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Films I Neglected To Review: Fill In Your Own Headline
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Broken Diamonds," "Fear and Loathing in Aspen," "Holy Beasts," "Joe Bell," "Kandisha," "Midnight in the Switchgrass," "Settlers" and "Val."

"Broken Diamonds" is one of those movies where the main performances are so good that I found myself growing to resent the fact that they were being put to use in the service of a screenplay that is nowhere near as impressive or worthy of them. Scott (Ben Platt) is a twenty-something guy who has finally decided to make his long-overdue leap into adulthood by moving to Paris to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer. With a week to go before his departure, a major obstacle crops up when his father passes away unexpectedly. The trouble is that Dad has been the one helping to care for Cindy (Lola Kirke), his older sister and a schizophrenic with violent tendencies who has just been kicked out of her mental health facility and cannot be placed in a new one for two weeks. While still preparing to leave, Scott ends up moving in with Cindy at their late fathers home in order to serve as her temporary caretaker while at the same time convincing her to sign off on selling the house, which they have both inherited. To complicate matters even further, Cindy has secretly elected to stop taking her medication, which sends her off on increasingly self-destructive spirals that Scott can barely begin to understand, let alone keep up with as she gets progressively worse.

The big problem with the film is that the screenplay by Steve Waverly, reportedly inspired by incidents in his own life, too often feels inspired by storytelling necessities than messy reality. The opening scenes, setting up both the basic situation and Scott's mishaps in his attempts to get his imminent departure settled (his passport gets burned up, the deal he makes to sell his car falls through), too often feel like sitcom contrivances that only serve to undercut the more sensitive nature of the story between Scott and Cindy. Things settle down a little bit during the middle stretch but the ending takes a very complicated and emotionally fraught situation and wraps it up just a little too neatly to be believed. At the same time, the two lead performances are so compelling that you can almost forgive the dramatic trespasses of the screenplay, at least for a little while. Kirke has the showier role, of course, but she doesn’t treat it as such, instead stressing the humanity of her character over the histrionics so that when her illness inevitably begins to take further control over her, it has a genuine impact. Platt has the less flashy part but he is also quite good as a young man who has always lived in the shadow of his older sister and her illness and finds himself pulled back into her orbit at just the moment when he is hoping to leave all of that behind for good. In the end, "Broken Diamonds" is somewhat of a frustrating viewing experience but the work from Platt and Kirke is almost enough to make it worthwhile.

The misadventures of legendary man of letters Hunter S. Thompson have thus far inspired both a slew of documentaries and two narrative features--the wildly uneven "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), which reduced too many things to a sitcom level but which contained a very impressive performance by Bill Murray as Thompson, and the brilliant "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998), which was anchored by a turn by Johnny Depp that was less an acting gig and more of a possession (one that he would repeat, less successfully, in the film version of Thompson's novel "The Rum Diary" (2011). Now the latest addition to Thompson's cinematic legacy has arrived in the form of "Fear and Loathing in Aspen" and it is by far the least of the entire bunch. The concept of the film--a dramatization (mixed in with bits of documentary footage here and there) of Thompson's ultimately quixotic run for the position of Pitkin County, Colorado in 1970 as a way of protesting both oppressive police tactics and wealthy land grabbers trying to transform the quiet area into a tourist mecca--is not necessarily just another dip into Boomer-era nostalgia, especially when you consider that two of his key campaign issues--environmental concerns and the need for police reform--are just as relevant today as they were a half-century ago. Oddly enough, writer-director Bobby Kennedy III strangely fails to stress the idea of how long these supposedly radical ideas have actually been around, preferring instead to indulge in low-rent Gonzo cosplay through the performance from Jay Bulger as Thompson, whose shallow and one-dimensional work here will make you appreciate even more how Murray and Depp managed to make their takes more real and nuanced than the caricature seen here. The failure of the film does not fall entirely on Bulger, though--the screenplay is thinly constructed gruel that is more concerned with working familiar phrases from Thompson’s own writings on the subject than in presenting any insights of note and the inclusion of actual documentary footage will leave most viewers wishing that they could have just been watching an actual documentary on the subject. (Such a thing even exists in the 2020 film "Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb.") You don’t have to be a fan of Thompson and his work to find "Fear and Loathing in Aspen" a cheap, crude and woefully inadequate work that squanders a fascinating subject in ways that most likely would have sent the man into a frothing rage if he had lived to see it, but I will point out that it certainly makes "Where the Buffalo Roam" look a lot better by comparison.

As "Holy Beasts" begins, aging actress Vera (Geraldine Chaplin) is heading down to the Dominican Republic for what she claims will be the last film of her career, a revival of an aborted project from old friend Jean-Louis Jorge (a real-life Dominican filmmaker whose flamboyant productions were said to have influenced Pedro Almodovar and who was murdered in 2000) that she plans to direct as well as appear in. She gets people from her old gang to help out--most notably divaish choreographer Henry (Udo Kier) --but the production seems cursed from the get-go due to shaky financing, Vera's occasionally shaky grasp on reality and a genuine tragedy that unfolds during the shooting of the elaborate climax. I realize that most of you will have little to no interest in a film like this in the first place and, truth be told, it is a somewhat shaky venture with a narrative that meanders too often for its own good and leaves you with the suspicion that a straightforward documentary on Jorge might have been more edifying than the increasingly perplexing tribute that co-directors Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman have provided. However, I suspect that there are a few of you out there who read the first part of this review, noted the involvement of Chaplin and Kier and are already making plans to seek it out on the basis that anything featuring both of those perennial wild cards--two performers who always liven up the proceedings of whatever they appear in and who tend to seek out more offbeat material as a choice--would certainly be different from most anything else that they are likely to see at this point and time. Both are in fine form and the moments when the film does manage to pull itself together into something satisfying are almost entirely due to their efforts. Sure, both have been in better and more interesting films than this one but to see the two of them together should prove to be more than enough inducement for fans of outre cinema to give this one a chance.

I have no doubt that everyone involved with "Joe Bell" went into the project with the best and most sincere of intentions. Strangely enough, if it had been made for more cynical reason, the end result might not have been as sanctimonious, ill-conceived and occasionally gross as it is. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg), a mostly conservative man who took it upon himself to walk across America as a way of honoring his gay son, Jadin (Reid Miller), who accompanies him on his trek, and speaking out everywhere from schools to bars to take a stand against the bullying that Jadin and other LGBTQ youth face at school and at home on a depressingly regular basis. Along the way, there are flashbacks where we learn that while nowhere near as bullying as some fathers might have been in the same situation, Joe is slightly guilty of insensitivity towards his son that he is attempting to expiate through his walk in order to help him become a better person and inspire others to do the same. However (and duck out now if you don't know the particulars of the actual story), something seems a little off between Joe and Jadin on the road and maybe 30 minutes into the film, we learn what even those unfamiliar with the story have probably guessed by now--Jadin, pushed too far from the cruelty of his classmates, committed suicide and his appearances on the road with his father have all been in his dad's mind during his journey.

There are any number of ways that this story could have possibly been told but screenwriters Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry (yes, the same ones who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain") and director Reinaldo Marcus Green seem to have gone out of their way to choose the tackiest one imaginable. First of all, the notion of having a seemingly central character turn out to be already dead is an overused gimmick that could only work if the filmmakers figured out a genuinely clever way of pulling it off, which is not the case here. The bigger problem is that instead of putting the focus on Jadin, where it theoretically belongs, he basically gets relegated to the background so that we can bask in the simple nobility of his father and his grand quest to make himself feel better for not being a particularly supportive father. To be scrupulously fair, the film does take a couple of moments to have characters point out that perhaps Joe’s journey is not quite as altruistic as he would like to believe but for the most part, those concerns get swept under the rug for moments of easy sentimentality, especially when you consider that all of the roles except for Joe—which allows Wahlberg to suffer nobly and nauseatingly without ever taking him to task for his own actions and behavior--are too thinly written to make much of an impact. Only Gary Sinise, as a small-town sheriff who shares an unexpected bond with Joe, manages to make his scenes work through the sheer force of his acting talent but it proves to be too little and too late to help things. Essentially a combination of an earnest-but-clumsy PSA and blatant Oscar bait, "Joe Bell" is simply insufferable and no matter how many times you might wish it while watching it, it most certainly does not eventually get better.

As the French horror film "Kandisha" begins, three teenaged girls on their summer vacation--Amelie (Mathilde Lamusse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saad) are goofing off in an abandoned building in the run-down housing project where they live when they coming across the name "Kandisha" scrawled on a wall. The Moroccan Morjana recognizes it from her country's folklore and tells the others of the spirit of a woman said to come back to wreak havoc when summoned by someone in need of her diabolical services. That night, Amelie is attacked and nearly raped by an ex-boyfriend and, filled with rage, she follows Morjana's instructions for raising Kandisha and is startled to hear the next morning that the ex was hit by a car and killed. Sounds great but, in a shocking twist, there is a little hitch as Kandisha continues to kill the various men in the lives of Amelie and her friends, getting closer and closer to what appears to be the ultimate prize--Amelie's adorable little brother--as they scramble to figure out a way to end the curse they unwittingly raised once and for all.

The film marks the return of the filmmaking duo of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, who first burst onto the genre scene with their controversial hit "Inside." This film, by comparison, is far less gory and ghastly than that one but it also proves to be far less interesting as well. The film seems to be trying to be, among other things, a critique of people who attempt to appropriate sacred elements of other cultures without ever determining just what the possible blowback, cultural or otherwise, might be. That would be fine except the film itself too often feels as if it is guilty of the same crime, taking a genuine element of Moroccan mythology and retrofitting it into what is little more than a knockoff of "Candyman," right down to its housing project setting. Sure, the kills are more than gory enough for most viewers (with the most disturbing bit being one that doesn’t even involve the spirit but which does feature an especially unlucky rabbit) but that doesn't quite make up for the plodding story, the largely cardboard characters or the lack of any genuine scares. Those looking for nothing more than 90 minutes of blood and guts may be satisfied with it on some very basic and fundamental level while everyone else will find themselves wishing that Bustillo and Maury had been able to conjure up a better movie.

Just one week after hitting what I suspected might be the absolute nadir of a career that, especially in recent years, has not been wanting for candidates for that title, with "Out of Death," Bruce Willis returns with yet another aggressively generic item that he has agreed to appear in for presumably a hefty chunk of the meager total budget and the assurance that he will not be required to put in much work in exchange for that check. To be fair, his work in "Midnight in the Switchgrass" is a little more focused and not quite as lazy as some of his recent turns but his character, a veteran FBI agent hoping to crack a human trafficking ring, proves to be so superfluous to the story that he literally gets up and leaves halfway through without affecting things in the slightest. The real focus is on Rebecca Lombardi (Megan Fox), his younger partner who is all too willing to put herself in increasingly dangerous situations in order to get the bad guys. Their pursuit finds them crossing paths with Florida cop Byron Crawford (Emilie Hirsch) who is obsessed with stopping a serial killer of young women picked up at truck stops. Weirdly, the film all but dispenses with the investigative angle early on by revealing that the killer is Peter (Lukas Haas), a truck company manager with a loving family who nevertheless is compelled to sexually abuse, torture and kill young women. Once Willis leaves the picture, literally and figuratively, Lombardi and Crawford work up their own sting operation but it all goes sideways, leaving Lombardi struggling to survive while Crawford races against time to find her before it is too late.

Yes, the end result is better than many of the vehicles that Willis has been turning up in as of late but, as it turns out, it isn't that much better. It starts off okay, mostly thanks to the strong presence of Fox, whose work here is perhaps not as good as her recent turn in "Till Death" but which still serves as a reminder that she has always been a better and more interesting actress than she is usually credited for--even her scenes with Willis have a vague spark to them despite the completely unnecessary nature of his character. Unfortunately, once the film is finished setting things up, it doesn't really go anywhere from there--the screenplay by Alan Horsnall makes the mistake of removing the investigative aspect of the story way too early while failing to replace it with anything particularly interesting, director Randall Emmett never quite manages to demonstrate any facility for presenting and the whole thing drags whenever Fox's character is out of commission, which is a lot during the latter half. And while I generally do not comment on things involving the private lives of actors or filmmakers in the context of a film review, it does seem like a bit of an odd flex to cast Emilie Hirsch in the part of a guy determined to prevent women from being abused. On the one hand, "Midnight in the Switchgrass" is a fitfully intriguing and ultimately failed would-be thriller that offers nothing that you haven't seen in dozens of similar police procedurals in recent years. On the other, it is the closest that Bruce Willis has come to being in a vaguely watchable movie in years--this, I hasten to add, says more about the quality of his recent filmography than it does about this particular entry.

I have seen "Settlers" twice now and have come away from it both times with admiration for its ambitions and willingness to take a restrained approach to its material and frustration over the way that it never quite pays off in a satisfying manner in the end. The film is set on Mars on a beat-up settlement where Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Johnny Lee Miller) have set up with their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) after leaving the virtually uninhabitable Earth. Since there s no evidence of anyone else around, it would seem that their efforts are going to eventually be in vain but as the opening scenes unfold, hints begin to emerge that they may not entirely alone out there after all. Eventually, there is an arrival in the form of a soldier named Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and I will say nothing more of what happens from then on except to note that later on in the film, the narrative jumps a head a few years in time and involves a late-teen version of Remmy (now played by Nell Tiger Free). For a while, I have to admit that this work from debuting writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller had me intrigued. I liked the low-key approach Rockefeller employed that focused more on ideas than hardware, I was impressed by the way that Noam Piper’s production design and an especially arid stretch near the South African-Nambian border were deployed to present a striking and reasonably convincing idea of what life on Mars might look like and the performances from the actors were all solid. (Prince is especially good in a turn that could not be more opposite from her work as the rambunctious girl at the center of "The Florida Project.") The trouble is that even a slow-burn take like the one Rockefeller uses here eventually has to build to something and while it does get into some admittedly queasy areas, there just isn’t much in the way of a satisfying payoff to any of it in the end. Perhaps that was Rockefeller's intention all along and I suppose I prefer what he does here to another elaborately staged but ultimately hollow orgy of special effects. That said, he does such a good job of establishing things in the early going that I found myself wanting more and began to get a little frustrated with it in the later going. And yet, even though it does not really work, as they say, "Settlers" does at least offer viewers the chance to witness the beginnings of a filmmaker whose obvious talents and ambitions will hopefully pay off before too long.

There have been any number of documentaries focusing on individual celebrities released in the last few years--just last week saw the arrival of the largely overrated and somewhat ethically dubious Anthony Bourdain celebration "Roadrunner"--but I cannot immediately think of one as fascinating or moving as "Val," Leo Scott and Ting Poo's startlingly intimate look at the multiple facets of the life and career of Val Kilmer. Much of that intimacy comes from the fact that much of the footage that we see was shot by Kilmer himself, ranging from him screwing around with his brothers in the home movies they would to a behind-the-scenes tour of his career from struggling actor to big-time movie star to character actor to today, where he refuses to let his battle with throat cancer rob him of his iconoclastic artistic spirit. Fans of his work will relish his backstage glimpses at such films as "Top Gun" (including one amusing dig at the expense of Tom Cruise), "The Doors," "Tombstone" and the infamously troubled production of "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (where we see him getting into it with replacement director John Frankenheimer and pushing Marlon Brando on a hammock) as well as clips from audition tapes that he shot on his own that were sent to Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese during the casting processes for "Full Metal Jacket" and "Goodfellas." The film goes just as deep into his personal life as well, covering everything from family tragedies and his busted marriage to Joanne Whalley to his reputation for being "difficult" to the current health issues that may have affected him on a physical basis but not his desire to share himself with the world, both spiritually and artistically. "Val" is an entertaining and informative work that celebrated Kilmer's life and often-underrated career without ever turning into simple-minded hagiography. Just make sure you have plenty of free time after watching it because once you do, my guess is that you will want to conduct your own personal Val Kilmer film festival. Just be sure to include both "Top Secret!" and "Spartan"--trust me.

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=4312
originally posted: 07/23/21 12:01:06
last updated: 07/23/21 12:16:53
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