Tag Archives: D+

END OF THE ROAD

Producers: Tracey E. Edmonds, Mark Burg and Brad Kaplan    Director: Millicent Shelton    Screenplay: Christopher J. Moore and David Loughery   Cast: Queen Latifah, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Beau Bridges, Mychale Faith Lee, Shaun Dixon, Frances Lee McCain, Jesse Luken, Tabatha Shaun, Keith Jardin, Jasper Keen and Michael McNeil   Distributor: Netflix  

Grade: D+

A road movie that starts out as a blandly familiar family drama and morphs into a violent thriller that grows more absurd by the mile, “End of the Road” is as generic as its title and just as uninspired.

Queen Latifah is Brenda Freeman, a recently widowed Los Angeles nurse whose finances were so devastated by her late husband’s cancer treatment that she can no longer pay the mortgage on her nice house.  The only answer is to move to Houston where she and her two kids—teen Kelly (Mychale Faith Lee) and younger brother Cam (Shaun Dixon) will live with her mother.  (Neither wants to leave L.A., of course.)  They’ll all drive to Texas with Brenda’s brother Reggie (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), a flaky sort despite, as he keeps reminding us, holding down the responsible position of assistant manager at a Chick fil-A.

Things go wrong almost immediately as they cross into Arizona.  They’re forced to detour off the highway by road construction, and at a gas station Kelly summarily dismisses the advances of a couple of sleazy rednecks (Jasper Keen and Michael McNeil) by flipping them off, which causes the two creeps to first try to run them off the road and then to block their way until Brenda is forced to make a humiliatingly racist apology.

But that’s only an appetizer of horrors.  At a crummy motel the family is rousted by a commotion next door, including a gunshot.  Rushing to help, they find a fellow named Ruck (Jesse Luken) dead, and we know why he’s been killed, having seen him steal a duffel bag full of cash he was given by a guy from a Mexican drug cartel for delivery to his boss, the mysterious Mr. Cross.

Brenda tells the cops all she knows before they send the family on their way, but when he arrives Captain Hammers (Beau Bridges), who says he’s been chasing Cross for years, wants to talk with her himself.  When he reaches her on the phone, though, Brenda refuses to come back, and so he goes after them.  Unfortunately, she’s also contacted by a mysterious voice demanding the return of his money.  She’s understandably bewildered by this, but it’s soon revealed that Reggie stole the duffel bag the killer had been forced to leave behind in his haste to escape, thinking the cash the answer to their prayers.

It’s not, of course, and when Cam is kidnapped after the Freemans unwisely stop at one of those western theme towns, Brenda is determined to return the duffel bag.  Unfortunately, her plan falls apart when the bag is taken by a greedy motel maid (Tabatha Shaun), whom Brenda tracks to the camp of a nasty skinhead (Keith Jardin) who’s loathe to give it up.  By this time the clan has made contact with Hammers, who takes them to the isolated house he shares with his wife Val (Frances Lee McCain) for protection.

This latter portion of the picture is filled with car chases, hand-to-hand fights, captures, escapes and explosions.  Luckily Brenda, as she pointedly tells us near the start, was a military brat, and so is adept in all manner of combat techniques, and can hold her own when faced with threats.  There are some plot twists courtesy of writers Christopher J. Moore and David Loughery too, but they’re all predictable and flat-footed, and neither the cast nor director Millicent Shelton invest them with much energy, so they unspool in a pretty perfunctory way. 

This is frankly material that would have seemed stale in a 1970s network movie of the week, and though Latifah, the two Bridges and the rest do what they can, it remains an increasingly risible and tedious concoction.  (You might find yourself longing for a bit of “The Hills Have Eyes” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to liven things up—though here it’s Arizona that’s the trouble spot, with the Lone Star state presented as a sort of sanctuary.)   The technical package—production design (Lucia Seixas), costumes (Rahimeh Toba) and cinematography (Ed Wu)—is just okay, while Tirsa Hackshaw’s editing never rises above the prosaic, and toward the close is often positively messy.  Craig DeLeon’s score is insistent but rather dull, and the inevitable pop numbers inserted into the mix add little.

Maybe the essential inanity of “End of the Road” won’t inordinately bother Netflix viewers who stumble onto it, but it’s really not worth the price of admission, even though that’s zero if you subscribe to the service.     

PACIFIC RIM

Grade: D+

There was a time when one looked forward to a new film by Guillermo del Toro with great anticipation—back when he was turning out haunting smaller pictures like “Cronos,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and even “Mimic.” But with “Blade II” his priorities began to change, and he opted to make bigger, but much less interesting movies with a childish, rather than childlike, sensibility. “Pacific Rim” is the worst yet, a “Power Rangers” on steroids with an inane plot, cliché-ridden dialogue, cardboard characters and stilted acting. Roughly half the two-hour running time is devoted to city-destroying fight scenes between Transformer-like giant robots and Godzilla-ish monsters that arise from the ocean floor. That might appeal to anybody fascinated by the old Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em toys and the mayhem of video games, but anyone else—that is, anyone who’s progressed beyond the mentality of a twelve-year old boy—will be bored silly by it.

The premise is that earth is in the middle of a war against aliens who attack the planet not from the skies but from the sea, via some sort of wormhole through which they send gigantic monsters called kaiju. Humankind responds by building equally gigantic metal bots called jaeger, which are maneuvered in battle by two pilots whose minds are melded in something called a “drift” so that they can synchronize the movements. But after five years of combat, the earthlings are losing. The planetary leadership is on the verge of a abandoning the jaeger program—which in any event is down to a handful of robots and pilot teams—and switch to a defensive wall strategy. But the kaiju, we’re told, are getting smarter and more effective by learning from their mistakes—something that del Toro and his filmmaking crew, unhappily, do not seem to have been able to do, as their movie grows increasingly tedious as it drags on.

Thankfully the stern leader of the jaeger force, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), refuses to go down quietly. He rejuvenates his dwindling pilot crew by recommissioning Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), who abandoned the service after his co-pilot and brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) was killed in combat off the Alaska coast. He’s one of the few surviving men who can pilot an old analogue jaeger that’s being taken out of mothballs to expand the few digital ones remaining, and naturally becomes an immediate subject of scorn to arrogant hotshot Chuck Hansen (Rob Kazinsky), who teams with his more reasonable father Hercules (Max Martini) in their bot. Raleigh soon sets him straight in a brawl, of course.

But Raleigh needs a new partner, and the choice is inevitable—beautiful, winsome but incredibly skilled Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), whom Stacker initially refuses to allow onto the helm of a robot for reasons that are supposed to tease us with uncertainty but are all too melodramatically obvious (and are spelled out in a series of flashbacks featuring Mana Ashida as young Mako that show del Toro at his mawkish worst—a real comedown from the mysterious ambience he brought to his early films). Stacker must eventually relent, and Raleigh and Mako become a team in more ways than one.

There’s also a frenzied subplot—supposedly providing comic relief—centered on Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), a nerdy scientist who’s sure that gaining the knowledge to defeat the kaiju requires a mind-meld with the preserved brain of one of them, a project that takes him to Hannibal Chau (del Toro regular Ron Perlman), a dealer in kaiju body parts—much to the distress of his frazzled rival Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who prefers developing predictive algorithms as the key to discerning the aliens’ strategy.

But all the human stuff is secondary to the battle scenes, which resemble video-game sequences without benefit of any interactivity. As bots and rubbery critters face off, innumerable bridges collapse and skyscrapers fall, though loss of human lives is merely reported on rather than shown (this is, after all, a movie that needs a PG-13 rating to survive financially). The effect will undoubtedly be thought cool by those who dote on such bloodless carnage—sort of the cinematic reversal of a neutron bomb, sparing people while annihilating structures—but after awhile it grows as boring as the final reel of “Man of Steel,” especially since the choreography and editing fail to keep the action clear and there’s little explanation for why the outcome turns out as it does in each case. The same opacity afflicts the finale, which involves an attempt to blow up the wormhole that brings a predictably triumphant conclusion, but is quite messily and murkily conveyed. (The wormhole is called the breach, so we must at least count it a blessing that the script doesn’t call for someone to shout “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!”)

Quality of acting means little in this sort of bombastic fantasy, but the cast here falls into two major groups—the solemn underplayers (Hunnam, Elba, Kikuchi, Martini) and the scenery-chewing overplayers (Day, Gorman, Kazinsky), with Perlman, as usual, pretending to be underplaying while actually going overboard with his clenched teeth. The physical production is oddly unimpressive for such a big-budget enterprise, and the same can be said of the effects, which are huge in scope but oddly blowsy in Guillermo Navarro’s 3D cinematography. Ramin Djawadi’s score goes to ear-splitting extremes in trying to juice up the action.

Perhaps it’s psychologically beneficial for del Toro to glorify the loves of his youth, but thus far the result has hardly been something others could enjoy as much as he does. His remake of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was a stinker, and this tribute to Japanese monster movies isn’t appreciably better. If you were enthralled by “Battleship” last summer, “Pacific Rim” is for you. It’s really no better than Peter Berg’s misfire, and the del Toro imprimatur doesn’t change that.