In the realm of fictional productions, there’s the huge, steaming, reeking pile of moose excrement “Dirty Grandpa” (2016 / Lionsgate / 108m / $39.99 BR+DVD combo / NR), and I apologize for not describing it more vividly, but I am restrained from using profanity here. Robert DeNiro essays the title character who cons his grandson (Zac Efron) into driving him to Florida and manages to steer the guy into a side trip to South Beach. Extreme raunchiness and bad behavior ensues (and in my case, apathy sets in). Ah but it’s all in service of a warm and fuzzy ending with life lessons learned. Spare me. Spare yourself for that matter – this is one of those movies I watched so you don’t have to.
In “Where to Invade Next” (2015 / Anchor Bay / 120m / $29.99 BR / R) Michael Moore “invades” various European countries (and one in northern Africa) and claims their best ideas – at least to his way of thinking – for the U.S.A. Italy’s astonishing vacations (at least eight weeks a year) plus an extra month’s pay for employees to properly enjoy them. (The country also grants five months paid maternity leave.) Yet the country rivals ours in terms of manufacturing productivity. France offers what amounts to gourmet multi-course lunches for its students that cost less than school fare here (one school’s chef has never served a burger or fries, declaring “That’s not food!”). Or how about the country whose maximum security prison cells more resemble dorm rooms, where no one serves more than 21 years (no death penalty either, need I add?) yet has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (it has also decriminalized all drugs)? Or another that offers free university education – even to non-citizens? Astonishingly all these countries claim they got their inspiration from our country – though we obviously have not acted on them as vigorously and extravagantly. This film is an eye-opener to say the least.
Lighter, much, much lighter fare is on hand with “The Peanuts Movie” (2015 / Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment / 89m / $24.99 / G). This one is aimed squarely at the kiddies and those who still can’t get enough of the kids in the titular comic strip that ended two decades ago but lives on in re-runs, commercial endorsements and countless merchandise tie-ins. Am I a cynic for thinking this an attempt by the Charles Schulz offspring to squeeze even more cash out of the franchise (son Craig and grandson Bryan are producers and writers of the new film) that had made Schulz a billionaire? The computer animation lacks the charm of the traditionally animated TV specials films. And this production can’t escape their shadow what with its use of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz compositions nestled uncomfortably beside new music in an ersatz John Williams vein and the use of archival recordings of Bill Melendez doing Snoopy and Woodstock’s vocalizations. And of course there’s the use of a muted trombone to represent all adult voices. Much of the script is cribbed from sequences in the specials and the daily strip (but lacking any of the edginess of either). The computer animation provides a grandeur to Snoopy’s dogfights with the Red Baron that seems completely out of keeping with the simplicity of the strip and the specials. Having perpetual loser Charlie Brown triumphant is also foreign to Schulz’s vision. Some might find this satisfactory for the life lessons imparted; for me it was superfluous and bland.
Quite the oddest film I watched all week is Roman Polanski’s “What?” (1972 / Severin Films / 110m / $29.95 / NR), an Italian production that failed at the box office here in the states and pretty much disappeared from sight afterward. Vacationing American Nancy (Sydne Rome) escapes rape from a trio of horny Italians by taking refuge in a magnificent villa presided over by Alex (Marcello Mastroianni) and his father (Hugh Griffith). Also ensconced therein are a gaggle of oddballs most of whom relentlessly try to bed the innocent young woman. It’s a plotless and surreal trip down the rabbit hole – and by having Nancy descend to the villa via a small cable car and countless other allusions to Lewis Carroll’s work this is clearly “Alice in Wonderland” by way of “Little Annie Fanny.” Titillating sequences abound and Rome is frontally nude at least once but no sex act is portrayed too graphically. Despite Rome’s assertion (in an interview included as an extra) “What?” is not timeless but very much a product of the period when it was made – a time when smirking sex comedies proliferated. There are a few scattered laughs to be had but much of the proceedings are merely tiresome. No film by Polanski can be completely dismissed, but this is one of the director’s most trivial.
The documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” (2015 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 95m / $29.97 BR / NR) traces the history of the National Lampoon, which those with long memories will recall as a humor magazine rather than movies usually starring Chevy Chase. Its heyday was the 1970s, but it sputtered along into the 1990s. Described by some as Mad Magazine for adults, its satire was outrageous and non-partisan (Che Guevera and Gerald Ford were both objects of abuse on its covers). Its humor was also frequently raunchy and many a teenager bought it because it wasn’t in the adult section like Playboy but often contained photos of nude women. Started by Harvard Lampoon alumni, it became a victim of its own success as it launched live shows and a radio series many whose performers went on to “Saturday Night Live” and movie careers. When the magazine’s founders departed and the name became attached to movies, beginning with “Animal House,” the publication struggled and eventually ceased. But for a time, it was one of the most popular magazines in the U.S. – at a time when print was still an important media.
In “Where to Invade Next” (2015 / Anchor Bay / 120m / $29.99 BR / R) Michael Moore “invades” various European countries (and one in northern Africa) and claims their best ideas – at least to his way of thinking – for the U.S. Italy’s astonishing vacations (at least eight weeks a year) plus an extra month’s pay for employees to properly enjoy them. (The country also grants five months paid maternity leave.) Yet the country rivals ours in terms of manufacturing productivity. France offers what amounts to gourmet multi-course lunches for its students that cost less than school fare here (one school’s chef has never served a burger or fries, declaring “That’s not food!”). Or how about the country whose maximum security prison cells more resemble dorm rooms, where no one serves more than 21 years (no death penalty either, need I add?) yet has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (it has also decriminalized all drugs). Or another that offers free university education – even to non-citizens? Astonishingly, all these countries claim they got their inspiration from our country – though we obviously have not acted on them as vigorously and extravagantly. This film is an eye-opener to say the least.
Far more satisfactory drama – if a touch too lacking in lighter moments – is achieved in “Touched with Fire” (2015 / Lionsgate / 107m / $24.99 BR / R) a tale of two bipolars (Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby) who meet and fall in love while institutionalized and begin an affair that leads to living together. Not surprisingly, they also both go off their meds repeatedly – and while the movie doesn’t hammer the point home, it is telling that neither of these poets manages to do anything creative while medicated. Doting parents (Christine Lahti, Bruce Altman and Griffin Dunne) and various psychiatric professionals try to keep them on track to a “normal” life even while beauty of an unaltered state is more alluring than its horror. This is a touching, bittersweet tale that leads to a poignant, realistic ending and offers marvelous performances from the entire cast. It may be a touch too serious for its own good but it’s heartfelt.
“Regression” (2016 / Anchor Bay / 106m / $22.98 / R) is, as the saying goes, inspired by actual events and has policeman Ethan Hawke trying to unravel the truth behind allegations of child sexual abuse and satanic worship charged by a young woman (Emma Watson). The department enlists the aid of psychoanalyst David Thewliss who uses regressive hypnosis to ferret out the facts. I’m not going to reveal more than that because there are quite a few twists along the way, and the resolution just might catch you off guard. Is the young woman telling the truth, or is what we see onscreen the result of dreams and/or suggestions planted by the hypnotherapist (as has been alleged in various cases that made use of the technique)? I don’t know how much fictionalization has been wrought on the real police case the script takes its cue from but nothing is quite what it seems. This is a solid mystery thriller – verging on horror territory in many sequences – with good performances from Hawke, Watson, Thewliss and the supporting cast.
The week’s titles also bring several that are firmly in the horror category. The least of them is “Monsterland” (2016 / RLJ Entertainment / 109m / $27.97 / NR), an anthology built around the framing device of one chap seeking refuge in a movie theater from a world overrun with monsters. That the place is littered with corpses suggests this might not be the wisest course of action. The various short subjects are all mini-horror flicks but none of them are particularly scary nor particularly funny either. What they are is odd, as might be judged by the one where a stay at home dad gets an experimental treatment that will allow him to breastfeed the couple’s newborn (wifey being the one who brings home the larger paycheck). Oddest of the lot is one involving strange creatures realized by rod puppets and stop motion work. I never did figure out what was supposed to be going on, but I can’t say I wasn’t fascinated. And it’s a sure bet to win any award out there for creative use of tinsel. This is an adequate time-waster for horror fans but even they are unlikely to feel compelled to give it a second viewing.
“Symptoms” (1974 / Mondo Macabro / 91m / $29.95 BR / NR) is a film that is surprisingly restrained for the era in which it was made – horror was then in the initial stages of becoming bloodier and more violent. The artiness and understated approach is probably how it came to be Britain’s official entry at Cannes the year it was released, after which it promptly sank from sight. Anne (Lorna Heilbron) is invited by friend Helen (Angela Pleasance) to spend some time with her in an enormous (and gorgeous) country mansion. It soon becomes apparent that things are more than slightly askew. Helen claims to be repulsed by the estate’s handyman (Peter Vaughn) but is forever spying on him through binoculars. A previous companion is inexplicably no longer in residence (is she sleeping with the fishes in the lake or possibly locked in the attic?). Heilbron’s very short hair suggests a Sapphic subtext that becomes anything but sub later on. Jose Ramon Larraz’s (billed as Joseph Larraz) film is slow to the boil, possibly too much so. I can’t say I was ever bored however but I have to admit that the ending – following a welter of bloodshed – is limp. It was a pleasure to see Heilbron, a underrated actress who left the business after contributing too slim a body of film work.
Best of the horror lot is “The Other Side of the Door” (2016 / Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment / 96m / $22.98 BR+DVD combo / R), which benefits mostly from being set in India, allowing for some unusual set design and one effective location sequence set in the confusing and crowded city streets of Mumbai. The story has Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) still so despondent over the death of her son Oliver in a car accident that six years later she attempts suicide. The family’s housekeeper, Piki (Suchitara Pillai), tells her of an ancient and derelict temple where there is a door between our world and the next; if Maria takes Ollie’s ashes there she will have a last chance to converse with him and say goodbye. But under no circumstances must she open the door. Well of course she does or there’d be no movie, and what fun is that? Soon unseen fingers are playing the piano and furniture is moving seemingly of its own volition. Every plant in the house and on the grounds dies overnight and the fish in the coy pond float to the surface of the water.
Ollie has followed mommy home but so has something else: a ghastly statue from the temple of a woman holding two severed hands in front of her face has come to life to fetch Ollie back and will kill anyone who gets in the way. There’s nothing particularly novel in the basic set-up but the details raise the production above the run of the mill. The East Indian setting is refreshing and allows for a very creepy sequence set in the temple and a brief glimpse at the blasted landscape of the other side. Then there’s that statue, as unsettling a creation as ever was. Director/co-writer Johannes Roberts has crafted a horror entry that may not be great but is very good and can’t be faulted on any technical level. He is well served by his cast who bring life and sympathy to characters that are not exactly complex; we wouldn’t much care about them if the performers weren’t so good in their roles.
Possibly the most surprising thing about “Manson’s Lost Girls” (2015 / Lionsgate / 90m / $14.98 / NR) is that this most current look at Charles Manson and his followers was made for Lifetime. More astonishingly is that it hails from The Asylum, a low-budget production company that is best known for such direct-to-video schlock as the “Sharknado” films. At least their cheesy horror and sci-fi are fun: this effort is just there – possibly a result of trying to go all respectable. Given we’ve had the miniseries of “Helter Skelter,” this is a pretty unnecessary duplication and not even close to being in the same league. The film never quite makes the case for what made Manson so charismatic, though in Jeff Ward it offers a Manson way cuter than the real one. Ward does go progressively bonkers in an impressive way, but the definitive onscreen Manson remains the underrated Steve Railsback. While The Asylum’s genre titles always show a gleeful self-awareness of how cheesy they are (credits on one include "No giant apes or dragons were harmed during the production of this screenplay. Maybe some giant scorpions got mad, but that's about it") this effort never seems aware it isn’t important.
The science fiction film “Synchronicity” (2016 / Magnolia / 100m / $29.98 BR / R) is more of a think piece than the usual fare we get in such genre offerings. While the special effects are adequate to the needs of the production don’t expect the kind of razzle-dazzle eye candy offered up in the “Star Trek” films. What we do get is inventive production design and creative use of existing locations that fall within the film’s modest budget. Chad McNight portrays Jim Beal, an inventor who aspires to open a wormhole in order to travel through time. He’s getting a vital element for the experiment from a wealthy and unscrupulous businessman Klaus (Michael Ironside) who not so secretly is looking to take over ownership of the invention (though his wife ponders, “How will you market this thing?”). Complicating things is a mysterious woman (Brianne Davis) who may be looking to steal the invention for Klaus. The plot – involving timelines and alternate universes – is just too complicated to relate further. In fact, I’m not even sure I grasped it all or if it even made a lick of sense but I won’t deny I wasn’t fascinated.
In “Triple 9” (2016 / Universal / 116m / $34.98 BR / R) we get one of those twisty-turny caper movies that can be so much fun. This one is just grim. A bank robbery is pulled off by a group of greedy cops led by an officer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who’s being blackmailed by the Russian mafia (led by Kate Winslet). Seems his child’s well being is threatened if he doesn’t steal a safe deposit box wanted by the Iranians who are holding Winslet’s hubby hostage. Alas, the info in the box is useless on its own, requiring a second heist at Homeland Security. To create a diversion for this the gang decides to create a 999 – code for officer down. Their candidate for the soon to be defunct policeman is a detective (Casey Affleck) who – along with his former boss (Woody Harrelson) – is beginning to suspect that cops were behind the bank robbery. The opening heist is excitingly staged but things just get more and more downbeat as the film proceeds. There are a few flashes of humor early on – Ejiofor covering up the red dye from a bank bag on his jeans by casually crossing his leg and Winslet making pastry while plotting mayhem. Ultimately many characters you might have sympathy for (and it isn’t easy to figure out who to root for here) meet unpleasant ends and only the Russian mafia is victorious. Quite what director John Hillcoat and writer Matt Cook intended with this dour project is baffling but a terrific cast does make it worth a look.