Beyond the Reach

A few weeks back, I was watching a DVD with friends and it contained the trailer for "Beyond the Reach." One of them remarked that Michael Douglas has made the most amazing recovery from cancer. Indeed he has (I'm almost certain he had one of those "Tragic Last Days" headlines on that tabloid – you know the one I mean) and it was one reason I looked forward to this film. Douglas portrays the extremely wealthy businessman Madec who enjoys hunting, mostly in order to add trophies to his wall. In search of a bighorn sheep whose rack he wants to add to his collection he hires sheriff's deputy Ben (Jeremy Irvine) who has the reputation of being the best tracker in the area, possibly the state, and off they head into the desert. Madec's idea of roughing it involves a Mercedes SUV that boasts such amenities as a microwave and a cappuccino machine. In his eagerness to bag his quarry he fires at the first thing that moves; that turns out to be an old coot who's been living off the grid. When Ben won't go along with his plan to pretend the incident never happened, Madec forces the young man to strip to his undies and go off into the desert where the heat will kill him off in short order. The corporate shark keeps Ben under surveillance while quaffing ice-cold martinis and does as much as possible to ensure his demise.

There's less plot than premise here because the film early on is merely Ben's fight for life, using his knowledge of the area and his survival skills, not to mention the occasional lucky break. Madec interferes but, at least at the start, refrains from killing the younger man. Douglas' character is pretty much one-note and relies more on his presence than his acting skills. I'm not certain the role would work with just any mature actor; it needs the baggage brought by someone whose body of work we're familiar with. (An earlier version of Robb White's novel "Death Watch" was made for TV in 1974 as "Savages" with Andy Griffith in the Madec role. Interesting bit of trivia: White is also the writer for several William Castle films, including "The House on Haunted Hill" and "The Tingler.") Irvine has the more difficult – and far more physically demanding – role and he's quite impressive in it. Jean-Baptiste Leonetti directs at a taut pace that provides only momentary chances for catching your breath. The only fault is a last-minute plot twist that adds little to the proceedings except running time. It also is set up with an unbelievable development. "Beyond the Reach" may not have the good sense to quit while it's ahead but for most of its running time it's a terrific thriller.

2015 / Lionsgate / 96m / $24.99 BR [R]

Giuseppe Makes a Movie

We seem to live in an age that embraces — even celebrates — mediocrity. I could probably cite endless examples but consider the popularity of so-called Reality TV shows about nonentities. Why do we even care about the Kardashians or those Duck Dynasty rednecks? The situation extends to the world of film studies. Things probably began with a fascination with Edward Wood, Jr. – even before Tim Burton's biopic. Joining Wood and Jess Franco and several other crappy filmmakers is one Giuseppe Andrews, former child actor turned independent filmmaker and object of fascination by some. They don't come any more independent than Andrews who makes his films in two or three days in and around the trailer park where he lives. His casts are his neighbors, all of whom are collecting disability and most of whom abusing various substances. The scenarios Andrews creates are described as surreal but if you ask me that's giving them credit for actually making a lick of sense on some level. Adam Rifkin's documentary follows Andrews as he makes his latest opus, "Garbanzo Gas" (the title came to Andrews when he broke wind after eating a can of chick peas), which is supposedly about a cow (a man in a ridiculous costume) taking advantage of an all expense paid vacation provided by the slaughterhouse. Somehow intersecting with this is a sub-plot of two losers who have stolen money from their senior citizen girlfriend so they can check into a motel and watch a cable broadcast of a fight with a kangaroo.

As there's only one (handwritten!) copy of the script Andrews reads the lines to his actors (and I use that term very loosely) and videos them delivering the dialogue. Just as that script is written in a single draft and never revised, the film is made without retakes (except when the dialogue is hopelessly bungled and sometimes not even then). Andrews has a penchant for props and costuming bought at a novelty shop and is seemingly clueless how awful these things are – at one point he plops the most obvious and awful wig on a performer and declares it "looks good." The man has been compared to John Waters and in the latter's use in his early films of people from society's fringes there is some parallel. Waters' films, however are cheeky jokes that he was in on; Andrews hasn't a clue (and in this he is not unlike Wood) and thinks he's another Bunuel. The finished "Garbanzo Gas" is included among the extras on a second disc and I only made it through about 20 minutes before I gave up. Its epic incompetence threatened to give me a migraine. I'll admit that some of Andrews' dialogue has a certain screwball poetry to it but the performances are lacking (to put it kindly) and the filmmaking is thumpingly inept. While the documentary does present a certain sense of community that Andrews provides to society's outcasts I stop short of allowing as how what he creates is art.

2014 / Cineliciouspics / 82m (2 discs) / $29.99 BR [NR]

The Squeeze

I was much impressed by Jeremy Sumpter's turn in the title role of "Peter Pan" when he was only 14 and fascinated by the very different character he played in "Death and Cremation" (reviewed here a few years ago). So I requested "The Squeeze" when it was offered to check him out in a different kind of role. In a story inspired, as they say, by true events he portrays Augie, a young man who just happens to be exceptional at golf and has aspirations of going pro. When he wins a local competition it attracts the attention of Riverboat (Christopher McDonald) who, as might be guessed by his probably manufactured soubriquet, makes his living by gambling. He proposes entering Augie in high stakes matches and splitting the winnings. At first, the young man demurs abandoning his PGA hopes for big money but his home situation (a father who is both abusive and not contributing financially to the family) and a girlfriend who dreams of visiting France help change his mind. Eventually the pair makes its way to Las Vegas where Riverboat enters into a wager with Jimmy Diamonds (Michael Nouri) that the pizza boy (guess who) that has just made a delivery during their poker game can beat a player of Diamonds' choosing. Augie is caught in a no-win situation when Diamonds informs Augie that he'll be killed if he wins and Riverboats threatens the same if he loses.

That he plays golf exceptionally well — none of the amazing shots depicted here had any CGI assist so far as I could determine — is perhaps the only revelation here about Sumpter. The role makes no unusual demands on his acting talents but we get plenty of charm (not unlike his Pan). I had some reservations about the film itself early on because it seemed the script couldn't go more than a couple pages without some reference to Christian faith. I began to fear I was watching a sermon, not a movie.

I suppose the intent was to portray Audie as pure and to indicate that by entering into the deal with Riverboat Augie is selling his soul to the devil. Figuratively, of course, but Augie is soon participating in fraud (by impersonating a pizza boy), quaffing alcoholic beverages and consorting with a scarlet woman. I'll leave is to the individual viewer to decide if what he does to get out of his dilemma constitutes cheating even if the film clearly intends it to be a triumph. Director Terry Jastrow's script gets Augie from one golf setpiece but is otherwise ckumsy (several characters have attitudes that change radically and inexplicably). The golfing scenes are quite impressive, particularly an early scene where Augie and his pals play a freeform match across the town and a later no-rules game that's full of amusing surprises. But the film needs more than a couple good sequences and Sumpter's charisma and "The Squeeze" is short on that.

2015 / Arc Entertainment / 95m / $29.99 [PG-13]

Time Lapse

In these days when so-called science fiction films are really outright fantasy (such as the "Star Wars" tentpole) or action-adventure (the "Jurassic Park" franchise) it's refreshing to encounter a production that is a film of character and ideas, which is what we have with "Time Lapse." In this modestly budgeted production apartment manager and wannabe painter Finn (Matt O'Leary) investigates the stack of newspapers in front of one tenant's door and discovers the old gent has shuffled off his mortal coil. He also discovers that an enormous machine in the guy's living room has been taking Polaroids through the window of the apartment he shares with his fiancé Callie (Danielle Panabaker) and their roommate Jasper (George Finn). The trio figures out that these photos are actually of whatever is happening 24 hours in the future and Jasper convinces his roomies to keep mum about the inventor's death so he can use this to win at the dog races he's already addicted to betting on. All goes well for a while but then Jasper's bookie gets suspicious about the long winning streak and comes snooping around with his thug. Dealing with him becomes the first in a chain of murders the trio commits to keep their secret.

Finding out tomorrow's events today is not a new sci-fi idea. It was treated in films at least as early as 1944 with Rene Clair's "It Happened Tomorrow" (and that in turn was based on a still earlier play by Lord Dunsany); it was the basis for at least one episode of "The Twilight Zone" and an entire series starring Kyle Chandler, "Early Edition." "Time Lapse" uses the concept to study what happens to its characters. Aside from that big machine in the scientist's apartment — a cool contraption that owes more to Jules Verne than Gene Roddenberry — there is really very little science fiction here. There is some notion mooted that the trio has to be in the positions depicted in the next-day photo at the appointed time or they will cease to exist. I'm not sure that makes sense because there are months' worth of photos on the wall taken before they had any idea of what had been transpiring. The real focus is on the young performers — unknown but really very good — and the spiral of paranoia and homicide into which their characters descend. The business of being in place for the photo is just a plot device that prevents them from taking the thousands in winnings and setting off for parts unknown. Bradley King has directed his script (co-authored with BP Cooper) at a nice enough clip that you probably won't contemplate this until after the film is over. And his production is proof that you don't need JJ Abrams budgets to deliver a solid sci-fi tale.

2014 / XLrator Media / 104m / $14.99 BR [NR]

Touch of Evil

By the 1950s, Orson Welles was pretty well finished as a director in Hollywood. The back-to-back box office failures of "Lady from Shanghai" and his film adaptation of the Scottish play — not to mention his own often overbearing personality — guaranteed that. (Both productions have since been re-evaluated.) Only acting gigs were forthcoming from Hollywood and he used those paychecks, along with whatever funding he could cadge from other sources, to finance the movies he directed in Europe. One final U.S. studio assignment would come his way by accident. He was hired to play a corrupt lawman in "Touch of Evil" and Charlton Heston signed on to play the lead under the impression Welles was also slated to direct. Informed of his mistaken notion, Heston then refused to play the role unless directed by Welles. (Heston can be forgiven many ghastly performances for this one action.) Universal intended the film to be an A production, as benefitted having Heston and Janet Leigh in the lead roles, but a thrifty one made in black and white on a short schedule. Welles agreed to the stipulations — after all he preferred monochrome to color and, despite his reputation, his films nearly always came in on budget. Mostly, however, he wanted another crack at Hollywood; he only asked that he be allowed to rewrite the script and producer Albert Zugsmith agreed.

"Touch of Evil" began as a simple thriller involving drug smuggling between two towns of opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. A federal agent (Heston) in the area on his honeymoon gets drawn into things courtesy of a bomb-rigged car whose explosion climaxes an opening crane shot of incredible length and complexity. The agent runs afoul of both the drug smugglers and a police captain (Welles) who's trying to close the case using faked evidence. Welles' script made the film a complex rumination on the officer who instinctively targeted the correct guilty party even if he skirted the law to bring them to justice. The director also rounded up a bunch of old cronies; Mercedes McCambridge, Marlene Dietrich, Ray Collins, Akim Tamiroff and (of course) Joseph Cotton agreed to play supporting roles for union minimum so long as their participation was not publicized. The resulting film perplexed studio executives who tried to simplify the narrative by recutting the film. Fortunately a very long letter by Welles outlining how he felt the film should be edited survived and several years ago a director's cut was made restoring Welles' vision. "Touch of Evil" may not be Welles' greatest or even most audacious film — the story remains pure pulp for one thing — but it is still a work of brilliance (few of Welles' films are anything but). The Blu-Ray features three versions of the film - the preview version, the theatrical version and the reconstructed version based on Welles' original vision.

1958 / Universal Studios / 111m / $19.99 BR [PG-13]

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