(Video on Demand, April 2014) One of the strangest aspects of the shift from theaters of video on-demand for smaller movies is that from time to time, some films seem to punch well above their weight when it comes to actors. Here, for instance, we’ve got John Cusack as a remorseful hitman playing off Robert de Niro as a mob boss, with quick roles for Crispin Glover and Dominic Purcell (either of whom could and have carried smaller films on their own). And yet this is a restrained thriller, most of the action being concentrated in one night at an isolated motel. Even the casting may not work entirely at the film’s advantage: While Cusack is up to his usual good-guy role, he is getting a bit old for the young-guy-learns-better arc he usually gets. Meanwhile, de Niro seems once again to coast on a familiar performance (although one that may evoke more Dustin Hoffman than classic de Niro). Rebecca Da Costa seems lost in a role that requires too much of her at this stage in her career (the horrible costume/makeup that opens her performance does her no favours either) and seeing an eccentric performer such as Crispin Glover in such a small role seems like a bit of a waste. The rest of the film is just twisted enough to be interesting, but let’s not pretend that this anything more than a standard B-grade thriller voluntarily set upon a small scale. It’s reasonably enjoyable as such (call it perfect slow-evening fodder when you’ve seen everything else) but the too-big names on the marquee may suggest something more than it is.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) There’s an underappreciated movie genre out there that, for lack of a better expression, I’ll call the “cool subculture home movie” genre, in which low-budget filmmakers team up with a group of talented young people specializing in something cool/dangerous. Examples include 2002’s Extreme Heist / Wicked Game (stunt-people decide to make their own movie), 2003’s Quattro Noza / Streets of Legend (L.A. street-racers decide to make their own movie) and now Freerunner (Parkour enthusiasts decide to make their own movie). All of those films are terrible in so many ways, but some of them have one or two cool moments. So it is that Freerunner is nearly unwatchable for its first half-hour: atrocious jittery camerawork, dull actors, bland screenwriting, annoying characters, washed-out cinematography and tepid pacing all combine to send viewers lower and lower in the cinematic scale of mediocrity. The free-running stunts that should have been impressive to see are made boring by a camera that can’t seem to sit still for a single moment. The lead character’s difficulties are uninteresting. And the film courts self-parody by lingering far too long on Rebecca Da Costa during a hum-drum singing performance that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. No one would be blamed for stopping the film at that point. But thirty-five minutes in, something truly deranged happens, as the free-runners are captured, equipped with exploding collars and thrust in the middle of a deadly game show for rich sadists. Casey Durkin provides Freerunner’s best moments as she explains the rules of the game in front of a non-shaky camera, then gratuitously exposes herself while saying “enjoy looking at those [breasts], boys, because they’re the last most of you are likely to see”. Hilarious… although by that time it’s easy to be desperate for nudity and cheap jokes as a way out of the film’s morass. Despite the ultra-low-budget filmmaking, terrible screenwriting, and uninspired direction, Freerunner has enough of a spark after that to keep viewers interested, although it never rises above the level of a bad film. As a parkour stunt demonstration, the occasional moments of cool are sabotaged by the direction and careless disregard for physics. The plot developments are botched, and the characters are dull enough as to disappear without trace from the story once they are too-graphically dispatched. It’s still a terrible and unpleasant film, at its best when it goes for blatant exposition and bottom-drawer humor. Even as a “cool subculture home movie”, it fails at its own objective. Watch District B13 again, instead.