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Films I Neglected To Review: Hillbilly Eulogy
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "About Endlessness," "Above Suspicion," "Benny Loves You," Here Today," "Initiation," "The Paper Tigers," "The Water Man" and "Wrath of Man."

Over the course of his three previous features, Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson have carved out one of the most distinct cinematic approaches of anyone working in film in the world today. Eschewing a traditional narrative format, these films are a collection of brief and often darkly funny vignettes about the hopelessness of the human condition that play out before a single stationary camera in such a dry and reserved manner that viewers may be unsure as to whether they are supposed to laugh or not. (Although it never in a million years would have happened, I can't help but think that he might have been the one person--no insult to Alan Rudolph--who might have successfully pulled off a film version of The Far Side.) While they are clearly not for everyone, those who do find themselves on Anderssonís admittedly peculiar wavelength comes away from them giddy with a sense of discovery and even those who don't quite get what he is going for are at least left with the sensation that they have certainly seen something that they wonít be forgetting anytime soon.

Andersson's latest film, About Endlessness, follows the same basic parameters as his previous works but also throws a couple of changes into the mix. For the first time, he has included a female narrator who offers brief comments on many of the scenes that we see but who is more content to observe them than to explain them in any way. The other big change is the much bleaker tone that he employs this time around. While his sense of humor has always been of the darkly deadpan variety, a number of the sequences here are clearly not meant to be funny at all (including a wrenching one in which we observe a man who has just murdered his daughter in an honor killing and tearfully regrets his decision as he cradles her lifeless body) and even the ones that are meant to be humorous are bleak enough to make you question whether you dare laugh out loud. (The range from the funny to the mordant is best exemplified by the closest thing the film has to a central character, a priest who turns up throughout bemoaning the fact that he has lost his faith in God, a motif that plays out in ways that are both hilarious and heartfelt.) Although I confess to preferring his earlier works (possibly because I have had more time to contemplate them), About Endlessness is nevertheless an often- mesmerizing return to the mind of one of the most unique filmmakers of our time and while I cannot guarantee that you will come away from it feeling the same way that I did, those of you in the mood for something definitely off the beaten bath may well find it as fascinating as I do.

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce has proven himself at directing everything from crackerjack thrillers (Dead Calm, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Salt) to keenly observed human dramas (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American)--hell, he even managed to transform the infamous Sliver, which by all accounts should have gone down as one of the worst films ever made, into something sort-of watchable. And yet, not even his skills are enough to make much of anything out of Above Suspicion, a clunky drama that takes a potentially shocking story--the true-life tale of an FBI agent convicted of murdering an informant that he had been having an affair with--and renders it virtually inert thanks to any number of questionable choices regarding both the storytelling and the casting. Set in the late 1980s, the film stars Emilia Clarke as Susan Smith, a young woman living in an economically depressed Kentucky town who ekes out a living pulling small-time scams and dealing drugs with the ex-husband (Johnny Knoxville) that she still lives with as a way of scamming more welfare money. She yearns for a better life and thinks that she might have found it in the form of Mark Putnam (Jack Huston), a newly installed FBI agent with great ambitions of his own--the fact that he already has a wife (Sophie Lowe) and child doesn't really factor into things for her. After supplying information regarding a major local crime, Mark begins employing Susan as a paid informant and the two soon begin an affair as well. She assumes he will leave his wife and child and take her away to a better life and is outraged when he tells her otherwise, leading to a chain of events that winds up with her narrating her sad story from beyond the grave.

Despite the presence of such talents as Noyce and Clarke, Above Suspicion has the banal look and feel of the TV movie that this probably would have become if it had been made back in the 1990s. However, the film has two key problems that prevent it from succeeding even on those admittedly lowered artistic terms. The first is that by placing the focus of their screenplay on Susan, screenwriters Chris Geronimo and Jon Sharkey essentially paint themselves into a dramatic corner that they cannot extricate themselves from--she is not a particularly interesting character, she doesn't develop in any significant ways and the inconvenient fact of her death forces the use of the post-mortem narrator, a narrative conceit that is only rarely effective. This isn't to say that an interesting story couldn't be made out of her story--even if it hasn't here--but it just seems as if focusing on the straight-arrow FBI agent and how he could also be brought down by lust, betrayal and violence might have proven to be more interesting. The other major flaw is that the two key performances at the center of the film just do not work. I am a big fan of Clarke but she is never convincing for a second as a doped-out borderline hillbilly who is not nearly as smart as she thinks she is and Huston is even less believable as Putnam. To make matters more awkward, the two have almost zero chemistry in their scenes together and since you cannot believe or care in the grand passions supposedly driving them, you cannot begin to believe anything else about it. The closest thing to a highlight in the film is, oddly enough, Johnny Knoxville, who is reasonably convincing as Susan's ex. That said, I think I better understand why he chose to do Jackass 4--after wasting his time on something as forgettable as Above Suspicion, he probably figured that there were easier and less painful ways to make a buck.

Benny Loves You is a one-joke movie that suffers from two problems--the one joke is not particularly funny or ingenious the first time around and becomes progressively less so as it goes on. Our hero is Jack (Karl Holt, who also wrote, directed and edited the film), a schlub fast approaching his 35th birthday who has a dead-end job in a toy company, still lives at home with his parents and seemingly has no other friends in the world other than Benny, the plush teddy bear that he has had since he was a kid. After his parents are killed in a gruesome freak accident and he is faced with the imminent loss of both his job and home, Benny tries to shift into adult mode at last and part of this involves getting rid of Benny at last. Alas, Benny proves to be a slightly more malevolent version of Teddy Ruxbin than the store version and goes around brutally murdering anyone who bothers Jack while chattering his pre-programmed phrases. This is bad enough for Jack but things gets worse when he inexplicably begins seeing co-worker Dawn (Claire Cartwright) and Benny begins making plans to get rid of his competition for Jack's attentions.

The conceit of a seemingly ordinary plaything come to life with malevolent intentions is not exactly new--the Child's Play films spun it into an entire franchise and Joe Dante's underrated Small Soldiers used the idea for plenty of hilarious social satire and scathing commentary--so if yet another film is going to utilize it, it had better figure out a new twist or approach to freshen things up. Here, everything from the premise to the individual jokes (including one alleged knee-slapper in which an ad mockup for one of Jack's proposed toys is awkwardly cropped so it appears that it is called A.I.D.S.) has a weird and dated quality to it that suggests that Holt wrote the thing when he was a kid and never bothered to update it. (There is even a weird recurring involving a boorish colleague of Jack's with a fascination with the apparently still-living Prince that is just bizarre.) Holt is clearly trying to hit the horror-comedy sweet spot that Edgar Wright nailed with Shaun of the Dead but he misses completely--unlike in Wright's film, the situation isn't funny, the characters are embarrassing caricatures (including the dopey cops who turn up throughout, evidently to supply comedy relief to what is supposed to be a comedy) and the gore, while plentiful in nature, is not remotely memorable. A perfect example of a film that tries way too hard to be the next outrageous cult favorite and not nearly hard enough at any of the other things that go into making a watchable movie, Benny Loves You is a tiresome bore, one that will make viewers long for the relative subtlety of something like Meet the Feebles.

The comedy of Billy Crystal has often relied on a combination of showbiz schtick and unabashedly corny sentiment to win audiences over. With Here Today, his latest directorial effort (his first since 2001's 61*), he pushes that combination to such extremes that even though the resulting film is quite excruciating, it almost becomes compelling in a strange sort of way--you keep watching to see if it can possible get any more shameless in its attempts to inspire laughs and tears. (Spoiler alert--it can.) Crystal plays Charlie Burnz, a legendary comedy writer currently working on a SNL-style sketch show, where his contributions continue to slay every week. Charlie's personal life is a bit more haphazard--his beloved wife died years earlier, he is vaguely estranged from his adult children (Penn Badgley and Laura Berlanti) and he is secretly dealing with the early stages of dementia. Through circumstances too contrived to get into here, he crosses paths with aspiring singer Emma (Tiffany Haddish) and a friendship grows between the two. When she catches on to Charlie's illness, she starts assisting him as he struggles to finish a memoir about his wife before his memories disappear completely. Well, it isn't all doom and gloom--amidst all that, we get to see Emma come down with an unexpected shellfish and steal the show at the bat mitzvah for Charlie's granddaughter and Charlie become an unexpected Internet sensation when he jumps in front of the cameras during a live broadcast of the show the tear into the star for his awkward line readings.

If this all seems vaguely unendurable in print, just imagine how grotesque it is when played out on the big screen. In many ways, the film serves as a bookend to Mr. Saturday Night, Crystal's 1992 directorial debut that also saw him playing an aging comic looking back on his life. The difference is that while Crystal's character in that one was unapologetically caustic for most of the running time (which, along with the creepy makeup job utilized to age him, probably helped to kill it at the box office), Charlie is eternally lovable and adorable throughout--so much so that even his children's grievances come across as petty in the face of his elfin charms--and we are constantly being reminded throughout of his comedic genius by having people remark to him (and us) about just how funny he is every time he drops a quip. (If you do elect to see this film, I would suggest that you go to YouTube and look up the classic SCTV sketch "Neil Simon's Nutcracker Suite" first for maximum effect.). Meanwhile, while Crystal is presenting himself as the next best thing to a human teddy bear, he and co-writer Alan Zweibel utter fail to develop the character of Emma into anything of note--based on the evidence supplied here, she apparently has no life, family or friends outside of Charlie, a guy she has just met. The script has plenty of other problems as well--its behind-the-scenes view of contemporary sketch comedy television makes Studio 60 seem cutting edge by comparison, the relationship between Charlie and Emma is never coherently addressed (they keep insisting there is nothing romantic going on but there is an unmistakeable vibe that says otherwise) and the dementia is never utilized as anything other than a cheap plot device for Crystal to jerk some more tears when things get slow. More shameless than shamelessly entertaining, Here Today sees Crystal, like so many other comedians before him, trying to go the Chaplin route with a story combining mirth and melodrama. In this case, you are better off watching literally anything in the Chaplin oeuvre and yes, I am including A Countess in Hong Kong.

Over the course of the long opening act of the new horror film Initiation, it seems as if director/co-writer John Beardo is making an ambitious effort to merge the tropes of 90s-era slasher movies (the ones where all the character actually saw all the slasher movies, made ironic comments and still wound up making the same dopey mistakes) with contemporary concerns such as the pressures of social media and campus sexual assault. In it, we see sorority leader Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy, another co-writer) watching over her sorority sisters and her real-life brother, star athlete Wes (Froy Guitierrez) over the course of a frat party that ends with her learning that one of the girls, Kylie (Isabella Gomez), may have been sexually assaulted and that Wes, who evidently blacked out, may have been involved. Kylie doesn't want to believe it but since there was a similar incident the year before that involved Wes, she cannot dismiss it either but before she can talk to Wes in depth about it, he is brutally murdered by a masked killer. While the school tries to keep a lid on things as the investigation begins, Ellery tries to get to the bottom of things but as she does, more people end up getting slaughtered as well and it appears that she may be the next target.

Right from the start, it is evident that Initiation is not exactly going to be reinventing the genre wheel but, as I mentioned, the setup is not without interest. The problem that ultimately sinks the movie is that pretty much right at the point where the blood starts flowing, the more provocative ideas in the screenplay are summarily abandoned in favor of tossing in a load of gore, possibly as a way of distracting viewers from the fact that the plot details start making less and less sense before its nonsensical finale. (In this sense, it is similar to that hugely disappointing remake of Black Christmas from a couple of years ago.) At that point, it just becomes an anonymous programmer--the kind of film that a mid-level genre film festival might book solely because a time slot was open and the price was right. Initiation shows that Beardo is not without talent behind the camera and LaVanchy brings an unexpectedly winning energy to her performance that reminded me of Jessica Rothe's turns in the Happy Death Day films--here is hoping that the next time around, they are able to come up with a stronger script.

The basic premise of The Paper Tigers--three kung-fu prodigies join forces when their master is murdered to solve the case and avenge his death--probably makes it sound like a standard-issue martial arts flick. The twist here is that the three prodigies in question--Danny (Allain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins)--are a quarter-century past their primes and are now more focused on dealing with job conflicts, divorce, old injuries, receding hairlines and expanding waistlines when their estranged former teacher (Roger Yuan) dies mysteriously and they look into it and rumors that their master, who vowed never to teach another pupil after the three of them let him down, may have taken on a fourth disciple and he may be involved with the murder. In other words, the emphasis in Quoc Bar Tran's film is more on comedy and sentiment than on bone-crunching action. That said, it does have one key element in common with the average kung-fu epic and that is the fact that the script is kind of a mess--while few people go to these films for the tightly constructed narratives, some of the plot developments (such as the whole idea of the noble master evidently taking on a new recruit whose attitude is evidently the complete opposite of his teachings) stretch credibility just a little too much while other aspects may strike viewers as a rehash of bits culled from Cobra Kai. And yet, while The Paper Tigers is hardly essential viewing, it is not without its charms--it has a nicely goofball spirit to it and the fight scene are nicely staged without ever becoming too brutal. This isn't the kind of movie that I would suggest making any strenuous effort to see but if you are channel-hopping one day and come across it, it will help pass the time for a couple of hours in a relatively painless manner.

As The Water Man begins, we are introduced to Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), a shy young boy with a passion for creating stories who lives in the remote town of Pine Mills with his loving mother Mary (Rosario Dawson), who encourages his creativity, and his father Amos (David Oyelowo, who also makes his directorial debut), who has just returned from an extended deployment overseas and who is struggling to connect with his oddball son. There is a legend in the town about an entity known as The Water Man, a local miner with the power of immortality who supposedly lives in the nearby forest, and when Mary's leukemia returns with a vengeance, Gunner is convinced that if he can find The Water Man, he can learn how to save her life. With the aid of a map provided by a local recluse (Alfred Molina) and local girl Jo (Amish Miller), who claims to have met The Water Man and who offers to serve as his guide, Gunner sets off on a quest into the woods to find him. While he and Jo have a number of strange encounters on their journey, Gunnerís disappearance is quickly discovered by Amos and he and the local sheriff (Maria Bello) try to track him down before it is too late.

Right from the start, it is readily apparent that Oyelowo and screenwriter Emma Needell intend The Water Man to be an homage to such 1980s-era child-centered fantasy-adventures as The Goonies, Labyrinth and The Talisman. To its credit, it doesn't belabor the debt that it owes to its predecessors (the closest thing to overkill in that sense is Gunner carrying around an E.T. lunchbox) and it does a nice job of showing flights of fantasy fancy while still keeping a firm footing in the real world. (An animated sequence used to depict the background of The Water Man is an especially inspired choice.) Chavis and Miller, the two kids at the center of the proceedings, do nice jobs with their performances and the better-known names also do good work (especially Dawson) in their smaller supporting turns. Some of the storytelling is a bit rough--especially towards the ending, which is far too rushed to have the emotional impact that it is aiming for--but, for the most part, Oyelowo has made an interesting debut behind the camera that could lead to a promising second career. The Water Man may not be the best family film out there right now--The Mitchells vs. the Machines has that title sewn up--but those looking for a low-key adventure suitable for all ages, it proves to be eminently watchable.

While watching the first 40 minutes or so of Wrath of Man, I was slowly becoming convinced that I was looking at something that I had never expected to see again--a genuinely good movie from Guy Ritchie, a director whose career began with such promise with the cheeky crime comedies Lock,Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and then drifted off into a combination of deadly dull and largely anonymous franchise installments (including the Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., King Arthur and Aladdin) and incomprehensibly awful personal projects (ranging from the clueless remake of Swept Away he did with former wife Madonna to last year's loathsome The Gentlemen). In this remake of the 2004 French thriller Le Convoyeur, we se a man known only as H (Jason Statham, who got his start in those early Ritchie projects) as he goes through the process of being hired by American security firm Fortico Security as one of the drivers of the armored vans they uses to transport large sums of money. While he doesn't impress his new colleagues at first--his test scores at driving and on the shooting range only barely qualify him for the gig--that changes quickly when his truck his held up and he cooly and methodically guns down every one of the would-be thieves without hesitation. Although this unexpected act of derring-do makes him a hero among most of his co-workers, there is also some suspicion as well that there may indeed be more to him than meets the eye.

This section of the film is not without its hiccups--Ritchie's tendency to give most of his characters cutesy nicknames and three times more dialogue than necessary is especially noticeable here--but it is done in a lean and efficient manner of a sort that Ritchie has never quite attempted before and which benefits enormously from the considerable screen presence of Statham, who remains one of the few action heroes of our time who looks as though he could genuinely do all of the damage that his characters end up performing. Unfortunately, it is at this point that the film starts going downhill, first with an extended series of flashbacks that are designed to explain who H is and what is going on that are too convoluted for their own good and which tend to keep Statham off the screen for too long and then with an equally extended climactic shootout that clearly aims to rival the centerpiece heist from Heat but which only shows that Ritchie is no Michael Mann. That said, even though Wrath of Man is ultimately not worth watching unless you are a charter member of the Jason Statham Fan Club, it is, with the possible exception of The Man from UNCLE, Ritchieís most tolerable effort since his first two films all those years ago. Who knows, if he keeps this up, he might end up living up to the promise that he demonstrated once upon a time.

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originally posted: 05/07/21 08:56:20
last updated: 05/07/21 09:28:38
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