Thrillers of one kind or another – and of varying quality – predominate this week. The screwiest, “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (Una lucertola con la pelle di donna – 1971 / Mondo Macabro / 104m / $29.95 BR / NR), comes from Italian director Lucio Fulci. Known there as The Maestro Fulci is not known for films that make a lick of sense – something he shares with other Neapolitan directors of horror and thrillers. Here we have Carol (Florinda Bolkan) as the bored wife of a lawyer (Jean Sorel) who’s rarely home (it’s not just that his caseload is that heavy, he’s boinking another woman). Carol has been having disturbing dreams about their neighbor, a free spirit who regularly throws noisy, drug-fueled orgies. In her latest nightmare Carol has dreamt that she stabbed the woman to death and – wouldn’t you just know it? – the woman has been murdered and with Carol’s distinctive letter opener. Other evidence also makes her the prime suspect and Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) tries to get to the truth even while Carol is menaced by two hippie types who were also in her dream and more murders occur. As is usual for Fulci this sow’s ear looks as much like a silk purse as possible thanks to the décor and the women’s costuming, particularly for Carol who sports a selection of fetching wide-brimmed fedoras that match her capes. The film also begins intriguingly with one of Carol’s dreams wherein she is making her way through a series of train coaches filled with naked couples pitching woo that transform into hallway of the neighbor’s apartment. But the wackdoodle details accumulate – the most outrageous being a repeated reference to fingerprints left on a fur coat (!).
It’s far less nutty but “Badge of Honor” (2013 / Alchemy / 98m / $29.99 / NR) is also a little too normal. I had expected something more given the involvement of Martin Sheen but he seems to have gone into “Where’s my paycheck?” mode. The story proper begins with a drug bust during which good cop Mike (Jesse Bradford) accidentally shoots and kills a teenager who was on the premises smoking weed. His partner, corrupt cop David (Lochlyn Munro), quickly rigs things to look as though the kid was packing heat and fired first. Internal affairs investigator Jessica Sawson (Mena Suvari) smells a rat and sets out to uncover the truth. David quickly is shown to be not just a bad cop but a full-blown psychopath as it’s revealed he’s in cahoots with the drug lord (who escaped with the money for the drugs he didn’t deliver due to the bust). David threatens Jessica, ultimately pays the dealer to snuff her and kills a bunch of people himself. Sheen plays the police captain who mostly seems baffled by it all. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen on the likes of “Hill Street Blues.” Mono-monickered Agustin directs and has a good eye for composition and editing but the story is one we’ve seen too many times and nothing particularly intriguing has been added.
Middling might be the best word to describe “Estranged” (2015 / Well-Go USA / 92m / $29.98 BR / NR) a British production that has January (Amy Manson) return to the family estate after a near fatal motorcycle accident that has left her temporarily wheelchair-bound and with total amnesia. She has no memory of her family or why she left them, apparently under less than amiable conditions. Possibly because the family is downright screwy? They give her boyfriend the “guest room” – a mattress on the floor of an otherwise empty room – because they don’t believe unmarried people should share a bedroom. He later disappears and they claim they’ve sent him away because he’s worthless. Her brother suggests she perform oral sex on him and things just get worse and worse until she’s imprisoned in a cellar room and raped (and impregnated) by her father. You’re going to guess what’s going on long before the filmmakers want you to, especially if you’ve seen “The Visit.” I doubt this is a case of copying that film (the production dates are too close) but the situation is nigh identical. This is the better film of the two though that doesn’t make it particularly good. It just has better acting and – given it’s not of the found footage ilk – it’s better technically. But it’s far too obvious far too early as to the solution of its supposedly mysterious goings on.
A far better use of your time would be “Criminal Activities” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 94m / $29.97 BR / NR) a deliciously quirky film that marks the directorial debut of Jackie Earle Haley. Things are in Quentin Tarantino territory in Robert Lowell’s script that has four high school friends – well, more accurately three friends and the fellow they bullied – get involved in a financial scheme that goes drastically toxic. Trouble is the 400 grand they invested was borrowed from mobster Eddie (John Travolta) and he insists they pay it back or do a small favor for him or – well, you can easily imagine the third option. Seems his niece has been nabbed by a drug dealer, Marques (Edi Gathegi) because her boyfriend is an addict significantly in debt for coke deliveries. Eddie wants Marques kidnapped and held for, um, “collection.” Nabbing the guy goes off without a hitch, surprisingly for this quartet of newbie crooks. Holding him is quite a different bucket of scrod however because Marques proves to be a relentlessly abusive prisoner – well, to his captors at any rate; for the viewer he’s a hoot.
I’ll leave it to the film to reveal the rest of its surprises rather than spoil a witty and entertaining production with an end I guarantee you won’t see coming. Is it perfect? Well, no. It has a rather too large cast of characters (including director Haley himself as one of Eddie’s thugs); the film may spend too much time on them but they also provide some of its most entertaining moments. The surprise reveal may be a tad too convoluted for its own good (and I’m not convinced everything quite falls into place) but the dialogue throughout is exceptional and the cast bites into it as they might tuck into a gourmet meal, relishing every morsel. This is Lowell’s first produced screenplay and I await future endeavors with keen anticipation. I confess I’m not familiar with the four kidnappers (Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, Christopher Abbott and Rob Brown) though their IMDB credits reveal I have seen several of them in other things. Though he’s in essentially a supporting role this is Travolta’s movie and he dominates it. Looking trimmer than I’ve seen him in years (and with facial skin so taut and shiny I suspect he’s had work done) he hits the right note for this quirky concoction with seeming effortlessness. I suspect I may have seriously underestimated his abilities over the years. The excessive profanity suggests this will not be a film for all tastes but I heartily recommend it to those unfazed by the f-bomb and anyone looking for something different and hugely entertaining.
More serious in tone but equally engaging and full of wonderful twists is “MI-5” (2014 / Lionsgate / 104m / $24.95 BR / R). After a terrorist, Adem Kasim (Elyes Gabel), is sprung from captivity Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth, who happily seems to be appearing in more movies lately) is forced to resign and his disgrace is such that he commits suicide. Of course it’s quickly revealed that he has not done so but simply arranged to disappear so his former employers don’t immediately know he has managed to track down the “freedom fighter” and is up to something. Once it’s realized he’s probably not dead and might know where the escapee is , the new heads of the spy agency recruit Will (Kit Harrington), a former employee fired by Sir Harry, to locate him and the terrorist who’s back to his old tricks of blowing up stuff. Once found Sir Harry tells Kit that the botched transfer of the terrorist to the Americans has to have been arranged by someone within the organization to weaken it and give the CIA a reason to take it over. He’s arranging to get Kasim’s wife from the Russians so he can get the name of the traitor. Or is that really what’s going on? Might he just want to embarrass still further the agency that ditched him?
Telling you more would not only be a disservice to Bharat Nalluri’s film but also far too complicated to relate here – and just between us I’d prefer never having to do a full synopsis of this convoluted film anywhere. The script is tight and intelligent, which for an action thriller is a rarity. There is a fair amount of explosions and gun fire (including the finale) for those who must have such things but essentially this is a brain twister of a thriller such as hasn’t been seen much, or at all, in decades. Every time Sir Harry does something that seems to tie in with his professed plan he follows it up with something that apparently refutes it. The MI-5 types seem slimy enough to be bad guys but, hey, sometimes good guys are also jerks. You’ll be just as uncertain about the disgraced spymaster’s motives as Will is. Tautly paced and superbly acted – particularly by Firth and Harrington – this is a gem for aficionados of the spy genre and really just about everyone else.
While “99 Homes” (2014 / Broadgreen / 112m / $29.99 BR / R) starts well – and very intensely – it loses steam as it goes on. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) loses the family home after missing several mortgage payments (which he claims the bank told him not to pay) and he and his mother (Laura Dern) and his young son are put out on the street. Seems that 30 day period he has to appeal the judge’s decision does not preclude him being evicted. Through a turn of events he ends up working for the very shark who foreclosed on him (Michael Shannon) and turning a blind eye to the unethical and illegal acts he’s required to perform because he sees hope of buying back his house (though why he’s so keen on such an undistinguished tract home is never sufficiently explained or explored). That he loses his own humanity in the process of progressing from removing HVAC units (to be resold to HUD) and participating in a fraudulent keys-for-cash scheme to callously subjecting families to the same eviction procedure he endured is detailed – and possibly at too much length for the viewer to retain sympathy for him. The indictment of the cruds who profited from the homeowner bust while making many families homeless is earnest, though it’s so deadly serious that it stifles its own impact. Now I’m not suggesting there is comedy gold to be extracted from this subject but a few lighter moments here and there would have benefitted the film greatly. A music score that didn’t hrum on endlessly would have helped too; there just isn’t enough variety of texture here for a film that lasts nearly two hours. The cast is a darned good one but the film never gives them a chance to make it work.
By far the most chilling thriller in the batch turns out to be the documentary “Welcome to Leith” (2015 / First Run Features / 86m / $24.95 / NR). In 2012 white separatist, Neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Craig Cobb discovered via Craig’s list that there were lots for sale in Leith, South Daklota and he bought up a number of them. He made one his residence, leased or sold others to fellow bigots and repurposed a creamery to become a meeting place for the National Socialist Party. Cobb and his colleagues would patrol the town carrying rifles and – while they never actually pointed them at anyone – terrorized the inhabitants with their threatening demeanor. They were quite open in their intention to take over the place and make it an all white community; anyone who disagreed (including Leith’s sole black resident) might infer from the firearms what their options were. Cobb and his fellow creeps gave surprising access to filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker. The citizens’ various efforts to retain control of their town are detailed (a very clever solution was found though I won’t reveal it here) as are the armed patrols by Cobb and his buddies, never raising their weapon s but glaring menacingly at various people. As I’ve indicated Leith has had a reasonably happy resolution (some of the racists arestill in residence) but Cobb, after an all too brief period of imprisonment, has tried similar takeovers in other northwest areas (though his is not touched on in the film). This documentary offers a scary glimpse at something that could happen just about anywhere in the U.S. This is one documentary that should be seen by everyone.