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Films I Neglected To Review: Don't Axe
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Lizzie," "The Toybox" and "Unbroken: Path to Redemption."

In 1893, Lizzie Borden was arrested and put on trial for allegedly murdering her wealthy father and stepmother with an axe—although she was acquitted of the crime (the jury could not believe that a woman of her class and breeding could be capable of such a ghastly act), the case would go on to become both one of the most infamous murder cases in American history. In ''Lizzie,'' the latest screen treatment of the crime and its aftermath, screenwriter Bryce Kass and director Craig William Macneill have recast the story as an overtly feminist parable in which women chafing as being regarded as little more than second-class citizens and sexual receptacles finally rise up to cut the patriarchy down to size. In this telling, Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) is living a miserable existence at home with her miserly and sexually sadistic father (Jamey Sheridan) her hated stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and spinster older sister (Kim Dickens), has few real prospects for getting married and has just discovered that her father’s scheming brother (Denis O'Hare) is trying to convince him to make him the sole beneficiary of his will on the basis that his daughters, the rightful heirs, just could not handle it. Into this stultifying hotbed comes Bridget (Kristen Stewart), an illiterate Irish maid that Mr. Borden immediately starts molesting but who begins a clandestine friendship with Lizzie that eventually develops into something more. When their secret is discovered, Mr. Borden threatens to send Lizzie away for good and Lizzie, shall we say, responds accordingly.

Looking at the Lizzie Borden case through the lens of contemporary feminism to offer up a solution is not necessarily a bad approach (although there is no actual proof of any lesbian relationship between Lizzie and Bridget of the sort depicted here, it is no more outlandish than any other theory about the case) but the trouble with ''Lizzie'' is that Macneill has taken the story of a woman driven to extremes in part by the stultifying and airless nature of her existence and transformed it into a film that is itself pretty stultifying and airless. Visually, it is impressive throughout thanks to cinematography by Noah Greenburg that perfectly evokes the hothouse conditions that Lizzie and her family were literally living under. Sevigny is quite good in the title role, taking someone known today only as a murderous cliche and making her into a real person and the always-amazing Stewart is even better as Bridget, a woman who yearns for a better life for herself but who is smart enough to realize that it just isn't in the cards. And yet, the film never really comes together in a particularly compelling manner--it is an idea that no one has figured out how to transform into a satisfying dramatic narrative. The point that the film is trying to make--presenting Lizzie as a feminist hero instead of as a cold-blooded killer--is established early on and it just keeps hammering it home while leaving other potentially interesting areas of the story (such as her trial and acquittal) to the side. To be certain, ''Lizzie'' has been made with care and intelligence but it is so devoid of passion or energy that it feels more like a diorama than a drama.

I don’t want to say that ''The Toybox'' is one of the stupidest films that I have ever seen in my life---that is just the sort of hyperbole that might inspire someone to seek it out--but I have to say that no other contenders for that title are immediately leaping to mind right now. Following the death of his wife, a widower (Greg Violand) buys a used RV and gathers his estranged family--including his responsible older son (Jeff Denton), his screw-up younger son (Brian Nagel) and the former's wife (Denise Richards) and young daughter (Malika Michelle)--to hit the highway for a long-planned road trip. After picking up a pair of siblings (Mischa Barton and Matt Mercer) with a broken-down car, they head off into the desert to look at some cave paintings but a bizarre accident leads to tragedy and leaves them trapped under the scorching sun with nowhere to go. Unfortunately, what they don't know (but which we do thanks to a fantastically inane prologue) is that the RV is actually possessed by the malevolent presence of the serial killer who used it as his grisly base of operations and who begins killing them off one by one. I would describe the results as being a combination of such famous auto-based horrors as ''The Car'' or ''Christine'' and the infamous ''Manos: The Hands of Fate'' but doing so would only make it seem far more interesting and entertaining than it actually is. With a premise this idiotic, you would think that a film like this would go for a more overtly campy vibe but no, it actually wants us to take it seriously and genuinely fear for our potential victims (none of whom possess any trace of personality or the amount of brain power needed to sustain the average bacon bit). The result is 90 interminable minutes of unpleasant people yelling at each other while occasionally being run over or impaled in increasingly contrived ways. As a short that could just get to the good stuff without the need to stretch things out to a feature length, ''The Toybox'' might have made for some minor grubby fun--maybe as filler between films at a horror-themed festival--but as a full length film, it is little more than a joke and not an especially inspired one at that.

Although it clearly wants to be seen as a companion piece, ''Unbroken: Path to Redemption'' is not precisely a sequel to ''Unbroken,'' the 2014 film chronicling the astonishing story of Louis Zamperini, the celebrated runner who followed up his triumph at the 1936 Olympics by enlisting in WWII, surviving 47 days at sea after being shot down over the Pacific Ocean and years in captivity in a Japanese prison camp. Yes, it is based on material from the same Laura Hillebrand book that inspired the first film but none of the heavyweight talents involved with the earlier film had anything to do with this one. Somehow, Pure Flix, the company behind the ''God's Not Dead'' films and other religious-themed projects, got a hold of the rights and have made a film that offers to tell the rest of Zamperini's story. After returning home, Louis (Samuel Hunt), haunted by memories of the tortures he underwent at the hands of the sadistic camp leader Wantanabe, is unable to put the pieces of his life back together and begins hitting the bottle. He finds inspiration when he meets and almost immediately marries Cynthia (Merritt Patterson) and decides to begin training for the 1948 Olympics but when an injury brings that dream to an end, he once again falls into an alcoholic funk that finds him mistreating Cynthia while concocting some cockeyed plan to go back to Japan and find and kill Wantanabe himself. Luckily, just when things are at their worst, the steadfast Cynthia coaxes Louis into attending a revival meeting led by Billy Graham (played by his real-life grandson, Will) and this inspires him to straighten up, dedicate his life to Christ and learn to forgive both his former tormentors and himself.

Watching the events of ''Unbroken: Path to Redemption,'' it is easy to see why Angelina Jolie elected to leave much of them out when she made her film--not to sound dismissive of what Zamperini endured both during and after the war but from a dramatic standpoint, there is little on display here that we haven’t seen before in any number of war dramas. The problem is that while the original ''Unbroken'' was not exactly a great film by any means, Jolie demonstrated enough of a genuine interest in Zamperini as a person to give it a little more depth and resonance that it might have otherwise received. By comparison, there is never any evidence on display here that director Harold Cronk (whose credits include the first two ''God's Not Dead'' films and last week’s ''God Bless the Broken Road'') has any interest about any aspect of Zamperini's life except for his religious conversion and as a result, the film is little more than a listless melodrama that seems as impatient to get to the ending as most viewers will be, albeit for different reasons. What is especially frustrating is that the most interesting aspect of all of this--Zamperini's eventual trip to Japan to forgive his former captors--is handled less as a moment of true catharsis and more like an afterthought. While the B-team approach to the casting this time around can be forgiven, Hunt is okay in the lead but possesses only a fraction of the charisma that Jack O'Connell brought to the role, the cheapness that permeates the rest of the film is harder to overlook--the efforts to tell a period story without the proper budget to do so are largely in vain and the nightmare sequences look exceedingly cheesy, especially the sight of a group of attacking CGI sharks that might have been rejected from one of the lesser ''Sharknado'' sequels. In the end, ''Unbroken: Path to Redemption'' is little more than a couple of hours of heavy-handed drama that is more interested in preaching to the converted than in telling the story of a man’s truly unique life--this is fine if you are one of the converted, I suppose, but much less so if you are the man.

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originally posted: 09/15/18 01:13:53
last updated: 09/15/18 01:34:57
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