There's no denying that "Maggie" presents, as several critics have noted, Arnold Schwarzenegger as he's never been seen before. Whether it manages to reinvent his screen persona (he functioned as one of the producers so I have to assume he has hopes for that) remains to be seen. It turns out that he is a formidable screen presence even without being in wisecracking action hero mode and craggy and saggy as it's gotten the camera still loves his face. (And bear in mind I've never been a fan so my praise may seem faint.) Whether audiences are willing to accept him as a compassionate father and husband may be doubtful – this film has gone from theaters to home video with some rapidity, suggesting it has seen less than spectacular box office returns. This is rather a shame as director Henry Hobson (making an impressive debut) and his four writers present what turns out to be a compelling new take on the zombie film. In a world ravaged by necroambulism (as they dub it here), possibly caused by agricultural crops (those genetically altered ones no doubt) the infected are kept in isolation facilities unless their families take charge of them until the inevitable transformation when humans start smelling like food. Farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) brings his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) home to care for her until the change and forestall the efforts of authorities to hasten same.
There's more premise than plot to "Maggie;" the film deals with father and daughter reconnecting and both contending with the progression of her terminal condition. Any description will make it sound not unlike any number of Lifetime movies concerning estranged families faced with cancer or AIDS rather than zombies. There are precious few zombie attacks here (possibly one reason the film didn't find an audience); the focus is on the family and how they cope with their circumstances. Much is conveyed with the tiniest details; Vogel's second wife (Joely Richardson, who hasn't nearly enough to do) presumably sends their young children off to a relative soon after Maggie's arrival. Nothing is stated outright, they simply disappear from the narrative. Note, too, odd details of the production design such as the rotary and push button phones from at least three decades ago; no one has a cell phone – just when is this supposed to be taking place anyway? Everything about the interiors and exteriors is bleak – the Vogel home for instance is nigh Shaker in its simplicity. "Maggie" is somber in its design and tone but it leads to a surprisingly humanity affirming finale. The world of the film may be desolate but it isn't without hope. And in Breslin, Richardson and, yes, Schwarzenegger it is graced with a trio of strong performances at its center.
2014 / Lionsgate / 95m / $19.99 BR [PG-13]
Awaken(aka A Perfect Vacation)
If you don't think too hard about "Awaken," Mark Atkins' film is a perfectly adequate action thriller. It presents a group of people stranded on an island, having woken up with no memory of how they arrived there. Any mystery as to the why of their unintended residence is soon revealed; they've been kidnapped to serve as unwilling organ donors to the wealthy. Every so often some camouflaged types (led by Vinnie Jones) arrive to hunt down and harvest one of group. The latest arrival Billie (Natalie Burn) happens to have been trained by her late daddy in martial arts and she leads first an escape attempt to a neighboring island and then an insurrection. The former goes awry when that island turns out to be the headquarters for the enterprise and his soldiers quickly return the escapees. The latter involves an assault on the mansion that serves as home and operating room to the slimeball heading up the operation and his doctor. It so happens that they are in the process of transferring organs from a young female captive to the child of a wealthy woman (Daryl Hannah). She and her bodyguards wear all black, which along with the camo on the paramilitary types comes in handy for determining who's who as everybody guns each other down.
Combining elements of "Lost" and "The Most Dangerous Game," there's nothing terribly original about "Awaken" nor does Atkins do anything particularly interesting with the material. The film is competently but not impressively lensed and the script is no cleverer than it needs to be despite five writers credited. Why the folks are stranded on the island is explained in an almost throwaway bit of dialogue for those who ponder whether it wouldn't be simpler to whisk them direcftly into the operating room. The characters are stereotypes where they're not merely ciphers. For instance, Robert Davi as the apparent leader of those on the island is pretty obviously a suspicious character from the get-go. And of the heroine Billie we know only that she's been trained to fight, that she was snatched while searching for her missing sister and she favors those strategically ripped jeans that cost 10 times what an intact pair would run you at Walmart. Only Hannah finds moments to augment her character with glimmers of humanity though mostly she's relegated to sitting around looking creepy. But then really this flick is designed merely to get you from one action sequence to the next, building to the big shoot-em-up and stab-em-up finale. For what it's meant to be "Awaken" is enormously adequate but no classic.
2014 / Arc Entertainment / 90m / $20.99 [R]
I've said it before: one of the joys of this job is encountering those movies that come out of nowhere with no advance buzz and turn out to be just wonderful. Such is the case with "Slow West," a film that is a western only in that it takes place in the American west shortly after the Civil War. Young Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an Irish noble who has crossed the pond to reconnect with the love of his life, Rose (Caren Pistorius). She and her father have fled after dad accidentally killed Jay's uncle, who objected to his nephew's relationship with a peasant. Jay is saved from a dangerous situation by the abrupt arrival of the mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender) – and for what will turn out not to be the last time – who agrees to guide the young man to his destination, for a fee, of course. What Jay doesn't know is that Silas is a bounty hunter and that he's intent on copping the $2,000 dead-or-alive bounty on Rose and her father. Their trip is colored by various vignettes, such as passing through a Native American village that has been burnt after the inhabitants were slaughtered, the attempted robbery of a general store (much of whose goods seem to have come from those who didn't survived the journey west) and Jay's encounter with a fellow who claims to be chronicling the indigenous tribes.
Complicating the duo's progress is a scruffy gang of bounty hunters who plan to move in after Jay and Silas have led them to the refugees. The emphasis in "Slow West" is on the characters not action (at least until the very end) and in particular on Jay and Silas who are the only two onscreen for the bulk of the running time. Smit-McPhee and Fassbender are magnificent in their portrayals and the latter particularly so in holding the screen. The photography is breathtaking, reflecting Jay's viewpoint of the New World as a wonderous and beautiful place in both its lush and its starkly barren landscapes. Beautiful as it may be it becomes obvious that this land will not be forgiving to naifs such as Jay. There's a great deal here that reminds me of 1972's "Bad Company" and the film takes its place with such unconventional oaters as "The Homesman" and the Coen Brothers' take on "True Grit." All are films that are less westerns than stories that happen to be set in the west. Some reviews complain that the film is slow – well, it is called "Slow West" – but this is a story that needs to develop at a contemplative pace and at 84 minutes it can hardly be said to be too long. This is simply a film that needs to be settled in to not one that grabs you by the lapels (at least not right off the bat) and one that comes very close to being great. It is certainly a film that shouldn't be passed by.
2013 / Lionsgate / 84m / $24.99 BR [R]
As I watched Josh Asher's "Tooken," I found myself thinking it was the most laugh free comedy I'd seen since "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie." But then I remembered "A Million Ways to Die in the West," which came in the interim, and the dismal "Zombieworld," which I reviewed here several weeks ago. These are depressing days indeed when the likes of "Meet the Spartans" and "Vampires Suck" are the funniest spoofs to be found – yes their humor is puerile but at least the guys who make those flicks know how to set up a joke and make it pay off. This spoof on the "Taken" franchise has former CIA agent turned mall cop Brian Millers (Lee Tergesen) getting involved with Albanians smuggling explosives using a chain of pet stores for cover and inserting said explosives into small dogs. Their boss, Brown Finger (Margaret Cho) had his (yes his) puppy taken away from him when he was a child and so is intent on depriving others of their canine pets. Small doggies being killed indicates the level of humor here – the film even opens with Millers losing a series of Shi Tzus who are swept out of his car's window and sun roof – and if that pushes your laughter button then "Tooken" is for you.
Subplots include Millers' ex-CIA mother (Joyce Bulifant), whose residence in a nursing home doesn't dim her willingness to waterboard or otherwise torture a suspect, and his estranged wife (Lauren Stamile), who is currently dating a black porn star know as Moneymaker (Reno Wilson), leading to jokes about how he'll "widen her channel" (I presume you weren't expecting the sex jokes to be subtle, which means you'll be set for the climactic sword fight with a six-foot erection). A further sub-plot has Millers trying to thwart his teen daughter's determined efforts to lose her virginity. Now it may be that "Tooken" is one of those hipster efforts where the supposed humor is derived from how lame and unfunny it all is – and pardon me for expressing bafflement at deliberately making a comedy that isn't funny – but the only performers who manage to eke a scintilla of humor from the material are Cho and Bulifant and that has more to do with their screen presence than the script or direction. Everyone else is strictly in desperation mode and the film is a waste.
2015 / Cinedigm / 81m / $14.93 [R] By Harry Long