On weeks like these, where a generally poor calibre of content is salvaged only by the addition of a few choice classics, it’s tempting to bemoan the decline of cinema. But to do so would be silly: of course the classics are of a better quality; it’s not for no reason they’ve survived the decades. Eighty years from now, when whatever form of film presentation evolves is being covered by whichever breed of criticism thrives, many of the titles below will be lost to the ravages of time, and our present will seem to put the films of the future to shame. But that’s enough waffling on. It’s a rough week, like I say, but where else to look for diamonds?
Perhaps not quite so glorious a title as the previous year’s Blacula, 1973’s Blackenstein continued the emergent trend of blaxploitation horror with its reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic tale for a specifically African-American audience. To see the story told with an almost entirely black cast is more historically interesting than it is cinematically entertaining; there’s plenty to admire in the basic concept of writer/producer Frank R. Saletri—which touches briefly on the issue of Vietnam—less so in the unfortunately aimless execution, which boasts only splashings of decadent gore to offset the familiarity of the narrative. Never entirely sure in his tonal footing, director William A. Levey seems to struggle to decide whether comedy or horror is the better approach, never successfully managing to intermingle the two. Nice as it is to see material directly tailored toward a then-neglected aspect of American cinema audiences, Blackenstein is more a great idea than a great movie. SO-SO.
There’s a certain demented brilliance to Branded that seems to indicate an incredible dystopian vision on the part of writer/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn. The problem, unfortunately, is that their film doesn’t even nearly manage to bring that vision to fruition. What a manic mess of a movie this is, its ambitious tale of a ruthless advertising executive in an increasingly westernised Russia never reaching the fantastical aspirations Bradshaw and Dulerayn evidently have in mind. They have a strong lead in Ed Stoppard, and a fine supporting cast in the likes of Jeffrey Tambor and Max von Sydow, but what they haven’t got is a plot that makes any sort of sense at all, its eventual devolution into a bizarre depiction of strange serpentine demons—hideously rendered in atrocious CGI—growing from the necks of the population as senseless a device as the dreadful voiceover throughout. This is a disastrous wreck, and oddly fascinating for it. AVOID IT.
“You are pretty rapeable,” opines the security guard at one point in Flypaper, inconveniently caught up when two unrelated teams happen to decide to rob his bank at the same time. It’s a line that’s played for laughs, revealing it and its writers—Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, better known for The Hangover and 21 & Over—as every bit as foul and unattractive as this character is made out to be. It’s the perfect indication of the calibre of comedy on display, which largely relies of redneck stereotypes and flaccid sexual tension as the film wastes its reasonably interesting premise, as well as the committed performances of Patrick Dempsey, Ashley Judd, and Jeffrey Tambor. They, Dempsey particularly, are the movie’s saving graces insofar as it can be saved; they make tolerable the vapidity and vulgarity, or at least lessen its viciousness a little. That’s the mark of a good actor, though apparently not of one who chooses projects well. AVOID IT.
Heaven in Your Eyes
The inexperience of writers Enrique Chmelnik and Rafael Gaytán and director Pedro Pablo Ibarra is easy to spot in Heaven in Your Eyes, which has a fine premise and little more. It’s not a bad little movie, nodding its head to A Matter of Life and Death as it tells the story of star-cross’d lovers given a second chance when the man, having died before even getting together with his destiny-dictated other half, returns to Earth with one week to seal the deal. The problem is its blandness, ticking the checklist of clichés in the various aspects of its plot: she, of course, is engaged. Mané De La Parra and Aislinn Derbez offer likeable performances in the lead roles, charismatic enough to have us willing their characters together, although not quite convincing enough in their drama to ever make us doubt the outcome. Not so much terrible as it is terribly familiar. SO-SO.
An early supporting role for the young Bette Davis is overly emphasised in retrospective artwork for Hell’s House, which focuses far more on Junior Durkin’s role as the newly-orphaned teen who falls into a life of crime and winds up incarcerated in a boy’s reformatory. Offering an interesting counterpoint in perspective to contemporary gangster pictures like Scarface and The Public Enemy—in a sense fusing those with a narrative not dissimilar to I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang—the film takes a more sympathetic look at Depression-era desperation. It’s quite affecting in its latter half, coming to focus on the mistreatment of a fellow inmate and implications of inter-generational responsibility, though there’s an unremarkable procession of scenes to be traversed before this moral is reached. It’s not surprising that Hell’s House has remained a little-known curio of the ‘30s gangster cycle: this is a perfectly fine story, but the kind easily eclipsed by its betters. WORTH WATCHING.
Lost and Delirious
There’s a certain finesse to the way Lost and Delirious, Léa Pool’s earnest Canadian drama, inverts a typically male-centric narrative structure to examine its central issue of female homosexuality. The boarding school movie, with its recurring tropes of bullying and burgeoning sexuality, is all too often home solely to boys; Judith Thompson’s script reclaims this setting for fascinating purposes here. Said finesse, alas, extends no further than the basic concept, and it’s not long before Pool’s inability to rein in the excesses of her young performers and tone down the eccentricities of her melodrama sees the film become an almost laughably over-the-top show. A pitiably pedestrian visual metaphor hardly helps matters; such simplicity of thematic exploration is indicative of the sad truth of the production: it just isn’t equipped to handle the material it takes on. The eagerness of intent shines through nevertheless, and though Lost and Delirious is a dreadful mess, it’s at least an accidental one. AVOID IT.
Of Human Bondage
Boasting a star-making turn from Bette Davis—who, despite not even being nominated, received the third-highest amount of Oscar votes that year—Of Human Bondage casts Leslie Howard as the failed artist turned medical student against Davis’ cold-hearted waitress. A paean to the complexities of human interaction, the film is a powerful lamentation of the uncontrollable urges we call love, looking on sadly as both characters are gradually whittled away by heartbreak and hurt. Running slightly over 80 minutes, it can’t quite manage to convey the sense of the passage of time evidently so important to this narrative, though the physical transformation undergone by both leads throughout is a fine effort thereat. Davis is terrific indeed, her often unsteady English accent notwithstanding, her ferocious presence gradually giving way to a powerfully tragic humanity. It’s a testament to the story’s power that Of Human Bondage so successfully traverses its various drawbacks. RECOMMENDED.
Here is a documentary that gives us an origin story quite different to those that fill multiplex auditoria the world over: this, ladies and gentlemen, is the tale of the birth of Snoop Lion. Rarely has a documentary been so relentlessly self-serving, Snoop Dogg traipsing through the streets of Jamaica in search of himself, claiming to sympathise with the plight of the poor all the while helping himself to their hospitality, particularly in herbal form. It’s hard to see any reason for this film to exist beyond funding the titanic quantity of weed Snoop makes his way through in the course of the production, his “philosophies” spouted through an omnipresent cloud of smoke. Director Andy Capper strives vainly to find anything of any worth in the material, at one point allowing Snoop to sadly lament how little time he gets to spend with his family; perhaps if he spent less time getting high on holiday he might just be able to fit them in. AVOID IT.
An interesting counterpoint to First Blood in many ways, Rolling Thunder’s closest companion is of course Taxi Driver, penned as both were by Paul Schrader. William Devane is transfixing in the lead, playing a returned POW whose wife confesses adultery in his absence. Schrader, sharing scripting duties with Heywood Gould, manages a mighty amount of twists and turns, never letting us know just what kind of film we’re watching until the last moment. It’s a thrilling viewing experience, grounded in reckonable emotion by the compellingly stoic Devane, who’s well supported by a young Tommy Lee Jones. The First Blood parallels are intriguing: where Rambo was shunned by society, Devane’s character is given a hero’s welcome; the relatively similar paths of both attest the sad inevitability of the psychically scarred combatants. Their plight may feel less real here than in that film and Taxi Driver, but there’s a striking immediacy to it nevertheless. RECOMMENDED.
Silent Hill: Revelation (Read our full review)
Whatever complaints one might raise with the original Silent Hill movie, which now and then managed an atmosphere befitting of the video game series’ legacy before squandering it on a silly execution, it seems a masterpiece beside this risible sequel, which conforms to every disheartening trend of mainstream horror, video game adaptations, and 3D filmmaking. It’s a triple-whammy of terrible dreck, its decent performances from Adelaide Clemens and Sean Bean powerless to save the film from the tide of tired clichés and aggravating direction that arrives courtesy of Michael J. Bassett. He has proved himself a perfectly fine filmmaker in the past—Solomon Kane is a serviceable slice of fun—but here his excesses override all and leave the eyes bleary with the sheer amount of meaningless stuff happening on-screen. A six-year gap between films speaks of serious trouble for this franchise; Silent Hill: Revelation, with any luck, should see it buried. UNWATCHABLE.
The Last Death
It’s hard not to enjoy The Last Death, manic a movie as it is. Following a doctor who finds a mysterious man unconscious on the floor when he arrives at his remote cabin, it’s equal parts sci-fi drama and psychological thriller as it hurtles its way through a twist-laden plot. Director David Ruiz does well enough to channel his effective lead performances and relatively low-budget effects into a coherent plot, particularly given the commitment of the script—which involves four names alongside Ruiz’s—to make matters as complicated as possible. It’s difficult to keep up with things in this film, and not in a good way; Ruiz and his team overdo things in trying to create a compelling mystery, and gradually sacrifice all character for a story that culminates in a terribly silly, weightless revelation. There’s enjoyment to be had along the way, at least, even if it’s as rapidly forgotten as are Ruiz’s characters. SO-SO.