|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Doorman," "The Lie," "Naughty Books," "Time," "The War with Grandpa" and "The Wolf of Snow Hollow."
Since the release of "Die Hard" in 1988, there have been a slew of action epics that have taken that film's basic premise and reset it in a different unusual locale--"Under Siege" did it on a boat, "Sudden Death" did it in a hockey arena and "Air Force One" did it on Air Force One, to name just a few. The latest clone, "The Doorman," is a film that so openly apes its source of obvious inspiration that it could legitimately be described as being "Die Hard" on a "Die Hard." Following an incident during an overseas posting that ends in tragedy and a case of PTSD--the kind that can only be fully cured by eventually killing a lot of people--ex-marine Ali (Ruby Rose) returns to New York and takes her uncle up on an offer to work as a doorman at the luxury apartment where he works and which is currently mostly closed up for renovations. In fact, of the only two tenants still in residence, one just happens to be her estranged and recently widowed brother-in-law (Rupert Evans) and his stoner teenage son (Julian Feder) and adorable moppet daughter (Kila Lord Cassidy). She is invited to have Easter dinner with them but when she steps out for a minute in search of mint sauce, the apartment is overrun by a bunch of goons led by Victor (Jean Reno), a suave European intent on breaking into a hidden safe and stealing the valuable paintings hidden within it. My guess is that you can pretty much take it from there.
To be fair, while I probably have not seen every single "Die Hard" clone ever made, "The Doorman" is hardly the worst of the bunch--at least it moves in a relatively efficient manner, which is more than one can say for the likes of the appallingly lugubrious "A Good Day to Die Hard." Beyond that, however, there is precious little here of interest for even the most undiscriminating action film junkies. There are so many elements here that are lifted so blatantly from "Die Hard" that the whole thing drifts from homage into outright plagiarism. Those who are interested in checking out the film because it was directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, who has made such intriguingly gruesome films as "Versus" and "The Midnight Meat Train" will be disappointed by the undistinguished action beats and the lack of truly creative gore as he taps into his inner Len Wiseman. While Reno manages to makes his utterly anonymous Eurosleaze villain mildly entertaining through the sheer force of his personality (which is a good trick since he looks bored beyond belief throughout here), the same cannot be said of Ruby Rose, who has been a reasonably interesting presence in supporting roles in any number of recent movie sequels and on TV as Batwoman but who is pretty much a dud here front and center. Of course, one probably should not go into something like "The Doorman" expecting the cinematic equivalent of a gourmet meal--this is meat-and-potatoes filmmaking through and through. Alas, the meat and potatoes served up here are clearly of the utility grade variety that no amount of mint sauce can make palatable.
Although it is being presented, along with "Black Box," as one of the inaugural entries in a series of eight films presented by Blumhouse (all of which will be premiering on Amazon Prime Video), "The Lie" is not exactly the kind of high-concept genre fare that is their usual output, though in terms of ultimate quality, it ranks high up there with the likes of such idiocies as "Fantasy Island" and "The Hunt." In fact, the film is a 2018 mystery drama that play like a weak homage to the latter-day misfires of the once-interesting Atom Egoyan more than anything. Divorced dad Jay (Peter Skarsgaard) is driving his lightly estranged teenaged daughter Kayla (Joey King) up to dance camp when they come across a friend (Devery Jacobs) and Kayla insists on giving her a ride. Before long, they pull over so that the girls can sneak into the woods to use the bathroom but when Jay goes to investigate after hearing noises, Kayla is standing by herself on a bridge over a frigid river and says that she deliberately pushed the friend into the water to her death. Instead of calling anyone, Jay decides to drive back home with Kayla and pretend like nothing happened and when his ex-wife, Rebecca (Mireille Enos), learns what happens, she and Jay decide to continue the ruse on the basis that their daughter’s life shouldn’t be ruined by one little slipup.
This sounds like a set up for a reasonably compelling domestic drama revolving around situational ethics, slippery morals slopes and how far people are willing to go to protect the ones they love. However, once the film, a remake of the 2015 German film "We Monsters," has established its concept, writer-director Veena Sud seems to have no good idea of where to go with it, Although the tension should be ratcheting up as Rebecca and Jay join forces to protect Kayla from the inquiries by the local cops and her friend's anguished father, the moves at a pace as glacial as its wintry setting. The performances are not especially convincing either--you never buy the characters played by Skarsgaard and Enos or their relationship for a second and the work by King is not so much complex as it is maddeningly opaque and not in the good way. Then, to top it all off, the story concludes with a final twist that is so inane that the best thing that one can say about it is that few viewers will be able to say that the correctly predicted it. Of course, "The Lie" is so dire few viewers are likely to make it to the bitter and bungled conclusion in the first place.
I cannot say that contemporary adult erotic fiction is one of my literary mainstays, save for Anne Rice’s X-rated riffs on "Beauty and the Beast," a version of Dracula that, as I recall, included some very interesting uses for garlic bulbs and an abortive attempt to plow through "Fifty Shades of Grey" (which was abandoned after about 50 pages on account of unspeakable prose). Nevertheless, the genre that is often derided as "mommy porn" has, thanks to the mammoth success of the "Grey" market, become hugely popular in recent years, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that many of the books come from authors, mostly female, who have eschewed the traditional publishing model by putting them out on their own instead of waiting to be picked up by an established publisher. The new documentary "Naughty Books," from debuting director Austen Rachlis, explores this phenomenon through the eyes of three authors--Jamie Blair (who wrote YA books under that name before turning to erotica under the moniker Kelli Maine), Kristen Proby and CJ Roberts--as they discuss their literary ambitions, the expectations and shifting tastes of their public, the ways in which they challenged the norms of the publishing world and what it has all meant for them both professionally and personally. From an artistic standpoint, the film does not exactly break any new ground and I must confess that the excerpts from their work on display (presented in animated segments featuring readings from Aimee Garcia, Allison Tolman and Aisha Tyler) did not exactly inspire me to alter my future reading habits in any way. However, the conversations with the authors and the other interview subjects on hand are engaging and Rachlis presents the subject in a manner that takes it seriously without delving into salaciousness. "Naughty Books" may not be enough to lure new fans to the genre but those who have read and loved these books should find it of interest.
In 1997, Robert Richardson and his wife, Sibil, were arrested and later convicted for robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana--the result of a dumb scheme to get money to start a business of their own. Already raising four children and pregnant with twins, Sibil took a plea bargain and was out in 3 1/2 years while Robert, for the same crime, was sentenced to 65 years without a chance of parole. Using footage culled in part from over 100 hours of video footage, Garrett Bradley's incisive new documentary "Time" observes Sibil as she works to raise and support her family while working her way tirelessly through the court system trying to score the legal motions that might result in a more reasonable re-sentencing. The film is obviously about the need for reform in the criminal justice system, especially regarding African-Americans, but to her credit, Bradley does not take the easy way out. She has elected to put her focus not on an innocent person who has been railroaded by an unfeeling system, but on a person who did do the crime in question and is still being railroaded through a sentence that most reasonable law-and-order types would probably find excessive. Instead of making her case by going into minute statistical detail about the inequities of the criminal justice system, she instead shows, via those home video recordings, how they have affected one particular family Sibil runs up against one brick wall after another while simultaneously raising her family (the twins are now both in college and clearly thriving while an older son is graduating from medical school). Without giving it away (not that this is that kind of film), the story of Sibil and Robert does have a happy ending but Bradley underscores that triumph with a clever reminder of how much they lost in terms of time in the interim. It is a triumph that nevertheless leaves you heartbroken and angry, much like "Time" itself.
Last year, Robert De Niro appeared in one of the very worst movies in "Joker" and then followed it a few weeks later with one of the very best in "The Irishman." With his latest effort, "The War with Grandpa," he is already halfway to pulling off a repeat by appearing in what is not just one of the shabbiest films of this year but of a career that has not always been known for its strict quality control in regards to choosing roles. He plays Ed, a recently widowed grandfather who, following a couple of incidents, is inveigled by his daughter, Sally (Uma Thurman), to move in with her and her own family. This relocation places him in the bedroom formerly occupied by junior-high age grandson Peter (Oakes Fegley) and relegates the kid to sleeping in the attic. This does not set well with the kid or his school friends, who advise him that the sensible thing to do is declare war on his grandfather until he gives back the room and moves to the attic. Assuming that no kid could really be that petulant and shitty, Ed plays along, even working out rules of engagement, but soon discovers that the kid is serious and starts pulling increasingly elaborate pranks, which Ed elects to return in kind, even bringing in his own cadre of friends (Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin and Jane Seymour) to help out. Of course, the hijinks escalate until we get to the moral reminding us that war is not a game and the only sensible move is not to play, as an infinitely better movie once put it.
"The War with Grandpa" is based on a 1984 children's book by Robert Kimmel Smith and while I have not read it myself, I can sort of imagine how it might have worked in print as a way of illustrating the folly of war on a level that a young child might grasp with reasonable ease. Brought to life (at least technically), it comes across as an ugly, tonally garish mess. There is not a single moment of recognizable human behavior from any of the characters, the slapstick hijinks come across as unnecessarily violent and cruel knockoffs of "Home Alone" throughout and the turgid moral lesson that it tries to slap on in the closing scenes comes across as smarmy beyond belief. Speaking of beyond belief, what could there have possibly been about this insultingly bad material that could have attracted such a good cast? De Niro sleepwalks through his role, Fegley is as awful and unconvincing here as he was touching and believable in "Pete's Dragon" and "Wonderstruck" and the others seem to be coping in ways that range from Walken essentially doing a substandard Christopher Walken impression to Uma Thurman stridently overacting, perhaps as a way to distract viewers from thinking about the relationship that she and De Niro depicted the last time they co-starred together in a film. Once upon a time, the great Roger Ebert wrote an infamously bad review of "North," another film based on a children’s book that inexplicably curdled on its way to the screen and which also inexplicably attracted a top-line cast of actors willing to make fools of themselves. (To be fair, it isn't quite as dreadful as its reputation suggests.) Now I am not one of those people who generally likes to serenely state that they know exactly how Ebert might feel about a certain film. However, if he had been able to see "The War with Grandpa," I have sneaky suspicion that he might have found himself feeling a little kinder towards "North."
Writer-director Jim Cummings made a name for himself a couple of years ago in film circles with "Thunder Road," a striking and offbeat comedy-drama in which he played a small town police officer undergoing a slow meltdown, both personally and professionally, in the wake of a divorce and the death of his mother. For his follow-up, "The Wolf of Snow Hollow," he offers up a story in which he plays virtually the same character as before going through the same emotional upheaval as before with the key difference being the possible presence of a werewolf. No, I am not speaking in metaphorical terms--the small Utah town of Snow Hollow is hit with an inexplicable series of vicious murders every full moon in which women are founded horribly mutilated and while logic suggests that a human is behind the crimes, there is also evidence indicating the presence of a wolf-like creature. Already dealing with a recent divorce, a drinking problem trying to raise his teenage daughter (Chloe East) and worrying about the heath of his aging father (Robert Forster), who is also the town sheriff, John Marshall (Cummings) heads up the investigation and proves to be spectacularly ill-equipped for the job, dismissing possible leads and blowing up at his fellow officers at the slightest provocation, even as they try to overlook his shortcomings out of respect for his father, while the bodies continue to pile up.
The result is not exactly a bad film, per se, but it is a markedly peculiar one and one that seems destined to frustrate viewers on several levels. Those who are going into it because they liked "Thunder Road" a lot may be disappointed by the fact that it has so many similarities to that earlier film but none of the delicate balance of tones that made that one work so well. Although he gets fine work from Forster (in what would prove to be his final film role) and Riki Lindhome as John's infinitely more competent colleague, his increasingly unhinged performance so throughly dominates the proceedings that it frankly becomes exhausting to watch him after a while. Those looking at it as a horror-comedy hybrid suitable for Halloween viewing will also find it just a bit off as it is never quite as funny or scary as it is trying to be (though it is certainly gory enough). "The Wolf of Snow Hollow" has its moments and if this had been the big breakthrough film for Cummins, I probably would have been a lot more impressed with it than this admittedly offbeat but somewhat unsatisfying variation.
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originally posted: 10/10/20 01:37:22
last updated: 10/10/20 01:45:03