(Video on Demand, May 2016) When Nicolas Cage started showing up in direct-to-video movies a few years ago, it felt odd but fun, as he was usually able to raise the level of a production just by showing up. But as he keeps working to (rumours say) pay off his tax debts, the charm of his regular appearances in non-theatrical movies is starting to wear thin. The Trust isn’t completely empty of fun, but it’s one more in an increasingly generic series of bland thriller that happens to feature an actor named Nicolas Cage without taking full advantage of his grandiose Caginess. Taking place in the low-budget areas of Las Vegas, The Trust features Cage as a forensic investigator who gets the urge to rob an illicit safe. Enlisting a younger partner (played by Elijah Wood, suitably nebbish), he sets up the heist … until everything goes wrong. While generally well executed, The Trust makes the mistake of going dark and gritty rather than cool and exhilarating like so many other heist movies. The ending couldn’t possibly be more downbeat, but it doesn’t come as a surprise after an increasingly grimmer series of events. Cage, as mentioned, delivers what’s expected of him but doesn’t do much more than that. Some of the film’s most intriguing plot threads are left unexplored, while it spends a considerable amount of time on far more familiar material. It’s easy to see why the result went straight to video—in an increasingly competitive theatrical environment, a Cage-neutered The Trust simply doesn’t have what it takes to warrant the trip out to the multiplex … but it may have just enough to justify picking it up at home for an evening’s entertainment.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) Cooties’ big concept is simple, revolting and funny at once: What if only kids carried a zombie epidemic, and what if our heroes were besieged high-school teachers? By the time the faculty is viciously killing their pre-teen charges, feel free to be disgusted or darkly amused by it all—the film has already gone too far to care. Elijah Woods stars as the nebbish protagonist (in an interesting reversal from his turn as a student battling possessed teachers in The Faculty), with a few comic actors in other supporting roles. The limits of the budget often show (most notably in not offering a wider view of the carnage once it gets going) but the writing isn’t bad and the film does manage to hit many of its intended targets. It’s relatively successful, in fact, at minimizing the gross-out factors of a story in which adults kill kids—while it still feels wrong, it’s more transgressive than unacceptable, which is the tricky moral balance that the film had to meet in order to work at all. This being said, the best audience for Cooties remains the dark-laughter horror crowd, especially those who don’t mind yet another low-budget zombie comedy.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) Anyone who has been paying attention to my reviews knows that I have a weakness for gimmicky thrillers that try to do something new. Open Windows may not be completely original in choosing to show its action as if from a computer screen (a segment in V/H/S/2 did it a year before, Unfriended did it again a few months later), but it’s certainly unlike any other thrillers out there, and its willingness to try something new (no matter how ludicrous those things may be) is nothing short of refreshing. Here, the action begins quietly enough, as a young man (Elijah Wood, effectively nebbish) sits in a hotel room, preparing to meet a beloved actress after winning one of those “dinner with a fan” contest. But things get more complicated when someone contacts our hero and makes increasingly disturbing requests, hacking various devices to provide intimate access to the actress’s life. It escalates from there, all the way to tasering, torture, SWATting, car chases, massive explosions and a few hackers messing with each other’s plans. All seen through a laptop screen, even though the camera pans and the owner of the laptop isn’t as clear as you’d think. The actress is rather well-played by porn-star-turned-mainstream-actress Sasha Gray, and Open Windows gets extra points for irony by making viewers feel dirty and ashamed of watching her undress. Of course, it’s not a good idea to go into the film expecting any realism: Aside from the impossible technology featured throughout the film, the plot piles on preposterous developments until anyone’s suspension of disbelief topples. This makes the third act feel far less involving than if the film had stuck to more believable plot points, but that’s part of the film’s charm in a way. I’m good with crazy, especially if it’s crazy-new, and Open Windows cleverly scratches that itch. Some of the imagery used late in the film approaches techno-impressionism, and writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s script has some awe-inspiring moments and structural elements built into it. It’s too bad that it’s not under just a bit more control, with some superfluous plot twists excised in favour of a cleaner ending. But I’ll take what I’ve got, especially considering that the film flew under the radar of mainstream moviegoers and found itself a little niche on Cable channels. It’s quite a bit better than one would expect, and in-between this, Grand Piano, Pawn Shop Chronicles and Maniac, Elijah Woods is developing quite a bit of a filmography as the go-to lead actor for crazy thriller high-concepts.
(On DVD, December 2015) Fans of subcultural anthropology by way of mainstream movies will love Hooligans for its accessible look at the inner workings and meaning of English gangs. Anchored by Elijah Wood as a disgraced American journalism student who gets caught in football hooliganism while visiting London, this is a film that’s part gang drama and part action violence. In some ways, it’s not terribly different from other stories in which an innocent is seduced by criminal activities and then pulls back after as climaxing trauma (usually the death of a good friend) – but setting and execution makes Hooligans feel somewhat fresher than another update about Los Angeles gangs. It’s also a bit more interesting for the way it dissects football hooliganism as stemming from territoriality, boredom, unemployment, class status and good-old rivalry. As far as performers go, Wood is his usual doe-eyed self, which works in his advantage in portraying how an average guy can get sucked into the violence. Charlie Hunnam is a bit of a revelation here: After seeing him in a very dull performance in latter big Hollywood movie Pacific Rim, here he seems animated and almost charismatic. Director Lexi Alexander keeps things moving and the action scenes feel a bit better than they ought to be in a film of this caliber. While Hooligans won’t make it near to top of any top-ten list, it’s an interesting look at a particular subculture, it’s seldom dull to watch, and it has a few good scenes. Not too bad for a film that barely made it to North America.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I’m not against craziness in my thrillers, even when the craziness is used as a substitute for logic or coherence. Grand Piano, in this instance, is a good example of what happens when flamboyance and go-for-broke audacity can compensate for a premise so unlikely as to defy suspension of disbelief. (It’s insane enough that even the villain’s henchman questions the plot.) Director Eugenio Mira goes all-out in trying to wring all possible excitement out of his script, and the result is a stylish thriller in which ambitious camera moves serve to obscure the nonsensical plot. There’s a lot of craft in the direction (early shots have two or three narrative points established in the same image), and the direction seems to get crazier as the film advances. Elijah Wood makes for a decent protagonist, as a concert pianist threatened with fatal retribution if he plays a single false note. Meanwhile, John Cusack lies in the shadows as the antagonist, literally calling the shots in a full concert hall and adding another antagonist role to his filmography. Grand Piano is a short film (excluding the credits, it barely inches past the 75-minutes mark) but it races through its plot points at such a dizzying speed that the flaws of the film seem less consequential. People most likely to respond favorably to Grand Piano include those who don’t mind a bit of style in their otherwise ludicrous genre exercises – I found myself liking the film a great deal more than I should, but then again I’m fond of thrillers that grab on to unusual premises and milk it to their fullest extent. In other words, I’m pretty happy with Grand Piano, a film with unexpected rewards that proves that maximalist execution can go hand-in-hand with a crazy premise.