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Phantom Halo

Beckett and Samuel Emerson (Luke Kleintank and Thomas Brodie-Sangster) are the sole support of their abusive father Warren (Sebastian Roche) who drinks and gambles away every cent they bring home. Some of it is from honest means – Beckett teaches self-defense classes at a women's center – but more of it comes from the older brother picking pockets while Samuel recites Shakespeare on street corners. Being locked out of their house by the landlord turns out to be the least of the family's problems resulting from dad's profligate ways; a loanshark (Gbenge Akkinagbe) informs Beckett that he is owed $38,000 and Warren won't be the only one to suffer is it isn't paid back. When an old acquaintance from reform school turns out to be a master counterfeiter Beckett becomes involved in a clearly dangerous scheme (to everyone but the two young men that is) involving a shady character known as Smashmouth (Tobin Bell). When Beckett and his friend begin their plan by purchasing a Bentley with a suitcase full of phony $100 bills you know they haven't the smarts to pull off their plot – and aren't the feds usually alerted on such transactions?

I have no problem with "Phantom Halo" as filmmaking. Antonia Bogdonavich's (yes, daughter of you-know-who) feature debut is confident and more than competent. But given she also had a hand in the screenplay, which is full of such niggling details as the automobile transaction, I can't quite give it a full-out endorsement. There are larger issues with the script as well, such as no convincing explanation given why Beckett and Samuel don't just abandon their abomination of a father – who beats the crap out of them any time he feels they have "stolen" money from him to pay rent or utilities or purchase a comic book (the film derives its title from a super hero Samuel is keen on). And it's not only his violent nature; he's obviously a lost cause who will never change the pattern of his life, something both boys – particularly the elder – should have tumbled to ages ago. What carries the film past such issues – and in my case the further fact that mostly these are people I would cross the street to avoid – is the acting, which is of a very high caliber indeed. If Bogdonavich has to take some blame for the script she must also be given some credit for guiding the performances. If the bottom-feeding characters don't put you off watching the actors playing them will be worth your while.

2013 / Arc Entertainment / 89m / $29.99 [R]

52 Tuesdays

The independent Australian film "52 Tuesdays" may be more interesting for the way it was made than for the production that resulted. It deals with a lesbian mother (Del Herbert-Jane) who decides to undergo gender reassignment – and thus is known throughout as James. Her 16-year-old daughter Billie (Tilda Cobhman-Hervey) is put in the care of her dad Tom (Beau Travis Williams) and her gay uncle Harry (Mario Spate) for the year that the transformation will take and will meet up every Tuesday. As Billie is at the age when she is determining her own identity and asserting her own independence, her story of emergence parallels James'. While James has some setbacks involving a bad reaction to testosterone and reluctance to disclose the new woman in his life, Billie is dealing with exploring her sexuality through a threesome with two other students (Imogen Archer and Sam Althuizen). She's also trying her hand at documentary filmmaking – as some of the footage deals with the sexual activities of her and her equally underage classmates she lands in some trouble at school. Sophie Hyde's film is notable for concentrating on something other than coming out and phobic reactions and instead examining family relationships, particularly those between mother and daughter.

"52 Tuesdays" was made in the same way it supposedly occurs – over the course of a year. Each segment was filmed one Tuesday at a time with the cast being givenonly that week's script. This may account for some very abrupt shifts such as the sudden introduction of James' lover and a scooter accident for Tom. Both come out of nowhere and have little bearing on the storyline (I have trouble describing it as a plot). It also allows for such things as Herbert-Jane losing a considerable amount of weight over the first half of the movie. Hyde has received kudos for some rather bold experimentation and I'll give her credit for that much but the result didn't much impress me. Alfred Hitchcock once said that films were life with the boring bits omitted; "52 Tuesdays" strikes me as almost nothing but the boring bits. It's a series of snippets of banal doings (and not all that interestingly photographed) that ultimately adds up to very little – and in a film that deals with gender reassignment and teenage sex that's saying something. Experimentation is all well and good – consider that some of our greatest filmmakers (Josef von Sternberg, James Whale, Orson Welles, Ken Russell) were all great experimenters – but ultimately it needs to have some sort of impact on the viewer and this viewer came away neither engaged nor informed.

2013 / Kino Lorber / 114m / $29.95 [NR]

The Curse of Downers Grove

Given the participation of Brett Easton Ellis – author of "American Psycho" and "The Rules of Attraction" – as screenwriter (adapting from a novel by Michael Hornburg) I was expecting much more from "The Curse of Downers Grove." Ellis describes himself as a satirist and his work over the past few years has been in the metafiction vein; there's precious little to be found of either here. We are informed in a printed prologue that the Downers Grove high school was built on sacred ground despite protests from Native Americans. As a seeming result one senior student dies every year during the week leading up to graduation. Aside from the cast of teenage characters (played of course by somewhat older actors) pondering from time to time who will die this year the curse seems to have very little to do with the events that follow. That has Chrissie (Bella Heathcote) invited to a party in the next county by football jock Chuck (Kevin Zegers) who tries to rape her once she arrives. She puts paid to his attempt and any chance he had at an athletic career by poking out his eye. Because the young man's father is a former cop the police refuse to take any action. Chuck and his buddies however carry out an escalating campaign of terror, beating up Chrissie's younger brother and leaving a slew of slaughtered dogs on her lawn among other activities.

"The Curse of Downers Grove" shows ample evidence of a production whose money ran out before filming was completed – or else the script wasn't long enough. There are frequent montages of trippy visuals that may or may not be dreams Chrissy is having though sometimes they are inserted seemingly at random. Additionally, there's a photo gallery that goes on for quite a while after the film proper ends and before the final credits roll. The padding is scarcely the only problem here. Geography is unclear as regards how long it takes to travel from Chrissie's community to Chuck's. Most disappointing of all given Ellis' involvement is that the dialogue – with only a few exceptions – is anything but memorable. The biggest let-down is one of those "surprise" endings that is abrupt and as arbitrary as it is predictable. The teen angst cum horror sub-genre is ripe for satire and Ellis would seem a natural for the task of guying it. But all we get is the usual stuff and played out far too slowly (of course a faster pace would have resulted in something the length of a TV episode). The cast is the sole bright spot in what is otherwise a muddle.

2014 / Anchor Bay / 89m / $22.98 [NR]

The Dead Lands

James Cameron, whose enthusiastic quotes seem to be on every other DVD case these days, and Peter Jackson proclaim "The Dead Lands" as great cinema and a great action film. Bear in mind that both are spokespersons for New Zealand cinema and this production not only hails from Kiwiland, it is filmed entirely in the Maori language and is purportedly culturally accurate as regards certain details of life before European settlers arrived; cannibalism was apparently rampant for one thing. Hongi (James Rolleston) is the son of a chieftain who is slaughtered – along with most of the rest of the village – by members of a rival tribe. He undertakes to avenge the action, following them through the Dead Lands, which they traverse despite its being taboo and the legends of a fierce demon who lives there. Hongi hopes to convince said demon to aid him in his quest. The demon (Lawrence Makoare) however turns out to be a human – albeit a fierce one – who is living in shame and exile as the sole surviving member of his tribe. Because of their similar circumstances, the "Warrior" decides to join forces with Hongi rather than eat him and pursue Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) and his followers.

"The Dead Lands" aspires to be an action flick that is also an art film and in some ways it succeeds. It is certainly ravishingly beautiful to behold and my hat is off to filmmakers who can shoot in actual jungles and find endlessly interesting camera angles in such terrain. Then, too, fight scenes are not easily staged in such an environment and Toa Fraser and his crew have pulled off a slew of them. But that is part of the problem. What we've got here is a standard "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" scenario that echoes a good many western films such as "The Searchers." Unlike John Ford's film there is no deeper psychological probing just an endless series of fights that become increasingly stultifying. (And all of them are proceeded by posturing that may be anthropologically accurate but looks like pro-wrestling behavior.) Reducing the running time by eliminating one or two would have done the film a large favor. The beautifully realized scenes of Hongi conversing with his late grandmother add some depth but they don't fully compensate for the endless series of battles that the Warrior wins because Wirepa's men improbably go at him one at a time. Action fans may get more good from this film than others but I wonder if that's a crowd that's willing to put up with subtitles.

2015 / Magnet / 107m / $26.98 [R]

Last Days of the Nazis

Every episode of this three-part History Channel offering warns us before it begins that it contains disturbing content. Well it is about the Third Reich and its atrocities so it would be surprising if "Last Days of the Nazis" didn't boast disturbing material. That said, the miniseries does contain footage that I don't recall seeing before and some of it is pretty shocking – such as a crematorium door swung open to reveal the calcified remains within. And speaking of the historic film included a surprising amount of it – even battle footage – is in color. The AGFA factory must have been kept pretty busy processing what the Reich's combat photographers shot. The series is built around the interviews conducted with members of the National Socialist Party after the war. Both the prominent (Albert Speer, Rudolf Hoess) and lesser known (Melita Maschmann, Karl Gebhardt) were interrogated to determine the extent of their involvement and, if found sufficiently culpable, to be put on trial. (I presume most of my readers are familiar with "Judgement at Nuremberg," which dramatizes the latter part of the process.) The questioning is recreated with actors portraying the Nazis who are under interrogation. One unseen narrator (Jake Paque) takes the place of the many questioners from Allied countries who conducted these sessions. He also fills in details that expand the testimony or contradict it when it is less than entirely honest. One new detail (to me at any rate) that emerged radically contradicted the old "I was only following orders" excuse. Soldiers who refused to carry out the murderous orders of their superiors were not executed; they may not have been promoted as quickly as their fellows but neither they nor their families were punished. For anyone fascinated by this horrendous period in history – and for any history buff – this series is a must-have.

2015 / Lionsgate, History / 255m (2 discs) / $14.98 [NR]

White God (Fehrer isten)

In Hungary apparently only purebred dogs are valued; mixed breed canines are considered unfit and subject to a tax. That causes many of them to be abandoned and become strays that are rounded up and euthanized if not adopted within a certain time (apparently some sort of final solution to the problem of racially impure mutts). When young Lili's (Zsofia Psotta) mother has to go off on a work assignment of some months she has to stay with her father, who displays little love for the idea of her mutt Hagen being part of the package – or for the child herself for that matter. He's only the first in a cast of characters who give evidence of working overtime to win the jerk of the year award. Another resident of dad's building reports the animal and even claims the dog bit her. The conductor of the youth symphony in which Lili plays the horn objects to the dog's presence at rehearsal. Eventually dad just tosses the pooch out of the car along a busy highway and after wandering about (the scene of Hagen – played by siblings Luke and Body – trying to cross a busy highway will be excruciating to animal lovers) he gets caught by a lowlife who sells him to be trained for dog fights. Hagen escapes and ends up in the pound where he leads the other dogs in a rebellion against the cruel humans.

"White God" suffers from simplistic scripting that presents a collection of cardboard meanies who exist only to be ripped apart at the end by the dogs – and presenting the animals as vicious murderers can't really be said to do any favors to the stray population. If the movie was meant to engender sympathy for abandoned dogs it falls far short of the mark. If it is meant as some sort of allegory of racism (which some writers have claimed) then its message of tolerance is more than a tad muddled (imagine a film in which Ku Klux Klan types are murdered by blacks). In some ways it resembles the ecological horror films of the late 1960 – "Frogs" comes to mind – in which nature takes its revenge on humanity for its transgressions against the flora and fauna of our planet. As dumb as some of those films were their makers were wise enough not to stage scenes of hundreds of pooches running through the streets and resembling nothing so much as the ending of "Seven Chances" where a horde of wannabe brides pursues Buster Keaton. That most all the dogs here were rescued from shelters or the streets and given homes afterward is laudable but the film is not.

2014 / Magnolia / 121m / $26.98 BR [R]

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