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On Blu-ray/DVD: UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2 (2019), AMERICAN DREAMER (2019) and POLAROID (2019)

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UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2
(US - 2019)


Universal's 1440 DTV division is back with another belated sequel nobody was waiting for with UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2. A modest hit in the summer of 2002, the combination blaxploitation/Bond spoof UNDERCOVER BROTHER was based on an animated internet series created by John Ridley, who also wrote the script and would go on to win an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Ridley obviously has better things to do than this sequel, as does everyone else associated with the first film--not just Dave Chappelle, a standout as Conspiracy Brother, but also stars Eddie Griffin and Chris Kattan, neither of whom have been burdened with busy schedules in recent years. UNDERCOVER BROTHER remains in regular rotation on cable, and one thing it likely had a hand in inspiring was the 2009 cult classic BLACK DYNAMITE, a pitch-perfect homage to blaxploitation that gave Michael Jai White the greatest role of his career. And that's what makes UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2's existence all the more pointless, because White has been hired to replace Griffin in the title role, and as enjoyable as UNDERCOVER BROTHER was, it's a safe bet that everyone--White included--would rather have a BLACK DYNAMITE 2 than this. Making things even worse is that Undercover Brother spends most of this sequel in a coma after he and his tag-along, dog-grooming kid brother Lionel (Vince Swann) are frozen in ice when the nefarious The Man (Barry Bostwick) triggers an avalanche after they track him down at his secret headquarters in Austria. Cut to 16 years later, and the pair are discovered by a climber due to melting ice caps. While Undercover Brother remains hospitalized, Lionel--aka "Undercover Brother's Brother"--joins the secret agency known as The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to lead the search for the long-missing The Man, who never fulfilled his master plan of black mind control via fried chicken, menthol cigarettes, and orange soda. The Man's gay son Manson (Steven Lee Johnson) has taken over his father's organization and is using Resistance Brew, an overpriced fair trade coffee chain, as a front to flood hip, gentrified enclaves with a powerful street drug called Woke, which can cause hooked users to become petty, hypersensitive, and judgmental.





There's some undeniable potential in the script, co-written by Stephen Mazur, whose credits include other illustrious DTV sequels like WITHOUT A PADDLE: NATURE'S CALLING, JINGLE ALL THE WAY 2, and BENCHWARMERS 2: BREAKING BALLS. But UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2 is a borderline unwatchable fiasco, even by the lowered standards of a Universal 1440 sequel. Super-woke hipsters are an easy target, but this film never finds a funny way to skewer the subject or mine any real laughs from Lionel being frozen for 16 years (he can't believe Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince are dead, or that Donald Trump is president). Much of this is a direct result of the grating, shamelessly mugging Swann, who equates being loud with being funny, and whose idea of a screen persona is to be young Will Smith, RUSH HOUR-era Chris Tucker (even stealing the "Do you understand the words that are comin' outta my mouth?!" line), and the least-talented member of the Wayans family all rolled into one. The film is so sloppily directed by Leslie Small (HAIR SHOW) that no one bothered to pay any attention to the continuity of Lionel's hi-top fade, which drastically changes from scene to scene, along with his earring that appears and disappears throughout. Swann is absolutely atrocious, but nobody fares well here. Bostwick, looking like Mitt Romney as the Frankenstein monster, is saddled with the most embarrassing role of his career, at one point even spooning with a blow-up doll. But the real bullshit is leaving White sidelined for 75% of the movie, lying in a hospital bed or occasionally appearing as an apparition to guide his little brother until he eventually returns for the climactic raid on The Man's new stronghold. White gets the only amusing lines, and they sound more BLACK DYNAMITE than UNDERCOVER BROTHER ("I'd launch a full-scale investigation...into those titties"). In a perfect world, BLACK DYNAMITE would've catapulted Michael Jai White to mainstream stardom and eliminated his need to star in movies as bad as UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2, much less cynically coasting through on his status a B-movie cult hero when he only has a glorified cameo. C'mon, man. (R, 85 mins)


AMERICAN DREAMER
(US - 2019)


It's occasionally overwrought and contrived, but the grim indie AMERICAN DREAMER--shot in Norfolk, VA and partially financed by Old Dominion University--establishes a certain level of cringe-worthy intensity the more it goes on, sort of like a schlubby version of GOOD TIME. Much of that is due to a strong dramatic performance by comedian and popular late-night talk show guest Jim Gaffigan, who's doing his best sad sack Philip Seymour Hoffman misery-wallow through one of the most haphazardly-planned crimes of financial desperation this side of BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD. After losing his job and being slapped with a restraining order by his estranged wife (Tammy Blanchard), who refuses to let him see their son, unstable rage-case Cam (Gaffigan) moves into an extended-stay shithole motel and earns a meager income as a rideshare driver. He also picks up some side money by chauffeuring volatile drug dealer Mazz (Robbie Jones) on his runs. When he falls behind on his child support and his brother won't loan him any more money, Cam decides to kidnap Mazz's girlfriend Marina (Isabel Arraiza) for a $20,000 ransom. With an hour to kill after dropping off Mazz before he has to pick him up, Cam goes to Marina's house and finds their toddler son alone while Marina is out having sex with Mazz's partner Gumby (Alejandro Hernandez) to score some drugs. Cam hastily improvises by taking the kid instead and putting him in the trunk of the car. He sends a ransom text to Mazz on a burner phone he just bought at a carryout and, of course, ends up driving him around all night in pursuit of the kidnappers.





Cam's plan is extraordinarily stupid, but that's the whole idea. It goes without saying that things quickly fly off the rails as Cam has to go to extreme lengths to keep Mazz from finding out what he's done. It doesn't take long for a body count to start accumulating as Mazz assumes the kid has been taken by rivals, underlings, or even Gumby. Jones has an intimidating presence as Mazz even if his performance falls a little on the side of caricature at times, but the film is really a showcase for Gaffigan, who's quite effective as a troubled guy whose life completely went to shit because of one bad day. At the same time, director/co-writer Derrick Borte (THE JONESES) never tries to get you on Cam's side despite some attempts to show that he's not a bad guy (he gives his leftover Chinese takeout to a homeless person before picking up Mazz). The ending could use more punch, but overall, it's a solid little film with admittedly limited commercial appeal, though fans of Gaffigan, urban "survive the night" scenarios, and poorly-plotted crimes going tragically awry in every conceivable way will definitely find AMERICAN DREAMER worth a look. (R, 93 mins)


POLAROID
(US - 2019)


Set for release in theaters in August 2017 before being bumped to December and then back to November, POLAROID then vanished from the release schedule altogether when it became one of the many casualties of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that broke in October 2017. It would be another two years before the film finally resurfaced with zero publicity as a VOD dumpjob courtesy of Vertical Entertainment, with nary a mention of Weinstein or Dimension Films to be found in the credits. Even before the scandal, Dimension had to know it had a dud on its hands with POLAROID, but now had a convenient excuse to bury it. It's Norwegian filmmaker Lars Klevberg's feature debut, an expansion of his identically-titled 2015 short film, which itself seems to owe a huge debt to "Say Cheese and Die," a 1996 episode of GOOSEBUMPS that starred a young Ryan Gosling (Klevberg went on to direct this year's CHILD'S PLAY remake, which ended up getting released first). In the small town of Locust Harbor, high school loner Bird Fitcher (British actress Kathryn Prescott, 26 years old at the time of filming) is a photography enthusiast who enjoys collecting old trinkets and knick-knacks and works part-time after school in a local antique shop. Her friend Tyler (Davi Santos) gives her a vintage, still-working 1970s Polaroid SX-70 instant camera that he picked up at a garage sale. When she takes Tyler's picture, she notices a smudge lingering off to the side of the shot. That same smudge appears in several other pics she takes with some friends at a party, and almost immediately, everyone who appears in the photos starts being offed one by one by a supernatural entity (Javier Botet) whose vengeful spirit rests inside the camera.





Prescott has a striking resemblance to TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, GOSSIP, and FREDDY GOT FINGERED co-star Marisa Coughlan, and that's not the only reason this feels like it could've been made in 2003 in the waning days of the post-SCREAM era as a response to both FINAL DESTINATION and THE RING. The sense of it being a stale retread is uninspiring enough, but Klevberg and cinematographer Pal Ulvik Rokseth (22 JULY) also make the bizarre decision to shoot the entire film in almost complete darkness, making it virtually impossible to see what's going on for the majority of the feels-like-three-hours 88-minute run time. With some more sensible lighting, POLAROID could've been harmlessly average and merely forgettable, but it goes out of its way to establish itself as the year's dumbest horror movie this side of ELI. This takes place in a small town. Why then, is the revelation that Bird's dad was killed in a car accident when she was 12 and that she always wears a scarf to cover a scar on her neck a surprise to anyone? If she's in high school now, that means it happened, at the most, six years earlier. None of these kids--who have just now started calling her "Scarf Girl"--are aware of this traumatic event in the life of a classmate they've known for years? That wouldn't stay secret in a small town, nor would anyone forget it. Hell, I still remember the name of the kid in my class who shit his pants in third grade. Also, the Polaroid is discovered to have once belonged to a serial killing teacher who abducted, tortured, and murdered three Locust Harbor high school students in 1974. Wouldn't this be the major urban legend that everyone who lives in Locust Harbor would know and pass down from class to class and generation to generation? Why does Bird have to go to the archive room at the local library--a building that seems to be lit by a single 15-watt bulb that's got about 30 seconds of life remaining--to peruse old newspapers for the shocking discovery? And it's also a big plot reveal that the teacher's widow (Grace Zabriskie, second-billed for a five-minute cameo) still lives in the same house under an alias. Really? Nobody knows who she is, 40+ years running? Did all of the Locust Harbor townies just shrug and say "Hey, that weird shut-in lady who bought the crazy killer teacher's house looks a lot like his wife who just sold it!"?  How has she managed to keep her existence a secret all this time? I suppose she could order all of her necessities from Amazon but from what I can tell, Locust Harbor doesn't even have adequate electricity, let alone good wi-fi. And honestly, would Mrs. Killer Teacher not want to start her life anew somewhere else, maybe? I mean, what the fuck, POLAROID? I know you're just a dumb horror movie, but you've gotta try a little harder than that.  (PG-13, 88 mins)


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