I’ve previously expressed the opinion that filmmakers have pretty well forgotten how to craft what was once a staple of the movies: the romantic comedy (“Trainwreck” anyone?). It was thus more than a happy surprise to discover “Man Up” (2014 / Lionsgate / 89m / $19.99 BR / R) and my expectations were already high based in the presence of Simon Pegg as one of the leads. The premise has Nancy (Lake Bell) fleeing a singles match-up session only to be mistaken for Jack’s (Pegg) blind date. She tries to correct him but initially can’t get a word in edgewise (Pegg is brilliant delivering this verbal waterfall). Later she holds off because she finds herself becoming interested in him. Of course the truth must eventually come out leading to an angry scene and equally predictably circumstances bring back together a couple obviously meant for each other. Such plot points are a given in the genre; the trick (as it is with any genre) is to honor them while introducing some new elements and possibly a few surprises. Now I’m not going to spoil anything with revelations but I will note that it’s unusual for one of these productions to have leads who are no longer particularly young or drop dead gorgeous.
Writer Tess Morris and director Ben Palmer have whipped up a delightful confection. A sequence in a bowling alley may get a tad too precious for its own good but everything else, especially the razor sharp dialogue, is spot on. None of it would much matter without splendid performers however and Pegg delivers as usual. I liked him well enough when I first encountered him years ago in “Shaun of the Dead” and he has only grown in my estimation since. His comic timing and delivery is nothing short of miraculous, particularly in its seeming so unforced. I confess with Bell, though she’s been around for over a decade. it would appear I’ve somehow missed every single thing she’s appeared in. I hope she doesn’t continue to make movies I’ve no desire to see because she’s really quite wonderful here. And while I’m going on about the cast, mention must be made of Rory Kinnear as an obsessed (and possibly psycho) former date of Nancy’s. But really the entire cast is terrific. All rom-coms should be as good as this.
Somewhat lesser is the Israeli comedy “Chasing a Star” (Lean neelam Moshe Igvy – 2012 / SISU Home Entertainment / 80m / $24.95 / NR), which has aspiring actor Adam (the delightful Oren Balanga) setting off a chain of calamities when he borrows his roommate’s limo to get to an audition. Not only doesn’t he get the part (of a washing machine in a laundry detergent commercial) but the limo is towed because he’s left it in a handicapped space. He reclaims it and picks up his buddy’s passenger who turns out to be the very actor who’s been given his role (Israeli film star Moshe Igvy playing a loutish version of himself). The limo is stolen (with Igvy in the trunk) by a gangster (Amitai Ashkenazi) on the run from his boss; Adam is aided in finding the missing limo by Shir (Ifat Beressi), a female soccer player – and that’s just the beginning of the complications in this screwball comedy. The chief problem here is that – aside from an early bit where Adam impersonates a washing machine – the film is never more than smile inducing rather than the laugh-out-loud enterprise its complicated plot and large cast of characters promises ought to make it (perhaps some of the subtitled dialogue plays better in its original language). As it stands, it’s an agreeable enough romp, and with an appealing cast, but hardly a laugh riot.
Another Israeli film that may not work as well outside its country of origin is “White Panther” (2013 / SISU Home Entertainment / 87m / $24.95 / NR). The story deals with the million Russian Jews who migrated to Israel in the 1990s. They were not precisely welcomed by the existing populace and a kind of gang warfare exists between the Russian and Israeli youth; each faction likes to catch one of the other without his fellows and administer a beating. Alex (Yevgeny Olov) is only slightly less thuggish than his older brother and the gang he hangs with. They are under the sway of some criminal types who own a club where they hang out (and who sometimes send them out to beat up Israeli merchants and trash their stores). Alex gets arrested but the cop (Ze’ev Revach) discovers the lad’s father was a famous boxer who died while serving in the army. He takes the young man under his wing and into his boxing school to train him (and channel his skinhead rage into something more socially acceptable).
Now I won’t go so far as to label director Danni Reisfeld’s script clichéd, but the whiff of many other movies hangs over this one. The warring gangs are reminiscent of “Rome and Juliet’ (and of course “West Side Story”) and, yes, Alex and the policeman’s daughter (Meytal Gal) become romantically involved to the displeasure of both his gang and her father. It’s difficult to work up as much sympathy as the film demands for Alex because he’s forever going meekly along with his brother’s criminal activities and forever being abandoned by his sibling and arrested. Aside from Alex, his mother, the cop and his daughter both sides of the conflict are pictured in unflattering portraits. Surely there must be some Israelis and some Russians who aren’t jerks but you’d never know it from this film. The production may have more resonance with Israeli audiences, particularly with its neo-realistic treatment, but it will strike most other viewers as a reasonably competent treatment of themes they’ve seen explored before.
Things are even more grim on the horror scene, especially when it comes to “Condemned” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 83m / $27.95 / NR) a micro-budgeted effort that has Maya (Dylan Penn, Sean’s daughter) run away from her quarreling parents and head off to Manhattan to live with her rock musician boyfriend. His apartment turns out to be in a condemned building where a crazy super keeps the electricity and plumbing going – mostly. Other “tenants” include a gay bodybuilder couple into S&M, a hugely overweight orthodox Jew and his black transvestite prostitute companion, a straight couple hooked on smack, a paranoid fellow who peers out through his letterslot and an Oriental fellow who’s cooking up drugs (and sometimes dumping them down his bathtub drain). You know, the usual cross-section of New Yorkers. Somehow the disposed chemicals have worked their way into the drinking water because after a long time of introducing these less than fascinating lowlifes the residents start sprouting pustules and murderously attack each other in between fits of vomiting. Between the regurgitation, the pustules bursting and the extreme gore this is simply another production that mistakes gross-out for horror (of course there are people who like that kind of thing). Those who made this flick however didn’t have the kind of money to make any of it reasonably believable, just disgusting. The makers seem to have been trying to emulate Troma, without the lame humor – which is an odd aspiration indeed.
At least “Martyrs” (2015 / Anchor Bay / 86m / $26.99 BR / NR) has decent production values if nothing else. The film – a remake of a French film of a few years back – presents a group of religious nutballs, claiming to be scientists, who torture young women to find martyrs – those who fight to live on when others would simply give up and expire. Just before they do kick off they apparently see something on the other side. This is all theoretical of course because these women can’t relate what they seen on account of they’re dead, something that hasn’t penetrated the skulls of these loons and their Mengele-style experiments. (When your film has a plot hole gaping this large it’s iun serious trouble.) The movie begins well with a little girl escaping the clutches of the group and ending up in an orphanage. Years later, she tracks down the man who subjected her to extreme pain (she recognizes his aftershave – a brand worn exclusively by him it seems) and slaughters him and his family with a shotgun. She then summons her friend from the orphanage to help her with the clean-up – because a friend will help you move but a real friend will help you move a body. Why clean up at all you might well ask. The film can’t be bothered to address such trifling matters. Impeding this task is that she is subject to attacks from some hideous entity – or is this all in her mind? Alas, the other seekers of elusive knowledge arrive and drag the young women to a spacious basement complex that SPECTRE would envy and the film degenerates into torture porn. Worse, it’s torture porn with delusions of significance. Don’t waste your time.
And then there’s “The Sin Seer” (2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 110m / $27.97 / NR), which can’t decide if it wants to be a mystery thriller with psychic overtones or a religious tract. What is clear from its unhurried pace and stately camerawork gliding through landscapes that add nothing to the film except excess running time is that its makers labor under the impression it is a Very Important Film. The premise has Rose (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), as a psychic who runs a detective agency and works as a police consultant. She hires Grant (Isaiah Washington, who also produced) on his release from prison (what landed him in the jug and how and why she’s come to know him isn’t revealed until well into the movie). He’s instantly issued a gun as part of his employment – something I would have thought is a no-no but even the local police detective (C. Thomas Howell) doesn’t seem to have any objections so maybe the laws of North Carolina are lenient in this matter. Rose is hired by the wife of a famous boxer who’s gone missing. The police consider it a cold case and that’s Rose’s specialty. It turns out that this mystery is hardly the film’s main concern (though you’d never know it from the DVD case); what seems to be the main plot is neglected for long stretches while the characters discuss faith. Teenage Rose and her father engage in a battle of Bible verses until he settles the disagreement by slapping her. Grant has a debate with Rose’s sister Nia (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) as to whether Rose’s talent is a gift from above while Nia’s comes from, you know, that other guy.
The mystery never adds up to much – and I’m not even sure that the solution makes a lick of sense, particularly in its last-minute surprise revelation. The investigation is sloppy beyond belief; having located a man who provided fake identity papers to the boxer our crack investigators never even inquire as to the name he’s assumed, which it seems to me might make it possible to locate the guy, but I’ve been known to be dim about such things. I can’t imagine how this release managed to escape getting the Dove seal except perhaps for the scene where Grant makes hot monkey love with Nia – or as hot as monkey love can get when the participants keep their clothes on. It is, however, hot enough to cause Rose, who apparently has a psychic link with Nia, to have an orgasm in the middle of a church service. Now on an absurdity level this might not rank with Linda Blair feeling Richard Burton’s pain while tap-dancing in “Exorcist II” but it’s about the only time Anderson doesn’t seem to be delivering a performance while heavily tranquilized. Those who can forgive sloppy scripting and mediocrity of execution because of an abundance of Christian content are the only possible audiences for this endeavor.
Given the generally high regard for 1990’s “The Krays,” I’m not sure why there was a crying need for another look at London’s notorious gangsters of the 1950s and 60s but this past year has brought forth three new cinematic looks at the twins. “The Rise of the Krays” (2015 / Lionsgate / 115m / $19.98 / R) is, as you might guess, a two-part production. It might have benefitted from more concision seeing as how the added running time hasn’t resulted in more accuracy or detail. The film shows them as club owners who “buy out” the owner of a successful gambling establishment and as running a protection racket but mostly only hints at most of their criminal activities, which included murder, highjacking, armed robbery and arson. To describe their rule of London’s East End as a reign of terror would not be an understatement. That Ronnie was gay and had affairs with highly placed politicians of both parties is never more than inferred – he’s shown throwing a decadent shindig that results in blackmail but the film only hints at his sexuality by never showing him with a female, unlike closeted brother Reggie. Well perhaps more salacious detail will be in the second installment – or maybe potential lawsuits dictate the restrained approach.
Ronnie was the only brother certified insane but both were clearly psychotic; this film portrays Reggie as the more rational of the two and often trying to restrain his brother from more extreme violence. Their behavior while incarcerated after trying to avoid Britain’s version of the Draft speaks otherwise. Perhaps it needs a filmmaker as willing to indulge in over-the-top outrageous violence as Quentin Tarantino to do the brothers justice but this film seems determined to be low key with intermittent eruptions of violence. The production boasts decent production values and mostly accurately represents the period. Because it’s a low budget affair there isn’t a boatload of CGI to evoke the era; all is done with clothes and props. This actually works in the film’s favor, lending a claustrophobic atmosphere. Especially noteworthy is the performance of Simon Cotton as Ronnie who radiates menace even in repose – perhaps especially so – suggesting a cobra as he surveys his domain with hooded eyes. The film itself may not be better than okay but Cotton is someone to watch.