Friday, August 3, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND (2018); KINGS (2018); and THE CON IS ON (2018)

(Canada/France - 2018)

Pascal Laugier's 2008 film MARTYRS was pretty much the last word in France's "extreme horror" craze that gave us Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION, Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S), and Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury's INSIDE, among others. It was an impossible film to top, so Laugier didn't even try, instead following it up with the creepy and comparatively restrained 2012 Jessica Biel thriller THE TALL MAN. For his first film in six years, Laugier revisits some less extreme but still quite disturbing MARTYRS-esque themes with INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND. Upon a cursory glance, it's easy to dismiss GHOSTLAND as a torture porn throwback, but it's got more on its mind, and weaves its story in such an intricately constructed way that you'll never see how it's planning to pull the rug out from under you. In an extended flashback, single mom Pauline (legendary French singer Mylene Farmer) is traveling with her two teenage daughters--elder and bratty Vera (Taylor Hickson) and younger and bookish Beth (Emilia Jones)--to the rural Canadian home of a late aunt who left her middle-of-nowhere home to them. They're passed on a deserted country road by an ominous, barreling ice cream truck en route, which means it won't surprise any seasoned horror fan to learn that the two people in the truck are the ones behind a home invasion later that night. Despite being brutally terrorized and beaten, Pauline manages to get the upper hand and kills both of the attackers. Cut to 16 years later, and Beth (now played by Crystal Reed) has followed her dream of becoming a writer and is now a bestselling horror novelist with a husband and young son. Her latest book Incident in a Ghostland is earning rave reviews with its semi-autobiographical depiction of what happened to her family that night. After an hysterical phone call from Vera (Anastasia Phillips), Beth returns to her mother's home to find a volatile situation: Pauline drinks too much and she's forced to keep the dangerously unstable Vera in the basement with padded walls, still haunted by the events of the past, prone to meltdowns and lunatic rants about how "they're still here."

Indeed, the nightmare is not over, and to say any more would involve significant spoilers, but rest assured, INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND isn't going where that synopsis would lead you to believe. What transpires is alternately intense, terrifying, and often upsetting, not on the "next level of existence" where MARTYRS went, but certainly just as bleak and harrowing in its own way. Laugier's depictions of the horrors his characters endure is unflinching and fearlessly acted by his stars, and as a result, like MARTYRS, GHOSTLAND isn't going to be for everyone. It's an unsettling examination of abuse, trauma, and coping mechanisms that isn't afraid to go to some very dark places. This is Laugier's fourth feature film, and all have been excellent, and even though INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND will inevitably acquire a cult following, it'll likely be overshadowed by an on-set accident involving Hickson. Laugier was directing her to pound her fists on a glass door and he kept telling her to pound harder when the glass shattered and she fell forward. A piece of glass caught her cheek as she fell and opened a huge gash on the left side of her face that required 70 stitches, leaving her permanently scarred. She subsequently sued the producers for negligence and failure to provide a safe working environment, and the case is still pending at this time. That aside--and no movie is worth what Hickson has gone through--INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND is an excellent horror film that's worth a look. (Unrated, 91 mins)


(China/US/France/Belgium - 2018)

Shot in Los Angeles, KINGS is the first English-language work from Turkish-born, France-based filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven, and it's the kind of misguided, laughably contrived, embarrassingly tone-deaf disaster that almost always sends an acclaimed foreign auteur on the first flight back home, never to try their luck with the US market again. Erguven won a significant amount of acclaim with her debut, 2015's MUSTANG, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. With KINGS, Erguven takes a look at the 1992 L.A. riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, trying to go for a hard-hitting immediacy by mixing in archival footage from the time but also never settling on a tone. The film is an impossibly awkward mishmash of social commentary, arthouse pretension, and slapstick comedy, culminating in a climax that cuts back and forth between the tragedy of a supporting character bleeding to death in the backseat of a car while two others engage in Three Stooges-style antics to free themselves from the parking lot light post to which they've been handcuffed. Who is this film's intended audience?

KINGS got a toxic response at last year's Toronto Film Festival and only made it to 215 screens in the US, despite having a pair of A-listers heading its cast. Oscar-winner Halle Berry pulls her wig from THE CALL out of storage to play Millie, a single South Central woman with eight foster kids, while Daniel Craig has arguably the most ill-advised role of his career as Obie, her cranky and improbably British neighbor who seems to have wandered in from the set of an early Guy Ritchie movie. Frankly, I'd like to know how Obie ended up living in this neighborhood. I'd also appreciate an explanation for his behavior. He hangs out by his window naked, goes to the liquor store in his bathrobe, drives a nice SUV, listens to opera at full blast, throws his furniture off his balcony, and randomly fires a shotgun out of his bathroom window when he's feeling really irritable. He yells at Millie's younger kids one moment, then he's got them in his apartment, ordering pizza and dancing with them to his Motown records the next. Craig is saddled with an absolutely unplayable, incomprehensible character, while Berry valiantly tries to give it her best and most sincere shot. Both are offscreen for long stretches as Erguven focuses on Jesse (Lamar Johnson), one of Millie's older foster kids. As an impressionable and level-headed young man entering adulthood, it would make sense for the events that unfold to be seen through Jesse's eyes. Instead, Erguven has him distracted by and smitten with Nicole (Rachel Hilson), because apparently she thought KINGS needed its own Manic Pixie Dream Girl (© Nathan Rabin) to mouth off to cops and gang members and sleep with William (Kalaan "KR" Walker), another Millie foster kid. Indeed, Jesse's indignation that sets him on a third act path to violence isn't because he's caught up in the outrage over the cops being acquitted in the beating of King but rather, walking on in Nicole and William having sex. Because yeah, that's what the L.A. riots need to be boiled down to. With its art film flourishes and character arcs that range from simplistic to nonsensical, KINGS feels like a bizarro interpretation of 1992 South Central. The minimalist score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is out of place, the ludicrous dream scene where Millie erotically fantasizes about being seduced by Obie looks like a dated Fellini parody, and one scene where a Burger King manager desperately tries to negotiate with some rioters and talk them out of burning down the restaurant has a darkly comedic, sketch comedy absurdism to it. It's funny, but why is it in this movie?  (R, 87 mins)

(US/Canada - 2018)

A legitimate contender for the worst film of 2018, THE CON IS ON is a would-be screwball comedy put through a '90s post-Tarantino filter complete with QT vets Uma Thurman and Tim Roth heading the cast. Dumped on VOD by Lionsgate after three years on the shelf, THE CON IS ON (shot as THE BRITS ARE COMING) manages to go its entire miserable 95 minute duration without anything even resembling humor, leaving an overqualified cast mugging shamelessly as they feebly try to make something out of nothing. Married British con artists Harriet (Thurman) and Peter Fox (Roth) have made off with a fortune belonging to lethal international assassin Irina (Maggie Q). They make their way to L.A. and stage an accident to get a free room at the Chateau Marmont, where they get the idea to swipe a priceless ring from Peter's ex-wife Jackie (Alice Eve), whose pretentious film director husband Gabriel (Crispin Glover) is having affairs with both his clingy personal assistant Gina (Parker Posey) and terrible actress Vivien (Sofia Vergara), the sultry star of his latest film LE ROUGE ET LE NOIR. Throw in a subplot with Harriet posing as a "dog whisperer" and Stephen Fry as a pedophile priest and opium smuggler and you get...well, nothing.

Directed and co-written by James Haslam, whose previous film THE DEVIL YOU KNOW was shelved for eight (!) years before its 2013 release and only resurfaced because it featured an unknown-in-2005 Jennifer Lawrence in a supporting role (also, should it have been a premonition that he's the stepson of Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the perpetually hapless Cleveland Browns?), THE CON IS ON abandons its stars in one unfunny situation after another, leaving them little to do but fall back on various vulgarities or, in Posey's case, flail around and generally embarrass herself. It's apparently supposed to be funny that Harriet and Peter are such unrepentant misanthropes, but isn't it key to any kind of screwball comedy that the central characters have some element of charm? Thurman is glamorous enough but Roth looks genuinely defeated by the futility of the whole endeavor, and it's the kind of film that thinks an establishing shot of an Asian dry cleaning establishment should be accompanied by the sound of a gong, a punchline that was past its sell-by date roughly around the time of THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU. Considering the quality of its cast, THE CON IS ON is shockingly bad. The only reason this is going to get any attention at all once it hits streaming services is for a brief and largely-implied but admittedly surprising sex scene that features a topless Thurman and a salad-tossing Maggie Q, but it's hardly worth enduring the entire film. There's also a brief Melissa Sue Anderson sighting, if any LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE or HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME superfans give a shit. (R, 95 mins)

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