is taken out of his hands, and his responsibility, too. The movie ends up saying that there’s nothing like a good bloodletting to bring a family closer together while resolving the issue of inconveniently disabled elders. On second thought, this movie had better be joking.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

November 19, 2017

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.

Cell

July 3, 2016

cellWatching his friend George Romero make his zombie films, Stephen King may have thought it looked like such fun that he decided to write his own, in the form of his 2006 novel Cell. Ten years later, it is now a legit zombie film, co-scripted by King himself, though it hasn’t turned out to be much fun. King’s premise is that a cell-phone frequency has turned people using the devices into marauding killers. They’re not quite zombies, not as we’ve come to define them; they’re more like the rage-filled berserkers in Romero’s The Crazies, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, or Garth Ennis’ comic book Crossed. In short, they don’t eat flesh, but they do enjoy making more of themselves.

The first reel or so of Cell packs a spiraling, whoa-man-what-the-hell-was-that punch in the gut. We meet comic-book writer/artist Clay (John Cusack) at a Boston airport, with everyone glued to their cell phones. Fairly rapidly, and with no explanation or preparation, the situation goes pear-shaped. People start frothing at the mouth and attacking anyone they look at; Clay barely escapes to the subway, where he meets operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) and decides to beat feet out of the city in search of his little boy and his estranged wife. Now, nobody in Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead needed a sappy motivation like I Gotta Find My Kid; it was sufficient that they merely wanted to stay alive, and they were wrought well enough that we agreed that they should.

Cusack and Jackson also co-starred in 1408, an earlier King adaptation; the consensus is that 1408 is the better film, though I hardly see how it could be worse. Cell swipes every po-faced survivalist horror template — much walking around, picking up other survivors (including Isabelle Fuhrman as a teenager who had to kill her own cell-afflicted mom), searching houses, finding guns aplenty, none of which is locked up. Many of the attack sequences, ineptly staged by director Tod Williams, are hyper-edited into frenetic image salad. Our heroes keep meeting weirdoes like Stacy Keach as a headmaster who delivers a nice juicy infodump and Anthony Reynolds as an ice cream van driver delirious from sleeplessness who keeps something quite different from ice cream in his vehicle.

King loves his mysterious Manson-esque avatars of evil, here giving us an off-brand Randall Flagg in a red hoodie who seems to be the leader of the “phoners.” This Walkin’ Dude appears in everyone’s nightmares and seems to have manifested in Clay’s graphic novel. Do I have to read the book to find out why? The movie is little help. Cell doesn’t hide much under the hood, no commentary on how everyone’s umbilically attached to their phones (not even any on-the-nose satirical snarks like the ones in Dawn of the Dead about the mall being an important place to the zombies). It’s just another cut-‘em-if-they-stand, shoot-‘em-if-they-run splatter movie with a techie twist, and not even a cautionary twist.

Keach’s headmaster hypothesizes that the “phoners” are the next evolutionary step, the sort of dumb-ass thing you expect eggheads in this kind of movie to opine. We never do get a decent explanation for why this is happening now, what started it, and what the “phoners” and their leader want aside from milling around in flock-like circles. Cell is empty and meaningless, though it’s gloomy and slow-moving enough to feign some philosophical weight. Jackson files one of his quieter performances, while poor Cusack is stuck in a role with almost no humor or charm. As I write this, Cusack has just turned fifty. Once a quick and forceful kickboxer, he seems to have slowed down quite a bit — there’s a shot of him running that made me worry about his lumbar region. I want to see him in movies for years to come — just not in movies like Cell.