While "The Duff" is aimed squarely at the teen female crowd, this romantic comedy offers much to savor for older viewers, as well. DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend — the person who is part of a group of popular and attractive high schoolers primarily to make them look even better. Bianca (Mae Whitman) finds out that she is the DUFF in her crowd when her childhood friend and neighbor — who is also the most popular jock in the school — Wesley (Robbie Amell) lets it slip. After she gets over her anger at him, she seeks his help in overcoming her DUFFness. He takes her shopping and her hijinks in a clothing store are surreptitiously recorded by the best friend (another DUFF, though she doesn't realize it) of Madison, the most self-absorbed girl at school (Bella Thorne) — possibly the whole planet. The video goes viral and Bianca becomes the school laughing stock. But ultimately — and to a great extent inadvertently — she initiates a social revolution with her school paper article of DUFFs and not coincidentally lands the guy she's truly in love with. No prizes will be awarded for guessing who that turns out to be. In many ways, it's all terribly predictable but then rom-coms do follow a template and we wouldn't find them completely satisfactory if they didn't.
Where "The DUFF" doesn't quite work is in its willingness to go for comedy even when the situation is unbelievable such as when Bianca's antics in the clothing store, which include demolishing displays, go on for too long and well after a clerk would have escorted her out the door. Ultimately, it's a minor flaw because most of the dialogue writing is terrific and the situations ring true. It may have been over half a century since I was in high school but, aside from the addition of social media and cell phones, little has changed in the dynamic. Carrying the film over any of its rough spots is a terrific cast, especially Whitman, who nails dramatic and comedic moments with equal dexterity. Apparently she's been around for awhile but this is the first thing I've seen her in where she has the opportunity to strut her stuff. Amell is her equal at comedy and the scenes they share together are gems. His subtle handling of his realization — and bafflement — that he is falling for his childhood friend are lovely. And then there's Alison Janney as Bianca's mother. As usual she's terrific and as usual she doesn't get nearly enough screen time; watching her drunkenly drive a lawnmower over her ex-husband's clothing just may be worth the price of the disc). Slightly flawed and certainly predictable it may be, but "The DUFF' is still solid entertainment with a valid message (we are all somebody's DUFF).
2015 / Lionsgate / 101m / $39.99 BR+DVD+digital [PG-13]
It strikes me that every country's fantasy films have a distinct personality. Those hailing from north of our border tend to be somewhat unassuming affairs — neither high concept nor lavishly budgeted but realized with perfect competence. The works of David Cronenberg to one side few of them will ever be considered classics but they are all good entertainment with solid (if thrifty) production values, acting and direction. "Debug" presents a group of hackers convicted of computer crimes who are ferried about in space to clean and reboot the computers of derelict spaceships, which are then salvaged and repurposed. Why the ship here became derelict is hinted at in the prologue where a suavely malevolent man in a natty white Nehru suit (Jason Momoa) tells a young woman he wants "to see what you're made of" and then proceeds to show he means this quite literally. The hackers will soon discover that this gent is the personification of the ship's security program, which has been running so long it no longer realizes that it's not human. He has disposed of the former crew and doesn't relish the idea of being terminated.
The influence of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and its murderous computer is obvious — and writer/director David Hewlett admits on the making-of extra he got the idea for this film from that one. Married to this is the template of the slasher film — with its cast of youngish performers killed off one by one — some inside the computer sequences likely inspired by "Tron." Momoa is the closest thing to a name here (and after his upcoming turn as the title character in "Aquaman" he's liable to be A-list) and he delivers the most impressive performance but none of the acting is sub-par (however it must be admitted that the script doesn't ask much of most of the actors). Jeananne Goosen as the lead deprogrammer and Adam Butcher, as a young man who took the rap for infractions committed by his brother, have the most developed characters and they score nicely. If the film's low budget shows it is primarily by the handful of sets that were cleverly designed and redressed to do duty as many more. But neither that nor the paucity of special effects damages a film that is well made and a cut or two above average. If that seems like faint praise consider how many Syfy movies, made for similar budgets, are crappy beyond belief.
2014 / Ketchup Entertainment / 86m /$20.99 [NR]
Given that "Eastern Boys" has won a slew of awards and gotten a 91 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I was expecting to be more impressed by it than I was. I found the acting exceptional but very little else. The film opens with a long sequence set in the Gare du Nord train station in Paris. Within the crowds scurrying to and fro, there is a group of young men who seem to be just aimlessly passing the day. It eventually becomes obvious that they are there to sell their bodies and in due time Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) approaches Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) and sets up an assignation for the following evening. At the appointed time, however, it is the gang that Marek is part of that arrives at his flat. Led by Boss (Daniil Vorobyev), who gives every appearance of being psychotic, the young men raid Daniel's liquor cabinet, party away and strip his apartment of electronics, furnishings and wall hangings. In the first of several peculiar touches, Daniel barely reacts to this at all; he even dances with them until Marek arrives and it's clear that the rent lad is complicit in the home invasion. In the next inexplicable development Marek shows up the following night to have sex with Daniel — for money of course — and Daniel agrees to it. Bit by bit a relationship develops between the two and that forms the balance of the film.
It's difficult to accept Daniel and Marek becoming fond of each other when "Eastern Boys" begins with such improbabilities. That there's any real fondness involved between the two is also a tad tough to swallow when the relationship between them is based on money changing hands and Daniel purchasing expensive gifts for Marek. And while Rabourdin and Emelyanov both turn in good performances there is no sexual spark between the two performers (their sex scenes are joyless) — and given this is clearly a relationship can't work in the long run some onscreen chemistry is crucial. Daniel seems to be in a daze the entire time rather than obsessed and Marek is neither physically or emotionally attractive. Robin Campillo (who co-wrote with Gilles Marchand) directs at a glacial pace and lets the early sequences at the train station and of the home invasion go on and on (the latter especially seems endless). One almost welcomes each appearance of Boss because Vorobyev injects what life there is into the film with his fierce and lunatic performance. "Eastern Boys" plays with a number of important themes — illegal immigration for starters because the gang are all refugees from eastern Europe – but never truly explores any of them. And the film itself is largely inert.
2013 / First Run Features / 128m / $27.95 [NR]
Gunslingers, season one
There is now something called the American Heroes Channel — talk about your niche network — and it was for that venue that "Gunslingers" was produced. The miniseries looks at a half-dozen men of the old west who fit that designation, including Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickock. Told with a combination of narration (supposedly by each gunslinger himself), recreations and interview subjects, the episodes tell the actual history of these western icons as opposed to the legends. Most all of them have had movies made about them and several have been the subject of TV series (only Tom Horn among those examined is reasonable obscure). Those large and small screen accounts largely fall into the category of complete fiction, though I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of my favorite movies, "Hour of the Gun," gets very close to the facts about Wyatt Earp and the aftermath of the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Now, as I'm no expert on this era, I can't vouch for the accuracy of any of the episodes but as AHC is an offshoot of the Discovery Channel, I will take it for granted that we get the truth here. Most of the talking heads are historians — though Kurt Russell does show up in the episode on Earp. Few of them return in episode after episode, which lends some credibility (unlike those UFO shows where the same people weigh in with "authority" on every case and every period in history). The recreations look nicely authentic as to period details of dress and architecture but the handling and the dialogue — what little there is — is banal (we even get those clichéd slow motion walks toward the camera). On the other hand dramatizing these men's lives as in the recent "Sons of Liberty" would inevitably lead to some alterations for dramatic purposes so I'm not arguing in favor of that. It might, however, have been wiser to omit dialogue entirely than to have things along the lines of "Wyatt, it's good to see you." "It's good to see you, too, Virgil." The interview subjects do a wonderful job of putting things in historic context but the results are a bit too dry to be of interest to anyone save history buffs.
2014 / Cinedigm / 270m (2 discs) / $19.97 [NR]
The New Barbarians (I nuovi barbari aka Warriors of the Wasteland)
Italian science fiction films don't come any sillier than "The New Barbarians," a ridiculous rip-off of the "Mad Max" films that takes place in a world devastated by nuclear war. Several groups of survivors attempt to make their way to rumored civilized areas but are set upon by a group of loonies who dub themselves The Templars. This gang cruises about in cars and on motorcycles that have undergone extensive souping up by some amateur Chuck Barris on hallucinogens. They slaughter the survivors because their goal is to punish those who survived. Why they don't mix up a nice big batch of fruit punch and begin with themselves is never addressed. Anyway, some dude named Scorpion (Timothy Brent aka Giancarlo Prete) tools about the desert landscapes in a car with a silver skull hood ornament looking to do battle with the Templars. Although he insists he works alone, he is often joined by Nadir (Fred Williamson) who also — well, you get the idea — more often than not saves Scorpion's bacon. There's really no plot, just a set-up that provides for the usual exploitation ingredients of gunfire (sounding like something from a video game), gore (badly executed with obvious dummies), sex (demure), car chases (in profusion) and explosions (also in profusion).
"The New Barbarians" offers a great deal to ponder such as: Where does everyone get the gasoline for their vehicles in a post-nuclear world? (Surely oil drilling has ceased and refineries are no longer operating?) Where do the cigarettes come from with nary a 7-Eleven to be seen? Where do the Templars get their crazy black-and-white clothes and who does their outrageous hair? Why do all the pretty young women dress in what look like cast-offs from "Barbarella" while the older and less attractive ones are bundled up in Bedouin attire? (OK I guess the answer to that one is pretty obvious.) Why is Scorpion's auto mechanic that creepy kid from "The House by the Cemetery?" None of it makes a lick of sense and I don't suppose anyone gave anything much thought so long as there was plenty of violence and action. I will give the film credit for one of the most transgressive moments I've ever seen in a film of this type. After the Templars have captured Scorpion late in the film the head of the gang sodomizes him. Now heroes in such films are often threatened with such a thing – and I kept expecting Nadir to arrive and prevent it — but for it to actually occur is something else again. That doesn't make this mess any good, mind you, only unusual. And, OK — it's nutty fun.
1983 / Blue Underground / 91m /$29.98 BR+DVD combo [R]