Monday, August 31, 2015

A Bunch Of Blu Rays & DVDs That Have Been Stacking Up

I haven’t posted as much as I would’ve liked this summer because of two big distracting factors: #1. My wife and I moved from our house in Raleigh to Clayton (roughly 20 minutes outside of Raleigh), and that was really exhausting. #2. I’ve had a few health issues over the last few months including an inflammation and a blood clot – and that’s been pretty painful.

While I’ve been recovering I’ve been making my way through a bunch of Blu rays and DVDs that have stacked up in my office over the last few months. Most of them are from the world of VOD (Video On Demand), and had either limited or no theatrical release, so you may not have heard of them. Most of them aren’t very good either, but there were a few halfway watchable ones. Let's take a look at a handful of 'em, shall we?

First up, there’s Philip Martin’s THE FORGER, starring John Travolta as, yes, a master art forger who makes a shady deal to get an early release from prison, but in return he must pull off “one last job.” So it’s a heist movie, and with Christopher Plummer as Travolta’s father, and Tye Sheridan as Travolta’s dying son both in on the caper, it highly resembles FAMILY BUSINESS, a less than stellar ‘80s comic thriller that starred Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick in the grandfather-father-son roles. 

Set in Boston with bad accents to boot, THE FORGER is a competently dull collection of clichés that’s a good example of how much Travolta’s been treading water in his film career since, well, probably HAIRSPRAY (his hair was more realistic in that too). It also resembles FAMILY BUSINESS in that it deserves to be forgotten.

Another fail of a thriller follows - this one coming from Canada - Atom Egoyan’s THE CAPTIVE starring Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, Rosario Dawson, and Mireille Enos. Reynolds and Enos play a couple whose daughter is kidnapped by a pedophile trafficking ring. Dawson and Speedman play a pair of detectives that are on the case that lasts over 8 years. The more than capable cast try their darnedest, but the material is crazy convoluted, and the score by Mychael Danna overreaches as it annoyingly builds suspenseful strain on top of suspenseful strain only calling attention to how unsuspenseful the whole thing is. The fractured narrative that skips back and forth in time just makes it confusing too. A murky misfire on every level. Next!

Matt Shakman’s CUT BANK is a more inspired thriller than THE CAPTIVE, but it’s no great shakes either. The directorial debut of Shakman, who has directed episodes of scores of notable TV shows including Six Feet Under, The Good Wife, Weeds, House M.D., and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it stars Liam Hemsworth as a small town dreamer – dreaming of getting out of the small town naturally – who accidently captures the murder of the local mailman (Bruce Dern) on videotape. Hemsworth hopes to use the reward money offered by the U.S. Postal Service to finally escape with his girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) from their dead end existence there in Cut Bank, Montana, but, of course, things aren’t that simple. 

John Malkovich as the town’s sheriff, and Billy Bob Thornton as Palmer’s father have their suspicions, and a creepy taxidermist who everybody thought was dead (Michael Stuhlbarg) starts looking into the matter as well. It twists and turns through a mess of schemes and scams in the tradition of both the movie and TV show versions of FARGO (Shakman directed two eps of that too), but it never twists and turns itself into anything but a watchable throwaway. Shakman should stick to TV.

Henry Hobson’s MAGGIE, another directorial debut, is one of the few here that got more of a theatrical release (it actually came to my area), and it’s obviously because of its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s another zombie apocalypse scenario, with Schwarzenegger as a farmer in the Midwest taking care of his daughter (Abigail Breslin) who’s been bitten. 

The father struggles with how to handle the situation as the country doctor (Jodie Moore) tells him he has three options: take her to quarantine; give her a drug cocktail that leads to a slow, painful death; or “make it quick.” It largely feels like a stand-alone episode of The Walking Dead - one of the uneventful ones on the season set on the farm maybe - but it has a nicely restrained performance by Schwarzenegger in his uncharacteristic role, there’s a lot of genuine effort by Breslin in embodying her infected character, and the eerie grey tone is effective. I got fairly bored in the last half hour, but fans of the genre and of Ahnold will probably be more into it.

At the beginning of this just under feature length (68 minuntes) documentary a scroll tells us that HATING OBAMA is an attempt to document the pure hate towards President Barack Obama while asking the central question: “Is Obama hated more for his policies or because he’s black?” It’s a fair question, and there’s some interesting chitchat from a bunch of articulate talking heads here, but Marquis Smalls’ doc doesn’t elaborate on anything we didn’t know already. It mainly plays like a greatest hits of the times Obama has been disrespected, touching on such incidents as when Republican House member Joe Wilson yelled “you lie” during the President’s Healthcare speech, with interspersed commentary mostly from supporters who do indeed think there’s racism at play.

There is significant time given to some anti-Obama voices, such as conservative political activist Derrick Grayson and Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, but it’s telling that at the end writer/director Smalls shares with us his poll of all his interviewees and 82% of them approve of Obama. A doc like this can’t help but be biased, but the thesis needs more work. HATING OBAMA is a watchable, well constructed conversation of a video essay, but it has no real conclusion - it just throws the question back at us at the end.

Finally, there’s Michael Almereyda’s CYMBELINE, which is another one of those gritty modern adaptations of Shakespeare much like Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET, Ralph Fiennes’ CORIOLANUS, and Almereyda’s own HAMLET, as this re-unites the director with that film’s star, Ethan Hawke. The setting is again New York, but this time in the world of urban gang warfare with the ever crusty Ed Harris in the title role of the king of the Briton Motorcycle Club, who are battling the corrupt cops of the Roman Police Department. Hawke plays the villainous, agitating Iachimo, Milla Jovovich plays Harris’s queen, Anton Yelchin is her son, and, of course, there’s a pair of star-crossed lovers - Dakota Johnson (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) as Harris’s princess daughter and Penn Badgley (Gossip Girl) as her secret commoner husband. 

All the film's dialogue comes from the original text, albeit trimmed down to the essentials, and it’s fun to see folks like John Leguizamo (as Badgley’s servant) put such effort into their recitations. The old school manner of speaking is an amusing anachronism in this Brooklyn crime-lord context, but you really have to pay attention to follow it or it can get pretty confusing - especially with all the bloody, layered plotting. I appreciated several of CYMBELINE’s set pieces, particularly one in which Jovovich sings Dylan’s “Dark Eyes” (much in the manner of Patti Smith’s version), but it’s far from an easy, entertaining viewing. Like his HAMLET, Almereyda’s take on the Bard here is initially an interesting experiment but one that’s hardly essential.

More later...

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