Friday, May 18, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE FORGIVEN (2018) and BENT (2018)

(US/South Africa/UK - 2018)

1984's THE KILLING FIELDS and 1986's THE MISSION earned Roland Joffe a lifetime pass to the Respected Filmmakers Club, but his career's been in a near-constant state of freefall for the better part of 25 years. His last good movie was 1998's underrated modern noir GOODBYE LOVER, and in the years since, he crashed and burned with 2007's unwatchable CAPTIVITY, a repugnant SAW ripoff made at the height of the torture porn craze that has to go down in the annals of cinema as one of the most shocking and depressing downfalls for a once-revered filmmaker. Joffe's subsequent films range from forgettable at best to embarrassing at worst (who knows how he got roped into directing the t.A.T.u.-inspired Mischa Barton vehicle YOU AND I, which went straight to DVD in 2012 after three years on the shelf?), but THE FORGIVEN almost qualifies as a return to form. It's ponderous and slow-moving, and has to dumb it down for the audience (opening with a caption that defines "apartheid"), but it's also sincere, well-acted, and get better as it goes on. Set in 1996 in post-apartheid South Africa under President Nelson Mandela, THE FORGIVEN centers on Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body whose goal is to grant amnesty for those guilty of human rights violations, all in the hopes of the country coming together to put its past behind. Tutu is assessing the amnesty candidacy of Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), an ex-death squad member in a maximum security Cape Town prison. Blomfeld doesn't seem interested in clearing his conscience--he taunts the Archbishop with the kaffir slur and enthusiastically recounts his most vile crimes against black South Africans--but Tutu senses something in him when it comes to a court case involving two murdered teenagers that connects Blomfeld with two other death squad cohorts--Francois Schmidt (Jeff Gum) and Hansi Coetzee (Morne Visser)--who are now guards in the very prison housing him.

Based on the Michael Ashton play The Archbishop and the Antichrist, THE FORGIVEN was scripted by Ashton and Joffe and expands on the play by adding a subplot involving a 17-year-old black inmate (Nandiphile Mbeshu) forced into the attempted murder of Blomfeld to establish his cred on the inside only to be taken under his target's wing. Blomfeld's demonstration of a capacity to forgive and his AMERICAN HISTORY X/Come-to-Jesus moment where he realizes the error of his ways never quite come off as believable, despite Joffe's ham-fisted attempts to hammer it home by providing the loathsome, rage-filled racist with a tragic backstory to excuse the monster he's been for his entire adult life. But Bana is good, as is Whitaker, despite being forced to act around an almost comically large prosthetic nose that makes him look less like Desmond Tutu and more like Squidward from SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. The long scenes between Tutu and Blomfeld (a fictional composite) constituted Ashton's play and here, with Blomfeld's unapologetic and horrifically detailed descriptions of his misdeeds, almost makes these sequences play like a post-apartheid EXORCIST III with back and forth monologues by the two stars. The climactic courtroom showdown between an on-trial Coetzee and the grieving mother (Thandi Makhubele) of two teenagers brutally slaughtered by Blomfeld while Coetzee and Schmidt looked on is powerful and unexpectedly moving. THE FORGIVEN is a mixed bag--it's too slow and meandering and the story arc for Blomfeld smacks of plot convenience--but it has its moments, especially once you can get around Whitaker's cartoonishly fake nose and focus on his performance. It's not enough to say the 72-year-old Joffe is back per se, but THE FORGIVEN shows that there might be some signs of life. (R, 120 mins)

(Spain/US - 2018)

After winning an Oscar for co-writing CRASH with Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco made the little-seen crime drama 10TH AND WOLF and moved on to TV, creating the acclaimed but short-lived series THE BLACK DONNELLYS. He wrote and directed the straight-to-VOD BENT, his first feature film in over a decade, and it's a thoroughly generic and utterly forgettable present-day noir-inspired cop thriller. Disgraced ex-cop Danny Gallagher (Karl Urban) has just been paroled after serving three years for the killing of an undercover officer during a botched drug bust set up by his broke, gambling-addicted partner Charlie (Vincent Spano). They were supposed to nail scumbag businessman Driscoll (John Finn), but Charlie ended up getting killed, Gallagher took two bullets, and both Charlie's and Gallagher's names were dragged through the gutter after Driscoll framed them as corrupt, or "bent" cops on the take. Once he's out, Gallagher makes like an unlicensed and uncharismatic Philip Marlowe, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that may involve the car bomb death of the wife of a Driscoll associate, as well as shady and untrustworthy femme fatale government agent Rebecca (a miscast Sofia Vergara), who's been ordered to keep Gallagher from digging any further, an assignment that inevitably involves showing up unannounced at his ramshackle pier house and immediately disrobing and stepping into the steaming shower with him.

Based on a series of Gallagher novels by J.P. O'Donnell, BENT is hopelessly muddled (there's even a red herring about "Arab terrorists" being involved), with an uncharacteristically dull Urban on what seems to be one of the least urgent quests for vengeance you'll ever see. BENT is filled with would-be hard-boiled dialogue that rarely works, mainly because it's delivered in such a bland fashion. It's the kind of movie that has a climactic showdown and shootout at a shipyard. It's the kind of movie where the bad guy delivers a long-winded, Christopher Walken-esque speech ("You know, in Alaska, they smoke this fish on the beach...") while intimidatingly slicing salmon with a huge knife. It's the kind of movie where you know a prominently-billed name actor has to have more to do with what's going on since he's barely in it until the last 15 minutes. Also with Andy Garcia as Gallagher's retired, fatherly cop mentor who pops up periodically to tell him to let the past go and get out of town, BENT doesn't even muster the energy to be a harmless time-killer on a slow night. Nobody seems really invested in it, and New Orleans is rather unconvincingly played by Rome, of all places. At least everyone got a nice Italian vacation out of it. (R, 96 mins)

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