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October Roundup: Various new Netflix, Blu-ray and Theatrical Releases

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WHEELMAN
(US - 2017)

A mostly routine but diverting Netflix Original film that's a fine showcase for the growing cult of veteran tough guy character actor Frank Grillo. Grillo also produced and his character fits in perfectly with the persona he's crafted in the second and third PURGE movies (and it's infinitely better than THE CRASH, the dismal Libertarian polemic he produced and starred in earlier this year, which was so bad that the last name of its Wall Street financial titan villain was actually "Del Banco").  As the titular wheelman, Grillo is a stoical, no-nonsense getaway driver for an early evening bank robbery that goes typically awry when he's contacted by "the handler," who tells him to ditch the robbers and drive away. He can't get a hold of the contact (Garret Dillahunt) who arranged the job, and when a second handler calls and reveals that the other handler was an impostor, the wheelman has no idea who to trust and things get really hairy when the fake handler kidnaps his ex-wife (Grillo's wife Wendy Moniz). The wheelman ends up reluctantly teaming with his 13-year-old daughter Katie (Caitlin Carmichael) in an unpredictable and surprisingly engaging plot development, as Katie turns out to be smart, resourceful, and wise beyond her years and not the spoiled, "can't even" brat we're led to expect from the periodic phone calls to her dad throughout.  The introduction of Carmichael's character could've easily been the film's death knell, but she and Grillo make an unexpectedly solid team.  Writer/director Jeremy Rush, a protege of co-producer Joe Carnahan, wisely keeps 99% of the action in the car and focused on Grillo, who's in every scene and onscreen from start to finish. It sort-of ends with a whimper, but for the most part, WHEELMAN, a cross between DRIVE and LOCKE, is an entertaining, uncomplicated B-movie that's ideal for streaming and doesn't overstay its welcome at just 82 minutes. Also with Shea Whigham, perfectly cast as "Motherfucker."(Unrated, 82 mins, on Netflix)


SHOT CALLER
(US - 2017)


Following a pair of straight-to-video thrillers (1996's EXIT and 2001's IN THE SHADOWS), stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh has carved a niche for himself as a maker of gritty prison dramas. SHOT CALLER shares a lot of themes as his 2008 film FELON, which was a bit better than you'd expect from a 2008 movie with Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer.  Waugh continued on this trajectory with the slightly more improbable Dwayne Johnson vehicle SNITCH, but the barely-released SHOT CALLER really should've been his breakthrough. Opening with the parole of hardened, gang-affiliated convict "Money" (GAME OF THRONES Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the film follows his post-prison activities that include taking part in a deal for a shipment of Russian military weapons stolen from Afghanistan, intercut with flashbacks to his old life and how he ended up where he is. Ten years earlier, "Money" was Jacob Harlin, a successful stockbroker with a wife (Lake Bell) and young son. After a dinner out with another couple, Frank is distracted by conversation and runs a red light. His friend in the backseat is killed and since he had a couple too many glasses of wine, he's charged with DUI with vehicular manslaughter. He makes a plea deal and is sentenced to two years and eight months, but life on the inside means ensuring your safety. He pragmatically aligns himself with a gang of white supremacists for protection, and is soon smuggling drugs in his ass and shivving a guy at their command. After he's involved in a riot, his sentence is extended and he builds a wall around himself, cutting off contact with his wife and son. Now that he's out, he still beholden to the powers that be on the inside, specifically The Beast (Holt McCallany), a gang lord who's so powerful that the guards in solitary answer to him.


It sounds like a standard-issue prison melodrama, but Waugh constructs SHOT CALLER in a way that it becomes a character study of a man using his intelligence to stay alive in a horrible situation. In a typical scenario like this, the story would be about what the prison system does to convicts. Everything that happens to Jacob in his transformation into Money is of his own volition. The pieces don't all fit until much later--indeed, there are moments here with the storytelling seems muddled, especially with exactly what Money's parole officer (Omari Hardwick) is really up to, but it all becomes clear by the end (though I'm still not quite sure what happened to Jeffrey Donovan's "Bottles," a key gang figure who vanishes from the film with no explanation). The main reason SHOT CALLER works so well is Coster-Waldau. Money is a quiet man who can only be pushed so far, and Coster-Waldau, in one of 2017's best performances that no one will see, never goes over the top and rarely raises his voice, internalizing Money's rage, always playing it smart and reading the room before making a decision that shows he's several steps ahead of everyone else. SHOT CALLER premiered on DirecTV before going straight to VOD after two years on the shelf. This deserved a much better release strategy than it got. (R, 121 mins, on Blu-ray/DVD)


THE BABYSITTER
(US - 2017)



It dispenses with any and all logic by the end, but the Netflix Original film THE BABYSITTER is a fun, fast, blood-splattered horror-comedy that's perfect for streaming. Bullied, overprotected 13-year-old Cole (Judah Lewis) is the only kid his age who still has a babysitter, but he doesn't mind because it's hot and hip Bee (Samara Weaving), who's so cool that she can quote BILLY JACK with him (there's the first tip-off that this doesn't exist on any level of reality). When his parents (Ken Marino, Leslie Bibb) go for a romantic getaway for the weekend, Cole and Bee party it up, and she even gives him encouraging big sister talks about how things will get better and how he should just be himself and stand up for who he is. Curious about what she does after he goes to bed, he spies on her when he hears the doorbell ring and she lets some friends in.  One of these kids is a nerdy type who clearly isn't like the others (cheerleader, football star, etc), and when Bee puts two daggers through the nerd's skull and they all drink the blood pouring out of his head while reciting passages from an ancient book of Bee's, it's pretty clear that Cole might not make it through the weekend.


Basically HOME ALONE with Satan worshipers instead of bumbling burglars, THE BABYSITTER has Cole evading Bee and her accomplices, setting traps for them, and using his wits to take them out one by one. Considering it's after midnight and they're in a neighborhood, it's surprising no one calls the cops with all the mayhem going on, but hey, whatever. The kills are goofy and gory and the set-ups for some of the splattery gags are surprisingly smart in some foreshadowing and joke construction that's far more clever than it has any reason to be.  It's a little more small-scale than you 'd normally expect from brainless blockbuster purveyor McG (CHARLIE'S ANGELS, TERMINATOR: SALVATION), who really goes for a sort-of Joe Dante vibe here. It's a guilty pleasure and I'm probably way past the target demographic, but it was funny and surprisingly enjoyable and just the right length at 85 minutes. Look for this to become a big cult movie with teenagers. (Unrated, 85 mins, on Netflix)


THE FOREIGNER
(China/UK - 2017)


A formulaic (villain says to hero "We're a lot alike, you and I") but still-riveting revenge/political thriller that's probably not quite as action-packed as the trailers make it out to be.  Chinese immigrant Jackie Chan, trained by US Special Forces during Vietnam and now a British citizen, is obsessed with vengeance after his teenage daughter is killed in a London bomb blast. A group calling itself "Authentic IRA" claims responsibility, which doesn't sit well with Pierce Brosnan, a former IRA and Sinn Fein legend in his youth, now a Belfast-based bureaucrat working for the British government. Chan demands answers from Brosnan and won't leave him alone, setting off a small bomb in his office, following him, texting him photos he's taken of him with his mistress.  Tensions escalate and it becomes clear Brosnan has something to hide, and it's quite fun watching him grow increasingly agitated that this "60-year-old Chinaman" is outwitting all the bodyguards and flunkies he sends after him.  At first it appears the film when be Jackie Chan's entry into Liam Neeson/TAKEN mode, but THE FOREIGNER is equally focused on political intrigue and the past haunting the present, whether it's Chan and his family's tragic backstory or Brosnan's former associates and even his wife (Orla Brady) thinking he's a sellout. The story gets surprisingly twisty and complex, with one really sleazy plot reveal midway through that produced audible gasps from the audience.  One problem is that the second half is so focused on Brosnan (who's really great here, chewing the scenery with rage and gusto) that there's a long stretch where Chan vanishes and seems like a guest star in his own movie, and Chan purists may lament the trickery used to help him with his stunt work (the dude's 63--give him a break), but THE FOREIGNER allows the beloved action star a chance to show his dark side in an English-language role, and the film proves to be a solid thriller from director Martin Campbell (GOLDENEYE, CASINO ROYALE) with a terrific score by the always-reliable Cliff Martinez. (R, 114 mins, in theaters)


CULT OF CHUCKY
(US - 2017)


The seventh entry in the now-29-year-old CHILD'S PLAY franchise, written all these years by Don Mancini (who took over directing with the fifth installment, 2004's SEED OF CHUCKY), returns to the more comedic approach largely abandoned by 2013's surprisingly straightforward CURSE OF CHUCKY. CULT brings back paraplegic Nica (Fiona Dourif) from the previous film, and it makes Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent, a little kid in the first film back in 1988) a key supporting character. Mancini's storyline is muddled for the most part, but eventually things make sense--at least on their own terms--and you'll just roll with the insanity that develops. Mancini seems to be making it up as he goes along, but like CURSE, there's some surprisingly well-done shout-outs to the horror genre in general, with one SUSPIRIA-inspired death being a real standout.  There's other genre staples like De Palma split screen, a lecherous doctor, and a mental hospital whose chilly, antiseptic layout has a vaguely Canadian horror vibe to it.  Plus having Chucky possess the patients at a mental hospital one by one is a sly nod to THE EXORCIST III with that film's Brad Dourif also being the voice of Chucky. It's actually almost adorable watching Nica get possessed by Chucky and cackling along with him, Fiona Dourif perfectly replicating her dad's Chucky laugh. There's some impressively over-the-top gore, a lot of it old-school and practical. This has turned into one of the more durable horror franchises, very unusual in that it's been going nearly 30 years with Mancini and Dourif, as well as the returning Vincent and Jennifer Tilly, who's been a part of the party since 1998's BRIDE OF CHUCKY, and has yet to be rebooted. CULT OF CHUCKY is what it is--it's no masterpiece, but in the world of DTV and being a horror franchise that's several decades old, it's more entertaining than it has any reason to be. (R, 91 mins, on Blu-ray/DVD)

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