Saturday, March 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HUMBLING (2015) and FEAR CLINIC (2015)

(US/Italy - 2015)

Even though nobody really liked literary lion Philip Roth's universally-panned 2009 novel The Humbling, it's easy to see what appealed to Al Pacino when he bought the movie rights shortly after it was published. The protagonist, Simon Axler, is a legendary stage actor renowned for his devotion to Shakespeare, indirectly linking it to Pacino's terrific 1996 semi-documentary LOOKING FOR RICHARD and his portrayal of Shylock in 2004's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and is also roundly criticized for being past his prime and a hammy version of what he once was, charges often justifiably leveled at the inconsistent, hoo-aah!-prone 74-year-old screen legend. While Pacino does some top-notch--and restrained--work here, THE HUMBLING starts fine but quickly devolves into a grating, self-indulgent misfire, with Simon suffering an onstage breakdown and haplessly attempting to off himself with a shotgun as an homage to Hemingway ("Hemingway must've had longer arms," he concludes) before being admitted to a psych facility. Once released, he's visited by 31-year-old Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of some past stage colleagues. Pegeen has nursed a crush on the 65-year-old Simon since childhood when he was a family friend, and though she's an out lesbian, she seduces him, much to the disapproval of her just-dumped ex (Kyra Sedgwick) as well as her parents, Simon's now-estranged friends Asa (Dan Hedaya) and Carol (Dianne Wiest). Meanwhile, Simon is badgered by his agent Jerry (Charles Grodin) to get back to work and is stalked by Sybil (Nina Arianda), a deranged fellow psych patient who wants him to kill her pedophile husband, who she claims has been molesting their young daughter.

Directed by Barry Levinson (who teamed with Pacino for the 2010 HBO film YOU DON'T KNOW JACK) and co-written by Buck Henry (penning just his fourth screenplay in the last 30 years), THE HUMBLING gives Pacino ample opportunity to shine in long, single-take monologues and he's up to the challenge. But too much of it plays like second-tier Woody Allen, right down to the very Allen-esque opening credits, the young woman throwing herself at the short old guy, and the presence of Wiest, who won both of her Oscars in Allen films (not to digress, but why hasn't Pacino ever worked with Allen?). There's also an unavoidable and wholly coincidental parallel to last year's BIRDMAN, another film that dealt with an aging, washed-up actor drifting in and out of reality while planning a comeback. The early promise gives way to endless pontificating and shouting matches, the possibly Alzheimer's-stricken Simon being an unreliable narrator in Skype sessions with his therapist (Dylan Baker), and even some tired "old lady being raunchy" humor with Simon's housekeeper (Mary Louise Wilson) matter-of-factly advising Pegeen on how to better store her sex toys, which is just an excuse to hear an elderly woman say things like "vibrator," "butt plug," and "double-dong." The subplot with Arianda's Sybil gets entirely too much screen time and goes nowhere, other than to underscore a hinted-at but never-confirmed detail about Simon and Carol's past that doesn't really need Sybil to enhance it. Pacino dials it down and plays it straight throughout and he's always great to watch when he's legitimately invested in a project, and Grodin gets some laughs as the very Charles Grodin-esque agent, but there's ultimately no reason to care about any of the characters in the forgettable THE HUMBLING. Among the critiques of Roth's novel was that it felt like a short story padded to barely-novel length at 140 pages. To that end, THE HUMBLING is faithful, having little to say and taking nearly two interminable hours to say it. (R, 107 mins)

(US - 2015)

Indiegogo crowd-funding helped make this feature-length spinoff of the six-episode 2009 FearNet web series a reality for its tens of fans. The web series starred A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET horror icon Robert Englund as Dr. Andover in six six-minute segments, each specifically devoted to a patient's phobia. In the film, shot in Medina, OH, Andover's clinic is in a state of disarray after comatose patient Paige (Bonnie Morgan) dies following a session in his "fear chamber," a machine that produces hallucinations of a patient's fears in order to directly face and fight them. Paige was one of several Andover patients who survived a restaurant shooting rampage a year earlier, and they've all noticed manifestations of the others' deepest fears creeping into their own reality. The FearNet series co-starred cult horror convention fixtures Danielle Harris and Kane Hodder because of course it did. Harris and Hodder dropped out of the film, so Englund is joined by future convention fixture and CURSE OF CHUCKY star Fiona Dourif (Brad's daughter) as the tough, proactive heroine Sara. You also get Kevin "Still Coasting on Being 'Waingro' in HEAT" Gage as a handyman named Gage; Thomas Dekker (TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES) as a wheelchair-bound shooting survivor whose big revelation won't surprise anyone; daytime soap vet Brandon Beemer; former porn star Angelina Armani; and Slipknot/Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor as an insubordinate, bad-tempered orderly.

FEAR CLINIC was directed by Robert Hall, whose LAID TO REST (2009) and CHROMESKULL: LAID TO REST 2 (2011) have very minor cult followings with the most undemanding of today's horror fans. Hall and screenwriter Aaron Drane don't give Englund much to work with, but the veteran actor turns in a strong and surprisingly sympathetic performance that doesn't rely on standard mad doctor histrionics. At times recalling a subdued Jack Palance, Englund's Andover is a shattered altruist who was sincerely trying to help his patients only to find that his "fear chamber" inadvertently opened a portal to an alternate world whose evils begin materializing in the real one. A committed Englund (acquiescing to the demands of no one, he gets naked twice) is the film's sole saving grace but by the end, his work is all for naught when his face is stuck on some nonsensical CGI creature as Hall and Drane briefly elevate FEAR CLINIC from boring to shameless, opting to rip off Stuart Gordon's 1986 classic FROM BEYOND with fear subbing for the pineal gland. Robert Kurtzman--the "K" in KNB--handled some of the atrocious makeup and creature effects and just because Taylor is in the cast, the closing credits are accompanied by Stone Sour's lunkheaded cover of Metal Church's "The Dark." The film feels like it was made 20 years ago and has no ending, and afterwards, you realize the only thing you have to fear is not fear itself but rather, the idea of crowd-funding for FEAR CLINIC 2. (R, 95 mins)

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