Tuesday, September 22, 2020

It's been fun, but...

 ...this new interface is total dog shit. 

I might revamp this as a more visual blog with posters or newspaper images, but navigating the new layout is entirely too much work and none of the changes are for the better.

Future reviews will be posted on my Letterboxd page. 


Thursday, September 17, 2020

On Netflix: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020)

(US - 2020)

Directed by Antonio Campos. Written by Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos. Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Eliza Scanlen, Douglas Hodge, Kristin Griffith, Pokey LaFarge, David Atkinson, Michael Banks Repeta, Gregory Kelly, David Maldonado, Michael Harding, Lucy Faust, Abby Glover, Zack Shires, Ivan Hoey Jr, Drew Starkey. (R, 138 mins)

Based on a 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, whose bleak rural noirs set in the colorfully-named southern Ohio town of Knockemstiff have often been termed "hillbilly gothic" by literary critics, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME presents a relentlessly grim, fatalistic tableau that, despite the change in medium, unfolds with the precision and patience of a riveting page-turner. There's enough going on here that director/co-writer Antonio Campos (2016's criminally underseen CHRISTINE, a haunting biopic of Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who infamously committed suicide on live TV in 1974) could've easily turned it into a Netflix miniseries instead of a Netflix original film, but it manages to cover everything it needs to in its never-dull 138 minutes. THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME jumps around for much of its first half, going back and forth from 1945 to 1957 to 1965 in a way that can be initially disorienting but eventually works everything out as the various characters, their connections, and their situations are put into play. The main character--troubled loner Arvin Russell (Tom Holland)--doesn't even take center stage until 45 minutes in, and to get a grasp on who he is, we must first learn about his father Willard (Bill Skarsgard), a quietly shell-shocked WWII vet who fought in the South Pacific, haunted by the mercy-killing of an American soldier he found crucified, barely alive, and being slowly devoured by flies. Discharged and en route to his home in the podunk West Virginia town of Coal Creek, the shy Willard stops at a diner in Knockemstiff and is immediately smitten with kind-hearted waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett). They eventually marry and live in a house on a hill above Knockemstiff, and she soon gives birth to Arvin.

Willard remains troubled by his wartime experiences, and despite his devoutly Christian ways, he teaches nine-year-old Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) that if anyone starts something with you, be sure to finish it, which he demonstrates by nearly beating two local yokels to death after they make derogatory comments about Charlotte. Rapidly going off the deep end, Willard builds a large cross on the back of his property, where he takes Arvin on nightly trips of emphatic prayer, which increase in frequency and intensity when Charlotte is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Arvin will eventually be sent to Coal Creek to live with his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and his uncle Earskill (David Atkinson), who have adopted an orphaned baby named Lenora. Cut to 1965 as Vietnam is beginning dominate the news, with Arvin (Holland takes over the role at this point) and now-teenage Lenora (LITTLE WOMEN's Eliza Scanlan) sharing a close sibling bond that's tested with the arrival of new preacher Preston Teagardin (a reptilian Robert Pattinson), who opens his first Sunday service by passive-aggressively insulting the fried chicken livers prepared by an embarrassed Emma for a potluck dinner, the only meat she could afford at the butcher shop. Other characters drift in and out of the narrative, including Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough), husband-and-wife serial killers who pick up male hitchhikers (calling them "models") and stage sexually explicit photos before Carl kills them; corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan); Lenora's birth parents, insane fire-and-brimstone religious fanatic Roy Laferty (Harry Melling) and his demure, wallflower wife Helen (Mia Wasikowska); and Knockemstiff pimp and white trash crime lord Tater Brown (Douglas Hodge), who's got Bodecker's nuts in a vice.

At some point early in the third act, you'll see where the story is taking Arvin, who takes his father's lessons to heart in the way he's hellbent on finishing shit that other people start. Not only does Campos do a masterful job of vividly capturing the atmosphere of rural southern Ohio from the '40s to the '60s, but THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME also shows characters in a perpetual cycle of hopelessness, almost imprisoned by fate. Repeated cycles of violence and tragedy are handed down like family curses, and a propensity for always making the worst decisions seems like a genetic pre-disposition for everyone. Campos has created what plays a lot like a Derek Cianfrance downer that's particularly reminiscent in tone and structure to 2013's THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, especially with a lead character switch and a main star's unexpected exit around the 45-minute mark.

Skarsgard's taciturn, tightly-wound performance echoes the kind of peculiar eccentricity of the Michael Shannon of a decade ago, while Holland keeps Arvin's rage at a constant low boil, never exploding but always letting you see it growing in his eyes. Some of the ensemble--Bennett and Wasikowska, for example--aren't onscreen long enough to make a big impression, but whoever cast the unique-looking Melling and Scanlen as father-and-daughter is a genius. The biggest impression left by the supporting cast comes from Pattinson, who continues to establish himself as one of the most versatile and chameleon-like actors around with his loathsome, manipulative preacher, seducing a teenage parishioner and smugly trying to skate out of an unintended consequence with "How can you be pregnant when all we did was spend time with the Lord?" THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is certain to provoke divisive reactions and one can argue that it has a couple more subplots than it really needs, but the degree of detail and characterization are testaments to Campos' dedication to the world-building essential to Pollock's writing, and it gets an added bit of authenticity from having the author narrate as well.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: FIRST COW (2020), RETALIATION (2020) and THE BIG UGLY (2020)

(US - 2020)

A film so quiet and low-key that it could almost qualify as ASMR, FIRST COW is the latest from minimalist auteur Kelly Reichardt, best known for character pieces like 2006's OLD JOY and 2008's WENDY AND LUCY, as well as 2011's MEEK'S CUTOFF, a covered-wagon western so authentic that one scene focused on Michelle Williams as she spends several minutes painstakingly  reloading a frontier-era rifle in real time. FIRST COW is a slow-burner even by Reichardt standards, and with a lot of scenes taking place in near-total darkness, it's the first of her movies that I've found to be a patience-tester in spots. Pacing and natural lighting hiccups aside, FIRST COW is still a good film, adapted from The Half-Life, a 2005 novel by frequent Reichardt collaborator Jon Raymond, and though they whittle the story down significantly, it still feels a bit stretched at just over two hours. A present-day prologue shows a woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog in the woods, where it sniffs out a partially exposed skull. The woman digs around the area and soon uncovers two human skeletons lying side by side. The setting immediately shifts to 1820 in the Oregon territory, where kind-hearted Maryland native "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) is traveling with a group of surly fur trappers. He's responsible for collecting their vittles but earns their scorn and derision when the barren areas only yield scattered mushrooms and berries, along with a squirrel that got away. At a camp site, Cookie finds Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) hiding outside his tent in the middle of the night, fleeing a group of ruthless Russian trappers, one of whom he's accused of killing. Cookie feeds and shelters King-Lu, who takes off undetected at sunrise. After splitting from the trappers, Cookie heads to a remote trading post where he runs into King-Lu. A friendship is formed as they head nowhere in particular, though Cookie has a pipe dream of opening a hotel or a bakery in San Francisco. He talks of buttermilk biscuits, and after setting up camp, they spot a lone cow on property of a nearby estate. She's the only cow in the surrounding settlement, having lost her mate and calf in the journey overseas with British aristocrat Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who more or less runs the area by virtue of being the richest guy around.

With some egging on by King-Lu, Cookie sneaks onto Factor's property and milks the cow to create buttermilk for biscuits and scones, which become huge hits at the trading post. Even Factor is impressed ("I taste London in this cake! It's astonishing!" he exclaims), hiring Cookie to prepare some pastry for an upcoming gathering. The friendship between Cookie and King-Lu is mirrored by the bond formed between Cookie and the cow--named Evie--which is almost exposed when Factor shows her off to his guests and she affectionately nuzzles Cookie, knowing him from his covert nightly milkings. FIRST COW eventually becomes as much of a pursuit thriller as Reichardt allows once Factor discovers what's been going on and vows to kill Cookie and King-Lu, but her primary concern is the mood and the atmosphere in the film's intricately-crafted rustic production design. The pace is leisurely and the tone meditative, though there are some attempts at humor (asked about their special ingredients, King-Lu declares "Ancient Chinese secret!"), and the scenes between Cookie and Evie reveal a sensitive, respectful soul probably not cut out to be in such a dangerous environment (he even expresses sympathy to her over "the loss of your husband and your calf"). Magaro and Lee are a likable team, even if the material requires them to deliver largely internalized performances, and the supporting cast has some always-reliable character actor ringers like Jones, Ewen Bremner, Gary Farmer, and the late Rene Auberjonois in one of his last roles as a grubby old prospector (he died in December 2019). FIRST COW got some positive buzz and critical acclaim on last year's festival circuit, but like everything else from spring 2020, it was halted by the pandemic, opening in March in limited release a week before theaters began shutting down, with A24 eventually relaunching it on VOD in late July. (PG-13, 122 mins)

(India/UAE/UK - 2017; US release 2020)

Hiding behind what appears at first glance to be a generic revenge thriller for Orlando Bloom is actually a grim and heavy day-ruiner of a British kitchen sink throwback that deals quite frankly with the PSTD effects of childhood sexual abuse. Shot in late 2015 and released everywhere else in the world as ROMANS in 2017 and into 2018, the newly-rechristened RETALIATION managed to fill a VOD void for Lionsgate and Saban Films when they needed pandemic product, likely the only reason this finally saw a US release after so long on the shelf. It's a hard sell even under ideal circumstances, but their decision to make it look like any random Redbox action movie is really doing it a disservice. It's a bit heavy-handed and lays the Biblical metaphors on a little thick at times, but Bloom is a revelation here in a harrowing performance as Malcolm, or "Malky" to his friends. Malky works on a demolition crew currently tearing down a dilapidated London church in his neighborhood--the very church he attended as young boy. Malky served two years in prison on an assault charge some years back, and considering that he's pushing 40, is referred to by everyone by his childhood nickname, and lives with his aging mum (Anne Reid of THE MOTHER) who can barely hide her disappointment in him, there are numerous indicators that his maturation has been stunted to some degree. But he holds down a job and has a casual relationship with Emma (Janet Montgomery), who works at the pub where he hangs out with his buddies after work, though he's prone to raging outbursts and shuts down whenever Emma talks about getting serious.

Malky goes off the deep end when he spots an elderly, white-haired man (James Sallie) at the pub. He instantly recognizes him as the priest who raped him when he was 12 and left the parish shortly after. As the memories come flooding back, Malky can no longer keep his issues bottled up inside. He pushes Emma away and we see his buried shame manifested in self-harming episodes, whether he stabs his hand repeatedly with scissors or violently sodomizes himself with a police truncheon in front of a full-length mirror ("I try to dig him out of me...I rape myself until I bleed," he later confesses). An expansion of ROMANS 12:20, a 2008 short film written by abuse survivor and counselor Geoff Thompson, directed by the Shammasian Brothers (Ludwig and Paul), and starring Craig Conway (DOOMSDAY) as Malky, RETALIATION is bleak and uncompromising. It takes some unexpected turns that are best left for the viewer to discover, and fans of Bloom will certainly want to give it a look, with the caveat that it's extremely downbeat and unpleasant. The only real downside is that the Shammasians and Thompson didn't need to be so on-the-nose with the symbolism, especially with the crew that employs Malky having a specialty in demolishing churches. We get it! And I really can't stress it enough--RETALIATION is not the movie the Blu-ray artwork is selling. (R, 96 mins)

(US - 2020)

Several smaller distributors usually relegated to VOD managed to carve a niche for themselves during the initial months of the pandemic. In particular, IFC Films and Vertical Entertainment took advantage of the scarcity of product and got exposure for some unlikely titles at drive-ins and at the scattered handful of theaters that remained open over the spring and summer of 2020. One such title was Vertical's THE BIG UGLY, which opened on 68 screens in late July to become the #2 movie in the country, eventually staying in the top ten through August, which is not something one can normally say about a new film starring Vinnie Jones. The former footballer-turned-LOCK STOCK-era Guy Ritchie bloke and subsequent DTV fixture is in vintage "fookin' 'ell, mate!" mode as Neelyn, the top enforcer for London-based crime boss Harris (Malcolm McDowell). With their girlfriends in tow--Neelyn is in a committed relationship with Fiona (Lenora Crichlow), while Harris is a sugar daddy to paid escort Jackie (Elyse Levesque)--they land in the heart of Appalachia, where Harris has a large stake in the operation of West Virginia oil man Preston (Ron Perlman). Everything goes smoothly until Preston's Joffrey-esque asshole son Junior (Brandon Sklenar) hooks up with Jackie behind a bar and then tries to pick up Fiona after Neelyn goes back to the hotel to sleep it off following a brawl at the local shitkicker bar, appropriately called 86 ("Only you could get 86'd from a bar called the 86!" admonishes an outraged Harris). Neelyn wakes up in the morning and Fiona is nowhere to be found. Refusing to go back to London with Harris, he instead starts asking questions around town, finds Fiona's body floating in a lake, and confronts a smirking Junior, who has a large scratch across his forehead. Tempers flare, punches are thrown, and Neelyn ends up in jail, where Preston's loyal fixer Milt (Bruce McGill) more or less concedes that Junior is a worthless piece of shit, but he'll still be forced to intervene on his behalf if Neelyn tries to go after him. Any guesses what Neelyn decides to do anyway?

Co-produced by Jones, McDowell, and Perlman, and written and directed by Scott Wiper (who directed Jones in 2007's Stone Cold Steve Austin actioner THE CONDEMNED), THE BIG UGLY is the kind of uncomplicated B-movie that would've been banished to VOD and Redbox were we not in These Uncertain Times™. It's surprisingly engaging, considering Jones hasn't exactly been associated with high-quality titles of late. And while it's a tad overlong and it doesn't make much sense why Harris and Neelyn would've brought their girlfriends along for an overnight trip to rural West Virginia when they were heading back to London in the morning anyway, THE BIG UGLY generally works if you don't think too much about it. Much of that is due to Jones' gritty performance (imagine an older, grizzled Jason Statham) and Perlman's character having some unpredictable quirks, like ripping some local dipshits over their Confederate flag and tossing it in the trash, and adamantly refusing to engage in fracking (it isn't every day you get a liberal oil baron who's concerned about the environment). Sklenar (MIDWAY) is utterly loathsome as the thoroughly repugnant Junior, the kind of sniveling brat who thinks his dad's money is a pass to do whatever he wants, and who's such an irredeemable prick that his inevitable comeuppance is the kind of applause-worthy crowd-pleaser of a moment that we've missed in these months without going to theaters. Some minor nit-picks and contrivances aside, THE BIG UGLY is certainly above-average for this sort of thing, and as far as incongruous montage-into-closing credit needle-drops go, Exile's "Kiss You All Over" is as good a classic rock earworm as any. The film is dedicated to Jones' late wife Tanya, who died of cancer in 2019. (R, 106 mins)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Retro Review: BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982)

(UK - 1982; US release 1983)

Directed by Lindsay Anderson. Written by David Sherwin. Cast: Leonard Rossiter, Graham Crowden, Malcolm McDowell, Joan Plowright, Jill Bennett, Marsha Hunt, Robin Askwith, John Bett, Frank Grimes, Mark Hamill, Peter Jeffrey, Fulton Mackay, John Moffatt, Dandy Nichols, Brian Pettifer, Vivian Pickles, Marcus Powell, Arthur Lowe, Alan Bates, Catherine Wilmer, Dave Atkins, Peter Machin, Gladys Crosbie, Rufus Collins, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Haygarth, Richard Griffiths, Dave Hill, Roland Culver, Val Pringle, Liz Smith, Gordon John Sinclair, T.P. McKenna. (R, 116 mins)

An anarchic, absurdist black comedy that's a scathing satire of England under then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 1982's BRITANNIA HOSPITAL was the final chapter of the very loosely-connected "Mick Travis" trilogy from director Lindsay Anderson and writer David Sherwin. Following 1968's IF... and 1973's O LUCKY MAN!, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL brings back Anderson protagonist Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), now a muckraking documentary filmmaker who relocated to Arkansas but is back in his native London to cover various goings-on at the beleaguered Britannia Hospital. They've got a lot on their plate, starting with a highly-publicized visit from the Queen Mother (Gladys Crosbie), with a laundry list of distractions putting the whole operation in jeopardy: striking nursing staff has led to a marked decline in patient care, including dead people left on gurneys at admitting; the socialist kitchen staff are refusing to prepare the elaborate meals demanded by the wealthy VIP patients; one of those patients is African dictator President Ngami (Val Pringle), a ruthless, Idi Amin-like despot who slaughters children in his country and is reputed to be a cannibal; Ngami's presence at the hospital has sparked intense protests by increasingly large crowds just outside the entrance gate; and quack mad doctor Professor Millar (Graham Crowden, reprising an O LUCKY MAN! character) is about to kick off the grand opening of the Japanese-financed Millar Center for Advanced Surgical Studies, a mysterious new wing of Britannia Hospital where he and his staff are conducting top secret experiments with unwitting patients, all of this under the watchful eye of an all-knowing AI supercomputer known as "Genesis."

A cable fixture in the mid '80s that's just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), BRITANNIA HOSPITAL is, in a word, a lot. It's freewheeling to the point where it's easy to write it off as an unwieldy, chaotic mess and maybe it is, but there's a certain audaciousness to it that makes it impossible to just dismiss. The two storylines finally intersect at the end, but for much of its duration, the film feels like two wildly different Anderson projects that the director just threw together. The satirical bits involving the striking workers and the Queen Mother visit have a cynical, Paddy Chayefsky thing going on, while the sections with Travis investigating Millar take the film in a truly jarring direction that had to throw off highbrow critics who adored Anderson's previous work. The director was no stranger to disregarding cinematic convention, but a crazed Millar chopping off Travis' head and putting it onto a badly-stitched body in a grotesque FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN riff is something no Anderson fan in 1982 would've seen coming.

Each of the two disparate plot threads work in fits and starts--the splattery result of Millar's Travis experiment is hilariously over-the-top and outrageously gross in a way that prefigures the likes of Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE--but it also prevents BRITANNIA HOSPITAL from finding any kind of rhythm or momentum. Top-billed Leonard Rossiter, a veteran character actor (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN) who, by this point in his career, carved a niche for himself playing uptight, bureaucratic toadies, is perfectly cast as harried hospital administrator Vincent Potter, trying and failing to keep it together as things keep escalating beyond any semblance of control. Rossiter died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1984 at just 57, and was such a workhorse to the end that he was still popping up on British TV and in movies as late as 1986's WATER, where he played yet another bureaucratic asshole, this time in the form of a pompous politician.

The ensemble cast is almost too packed to keep track of without taking notes, with appearances by Joan Plowright as a hospital union official; Robin Askwith as the head cook leading the kitchen revolt; Peter Jeffrey as a supercilious surgical chief; Mark Hamill--in between EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI--as Travis' sound engineer who spends most of the film in the production van watching TV and getting stoned on Nicaraguan weed, oblivious to his boss' cries for help when he's being decapitated by Millar; Marsha Hunt (a Mick Jagger ex long assumed to be the subject of "Brown Sugar") as a Millar nurse secretly getting info for Travis; John Bett in drag as a Buckingham Palace official named Lady Felicity; Richard Griffiths as hospital radio DJ Cheerful Bernie; Robbie Coltrane as a protester; and "guest patient" Alan Bates as a corpse, murdered by Millar after not dying quickly enough ("I'm afraid he's lingering"), for the purpose of his reanimation experiment only to have his head turn "pulpy" when it's kept at the wrong temperature, prompting Millar's need for Travis' head as an impromptu replacement. Not everything in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL works, but it's legitimately unpredictable and frequently batshit insane, though some things still resonate on a serious level, whether it's patient care and insurance concerns, or one unexpectedly topical scene where a peaceful female protester offers a flower to a cop only to get violently punched in the face, instantly sparking a massive riot that ultimately spills into the halls of the hospital.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Retro Review: CLOCKWISE (1986)

(UK - 1986)

Directed by Christopher Morahan. Written by Michael Frayn. Cast: John Cleese, Penelope Wilton, Alison Steadman, Stephen Moore, Sharon Maiden, Michael Aldridge, Joan Hickson, Benjamin Whitrow, Geoffrey Palmer, Pat Keen, Geoffrey Hutchings, Constance Chapman, Ann Way, John Bardon, Angus Mackay, Chip Sweeney, Sheila Keith, Tony Haygarth, Nicholas le Prevost, Nick Stringer, Peter Cellier, Peter Jonfield. (PG, 96 mins)

Given a spotty release on the US arthouse circuit by Universal in the fall of 1986 and into 1987, the British import CLOCKWISE was written by playwright Michael Frayn with Monty Python vet John Cleese in mind to star. Best known for his play Noises Off!, made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich in 1992 and required by law to be performed by every high school theater department in America, Frayn stages CLOCKWISE as a door-slamming farce reworked as a slapstick road movie of the pre-smartphone era, with Cleese channeling his loud, harumphing FAWLTY TOWERS persona as Brian Stimpson, the uptight, micro-managing headmaster of the Thomas Timpion Comprehensive School. Obsessed with punctuality, down-to-the-second time-management, and keeping his students in line by calling them out on the playground from his office perch with a PA system when he spots misbehavior, Stimpson has turned the school around and as such, is being rewarded with a new post as the chairman of an elite headmaster's association, the first such chairman to come from a common, public institution. He's set to depart on a 10:25 am train trip to Norwich, allowing him plenty of time for his 3:00 pm speech. But after his nurse wife Gwenda (Alison Steadman) drops him off, he realizes he's on the wrong train--due to his boorish habit of declaring "Right!" and being a general pain in the ass with the ticket taker and getting confused when he's told the Norwich train is on the left. He gets off the wrong train but isn't able to get onboard the Norwich in time, watching in horror as it departs without him, then realizing he left his speech on the other train at the exact moment it takes off in the opposite direction. Running out to the parking lot to see Gwenda driving away, Stimpson is stranded with no way to get to Norwich and no speech to give even if he could.

While trying and failing to hail a cab, he literally runs into a car driven by Laura (Sharon Maiden), a truant student who lives in his neighborhood. He talks her into driving him to Norwich--approximately three hours by car--but they run into one ridiculous mishap after another, starting with Laura borrowing her mom's car without permission after breaking off an illicit relationship with Mr. Jolly (Stephen Moore), Timpion's music teacher and recurring Stimpson foil due to his lack of concern for punctuality. While filling up at a petrol station and forgetting to pay, Stimpson is spotted by Gwenda, who's out on a day trip with three senile nursing home patients and now thinks he lied about going to Norwich and is having an affair with Laura. He's critical of Laura's driving and takes the wheel, only to immediately plow into the back of a cop car. Malfunctioning pay phones with too-small coin slots prevent him from notifying the headmaster's association that he's running late, and a stop-off in a small village leads to an unwanted reunion with his clingy college girlfriend Pat (Penelope Wilton, best known these days as Shaun's mom in SHAUN OF THE DEAD and as Isobel Crowley on DOWNTON ABBEY), who never really got over him.

That Stimpson was written for Cleese is obvious, but he's always had more success in comedic parts he's crafted for himself. There's a definite Peter Sellers/Terry-Thomas vibe to some of the absurd situations in which Stimpson finds himself, and to that end, some of the set pieces in CLOCKWISE are crying out for the kind of inventive, intricate comedic choreography of a director like, say, Blake Edwards instead of the workmanlike job done by Christopher Morahan, a journeyman British TV vet who had a long and busy but generally undistinguished career. With one misunderstanding after another, there's also a definite Larry David quality to some of Stimpson's predicaments, but CLOCKWISE never quite settles on what kind of comedy it wants to be, whether it's slapstick or the right/left confusion feeling like an Abbott & Costello bit, cops showing up in Norwich looking for Stimpson and one headmaster concluding that he's a pedophile who likes little boys, or the generally laissez-faire attitude it takes with Jolly sleeping with a student, something that definitely wouldn't fly in a comedy today but still managed to keep CLOCKWISE at a PG back in 1986. The film was a bigger hit in the UK than in the US--though its found a small cult following stateside--and while Cleese was happy with how it turned out, he was disappointed that some of the more British humor didn't go over as well as he'd hoped with American audiences, and he specifically cited that concern when he was doing press for 1988's A FISH CALLED WANDA, which he wrote himself and enjoyed significantly more acclaim and commercial success. Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), CLOCKWISE is a slight but enjoyable showcase for the tight-assed pomposity in which Cleese has always excelled, and it's a rare example of him being given a lead in a project he didn't originate, but it still feels like more could've been done with the material if Cleese was more involved behind-the-scenes.

Friday, September 4, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: IRRESISTIBLE (2020) and ROGUE (2020)

(US - 2020)

As seen with SILVER CITY in 2004, SWING VOTE in 2008, and THE CAMPAIGN in 2012, timely political comedies usually seem to pop up during election years. Written and directed by Jon Stewart and produced by Brad Pitt, this year's IRRESISTIBLE was another COVID-19 theatrical casualty that saw its intended wide summer release relegated primarily to VOD, which was probably the best venue for it (as you can see to your left, Focus Features really went all out on that poster design). It's a generally bland and forgettable attempt at being Frank Capra with a mean streak, and its satirical digs are toothless and obvious. Stewart's old DAILY SHOW colleague Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a top Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and is looking for redemption. He finds his shot in Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), an ex-Marine and small-town Wisconsin farmer whose YouTube-captured takedown of Republican Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) convinces him that he's the next face of the Democratic Party. The town--which runs about 95% Republican-- has fallen on hard times, conservative Col. Hastings doesn't think Braun is getting the job done, and it doesn't take much prodding for Zimmer to convince him to run as a Democratic challenger, calling the folksy Hastings "Bill Clinton with impulse control." Zimmer's machinations get the attention of the media, and the story of a little mayoral election in nowhere Wisconsin blows up enough that Republican strategist and Zimmer's 2016 Trump campaign arch-rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) is sent in with unlimited financial backing to work Braun's re-election.

Carell gets to do a lot of his Michael Scott schtick from THE OFFICE, usually dismissing the townies as easily-manipulated rubes, while Cooper and Mackenzie Davis (as his daughter) do the idealistic, salt-of-the-earth "real Americans" bit when they object to Zimmer launching a smear attack on Braun. IRRESISTIBLE gets its biggest spark from Byrne, who dives into her role with gusto in some extremely vulgar ballbusting with Carell (Zimmer, finding Faith at the local coffee shop: "You know how I knew you were here?" Faith: "Your pussy tingled?"), but for someone as astute with the merging of politics and comedy as Stewart, this really errs on the side of cornball and formulaic, right down to its generic title. It's trying to say something about issues of too much money in politics, but it just never catches fire and rarely finds its inner WAG THE DOG, even with a twist ending that just magnifies the sense of cornpone Americana in the guise of contemporary satire. Stewart's barely-released 2014 directing debut ROSEWATER wasn't very good either, so maybe filmmaking just isn't his ideal medium. The supporting cast features familiar faces like Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne as members of Zimmer's strategist team, and couple of political talking heads put in cameo appearances, but who knows what to make of Bill Irwin's bizarre cameo as a billionaire George Soros-type Democratic donor that sends things into absurdist DR. STRANGELOVE territory for about 45 seconds. It's a genuinely odd, out-of-nowhere gag that's funny but is wasted in this kind of middle-of-the-road "TV-movie with F-bombs" that uses Bob Seger's "Still the Same" over the opening credits and during a later "Hastings catching up on Braun in the polls" campaign montage. (R, 102 mins)

(South Africa/UK - 2020)

It seems like Megan Fox was everywhere in the late '00s, but other than starring in the TMNT franchise reboot a few years ago and joining the cast of Zooey Deschanel's NEW GIRL for a couple of seasons, she's kept a pretty low profile of late compared to her TRANSFORMERS and tabloid overexposure heyday. She's back in a starring role in the action/horror film ROGUE, not to be confused with the other ROGUE, a pretty terrific 2008 Australian killer crocodile flick that didn't get the attention it deserved. This ROGUE deals with a team of mercenaries trapped on a seemingly abandoned farm in the middle of nowhere in Africa after a botched extraction, only to find themselves at the mercy of a very pissed-off lioness who starts picking them off one by one. It's hard to tell what's less believable here: the CGI lioness, or Fox as Sam, the tough-as-nails leader of the black-ops merc unit. Sam and her team were hired by a beleaguered governor after his daughter (Jessica Sutton) has been abducted by an Al-Shabaab terror cell and human trafficking ring led by Zalaam (Adam Deacon). They rescue the girl and two others, but when their chopper arrives only to be blown out of the sky by Zalaam, they're forced to take the girls and run for their lives, ending up at a farm that's been deserted except for one territorial lioness who doesn't take kindly to intruders on her turf.

Director MJ Bassett, best known for SOLOMON KANE and her TV work with episodes of ASH VS. EVIL DEAD and STRIKE BACK (her 2007 survivalist thriller WILDERNESS is an underseen gem), co-wrote the script with her daughter Isabel, who plays one of the other kidnapped girls, but despite its noble intentions in offering a female-focused genre film, ROGUE fizzles with slack pacing, entirely too many predictable jump-scare kills that won't fool anyone who's seen DEEP BLUE SEA, and Fox just not even remotely convincing as a mercenary. Bassett, who most recently directed the surprisingly not-completely-terrible Universal 1440 DTV sequel INSIDE MAN: MOST WANTED, does get a fun performance out of STRIKE BACK star Philip Winchester as Sam's wisecracking second-in-command, and his running gag involving the Backstreet Boys isn't bad, nor are a few decently-crafted action sequences that don't rely on the amateur-night CGI. The digital lioness is so awful that it seriously looks like a placeholder effect that someone forgot to finish, and it looks even sillier in a couple of scenes where Fox's Sam tries to negotiate with her woman-to-woman, or rather, bitch-to-bitch to reference the star's climactic quip that falls so flat that if you listen closely, you can probably hear the crickets chirping on set. (R, 106 mins)

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Retro Review: BREEZY (1973)

(US - 1973)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Jo Heims. Cast: William Holden, Kay Lenz, Roger C. Carmel, Marj Dusay, Joan Hotchkis, Jamie Smith Jackson, Norman Bertold, Lynn Borden, Shelley Morrison, Dennis Olivieri, Eugene Peterson, Lew Brown, Richard Bull, Johnnie Collins III, Don Diamond, Scott Holden, Sandy Kenyon, Buck Young. (R, 106 mins)

It remains a popular notion that Clint Eastwood wasn't taken seriously as an actor or a director until 1992's UNFORGIVEN established him as a genuine auteur and put him back on top after a string of box-office disappointments that found him in a major slump for the first time in his career. But anyone who'd been paying attention over the years already knew that Eastwood was doing more substantive and creative work that was commonly believed, whether it was 1971's influential proto-FATAL ATTRACTION psycho-thriller PLAY MISTY FOR ME, the same year's Southern gothic period piece THE BEGUILED, 1973's disturbing supernatural revenge western HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, or 1974's offbeat heist/buddy/road movie THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. Eastwood was never afraid to tackle unusual projects outside of his comfort zone, and he was proving that in the years leading up to UNFORGIVEN, when he was forced to compromise and do junk like THE DEAD POOL, PINK CADILLAC, and THE ROOKIE in order to get a green light for personal passion projects like BIRD and WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART. The first real surprise of Eastwood's career after he became a superstar (unless you count PAINT YOUR WAGON), 1973's BREEZY was an odd outlier in his filmography, at least back then in the pre-BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY days when we weren't privy to his softer side. Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), BREEZY was his third film as a director, and the first where he was just the director (unless you count a fleeting Hitchcockian cameo where he can be glimpsed standing on a pier), and it's a low-key, sometimes overly sentimental May-December romance that plays like a conservative guy's idea of the era's counterculture scene.

Eastwood was 43 when he directed BREEZY, and it's surprising he didn't sit on it for another decade so he could play the lead role himself. Instead, he got the legendary William Holden to star as Frank Harmon, a successful Laurel Canyon real estate agent in his mid-50s who's divorced, aloof, and enjoys no-strings-attached evenings with blind dates and hookups he has no intention of ever calling back. He's introduced getting a cab in the morning for his latest one-nighter, and can barely hide his eye-rolling disinterest when she gives him her phone number, which he immediately tosses in the trash the moment she gets in the cab. He's leaving for work when he sees a young woman hanging out at the end of his driveway. She's Edith Alice Breezerman, aka "Breezy" (Kay Lenz), a 19-year-old drifter from Pittsburgh who's been hitchhiking and free-loving her way out to California and going wherever the day takes her. Frank has neither the time nor the patience for this chatty hippie whose only possession is an acoustic guitar, but she cracks his hard-shell exterior and the "black cloud" around him gradually dissipates. They form an unlikely bond and eventually fall in love, and Frank feels happy and alive for the first time since his divorce from the bitter, sloshed Helen (Joan Hotchkis), though he's still second-guessing his decision to give the cold shoulder to Betty (Marj Dusay), a friend-with-benefits that he pushed away when she wanted to get serious, only to have her marry the guy she began seeing when Frank started giving her the brush-off.

Though he didn't write BREEZY (it was scripted his PLAY MISTY FOR ME scribe Jo Heims), it's not hard to imagine a well-documented serial womanizer like Eastwood seeing much of his current and future self in Holden's character. To that extent, he understands Frank and lets Holden really explore the psychology of a solitary man who wants things uncomplicated, wants to be untethered, and shuts people out to avoid the risk of getting attached. He's at first appalled by Breezy's carefree nature and cruelly accuses her of seeing him as a financially secure meal ticket, then very slowly falls for her once he gets to know her. That is, until he runs into his disillusioned, lives-vicariously-through-him, midlife-crisis buddy Bob (Roger C. Carmel) and his wife and some mutual acquaintances when he and Breezy go see a movie (HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, of all things) and he's visibly embarrassed about their discovery of his secret 19-year-old girlfriend. Bob's later remarks about how he'd feel like a child molester sleeping with a girl that young prod Frank into doing what he always does when he starts feeling close to someone: he pushes Breezy away by acting like a total prick. Holden is at his jaded, cynical, late-career best here (Bob: "I ran into your ex-wife the other day." Frank: "I hope you were in your car doing 80"), and Lenz is fine with what she's asked to do, which is essentially be a too-good-to-be-true Hollywood version of a hippie drifter. She's more of an early incarnation of the Nathan Rabin-coined "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" than anything resembling then-contemporary youth. She's perpetually cheerful, teaches curmudgeonly Frank some heartfelt life lessons, hangs out with other homeless hippies but is the only one who doesn't do drugs, and when Frank takes her to a swanky restaurant, she orders a Shirley Temple. It's almost like Eastwood was already an old soul looking to argue with a chair when he made this, because the only real emotional honesty comes in the film's depiction of Frank's side of the relationship and his mindset as his world is turned upside down by his infatuation with Breezy.

Clint Eastwood on set with
William Holden and Kay Lenz
Released by Universal in November 1973, BREEZY remains a relative deep cut in the Eastwood catalog that came near the end of a busy year for him, having HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER in theaters in April and MAGNUM FORCE out in December. But BREEZY fell through the cracks in a rare instance of a studio lacking confidence in him. A skittish Universal pulled the film from release after its limited NYC engagement bombed with critics and audiences. They shelved it for several months before doing some re-editing, eventually relaunching it in the summer of 1974, starting in Utah of all places, another sign that they still weren't seeing much commercial potential for it. It moved slowly around the country throughout the rest of 1974, eventually barely turning a profit, but Eastwood felt Universal never really gave it a shot and was offended by their treatment of it after he delivered huge hits as a star and director with PLAY MISTY FOR ME and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. Eastwood was dividing his time between Universal and Warner Bros. during this period, and their handling of BREEZY was but one instance of his escalating disgruntlement with Universal that led to him working, with rare exceptions, almost exclusively with Warner Bros. after 1975's THE EIGER SANCTION.