(Video on Demand, July 2016) At first glance, Approaching the Unknown has a kernel of potential. The trailer promises a somewhat introspective look at space exploration, alongside an astronaut travelling alone to Mars. There’s been a recent mini-boom in space-exploration films, and while no-one expected this low-budget production to match Interstellar, it could have found a place alongside Europa Report. But even after a few minutes, it becomes horribly clear that Approaching the Unknown is a big heap of nonsense choked in pseudo-profound meandering and then smothered in interminable pacing. I don’t often fall asleep during boring movies, but Approaching the Unknown got me, and it got me good: I actually had to go back and re-watch the second half, which made it even worse given how the film disintegrates even further in its second half. It’s a multifaceted failure, from nonsense science (I could give you a list of ten things from the movie that are actually dumber than the Transformers series) to meaningless musings to a direction job that kills any interest the film may have held. It’s just a terrible movie-watching experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone else. It even made me think less of Mark Strong for choosing the role, as well as Sanaa Lathan and Luke Wilson for showing up in supporting roles. I get that the film is meant as a meditative character piece about sanity, exploration and self-discovery, but as the old SF truism goes, if the literal level doesn’t work, the metaphorical level can’t either. I don’t particularly like to dismiss low-budget passion projects, but Approaching the Unknown is a damning debut for writer/director Mark Elijah Rosenberg and I hope he’ll be able to do better the next time around. (I’ll at least acknowledge that the film may be best suited to people who liked Under the Skin.)
(Crackle Streaming, February 2016) As far as horror thrillers taking place in murderously dangerous backwater settings go, Vacancy is perhaps more noteworthy for what it doesn’t do. Considering that the plot has to do with an estranged couple being stuck in an isolated motel used to film snuff movies, you would expect the film to be very explicit in its gory violence. But while some sequences in Vacancy are indeed disturbing, it remains reasonably light-footed in its depiction of gore. Thankfully, the result is to bring the focus back on the lead couple’s growing dread rather than in-your-face disgust at the sight of bloody mayhem. It makes the rest of the film’s growing tension more effective and helps distinguish Vacancy from countless other very similar films. It helps that Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale deliver performances anchored in reality: While Vacancy gets crazier by the minute thanks to director Nimród Antal, it does start with a fairly astute first few minutes that cleanly establish the protagonists before dropping them into a long nightmare. Several sequences help answer basic credibility questions about the nature of the premise (as in: why “Run, you fools!” isn’t an answer) and the thrills keep going during the appropriately short duration of the film. While Vacancy is no classic, it has survived well as a competent genre exercise. It could have been far, far worse.
(On DVD, April 2010) Some worthwhile films fall through the cracks, and this is one of them: A slick mixture of laughs and thrills set against the turn-of-the-century internet porn rush, Middle Men features slick editing, a snappy soundtrack, plenty of nudity, some good screenwriting, a surprising number of recognizable actors and slick cinematography to deliver a fairly enjoyable film. The voice-over narration wraps up a film that pleasantly jumps back and forth in time (sometimes for mere seconds), explains the way pornography has been a significant factor in the internet’s popularization and reaffirms why doing business with the Russian mob is always a bad idea. (The unrated DVD also has a bravura long-shot set at an orgy that actually manages to make a narrative point.) Luke Wilson is the film’s likable protagonist, a businessman who accidentally becomes a porn mogul. Surrounding him are such notables as James Caan as a crooked lawyer, Kelsey Grammar in a memorable one-scene sketch, Kevin Pollak as a sympathetic FBI agent and a near-unrecognizable Giovanni Ribisi as a paranoid inventor. Taken on its own terms, Middle Men is a fast-paced film that feels considerably bigger than its small budget, with enough good narrative moments to leave a good impression. It has a few flaws, like a few unnecessary emotional flashbacks, a too-innocent hero and a script that could have been tightened, but nothing major. But the film isn’t the whole story: the behind-the-scenes drama is almost as interesting as the end result. Some digging quickly reveals that Middle Men is not only based on a true story, but that the businessman whose story it is actually financed the production of the film itself… and lost most of its money when the movie failed at the box-office. The post-film real story features accusations of fraud, broken bones and other unpleasantness… enough to set up a sequel or two.