Well, it had to happen eventually. After over fifty instalments of This Week on Demand, having been through all those many highs and lows, we come at last to a batch of new releases in which I can’t find a single film to expressly recommend. That’s distressing enough a fact in itself; what’s worse—far worse—is that this latest pool of additions gives us for the first time yet an unwatchable hat trick: three films so bad they make the bottom of the barrel look like the very heights of heaven. It’s good fortune, then, that Netflix chose this week to drop more tantalising teasers for the upcoming Arrested Development revival, with El Amor Prohibido, Homeless Dad, Love, Indubitably, Junk, and Franklin Comes Alive all “added” to the catalogue this week as delicious early Easter eggs for the show’s fans. And so, on that note, I hereby proclaim Arrested Development my pick of the week. I don’t care that it’s not new; it’s a damn site better than anything you’ll find below.
Deadfall (Read our full review)
Following the Oscar-winning success of 2007’s The Counterfeiters, Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky makes his English language debut with Deadfall, casting Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde as siblings on the lam who part ways when their getaway car flips on a snowy bank. Penned by first-time writer Zach Dean, it’s a largely ineffective story courtesy of its lax characterisation, Wilde in particular entirely wasted. Ruzowitzky, for his part, renders the drama in a reckonable visual framework, his camera capturing the wintry wilderness with stylish flourish and enticing the eye where the plot itself can’t hope to do the same for the brain. Despite a strong supporting turn from Sissy Spacek and occasional moments of elation, Deadfall finds only staleness in Dean’s script, his obsession with parental issues—most pitifully seen in a subplot as dreadful as it is irrelevant—making it seem little more than the work of a disillusioned teen. SO-SO.
Girl Walks Into a Bar
An interesting example of changing distribution trends, Girl Walks Into a Bar’s PR people excessively pushed the film as the “First Major Motion Picture Created Specifically for Web Distribution”; presented by Lexus, the film premiered exclusively on YouTube in 2011, viewable in full or in ten shorter sequences more befitting of online viewing habits. This distribution-tailored production is the film’s greatest drawback, its necessarily episodic manner doing the narrative a disservice as writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez hops from bar to bar across one night in LA, enacting a story of planned assassination and double-crossings. A strong cast featuring Zachary Quinto, Danny DeVito, and Roasario Dawson beings Gutierrez’s snappy dialogue to life, his genuinely funny exchanges—though peaking in the opening scene—making the movie a consistently witty experience throughout. The comedy doesn’t always work, but enough of it does to make Girl Walks Into a Bar an appreciable treat. WORTH WATCHING.
Gun Hill Road
Another film greatly impacted by its distribution, Gun Hill Road found itself tied up in the bankruptcy of Motion Film Group. Now accessible to the public after a successful festival run and a handful of theatrical releases two years ago, writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s debut emerges as an earnest exploration of prejudice, its story of an ex-con who returns from prison to find his transgender son in the earliest stages of sex change an interesting template through to explore the issues of masculinity and acceptance at the film’s core. The problem is that it never progresses far beyond template, Esai Morales’ father character a well-played but ill-defined stereotype and the narrative structure too adherent to formula to make quite the impact it should. Salvation comes in the form of Harmony Santana, whose breathtaking turn as Michael/Vanessa contributes an emotional intensity to overcome the story’s more staid aspects of execution. WORTH WATCHING.
Best described as Creature from the Black Lagoon meets The Thing, at least nominally, Hypothermia is a DTV effort lacking the excitement or surprise of either of those films, its underwhelming efforts at scares as uninspired as they are ineffective. Following a family on an ice fishing expedition, it does reasonably well to form a dramatic framework about them, the adult son’s decision to move to Africa with his girlfriend contributing a reasonable atmosphere of familial tension, ably aided by the work of Michael Rooker as the patriarch. It’s once the monster arrives that things lose traction, its pitiful appearance more amusing than horrifying, the threat it poses never fully made palpable. It hardly helps that writer/director James Felix McKenney invokes Jaws, his poster and dialogue both directly referencing Spielberg’s immortal genre classic and reminding us precisely what it had that Hypothermia, try as it might, never comes close to. AVOID IT.
A predominantly dramatic retelling of the late-life rise to power of Chinese warlord Cao Cao, The Assassins takes the traditionally ill-reputed figure and imagines him as a man on whose shoulders death weighs heavy. Played with an alluring aura of solemnity by Chow Yun-Fat, he grounds an often fantastical tale of power plays and grand combat, the film twice turning to spectacular battle sequences that explode with admirable energy. Less successful, perhaps, is the character of Gong Ling Ju, a secretly trained orphan who becomes one of Cao Cao’s mistresses with the intent of killing him in revenge for her slaughtered parents. Scripted by Bin Wang—who counts among his credits Hero and House of Flying Daggers—the film fails to make adequate use of her character, nor of the conflict between Cao Cao and his son. Appealing for its action, less so for its drama, The Assassins is an entertaining historical tale, if not an entirely satisfying one. WORTH WATCHING.
The Grand Theft
Opening on a confused and confusing scene of Robert Loggia demanding to see his son, The Grand Theft never in the course of its runtime returns to or at all contextualises this sequence. Surely the first of a series of self-parodical in this satirical take on the movie business, it suffers—like the rest of the film—from being utterly unfunny on any level whatsoever. It’s evident that each of the characters in the story, that of a producer hearing pitches for his next no-budget movie, represents an aspect of director Ken Del Vecchio’s Justice for All Productions, which could conceivably work as the basis of a movie-long gag if it was actually a name known to anyone. Bearing a nugget of intrigue in its basic premise, the greatest compliment the film can be paid is that it’s not the worst movie ever made, for all the seeming efforts of its rampant sexism, racism, and crimes against comedy. UNWATCHABLE.
Indulging in the very worst of his overwrought intellectual academic persona, James Franco pays a favour to NYU acting teacher Jay Anania in The Letter, which could hardly do more to suggest the director as heinously unqualified for his day job. Led by Winona Ryder as a playwright who begins to lose sight of the boundary between reality and fiction, the cast is universally terrible in this infuriatingly empty thriller, the kind of vacuous tosh that gives art cinema a bad name. Filled with cuts to Franco moving his eyebrows while looking as bored as the audience will invariably become, it’s poorly shot as well as maddeningly underwritten, the basic kernel of an idea contained within the conceit buried beneath mountains of nonsense communicated in aggravating voiceover and a laughable end reveal that demonstrates just how clueless this experimental approach really is. Rarely are films this interminably dull; The Letter is hideously bad, and everyone involved knows it. UNWATCHABLE.
The Life Zone
Remember when I said that nobody had heard of Del Vecchio’s production house? Here’s why. A catastrophically misjudged thriller, The Life Zone sees three women awaken in a strange medical facility, unsure of how or why they came to be there. Eventually addressed by video call with a mysterious man, played by Robert Loggia—this time quite literally phoning in his performance; we can only imagine what Del Vecchio has on the poor man—they come to learn that they have been kidnapped from their respective abortion clinics by pro-life activists, who will supervise them until their babies are born. The filmmakers are evidently as insane as the characters whose stories they tell, the movie unfolding as a disquieting conservative fantasy that expounds arguments so inane even those sharing its views will be offended. Add to the mix abhorrent production values and a cast whose highlight’s previous work includes Playboy modelling, and you should have some idea how far you should stay from this atrocity. UNWATCHABLE.