The Purge: Election Year

'The Purge - Election Year' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James DeMonaco

Directed by: James DeMonaco

I am convinced the French marketing for the third Purge film (see above) is the most responsible form of it we have. The Purge: Election Year manages to be as inane as it looks and here is a movie poster that pulls no punches when it comes to revealing the truth. Cheap-looking and tacky the movie may not be, but it is unconvincing. Often hilariously so.

Though there are no Donald Trump masks involved (surprising, given writer-director James DeMonaco’s affinity for being overt) there is no doubt that the third Purge is intended as his own State of the Union address as it applies to a country being torn apart from the inside by mass shootings, gang and race-related violence and other forms of 21st-Century-friendly terms like ‘terrorism.’ Election Year is now, it is eminent and it is, supposedly, urgent. And so the French movie title starts feeling apropos.

Previous installments — one which took place entirely within the confines of an upper-middle class suburban abode and the other upon the streets of Los Angeles — worked tirelessly in addressing the growing divide between the have’s (the one-percenters of this fine country) and the have-not’s (everyone else in comparison) by creatively demonstrating the rage that festers within a 12-hour period one night out of the year. We’ve come to understand that purge night, rather than being a means for the American people to cleanse themselves of any sort of violence, is just the government’s way of shedding the nation of its burdens: the weak and the poor. A third installment hypothetically could add depth to this bleak, dystopian portrait of government-sponsored terror but what eventuates are just echoes of the themes it has hastily carted out on a dolly since the first round.

Once again we’re set in the near-future and purge night is upon us. Wait, let me back up a little bit. We first witness the events that inspire a young Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) to become a Senator for good. Eighteen years after watching her entire family get murdered at the hands of a lunatic purger, she’s campaigning for the Presidency, vowing to eliminate this terrible night once and for all. Such a devastating loss drives the woman’s powerful but dangerous idealism. She has to win the election and wrestle control of the country away from the New Founding Fathers, but she also refuses to use murder as her path to victory as that wouldn’t make her any different from those who purge.

Frank Grillo returns as former police sergeant Leo Barnes. Once he’s in the picture, the film picks up in both the excitement and intensity departments. After surviving the horrendous events of Anarchy, Barnes has signed on as part of Senator Roan’s security detail and finds himself this time protecting a highly valuable asset as the New Founding Fathers have decided to take a firmer stance against opponents of the purge. They do so by revoking high-level official’s security Level 9 million-whatever clearance, a.k.a. their immunity to the lawlessness of the night. The Senator of course would prefer to wait the night out in her own home. Leo doesn’t think that’s a smart idea; it’s not. Soon we’re back out on the streets after a betrayal. Ya know, the usual.

Leo once again is surrounded by a group of citizens of indeterminate firearm-wielding skill and whose political leanings essentially boil down to “F**k whoever believes in the purge.” Meanwhile, a resistance group is forming somewhere in downtown Washington and there begins to breed a new kind of morality to the violence. But Leo’s gang ain’t like that; they’re comprised of proud deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his assistant and Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a tough-as-nails EMT named Laney played by a fun Betty Gabriel — she’s arguably the film’s best offering beyond Grillo.

Election Year finds the city center of Ridiculous soon enough. We’re slowly pulled into the world of anti-purgers gathering in secrecy at some undisclosed (even in this review) location, preparing to wage war against the NFFA, namely Executive Douchebag Caleb Warren (Raymond J. Barry), the ring leader whose vileness must be measured by how many nasty words he can fit into one monologue. That’s the kind of lazy writing that has become a frustrating pattern in this franchise. DeMonaco’s creation has this fascinating psycho-social science dynamic that routinely gets left behind in favor of tired genre tropes and subpar acting (and directing).

The major offense here though is that three provides entirely too much déjà vu. DeMonaco attempts to expand the scope of the narrative by including a terribly ill-advised subplot in which ‘murder tourism’ has become a thing. Apparently it’s not enough that everyone in America is out in the streets killing each other to death; now we have an influx of South Africans (sorry Zoe; Natasha . . . ) coming stateside just to kill people. Don’t laugh (it’s okay, I almost did). The fact that the purge has caught on internationally and is now being marketed as a tourist package is just silliness defined.

Come to think of it, much of this franchise has been just that. Take a look at any number of those peculiar seance scenes in which small groups of well-dressed caucasians gather and either make a sacrifice or just repeat the phrase “purge and purify” ad nauseam (actually, it’s usually both). I look to those moments for an encapsulation of everything The Purge has been: pure nonsense and half-hearted attempts at profundity. Excuse me while I go purge all of my disappointment from memory.

Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in The Purge - Election Year

Recommendation: Gee, I wonder what the director’s stance on gun control is. The amount of mileage you get out of The Purge: Election Year (or as I prefer, American Nightmare 3: Elections) will depend on how much you enjoy just being stuck in this particularly dark universe. There’s no doubt DeMonaco and his cinematographer have crafted a unique visual identity but in terms of story they simply never even try to attain the heights their unusual, intriguing premise(s) suggest. You can always count on Frank Grillo though and paired up with Elizabeth Mitchell’s Senator he is better than ever. The rest though leaves a lot to be desired and I don’t know if I want to sit through more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good night, blue cheese!” 

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Blue Ruin

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

From the opening shot silence dominates, ominously foreshadowing a journey fraught with tension and dread. It doesn’t take long to realize that something is wrong, to feel the disconnect between a vagabond and his surroundings. Macon Blair’s Dwight is floating through existence, living out of his car and presumably without a job. The comforts of our typical daily lives feel far out of reach even though they are quite literally right in front of him. Despite his disheveled appearance Dwight seems functional, making use of a few odds and ends to help him get through another day of living on the streets. But he’s clearly a broken man, a scruffy beard and unkempt hair and meals derived from what he can scrape out of trash cans being the most telling.

For at least the opening 20 minutes he remains enigmatic, inspiring an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. Possibly a bit of frustration too — who is this guy? Empathy towards the homeless isn’t a necessity — if you’re not empathetic I can’t say I blame you as it seems more often than not their plights are derived from a long series of poor life choices — but in this case the issue doesn’t seem to be a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Drama begins in earnest when Dwight receives the news that the man responsible for the murder of both his parents is being released from prison. A policewoman asks him to come into the station, insisting that it’d be better for him to hear this in a safe place rather than being alone on the streets and finding out in the local paper.

Unfortunately the catalyst for the blood-splattering that is to come is less dependent upon the way in which he receives the information as it does upon how he will choose to respond to it.

Given the thrill of the discovery, it’s difficult to talk plot without ruining much of the experience so I vote instead we talk about how good Blair is in the lead. Um, yeah. He’s good. Evoking an emotional instability that borders on madness, Dwight comes across as a surprisingly threatening man even though his ineptitude at handling violent situations may say otherwise. That he’s out of his depth on more than a few occasions is a brilliant manifestation of Blair’s physical performance. This is a role that, rather than relying on extensive dialogue, depends upon how his countenance reflects a steadily more desperate reality. Such change is more often than not subtle but by the end the disparity is noted. It’s an incredible performance, elevating Blue Ruin well above your average revenge tale.

As good as Blair is, however, Jeremy Saulnier might just outdo him. He isn’t just responsible for allowing his lead to flourish under intelligent writing and precise directing, he’s painting a gorgeous backdrop through crisp, colorful cinematography that ironically romanticizes the lush landscape of Virginia, particularly Dwight’s hometown, a sleepy hollow interrupted by violence. Thickly forested hills serve as creative conceals for confrontations that don’t necessarily play out the way you might expect. In this film, Virginia is not for lovers; it is for survivors. It is for men who stand very little to lose.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and in Saulnier’s minimalist portraiture of a life gone awry it arrives upon a frozen plate.

Recommendation: Blue Ruin is a great example of minimalist storytelling. Dialogue-lite, it’s far more concerned with body language and subtle visual clues to keep viewers constantly engaged. The violence it does feature is rather vivid but it, too, is limited to moments that tend to be extremely effective. I loved this film, but I can see others having a problem with its deliberate build-up. It’s not heavy on action but it is heavy on great acting and beautiful cinematography. Give it a shot sometime. E-hem. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I would forgive you if you were crazy. But you’re not. You’re weak.”

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Everly

Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Yale Hannon

Directed by: Joe Lynch

There’s an unshakable sense Joe Lynch and company didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity they had with Salma Hayek playing the lead in this economical, often comically violent home invasion thriller.

Despite having a strong presence Hayek is relegated to the role of Donkey Kong: all she must do is survive an incoming wave of bad guys and, barring something just completely off-the-wall in the script, she’ll be home free. Er, in a manner of speaking. She’s actually home the entire time, as Everly rarely leaves the confines of an upscale loft apartment, and when it does it saunters out into the hallway for a few long seconds just to see if the coast is clear. But it rarely is, and Everly is certainly not free.

If it’s not giving the film too much credit, Everly seems to harp on the idea of freedom more than its bloody special effects. On a small scale, Everly wants needs to be free of the physical and mental anguish brought on by her psychotic ex-boyfriend Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe). That her family winds up getting in the middle of several attacks (albeit on the back of some extremely foolish decisions) is surely reason enough for Everly to break free of her dark, dangerous past. Ironic that Lynch’s film can’t break free from the mould of the typical brainless action outing. Everly’s background is as unknown as the environment outside this building. And if there is freedom to be found it exists only in the physical: some way of escaping this hell-hole.

Everly’s ability to defend herself, while more often than not entertaining, makes her a thorough enigma if we are in fact meant to be rooting for her. Given the waves upon waves of attackers, each one seemingly more violent and depraved than the last, we want to assume Everly’s done something worse than cheat on poor Taiko; surely no degree of infidelity would justify this kind of a response. While the various intrusions mark Everly a prisoner in her own home her natural ability to quickly solve each recurrence of that very problem necessarily redirects a spotlight back upon her past. Alas, we don’t ever fully get to understand Everly.

As she exists in this version of the film — the final product, sadly — Everly is neither person nor prisoner. She’s a heavily-tattooed survivalist with no last name. Her current predicament, no more complicated than that classic video game. The controls are basically run, shoot/throw things, duck and hide. Despite Hayek’s faintly detectable humanity — even though, ew, she’s a hooker and shame on her for not being around for her young daughter — she doesn’t get to leave the stinging impression that the physicality of her performance wants her to. Drama is far more obsessed with getting even, an eye-for-an-eye when at least one of those eyes should be focused on the details. Like, why we should care about any of this.

While it’s good to see a female spin on this steadily-growing subgenre of action films popularized by Liam Neeson and his brand of vengeance-seeking, Everly overcompensates for its casting, eventuating in a grotesquely violent shocker that will be remembered less for Hayek’s energy than it will be for the blood stains it leaves behind.

“Say ‘Hola’ to my little friend!!!”

Recommendation: For those desensitized to brutal action, Everly delivers a lot of the good/red stuff. It’s suitably a short-lived home invasion and the experience packs in enough disturbing events to satisfy those sorts of fans but it’s a problem having someone as talented as Hayek in a role so poorly developed. She’s too mysterious to embrace but nowhere near sadistic to be rejected. Sad to say Everly is one to watch less for the character/actress than the crafty little kills she’s responsible for throughout.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

kingsman-poster

Release: Friday, February 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matthew Vaughn; Jane Goldman

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Thuffering thuccotash, itth Thamuel L. Jackthon! Again!

For those bothering to thtick with me through this review, be advised that one of the most prolific black actors of all time is the height of the appeal of Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s also a thymptom of a dithappointing outing.

I know, I know. I’m pushing it a little bit here, but I don’t think I’m being any more offensive than Jackson. The man — and give him credit, he does work hard (so does his agent!) — is difficult to get over when he’s the only one trying to stand out in this mildly-amusing riff on the irreverent James Bond franchise. It’s a film with bigger plans, even, attempting to capitalize on the silliness that the casual observer associates with the spy genre, but in an ironic twist the fun devolves into a farcical spoof of itself in the final half hour. However, that’s not the issue at large.

It’s not that Colin Firth (that’s actually not a lisp, thank you very much) tries too hard playing Sean Connery-lite, clean-shaven and with a swagger perhaps more consistent than Jackson’s butchered pronunciations of the letter ’s.’ Firth is good here, his own amusement apparent in the way he parades across the screen, umbrella in hand, treading a tricky line between sophistication and aloofness. As Harry Hart, code-named something hilarious — oh, I don’t know, say ‘Galahad’ — Firth is cool and confident, even especially under pressure. He’s a spy who’s experienced his fair share of whoopsie-daisies working for a boutique secret service agency tucked away in the back of a posh clothing store. One downfall of being in this profession is seen at the film’s open when a fellow agent is killed by a grenade, or something.

It’s not that the emotional heft of the film strays into sentimentality so far that the overriding story makes little sense. Harry/Galahad finds it his duty to help a wayward youth named Gary (a.k.a. ‘Eggsy’), the son of the fallen Kingsman, avoid a life of crime and hardship on the streets (the upturned ball cap and padded jacket pegs Taron Egerton as a rude-boy in-the-making) by drafting him into the secret service. It’s better to walk into the path of a stray bullet as a youngster than die an old and miserable sad-sack, amiright?

It’s not that Jackson parodies the speaking-impaired until the bitter end, nor the fact that Gazelle (Sofia Boutella)’s legs are an odd choice for villainous material. It is refreshing seeing someone not play up a lack of legs as a disability, though. I don’t take the racism, fear-mongering and general hatred towards all of mankind as a sign either. Kingsman suffers from tonal shifts — one moment it’s all fun and games; the next we hear racist/homophobic slurs delivered with no other purpose than to inject some shock value, as if we need to have any more reason to cheer on Harry/Galahad — but these are aspects one can get over in a hurry if they’re intent on switching off their brain and enjoying a good showdown (or ten).

No, what’s most offensive about Kingsman is that despite its few quirks and charms — the chemistry between Firth and Egerton is undeniable, while Big Macs make for an exquisite, product-placement-friendly dinner with the villain — is the genericness. As a send-up of the spy genre, this mostly falls into disarray. To reiterate, the only thing the movie manages to send-up is the Q-branch and maybe Thamuel L. Jackthon.

In between extended moments of interminable blandness, Matthew Vaughn’s wannabe-James Bond occasionally finds moments of inspired lunacy and Jackson is admittedly hilarious. This was the most fun I’ve had in a movie that seems to like stealing ideas from others. Maybe the ultimate issue is that the most vivid memory I have of this film is a speech impediment. Either way, there’s a lot here that blows Kingsman‘s cover, but I believe Matthew Vaughn really was on to something here.

kingsman-1

2-5Recommendation: Can I call this movie boring? No. Can I call it dumb? Yes. Can I call it inspired? Mehhhhhhyesss . . . ? It’s an amalgam of James Bond with soft-core thriller material. It doesn’t have enough going for it to be that memorable yet this movie has proven to be very popular. Who knows. I’m probably off on this one. If you haven’t seen it already, you’re likely better off by not listening to me and seeing it for yourself. Wouldn’t be the first time on this blog that that’s happened! 😉

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This whisky is amazing. You will shit.”

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Cheap Thrills

114085_gal

Release: Friday, March 21, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: David Chirchirillo; Trent Haaga 

Directed by: E.L. Katz

There are some things money can’t buy. As Cheap Thrills goes to show, confidence, self-respect, and social acceptance apparently aren’t among those things.

Here is a movie that invites the viewer to bare witness to something of a moral dilemma: watching a man caught between dragging his family through financial ruin and an opportunity to make money (lots of it) by physically, psychologically and emotionally ruining himself. While not a concept many of us haven’t pondered at some point — what kinds of things would I do for a quick buck? — it is one that is taken to some disturbing extremes. It’s also confidently and curiously handled by director E.L. Katz in his directorial debut.

Story tells of desperate family man Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) who wakes up one morning to find an eviction notice on his apartment door; to discover the garage he works at is now doing some convenient “downsizing;” to come to the realization he has no realistic way of solving either issue. When he meets an old friend at a dive bar he is reluctantly swept up in what begins as an innocent game of dare. . .or. . .dare. He and Vince (Ethan Embry) happen to encounter an absurdly wealthy married couple who are seemingly willing to make a game out of anything for their fleeting amusement.

This is where it gets really interesting. The couple is played by none other than Anchorman‘s very own Champ Kind David Koechner and Sara Paxton (who previously starred alongside Healy in Ti West’s modestly successful The Innkeepers) and is a complete send-up of those possessing wealth . . . or at least how those of a lesser class often view them, as Ben Franklin-frittering fools; as socially-superior success stories. Why it happens to be the vulnerable Craig and Vince that this elite couple picks (preys upon?) serves to illustrate a lottery-esque dynamic between the have’s and have-not’s. Sure, there’s a lot of randomness (not to mention shit luck) involved in the equation, but a great deal of the reason we end up where we end up in life is based upon our choices as well as the decisions to ignore other choices.

Koechner’s Colin is the elephant in the room, as it’s not often you see the man take on something that’s more clear-cut as a dramatic role. He is simultaneously darkly comedic, brutal and enigmatic. He charms while repulsing just as quickly; and Paxton as the smoking hot wife (are there any other kind in movies?) is another kind of disturbing. Yet she, too, holds the screen very well despite being utterly despicable.

As Craig, Healy comes across as more than slightly creepy — those glasses ain’t doing ya any favors, pal — but we are able to empathize from the get-go as he’s surrounded by walls that diminish his oh-so-slightly disconcerting appearance. Embry’s is perhaps the character least fleshed-out and he suffers from minor underdevelopment. But the foursome undoubtedly have solid, if kinky, chemistry and as things escalate they become more and more a party you are likely to want to have less and less to do with.

That is, of course, unless you are sinking to some new lows for attention. For cheap thrills. For to get out of a rut. Your scale of what is and isn’t acceptable as acts performed for money is likely to differ from those of the men on display here. That’s good. That’s how it should be! The real fun starts with delineating what exactly separates these trajectories from normal, acceptable human responses to big stacks of cash.

So, settle a bet. How far would you be willing to go for $4,500? For $15,000? For a quarter-million?

pat-healy-and-ethan-embry-in-cheap-thrills

3-5Recommendation: No doubt about it, one might need a little bit of a dark sense of humor to fully appreciate the goings-on within this extremely modestly-budgeted and rather poorly-marketed production. (This movie came out this year, but who has really heard of it, other than — yes — those with a cynical view of human nature?) For a movie that shows signs of becoming cliché entirely too quickly, it is remarkable how much it picks itself up and heads in a direction that’s neither predictable nor unsatisfying. Cheap Thrills is a thrill that’s rich in entertainment value.

Rated: R (for risqué) 

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “Whichever one of you fellas does this shot first, gets $50. Boom.”

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Bullet to the Head

97917_gal

Release: Friday, February 1, 2013

[Theater]

Funny enough, Mr. Stallone, revenge does start to get old once we catch on in this flick that this will probably be the only thing you’re going to be doing for the rest of your career. If Rocky’s story was all about some redemption, Sylvester Stallone would appear to be writing a story about his actual life that is quite contradictory. After all, this film doesn’t do much in the way of redeeming anything at all. And it certainly has no plans for giving back all the spilled blood to the fallen.

In this new Walter Hill-directed actioner, we literally get nothing new from Stallone, his opponents, and there’s barely a soul who wants to stand close enough to Stallone’s thuggier-than-ever anti-hero, James Bonomo, for us to even be able to tell if there’s a side we should be taking here. The short answer to that is there’s not really anyone worth cheering for. Everyone is basically as bad as one another in this super-bloody, gorier-than-expected cast-off film.

I’m sorry if I’m bashing hard against this film at the moment, but sometimes films are lacking the tough love from the critics when they [the films] lack love of any sort in the manner in which they were created. Sometimes you need to fight with axes to make your point. Oh wait. Hold on, no that’s actually something that happens in the film and as it turns out, that also serves as a decent metaphor for me to use in describing my overall disappointment with Bullet to the Head. Of course, no one’s biting their tongue harder than I am when people ask me, well what did you expect out of a Stallone picture? A modern Stallone picture, at that. Touché. I guess what I was hanging my hopes on was a fulfilling story involving the big brute, at least something for us to gnash our teeth into while watching Stallone do what he does best.

But Bullet to the Head is a rather empty project that spares no empathy towards those who get in James Bonomo’s path — let’s face it, it’s not going to be a plot spoiler if I tell you all the bad guys get their clocks cleaned. Twice. Stallone is playing the part of a rather powerful hit man who is on a mission to avenge his former partner’s death during a typical job. (Even writing that seems silly — I mean do these crazy bastards always expect for things to go smoothly all the time? Is that even logical, avenging a dead hit man?)

Anywho. . .

Stallone’s character is boring due to its incredible one-dimensional “I’m gonna kill ’em all” mentality. In fact I think those are some of his pithiest lines in the film: “I’m gonna kill you.” After going it alone for a long while, Bonomo takes on a second partner, of sorts, when an intelligent and virtually indestructible cop, Taylor (played by Sung Kang) comes upon the city of New Orleans after one of his partners ends up with X’s for eyes. It’s the perfect mismatched duo but it needed to be developed at considerable length for us to really have any fun with either of them — or trust the cop for things other than using his impressive trigger finger. Alas, this is the case for almost all of the elements in Bullet.

Despite Stallone’s inexplicable ability to look more epic every time he stands fully upright — although he’s pretty well-matched in physique with the likes of this Keegan character (Jason Momoa) and some of his henchmen — this film wastes a ton of potential in drawing out a truly sinister story where it could. Believe me, there’s violence and action aplenty — I couldn’t actually count the number of minutes spent on the fight sequences, but my bet is over 40 of them were dedicated to people’s asses just being kicked. That’s good stuff in and of itself, but as Stallone advances in age, audience expectations (or mine, anyway) are also advancing to higher levels.

As this film is based off of a graphic novel, the final result is even more disappointing in that there are no twists, turns or anything really unexpected and instead we follow it strictly by the rules set forth by most action films. I guess it’s alright though, because after seeing several scenes of graphic violence, we come to learn that Bonomo (or “Bobo”) has a really attractive daughter; he doesn’t really pay much attention to her though. I suppose that is only fitting for a movie that is so careless with its handling of potentially lethal material. If Hill paid as much attention to the details of dialogue and character-development as he did with the way people died in his movie, then perhaps we would have a ‘welcome back’ party for Sly, since this is his first major role that was not either Rocky or Rambo in over a decade (that also excludes his role in The Expendables).

Nope. In this case, not a single one of us will really care enough to do so much as play the kazoo to welcome him back to the big screen. We will have to wait until the next time around. And if someone would kindly take down all the banners and streamers, please. . . . .that was embarrassing I even thought to put those up here.

bullet-to-the-scrote

2-0Recommendation: While not a total waste of a film, Bullet to the Head plays it safe and sticks to formulaic action drama. This is nothing significant to add to Stallone’s already impressively manly career. So I say go if you’re a big Stallone fan. But you may also want to bring a dictionary or a translator or something, because it’s starting to get hard to understand the guy.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

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