Thursday, September 11, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: GOD'S POCKET (2014) and BORGMAN (2014)

(US - 2014)

The feature writing/directing debut of MAD MEN co-star John Slattery is an indie labor of love, based on a 1983 novel by then-Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter, inspired by South Philly's Schuylkill neighborhood, known back in the day as "Devil's Pocket." In 1981, Dexter was badly beaten outside a bar by some Devil's Pocket locals who took umbrage with a column he wrote, and that incident is worked into GOD'S POCKET, a well-meaning but slight and flimsy slice-of-life saga that got a middling reaction from Sundance audiences and probably wouldn't have received any post-festival attention at all were it not for the unexpected passing of star Philip Seymour Hoffman in February, just three weeks after he was in Park City promoting it and A MOST WANTED MAN. GOD'S POCKET was commercially released before A MOST WANTED MAN but shot after, making it notable as the last film Hoffman completed before his death (he was nearly finished with his work on the next two simultaneously-shot HUNGER GAMES installments and will still be in both, due out in December 2014 and December 2015). But beyond that and being able to see the great actor in one of his final performances, GOD'S POCKET is pretty forgettable, the kind of film that usually gets accolades at festivals and is never mentioned again. But even the Sundance crowd didn't get that enthused about it. It's not a bad movie by any stretch, but it's rather aimless and has no real purpose. There's some interesting moments, Slattery and co-producer Hoffman were old friends (and they had a great scene together in 2007's CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR), and Slattery also brought along his MAD MEN co-star Christina Hendricks, but GOD'S POCKET is a film where the actors are having more fun than the audience. One is reminded of the old Gene Siskel quote where he would ask "Is this movie more interesting than the same group of actors having lunch?"  No, not really. Watching Slattery, Hoffman, Hendricks, John Turturro, Eddie Marsan, and Richard Jenkins bullshit over pizza and beers would be a far more interesting experience than the bland GOD'S POCKET.

One thing Slattery does right is expressing the period detail in a matter-of-fact fashion without beating you over the head with it. It takes place in the late '70s and he doesn't swamp you with disco hits of the era to make sure you realize that. Of course, a tired, late-film montage to Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" negates that, but still, the effort is appreciated. God's Pocket is the kind of proud, blue collar enclave where, if you aren't from there, you'll never belong. Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman) is such a guy. A meat salesman and very small-time criminal, Mickey is married to Jeanie (Hendricks), a cop's widow whose son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones of ANTIVIRAL) is killed at a construction site after mouthing off and hurling racial slurs at an elderly black worker. The workers all claim that he hit his head in an accident, but Jeanie isn't buying it and tells Mickey to dig further. But Mickey's preoccupied with paying for Leon's funeral, and he's stuck dealing with price-gouging funeral home owner Smilin' Jack Moran (Marsan), as well as trying to sell his refrigerated truck, which gets stolen while Leon's body--tossed out of Smilin' Jack's funeral home when Mickey couldn't pay the bill--is in the back of it. There's some fleeting moments where some dark humor earns the film some points, and things pick up considerably whenever Hoffman and Turturro (as his gambling-debt-saddled, bad-luck pal) are onscreen together, but too much of GOD'S POCKET just rambles along with no particular place to go, especially the subplot about an alcoholic newspaper columnist (Jenkins) ostensibly trying to dig for the details of Leon's death but really trying to get Jeanie into bed. The film's time element is also badly-handled, with it supposedly taking place over three days, but with entirely too much happening in that small window of time. While it was always a privilege to see Hoffman at work, this won't go down as one of his more memorable films or standout performances. (R, 89 mins)

(Netherlands/France/Belgium/Denmark - 2013; US release 2014)

Dutch actor/filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam's BORGMAN is loosely inspired by Jean Renoir's 1932 film BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING, itself remade by Paul Mazursky in 1986 as DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS. BORGMAN takes the concept to a misanthropic extreme as the title character (Jan Bijvoet) has far more sinister, yet still vague, plans in store for the bourgeois family whose home he insidiously infiltrates. As the film opens, Borgman and several mysterious vagrants are being pursued from a small town by a group of men--including a priest--hoisting shotguns and axes. Borgman, sporting long, unkempt hair and a madman beard, is separated from his cohorts and ends up at the front door of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis). Borgman insinuates that he knows Marina, which is enough to set Richard off as he beats Borgman and accuses his wife of hiding something from him. Feeling sorry for who she believes to be a homeless unfortunate, Marina permits Borgman to bathe when Richard leaves for work, and allows him to stay in the guest house for a day or two if he stays out of sight. Of course, Borgman enters the house and interacts with the children (who call him a "magician") and the family's disgruntled nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). Borgman seemingly casts a spell on all of them and phones his cohorts (van Warmerdam among them), who arrive and begin systematically murdering people associated with the family--the gardener, the doctor, anyone who may visit the house--putting their heads in cement and dumping the bodies at the bottom of a nearby lake so they can assume their identities and get on the property. Borgman leaves but returns, clean-shaven, well-groomed, and recognized only by Marina, as Richard hires him to take on the suddenly vacated gardener position. Borgman brings his associates along with him as they move in and slowly take over the household, already on shaky ground with unspoken tension between Richard and Marina. This tension is only magnified with the presence of Borgman, who crouches nude over Marina while she sleeps and somehow influences her dreams with imagery that violently turns her against her husband.

BORGMAN had some interesting potential, but it's heavy-handed and painfully obvious in its soapbox statement-making. Before Borgman inserts himself into their lives, Marina complains of feeling "a warmth that intoxicates but also confuses," all but spelling out that she'll be sexually drawn to Borgman and doing so in ways that no normal person would convey. Van Warmerdam also makes some ham-fisted points about class struggles, as Marina feels overwhelming guilt about their affluence and good fortune, with Borgman representing punishment for their success and upper-class privilege. Marina is also tone-deaf to her hypocrisy, secretly allowing Borgman on the premises early on while later chastising Stine, who politely requests that her on-leave-from-the-military boyfriend be allowed to stay overnight, with a firm "No...I've got to know who I've got under my roof." Bijvoet is OK as Borgman, but the more the film goes on, the more obscure his motives become and he's more or less just part of the scenery while the family--slowly being poisoned literally and figuratively--disintegrates around him. BORGMAN is essentially the Renoir and Mazursky films revamped through a Michael Haneke filter. We've been down this road before with Haneke's 1997 and 2008 versions of FUNNY GAMES and Yorgos Lanthimos' DOGTOOTH (2009), and the tedious BORGMAN brings little new to the table other than tame transgression and a ponderous sense of self-importance. (Unrated, 113 mins)

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