I requested "Supremacy" partly on the strength of its trailer but even more because it offered Danny Glover a rare these days leading role. The early onscreen alert that the film was inspired by true events caused a glimmer of disappointment but the film turned out to be one of the most harrowing thrillers I've seen in many a day. Garret Tully (Joe Anderson), third ranked in the Aryan Brotherhood is released from prison after a 15 year stretch and picked up by Doreen (Dawn Oliveri), a white supremacist groupie with a serious cocaine habit. The pair is pulled over by a policeman who happens to be black and Tully shoots the officer. Tullyy and Dorren, on the run and with helicopters soaring about overhead, opt to break into a home and hide out. As luck (bad luck) would have it, the residents are black, with Glover portraying the patriarch, Mr. Palmer. (Curiously he's never given a first name and that even his wife calls him Mr. Walker suggests all is not easy with this family.). What follows is a contest of wills as Palmer draws on his knowledge of racism (derived, it is heavily inferred, from his own time in prison) to protect his family.
The set-up for "Supremacy" is the fairly simple one of a hostage drama but what plays out is anything but simple. Both Tully and Doreen are dangerously unstable and the slightest mis-step on the family's part could result in them all being killed. Additionally Tully has discovered he has little cause to trust or even much like Doreen. But it is in the exchanges between Palmer and his captors that take the film out of the ordinary and turn it into a debate on racism. In the most powerful moment in the film Palmer verbally confronts Tully in a speech laced with a rhythmically repetitive use of the n-word, climaxing with the accusation that what Tully hates is what's inside him and that he in fact is (forgive me folks) the n-word. Credit Eric J. Adams for an intelligent script all around but this speech will make your jaw drop. Glover is the only real name in the cast and he delivers his usual solid work, creating a quiet emotional rock even while his own family harangues him to take more decisive action. Anderson and Oliveri have showier roles and they are genuinely frightening in them. Lela Rochon also scores nicely as "Mother." This is not only a cracking good thriller, it's a cracking good movie.
2014 / Well Go USA / 111m / $29.98 BR [NR]
BESIDE STILL WATERS
There is a lot to relish in "Beside Still Waters", an independent production that explores friendship – or rather the tenuous friendships that result when time and circumstances draw people apart. The setting is a gorgeous mountain home where all but one of the characters gathered as children and teenagers. Daniel (Ryan Eggold) is having a moving-out party because he has lost the place after the death of his parents in an auto accident. As his long ago friends arrive, it becomes apparent that there is some awkwardness due to having not been in close touch for some time and because none of them attended the funeral. The real tensions arise when Abby (Erin Darke) – Daniel's ex for whom he still carries a torch – shows up with her fiancé. Daniel starts drinking seriously and pretty soon everyone is getting plastered, some of the party augmenting the alcohol with grass. In this altered state, long repressed resentments are expressed and sexual liaisons take place – some of which are more surprising than others. And that's only the first day of the weekend.
In the set up of long-time (or long ago at any rate) friends gathering on the occasion of a funeral "Beside Still Waters" bears some resemblance to "The Big Chill." As with the earlier film, it also boasts terrific writing (director Chris Lowell collaborating with producer Mohit Narang) and a splendid ensemble cast. Joining Eggold and Darke are Beck Bennett, Will Brill, Brett Dalton, Jessy Hodges, Britt Lower and Reid Scott; there's not a performance among them that's less than excellent and all are achingly real. The technical side is equally impressive; the photography is dazzling and I was especially struck by the care taken with the set dressing, both in the objects used and the way color was deployed. That latter touch is something that is more a matter of attention to detail rather than spending money and a great many indie productions would be improved by paying greater notice. I may be quibbling by noting that the surprise hookup between two 30-something, previously heterosexual men feels false – or at any rated forced into the proceedings (their next morning conversation however is a hoot). Curiously we never learn why none of this crowd attended the funeral. Don't you make a similar mistake and neglect this film.
2013 / Cinedigm / 76m / $19.97 [NR]
THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR
While the Civil War has been covered extensively in documentaries and fictional features, its aftermath has not been as thoroughly explored. These documentaries from the History Channel somewhat redress that. We all know about the burning of Atlanta from "Gone with the Wind' (and hands up everyone who has gotten most of their history from the movies – yeah, that's about what I thought). That was part of General Sherman's march to the sea, the action that decisively marked the Confederacy's loss of the war (though the hostilities would drag on for a while). "Sherman's March" details that the campaign was nearly as devastating to his troups – who sometimes trudged on for days without food – as it was to the soldiers and citizens of the southern states. "April 1865" is slightly misleading in its title as it covers somewhat more than that one month. Late March through Mid-May of that year saw events from the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to the assassination of President Lincoln to the capture of John Wilkes Booth to when Jefferson Davis, on the run (and per legend disguised as a woman) was captured.
The two documentaries I found most fascinating were both on the second disc. "The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth" details the initial conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln; when it became obvious such a plan was impractical Booth determined to murder the president. The bulk of the documentary is taken up with a nearly day by day accounting of Booth's flight and the pursuit by soldiers (the Union army was still intact and was thus pressed into service). "Stealing Lincoln's Body" (which was reviewed here some time ago as a stand-alone release) covers both the embalming and the journeys of the late president's corpse up to its entombment and the bizarre graverobbing plot dreamed by a group of small time counterfeiters. But what happened after that plot was thwarted is even more surprising; Lincoln's casket was moved to a safe but most unfitting location. These productions show that no matter how much you think you know about our nation's history, there is still more to learn.
2002-07 / Lionsgate, History / 360m (2 discs) / $14.98
THE KING OF MASKS
It was with no small surprise that I discovered "The King of Masks" was a production of Hong Kong's "Shaw Brothers studio. Run Run Shaw was a frank admirer of the old Hollywood studio system and of Warner Bros. in particular (the SB shield at the beginning of his films is such a close approximation of the WB shield it's amazing no lawsuits ever resulted). Shaw leveled off the top of a mountain and built an old style studio there with many elaborate standing sets of various periods of Oriental history. This allowed for a production schedule that had films churned out almost on an assembly line basis and with the actors living inside the studio walls. The studio is best known for its martial arts productions (Chow Yun-fat, Maggie Cheung, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got their start with the company) – and of course for its collaboration with Britain's Hammer films on the loopy "Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires," aka "The Seven Brothers meet Dracula." Tian-Ming Wu's arthouse film is like a cuckoo in the Shaw Brothers nest. It concerns Wang (Xu Zhu), an old street performer who practices the art of rapid change masks as he travels from city to city. He laments that his wife and son have died and he has no one on whom to pass his art (tradition dictates that only a male heir will do).
As he passes through a section of one of the towns where unwanted (probably kidnapped) little girls are being sold he is surprised to find a boy being offered and purchases the child (Renying Zhou) whom he nicknames Doggie. Wang discovers later however that he has purchased a girl – and this after having introduced her to one and all as his grandson – and so his hopes of training someone to carry on his dying art are dashed. A sub-plot that eventually resolves the main plot has the chief female impersonator of one of the local operas, admire the art of the King of Masks and befriend him. So to one side of Wang we have a man who dresses as a woman and on the other a girl who dresses as a boy. "The King of Masks" is a charming film and once little Doggie enters the plot it pretty much belongs to her, not only because Renying Zhou is a natural performer but also because the film follows her after Wang casts her out after she burns down his houseboat. She gets snatched by another child-napping gang and frees a young boy she finds in the attic and then arranges to rescue Wang after he is falsely accused of the crime. While this is an intimate film it is also one of great visual beauty courtesy a festival that opens it (and provides an important plot point) and delicious nighttime views of the river. It is also a work of great emotional power. It's not to be missed.
1996 / First Run Features / 102m / $24.95 [NR]
THE WALKING DECEASED
Quite possibly the best thing that can be said about "The Walking Deceased" is that its running time is relatively brief. The worst that can be said is that it makes you long for the touch of those guys who made "Epic Movie" and the like. Like them it's primarily a spoof of the AMC TV series but it also contains references to "29 Days Later," "Dawn of the Dead" and "Zombieland" amongst others. Sheriff Lincoln abruptly comes out of a coma to discover the zombie apocalypse is in full flower. After searching for his wife and son – whom he discovers working in a bar devoted to zombie pole dancers – he links up with some others who have been taking refuge in a shopping mall. After zombies manage to break in they decide to repair to a farm they've heard of; it turns out to be owned by an old couple whose acreage has surprisingly never been descended on by zombies. As they pay no attention to any news media of any kind, they are unaware of what's been going on in the wider world. Of course, the dead soon find their way to the spot.
Now it may be that the lack of laughs in this purported comedy is deliberate in that Tim & Eric kind of way that presupposes complete unfunniness is hilarious. Then again it may just be that "The Walking" deceased is simply thumpingly inept. I lean toward the latter but it scarcely matters because the result is the same. I think I came very close to smiling in one sequence where the group fires off their weapons to attract zombies in order to kill them and then ends up being out of ammunition when the critters attack. Possibly I did so on one or two other occasions but that's still a very low score. And if you're going to spoof "Zombieland" (which is already a comedy) it strikes me you'd better be at least as funny. No such luck here. I've deliberately refrained from naming any cast members because they appear to be trying as best they can to make this mess work but are defeated by the crappy script. Then again, one of them (Tim Ogletree) is responsible for said slice of excrement and he's even roped his brother into one of the roles. I hope their relatives get some chuckles out of this thing; I didn't.
2015 / Arc Entertainment / 88m / $20.99 [R]
And the romantic comedy continues to stumble on; after having recently watched "The Rewrite" (a superior example of the genre) I have to conclude it's because filmmakers are intent on making them edgy and hip. Let's face it: Romantic comedies are inherently sappy celebrations of a man and a woman finding their true love in each other and – after some tribulations – living happily ever after. And much depends on performers likeable enough that we want their characters to get together. "Wingman, Inc." presents dog psychiatrist Bobby (Kristopher Turner) who is so successful at getting one-night stands for his buddies that they set up a business for him to render the same service for paying clients. After being jilted at the altar Bobby meets up with Kristy (Erin Cahill) who brings her lethargic pooch to him (the doggy misses the rough play he got from her ex-boyfriend). She has similarly been set up in business by her friends because she is a whiz at blocking unwanted advances from drunken lotharios. Neither of course knows about the other's secondary profession and when Kristy finds out she is ticked off (Bobby is not). Both become useless at setting up or preventing sexual liaisons so the friends must suss out a way to get them back together.
If it weren't for the profane language and the graphic verbal descriptions of sexual activities "Wingman, Inc." could pass for a TV movie, particularly in its frequent and unnecessary establishing shots and the helicopter views of the city at night. (I suspect a half hour could be shaved off the film without them.) Some of the sets suggest a paltry budget; the bar set where so much of the action occurs especially looks assembled from the cheapest materials. The supporting characters are all paper thin; this film's idea of characterization stretches no further than having one of Bobby's friends always eating. Only Bobby stoner roommate (Reid Ewing) has enough goofy charm to make his limited character work. Turner and Cahill are likeable but too bland to truly make you care if they work out their problems. And ultimately any attempt to update what is essentially an old-fashioned formula by adding cursing and kinky sex talk just doesn't work. The romantic comedy is an updated fairy tale after all and drug use and S&M just don't blend in successfully.
2014 / Lionsgate / 105m / $26.98 [R]