Friday, February 17, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016); KING COBRA (2016); and THE CRASH (2017)

(US/China - 2016)

Philip Roth has been a lion of American literature since the 1950s, though that success hasn't always translated to the screen, with a common description of Roth's writing being "unfilmable." 1969's GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, adapted from Roth's 1959 National Book Award winner, was a critical and commercial hit that put Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw on the map. But when Benjamin was tapped to star in another Roth adaptation with 1972's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, lightning didn't strike twice and the results were so disastrous that it would be over 30 years before anyone attempted another big-screen take on Roth. Robert Benton's THE HUMAN STAIN opened to middling reviews in 2003, and Barry Levinson's THE HUMBLING (based on one of Roth's most critically panned works) only made it to a handful of theaters in 2015. Other than GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, the only Roth adaptations to receive any notable degree of acclaim were 2008's ELEGY, based on his 2001 novel The Dying Animal, and 2016's INDIGNATION. 2016 also saw the release of the long-planned AMERICAN PASTORAL, based on Roth's 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner about a well-to-do family falling into turmoil in the late 1960s. In various stages of development since 2003, filming actually began on a version in 2012 with Fisher Stevens at the helm and husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly starring, but the project fell apart and was scrapped almost immediately. It got rolling again in 2015 with some help from Chinese co-producers TIK Films, with Connelly still attached and now heading the cast with Ewan McGregor in place of Bettany, but when director Philip Noyce quit during pre-production, McGregor himself stepped in to make his directorial debut. AMERICAN PASTORAL was touted as a major 2016 awards contender but that never panned out, as the initial reviews were so overwhelmingly negative that Lionsgate bailed on the film, pulling the plug on its nationwide rollout and stalling its release at just 70 screens for a gross of $550,000.

Considering its internationally revered source novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL the film is a complete disaster, the kind of transparently phony awards bait that wears its bloated sense of self-importance on its sleeve. You can actually see the film completely collapse around the 23-minute mark, when we get our first look at stuttering 16-year-old Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning) as she's cooking burgers in the kitchen. She's having a pleasant conversation with her father Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor) when the sight of LBJ on TV provokes a profane, hysterical meltdown. She excoriates Swede and her mother Dawn (Connelly) over their upper-middle class complacence, with Swede running his dad's (Peter Riegert in cartoonish Oy, vey! mode) Newark glove factory and Dawn having her own cow pasture on their expansive property in rural Old Rimrock. When Dawn tells Merry "You're not anti-war...you're anti-everything!," Merry concludes this bug-eyed, out-of-nowhere tirade by shouting "And you're pro-cow!," spitting her burger on the floor and storming out of the house, prompting Swede to go into her bedroom to find the walls plastered with anti-war, Weather Underground-like pamphlets and flyers calling for revolution as Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" cues up on the soundtrack, modern cinema's universal sign that the times they-are-a-changin' and it's...the Sixties, man! AMERICAN PASTORAL never recovers from this jaw-droppingly awful scene, as the Levovs' cushy existence is upended when Merry becomes a fugitive after blowing up the Old Rimrock post office and killing the local mailman. This leads to endless malaise and ennui in the lives of the Jewish Swede, a high-school football legend, and the Catholic Dawn, a shiksa who was Miss New Jersey in the 1947 Miss America pageant.

McGregor and journeyman screenwriter John Romano (who's had a long career in writing for TV on everything from HILL STREET BLUES to the recent HELL ON WHEELS) cut out huge chunks of Roth's novel willy-nilly to focus on how the general sense of the Sixties, man! takes its toll on the Levovs, though they do leave in a 2002-set framing device with recurring Roth character Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) that really doesn't add anything to the story. AMERICAN PASTORAL relies on trite cliches and overwrought hysteria, with McGregor demonstrating no clue how to direct himself or his actors: Fanning's vein-popping overacting through clenched teech and flared nostrils is actually embarrassing to watch, especially since that palpable rage comes out of nowhere and wasn't present in the 12-year-old Merry we see played by a younger actress in earlier scenes. The first time we see Fanning, she's boiling with uncontrollable, shrieking fury and we don't know why. Even Connelly is terrible here, saddled with an unplayable character whose big scene has her showing up at Swede's factory, off her meds and babbling incoherently, dancing around totally nude except for her Miss New Jersey sash. At one point, a cop tells Swede "You've done everything wrong you possibly could've." I think that actor was breaking character and speaking directly to McGregor. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a botched misfire, but hey, congrats to PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT: you're no longer the worst big-screen Philip Roth adaptation. (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2016)

Though it frequently succumbs to the cliches that come with almost any post-BOOGIE NIGHTS look at the seedy underbelly of the porn world, KING COBRA shifts gears into a grim and bleak thriller that benefits from the twists and turns of the real-life events on which it's based. Based on Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway's true crime chronicle Cobra Killer: Gay Porn Murder, the film follows wide-eyed innocent Sean Paul Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) as he arrives in the relatively non-descript northeastern Pennsylvania from San Diego, intent on becoming a star for Cobra Video, a web-based gay porn production company owned by Stephen (Christian Slater). Middle-aged Stephen (a character based on Cobra Video head Bryan Kocis) is drawn to young, late-teens "twinks," and he has a particular affinity for Sean, growing extremely jealous when he shows interest in other men. Stephen directs a series of videos with Sean starring under the name "Brent Corrigan," and after a falling out when Sean begins aggressively demanding more money and objecting to Stephen's controlling attitude, the pair part ways in an acrimonious split that jeopardizes both of their careers when Sean reveals he lied about his age and was only 17 when Stephen directed his first videos. Meanwhile, Joe Kerekes (James Franco, one of 29 credited producers) and Harlow Cuadra (Keegan Allen), a pair of sketchy escorts and amateur gay porn entrepreneurs running a low-rent company called Viper Boyz, are trying to break into the big time, living way beyond their means convincing themselves that they're on the level of Cobra Video. $500,000 in debt and increasingly desperate, the unstable and manipulative Joe reaches out to "Brent" to forge a business partnership based on the "Brent Corrigan" name, but Sean isn't legally allowed to use it since Stephen had the name copyrighted as a property of Cobra Video. While Sean tries to broker a peaceful agreement with Stephen, Joe and Harlow decide to deal with it in a manner that befits their thoughtless, volatile nature: they kill Stephen and set his house on fire in a half-assed attempt to cover it up.

All of this occurred from 2004 to 2007, and other than changing the name of Slater's character, it gets all the pertinent details down, albeit a bit glossed over and rushed considering the film only runs 90 minutes. It's a rare instance of a movie that could've been improved if it ran a little longer, with some more time allotted to explore the smaller details. Writer-director Justin Kelly keeps things moving briskly and copies from the best, with much of the film having that same tense vibe as the section of BOOGIE NIGHTS where everyone's hitting bottom (Dirk hustling, Rollergirl in the limo, etc). He gets mostly strong performances from his cast, with a really skeezy Franco doing his best to channel Willem Dafoe in AUTO-FOCUS mode but sometimes going overboard, and Clayton and Allen doing solid work as the naive and, in the case of Allen's Harlow, dumb young twinks being manipulated by the older men projecting their neuroses on to them. Molly Ringwald has a small role as Stephen's wholesome, oblivious sister and if you want to feel really old, Alicia Silverstone plays Sean's mom (yes, Alicia Silverstone is 40 now). But the real standout is Slater who, between Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC and his Golden Globe-winning work on the acclaimed TV series MR. ROBOT, has very quietly been taking his career seriously again in between his frequent gig as a guest co-host on LIVE WITH KELLY. Slater sells every facet of Stephen's mercurial personality. He puts up a front for his sister and his neighbors, pretending he makes a living as a photographer at kids' birthday parties, but when it comes to Cobra Video, he stops at nothing to get what he wants. He's soft-spoken and sensitive, insanely jealous, a creepy manipulator of barely-legal boys far away from their homes, and a ruthless businessman who never hesitates to remind Sean/"Brent" that he owns him. It's a complex and fearless performance by Slater, who manages to make you feel some degree of sympathy for Stephen--he fears growing old alone and Sean did lie about his age with a very well-crafted and believable fake ID. KING COBRA has to get to the circumstances surrounding Stephen's murder, but it loses something once Slater exits the movie with about 30 minutes to go. He's so good here that you almost wonder if a more interesting film could've been made by just focusing on his Bryan Kocis-inspired character. As it is, KING COBRA is a decent film, and one of the more relatively accessible James Franco indie productions of late (more than, say, INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR., for example), and the story is so intriguing that it may leave you wanting more substantive details into the world of Cobra Video. (Unrated, 92 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2017)

A financial thriller set in the near future that plays like the 1981 flop ROLLOVER if remade by the most annoying Ron Paul supporter in your Facebook newsfeed, THE CRASH is a lecture disguised as a movie. Written and directed by Aram Rappaport, last seen watering down 2013's SYRUP, a pointless adaptation of Max Barry's scathing 1999 novel satirizing corporate marketing and branding, THE CRASH renders itself dated immediately as it assumes Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, with "Madame President" a fleetingly-seen character (played by Laurie Larson) late in the film. After cyber-terrorists hack the NYSE and threaten to bring down the global economy in 48 hours, Treasury Secretary Sarah Schwab (Mary McCormack) only sees one option: hiring master hacker and market manipulator Guy Clifton (Frank Grillo, also one of 29 credited producers) to thwart the attack. Clifton's currently facing SEC charges of hacking the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to benefit his own companies and previously hacked into the NYSE. He's somehow not in prison but he'll be granted immunity on the latest charges if he and his crack team of computer wizards and financial experts can stop the cyber attack and keep the economy stable. This mostly involves Clifton and his cohorts--sultry market analyst Amelia Rhondart (Dianna Agron), ALS-afflicted hacker George Diebold (John Leguizamo), and genius programmer Ben Collins (Ed Westwick)--spouting endless financial jargon while staring at monitors in the makeshift command center set up in Clifton's mansion. Clifton's got other things on his plate: his wife Shannon (Minnie Driver) isn't convinced this will keep him out of prison, and his 18-year-old daughter Creason (AnnaSophia Robb) is suffering from cancer and isn't responding to chemo. And she just got dumped by her secret boyfriend Ben.

THE CRASH runs just 84 minutes--and even then it's padded with super-slow-moving end credits kicking in around the 78-minute mark--yet it feels roughly three hours long. There's a way to make financial thrillers intriguing and suspenseful--BLACKHAT and the little-seen AUGUST come to mind--but Rappaport still feels the need throw in some disease-of-the-week TV-movie melodrama with Creason, and relies on too much in-your-face shaky cam, perhaps with the intention of making the viewer feel as backed-against-the-wall as Clifton, but it doesn't work. The more the film goes on, the more preachy and obvious it gets, especially with a corrupt, sneering Federal Reserve chairman named Richard Del Banco, who any seasoned moviegoer will correctly deduce is a scheming Dick from the Bank the moment they see he's being played by Christopher McDonald. By the end, with a mole inside Clifton's team planting a virus that creates a domino effect of collapsing world economies (of course, there's still time for Clifton and Ben to have a heart-to-heart and reach an understanding about dumping Creason) as "Madame President" stands around helplessly while her aides scramble and freak out, Clifton has a change of heart and just lets it fail, followed by an end crawl passive-aggressively advocating the abolishing of the Federal Reserve. Considering what I've seen of his work with SYRUP and now THE CRASH, I think the bigger priority is abolishing Aram Rappaport's DGA membership. (Unrated, 84 mins)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


(UK - 2016; US release 2017)

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Dan Basden, Jo Hartley, Tom Bennett, Andrew Brooke, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Mandeep Dhillon, Miles Chapman, Abbie Murphy, Rebecca Gethings, Nina Sosanya, Diane Morgan. (Unrated, 96 mins)

With only 12 episodes over its two series and a two-part Christmas special to wrap things up, the original UK version of THE OFFICE ran from 2001 to 2003 and didn't have a chance to wear out its welcome. Ricky Gervais doesn't seem to realize that, so now we have the feature film spinoff DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD, making its US debut as a Netflix Original after opening to lukewarm reviews in the UK last summer. Gervais and Stephen Merchant created the show, but Gervais is flying solo here, resurrecting his OFFICE character David Brent, the well-meaning but socially inept and endlessly delusional and self-aggrandizing office manager of the Slough branch of the Wernham Hogg paper company, perpetually playing to the cameras documenting the office's day-to-day activities for a BBC documentary series. It's been 13 years since the Christmas special, which found the hapless Brent trying to parlay his dubious TV documentary fame into a pop music career by blowing his severance pay on a music video for his cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now."  In the present day, Brent's still chasing that dream, taking time off from his sales rep job peddling tampons and toilet brushes for the bathroom supply company Lavichem and bringing along another documentary crew as he assembles a new version of his extremely short-lived '80s band Foregone Conclusion to go on a three week tour.

Latching himself to rapper and acquaintance Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith, also known as British rapper and comedian Doc Brown) and sound engineer Dan (Tom Basden), Brent hires a band of mercenary session guys as the original lineup of Foregone Conclusion either has family priorities, isn't interested, or in the case of the guitarist, is in jail for sexual assault. The new Foregone Conclusion wants nothing to do with Brent, who's paying them a ridiculous amount of money and has even rented a top-of-the-line tour bus even though, as Dan informs him, the gigs are all in such close proximity that would actually be easier to drive home every night rather than waste money on hotel rooms and meals. But being a clueless poseur with an ever-present white man's overbite, Brent only knows how to overdo everything. He's also completely oblivious when the band wants nothing to do with him, even banishing him from the tour bus when he boards it invoking the ancient "Whazzzzzzuppppp?" catchphrase and is told to follow the bus in his own car. The gigs are a disaster, as Foregone Conclusion repeatedly plays to almost completely empty clubs and Brent predictably manages to alienate the few people who do show up by delivering a de facto monologue about what every song means rather than just simply playing it (Coldplay frontman Chris Martin helped Gervais write most of Foregone Conclusion's songs). Other cringe-worthy moments involve him shooting an audience member in the face with a Foregone Conclusion shirt fired in close proximity from a T-shirt gun, or a culturally tone-deaf reggae tune that Dom Johnson is embarrassed to rap over, or performing a heartfelt ballad called "Please Don't Make Fun of the Disableds," The "tour" keeps Brent cashing in his pensions and maxing out his credit card, and the band holds him in such disdain that they won't even have a drink with him after the show unless they're paid for their time and he buys the drinks.

During its original run, THE OFFICE was brilliantly funny and a standard-bearer in the comedy of grueling discomfort, but all these years later, Gervais can't really do anything new with the Brent character. He's still behaving in the same fashion, and still alienating almost everyone with whom he comes into contact (though shy Pauline, a Lavichem co-worker played by Jo Hartley, obviously and inexplicably has a crush on him), usually with insensitive jokes, as when he's called into Lavichem's HR office after back-to-back cracks involving violence against women and his doing a buck-toothed "Chinaman" impression that would've been offensive in the 1940s. Other than a few bits--getting kicked off his own tour bus, falling down on stage after trying to do a "back-to-back" stage pose with the lead guitarist--David Brent simply isn't that funny anymore and Gervais is just going through the motions. We know that, despite his idiotic behavior, everyone from the band to his Lavichem co-workers will come around to appreciating him on his own terms, giving Brent a redemptive and wholly unearned feel-good ending. Gervais seems to struggle with this sort of thing when Merchant isn't around, and while his HBO series HELLO LADIES lost its way near the end of its lone season, there was enough there in its best episodes to indicate that it was perhaps Merchant who was the secret weapon behind the signature cringe success of THE OFFICE and EXTRAS. With more than a passing resemblance to THIS IS SPINAL TAP and the underrated STILL CRAZY, there's a handful of legitimate laughs to be had with DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD and to its credit, it's better than Gervais's last Netflix Original effort (the dismal SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS). But there's an undeniable "beating a dead horse" vibe to the whole thing as the writer/director/star coasts by on past glory, falling far short of recapturing that magic from a decade and a half ago.

Monday, February 13, 2017

In Theaters: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

(US/China - 2017)

Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Franco Nero, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan, Peter Stormare, Claudia Gerini, Peter Serafinowicz, Thomas Sadoski, Tobias Segal, Wass Stevens, Luca Mosca, Chukwudi Iwuji, Simone Spinazze. (R, 122 mins)

A sleeper hit in 2014, JOHN WICK was held in such ambivalent regard by Lionsgate subsidiary Summit that it almost went straight to VOD until someone decided to arrange some test screenings and the audience response was through the roof. An electrifying, non-stop action thriller about a retired assassin--an unstoppable killing machine known to those in his profession as "The Boogeyman" and "Baba Yaga"-- on a mission of vengeance when the son of a Russian crime boss steals his car and kills his dog, JOHN WICK was filled with memorable shootouts, quotable dialogue ("Oh..."), a sly sense of humor, and an almost graphic novel-like sense of imaginative world building. In this world, the assassins have accoutrements like their own gold coin currency and they stay at the Continental, a safe sanctuary where business is conducted and violence forbidden. Friends become foes and back again, and it's understood that it's "just business." But things turned personal for John Wick (Keanu Reeves): on the day after the funeral of his cancer-stricken wife (Bridget Moynahan), his car is stolen and his dog killed by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the sniveling brat son of Wick's former boss, Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Wick declares war on Tarasov and single-handedly wipes out his entire organization over the course of the film, all while dodging an endless parade of fellow assassins after the bounty placed on his head by Viggo. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 picks up shortly after where the first film left off, with Viggo's vengeful brother Abram (Peter Stormare) waiting in his secured office as his men try--and fail--to stop Wick, who's arrived at the Tarasov warehouse to reclaim his stolen car. Wick confronts Abram and spares his life, offering him a drink as a mutually agreed peace offering.

Wick's return to retirement is short-lived however, as Italian mobster Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) presents a marker--a blood oath among assassins--demanding Wick pay a debt. D'Antonio helped Wick with the final task for Viggo Tarasov that got him his freedom, and it was under the condition that he stay retired. Since he emerged from civilian life to wipe out Viggo's organization, D'Antonio declares the marker reactivated. His demand is that Wick whack his Rome-based sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who represents the Camorra on the international council of assassins, a seat D'Antonio believes he should've inherited from his late father. Wick refuses to acknowledge the marker, prompting D'Antonio to blow up his house. Under advice from Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane), Wick concedes he has no choice but to fulfill the marker if he wants any chance of returning to retirement. He travels to Italy, where he's greeted by Julius (Franco Nero), the manager of the Continental's Rome branch. Once Gianna is eliminated, Wick is double-crossed by D'Antonio, who puts out a $7 million contract on his life to create the appearance that he must avenge his sister's murder (really, Wick should've seen that coming). Once he's back in NYC, the chase is on as Wick spends the entire second half of the movie evading every covert assassin in the city--which is everyone from homeless guys to food truck vendors to street musicians--looking to grab $7 million to take out their most lethal colleague on the planet.

With a body count somewhere between "astronomical" and "fucking ridiculous," JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 exists in a patently unreal world where no cops of any kind are visible. Returning director Chad Stahelski (going solo this time, without the original's uncredited co-director David Leitch, his name left off the film by a DGA snafu) and screenwriter Derek Kolstad go for the same approach as THE RAID 2: it's the same story, just on a significantly larger and much more grandiosely ambitious scale. The set pieces are done with even more intricate, ballet-like precision, whether it's a high-tech hall of mirrors or Gianna's top security detail Cassian (Common) and Wick having a silencer shootout in the middle of a crowded subway station where no one even hears the guns going off around them. Stahelski goes for a much more stylized look this time out, with some tracking shots that serve as some of the best Kubrick homages this side of Nicolas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES. And some garish neon color schemes coupled with the staging of the action end up concocting an unholy visual fusion of Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, and John Woo. There's amusingly bizarre touches like the call center where assassins order contracts being filled with typewriters and analog equipment and looking a lot like a 1940s switchboard exchange straight out of HIS GIRL FRIDAY. This is absolutely exhilarating and gloriously bonkers filmmaking that rewards fans of the first film with numerous callbacks (there's another ominous "Oh..." from someone and we finally get to see Wick kill multiple guys with a pencil, a story that everyone who hears the name "John Wick" seems to reference), but takes everything to a higher level of inspiration and execution. Almost everyone in the cast gets a moment to shine, whether it's Nero's Julius breaking up a THEY LIVE-level brawl between Wick and Cassian, an unusually gregarious Laurence Fishburne (MATRIX reunion!) as the Bowery King, solid turns by returning JOHN WICK vets McShane and Lance Reddick as the Continental concierge, and a silent, scene-stealing performance by Ruby Rose as Ares, a mute, androgynous D'Antonio assassin who gives an almost Oscar-caliber flutter of an eye-wink to reassure her boss that she can handle Wick (spoiler: she can't). An improvement upon an already exemplary predecessor, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 takes its place beside the elite likes of THE RAID 2 and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD among the decade's greatest achievements in action cinema. It's that good.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: LIFE ON THE LINE (2016); BLACKWAY (2016); and THE BRONX BULL (2017)

(US - 2016)

A look at the life of linemen that has all the depth and insight of a Budweiser commercial, LIFE ON THE LINE is content to rely on every cliche and tired signifier imaginable. There's twangy guitars, overripe Southern accents, shitty country ballads, empty platitudes about "walking the line" and a drinking game-worthy number of times someone emphatically declares "We're linemen...this is what we do!" Inspired by a true story, LIFE ON THE LINE, which went straight to VOD after two years on the shelf, focuses on Beau Ginner, played by a fake beard precariously glued to the face of John Travolta. Beau is a tough-as-nails Texas lineman raising his niece Bailey (Kate Bosworth) after her dad (Beau's brother) was electrocuted on the job years earlier--partially due to Beau's negligence--and her mother was killed in a car crash on her way to see him at the hospital. Tragedy seems to follow the Ginners, but they persevere because...it's what they do. Beau, as we're constantly reminded, "is the best at what he does," and just wants to run his crew of hard-working good ol' boys (including Gil Bellows as someone named "Poke Chop") and get busy replacing every inch of a 30-year-old grid before storm season comes, but he's forever dealing with tie-wearing, bottom-line pencil pushers in management telling him to speed it up. He's also dealing with Bailey's relationship with Duncan (Devon Sawa), a new recruit on the line whose father died on the job, and whose mother (Sharon Stone) is now a weepy, boozy wreck who's so insignificant to the story that the screenwriters don't even give her a name (Stone, in a nothing, two-scene role that just has her cry and sit slumped in a chair passed out, is credited with playing "Duncan's mother"). Other dilemmas: Bailey's psycho ex (Matt Bellefleur), who isn't taking the breakup well; lineman transfer Eugene (Ryan Robbins), who's still suffering from military PTSD, which drives his wife (Julie Benz) to infidelity; and Beau getting plenty pissed off when Bailey tells him she's pregnant with Duncan's child.

Oh yeah, there's also a storm coming. Any dramatic tension is completely deflated by an opening caption that reads "10 days before the storm." But when that storm comes, along with a derailed train that takes out the entire grid, the film whittles the whole disaster down Beau and Duncan setting aside their differences to get the line fixed, because pregnant Bailey is in the hospital and there's no power, and, as Beau puts it, "We gotta save our girl!" LIFE ON THE LINE obviously holds its subjects in high regard, and rightly so--the film points out that it's the fourth-most dangerous job in the US--but it doesn't really tell you anything about the lineman's world. We don't learn about the job other than it's dangerous and...it's what they do. Instead, the screenwriters and director David Hackl (SAW V, INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE) deliver what looks like a lazy, made-for-TV soaper with occasional swear words where the big storm is almost an afterthought. It's cheap-looking and sloppy (two people are credited as "Co-exexutive producers"), yet there was enough money in the budget for Travolta to have two executive assistants, a personal assistant, and a production assistant. The brave people who do this work deserve better representation than the cardboard cutout characters on display here. Save yourself an hour and a half and just listen to Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" a few times instead. For all the reverence and hero worship on display in LIFE ON THE LINE, you'd think the filmmakers would commit to creating slightly complex characters and portraying an accurate representation of this work, but unlike the linemen, they fall down on the job. I guess that's...what they do. (R, 98 mins)

(US - 2016)

Released on 11 screens and VOD with no publicity at all, BLACKWAY is a gray and gloomy non-thriller whose only surprise is the low level of urgency with which it plods to its conclusion. It plays as if Swedish director Daniel Alfredson--who directed THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, the two markedly inferior sequels to the original Swedish version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO--left out significant chunks of the script, written by Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. Gangemi and Jacobs are the guys behind the 2007 cult horror film WIND CHILL and the acclaimed Amazon series RED OAKS, and Jacobs is also a Steven Soderbergh protege who served as an assistant director on several of his films before graduating to 2015's MAGIC MIKE XXL. Whether Alfredson's streak of mediocrity continued or it just caught Gangemi and Jacobs on a bad day, BLACKWAY ends up being one of the dullest thrillers of 2016. Moving from Seattle back to the Pacific Northwest logging town of her childhood following the death of her mother, Lillian (Julia Stiles) goes to the sheriff (Dale Wilson) for help after her cat is brutally murdered. She knows the culprit is Richard Blackway (Ray Liotta), an ex-deputy turned white trash crime lord and all-around bad guy. Blackway's been stalking Lillian and the sheriff isn't in any hurry to do anything about it, instead recommending she go talk to Whizzer (Hal Holbrook), the cantankerous old mill owner who may know a guy brave enough to confront Blackway. When that guy chickens out, one of Whizzer's employees, elderly Lester (Anthony Hopkins) volunteers himself and slow-witted, stuttering new hire Nate (Alexander Ludwig) to help Lillian find Blackway. This essentially involves going all around town and having Lester repeatedly ask "Where's Blackway?" with everyone denying they've seen him or know his whereabouts. Blackway rules the town, and things escalate when Lester and Nate start a fire at a motel on the outskirts of town that's been commandeered by Blackway as the base for his gunrunning, meth-dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking operation. Simply put, Blackway is a real asshole.

It's obvious Lester has personal reasons for going after Blackway (all he says is "It needs to be done"), though even after they're explained, the reasoning still seems muddled. Nate just goes along for the ride while Lillian's character makes no sense at all. If she grew up in this town (on numerous occasions, she states "I grew up here!") where everyone knows everybody, why doesn't anyone know her? If she grew up in this town, why doesn't she know who Blackway is before he starts stalking her? Who is Blackway? What's his story? Was he kicked out of the sheriff's department? Did he run his crime operation while on duty? How did he take over the town? Do Gangemi and Jacobs know? Does Alfredson care? There's really not much to say about BLACKWAY. The kind of inconsequential time-killer that you may very well forget about while it's in progress, it drags ass and the story goes nowhere, failing as both a thriller and a character piece. Hopkins, who also starred in Alfredson's equally forgettable KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN and is becoming a regular in crummy VOD thrillers like this, MISCONDUCT (also with Stiles) and SOLACE, is visibly bored and looks half-asleep, while a short-fused Liotta is basically doing the same act he does on NBC's SHADES OF BLUE. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2017)

Exhibiting the kind of shameless chutzpah that gave us EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK, THE BRONX BULL began life as RAGING BULL II when it was initially announced way back in 2006. It was still called RAGING BULL II when cameras began rolling in 2012, which prompted a lawsuit from MGM that kept it in embroiled in legal hassles until the producers agreed to change the title. Shelved for five years and now known as THE BRONX BULL, the film was finally given a VOD dumping in January 2017 before its Blu-ray release a month later. Other than it being a story about Jake LaMotta made with the legendary boxer's blessing, the comparisons to Martin Scorsese's 1980 classic end there. Perhaps attempting to create a GODFATHER PART II-style bookend to Scorsese's film, THE BRONX BULL focuses on LaMotta's teen years in the 1930s (where he's played by Mojean Aria) and the years after what's covered in Scorsese's film, from 1967 to the present day (95-year-old LaMotta is still with us). William Forsythe plays the older LaMotta, and he's fine actor (THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) who's spent too much of his career paying the bills with B-movies, so it's easy to see why he jumped at the chance for a lead role, even if he probably rolled his eyes when he saw the script was called RAGING BULL II, a title only slightly more credible than The Asylum's TITANIC 2. After we see young Jake's tumultuous relationship with his demanding and often abusive father (Paul Sorvino, doing a bad Rod Steiger impression), he ends up in juvenile detention where he's mentored in boxing by a kindly priest (Ray Wise). Cut to years later, after he's retired (hey, nothing like a boxing biopic that skips over the boxing!), his latest wife (Natasha Henstridge) leaves him, and he's being threatened into working as a strongarm for low-level mobsters Tony (Tom Sizemore) and Jerry (Mike Starr). He's also involved in the schemes of his fast-talking filmmaker pal Rick Rosselli (Joe Mantegna), a character probably based on RAGING BULL co-producer Peter Savage. Rosselli is directing amateur porn films but wants to go legit, and ends up making a low-budget drive-in movie called CAULIFLOWER CUPIDS, in which LaMotta stars with Jane Russell (played here by a far-too-young Dahlia Waingort) and Rocky Graziano (James Russo).

Released in 1970, CAULIFLOWER CUPIDS was a real movie, and with LaMotta's involvement in the production, a lot of what transpires in THE BRONX BULL is probably legit (like RAGING BULL, it's not afraid to present its hero in a negative fashion). But NATIONAL LAMPOON'S CATTLE CALL and BENEATH THE DARKNESS director Martin Guigui's first name is about all he has in common with Scorsese. The finished film, almost Uwe Boll-esque in its amateurish execution and squandering of its overqualified cast, is so haphazardly assembled and so lacking in any momentum that it really just ends up being a collection of  random vignettes from Jake LaMotta's post-boxing life. His grown daughter Lisa shows up for a couple of scenes, but other than giving Forsythe a chance to share the screen with his own daughter Rebecca, she has no purpose. Most of the slumming names in the large cast drop by for just a scene or two: there's also Penelope Ann Miller as another Mrs. LaMotta, with Cloris Leachman as her mother; Harry Hamlin as an earlier wife's boss who gets threatened by LaMotta ("You tappin' my wife?!") after he sees them having a business lunch; Bruce Davison as a politician overseeing a committee on the mob's involvement in boxing (that storyline vanishes); Dom Irrera as comedian Joe E. Lewis; Alicia Witt as the most recent LaMotta wife; Joe Cortese as a NYC talk show host; and Robert Davi as a mystery figure who appears to a drunk LaMotta, and may or may not be real. No one here is at the top of their career (though, given his starring role in the popular, long-running CBS procedural CRIMINAL MINDS, it's surprising that Mantegna didn't have better things to do), and while nobody is overtly awful--Forsythe basically acts like Forsythe with a putty nose--it's hard to feel sorry for any of them when they knowingly signed on to an obviously suspect litigation-magnet called RAGING BULL II. Did they really think that title was gonna fly? Looking like a corner-cutting TV show (all of the exteriors appear to be shot on the same street on the NBC Studios backlot), the low-budget THE BRONX BULL started out as a cheap and dubious Scorsese knockoff and that's exactly how it finishes. (R, 94 mins)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Retro Review: FUTURE HUNTERS (1986)

(US/Philippines - 1986; US release 1989)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by J.L. Thompson. Cast: Robert Patrick, Linda Carol, Richard Norton, Ed Crick, Bob Schott, David Light, Paul Holmes, Peter Silton, Ursula Marquez, Elizabeth Oropesa, Bruce Le, Wang Chang Lee. (Unrated, 100 mins)

While Filipino exploitation auteur Cirio H. Santiago is best known for his association with Roger Corman from the 1970s until his death in 2008, he frequently branched out and worked on his own. Some of the better-known non-Corman Santiago films include THE MUTHERS (1976), VAMPIRE HOOKERS (1978), DEATH FORCE, aka FIGHTING MAD (1978), and FINAL MISSION (1984). Perhaps the craziest Santiago joint away from Corman is 1986's FUTURE HUNTERS, where the filmmaker basically goes for broke, throwing every big Hollywood action/adventure genre from the period into one ambitious mash-up before anyone knew what a genre mash-up was. Perhaps more than anything, FUTURE HUNTERS is Santiago trying to make his own version of a Cannon/Golan-Globus production. Its dumb plot and nearly nonstop action could've worked for any Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff adventure outing; its rousing score by Ron Jones (who went on to write music for FAMILY GUY), divides its time between mimicking cues from Jerry Goldsmith's KING SOLOMON'S MINES score and something more synth and drum machine-based that does its best to invoke Gary Chang or Jay Chattaway; and its 100-minute running time matches the typical Cannon genre production to the minute. Alas, without a bottom-line guy like Corman to oversee things, Santiago indulges himself a bit too much. Even with a jam-packed plot and a shitload of action, FUTURE HUNTERS somehow manages to drag a bit. A lot of this is due to Santiago letting shots run longer than necessary and not trimming the fat elsewhere. In his quest to showcase every action subgenre he could in a single movie, Santiago somehow lets the pace slack. Had this been done under the Concorde banner instead of Vestron offshoot Lightning Pictures, Corman would've had this thing down to 80 minutes and it would've been perfect. As it is, it's stupidly entertaining in all the right ways, but it really could stand to lose 15 or 20 minutes.

Opening in the year 2025, 40 years after "The Holocaust" turned the world into a post-nuke wasteland, marauding, Mad Max-like hero Matthew (Richard Norton) is the last survivor of a group of renegade warriors who have ventured into the Forbidden Zone to find the head of the Spear of Longinus. The Holy Lance, which pierced the body of Christ on the cross, holds within it the power of creation, and with that the ability to turn back time. Matthew hopes to retrieve it and go back 40 years to prevent the Holocaust, with Wez-esque despotic madman Zaar (David Light) in pursuit. Matthew is transported back to 1986 but is badly wounded right beforehand. Before he dies, he hands off the spearhead to vacationing couple Michelle (Linda Carol) and Slade (a debuting Robert Patrick). So begins an adventure through every genre that pops into the heads of Santiago and screenwriter J.L. Thompson (probably a pseudonym for someone, and erroneously listed as veteran director J. Lee Thompson on IMDb). FUTURE HUNTERS is primarily a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK ripoff with the globe-trotting search for an ancient artifact, as Michelle and an incredulous Slade attempt to find the actual Spear of Longinus in order to reattach the spearhead and thus, prevent the approaching nuclear holocaust. But it dabbles in Santiago's familiar post-nuke wheelhouse before Norton's Matthew is killed off shortly after the prologue. Then the RAIDERS plot kicks in, then they're off to Asia where Slade meets an old buddy Liu (kung-fu second-stringer Bruce Le) and it becomes a Shaolin martial arts movie for ten minutes as Liu has an extended fight scene with powerful Silverfox (Wang Chang Lee, aka Jang Lee Hwang). Then it's back to RAIDERS as Slade and Michelle are confronted by Bauer (Bob Schott of GYMKATA), the chief henchman of modern-day Nazi Fielding (Ed Crick) who wants the spear in his quest to bring about a new Nazi uprising. Before long, they're a lost in the jungle for a brief segue into ROMANCING THE STONE before they encounter a dwarf tribe played by the same group of little people who play similar roles in all of Santiago's post-nukes, only this time it's a blatant riff on the RETURN OF THE JEDI Ewoks, That detour sends them to a group of Amazon warrior women, one of whom Michelle must battle over a crocodile pit in order to obtain the spear, attach the head, and save the world.

For such a wild plot, FUTURE HUNTERS could have some more spring in its step. Santiago pads a lot of the running time with overlong establishing shots and hanging on to some shots much longer than needed. Still, watching him rip off every '80s blockbuster in sight (you can even say there's some BACK TO THE FUTURE in Matthew's story) is ambitious and pretty ballsy on such a fairly low budget. Though the film was released in the Philippines in 1986, it didn't turn up in the US until its straight-to-video debut in 1989. Though he appeared in several films after, FUTURE HUNTERS marked Patrick's debut and he's a pretty engaging smartass hero, and he's clearly doing a lot of his own strenuous stunt work. Prior to making his impact in pop culture history with his role as the T-1000 in 1991's TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, Patrick got his start in Santiago's Filipino B-movies after he auditioned in L.A. for the Roger Corman production WARLORDS FROM HELL and, according to WARLORDS director Clark Henderson on the Blu-ray special features for Santiago's WHEELS OF FIRE, "it was obvious to all of us that he was a better actor than everyone else in the room." Corman farmed Patrick out to Santiago, who took an instant liking to the young actor and gave him the lead role in FUTURE HUNTERS, as well as his Vietnam actioner BEHIND ENEMY LINES (1988), along with supporting roles in other Philippines-shot, Santiago-directed Corman productions like EQUALIZER 2000 and EYE OF THE EAGLE (both 1987). Though he realizes the movies were junk, Patrick, who has never stopped working since FUTURE HUNTERS, has always looked back on his time with Corman and Santiago with appreciation, grateful for his first big break and for the experience, as well as for meeting his BEHIND ENEMY LINES co-star Barbara Hooper, another Corman ingenue loaned out to Santiago in the late '80s. They hit it off during during production of BEHIND ENEMY LINES and have been married since 1990.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE TAKE (2016) and ANTIBIRTH (2016)

(France/US/UK - 2016)

A relentlessly fast-paced actioner that should please fans of the BOURNE series and the post-TAKEN Eurothriller, THE TAKE was originally titled BASTILLE DAY in France, where its release was delayed once by a November 2015 terrorist attack. It then opened in French cinemas on July 13, 2016 but was pulled three days later out of respect for the victims of the next day's Bastille Day bombing in Nice. Universal genre offshoot High Top Releasing acquired it for the US and retitled it THE TAKE, but didn't give it much of a rollout, topping out at 100 screens in November 2016. It should find an audience on Blu-ray and eventual streaming services, as it's as commercial a thriller as can be, directed in a very welcome coherent fashion by James Watkins, whose credits include the horror films EDEN LAKE (2008) and THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012) as well as the recent BLACK MIRROR episode "Shut Up and Dance," and he scripted the forgettable sequel THE DESCENT PART 2 (2009). THE TAKE is anchored by a steely, badass Idris Elba as Sean Briar, a lone-wolf, plays-by-his-own-rules CIA agent based in Paris, where he's the loose cannon on a counter-terrorism team investigating a recent bombing that killed four people. The bomb, stuffed into a teddy bear inside a shopping bag, was supposed to be planted at the Nationalist Party headquarters by Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon), a willing accomplice of Jean (Arieh Worthalter), who promised her no one would be in the building. Zoe aborted the mission when she saw members of the janitorial staff on the premises, and before she had a chance to throw the bag into the river, it's swiped by Michael Mason (Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark on GAME OF THRONES), an American con man and master pickpocket who's been hard at work in Paris fencing wallets, watches, and phones for shady pawnbroker Baba (FEMME FATALE's Eriq Ebouaney). Seeing nothing of value, Mason tosses the bag with some trash outside an apartment building and it blows up seconds later. Security camera footage and surveillance photos pinpoint him as the bomber, which sends Briar, Interpol, and French intelligence in hot pursuit. A cat and mouse game ensues, with Briar and Mason eventually joining forces...if they don't kill each other first!...along with the duped Zoe when it becomes apparent that the bombing was instigated by a group of rogue Paris cops with the intent of blaming the attack on a nearby mosque, creating a protest and a riot as a distraction for a Bastille Day heist of the French National Reserve Bank.

THE TAKE doesn't deviate very far from the formulaic as these things go, but Watkins does a very solid job of handling the double and triple crosses and the crackerjack action and chase sequences. It's not too difficult to figure out the real bad guy who's orchestrating all the mayhem and you'll be able to spot which character may as well be wearing a sign reading "Dead Meat" the moment they go to inform that person of the information they've discovered. But formula works when everyone's on point, and THE TAKE, despite its original French release being affected by horrific, real-life tragedies on two occasions, is terrific entertainment when taken its own escapist terms. And, at 92 minutes, it's smart enough to not overstay its welcome. A lot of its success is due to an absolutely riveting Elba, an actor whose name is constantly mentioned as a potential James Bond, and THE TAKE proves he'd be up to the task. Despite the lack of support from High Top, who opted to spend more money marketing the flop horror film INCARNATE instead, THE TAKE would've easily been a modest, mid-level hit in US multiplexes. (R, 92 mins)

(US/Canada - 2016)

If you can picture BREAKING BAD reimagined as a David Cronenberg-inspired body horror film by GUMMO-era Harmony Korine, then you sort-of have an idea of what to expect with the aggressively unpleasant and off-putting-by-design ANTIBIRTH, but even that description doesn't cover everything. Writer/director Danny Perez has a lot of ideas and inspiration, but he's unable to streamline them into a coherent, consistent vision. As a result, ANTIBIRTH is all over the place, with plot tangents dealing in urban and rural blight, substance abuse, human trafficking, a kidnapped child, secret military experiments, alien beings, and space colonization, culminating in a spirited gross-out finale that's part XTRO and part SOCIETY. In a desolate and depressing small town that's home to a small military base in nowhere Michigan, hard-partying Lou (Natasha Lyonne) blacks out and starts showing signs of pregnancy, even though she swears to her best friend Sadie (Chloe Sevigny) that she hasn't had sex in months. As her belly swells from the accelerated pregnancy, she doesn't give up her ways, still partying, drinking and drugging to excess, living off her dad's military pension and picking up shifts cleaning rooms at a shitty local motel when she needs spending money. Meanwhile, sinister dealer Gabriel (Mark Webber) has obtained an experimental drug and had his flunky Warren (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) give it to Lou without her knowledge, the end result being the accelerated pregnancy. The drug was given to Gabriel by Isaac (Neville Edwards), a shadowy black-ops figure who occasionally pops into view. As Lou refuses to take her predicament seriously, she makes the acquaintance of the seemingly spacy Lorna (Meg Tilly, in her first theatrical feature since 1994's SLEEP WITH ME), a retired Army vet who babbles incessantly but starts to make sense when she talks of experimental drugs being used on unwitting women, space exploration, and contact with alien life forms.

Well, "makes sense" is a relative term as far as Perez's script goes. There's at least six potential movies that could've been made of any one of ANTIBIRTH's wildly disparate plot lines, but Perez opts to mash them all together and let the goopy body parts splat where they may. For much of its first hour, it seems like Perez is trying to go for some kind of metaphor about urban decay and the epidemic of rampant drug abuse in economically depressed areas. A lot of the scenes between offscreen friends Lyonne and Sevigny have an aimless, improvisational feel that recalls Korine or Gus Van Sant in one of his periodic experimental projects like ELEPHANT or LAST DAYS. It's not a very smooth shift when the horror starts, whether it's the oozing, grossout mess of Lou slicing open a huge blister on her foot or being shocked by an electric jolt from a TV in an effect that would've looked dated in an '80s Empire production like TERRORVISION. It's obvious Perez came up with the climax first and struggled to construct a movie to attach to it, and there's so many dangling plot threads that he completely loses track of Sadie and her kid, who we never heard about until he's referenced in a throwaway line by Gabriel ("You want your kid back, don't you? Is he even gonna recognize you?") and then never mentioned again. Sadie just vanishes from the movie, and Lorna unceremoniously exits offscreen. Lyonne gives it her all in a fearless performance, and it's nice to see Tilly again, and while she's done some sporadic TV work in recent years after taking the latter half of the '90s and the entire '00s off (she resurfaced in 2010 on two episodes of CAPRICA, and on the two-season Canadian TV series BOMB GIRLS), it's hard to see what it was about ANTIBIRTH that prompted her to end a 22-year big-screen sabbatical. (Unrated, 94 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Monday, February 6, 2017

In Theaters: THE COMEDIAN (2016)

(US/UK/China - 2016)

Directed by Taylor Hackford. Written by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman. Cast: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Patti Lupone, Lucy DeVito, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith. (R, 120 mins)

It's pretty ballsy of Robert De Niro to attempt comedy in the same year he gave us the unspeakable DIRTY GRANDPA, but THE COMEDIAN (given a very limited Oscar-eligibility run in December 2016 but only now rolling out nationwide) is a project he and producer/co-writer Art Linson have had in various stages of development for nearly a decade. If there's a sense of familiarity to the end result, it's coming from a couple of different directions: De Niro already tackled stand-up comedy decades ago in Martin Scorsese's 1983 cult classic THE KING OF COMEDY, and the whole idea of following a working, schlepping stand-up has been seen over several seasons of Louis C.K.'s revered FX series LOUIE. Hell, there's even a scene of De Niro walking down the street and shaking hands with the door guy as he walks down into the entrance of the Comedy Cellar, almost straight out of LOUIE's opening credits. All that's missing is a revamped theme song that goes "Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, Bobbbbyyyyyy!"

De Niro is Jackie Burke, a 67-year-old shock comic best known for a MARRIED WITH CHILDREN-style sitcom he did in the 1980s called EDDIE'S HOME, where he played a working-class blowhard cop named Eddie, as crass as Al Bundy and with his own catchphrase he always shouted to his wife: "Arleeeeeeene!" Now scraping by doing nostalgia gigs in rinky-dink clubs where he shares the bill with Brett Butler and Jimmie Walker (a ton of stand-up luminaries young and old appear in cameos as themselves). Jackie is confronted in mid-act by heckling fan demanding he shout his catchphrase. A scuffle ensues resulting in Jackie decking the guy and the whole thing is caught on cell phone video and goes viral. After refusing to apologize to the guy in court, he's sentenced to 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. Once he's out, he spends his community service hours at a NYC soup kitchen where he befriends Harmony (Leslie Mann), who's also spending court-appointed time after assaulting her philandering boyfriend and his other girlfriend. Harmony is desperately trying to find a place for herself after spending most of her adult life screwing up and blowing opportunities, and wants to get out from under the thumb of her wealthy, mob-connected father Mac Schiltz (Harvey Keitel), refusing his offer to buy her out of her sentence with a judge friend and move down to his Florida home. Instead, she bonds with Jackie and a tentative romance blossoms as Jackie tries to rebuild his career, which is stuck in an endless rut: even though his fellow stand-ups revere him for his stage act, all any TV execs and fans on the street want from him is "Eddie" and his stupid catchphrase.

Considering he probably can't go a day without someone quipping "You talkin' to me?" to him, there's a lot of De Niro in Jackie as everyone he encounters demands he give them an "Arleeeeeene!" But THE COMEDIAN stumbles where it matters most: De Niro's stand-up bits as Jackie just aren't funny. Often, they're cringe-inducing in a bad way and too reliant not just on playing blue but going for that same kind of pointless raunch and childishly scatalogical way that torpedoed DIRTY GRANDPA. Is this a De Niro thing? Is this his sense of humor? Is Jackie playing to a crowd of seniors in a retirement home and changing the words of "Makin' Whoopee!" to "Makin' Poopie!" supposed to be funny? Considering Jackie's status as a legend among his peers (Jim Norton, after another Jackie video blows up online: "You're more viral than Charlie Sheen!"), his routine is pretty hacky, whether he's entertaining the homeless at the shelter or cracking gay and Jewish jokes at his niece's (Lucy DeVito) wedding to her same-sex partner, an act that includes one-liners about collecting the semen of homeless guys and doesn't go over well with Jackie's long-suffering brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito) and his shrewish wife Flo (Patti Lupone). While the stage bits tank, there's other pleasures to be had with THE COMEDIAN: it's great to see De Niro and DeVito busting each others' balls in their scenes together, and it's always a welcome sight to see De Niro and Keitel onscreen together, especially when Jackie talks about wanting to "bang the shit out of" Harmony and calls Mac "Pops."

Director Taylor Hackford and the screenwriters (among them Linson, journeyman Richard LaGravenese, and "Roastmaster General" Jeff Ross) take the story down an admirably dark detour when Jackie's long-suffering manager (Edie Falco) gets him a spot on the dais at a Friars Club roast of the beloved, 95-year-old Betty White-like screen and TV legend May Miller (Cloris Leachman) and she drops dead in the middle of his turn at the mic ("I didn't even get to my best lines!" Jackie grumbles). Terence Blanchard's melancholy jazz score combined with the location work in a Manhattan where it's constantly raining and gray does a wonderful job of conveying the sense of gloom and desperation Jackie feels over his career, with Hackford really succeeding in creating a very authentic "New York City" feel that makes the city an actual character in the story, and that's something you don't see much of these days. Likewise with the setting, there's also occasions where it has somewhat of a Woody Allen mix of comedy and drama going on, especially with the romantic pairing of 73-year-old De Niro and 44-year-old Mann. THE COMEDIAN has genuine affection for the world of the working comedian, and the roster of cameos is impressive--Norton (who served as a technical adviser), Butler, Walker, Hannibal Buress, Nick DiPaolo, Billy Crystal, Richard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Stewie Stone, and Freddie Roman among others can be spotted--but Jackie's routines just don't cut it, even though the audience and everyone else within earshot are always doubled over with laughter. De Niro nails the body language, the stage presence, and the mannerisms of a veteran stand-up, but his act sounds like stuff that didn't make the cut of DIRTY GRANDPA (jokes about jerking off, pulling out, making the cunnilingus gesture at May, etc), and the improbably feel-good ending is just lazy. There's a charming, insightful film that manages to make its presence known throughout THE COMEDIAN, but the comedy doesn't hold up its end of the bargain