While it's an uneven comedy, "Barely Lethal" is an agreeable enough effort that works more often than not. The scenario presents Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) as a teenage assassin who has been trained in James Bond techniques since a toddler at the Prescott along with a number of other orphan girls. (There is, we learn later in the film, a Prescott for Boys as well.) This institution is housed in a familiar looking building — except it's six-sided rather than five — and presided over by Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson); it operates under the notion that espionage targets are not going to expect to be eliminated by young women. But 83 has a hankering to live a normal teenage life, or at any rate her idea of normal as derived from videos of "Mean Girls" and "Beverly Hills 90210." She takes advantage of becoming lost and declared dead during an operation against superspy Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) to assume the identity of Canadian exchange student Megan Walsh and take up residence in a small town. She gets her first hint that real life may not much resemble reel life when she discovers that the perfect family she's chosen to host her no longer has a husband and father in residence.
"Barely Lethal" succeeds most in the fish-out-of-water material as Megan attempt to negotiate high school social situations and as often as not makes erroneous decisions, such as when she assumes that because one group that approaches her is comprised of cheerleaders they are setting her up for an elaborate scheme to embarrass her. Likewise, she mistakes the real mean girls and follows their advice to become the school mascot, something that initially goes awry but ends up making her the most popular student in the school. And of course she is blind to the geeky boy who adores her in favor of the cutest boy. The spy action returns when Victoria manages an escape from her Prescott captors thanks to a double agent and shows up to threaten the host family. The fight scenes are well-staged (if a tad too reliant on obvious doubles) but are standard stuff with little humor. A rare exception is when formerly antagonistic daughter Liz (Dove Cameron) gets involved and decides, "Stabbing people is fun. Are there going to be more people for me to stab?" Good comic support is lent by Rachel Harris as the mom and Gabriel Basso as the class clown who turns out to be a mite deeper than his rude T-shirts suggest. Even when the material lets them down — which is more often than might be wished — the cast carries the day.
2015 / Lionsgate 99m / $19.99 BR [PG-13]
The Blood Lands (aka White Settlers)
"The Blood Lands" is, per a title at the beginning, "based on actual events." The cynic in me wonders if said events took place in a screening of "Straw Dogs." The film has a young couple checking out a large house in Scotland for which the phrase "fixer-upper" is a gross understatement. Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) hectors a reluctant Ed (Lee Williams) until he agrees to buy it so they can escape their stressful London existence. On their first night, she jumps at every noise and insists he investigate; when he balks after the umpteenth time, she accuses him of being selfish. It transpires, however, that their new home has been invaded by a group of men wearing pig masks and intent on terrorizing, brutalizing and possibly murdering the couple. (At one point, a bound and gagged Ed is threatened with having his private parts fed to the hogs.) Aside from remarks about Ed and Sarah not being Scottish, the why of the situation is not revealed until the end.
The lack of a reason for the events until that stinger means that "The Blood Lands" is a strictly formula home invasion flick with the couple initially captured then escaping and besting their tormenters only to be recaptured — usually by doing something that makes no sense except to keep the movie going, such as stopping to rest behind a tree when fleeing from apparent killers. That this is quite an unlikeable couple — Sarah in particular is such a whiny nag that you want to smack her — makes the formulaic proceedings downright tedious. The final reveal suggests that perhaps we should be on the side of the men in swine masks but we know nothing about who they are until then. Yes, there is a hint from the real estate agent showing the house at the beginning but nearly all of the film plays out with the attackers being a bunch of chauvinistic yahoos. Maybe if Sarah and Ed were a more appealing couple the gotcha ending would work better but I have my doubts. It would still be a strictly by-the-numbers thriller.
2015 / Magnet / 83m / $24,.98 BR [R]
As a citizenry, we are constantly surveilled. There are cameras just about everywhere, including on city streets. Ostensibly these are to catch traffic law violators but they record everything and if you believe shows such as "CSI" what they capture can be used for tracking down other lawbreakers. Of course they also record the activities of everyone who passes before their lenses. Then there are those ubiquitous store cards whose purpose is supposedly to offer the consumer savings but which also track your purchases. And as they usually are linked to your Social Security number they are further linked to, well, just about everything in your life. Your online purchases are linked to a credit or debit card and thus to bank accounts and — well, you get the picture. We didn't take George Orwell's warning in "1984" to heart; instead we have embraced the notion of being a society that has no expectation of privacy. These were some of the thoughts running through my head as I watched "Citizenfour," a documentary about Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency's collection of cell phone communications. How you react to this film — or whether you even watch it at all — will depend on whether you view Snowden as a patriot or a traitor.
"Citizenfour," by the way, is how Snowden signed his initial emails to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras and this documentary consists primarily of footage made by the latter of Snowden's initial interviews with the former in a Hong Kong hotel room. He seems quite sincere that it was correct to expose the NSA's gathering of information without warrants on specific targets that warranted suspicion. And it would turn out that the spy agency was not only prying into the communications of every U.S. citizen – resulting no doubt in a plethora of OMG and LOL texts — but also of foreign leaders friendly to our country. Our current president campaigned against this epic noseyparkerism only to embrace it once in office. Possibly he's forgotten his own opinion that laws cannot be ignored just because they're inconvenient or of the wisdom of founding father Benjamin Franklin that, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both ..." At any rate, he should contemplate that the next time you phone your spouse to say, "Honey, on the way home pick up some panko and olive oil," our tax dollars are paying the NSA to spend time to listen.
2014 / Anchor Bay / 113m / $26.99 BR [R]
Say what you will about Syslvester Stallone's "The Expendables" movies (what I'd have to say might be unprintable) they have revitalized several careers that might be described as in the doldrums if not downright nonexistent. One of those careers was that of Dolph Lundgren whose sporadic work was mostly confined to TV and DVDs that were released directly to the Walmart dump bins. He's had three films released so far this year and another seven are completed and ready for release this year and next. One is the long-awaited sequel to "Kindergarten Cop;" I'll bet you can't wait. "Skin Trade" presents him as policeman Nick Cassidy, who early on busts an operation by white slaver Viktor (Ron Perelman). Viktor gets away — quite improbably considering the army of law enforcement personnel involved — but one of his sons is killed. This naturally peeves the Russian considerably and he sends out some lackeys to take out Nick's house with a rocket launcher, kill the cop's wife and abduct his daughter. The severely burned and bullet-riddled Nick rises from his hospital bed and goes rogue, heading for Bangkok where he is first opposed by but later teams up with a local detective (Tony Jaa).
"Skin Trade" is so excitingly directed you might not notice (or won't mind) that there's scarcely any plot after the set-up is established, just a strung-together series of action sequences. Director Ekachai Uekrongtham keeps things moving at a swift clip and his camera work is striking. That said it's still a completely brainless film that exists to showcase explosions and an abundance of gunfire. There are a couple of martial arts sequences (where the 57-year-old Lundgren is pretty obviously being doubled, though Jaa seems to be doing the majority of his own stuntwork) but most of the action is in the nature of shoot-outs — and forgive me if I question calling that action. Perlman, Peter Weller and Michael Jai White lend their name value to the DVD case but not much screen time to the proceedings. The last at least has a brief martial arts scene with Jaa — and I should add that the hand-to-hand combat sequences are refreshingly free of the ridiculous wire work that plagues some productions. Action fans will likely eat this effort up but others are likely to be less enamored despite the exhilarating filmmaking.
2015 / Magnet / 96m / $26.98 [R]
The DVD case for "Wolf Warrior" promises "breathtaking martial arts." I should warn you that it takes a long time to get to said action and breathtaking is not the designation I'd give it. The film presents martial arts performer Wu Jing as Leng Feng, a sniper in the Chinese army. During an operation against a drug lord the bad guy takes a hostage, which action causes the commander to order a cease-fire. Leng disobeys the order and takes out the crook. This causes him to be severely castigated by his commander but desired by the elite Wolf corps whose female commander has Leng drugged, dangled by cable from a helicopter and transported to an unspecified location. You might well wonder why they don't just stuff the guy into the whirlybird but this might be the time to alert you that if you expect my synopsis to make a lick of sense you're reading the wrong review. Leng is soon ensconced in war games that demonstrate he still doesn't grasp that there is no I in team and is completely incapable of following orders. Not surprisingly, he's always right when he argues with or ignores the officer in charge but aside from establishing these, er, vital facts the film is just marking time.
The drug lord you see had a mobster brother (of course) who has sworn vengeance (of course) against Leng and apparently the whole Chinese army. Possibly he's looking for payback against the whole danged country because in addition to hiring mercenaries to attack the Wolf warriors he's also trying to smuggle out blood samples that will allow him to develop a biological weapon that will only exterminate Chinese peoples. Somewhere around the 2/3 mark we get the Wolves fighting against the hired forces led by Tomcat (Scott Adkins) rather than playing at being soldiers with another army contingent. There's lots of bang-bang-bang footage and a few explosions but absolutely no martial arts until the last few minutes of the film when Tomcat and Leng square off. "Wolf Warrior" has a plot that seems to have been made up on the fly. At one point, the Wolves are set up by real wolves — well, badly rendered CGI wolves at any rate — and precisely what this has to do with the rest of the film is anybody's guess. We're supposed to accept Leng as a brilliant military strategist, a crack shot and a loveable goofball but Wu Jing hasn't quite got what it takes to pull off a Jackie Chan impersonation. Adkins exudes more charisma in his 10 minutes or so of screen time. Even fans of action films might want to pass up this mess.
2015 / Well Go USA / 90m / $29.98 BR [NR]