Tuesday, March 27, 2018

I Rec 'Em, You Wreck 'Em! Or, What I've Been Watching and You Should or Should Not, Too, to Varying Degrees of Yes or No or Maybe.

A solid and quirky actioneer, Sweet Revenge (1976) follows the life of a professional car thief (Stockard Channing), whose endgame is to steal, scam, and sell off enough cars to make the scratch for the legitimate purchase of an Italian muscle car. Along the way, she deals with the three men in her orbit -- an ex-boyfriend who still leeches off her (Richard Daughty), a fellow car thief (-- a wonderful performance by Franklyn Ajaye), and her smitten defense attorney (Sam Waterson) as her plan chugs along, consequences be damned. In the end, those consequences do kinda catch up quick as our heroine realizes it's the con itself and not the payoff that truly motivates her, leaving it up to the audience to decide if this realization came too late. Both the title and the poster are a tad misleading in that there is no revenge seeking in this flick whatsoever. Channing shines and the whole cast is pretty great, and the action is fairly well executed. Alas, the chopped and cropped VHS rip I watched on YouTube last night was pretty abysmal and kinda squandered most of Vilmos Zsigmond's keen camera eye but I still dug this one quite a bit. Enough that I might even try to track the MOD Warner Archive disc at some future date for further evaluation.

Now, the quick answer for It Comes At Night (2017) is nothing. Nothing comes at night. And I don't consider that a spoiler but a warning. I don't think this movie is what you think it is. At least it wasn't for me and I fear most folks coming in thinking what they think it is will be sorely disappointed with what it actually was. Don’t get me wrong. It's good. And very tense as a family of three try to eke out a living as some plague wipes out most of humanity. Things get complicated when another family comes along and a pact is made to share what little there is. This, of course, is destined to fall apart as no matter how many precautions are taken, the sickness still manages to get inside. And then paranoia and blame tear this mini-utopia apart from the inside out. With a lot of set-up checks the payoff couldn't quite cash, this film also suffers a bit due to an unreliable narrator and on the "waiting for something to happen" only "nothing" happens. And then there’s the ending, which is what I think I have the biggest problem with. Not that it was bad or stupid, but more of the tension is really ratcheting up and we’re building to the climax and then it kind of fizzles in a "Wait. Is that it? [End credits roll]. "Hunh. I guess that WAS it." And ever since, I’ve been stewing on this movie. And so, right now, it's either brilliant or Eh, that was pretty good. I guess the best advice I can give is just expect the unexpected. Or better yet, expect nothing. Because nothing happens. Well, things sort of happen but I fear I may have spoiled enough already.

Meanwhile, Georges Franju's follow up to Eyes Without a Face (1960) is his spin on Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians as an old family patriarch with no love for his heirs secrets himself inside a secret passage, hidden behind a two-way mirror, so he may watch the havoc he creates from beyond the grave in Spotlight on a Murderer (1961). That havoc being since no one can find his body, his heirs must wait five years before his estate can be dispersed among the half-dozen relatives. And on top of that, these heirs must keep up with the estate taxes in the interim or they'll lose the whole shebang. And so, they concoct a plan to turn the family castle into a tourist attraction, complete with a nightly reenactment of a famous murder / suicide that took place on the grounds when the lord of the house caught his wife screwing one of his knights. Of course, along the way, a series of "accidents" start whittling down the shares as several heirs meet an untimely end, leaving it to the audience to sort through the false leads and red herrings to find out whodunit before the killer gets away with everything. This movie is solid enough but I was kinda expecting more from Franju as it lacks the nightmarish delirium of his previous film. Here, he seems content to let the camera soak up the lavish details of his location, which is impressive, with plot and characterization mere window dressing. There's a few flashes of what this movie truly could've been but, as is, eh, it'll do.

Oddly titled but interesting mash-up of Kurosawa's High and Low (1963) and an urbanized The Naked Prey (1965), Night of the Juggler (1980) sees James Brolin (-- looking like he just wandered off the set of The Amityville Horror --) playing an ex-cop in New York City, laid off due to the City's constant economic woes, whose daughter gets kidnapped for ransom by some psychopath when he mistakes her for the offspring of some real estate tycoon he has a beef with. From there, Brolin has to run a gauntlet of street thugs, crooked cops, and all manner of degenerate squalor and scum as he tries to stay hot on the trail of the kidnapper, which is balanced out by several locals trying to help him on his quest, as he navigates through several demilitarized zones in dirty old NYC. Gritty and fast-paced, this one was a pleasant surprise having never even heard of it before. The film is highlighted by several familiar faces, too, with special shout-outs to Mandy Patinkin as a helpful cab driver and Dan Hedaya as a sadistic cop who sees this as a perfect opportunity to settle an old score. Also kudos to Abby Bluestone as the daughter, and Cliff Gorman as the psycho, who develops a bizarre relationship with his victim that gets a bit squicky toward the end for reasons I won't spoil. Great acting all around, honestly, but the film's biggest asset is the "urban milieu" that director Robert Butler immerses the audience in right along with our protagonist as the film hits the pavement running and never stops. Again, nonsensical title, but pretty great movie. Highly recommended.

Two estranged brothers reunite to settle their father's estate in Beyond the Gates (2016), which includes the old family homestead and dad's video store. Now, it should be noted that dad is only presumed dead and has just been missing for over 7 months. Things get weird when they find and old VHS board game that appears to be possessed by the woman on the instructional tape (Barbara Crampton), which then ectoplasmically forces the brothers and a fiance to finish the accursed game to find out what really happened to dear old dad as they get sucked into this ersatz Stuart Gordon version of Jumanji world by way of Stranger Things, too. This movie ... wasn't very good at all. Boring as hell as it takes FOR. EVER. to get going, and once they do start playing the game, there is a total lack of urgency as they would make one grisly move to find a key and then just go to bed to take things up again the next day. This happens like five times. (Not an exaggeration.) Punctuated by a few decent practical gore effects but the rote plot is executed with an attempted seriousness it only results in a pretentiousness the film does not earn, short-circuiting what few novel bits there were, and makes things only more frustrating -- and worst of all, extremely tedious and a chore to watch. Almost gave up on this, but pushed through to the end. Was not worth the effort.

Next, while out poaching for deer, a man (Sam Rockwell) accidentally shoots and kills a woman deep in the hills of West Virginia. Faced with a moral dilemma, the man chooses to not do the right thing; but while hiding the body, things are compounded further in A Single Shot (2013) when he finds a huge stockpile of money in the dead woman’s makeshift campsite. And then, in perhaps not the wisest of moves, this man starts flashing huge wads of that cash around town in an effort to win back his estranged wife (Kelly Reily), who has moved out with their son and suing for a divorce, drawing the attention of several seedy characters, including his shyster lawyer (William H. Macy), and leads to a betrayal by one of his dearest friends (Jeffrey Wright), all looking for the cash. But the real danger is the dead woman’s boyfriend (Jason Isaacs); seem she was hiding the money while he finished his current jail term which is now up. Plot wise, there’s nothing really new in this solid backwater noir; and so, the main selling point is the immersion into this neck of the woods and Rockwell’s performance as our doomed protagonist. (He does cracker real good.) And the rest of the ensemble fare pretty well, too. Also of note, the final coda is just glorious and feels perfect. And so, if you’re missing the backwater drama and violence of Justified, here’s a much needed fix for you.

And lastly, a family man is overwhelmed by apocalyptic dreams of a storm to end all storms. And so overwhelmed is he this man starts upgrading a storm shelter in his backyard in Take Shelter (2011), much to the confusion and consternation of his wife and friends. Economic anxiety adds a whole 'nother layer to this mix as the man (Michael Shannon) leeches much needed funds away from his daughter’s medical needs, whose hearing can be restored through surgery. Now, this man also has a history of schizophrenia in his family, and he's just past the age when his mother went off the deep end for good. And as the movie plays out, the audience is left guessing whether he really is crazy or a clairvoyant. Hot damn, but this was just great. Further proof that Shannon and Jessica Chastain are two of the best actors in the business right now. Following up the equally excellent Shotgun Stories (2007), writer / director Jeff Nichols' ultimate conclusion kinda lets us have some cake and eat it, too, but I found it to be damned near pitch perfect. Cannot recommend this one enough.


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