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Dark Was The Night

Despite its dumb title – which has nothing to do with the story – "Dark was the Night" is a nifty horror thriller that mashes up details of such cryptids as the Jersey Devil and Chupacabra and places them in a slow-burn story that calls to mind the approach of genre flicks of old. In the small town of Maiden Woods something is on the prowl; livestock, pets and even people are disappearing. When their remains are found, they tend to be way up in the branches of tall trees. Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his deputy Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas) try to figure out what's going on as things get increasingly peculiar. When odd cloven-hoofed footprints appear overnight in the snow all over town the populace demands action – even though they have no idea what form that action should take. Saunders recalls a news story of a prehistoric fish, thought to be extinct for millions of years, that was found once and theorizes that they are dealing with some similarly undetected creature that dwelt in the woods until logging activity forced it from its habitat. With the creature now prowling the town the sheriff gathers the inhabitants in the church to wait out the night for the arrival of reinforcements who will help hunt down the beast. Naturally the haven turns out to be not as safe as might be desired.

"Dark was the Night" holds off revealing its creature until very nearly the end of the movie. Glimpses – if they can even be called that – of it flitting through the trees at lightning speed are all that are offered for most of the running time. The film is more than halfway through before director Jack Heller gives us a clear look at its feet and legs. In this it recalls horror films of the 1950s and 60s where budget limitations dictated that the special effects be saved for the climactic scenes. Unfortunately, like many of those films, this one has a somewhat disappointing monster when it finally can be seen and Heller wisely limits its on-screen presence even during the climax. Writer Tyler Hisel has supplied a very good script that concentrates on Shields, a man haunted by the death of one of his sons and blaming himself for what everyone else insists was an accident. It's a Movie Scripting 101 cliché but then so is most of the plot here. The thing is, I think Hisel – or Heller at least – knows it and along with Durand weights it with believability. If we've got a standard monster on the loose story we also have characters we can care about. There's nothing new here but it's very well done.

2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 98m / $27.97 [NR]

Broken Horses

"Broken Horses" is " an artistic triumph" per James Cameron (who has become a quote whore, cited on what seems like every other DVD case these days) and Alfonso Cuaron has been filmed praising Vidhu Vinod Chopra's production in its trailer. They clearly found more in it than I did. Visually it's eye-popping, and the acting is marvelous and while I was engrossed enough in it while watching the film it hasn't exactly stayed with me. The story of two brothers caught up in gang wars on the U.S./Mexican border just isn't anything novel and aside from an abundance of style, this tale brings nothing new to the table. Young Buddy (Henry Shotwell in an remarkable performance) is present when his sheriff father is killed and local gang boss Julius Hench (Vincent D'Onofrio) convinces the slow lad that he knows who did it. He sends the lad off to shoot the guy who just happens to be part of the rival, Latino gang – it's never revealed whether or not he is in fact the murderer. Some years later, brother Jake (Anton Yelchin- when does he sleep, anyway?), an aspiring concert violinist, returns home to collect Buddy (now played by Chris Marquette) for his upcoming nuptials. He's astounded to find that his older brother is a hit man for Hench.

Jake decides that the only way to pry Buddy free of the gang is from within. "Broken Horses" follows a template that dates back – in the movies at least – as far as those old Warner Bros. chestnuts that had James Cagney and Pat O'Brien on opposite sides of the law. It is even practically a remake of the director's own Bollywood film, "Parinda." Taking a noir plot, transferring it to the modern American southwest and filming it in juicy color isn't a particularly new idea either. The Coens have explored that territory and in some nutball elements – such as Jake's former music teacher now legless and living in a cabin heated by an open fire in an oil drum or Hench having his headquarters in an old movie palace – this production shows aspirations of being Coen-esque. Chopra's direction is beyond reproach; he has delivered a crisply paced film that clocks in at little over an hour and a half and the plentiful violence isn't particularly graphic. As I noted before, it's a gorgeous looking film. The work of the actors does keep you interested in the flimsy story; D'Onofrio delivers as usual and Yelchin shows yet again why he's in such demand. But in the final analysis the film is a rich frosting with no cake.

2015 / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / $26.99 [R]

Don Matteo, set 11 & set 12

It was the presence of actor Terence Hill that initially drew me to request review copies of the Italian TV series "Don Matteo" a couple years back. Hill was an agreeable presence in such comic spaghetti westerns as "My Name is Nobody" and "They Call Me Trinity," and I enjoyed his performances in those films. Since 2000 he has been portraying Father Matteo of the mountain village of Gubbio where there seems to be an inordinate amount of murders. The good father inevitably gets involved because one of his parishioners is accused and he is better at sussing out the real culprit than the local carabineers. After 14 years (and counting – after a hiatus the show went back into production last year) you'd think the police would welcome his help but instead Captain Tomassi (Simone Montedoro) resents his intrusion and wonders why the priest always shows up everywhere. Truth to tell, the scripts do have Matteo present at the most unlikely events (backstage at a fashion show?!). Only comic relief policeman Lt. Cecchini (Nino Frassica) has learned to listen to the prelate's conclusions – presented during chess games the priest invariably wins – and act on them behind Tomassi's back.

In its odd blend of murder mystery and comedy "Don Matteo" resembles a Neopolitan version of "Father Dowling Mysteries." Matteo's staff are inevitably engaged in some silly sub-plot (such as preparing for a talent contest) and Cecchini is forever meddling in his boss' love life (well, given his psycho diva girlfriend someone ought to). These shenanigans often take up more of the episodes than the murder mystery that is supposed to be the main plot and I can't say it travels all that well. Something else that undoubtedly plays better in Italy are the resolutions that, more often than not, have Don Matteo sermonizing to the killers, convincing them to embrace Christ and be forgiven for their sins, something you'd never catch Matlock doing. Essentially the series coasts on the charm of its cast, especially Hill who, in his mid-70s, still cuts a dashing figure as he bicycles around his parish in an ankle-length leather trench coat. While others in the cast try a tad too hard to sell the very mild comedy he and Montedoro strike just the right note.

2011 / MHz Networks Home Entertainment / 660m, 682m / $39.95 each [NR]

Iris

Albert Maysles, who died earlier this year, is known as the dean of documentary filmmakers. With his brother David, he turned out dozens and dozens of documentaries for the large and small screen, continuing on his own after David died in 1987. The pair is best known for "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens." One of his last works is "Iris," a look at the influential interior decorator Iris Apfel whose most famous assignment was her work on the White House during the Kennedy administration. Now 93, she continues to have an influence on Manhattan's fashion scene but "Iris" is less an examination of that (or her past accomplishments) as it is a look at how a free spirit continues to thrive even as age takes its toll. She is shown participating in events, helping organize an exhibit devoted to her very personal sense of style – which can range from elegantly dressed to looking as though she has emptied the contents of a junk shop on herself. When it comes to jewelry she favors big, bold and too much. She may be reliant on a cane or even a wheelchair but she still goes out shopping for more accessories, finding treasures in the unlikeliest places (and haggling over the prices). Her enthusiasm for life is manifest in the way she embraces even the unlikeliest kitsch – watch her expression of joy over an animated stuffed dog. You may not want to emulate her style of dress – and frankly few should attempt the too-much-is-not-enough approach – but we all would do well to adopt her attitude. And more documentarians would do well to follow Maysles' approach and keep their films vibrant, short and to the point. There isn't a wasted frame her and even if you don't care a lick about fashion you'll find this a fascinating look at a unique and engaging character.

2015 / Magnolia / 80m / $26.98 [PG-13]

Lawless Kingdom (Si da ming bu 2)

Based on the novel "The Four" by Wen Rui-An, Gordon Chan's film comes across as a bit of a mess but I say that not having seen the film to which this is a sequel. The film itself presumes you have seen it and just jumps into things leaving the viewer to play catch-up (be warned, too, that as this is the middle part of a planned trilogy it ends abruptly and with a good deal unresolved). Four detectives – Emotionless, Iron Hands, Coldblood and Life Snatcher – work for the Divine Constabulary, which agency works in a rivalry-tinged cooperation with Department Six. Several killings reveal that a solution to a 12-year-old crime may not have been the correct one after all and there may be a conspiracy at a high level to cover up the real culprit. So far nothing out of the ordinary but it happens our detectives all have super powers enabling them to levitate and fly through the air in the fight scenes. (This ability by the way makes one wonder why Emotionless makes such a big fat hairy deal out of being crippled and in a wheelchair out of which she can float at a moment's notice.)

Things get sillier and sillier as dang nigh every character turns out to possess some supernatural power. There's an evil villain who covets the throne and has saved his son (seemingly killed in the previous film) by grafting him to a tree, thereby giving him eternal life. He is aided by a shape shifter who begins by impersonating a major character and framing him for the murders that prompt the story and in the finale becomes so many different characters that things get quite bewildering. In fact bewildering could sum up the entire movie; writer/director Gordon Chan is either incapable of spinning a mystery tale or indifferent to it just so long as his script gets him to the next action sequence. The influence of Tsui Hark hangs heavy over the proceedings but Hark always tells a coherent story. (And speaking of influences the way colored lighting is used suggests a more than passing acquaintance with the films of Mario Bava.) Chan is over-enamored of camera tricks and his reliance on CGI to set every change of scene gets tiresome. Now I'm not saying "Lawless Kingdom" isn't nutty fun to a degree but this X-Men in the ancient Orient story would be more of a hoot if it had a shorter running time. Sets and costuming make the film a visual treat but that doesn't quite compensate for the clumsy storytelling and far too much sub-par thesping.

2013 / Lionsgate / 117m / $19.98 [R]

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