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On DVD/Blu-ray: VICE (2015); SON OF A GUN (2014); and MALL (2014)

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VICE
(US/Germany - 2015)


If you fused WESTWORLD with HOSTEL--and why would you?--you'd get something that looks a lot like VICE, a thoroughly crummy sci-fi shoot 'em up boasting what might be Bruce Willis' laziest performance yet. Another in the ongoing, Redbox-ready series of low-budget action clunkers that feature frequent cutaways to a prominently-billed Willis sitting behind a desk or standing in an office looking annoyed, VICE reteams the actor with director Brian A. Miller, right on the heels of their PRINCE triumph. Willis is Julian Michaels, the CEO of Vice, a fantasy playland of the near-future where the male customers can engage in whatever destructive, illegal, and/or deviant behavior they choose because the rules of society don't apply. And it doesn't matter because the beautiful women that Vice customers beat, rape, and kill--known as "residents" or "artificials"--are just clones sprung from human DNA, significantly more human than machine, and all they need is some tweaking, rewiring, and a memory wipe to be ready for the next night's parade of sociopathic Philip K. Dickheads. One artificial, Kelly (Ambyr Childers) escapes, prompting Michaels to send his Vice officers into the city to find her, much to the chagrin of haggard, greasy-haired detective Roy Todesky (Thomas Jane), a surly cop with an ever-present toothpick in his mouth who plays by his own rules and has some ethical beefs with Vice, namely that once the population gets a taste of getting away with rape and murder with artificials, they'll only start craving it more, but with the real thing.


The real stars of VICE are Childers and Bryan Greenberg as Evan, a Vice designer who created Kelly in the image of his late wife, who succumbed to cancer several years earlier. Kelly and Evan join forces to fight off Michaels' Vice army as well as Todesky, a sort-of Blade Stumbler who has a real chip on his shoulder about artificials and doesn't want Kelly in his city. Of course, Kelly and Todesky eventually pull an "...if they don't kill each other first!" and set aside their differences when she gets an upgrade from one of Evan's associates (Brett Granstaff, one of 21 credited producers) and goes full TERMINATOR on Vice headquarters. Dull and dreary, VICE displays some fleeting hints of being something with interesting ideas, but it constantly backs off and opts for the coasting route. It's also the kind of movie where characters always talk in expository nonsense, saying things they should logically already know but doing so for the benefit of the audience, like two Vice techs working on some artificials and one going into all the specifics about the operation and how it works. Wouldn't the other tech already know that since he works there? Childers doesn't exactly stake her claim as the next Milla Jovovich, while Jane looks understandably bored in the kind of role Willis would've been playing 10-15 years ago. Few actors are worse at masking their utter disinterest in a project than Willis, and as usual for this type of gig, Bruno sleepwalks his way through what was probably two, perhaps three days on the set. His entire role consists of pacing around the Vice control room scowling at a row of monitors like he's auditioning for a role in the next BOURNE movie, and dispatching orders to his chief lackey (Johnathan Schaech), who does all of the leg work in the search for Kelly. Willis mumbles lines like "Find her" and "Whaddaya got?" and "She's experiencing flashbacks?!" and "Bring up the temperature in Sector 5" like it's a chore to even enunciate before finally waking up in the climax to yell "Initiate the kill switch!" when all of the artificials start breaking free from computer control and commence evolving into their own beings. Miller, Childers, and Jane speak gushingly of Willis in the DVD's cast/crew interviews, with Jane saying "It's like he's not even acting." Indeed. Oh, and take a wild guess which VICE star is absent from the cast/crew interviews. (R, 96 mins)


SON OF A GUN
(Australia/UK/Canada - 2014)



An excellent performance by Ewan McGregor isn't enough to overcome the trite cliches in this prison drama-turned-heist flick from Australian writer-director Julius Avery. Making his feature debut, Avery wisely lets the film rest on McGregor's shoulders, and there's a genuine sense of tension and unease in the early part of the film, but shortly after it leaves the prison, it turns into every other double-cross-filled heist flick you've ever seen, regardless of how much it's been gritted up. Brenton Thwaites (OCULUS, MALEFICENT, THE GIVER) co-stars as JR, a 19-year-old serving six months in a tough Australian prison. He's rescued from a shower rape by Brendan Lynch (McGregor), a grizzled con who's serving 20 years for armed robbery. The two bond over a mutual knowledge of chess and Lynch takes the kid under his wing, assigning him to work for him on the outside once his sentence is up in exchange for protection while he's inside. Once he's paroled, JR hijacks a chopper and stages a daring prison yard escape for Lynch and his cronies Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). Lynch is ruthless but at least has some kind of code of honor, beating the shit out of Merv and leaving him behind when a radio news update reveals that Merv was locked up for child rape ("Did you know about that?" Lynch asks Sterlo before smashing Merv's face in). Lynch, Sterlo, and JR get involved in a gold heist masterminded by crime boss Sam Lennox (Jacek Koman), the owner of Tasha (Alicia Vikander), a Russian prostitute who catches JR's eye. Of course, backstabbings ensue as Lennox tries to shaft Lynch out of the deal, with Lynch in turn trying to reduce JR's cut and advising him to stay away from Tasha. Of course, the heist goes haywire thanks to the itchy trigger finger of an incompetent idiot they're forced to take along on the job--in this case Lennox's obnoxious nephew Josh (Tom Budge). And naturally, JR must help Tasha break free from Lennox's shackles while ultimately besting his scheming mentor and all the more experienced criminals around him.


Avery's direction is fine, but his script really needs some work. It's almost as if he thinks he's the first screenwriter to concoct innovative ideas like a career criminal taking on One Last Score So He Can Retire, or an abused Russian hooker with a heart of gold, or a chess analogy for the situations in which his characters find themselves. When McGregor's Lynch (loosely based on real-life Australian criminal Brenden Abbott) is introduced as a chess aficionado, is there any doubt that once he realizes the tables have been turned on him, it'll be confirmed by a phone call that ends with a taunting "Checkmate"? And when Lynch gets the edge on the duplicitous Lennox, was it really necessary for Avery to punctuate this new plot development with a shot of a toppled king on a chessboard? SON OF A GUN starts out fine but fizzles quickly, and while McGregor works overtime to elevate things (getting no help from a dull, listless Thwaites), somebody needed to step in with some toughlove and tell the well-intentioned Avery that this wasn't the first heist movie ever made, and that his rote plot, cardboard characters, and played-out chess references were bush-league conventions more suited for a high-school creative writing exercise. (R, 109 mins)



MALL
(US/Japan - 2014)


Based on a 2001 novel by Eric Bogosian, MALL begs one simple question: is there a single reason this film exists? Who thought adapting a decade-old novel into an ennui-soaked, CRASH-like mosaic centered on a mass shooting at a shopping mall would be something anyone wanted to see? The answer: Bogosian's good friend Vincent D'Onofrio. D'Onofrio produced and co-wrote the script with his buddies Sam Bisbee and Joe Vinciguerra, his collaborators on his unwatchable, released-in-2012-after-three-years-on-the-shelf directorial debut DON'T GO IN THE WOODS. D'Onofrio left the direction of MALL to Linkin Park DJ Joe Hahn, who brought along most of his bandmates to compose the grating score. MALL is one of those films that's so stunningly awful and unrelentingly amateurish that I don't even know how to approach writing about it. It doesn't even look finished. There are bad movies and there are bad movies. Then there are movies like MALL. Movies that come around once in a great while and are so staggeringly atrocious that their sheer awfulness is beyond any and all comprehension. How does something go this wrong?  D'Onofrio has been in the business for 30 years. He acts in major movies and television projects. He's worked with pretty much everyone. He knows people. Why are DON'T GO IN THE WOODS and MALL so astonishingly terrible? How is it possible that the man who brought such indelible characters as FULL METAL JACKET's Private Pyle and LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT's Robert Goren to vivid life suddenly makes the work of Ed Wood look like Stanley Kubrick when he decides to work on the production end? Has he learned nothing on the sets on which he's worked? If you're able to read these sentences, or put a sentence together, or hell, even if you've ever been to a mall, you could probably do a better job of scripting and directing MALL than D'Onofrio and Hahn. MALL fails miserably at every turn. It's inept and tone-deaf on an almost Tommy Wiseau-level. It storms out of the gate already shitting the bed, with meth-addled Mal (James Frecheville of ANIMAL KINGDOM) killing his mother (Mimi Rogers) and setting their trailer on fire before going off on a shooting rampage. Less than three minutes into the film and there's already glaring issues too distracting to ignore: the CGI fire is unspeakable; the rusted-out, ramshackle trailer is just awkwardly parked in the middle of an otherwise welcoming, good-looking, middle-class neighborhood where it's doubtful the residents would have much patience for an unstable mother/son meth-head team just loitering about; and when there's a cut to Frecheville walking away from the trailer after setting it ablaze, the filmmakers neglected to add the CGI fire to the shot, so you've got the suddenly not-on-fire trailer plainly visible in the background when, just a moment ago in the previous shot, it was engulfed in fake flames that make the visual effects in BIRDEMIC look professional by comparison. There's a reason--many, actually--that this film was on the shelf for two years before getting a one-screen theatrical release.


Mal makes his way to a nearby shopping mall, but not before we meet an ensemble so loathsome--the exception being widowed Haitian security guard Michel (Gbenga Akinnagbe)--that you're actually rooting for Mal to take them all out. There's bored housewife Donna (Gina Gershon); sleazy tux-rental store owner Barry (Peter Stormare); and lecherous perv Danny (D'Onofrio), who gets busted peeping into a dressing room where Donna is trying to lure him in for an anonymous quickie. But the central character is smug, pretentious, skinny-jeaned Jeff (Cameron Monaghan of SHAMELESS), introduced referencing Orwell's 1984, and Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf while bitching about corporate control, the mall's "dystopian landscaping," and how the fresh cookies "smell just like the ones your mom never made." When he's not perfecting his disaffected poseur act, Jeff pines for the cold, teasing Adelle (India Menuez) and takes some Ecstasy before the mayhem commences, as Mal opens fire, killing some Paul Blarts and quickly fleeing to some nearby woods. Hahn and D'Onofrio (who, over the course of the film, gets two quick sex scenes, one masturbation scene, and a handjob from Adelle, making it clear why producer/screenwriter Vincent D'Onofrio thought veteran character actor Vincent D'Onofrio was perfect for the role) can't even stage Mal's massacre with the slightest modicum of competence: he starts at the upper level where it's dark and Barry is closing the store. We see all the other store gates pulled down, but yet Jeff, Adelle, and some friends are, at the same time, down in the food court, where the mall is packed, people are shopping, and it's bright. After Mal goes to the woods where the cops stand around in one confined area wondering why they can't find him, Jeff and his friends hang around the mall and vandalize shit. Really?  The mall's not closed off? There's no media, no police, no one from the coroner's office, no yellow police tape? Then you start thinking, "Were they killed in the shooting and now they're Shyamalanian ghosts wandering the mall? Because then at least this complete disregard for reality and continuity might, in context, make some kind of sense," but they weren't killed. And it doesn't make sense. Jeff eventually goes to a bar where he runs into Donna and they hook up at a nearby motel and...no. No. You know what? Who gives a shit? Fuck this movie. (R, 88 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)


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