Friday, September 7, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Nobody Ever Thinks They're the Bad Guy

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Big screen stars, small screen action.


Director Eduardo Rodriguez's 2012 film Stash House centers on Sean Faris and Briana Evigan as married couple  David and Amy Nash, who have recently moved to Louisiana from Ohio for a business opportunity, and the first time I watched the movie the only thing I really liked about it was one line: when Amy tells David, "We should've never left Ohio." As a native Ohioan who is quite fond of my home state, that's definitely a line I can get behind.

Rewatching it years later, I found more things to enjoy.

The film is a home invasion action thriller, beginning with David and Amy moving into a house with a hell of a security system. You need a fingerprint key to open the front gate, there are security cameras that give a 360 degree view of the property and include motion trackers and weapon detectors, the walls of the house are lined with metal, the windows are bulletproof, and there's a panic room. Their first night in their new home, the couple discovers exactly why the previous owner was so paranoid - they were in the drug running business, and the walls of their bedroom are packed with heroin.

Immediately after they make this discovery, a pair of armed men (Jon Huertas and Dolph Lundgren) who familiar with the house's criminal purpose show up with the intention of retrieving something from inside. That proves to be incredibly difficult thanks to the security measures, which give David and Amy a shot at surviving the night.

When Dolph Lundgren as a guy named Spector is trying to break into someone's house, security like this is the only thing that could save them.

I generally enjoy home invasion thrillers and just the fact that Lundgren and Evigan are in the cast already earns the film bonus points, so it's somewhat surprising that I didn't like Stash House more the first time I watched it. Maybe I was put off by all of the night exterior scenes being shot in night vision, a choice I'm still not overly enthusiastic about. But overall it's a decently entertaining film that keeps the escape attempts and break-in attempts flowing steadily, with the villains even using grenades and bombs to try to get into this place.

As far as Lundgren's career goes, this isn't exactly Universal Soldier, I Come in Peace, or Showdown in Little Tokyo, it may not even be The Punisher or Masters of the Universe, but it's not a bad mark on his filmography.


Director Steven C. Miller first worked with the producers at Emmett/Furla/Oasis on the 2015 film Extraction, and they were obviously impressed with what he did on that film because over the next year he shot three movies back to back to back for them. The first of the three was Marauders, a revenge movie disguised as a heist movie.

Scripted by Michael Cody and Chris Sivertson, the story begins with a bank robbery pulled off by a group of masked thieves armed with guns and hi-tech devices: these guys don't need to talk to the people in the bank, a little device that has certain phrases programmed into it and is operated by a smart watch worn by one of the thieves does the talking for them. As capable and well equipped as these criminals are, they're almost equally as homicidal. They execute the bank manager for no reason.

The bank is owned by Cincinnati-based company Hubert International, which is run by Jeffrey Hubert (Bruce Willis, working with Miller again after Extraction and doing another one of his quick and easy appearances in a direct-to-video movie). As the criminals pull off more heists, donating large sums of money to charity and mercilessly killing more people, it becomes clear that they have some kind of vendetta against Hubert - and it probably has something to do with the kidnapping of his younger brother by rogue Army soldiers some time back. Those rogue soldiers were wiped out by a Special Forces team, but the younger Hubert was also killed in the process.

I have to admit, when I put in a low budget, direct-to-video flick that was sold as a heist movie, I did not expect a story that had so many layers, and definitely didn't expect a running time of 107 minutes. Extraction was only 82 minutes!

The mystery is gradually solved by FBI agents played by Christopher Meloni, Dave Bautista, Adrian Grenier, and Lydia Hull, who along the way also butt heads with and get assistance from a local detective played by Johnathon Schaech, who seems to want to be the hero in this case. It becomes even clearer that Cody and Sivertson were aiming higher than usual when they even throw in a subplot with Schaech's character where we find out his wife has cancer. It's not exactly necessary, but they were doing their best to add drama and depth. Meloni's character also has a tragic background involving his wife.

Cody and Sivertson's endeavors to flesh out the characters are admirable, even if it does end up making the film feel like it's slightly over-written for the subject matter, and thus also a bit longer than it needed to be. Members of the cast certainly did all the could with what they were given to work with; Meloni in particular comes off incredibly well. Marauders is so-so overall, but Meloni's performance alone makes it worth seeing. Everything else that's good around him is a bonus.

ARSENAL (2017)

The second of the three filmmaking missions Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films sent director Steven C. Miller on in quick succession was Arsenal, on which he worked from a script written by Jason Mosberg. The project was first announced under the title Philly Fury, which was then changed to Southern Fury when it turned out that it was going to be filmed in Mississippi. Unfortunately, any talk of "Fury" was scrapped in favor of the more generic title Arsenal - and honestly, when I hear that word the intended definition of a collection of weapons isn't the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, I think of the Arsenal Football Club. And I don't even pay attention to sports.

Regardless of title or setting, the story centers on brothers JP and Mikey, who are played by Miller's Marauders stars Adrien Grenier and Johnathon Schaech as adults. The characters are first introduced as children, when we see Mikey getting mixed up with local crime boss Eddie King (Nicolas Cage, sporting one of the worst hairpieces of his career). Jump ahead 23 years and Mikey has been so beaten down by living a life of crime and suffering through a very unhappy marriage that he's feeling suicidal. Meanwhile, JP is a blue collar success story, enjoying some domestic bliss with his wife Lizzie (Lydia Hull).

After a coke score gone bad, Mikey is pulled back into the orbit of Eddie King after several years away from him. Then it seems Mikey gets himself kidnapped, as JP gets a call demanding a $350,000 ransom. Always having looked up to his big brother, JP springs into action to do whatever it takes to save him, getting advice and assistance from John Cusack as his buddy Sal along the way.

I don't generally care for movies about organized crime and I didn't really care about these characters, either, so the 40 minutes it took Arsenal to set up the kidnapping part of the story weren't very enjoyable for me. It was once JP got the phone call that I started to find a reason to be interested in the movie, and it had my attention from that point on.

Miller and Mosberg threw some unexpected twists and turns my way, and Cage chewed the scenery as only he can, pouring his all into every moment. That's what makes Cage great; even if he overacts at times, at least the man always shows up to put the effort in. Unlike other big stars who wind up in low budget, direct-to-video fare, Cage never phones it in. He's always present. Arsenal even allows him to share a scene with his own real life brother Christopher Coppola, a scene that sends his character's emotions spiraling out of control.

The situation builds up to a minor shootout that's presented with an overabundance of slow motion and CG bullets, but also has a bit of nice gore mixed in there.

Arsenal doesn't amount to much in the end, but the second half of it is a decent watch, and it's worth seeing just for the stuff involving Cage (Cusack is pretty cool in here, too).


The third film director Steven C. Miller made for Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films over the course of one year was First Kill, written by Girl House's Nick Gordon. This film marks Miller's third time working with Bruce Willis, which I know would be a nightmare scenario for some directors, but maybe he's not the pain so many stories have made him out to be when he's showing up to do a couple days on little movies like this.

First Kill was shot in just 14 days, with production taking place in my neck of the woods. The setting is the same small town where it was shot; Granville, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. That's where Wall Street stockbroker Will (Hayden Christensen) takes his wife Laura (Megan Leonard, who made her screen debut in Miller's Arsenal) and son Danny (Ty Shelton) in hopes of bonding with the kid while showing him this town he lived in for the first 10 years of his life. Will's idea is that he will take his son out deer hunting, but rather than shoot a deer Will ends up shooting another person.

While in the woods, Will and Danny see a man with a gun threatening and wounding a man named Levi (Gethin Anthony). When the man with the gun spots Danny and raises his gun to shoot him, Will kills the man to protect his son.

As it turns out, Will has just inserted himself into the middle of a bank robbery scheme concocted by members of the local police force, with Levi the intended scapegoat. Soon he has corrupt cops breathing down his neck, and people keep abducting his family members - first Danny gets kidnapped, then later Laura gets taken by somebody.

First Kill was like the opposite of Arsenal for me; there I wasn't interested in the first half of the movie and then started enjoying it more in the second half. First Kill had me interested at first, but I gradually lost interest as it went along. While some characters are stumbling around in the dark trying to solve a mystery, others are taking breaks to play video games and take naps - I was about as engrossed with the proceedings as the second bunch there.

None of the three films Miller made in a row for EFO blew me away, but it's not Miller's fault. He directs the hell out of the material he's given, but the scripts of these tended to be lacking in my estimation, even when they were aiming high. The stories and characters just didn't usually appeal to me. But Miller makes them well; I can see why EFO keeps him so busy.

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