It’s usually best to approach any B-movie with lowered expectations; but it’s hard not to get excited about the premise for “Primal,” in which the ever-offbeat Nicolas Cage plays Frank Walsh, an exotic animal collector who’s escorting his latest catch on a transoceanic voyage when a rogue U.S. Marine escapes federal custody and frees the menagerie.
Kevin Durand plays the psychopath, who relies on Frank’s spider monkeys and tapirs — plus one rare white jaguar — to distract the ship’s crew, while he evades the U.S. attorney (Michael Imperioli) and the Navy neurologist (Famke Janssen) who’ve been assigned to keep him alive until he can be interrogated back home.
So we’ve got expert hunters and wild game playing cat-and-mouse on the high seas. Pretty fun, right?
Alas, “Primal” ends up being more exhausting than awesome. Cage and Durand chew the scenery like trenchermen; and Janssen and Imperioli are far more charismatic than their roles require. But while director Nicholas Powell is a veteran stunt coordinator, his movie is decidedly lacking in eye-popping action.
For the most part, the jungle creatures end up being a non-factor, as “Primal” devolves into scene after scene of overly serious guys and gals delivering earnest — and static — monologues, while pointing guns at each other. Even the cargo vessel proves dreary. It looks like a typical action movie warehouse, filling the background of every shot with featureless gray metal and drab wooden boxes.
Unfortunately, even by the relaxed standards of trash cinema, “Primal” is dispiritingly tame.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 8, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD
The veteran character actor William Fichtner makes his directorial debut with “Cold Brook,” an offbeat indie drama he co-wrote with Cain DeVore. Fichtner also stars, as a blue collar small-towner who stumbles into a paranormal conundrum.
Fichtner and Kim Coates play Ted and Hilde, respectively, maintenance men at a small college near Syracuse. Harold Perrineau plays a troubled centuries-old ghost named Gil, who appears at the college’s history museum, looking for some closure that — for reasons that eventually become clear — only these middle-aged white men can provide.
Fichtner has good intentions, tying his character’s mid-life crisis to something meaningful, with roots in America’s racist past and Ted’s own macho short-sightedness. As Ted and Hilde investigate Gil’s story, both men also upset their loving wives (played by Robin Weigert and Mary Lynn Rajskub), whose uncommon tolerance for male bonding doesn’t extend to their husbands risking their jobs, by traipsing around the countryside with a needy apparition.
Ultimately, though, strong performances and a deep level of personal feeling can’t keep “Cold Brook” from feeling scattered and slight. Fichtner’s love for upstate New York — and his interest in exploring the dynamic of longtime married couples — makes this movie easy to root for. But he doesn’t have much of a story, or much of a directorial eye. His passion project is admirable but minor.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Playing: Starts Nov. 8, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also on VOD
The explosive, action-packed Vietnam War movie “Danger Close” dramatizes a story that even a lot of military buffs don’t know, about the Battle of Long Tan, where a vastly outmanned scouting patrol of Australian and New Zealand soldiers fended off the Viet Cong forces surrounding the ANZAC base. Travis Fimmel stars as Major Harry Smith, a coldly calculating commander who gradually comes to respect the courage and cunning of his inexperienced troops.
Director Kriv Stenders — working from a script by Stuart Beattie — treats this subject with the gravity of such classic Australian wartime dramas as “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli,” which both examine a nation’s character via stories of men tested by a battlefield’s moral quandaries. The soldiers here, though, come across as too stock, drawn more from pulp adventures than from history. “Danger Close” lacks the sophistication and maturity of a great war movie.
That said, fans of elaborately staged battle sequences will find a lot to appreciate, given that the actual skirmishes at Long Tan went through several phases, affected by heavy rain, misty mud-clouds and the availability of air support. Anyone interested in the complexities and controversies surrounding Australia and New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam may find “Danger Close” disappointing. But the movie actually works OK as one long fight scene.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 8, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD
Some micro-budget horror leans heavy on atmosphere and formulaic jump-scares. Then there are movies such as writer-director Anne-Sophie Dutoit’s “Ballet Blanc,” which aim to upset viewers with unrelenting oddity. Dutoit, though, pushes her needle too far into the red, tilting her film from the bizarre to the inscrutable.
Shelley Starrett plays a raspy-voiced eccentric named Mrs. Willis, who adopts a long-haired orphan boy named Coco (Colter Carlbom-Mann) with a passion for music and dance. The strange new family — and their disturbing penchant for blood sacrifices — attracts the attention of a local pastor and social worker, Wax Crevice (Brian Woods), whose inquiry provokes an explosion of violence.
A curious framing device — which sees these same three characters adopting different personae — gives “Ballet Blanc” a dreamlike quality. But more often than not, it feels like Dutoit uses shock and surrealism as a way to cover up for the movie’s plodding pace, crude blocking and nonsensical story. It’s admirable that she’s trying to defy convention here, but the result is something ultimately too befuddling to disturb.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 8, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood
The inaptly named “Acceleration” stars Natalie Burn as Rhona, a skilled assassin tracking down her kidnapped son, in a movie that quickly becomes just another plodding, underwritten underworld shoot-‘em-up. Dolph Lundgren brings a little pizazz — but just a little — to the role of Vladik, the crime boss who sets Rhona’s mission in motion, treating it like one big game.
Screenwriter Michael Merino — who also co-directed with Daniel Zirilli — mixes together a bit of “Kill Bill,” a drop of “Drive,” a touch of “Taken” and a hefty helping of “John Wick.” (There’s scarcely a Z-grade crime movie these days that doesn’t rip off “John Wick.”) But while Burn gives an OK performance as Rhona, the heroine’s bloody rampage through various mob dens is mostly tedious, featuring more chitchat than action. “Acceleration” is like a quest story with all the cool complications and nifty narrow escapes removed.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 8, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD