“Don Verdean” (2015 / Lionsgate Premiere / 96m / $19.99 BR / PG-13) is equally uneven because it can’t seem to decide what the target of its satire is – or if it even has one. The titular character (Sam Rockwell) is an archaeologist who specializes in Biblical artifacts – generally of dubious authenticity and unearthed in unauthorized digs. The audiences for his personal appearances have dwindled as have his book and DVD sales. He thus jumps at the offer of a pastor with deep pockets to fund digs – but the pressure for immediate results leads him to fabricate Goliath’s skull and, when found out ,he’s blackmailed into faking the Holy Grail. What starts as satire descends into one of those hoary old tales of selling out in the delusion it’s for the greater good (Verdean claims he just wanted to bring people to faith by “proving the Biblical accounts aren’t myths). Naturally the film ends with confession and redemption. The characters are too goofy to take any of this seriously yet actual laughs are far and few between. As with too many comedies of late the film seems to work on the theory that merely introducing the potential for comedy is enough, no actual jokes are required (are audiences now to supply their own punchlines?). Rockwell seems merely to be wandering about in a daze – perhaps trying to figure out just what the point is of all this – and what few comic moments are scored come from Jemaine Clements as an entirely unscrupulous confederate. The cast is actually a good one but they’re wasted on this material.
In the action thriller category we have “The Midnight Man” (2015 / Cinedigm / 103m / $14.93 / NR), which presents Will Kemp as Grady, a hit man who’s impervious to pain (and if I interpreted a throwaway line of dialogue correctly any physical sensation). This peculiar medical condition is barely explained (if at all) but then there’s a great deal that’s blithely skimmed over here and that’s not always to the film’s benefit. Grady loses his asset (just how much of one is revealed in a prologue where some not very nice types are attempting to torture information out of him) when an EMT (Brinna Kelly, who also co-wrote the script with director D. C. Hamilton and served as one of the producers) treats him when he passes out after one of his kills; whatever she injects him with restores his nerve endings (if you suspect medical mumbo jumbo here you’re not alone). Inexplicably he drags her along and equally inexplicably she soon decides to aid him in his task of terminating with extreme prejudice a series of about to be former associates texted him by his boss (Brent Spiner). She even has sex with him in the back seat of a car (how romantic). Naturally nothing is quite what it seems but the big surprise reveal cannot be made to make sense and so it falls flat (it involves someone training for quite a period of time and then just happening to be in the right place at the right time) . There is one amusing scene involving a chatty gourmand torturer who realizes he’s talked too long and Grady’s drug has worn off and his golden opportunity has passed. But like so much else here this is an obvious borrowing from another source. The film looks good and Kemp is an agreeable presence (with luck he’ll go on to better things); it’s his charisma alone that creates any interest at all in a character who kills for money.
The week reminded me of the old joke, beloved by former president Ronald Reagan, whose punchline is “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere.” The viewing ordeal began with “Kill or Be Killed” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 104m / $27.97 / NR), an attempt to make one of the new westerns that are revitalizing a nigh moribund genre. The title music – indeed the music throughout, which is splendid – evokes Sergio Leone and this is followed by a somewhat comic scene where gang leader “Sweet Tooth” Barbee (Justin Meeks, who also co-directed and co-scripted with Duane Graves) busts one of his gang free from a chain gang. “Slap” Jack (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) is the one who knows where the loot from a train robbery is buried so his freedom is required. The gang is soon joined by a young ventriloquist (Bridger Zadinba) who is also a whiz at throwing a Bowie knife and perhaps has access to a time machine that allowed him to acquire a Jerry Mahoney dummy. (He may also have picked up the rifles with scopes that are used by the gang later in the film.)
On their trek to recover their booty they stop to rob a tiny church that inexplicably has bags and bags of gold coins collected from the parishioners of their small frontier town, killing a pastor in the process. They get hospitality from various settlers, invariably enduing their visits by murdering their hosts. They manage to diminish the size of the pursuing posse even while members of the gang are killed in grotesque ways by someone (or possibly something) that creeps into their camps at night. This should be more interesting than it is but there’s a lot of talk in between and the dialogue is mediocre when it isn’t downright boring. The acting mostly follows suit though McCarthy-Boyington crafts a nicely comic performance as the desperado who is reduced bit by bit as the film progresses. Old hands such as Michael Berryman and Pepe Serna lend cameos but aren[‘t given anything particul;arl;y interesting to do. The attempt to meld western and horror tropes just results in an uneven tone that simply made me want to pop “Bone Tomahawk” in the player for a reprise viewing.
You all probably have a relative of whom another relative remarks on occasion “He/she means well.” That’s much the feeling I took away from “The North Star” (2013 / RLJ Entertainment / 89m / $27.97 / NR), a historic drama (based on a true story need I add?) about slaves hightailing it north to freedom. Big Ben and Moses (former Philly Eagles footballer Jeremiah Trotter and Thomas C. Bartley, Jr.) head off from Virginia to Pennsylvania when the former learns the master is planning to sell him even though they know that, if caught, they’ll be cruelly whipped (by a guy we can see enjoys his work). Pursued by the plantation owner and his minions they eventually make their way to a mountain community of abolitionists, free blacks and other escaped slaves. But that’s not quite the end of their struggles thanks to a jealous fellow who resents the attention Ben is getting from one of the women.
I hate to come down too hard on this film from first-time director and co-writer Thomas K. Phillips because it is certainly well-intentioned and any tale of the Underground Railroad deserves to be told. The production unfortunately comes up short in almost every way. Phillips’ compositions are banal and his dialogue is limp and stilted. It reveals some interesting facts about the abolitionists – such as how they worked coded messages about the Underground Railroad into quilts – but every time it stops to do so it feels like a lecture rather than naturalistic dialogue. Big Ben and Moses rather too fortuitously encounter just the folks who will help them in their journey and the final act is pure clichéd melodrama. Then there is the matter of inattention to detail – runaway slaves making their way by foot over hundreds of miles do not look as though their clothes just came out of the dryer. However worthy the intentions of all involved the film is inert.
It remains to William Shakespeare to provide what quality is to be found. Since feature-length films became the norm there have been at least two dozen adaptations of his “Scotttish play” – so dubbed because live productions have been so ill-omened it is considered unlucky to say its title aloud within a theater. Easily the two best film adaptations are Orson Welles’ highly theatrical version of 1948 and Roman Polanski’s blood-soaked one of 1971. The newest “Macbeth” (2015 / Anchor Bay / 113m / $26.99 BR / R) to reach the screen isn’t quite as good as those but in its choice to relate the story in primarily visual terms (abandoning chunks of the text in the process) it’s at least intriguing if not entirely successful. The approach doesn’t so much augment the Bard’s text as it displaces it and some of the imagery to which the film cuts away is baffling. Then there are those that may be puzzling but are quite intriguing such as the emphasis on children. The very first scene is of the Macbeth’s (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard) presiding over the funeral of a child, presumably their own. (And who knew the ancient Scots put their dead on a funeral pyre?) Macbeth’s army is at least half young men who look to have barely cleared puberty (one of whose ghost haunts Macbeth even more persistently than Banquo). The three witches have been augmented with a young girl, and Duncan is serenaded by a children’s choir during the feast at Dunsinane. Quite what this means I’m sure I don’t know; possibly it’s a reference to the titular character not having issue that survived. In this case at least it doesn’t detract from the story.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing that this version doesn’t have everyone all cleaned up and spiffy as so many historic films do, particularly adaptations of Shakespeare. But everyone is so begrimed – not to mention hairy – that they’re nigh unrecognizable (it wasn’t until nearly the end of the film that I was certain that, yes, that is Sean Harris as Maduff). The further disadvantage is that it’s not easy to distinguish who’s who amongs the characters and as some of them appear as Macbeth’s hallucinations – such as the person he talks to immediately after he’s slain Duncan or the boy soldier who proffers the knife for the “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech – this is a drawback. Justin Kurzel’s film is almost the equal to Polanski’s in its violence though some of the nastiest bits thankfully aren’t graphically shown, such as Macduff’s wife and children being immolated at the stake. It’s also a relentlessly grim adaptation, often leeched of color when it’s not bathed in red or orange, such as the finale where Burnham Wood is set ablaze(I fail to grasp how this brings it to Dunsinane but it provides a striking backdrop – reminiscent of the climax to John Boorman’s “Excaliber” – for the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff). The only comic relief Shakeseare provided (the business with the Porter) is absent so the only relief is in the occasional lovely image such as Macbeth bathing in a lake to wash off the king’s blood. It isn’t quite enough to prevent things from getting slightly tedious, particularly as Fassbender has chosen (or been instructed) to deliver his lines in a slow, halting manner. It may reflect the character’s conflict over his actions but it robs the speeches of their poetry and his performance of some necessary thunder. Cotillard is splendid as Lady Macbeth; both she and the production give more depth to the character than is usually the case. I can’t recommend this version as an introduction to the play but those familiar with the text should find it of interest.