Mini Reviews (August 2012)
Deranged, Soldiers of Fortune, Compliance, Red Lights, Total Recall, For a Good Time, Call...
Deranged (August 5/12)
Though it boasts a handful of compelling sequences, Deranged is, for the most part, simply unable to become the tense or engrossing thriller promised by its admittedly spectacular setup. The movie, which follows several one-dimensional characters as they're forced to deal with a deadly parasitic outbreak in South Korea, is certainly not helped by an almost disastrously convoluted opening half hour, as writer/director Jeong-woo Park's efforts at establishing the various protagonists fall hopelessly flat - with the inclusion of one baffling story thread after another (eg a pharmaceutical executive is holding a grudge against his cop brother for something disastrous that happened years earlier, though we're never told just what that something disastrous actually was) perpetuating the film's atmosphere of arms-length confusion. Deranged does, however, recover slightly once the aforementioned outbreak comes front and center, as Park effectively peppers the proceedings with interludes of an irresistibly suspenseful nature (eg one of the heroes must prevent his wife and two small children, all three of whom are afflicted with the parasite, from drowning themselves). It's not until the movie reaches the one-hour mark that it begins to palpably run out of steam, with Park's ongoing efforts at padding out the running time resulting in a whole host of superfluous sequences. (The most obvious example of this is said hero's efforts at procuring a pill that'll cure his sick family members, as Park laughably has the medicine abruptly yanked away from the character a whopping three times.) The inclusion of a tedious government conspiracy exacerbates the film's pervasively dull atmosphere, and it's ultimately impossible to label Deranged as anything more than a well-intentioned yet hopelessly underwhelming virus thriller (ie it's South Korea's answer to Steven Soderbergh's slightly better Contagion).
Soldiers of Fortune (August 7/12)
Soldiers of Fortune follows former operatives Craig (Christian Slater) and Reed (Freddy Rodriguez) as they reluctantly agree to lead five millionaires into a real-life overseas conflict, with the narrative detailing the chaos that ensues after several bodyguards are killed and said millionaires (Sean Bean's Dimidov, Ving Rhames' Grimaud, Dominic Monaghan's Sin, James Cromwell's Haussman, and Charlie Bewley's Vanderbeer) are forced to fend for themselves. It's an irresistibly tongue-in-cheek premise that's employed to consistently middling effect by filmmaker Maxim Korostyshevsky, as the director, working from a script by Alexandre Coscas, Robert Crombie, and Joe Kelbley, has infused Soldiers of Fortune with a competent yet run-of-the-mill feel that inevitably proves disastrous. It's worth noting, however, that the eclectic cast initially plays an instrumental role in compensating for the movie's otherwise bland atmosphere, as supporting players like Bean and Monaghan effectively inject their admittedly one-dimensional characters with a panache that is, for the most part, impossible to resist. The actors' efforts are eventually rendered moot by the film's myriad of forgettable action sequences, as such moments have been drained of their energy and excitement by the persistently generic bent of Korostyshevsky's directorial choices. (This is true even of what should've been the movie's high point, ie Craig's climactic battle with Colm Meaney's sinister villain.) Soldiers of Fortune is, as a result, hardly the fun throwback to the action films of the 1980s that one might've hoped for, which is a shame, certainly, given the strength of both the cast and the setup.
Compliance (August 9/12)
Inspired by true events, Compliance explores the misery that ensues after a prank caller (Pat Healy) phones a fast-food restaurant and convinces the manager (Ann Dowd's Sandra) that one of her employees (Dreama Walker's Becky) has stolen cash from a customer - with the film, for the most part, detailing the increasingly humiliating and abusive treatment towards said employee as the caller's demands become more and more sinister. Filmmaker Craig Zobel does an admittedly terrific job of establishing an ominous atmosphere right from the outset, with the emphasis on Sandra and Becky's already-strained relationship contributing heavily to the feeling of impending dread. There's little doubt that the movie's tense vibe escalates significantly once the aforementioned prank caller begins intimidating (and terrorizing, certainly) Dowd's character, and it's worth noting that Zobel, to an increasingly impressive degree, refuses to shy away from the awkwardness of the inherently squirm-inducing material (ie the film boasts a handful of almost epically cringeworthy stretches). It's only as Compliance progresses into its disappointingly repetitive and monotonous midsection that one's interest starts to flag, as Zobel proves unable to sustain the narrative's taut feel and includes a number of superfluous sequences that serve no purpose other than to pad out the running time. And although virtually everything that occurs in the movie does have some basis in reality, Zobel eventually (and perhaps inevitably) takes the premise too far and it is, as a result, impossible to comfortably swallow the ludicrous happenings of the story's final half hour. The exceedingly captivating work from both Dowd and Walker goes a long way towards compensating for the movie's palpable unevenness, to be sure, yet one is finally forced to label Compliance an aggressively manipulative piece of work that's been shamelessly designed to shock and provoke the viewer.
Red Lights (August 13/12)
Red Lights follows professional skeptics Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as they debunk a series of supposed paranormal occurrences, with complications ensuing for the pair as Margaret becomes determined to once and for all discredit a world-renown mentalist named Simon Silver (Robert De Niro). The degree to which Red Lights ultimately peters out is nothing short of spectacular, as writer/director Rodrigo Cortés, whose breakthrough film, 2010's Buried, remains one of the most gripping thrillers of recent years, has infused the proceedings with an incongruously deliberate pace that grows increasingly problematic as time progresses and ultimately proves effective at canceling out the movie's overtly positive attributes. This is despite an opening half hour that's far more promising than one might've anticipated, with the inherently compelling nature of Margaret and Tom's ongoing activities heightened by the actors' stellar work and by the inclusion of a few standout sequences (eg Margaret recalls a heated encounter with Simon decades ago). It's only as Cortés begins layering the narrative with a whole host of superfluous elements that Red Lights transforms into a progressively tedious piece of work, and it does, as a result, become more and more difficult to work up any interest in or sympathy for the protagonists' exploits. There's a lack of clarity here that's nothing short of disastrous, as it's virtually impossible to discern just what Murphy's character is hoping to achieve with his increasingly head-scratching maneuverings - which, in turn, does ensure that the film's bombastic finale is simply not able to pack the visceral punch that Cortés has clearly intended. (It doesn't help, either, that the movie ends with an anticlimactic and almost unreasonably silly twist.) Red Lights is, as such, an utter disappointment that squanders an intriguing premise and a talented cast, and it's impossible not to wonder what Cortés originally set out to accomplish with this mess.
Total Recall (August 14/12)
As lackluster and needless a remake as one might've feared, Total Recall follows Colin Farrell's Douglas Quaid as he's forced to go on the run after a trip to a memory-implanting facility reveals that he is, in fact, a spy - with the movie subsequently detailing the character's efforts at discovering the truth about his identity and, eventually, his attempts at stopping an evil chancellor (Bryan Cranston's Vilos Cohaagen) from executing a villainous plot. There's little doubt that Total Recall fares best in its opening half hour, as filmmaker Len Wiseman, along with production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, does an effective job of establishing the movie's (admittedly derivative) futuristic landscape - with the unexpectedly watchable atmosphere perpetuated by an initial lack of similarities to Paul Verhoeven's superlative 1990 film. It's only as scripters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback begin including elements pilfered directly from the original movie that Total Recall begins its slow-yet-steady descent into atrociousness, as the familiarity (and less-than-competent execution) of such moments consistently pulls the viewer out of the narrative - with the increasingly hands-off feel compounded by a trio of central performances that are competent yet hopelessly bland, especially when compared to the work of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, and Rachel Ticotin in the first movie (and this is to say nothing of Kate Beckinsale's disturbingly immobile forehead). Wiseman's notorious inability to effectively direct action proves particularly problematic here, as Total Recall boasts a final half hour that is, seemingly, nothing but over-the-top (and increasingly infuriating) spectacle - which does, ultimately, confirm the film's place as a bottom-of-the-barrel special-effects extravaganza that's been designed to appeal solely to adolescent boys.
For a Good Time, Call... (August 20/12)
For a Good Time, Call... follows almost-strangers Lauren Powell (Lauren Miller) and Katie Steel (Ari Graynor) as they independently fall on hard times financially and reluctantly agree to live together - with the movie revolving around the pair's subsequent decision to start a phone sex line from their apartment. It's a high-concept premise that's employed to surprisingly (if not exactly consistent) down-to-earth effect, as the movie opens with an authentic (and thoroughly harsh) breakup between Lauren and her oblivious boyfriend (James Wolk's Charlie). From there, For a Good Time, Call... progresses precisely the way one might've anticipated based on the over-the-top setup - with Jamie Travis' off-kilter directorial choices and the leads' palpable chemistry together compensating for the periodic inclusion of broadly-conceived, sitcom-like elements. It goes without saying, however, that the movie's most potent weapon is the star-making work from both Miller and Graynor, with, especially, the latter's turn as the oversexed Katie responsible for many of the film's more overtly hilarious moments. (There's little doubt, too, that the character's relationship with a friendly caller, Mark Webber's Sean, ensures that For a Good Time, Call... succeeds as a heartfelt romantic comedy as well.) The amiable opening hour does, however, pave the way for a final third that all-too-often falls back on formulaic plot developments, which, in addition to wreaking havoc on the movie's momentum, results in a palpably tedious feel that's compounded by needlessly melodramatic twists and turns (eg the dreaded fake break-up). And although the film recovers for a silly yet entertaining finish, For a Good Time, Call... has, by then, established itself as an erratic comedy that's at its best when focused on the burgeoning friendship between the two central characters.