Reviews: Frat house horror in ‘Pledge’ and more
Like many movies about the college caste system, the gross-out horror picture “Pledge” draws more inspiration from ’70s and ’80s “snobs vs. slobs” comedies than it does real life. But here, the exaggeration’s welcome, because it makes the torture and degradation somewhat easier to take.
Screenwriter Zack Weiner stars as David, a thirsty dork who persuades his reluctant dorm-mates Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and Justin (Zachery Byrd) to follow him from one frat house to another during Pledge Week, practically begging the standoffish Greeks for a bid. Then an attractive young woman suggests the trio try a secret society, so exclusive that its posh mansion is in the middle of nowhere. The club’s brothers are — suspiciously — very friendly.
“Pledge” starts out broadly comic, like “Revenge of the Nerds” minus the revenge. After about 20 minutes, director Daniel Robbins switches gears and David and his friends get plunged into 48 hours of extreme hazing — more “Hostel” than “Animal House.”
Robbins and Weiner have pared “Pledge” down to a slim 78-minutes, for better and worse. It would be tough to endure many more scenes of terrified pledges getting physically punished: branded with hot irons and forced to eat lukewarm mystery slop. But the movie runs too low on plot. It has one good twist toward the end, but could use more.
Still, give the filmmakers credit for leaning hard into what for many young people is a common nightmare scenario. The characters and premise of “Pledge” are over-the-top, but the movie understands that — whether comedy or horror — all these stories are really about a desperate yearning for belonging.
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 18, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD
Noomi Rapace is a different kind of big-screen bodyguard in “Close,” a jittery action picture based on the real experiences of Jacquieline Davis: a rare woman in the field of “close protection,” providing security to the rich and powerful. Written, directed and produced by Vicky Jewson, “Close” works well when it sticks to the distinctive personal details of this kind of job; but it too often defaults to a run-of-the-mill international thriller.
Rapace plays Sam, an accomplished counterterrorism agent who trades the danger of war zones for what she assumes will be a safer gig, protecting spoiled young mining heiress Zoe Tanner (Sophie Nélisse). Then a botched and bloody kidnapping attempt forces the two women to go into hiding in Morocco.
While Sam calls on contacts from her old life, Zoe gets no help from an unloving stepmother (Indira Varma), who seems more concerned with how the bad headlines are tanking the Tanner company’s stock price.
The chase sequences in “Close” are solidly exciting, though never stunning; and too much of the movie consists of either wealthy people or military types swapping over-explanatory dialogue in urgent tones.
Rapace and Jewson though do justice to Davis’ skills, which involve complicated logistical planning and more than a little managing of clients’ egos. Perhaps they’ll attempt a sequel, which will be more about the fascinating daily grind of personal security and less about bland bad guys shooting guns.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Available Jan. 18 on Netflix
Boxer Chuck Wepner once went 15 punishing rounds with Muhammad Ali — an achievement that partly inspired the movie “Rocky” — before his career went off the rails due to drug-fueled partying. And it’s no wonder that his story’s been told on screen multiple times: in the 2011 ESPN documentary “The Real Rocky,” in the star-studded 2016 biopic “Chuck,” and now in the low-budget, largely unnecessary “The Brawler.”
Zach McGowan makes a fine Wepner, and it’s always nice to see Joe Pantoliano and Taryn Manning (playing, respectively, Chuck’s savvy manager and his exasperated ex-wife). But director and co-writer Ken Kushner takes too breezy an approach to this cautionary tale, staging it like a Martin Scorsese knockoff, right down to incessant voice-over narration and a soundtrack filled with classic rock (or at least a cheap imitation). “The Brawler” isn’t terrible, but those with any interest at all in Chuck Wepner should start with one of the many better options.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 18, Galaxy Mission Grove; also on VOD
An obvious abundance of creative passion went into the two-fisted action picture “Split Lip” — a film that’s generally likable but ultimately too slight and derivative to recommend. Dorée Seay gives a strong lead performance, playing a contract killer named Set who is targeted for death by a literal murderers’ row of her own colleagues. But writer-director Christopher Sheffield mostly just copies the moves of recent hitman movies like “Haywire” and “John Wick” rather than making them his own.
Working as his own cinematographer and editor, Sheffield shows some solid command of his craft and gets decent performances from a cast of unknowns, who all have a refreshingly non-Hollywood presence — even when they’re stuck in silly “super assassin” masks and costumes looking like they’re headed to a Halloween party. The filmmaking team’s can-do spirit can’t compensate for a story so scant and uninspired. “Split Lip” is just too much of a fannish imitation of better pulp pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 18, Laemmle Glendale
‘The Last Man’
The dark fantasy film “The Last Man” has plenty of atmosphere, and a real sense of purpose, but director and co-writer Rodrigo H. Vila never integrates all his good ideas into a gripping thriller. The movie’s shapelessness fails its star Hayden Christensen, who doesn’t bring enough oomph to his role as Kurt, a battle-scarred ex-soldier who falls under the sway of an apocalyptic prophet, Noe (Harvey Keitel).
Vila is commenting on the world of today, via a quasi-science fiction story, set in a not-too-distant future when devastating storms, neo-Nazi gangs and an authoritarian government have people like Kurt and Noe secretly prepping for the end times. But the individual scenes feel disconnected and incomplete, stitched together by rambling, discombobulated dialogue that even the actors don’t seem to understand. The premise is effectively eerie; the presentation depressingly sloppy.
‘The Last Man’
Rated: R, for language throughout, violence and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 18, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD
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