Films I Neglected To Review: "It Never Got Weird Enough For Me"
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/09/17 12:52:40
Please enjoy short reviews of "I, Daniel Blake," "It Comes at Night" and "The Mummy" as well at looks at a few new Blu-Ray releases of note.
It may have been more than a year since Ken Loach's ''I, Daniel Blake'' won the top prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival but between the current battle in America over health care and the election in England, its long-delayed U.S. release seems like an example of perfect timing. The film tells the story of Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old carpenter who suffered a major heart attack while at work and who finds himself ensnarled in a bureaucratic nightmare when his doctor forbids him from going back to work and he is denied any compensation benefits due to a technicality. With no income or pension or any form of relief, Daniel begins a long and oftentimes agonizing battle with governmental health care workers and welfare officials to try to get someone to give a second look at his case, along the way befriending a single mother (Hayley Squires) who is also trapped in the system. Admittedly, watching a couple of people dealing with a bureaucracy that would have given even Franz Kafka hives may not exactly sound like the most entertaining way to pass a couple of hours but Loach has actually found a way to transform potentially dire material into something close to crowd-pleasing, mostly thanks to the undeniably galvanizing lead performance by Johns, who brings plenty of humor and heart to the proceedings. To be sure, this may not go down as one of Loachís great works--he plays things a little more broadly than he usually does and the lack of nuance is telling at times--but it is an undeniably effective one that will no doubt strike home with viewers on both sides of the pond.
As the extremely grim horror film ''It Comes at Night'' opens, an unidentified but extremely nasty disease is ravaging the outside world--we see one victim, his skin covered with pustules and blood leaking from his mouth, taken out into an open grave, shot in the head and set afire as a way of preventing the next, and presumably worse, step from occurring--while ordinary man Paul (Joel Edgerton) keeps himself, wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) safe within an isolated home in the woods with the help of a strict list of rules designed to protect them from all possible outside threats. One night, their sanctity is invaded by an intruder, Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims that he was only there in search of water for his own family and that he has food to trade. Although he has his suspicions, Paul agrees to take in Will and his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) so that they can share their combined stockpiles. At first, things go okay, especially as the newcomers willingly agree to Paul's rules, but as it turns out, whatever is lurking outside the house is no match for the paranoid tensions that begin to develop inside and Paul is forced to confront once and for all just how far he is willing to go in order to protect his family and how much of his own humanity he is willing to sacrifice in the process.
''It Comes at Night'' was written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, the follow-up to his widely praised 2015 debut ''Krisha,'' which also dealt with a family unit thrown into upheaval by an unexpected arrival--in that case, an estranged family member dropping in for Thanksgiving after an absence of more than 10 years. Shults's screenplay is a smartly constructed work that quietly introduces a number of areas of dramatic tension and then lets them develop slowly until the suspense becomes almost unbearable. His direction is extraordinarily stylish and gripping to the point where just the mere sound of a creak in the house is enough to make some viewers jump in their seats. The performances are all well done with Harrison stealing the show with a brilliant turn as the son who is haunted not only by the horrors of what is going on outside but also with the normal growing pains of a boy his age that are now writ larger than usual because of circumstances. And yet, as undeniably well-made as it is, I found myself vaguely dissatisfied with it when it was all over. It just seems to me that if you are going to put your characters (and, by extension, the audience) through the wringer as Shults does here--and I cannot imagine a film as grim, dire and uncompromising as this coming along anytime soon--there needs to be some point and purpose to it all, lest it just become an endurance test for viewers, and I just donít think that the film has that in the end. Of course, there are those that would argue that this film doesnít need to have some kind of grand statement and they may even be right. All I can say is that, for all of its virtues, it just did not quite completely satisfy me in the way that such recent horror gems as ''Get Out'' and ''Raw'' were able to do. That said, you should probably still see ''It Comes at Night'' because what it does do, it does extremely well and will most likely leave you extremely unsettled once you leave the theater.
Tom Cruise has made any number of mediocre movies over the years but, with the exception of the abysmal ''Rock of Ages'' (where his performance was actually that filmís sole redeeming element), you have to go all the way back to such early career dregs as ''Cocktail'' and ''Days of Thunder'' (when he was still in the process of establishing his star persona) to find one that is even close to being as flat-out awful as ''The Mummy.'' The first installment of Universalís so-called ''Dark Universe''--a proposed series of interconnected films involving modern-day incarnations of the studioís classic movie monster stable--this noisy monstrosity features Cruise as yet another glib hunk who plays by his own set of rules--this time an errant Army officer with a penchant for ''liberating'' antiquities to sell on the black market. While following a treasure map in Iraq, he inadvertently awakens an evil, soul-sucking Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella) who promptly curses him and plans to perform a ritual that will allow her to possess his body and rule/destroy the world. While Cruise and comely exposition machine Annabelle Wallis run around London while being chased by hordes of CGI crap, Russell Crowe lurks in on the sides as the head of a shadowy organization dedicated to finding and containing evil in all its forms--a subject that he is clearly at home with since his character turns out to be none other than Dr. Henry Jekyll himself.
There are so many things wrong with ''The Mummy'' that it is hard to even know where to start. For one thing, the screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman--which feels like a collection of half-assed first drafts jammed together at random--is an ungodly mess that is not so much a horror film as it is merely a compendium of thrill-free action set-pieces, failed romance banter, leaden jokes and elements stolen wholesale from other and better films (even going so far as to ransack the likes of ''An American Werewolf in London'' and ''Lifeforce''); even the generally awful Brendan Fraser ''Mummy'' movies were more thematically consistent and at least seemed slightly interested in the whole mummy concept compared to this one. Cruise himself isnít so much terrible as the smug lead as he is clearly bored and miscast in the kind of role that he outgrew years ago--Jake Johnson plays his wisecracking sidekick and every time he turns up, you can't help but wonder how much more effective it might have been if he had played the lead. For all the millions of dollars that went into making this monstrosity, there are only two things about it that work--the undeniable physical presence of Boutella and the notion of Crowe playing Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--and it even seems to go out of its way to sandbag them by making the former a bystander in her own story (and for all the points the film wants to earn for having a female villain, it pretty much loses them all by having her character a.) require entering a manís body to help her fulfill her destiny and b.) get smacked around by Tom Cruise in the finale) and making the latter into a total. As it is still early June, I donít want to say that ''The Mummy'' is the worst film of the summer but it is terrible enough to make me want to reevaluate what I said about the likes of ''King Arthur'' and ''Baywatch.''
A couple of home video titles of note have come across my desk that are worthy of mentions. First up is the latest reissue of Walt Disneyís 1942 masterpiece ''Bambi'' (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.95), a film that has both enchanted and traumatized generations of children since it first premiered. While not as overtly spectacular as such early Disney favorites as ''Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,'' ''Pinocchio'' or ''Fantasia,'' ''Bambi'' was arguably the loveliest from a visual standpoint--even the terrifying moments had a lyrical beauty to them that only served to underscore the horror--and that aspect definitely shines through in the beautiful HD transfer on display here. While younger viewers will be enchanted (except for certain parts) with the film itself, older viewers will find much to savor in the litany of bonus materials included, ranging from a couple of animated shorts (including one that first utilized the then-revolutionary animation processes that were eventually used on the film) to a slew of behind-the-scenes featurettes that include details on deleted sequences to archival audio recordings of Walt Disney himself discussing the creative process behind the film. Aside from one technical complaint--what is billed as an original 1942 trailer for the film is clearly from a much later era--this release of ''Bambi'' is top-notch and deserves a place on the video shelf of both families and animation buffs.
Figuring out a way of winding down a long-running television series in a way that is both creatively and dramatically strong is a trick that is so difficult to pull off that to see it being pulled off is truly an amazing thing to watch. That is exactly what occurred with ''Girls: The Complete Sixth Season'' (currently available as a digital download from HBO Home Entertainment for $29.99 in advance of its upcoming Blu-ray release), which brought Lena Dunham's highly acclaimed and often controversial looks at the personal and professional lives of a group of young women in their mid-20s trying to find their place in the world. While previous seasons of the show sometimes meandered here and there. this one did a smart and funny job of taking its four lead characters (nicely played by Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet) and setting them up for the next phase in their lives that concluded with an enormously satisfying final episode that no one might have predicted after having watched the very first episode but which nevertheless felt just right. The end result is a great conclusion to one of the best TV shows of the new millennium and it leaves one eager to see what Dunham comes up with next.
When it first came out in 1980, ''Where the Buffalo Roam'' (Shout! Factory. $34.99) was panned by critics and ignored by audiences and it is not difficult to understand why. The first attempt to bring the work of legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson to the big screen, the film was largely a travesty of his work that tried too hard to be as wild and crazy as the writerís fearsome reputation and the end result was a weird and not entirely satisfying pastiche of Thompson's prose with the kind of wild hijinks more suited to an ''Animal House'' knockoff than anything else. And yet, while the film is a failure on most critical levels, it is nevertheless one that I have continued to return to over the years and that is because it contains the first truly great big screen performance from Bill Murray as Thompson. His impersonation is immaculate--easily as good as the one that Johnny Depp delivered in ''Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas''--and brings a soulful edge to his take on Thompson that is so powerful and undeniable that the film doesn't seem to know what to do with at times. The performance is so good, in fact, that one wishes that it could somehow be surgically removed and transplanted into a film that was more deserving of it. Long deemed an afterthought in the world of home video, ''Where the Buffalo Roam'' has finally received proper treatment with this new Blu-Ray release, which includes both an extended interview with screenwriter John Kaye, who explains how the original concept for the film got changed over time, and the video debut of the filmís original soundtrack, which includes a nifty score by Neil Young and a collection of 60s classics that had until now been deemed too expensive to license and which had been replaced by much cheaper titles.
I must confess that the live-action revamp of Disney's ''Beauty and the Beast'' (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.95) is a film that still does not work for me--it replicates the sights and sounds of the 1991 animated classic with flesh-and-blood actors (albeit with enough CGI augmentation that it could probably still count as an animated film) but otherwise has nothing else of interest or value to offer viewers outside of a nice and reasonably charming performance by Emma Watson as Belle. Of course, seeing as how the film has pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars, it would seem that I am in the minority in that department and for those who have embraced it, this Blu-Ray should prove to be a delight. The extras include a number of behind-the-scenes documentaries, deleted scenes and glimpses at how the key musical moments were staged. The most fascinating extra is a glimpse at the elaborate first table read of the screenplay for the entire cast that included live music, singing and dancing--although we only get a small portion of the proceedings in the 13 minute featurette, I wish that they had included the entire thing because watching the actors go through their paces for the first time has a charm and whimsy to it that is otherwise lacking in the final product.