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I Watched These So You Don't Have To: THE TEN WORST FILMS OF 2017

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I WATCHED THESE SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO: 
THE TEN WORST FILMS OF 2017




Ask anyone who's reviewed movies professionally or just because they love cinema, and they'll tell you the same thing: it's much more fun to write about a bad movie than it is to watch one. Sure, there's a lot wasted hours keeping up with Steven Seagal and the ongoing autopsy of John Cusack's career, but if you're lucky, the director of one will even send you a nasty e-mail that makes it all worthwhile. Here's the worst of what 2017 had to offer, and you know it's bad when not a single installment of Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis phones in his performance from his hotel room" series made the final cut. For the record, the Ten Best of 2017 list remains incomplete as several awards-season films have yet to open wide. But as far as the Ten Worst of 2017 are concerned, I've seen more than enough...


10. THE LAST FACE


"Turgid" and "overwrought" don't begin to describe this oppressive, self-indulgent fiasco from director Sean Penn. Filmed in 2014 and laughed off the screen when it was in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, THE LAST FACE was shelved for another year before getting an unceremonious premiere on DirecTV and then expanding to VOD the same weekend that star Charlize Theron's ATOMIC BLONDE opened. A heavy-handed "message" film that makes you appreciate the comparative subtlety of Steven Seagal's climactic lecture in the 1994 eco-actioner ON DEADLY GROUND, THE LAST FACE tries to address the atrocities in war-torn areas of the world like Liberia, South Sudan, and Sierra Leone, but quickly relegates those concerns to the background to center on the torrid on-again/off-again romance between activist/doctor Wren Peterson (Theron) and Spanish playboy surgeon Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem). Dedicated to helping refugees through an aid organization set up by her late father--from whose shadow she can't seem to escape even though no one's trying to keep her there--Wren insists she doesn't need a man to complete her, then can't stop delivering anguished, Terrence Malick-inspired narration like "Before I met him, I was an idea I had." Wren's and Miguel's relationship has its ups and downs, as evidenced by three separate scenes of Wren yelling "You don't even know me!" and one where she even adds "Being inside me isn't knowing me!" Penn presents their initial, hesitant hooking up with all the grace and restraint of a daytime soap, trapping two Oscar-winning actors in the most unplayable roles of their careers. It's hard to give THE LAST FACE a chance when it opens with onscreen text that's an incoherent word salad about "the brutality of corrupted innocence" and how it ties into "the brutality of an impossible love..." (fade to black) "...shared by a man..." (fade to black) "...and a woman." Spicoli, please!





THE LAST FACE began life as a project for Penn's ex-wife Robin Wright. It was written by her close friend Erin Dignam, but when Penn's and Wright's marriage ended, Penn hung on to the script and pressed forward several years later with his then-girlfriend Theron. There's no shortage of camera adoration of Theron throughout, with Penn veering into Tarantino territory with shots of Theron's toes picking up a pencil before Bardem slithers across the floor to kiss her feet. Their relationship is consummated with a "cute" scene of making faces while they brush their teeth, and for some reason, songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers figure into the plot, with a sweaty sex scene set to "Otherside" and an earlier bit where a helicopter pilot (Penn's son Hopper Jack Penn) can't shut up about the band. There's so much RHCP love here that it wouldn't be a surprise if Flea showed up as a spazzing doctor with a sock on his dick. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR's Adele Exarchopoulos has an underwritten role as Wren's cousin and brief Miguel love interest, and reliable character actors like Jared Harris and Jean Reno disappear into the background as other doctors (Reno's character is named "Dr. Love" but he doesn't have the cure you're thinkin' of). Penn's intent may be earnest, but when he isn't haranguing the audience about how they need to pay more attention to what's going on in the world, he's sidelining what he wants you to focus on by turning the entire film into what looks like the world's most tone-deaf Harlequin romance adaptation. Penn has made some intelligent and challenging films as a director--1991's THE INDIAN RUNNER, 1995's THE CROSSING GUARD, 2001's THE PLEDGE, and 2007's INTO THE WILD--but THE LAST FACE is catastrophic less than a minute in and insufferable for the next 130. (R, 131 mins)


9. RED CHRISTMAS


Released on three screens and VOD at the tail end of summer, the Australian RED CHRISTMAS got some buzz from scenesters eager to anoint it that week's Insta-Classic (© William Wilson) horror indie, with the added nostalgic rush of cult icon Dee Wallace once again summoning some of her CUJO maternal fury. It's great seeing the veteran actress and convention fixture in a lead role again, and it's easy to see why she jumped at the opportunity, but RED CHRISTMAS isn't worthy of her talents. Amateurishly shot, with pointlessly garish red and green, sub-Argento colorgasms, cheap splatter effects, and a muddled political subtext, RED CHRISTMAS centers on the final Christmas gathering at the isolated rural home of widowed matriarch Diane (Wallace), an American who's spent most of her life in Australia and is about to sell the house to take a long sabbatical to Europe, a last request by her cancer-stricken husband on his deathbed after she spent so many years putting everyone else first. Joining her are her infertile, ultra-conservative religious zealot daughter Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and her minister husband Peter (David Collins); bitchy, free-spirited, and very pregnant daughter Ginny (Janis McGavin) and her pot-smoking partner Scott (Bjorn Stewart); adopted, artist daughter Hope (Deelia Merial), her youngest, son Jerry (Gerard O'Dwyer), who has Down syndrome, and her medicinal marijuana enthusiast brother Joe (Geoff Morrell). A huge family argument is broken up by a stranger appearing at the front door: a cloaked figure with bandages covering face and going by the name Cletus (Sam "Bazooka" Campbell). Cletus appears to be homeless and alone but soon wears out his welcome when he begins taunting Diane with very personal information about an event 20 years earlier--a bombing at an abortion clinic where she happened to be, secretly terminating a pregnancy after learning that it was another DS baby and that her husband only had a few months to live. Unable to face raising an additional special needs child alone, she made a decision to abort, but the child somehow survived, and was taken in by the fanatical right-wing activist who bombed the clinic. And now, 20-year-old Cletus is determined to get revenge on the mother who tried to kill him by taking out her entire family one by one. And, of course, Ginny goes into labor.





There's so many ways that this could've been a creative, daring film with a thoughtful subtext. But it's pretty much amateur hour in the hands of writer/director Craig Anderson, who rushes through the set-up only to have the characters whispering and wandering around in the darkness for most of the rest of the way, often requiring them to do stupid things to get to the next kill scene. Why else would a sheriff arrive and park his car 100 yards from the house--with plenty of driveway ahead of him--unless it's to get a bear trap thrown over his head by Cletus while walking the ludicrous distance from his car to the house? There's no sense of spatial layout to the house, so it's impossible to tell where anyone is at any given time, or how Cletus manages to end up in or out of the house so much. Wallace turns in a strong performance, though it's hard to tell if we're supposed to be on her side or not. The film justifies her decision but seems intent on making her and her family suffer for it. On top of that, very few of the characters are particularly likable (Ginny picks fights with everyone, repressed Peter spies on Ginny and Scott having sex in the laundry room) with the exception of easy-going Joe and devoted Jerry, who questions his entire life after learning about the abortion and angrily confronting Diane with "Do you want to kill me too?" (O'Dwyer, who has DS and is a well-known figure in Australia, is quite good). Cletus' kills are pulled off with little imagination and style, and when his monstrous face is revealed, it looks like a MAC AND ME mask that was left out in the sun too long. RED CHRISTMAS' closing credits include a list of recommended books and movies that deal with the subject of abortion from both the pro-life and the pro-choice angle, conveniently allowing Anderson to "both sides" his way around his own movie. He should've included a list of better Christmas horror movies to watch instead of this one, but since he didn't, I will: any of them. Pick one. (Unrated, 81 mins)


8. SONG TO SONG


After taking 20 years off between 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN and 1998's THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick's directorial output in the 2010s is coming at a furious pace that rivals Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. Counting the 40-minute IMAX film VOYAGE OF TIME, SONG TO SONG is his sixth movie of this decade, and the final part of a loose trilogy that began with 2013's TO THE WONDER and 2016's KNIGHT OF CUPS. Shot back-to-back with KNIGHT OF CUPS way back in 2012 and endlessly tinkered with by its maker, SONG TO SONG takes the first-world ennui of CUPS' self-absorbed Los Angeles navel-gazers and moves them to the hipster mecca of Austin, TX for maximum insufferability. Any hopes of Malick turning this into his own version of NASHVILLE are dashed the moment the film begins and it's the same kind of pained, whispered, emo journal entry voiceover by a dull ensemble of ciphers played by actors who, for some reason, still want to say they were in a Malick movie. If there's a central character--none of them are referred to by name--it's Faye (Rooney Mara), a waify aspiring musician who's seen onstage with a band a couple of times and seems to be friends with Patti Smith (as herself), but we never really see her working on music or practicing with the rest of the band. Faye's involved with Cook (Michael Fassbender), who's some kind of music industry A&R asshole (I guess), and BV (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring musician who doesn't seem to do much playing or songwriting and, like everyone in this film, appears to have significant disposable income. Faye drifts between both men, and during some downtime, the psychologically abusive Cook hooks up with teacher-turned-diner waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), and even coerces Rhonda and Faye to join him in a threesome. Faye also gets involved with Parisian transplant Zoey (Berenice Marlohe) and BV with Amanda (Cate Blanchett), while almost everyone gets their turn at center stage for some of Malick's signature vacuous ruminations of the privileged and aimless.  To wit:

  • "I thought we could roll and tumble. Live from song to song. Kiss to kiss."
  • "I love the pain. It feels like life."
  • "I'm low. I'm like the mud."
  • "Foolish me. Devil." 
  • "I was once like you. To think what I once was. What I am now."
  • "I played with the flame of life." 
  • "I feel like we're so...connected. I can't really understand. It's like..."
  • "The world built a fence around you. How do you get through?  Connect?" 
  • "You burn me. Who are you?"
  • "I need to go back and start over."


Malick should've taken that last sentiment to heart. Like KNIGHT OF CUPS, SONG TO SONG shows the revered filmmaker continuing his ongoing descent into self-parody. This does not look like the work of a 73-year-old auteur who's been making movies for 45 years. If this same movie was presented by a film school student, it would be dismissed as self-indulgent, adolescent drivel. But Malick's defenders continue to give him a pass and insist that his detractors--a contingent of former acolytes that's growing with each new Malick journey up his own ass--just can't grasp the level of genius that's being gifted to them. Bullshit. Malick was poised to stake his claim as the Greatest American Filmmaker when Stanley Kubrick died, and brilliant films like 2005's THE NEW WORLD and 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE certainly made a strong case for his inheriting the title. But over the course of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and now SONG TO SONG, Malick has offered enough evidence to suggest that the emperor has no clothes, and rather than the new Kubrick, he's really just the American Jean-Luc Godard, another filmmaking legend who's abandoned any semblance of narrative cohesion and for whom any negative criticism is strictly verboten. Malick goes into these films with no clear vision, instead hoping it comes together in post with the help of eight (!) credited editors. And, as was the case with WONDER and CUPS, a ton of name actors got cut out of the film when Malick decided they weren't needed, among them Christian Bale, Benicio del Toro, Haley Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), Boyd Holbrook (LOGAN), and Angela Bettis (MAY), along with artists Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire (when asked about this film in a 2013 interview after shooting wrapped, even Fassbender said he wasn't sure if he'd end up being in it). Iggy Pop and John Lydon turn up in SONG TO SONG, along with Smith, who gives the film one of its few legitimately worthwhile dramatic moments when she fondly speaks of her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. Alternating between wide-angle and fish-eye lenses and often using GoPro cameras to maximize the faux-experimental aura, Malick and renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki did some extensive shooting at the 2012 Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun fests, which gave Fassbender a chance to wrestle with Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and let Malick waste some screen time on that. For all the impact that the Austin events brought to the film, Malick may as well have shot scenes at that year's Gathering of the Juggalos. Holly Hunter turns up briefly as Rhonda's mom and Val Kilmer does a walk-through as a wildman rock star, onstage with the Black Lips at the Fun Fun Fun fest, cutting off clumps of his hair with a Bowie knife and chainsawing an amp during a live show while yelling "I got some uranium!" Malick would've had a significantly more entertaining movie if he'd just followed Kilmer around and filmed him being weird for two hours.




It's also nice to see Malick has entered his "pervy old man" phase, with lingering, leering shots of Mara and Marlohe caressing each other, Zoey kissing Faye's hand while she masturbates, and Cook in bed with two nude escorts in what looks like an outtake from the harrowing Fassbender sex addiction drama SHAME. It's easy to assume from his last few films that Malick has forgotten how people really communicate and interact and maybe doesn't get out much anymore, and from the looks of some of the more sordid scenes in SONG TO SONG, he's apparently just discovered Cinemax. It's possible that Malick is putting a stop to this myopic nonsense with his next film, the German-set WWII drama RADEGUND, tentatively due out sometime in 2018. Or 2022, who knows? It stars (for now) August Diehl, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, and the late Michael Nyqvist, and by all accounts, it's actually Malick doing a commercial film with a straightforward narrative. It's about time, because SONG TO SONG is a fucking embarrassment. (R, 129 mins)



7. THE BRONX BULL

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 (LaMotta lived to see the film's release before passing in September at 95). 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)



6. THE CRASH

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)


5. SINGULARITY


A thoroughly incoherent sci-fi hodgepodge that manages to rip off BLADE RUNNER, I ROBOT, THE MATRIX, THE HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT, THE TERMINATOR, and TRANSFORMERS in its first 15 minutes, SINGULARITY's behind-the-scenes story is more interesting than the film itself. The story is a jumbled mess, dealing with Kronos, an AI program designed to save Earth, but immediately deciding on its own volition that humanity isn't worth saving and promptly blowing up everything and killing billions of people. 97 years later, the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with small clusters of humans still existing, though we only see two: Andrew (Julian Schaffner) and Cania (Jeannine Wacker), a fearless warrior with a wardrobe provided by Katniss Everdeen. They're making their way to Aurora, a supposed safe haven where humanity will attempt to rebuild itself, but Andrew is actually an advanced synthetic lifeform so real that even he's unaware that he isn't human. Their journey is overseen from a command center inside the Kronos program, where the uploaded avatars of misanthropic Kronos designer Elias Van Dorne (John Cusack) and his flunky (Carmen Argenziano) monitor their whereabouts to discover the secret location of Aurora. Savvy moviegoers will notice something strange almost immediately and it becomes glaringly apparent with each passing appearance of Van Dorne: Cusack doesn't seem to be in the same movie as everyone else, and that's because he's not.








Remember in 1984 when Paramount desperately shoehorned newly-shot footage of red-hot Eddie Murphy into the two-years-shelved Dudley Moore comedy BEST DEFENSE?  It's a similar situation here, only with an ice-cold Cusackalypse Now. SINGULARITY began life as a very low-budget Swiss sci-fi film titled AURORA, shot way back in 2013 and never released. It was written and directed by 21-year-old Robert Kouba and starred Schaffner, Wacker, and veteran character actor Argenziano, the latter probably the biggest American name the largely Kickstarter-funded production could afford. Trailers for AURORA were posted online in 2014 and 2015 but it remained shelved until US outfit Voltage Pictures acquired it and brought Kouba and Argenziano back to shoot new scenes with Cusack in Los Angeles in 2017. With the added Cusack footage, the restructured film was rechristened SINGULARITY and dumped on VOD and on eight screens in the fall of 2017. Whatever changes Voltage had Kouba make don't appear to have helped, and there's really nothing to see here unless you want to witness the depressing sight of Cusack being Raymond Burr'd into a terrible sci-fi movie that isn't improved by his barely-there presence. There's no way he was on the set for more than a day (there's a credit for "Catering, L.A." so he at least stuck around for lunch), with his entire screen time spent in front of a greenscreen and occasionally watching four-year-old footage of Schaffner and Wacker, never once coming into contact with either of them. Throughout, Cusack looks disheveled and tired, uttering nonsense like "Yes...his code continues to evolve" in ways that would make Bruce Willis look away in pity. As a fan of old-school exploitationers, there's a part of me that's amused that these kinds of GODZILLA and Roger Corman moves still occasionally go on today (for further fun, check out 2015's BLACK NOVEMBER to see Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Anne Heche, and Wyclef Jean get Raymond Burr'd into a long-shelved Nigerian-made political drama), but on the other hand: John Cusack...what the hell are you doing? There's some OK cinematography in some of AURORA's Swiss and Czech Republic location work, and the opening sequence of a neon cityscape accompanied by Vangelis-inspired synth farts courtesy of The Crystal Method's Scott Kirkland (who also wasn't involved in AURORA) might give the impression that it's a passable BLADE RUNNER riff if you're barely paying attention or you've had several beers. But in its released condition, SINGULARITY is nothing more than Cusack--once a bankable, A-list actor who could get movies made (remember HIGH FIDELITY?)--scraping bottom. If this was 1970, Cusack would be headlining Al Adamson movies. What's wrong, dude? Seriously. Should we be concerned? (PG-13, 92 mins)


4. GUN SHY


There wasn't a worse comedy in 2017 than GUN SHY, a staggeringly awful adaptation of Mark Haskell Smith's 2007 novel Salty, which garnered some acclaim at the time for its Carl Hiaasen-esque comic mystery crossed with an Irvine Welsh sense of the grotesque. Smith co-wrote the screenplay, but everything that book reviewers liked about Salty appears to have been neutered into oblivion for GUN SHY. This is a film where it's abundantly clear that the endgame was a mystery for all involved. The humor here isn't clever, it isn't sly, it isn't raunchy...it isn't anything. The film plods along, gasping and wheezing to its conclusion without a single laugh or even a remotely humorous moment. Gags fall flat, the story goes nowhere, and the actors look completely stranded. It's not like there's a lack of talent here: Antonio Banderas and Olga Kurylenko are fine actors, and Simon West isn't an auteur by any means, but he's directed some entertaining movies (CON AIR, THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE MECHANIC), but GUN SHY is one of those rare instances where, whatever the intent was going in, nothing works. It's painfully unfunny and miserable to endure, and the only thing saving it from complete ruin is that Banderas actually seems to be enjoying himself. Between recent VOD duds like BLACK BUTTERFLY, FINDING ALTAMIRA, SECURITY, and now this, Banderas is due for either a new agent or an intervention.





Banderas is Turk Henry, former bassist/vocalist for the '80s hair metal band Metal Assassin, best known for their hit single "Teenage Ass Patrol." Kicked out of the band after his supermodel wife Sheila (Kurylenko) was deemed a "Yoko" by the other members, Turk's career and personal life are in the toilet. Now an emotionally needy, drunken recluse who still dresses like "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)"-era Steven Tyler, he hasn't left his Malibu mansion in two years, prompting Sheila to arrange a vacation to Turk's native Chile in an attempt to boost his spirits. Once there, she's kidnapped by a group of neophyte pirates who think they've struck gold and try to extort a huge ransom when they realize she's Turk Henry's wife. Turk's manager sends his assistant Marybeth (Aisling Loftus) and Clive Muggleton (Martin Dingle Wall), a Crocodile Dundee-like Aussie mercenary with impossibly white teeth and a serious shellfish allergy, to help Turk negotiate with pirate leader Juan Carlos (Ben Cura). US Homeland Security gets wind of the kidnapping and sends ambitious CIA agent Ben Harding (Mark Valley), who's quick to label it a terrorist act in order to boost his profile to his superiors. What follows is a lot of shameless mugging and dead air as entire sequences go by with nothing even remotely amusing, unless you count a vomiting llama, Turk getting bitten on the dick by a snake, Turk trying to dodge Harding by dressing in drag, a clueless Turk calling his GPS a "CGI," and mispronouncing easy words, like "tore-toys" for "tortoise." The novel had the vacation taking place in Thailand, with a hapless, shaggy dog Turk getting involved in busting a sex trafficking ring. Here, he's just a bumbling buffoon making an ass of himself in Santiago. There's no attempt at political satire, no attempts at physical comedy, and no attempt at any INHERENT VICE or BIG LEBOWSKI-style absurdist noir humor. No, the only thing the makers of GUN SHY had was "Antonio Banderas dressed up like a hair metal singer" and they just assumed everything would work itself out. GUN SHY is so lazy that it doesn't even have any insider, THIS IS SPINAL TAP-style jokes about the music industry. There's nothing here, though Banderas, not an actor known for his comedic skills, looks like he's having fun despite his helpless, idiotic character having absolutely nothing to do. As if GUN SHY wasn't oppressive enough, it pads out the running time by including four endings, two music videos during the closing credits, and three (!) post-credits stingers, as if anyone watching this would think "Wow, I had such a blast with these characters...just keep giving me more!" This is stunningly bad. (R, 92 mins)



3. MINDGAMERS


Shot in 2014 as DXM, the idiotic sci-fi pastiche MINDGAMERS is about as good as you'd expect a movie produced by an energy drink to turn out. Bankrolled by Red Bull's Terra Mater Factual Films media division, MINDGAMERS really wants to be a circa-1999 Wachowski Brothers groundbreaker but ends up feeling like a decade-too-late MATRIX ripoff. Directed and co-written by Andrew Goth (the ill-fated GALLOWWALKERS, a film shelved for several years while star Wesley Snipes was incarcerated), MINDGAMERS opens in 2027 and deals with quantum technology being the next evolution of human connectivity. Renegade priest Kreutz (a visibly befuddled Sam Neill, probably getting a lifetime supply of Red Bull whether he wanted it or not), a deranged quantum physicist who only joined the church so it would fund his pseudo-theological experiments, argues with a monsignor that "the border between physics and faith is dead!" before making his point by bashing the monsignor's head in. Cut to years later at the exclusive DxM Academy ("DxM" an abbreviation for Deus Ex Machina--no, really, it is), where a group of hip and edgy young geniuses led by Jaxon (Tom Payne, now best known as Paul "Jesus" Monroe on THE WALKING DEAD) are recruited to perfect the ability to transmit thought and ability via "brain connectivity." Their case study is quadriplegic combat veteran Voltaire (Ryan Doyle) and things start progressing when new team member Stella (Melia Kreiling) taps into DxM super computer "En.o.ch." Once their minds are all linked, the DxM Xtreme Fyzzicystz (OK, that one I made up) start demonstrating as a group the levels of Voltaire's strength and agility prior to his paralysis. There's also an aged Kreutz, slowed down by a stroke, trying to hijack their discoveries for his own purposes, whatever they may be, and then everyone convenes for some kind of interpretive dance flash mob in a torrential downpour.





I'll be honest with you: I haven't the slightest idea what's going on in MINDGAMERS. But I'm not alone, because I don't think the filmmakers do either. Hard sci-fi so flaccid that it might've been better off being financed by Cialis, MINDGAMERS starts out like an extreme gamer remake of PRINCE OF DARKNESS before changing course and finally answering the never-asked question "What would WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!? look like if just got fuckin' rekt with more parkour and random Jesus Christ poses, brah?" MINDGAMERS screened at the 2015 Grimmfest in the UK, but then sat on a shelf for almost two years before Universal gave it a one-night, live-streamed theatrical release through Fathom Events in March 2017, where it was hyped that 1000 audience members nationwide could wear connectivity headbands and gather data from their thoughts as the movie unfolded. There wasn't much to report, as many of the screenings were cancelled due to no tickets being sold. There's some impressive-looking Romanian ruins used for exterior shots and the ornate sets show the movie isn't cheap, but it's a mercilessly talky, hopelessly muddled buzzkill that's pretentiously pleased with itself and completely full of shit. (R, 99 mins)


2. AMERICAN VIOLENCE


AMERICAN VIOLENCE wants to be a "message" movie taking a stance against the death penalty, but it quickly abandons its serious pretensions to become just another DTV-level crime thriller from prolific D-grade hack Timothy Woodward Jr. Woodward, whose films usually premiere on the new release shelf at Walmart, has made seven movies over the last two years, almost all of which co-star the likes of Michael Pare and Johnny Messner who, of course, are on hand in small roles here. Woodward managed to corral some unexpected names for AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but it's as cheap and inept as his other movies, demonstrating that no matter how high-minded and hard-hitting he thinks this is, Woodward still has a ways to go before he's even at the level of an Uwe Boll or an Albert Pyun. A film like this needs a strong performance at its core, and it doesn't get it from Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Texas death row inmate Jackson Michael Shea. Shea's set to be executed by lethal injection in 72 hours, and psychologist/professor Dr. Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards) has been asked by the district attorney (Columbus Short) to interview him to see if the Governor should order a stay of execution. What follows is Shea telling his story to Dr. Tyler, one that begins with him melodramatically glowering "Tick...tock...tick...tock...the sand in my hourglass has just about run out," and it just gets more trite and heavy-handed from there. As a boy, Shea was molested by his uncle. After a stint in prison, he falls in with low-level mob flunky Marty Bigg (Pare, doing his best Ray Liotta) as they team up doing small-time safecracking jobs. One of the safes belongs to loan shark Belmonte (Nick Chinlund), who strings Marty up and slashes his throat as Woodward pans the camera to an illuminated crucifix on the wall. Subtlety is not a word in Woodward's vocabulary.





After avenging Marty's death, Shea falls in love with Olivia (Emma Rigby), the daughter of Texas crime lord Charlie Rose (Patrick Kilpatrick), for whom Shea begins working. Eventually, Shea ends up in prison again where he's gang-raped in the shower before being recruited as a hired gun for corrupt warden Morton (top-billed Bruce Dern, squandering any NEBRASKA/HATEFUL EIGHT renaissance he might've had). AMERICAN VIOLENCE stacks the deck against Shea from the start, excusing everything he does to make ham-fisted points. Of course, Dr. Tyler has her own traumatic backstory--she's a death penalty advocate and widow whose cop husband was killed in the line of duty but she naturally changes her tune after spending an afternoon with perpetual victim Shea. It would be one thing if AMERICAN VIOLENCE made any convincing arguments, but it just offers sanctimonious lip service about "breaking the cycle of violence" while wallowing in every cliche imaginable and offering irrefutable proof that the only cycle that needs breaking is that which provides funding for future Timothy Woodward Jr. movies. Al Lamanda's script is atrocious, whether it's Shea having flashbacks to things he couldn't possibly have witnessed or known about to the laughable dialogue (Shea to Tyler: "Don't you get it, Doc? We're all just caged animals with animal instincts;" Belmonte to Shea: "Untie me, you pissant fuck!;" Tyler, staring off after Shea confesses to killing Belmonte and seeing the path it paved for him: "The catalyst that launched you into Hell." Lyman-Merserau can't act and Richards isn't any more believable as a college professor than she was as a nuclear physicist nearly 20 years ago in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. Dern only has a few scenes and seems to be making it up as he goes, from bitching to his wife about the poor quality of her PB&J sandwiches to licking an ice cream cone while watching Shea strip, doing anything to keep himself amused while looking mildly disgruntled that no one's yet asked him to play Bernie Sanders. You expect to see guys like Pare, Chinlund, Messner, Short, and Kilpatrick ("The Sandman" in the early JCVD actioner DEATH WARRANT) in a piece of shit like AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but what is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski doing here? Making his dramatic acting debut (he appeared as himself in ENTOURAGE) as one of Rose's strongarms, Gronk is prominently billed but has little to do after turning up about an hour in. He has a couple of scenes and is limited to dialogue like "Consider it done," and "We gotta get outta here!" and gets a slo-mo shot where he's diving sideways while firing two guns but then isn't seen again after driving Olivia off in a getaway car. Hey, Gronk--stick to clubbing in the offseason and hope Tom Brady and Bill Belichick never find out about this. (Unrated, 107 mins)



And the worst film of 2017:



1. DIAMOND CARTEL


The most singularly depressing film experience of 2017 and quite possibly one of the ten worst movies I've ever seen, DIAMOND CARTEL is something that doesn't even seem real, even as it's unfolding before your eyes. Directed and co-written by Salamat Mukhammed-Ali, a music video vet in his Kazakhstan homeland as well as the former frontman for the Kazakh rock band Epoch, DIAMOND CARTEL makes Albert Pyun's landmark "Gangstas Wandering Around an Abandoned Warehouse" (© Nathan Rabin) trilogy look like the work of Akira Kurosawa by comparison. It tells a story that's incredibly convoluted at best and (more likely) utterly incoherent at worst, as Aliya (Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova), a table dealer at an Almaty casino, runs afoul of her boss Mussa (Armand Assante) after she's cleaned out by a high roller and the floor boss never intervened. Mussa, a former Soviet general-turned-ruthless Kazakh crime lord, forces Aliya to become a hit woman, taking out his enemies under the tutelage of Ruslan (Alexev Frandetti), one of his soldiers who's been in a love triangle with Aliya and her childhood sweetheart Arman (Nurlan Altayev) since they were kids. Mussa is also in a turf war with Hong Kong triad boss Khazar (Cary-Hiroyuka Tagawa), the kind of lunatic who keeps a guy in a cage, over a $30 million diamond, with additional power plays coming from Mussa associate Catastrophe (Serik Bimurzin) and his henchman Cube (Murat Bissenbin). This all leads to flashbacks, followed by flashbacks within flashbacks, entire scenes played out against some embarrassingly bush-league greenscreen, some crummy CGI that wouldn't cut the mustard in a 20-year-old video game, some really sappy melodrama between Aliya and Arman, and shootouts and cartoonishly over-the-top carnage that look like outtakes from THE MACHINE GIRL and TOKYO GORE POLICE.



If you think it's strange seeing established actors like Assante and Tagawa in something like this, then take a deep breath because it gets worse: shot from 2011 to 2013, the Kazakh-financed DIAMOND CARTEL began life as THE WHOLE WORLD AT OUR FEET before some tweaking, re-editing, and dubbing was done to transform it into its current state. The newly-christened DIAMOND CARTEL actually made it into a handful of US theaters in April 2017, courtesy of the Sony-owned indie The Orchard and goth record label Cleopatra. Former Francis Ford Coppola associate and current right-wing propagandist Gray Frederickson is listed among the producers--yes, the same Gray Frederickson who won an Oscar as one of the producers of THE GODFATHER PART II and was nominated for an Oscar for producing APOCALYPSE NOW, but most recently shepherded the faithsploitationer PERSECUTED and Dinesh D'Souza's AMERICA: IMAGINE THE WORLD WITHOUT HER. The supporting cast includes Michael Madsen and Tiny Lister as a pair of criminals fencing a diamond, and they get a bullet in the head about 45 seconds after they're introduced. There's also '90s B-movie martial arts icons Don "The Dragon" Wilson (BLOODFIST) and Olivier Gruner (NEMESIS), both badly dubbed even though they're speaking English, as well as erstwhile BLOODSPORT villain Bolo Yeung, cast as an assassin named "Bulo."





But what really makes DIAMOND CARTEL something special (and by "something special," I mean "a total shit show") and gives it the ghoulish feeling of slowing down to rubberneck a car crash, is the presence of a frail-looking and horrendously dubbed Peter O'Toole in what ended up being his final film, released four years after his death in 2013. O'Toole turns up about 70 minutes in as "Boatseer" (his character is called "Tugboat" in the credits, but hey, whatever), a crusty old sea salt who agrees to help Aliya and Arman flee Mussa, only to get his throat slashed by Ruslan for his trouble (this takes place offscreen, and there's a cut to an obvious O'Toole double lying face down). The eight-time Oscar nominee looks confused and his hands are tremoring, and the voice he's been given sounds like Pinhead in HELLRAISER. It's no surprise to see guys like Assante (who's embarrassingly bad) and Madsen (who hasn't given a shit in years) in something like this, but it's almost unbearably, soul-crushingly sad to observe an obviously ailing O'Toole suffering through this demeaning sendoff. Why was he here? Who let this happen? Never mind the fact that his appearance here looks less like a hired gun acting gig and more like caught-on-camera elder abuse, but the sight of the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA legend in DIAMOND CARTEL is so jarringly unreal that it couldn't be any more conceivably absurd to imagine Daniel Day-Lewis turning up in BIRDEMIC. Don't believe me? See for yourself--this is how Peter O'Toole's career ended:





O'Toole is only in this for five minutes, but it's the kind of posthumously-released cinematic swan song that belongs in the same class as a washed-up Errol Flynn co-starring with his 17-year-old girlfriend in the pro-Castro CUBAN REBEL GIRLS, Bela Lugosi in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Boris Karloff in four Mexican horror films released two to three years after his death in 1969, and John Carradine in 1995's JACK-O, his appearance consisting of unused footage from another project inserted into a straight-to-video horror movie released seven (!) years after his passing in 1988. Though Wilson and Gruner (as well as all the Kazakh actors) are also dubbed with all the care and precision of a GODZILLA movie, the actual voices of Assante, Tagawa, Madsen, and Lister all remain intact, though it sounds like they've been run through some kind of reverb-heavy Zandor Vorkov voice modulator. DIAMOND CARTEL is the kind of half-assed, slipshod clusterfuck where even the English speaking actors' words don't match their lip movements. Hey, I get it...working actors have to work and maybe this was the best offer Assante had on the table at the time, and he and the others likely figured they'd get paid and nobody would ever see it (frankly, I'm more curious what Gray Frederickson's excuse is). But Peter O'Toole? Even the most devoted O'Toole completist and superfan has nothing to gain by enduring this amateurish fiasco. Do yourself a favor and watch any Peter O'Toole movie but this one. (Unrated, unwatchable, 100 mins)


Dishonorable Mention: ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, ALTITUDE, AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING, ARMED RESPONSE, THE ASSIGNMENT, BITTER HARVEST, BRIGHT, THE BYE BYE MAN, THE CRUCIFIXION, DEATH NOTE, INCONCEIVABLE, THE INSTITUTE, IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, KILL 'EM ALL, KILL SWITCH, KILLING GUNTHER, ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE, SALT AND FIRE, THE SHOW, and UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS.

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