One of the great joys of this gig is the discovery of terrific films, usually low-budget independent productions, about which I've heard nothing – or next to nothing – in advance. Case in point is "Cut Bank," which I requested mostly because of the cast; I reasoned any film with John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt and Bruce Dern in the cast had to be worth a look. It turns out Matt Shakman and Roberto Patino (director and writer, respectively) have crafted a devilishly complex and often wickedly funny thriller. Things start off when cantankerous rural mail carrier George Wits (Dern) is murdered and the killing is captured on videocamera by Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) who's shooting some sort of tourism pitch with his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer). He turns over the video to Sheriff Vogel (Malkovich), a lawman who now has to deal with Cut Bank, MT's first homicide and discovers that dead bodies (even on video) make him violently ill. Pursuing his own investigation is town recluse Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is obsessed with obtaining a parcel he's been expecting and which has gone missing along with Wits and his truck. I'm really not going to say more about the plot than that except that the bodies continue to pile up and very little is what it first seems.
The shadow of the Coen brothers looms large over "Cut Bank;" in fact there's a lot here that seems like a direct homage to "Fargo." Now there's nothing wrong with that; heck more people ought to be making films like the Coen brothers, especially if they are as splendidly done as this one. And despite its obvious debt, production is no mere pale copy of its inspiration. It's a very assured piece of work from Shakman, making his feature debut, and Patino, who likewise has previously only been involved in television – though this script has been making the rounds for. Fortunately someone finally greenlighted it. It has also come to us blessed with terrific performances, particularly from Malkovich and Dern. They, of course, can be expected to deliver exceptional work but I was also impressed by Hemsworth and Stuhlbarg – the latter turning an apparent schlub into a force to be reckoned with. But there really aren't any weak performances here; even actors in some of the tiniest roles suggest more than the script allows (Thornton's wife, for instance, played by Chilton Crane is clearly emotionally, if not physically abused). And there are a host of lovely touches – such as having the town postmistress being one of the judges of a beauty pageant – that nail small town life. Both in its twisty-turny plot and its spot-on details "Cut Bank" is an exceptional film.
2015 / Lionsgate / 93m / $24.99 BR [R]
I'm not sure there's much to say about "Amazing Space." It's primarily a slide-show of images captured by the Hubble space telescope accompanied by New Age music. The Hubble images have gotten some computer jiggery-pokery to give them a sense of motion but they'd still be impressive without it. For those of us who grew up with the notion that space was inky black with little pinpoints of white stars, the intense colors of space are quite startling. Stars are also red, blue and green and clouds of vermilion and verdigris gas and dust swirl about. Much will depend on your reaction to New Age music; if you find such works boring rather than soothing then Kristin Hoffman's compositions – which mix didgeridoo and sitar with synthesizer for a world music feel – are probably going to leave you cold. While I didn't dislike the music, I can't say I found it more than OK; the inclusion of a female vocalist warbling "amazing" over and over in one of the final cuts struck me as pretty corny. I frequently found myself wishing I still had my old "Symphonies of the Planets" CDs that were recordings made of space by the Voyager space probe. Turning the BR player sound off and popping one of those in the CD player might make for an interesting combination. The point of "Amazing Space" is to create a relaxing experience and as it happens I used to use those Laserlight CDs for just that purpose. But I have to confess that Hoffman's music also had the effect of relaxing me. If I have any caveat about the film it's that some brief supertitles, explaining what we're looking at onscreen, would have been a nice touch.
2015 / Film Chest Media Group /52m / $24.98 BR+DVD+CD [NR]
I am assured by various documentaries on Italian horror films (including one that's an extra here) that the cannibal sub-genre was of limited duration. You couldn't prove it by the number of titles that have arrived in my mailbox in the past few months however. The slew of films that were produced must have been the result of a passel of producers leaping on the old bandwagon in the very short time before it was realized that only the first few made anywhere near a decent packet of moneybefire wearing out their welcome at the box office. One theory is that every one of them follows precisely the same template (which is true) but that doesn't explain the popularity of the zombie film, which hasn't had a new idea is absolute ages and which is not all that dissimilar to the cannibal film. Both boil down to having the main characters ripped open and eaten alive by extras. What sets the cannibal film apart is the on-camera slaughter of animals, an aspect of dubious entertainment value; these repellant scenes may well be what actually turned audiences off to the films. Seeing a large turtle continue to wriggle about even after its been decapitated and as it is further chopped up and has its shell prised off is just plain repulsive but it's not unique to this film – which also has a small pig stabbed to death and a screaming tapir crushed by an anaconda. What fun.
The cannibal flicks are also boring as all get out when they're not vomitable. The unpleasant characters slog endlessly through the jungle until they get their comeuppance at the hands – or rather the teeth – of some cannibal tribe. Supposedly the point of the films is to show the Caucasians as even worse than the third world primitives but it's difficult to keep that in mind as the aborigines slice open abdomens and rip out intestines and organs and feed on them, castrate victims or slice off the tops of craniums for snacks. The gore scenes aren't very convincing in any of the productions I've seen, at least in part because the screen blood used at the time looks more like red tempera paint (and the inclusion of animals actually killed onscreen makes the human carnage looks even more fake). There must be some inexplicable renewed interest causing the cannibal films to be released by so many labels, possibly morbid curiosity. These movies have generally only been available in truncated form on home video and even in whatever limited theatrical screenings they might have had. If you're one of the curious by all means indulge yourself. But don't say I didn't warn you they're all just awful.
1981 / Grindhouse Releasing / 93m (3 disc set) / $39.95 BR [NR]
I suppose those responsible for "Nightlight" think they have brought some grand new concept to the found footage format. Their production isn't found footage but it follows all the tropes. A small contingent of high schoolers (played by actors clearly of college age at least) decides to have an overnight party in a reputedly haunted woods. Nothing happens at first – in fact nothing happens for quite a while except some creepy sounds. They play a version of Hide-and-Seek and get separated so that something that is never seen can whisk them offscreen and plop their bloodied bodies back on the ground. Some of them appear to come back to life or come back at any rate. There are wooden crosses everywhere, suggesting much of the woods is a graveyard for people who couldn't afford tombstones and a derelict church that local legend warns you must never, never go into (the upside down crosses on some of the doors would have warned me off). Of course, anyone who hasn't been bumped off eventually does enter so that they can be whisked offscreen by something unseen within the church. Even the dog gets snatched away by the whatever or whatevers in the woods.
So what is the amazing new approach to this already tired format. Rather than a videocamera continually recording, even at the most absurd moments, "Nightlight" is seen from the point of view of a flashlight. No, I am not making that up. An inanimate object that lacks consciousness "witnesses" the goings-on. Of course it has all the drawbacks of the camera in movies of this ilk: It gets dropped and is whirled away from whatever scary thing is happening because whoever is holding it runs away and the batteries are a tad wonky causing it to black out whenever something we'd like to see – but which would mean budget expended on makeup or effects – might show up. For maybe the first five minutes I thought it was clever not having a video camera but all too quickly things got just as annoying as any found footage endeavor. And just as with the FF stuff the trick constantly reminded me I was watching a movie so things never became remotely scary – as if any spook show related from the vantage point of a flashlight could overcome such an intrinsically ridiculous premise.
2015 / Lionsgate / 84m / $19.98 [R]
SONS OF LIBERTY
The History Channel's miniseries "Sons of Liberty" certainly looks good but its attempt to tell the story of the period leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence is a curious beast. The cable channel's own website calls it "historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past." Now it stands to reason any dramatized history will be subject to some reshaping but it seems there may be more liberties (sorry about that) taken here than usual. Certainly in its efforts to make the series popular to a modern audience (or perhaps out of sheer ignorance) the social mores of the 1700s are pretty well ignored. At one point John Hancock throws a party at which a number of luminaries are present and during conversation with the governor of one colony he repeatedly turns away to say hello to another guest. Given a governor would have been a superior to a mere tradesman such behavior would have been unthinkable. I'm also reasonably certain that the phrase "bats**t crazy" was not in use at the time. On the other hand the attempt to present our founding fathers as real and sometimes very flawed people is welcome.
Admittedly the Broadway and film musical "1776" got there first in demythologizing those historical figures – and it's interesting that "Sons of Liberty" gives short shrift to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and reduces Thomas Jefferson to a barely there cameo; that trio was the focus of the earlier work. Instead the main characters of "Sons of Liberty" are John's cousin Samuel Adams, Hancock and Paul Revere. Adams (Ben Barnes) is portrayed as essentially a terrorist in his actions – he did after all lead the Boston Tea Party, of which even Franklin disapproved – while Hancock (Rafe Spall) ends up part of the revolution because the British thwart the wine smuggling he turns to (with Adams' help) because taxation makes it impossible to turn a profit. How much of what is depicted needs to be taken with a grain of salt I really cannot say but I won't deny that the production looks splendid as regards sets and costuming. The acting is of a high caliber and in Kari Skogland the film has a director who knows how to stage action scenes, a rare commodity these days. As to the combat sequences, each episode is preceded by a warning about "intense scenes of violence." What's here isn't quite "Saving Private Ryan" but some of it is still nasty enough that younger viewers and anyone easily disturbed probably shouldn't watch.
2015 / Lionsgate, History / 270m (2 discs) / $26.98 [TV-PG]
SWORD OF VENGEANCE
"Sword of Vengeance" is being promoted as an action film but that's rather overselling its contents. From the nearly monochrome palette (all color save a suggestion of flesh tones has been leeched away) to the minimal dialogue that is invariably declaimed rather than spoken to the actors who posture for the camera or stare at each other solemnly for long periods of time, this is one glum, ponderous enterprise that could easily be termed an inaction film. Oh, there are battle scenes but much of them are rendered in slow motion, the better no doubt to have computer generated blood (just about the only color) spurt artistically across the screen. Or perhaps it's just to inflate the running time. The story has something to do with a mysterious stranger (with a cornrow hairstyle that surely is anachronistic) showing up in a Saxon village during the time of William the Conqueror. Naturally the downtrodden villagers, who sport an enviable collection of homemade masks, respond to him as their leader in an insurrection – but only after first trying to kill him.
The story is thin and the characters even thinner. I swear the only reason "Sword of Vengeance" comes close to reaching the hour and a half mark is due to the slow motion and frequent moments that could pass as still photos. I should have expected as much "from the creator of "Hammer of the Gods" except that it was such a joyless experience I'd totally wiped from my mind that I'd ever seen it. It too was long on dour attitude, short on story and replete with badly staged battle scenes (if it weren't for those masks the Saxons wear here it would be nigh impossible to determine who is killing who). Surprisingly the two films were made by different directors so it must be writer Matthew Read who is responsible for a ratbag of clichés (the superior warrior leading his ragtag forces against overwhelming odds and so forth) that has got some notion into its head that it's profound. It's merely tedious.
2015 / Well Go USA / 87m / $29.98 BR [NR]