“Don’t Be Bad” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****

Don’t Be Bad (2015), the final flick from acclaimed Italian co-writer-director Claudio Caligari, continuously calls to mind the works of legendary poet, novelist, essayist, political activist and fellow moviemaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. This is most visible in Caligari’s deft ability to muster intrigue through his deliberately aimless anecdotal sensibilities. This is inherent in both the pace and general events of the respectable, if wholly familiar, script Caligari (who also formulated the storyline) co-penned with Giordano Meacci and Francesca Serafini. Such a factor is a trait most accessibly glimpsed in Pasolini’s ground-breaking, Franco Citti starring debut picture, Accattone (1961). It is also noticeable in Pasolini’s earlier novels, Boys of Life (1955) and A Violent Life (1959). This is the tome which Accattone is rumored to be partially based upon. Besides, the character-oriented essence that bridges these earlier stated creations, there is also an emphasis on our leads being thieves that is as much a part of Accattone and Pasolini’s brilliant literary fiction, A Street Life (1955), as it is in Caligari’s Toxic Love (1983). Interestingly, the later declared construction is referenced early on in Caligari’s seventh feature, Don’t Be Bad. The exception is that Pasolini was known to fixate on pimps and prostitutes in these prior addressed classics, the central figures of Caligari’s landscape were frequently an assortment of partially misunderstood drug dealers. The hedonistic individuals unveiled in these masterpieces were frequently those who, in hindsight, yearned for a better existence. This is despite the underlying tragedy that recurrently taunted them.

There is also a detached, clinical approach, that burns with an emotion that is present but rarely expressed, to both of Pasolini’s mediums. It is much in line with Caligari’s overall narrative tactics in Don’t Be Bad. Such adds an increasingly authentic, almost ruggedly documentary-like, veneer to the proceedings. The gritty cinematography from Maurizio Calvesi, as well as the everyday, straight-forward, though intermittently comic, dialogue, further heighten this impression. Thus, when a genuinely heartfelt illustration is conveyed it makes the scenes that they occur in, such as one in the aforesaid opus that transpires at circa the one hour mark, evermore painful and powerful. In turn, these arrangements force themselves to standout and linger on in our subconscious. Yet, one can’t help but think that there is still not enough of these moments to make the entire presentation memorable. Consequently, this lack of open sentimentality, as commendable as it endures throughout, and as perfect as it is for the types of people who dominate this tour de force, makes for protagonists that come off as assuredly angry. Yet, they are undeniably cold. Furthermore, it gives them the sensation of not being sufficiently fleshed-out. This makes them appear no different than those we’ve encountered in similar ventures. Maybe this is the purpose of such an exercise. Regardless, the distance Caligari and Pasolini creates, which can also be perceived as another of the life mirroring qualities on display, is as frustrating as it is invigorating.

Set in the peripheries of Rome (another connection to the tales of Pasolini) in the 1990’s, Caligari chronicles the relationship between Vittorio (in a solid enactment from Alessandro Borghi) and Cesare (Luca Marinelli, who is quietly riveting in his portrayal). They are self-proclaimed “brothers for life”. When the depiction begins, we spy them engaging in a life of excessive alcohol and drugs. Their nights are largely spent at the local disco. They also appear to be drawn to material flash. This is with fancy automobiles being among the shared interests of the duo. When Vittorio encounters Linda (in a unflinchingly stalwart turn from Roberta Matteia), he sees this as a chance to get out of the endlessly risqué being he has erected with Cesare. Yet, where Vittorio has found love, Cesare has uncovered a world that is slowly unraveling around him. Still, the distance between the pair is not eternal. Soon Vittorio and Cesare reunite. From herein, they attempt to live a “normal” being; one that is sewn from honest labor. But, will the past catch back up with them? Or will they be able to maintain this less hazardous, more gradual, routine they are currently building?

The plot, though sturdy, offers no real surprises. Not to mention, the otherwise well-made climax is cut from far too many similarly themed photographic entries. It also comes across as slightly overlong. But, Caligari has an eye that never leaves what should be the focus of any truly good narrative: those who dominate the presentation itself. Also, assisting matters is that none of the occurrences herein feel inorganic. Nothing in the one hundred and two minute and twenty-five second runtime of Don’t Be Bad, which has also been translated to Don’t Be Mean, comes off as placed in the invention to fashion unearned dramatic or tense instances. Such would simply be for the sake of garnering audience attention. The tone is also striking. This is especially true given the changes Vittorio and Cesare undergo throughout the affair. Yet, Caligari finds a method for the entire piece to continuously echo a tough, gritty, yet, somber and mature atmosphere. Such is a wondrous feat itself. This is made all the more awe-provoking given the fact that all of this unravels in a confident and unrushed fashion. Additionally, the performances are captivating all-around. Silvia D’Amico’s turn as Viviana is a magnificent highlight in this arena. When these exceptional constituents are combined with the consistently impressive reality that the photoplay unveils: it is all too easy to look away from the minor flaws of the application. Because of this, one cannot deny the satisfactory, ever-admirable nature of the production.

This endearing marker of quality, is made progressively evident by Caligari’s taunt, proficient direction. Co-composers Alessandro Sartini and Paolo Vivaldi offer terrific music. Their numbers marvelously illuminate all that is transpiring in Caligari’s construction. In turn, this detail augments both the beats of the exertion as well as impact of the bits they transpire within. Likewise, Mauro Bonanni offers seamless and sharp editing. Chiara Ferrantini’s costume design is superb. Paolo Soldini’ set decoration is masterful. Franco and Paolo Galiano’s special effects blend perfectly with the authenticity Caligari has meticulously carved into the effort itself. The same can be said for the team of individuals who put together the visual component of these celluloid illusions. Correspondingly, the make-up and sound squads are equally remarkable in their respective contributions.

The consequence of these elements is a reliably cinematic fabrication. This is most apparent in the quieter episodes. For example, the second act configurations which involve Vittorio and Cesare toiling alongside one another in a more commonplace location for employment. They are far more arresting than the combative notes the presentation commences upon. Yet, this Italian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, soars because it provides what all great works should unveil: a demanding, beautifully crafted and singular experience. There is an easy, graceful movement to both Caligari’s on-screen style that is evident in the smooth handling of the various relationships, especially that of Linda and Vittorio, in the endeavor. It is also viewable in the manner the sequences and fiction unfold. This is another of the many attributes Caligari shares with Pasolini. With Don’t Be Bad, which opens in theatres on April 7th and will be available on video on demand May 23rd, 2017 through Uncork’d Entertainment, Caligari has erected a satisfying, stalwart conclusion to a fantastic career.

(Unrated). Contains violence, language and adult themes.

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“Lion” – (Capsule Film Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

Lion (2016) is a harrowing, haunting, inspiring and undeniably human experience; an achingly beautiful masterpiece. This is even if the last hour cannot compete with the sheer emotional resonance and filmmaking perfection of the first. Director Garth Davis’ direction is as honest and intimate as Saroo Brierley’s autobiographical source material, A Long Way Home (2013), demands the work to be. Additionally, the lead performances, as well as Luke Davies’ academy-award nominated screenplay, are all spellbinding. In turn, Davis has delivered a debut feature that is as much a sentimental journey as the riveting plot, which concerns a young man trying to find his lost family and his way back to his childhood home after twenty-five years, is itself. The cinematography by Greg Fraser as well as the expected, though nonetheless rousing, climax of the endeavor are similarly striking, triumphant and full of life. Such results in a must-see; undoubtedly one of the best cinematic works of 2016. (PG-13) 118 minutes. Starring: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman.

A Brief Word on New Film Releases: “Assassin’s Creed”, “The Devil’s Candy”, “The House on Willow Street” and “A Monster Calls”

By Andrew Buckner

The following is a collection of short reviews of movies that have been recently made available on video on demand. The Devil’s Candy and The House on Willow Street are, in addition to being showcased on the platform mentioned above, also currently showing in select theatres.

ASSASSIN’S CREED

Rating: ** out of *****.

Though the general concept is intriguing, Assassin’s Creed (2016) becomes another popular video game series adaptation that is given mediocre treatment via wooden performances, uninspired action sequences, direction and writing . The story arc is also rather by the numbers. Skip it. 115 minutes. (PG-13) Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard. Director: Justin Kurzel.

THE DEVIL’S CANDY

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

A masterful melding of metal, muse and the memorably macabre, The Devil’s Candy (2015), the latest horror film from writer-director Sean Byrne, perfectly parallels the paranormal with artistry. The result is a beautifully built, stunningly stylish, efficient and effectively ghoulish gem that constantly called to mind the cinema of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Rob Zombie. Highly recommended! 79 minutes. Unrated. Starring: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby.


THE HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET

Rating: ** out of *****.

The House on Willow Street (also known as From a House on Willow Street) (2017) starts out as a unique take on the abduction tale. Sadly, after an intriguing first act, the film descends into the usual barrage of cheap jump scares and garden-variety demonic possession shtick for the rest of the runtime. Making matters worse: characterizations and storyline generally get the cold shoulder during these later stages. Such gives us no reason to care and no one to root for. The ending, as well as the effects, are especially tepid. A cliché-ridden disappointment. 86 minutes. Unrated. Starring: Carlyn Burchell, Gustav Gerdener. Director: Alastair Orr.

A MONSTER CALLS

Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.

J.A. Bayona’s film version of A Monster Calls (2016) is a well-meaning, respectable and generally faithful adaptation of screenwriter Patrick Ness’ young adult fantasy novel of the same name. Yet, it only intermittently recaptures the narrative poetry, beauty and deeply symbolic nature that made Ness’ work such a mammoth achievement. Additionally, the cartoonish creature effects and broad characterizations further hold the production back from hitting the mark of greatness. 109 minutes. (PG-13) Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver.

“Devil’s Domain” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

New York born Writer-director Jared Cohn delivers a beautifully made, splendidly acted and engrossing take on an oft utilized concept in Devil’s Domain (2016). Cohn’s invention concerns a cyber-bullied teenager, Lisa (in a compelling performance from Madi Vodane that immediately and continuously draws sympathy from audience patrons). Frustrated by the torment that she undergoes daily, and a video of our central figure that only makes our central figure more of a target for harassment, Lisa meets an appealing stranger online. She initially states that her name is Destiny (in a hypnotic and superb enactment from Linda Bella). Almost immediately Destiny reveals herself to be The Devil. Drawn into the powerful and seductive promise of having her desires fulfilled, Lisa makes a deal with Destiny. The promise soon turns to tragedy. This is as Lisa’s peers find themselves the unwilling victim of this unholy pact.

Despite the familiarity inherent in the general plot, Cohn’s feature never feels predictable or overdone. Such is a courtesy of Cohn’s competent pace. It is also the consequence of his terrific balance of characterization and story. The horror sequences, especially a third act arrangement involving Lisa watching someone who recently confessed her feelings to our protagonist being hit by a car, are all effectively staged and tremendously executed. Cohn also implements a finale that shares the generally tried and true sensation of the tale itself. Yet, still it arises as a potent punctuation point to this memorable thrill ride. It also serves as a necessary extension of where the narrative appears to be naturally headed.

Such an ability to turn tropes into triumphs is the result of Cohn’s masterful, ever-taunt guidance of the project. His script, which is immersed in realistic dialogue and motivations, provides a consistently solid backbone to this celluloid exhibition. The photoplay is also made increasingly stalwart by Josh Maas’ atmospheric and striking cinematography. Additionally, Rob Pallatina’s editing is seamless and sharp. Correspondingly, the special effects are so credible that they greatly enhance the believability of what we are watching on-screen. Furthermore, unlike many similar genre efforts of the day, there isn’t an overreliance on these filmmaking illusions to mount intensity or culminate dread. This is another indicator of the sheer craftsmanship at hand.

Also, assisting matters are the top-notch depictions. Michael Madsen is especially good as Lisa’s compassionate and understanding stepfather, Bill. The music from Iggy & The Stooges, DMX and Onyx, reiterates both the tone and the overall beats of the affair uniquely and spectacularly. Likewise, the piece casually ebbs and flows eye-catching style. This is evident instantly in an opening credits sequence that is filled with comic book-like renderings of the leads. This is paired with Satanic symbols and images. The section is capped off by excellent animation work from Devin J. Dilmore. In turn, this bit calls to mind the bravura cinematic flash of a Gallo feature from legendary Italian moviemaker Dario Argento. This visceral flare, and alignment to the aforesaid maestro, is recaptured in the variety of imaginative and grisly kill scenes found throughout the labor. The outcome of these elements is a gripping and ever-immersive example of all-around talent; a brilliant tour de force. See Devil’s Domain when it is released in limited theaters and on video on demand on May 30th, 2017.

Runtime: 92 minutes and 48 seconds.

Distribution Company: The Orchard.

Production Company: Cleopatra Films, Cleopatra Records.

“Life”- (Capsule Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: *** out of *****.

Life (2017) is, for better and for worse, exactly what I expected it to be. The photoplay, predictably, takes its every move from the Alien (1979) playbook. Correspondingly, the plot, which involves a space crew being systematically slaughtered by an ever-evolving extraterrestrial creature, is where this is most evident. Yet, it forgets many of the things that made Ridley Scott’s movie so legendary. This is its constant balance of the awe-inspiring and the ominous. But, what is most noticeably lacking is Scott’s well-developed, relatable characterizations. Moreover, Life is in too much of a rush to unveil its monstrous threat. The consequence of this is, besides ignoring the gradual and meticulous build-up of Scott’s classic, merely a forced attempt. This is at getting the audience to know its broadly etched leads in a wholly secondary and unoriginal fashion. Albeit, in the scant twenty-minutes of screen time allotted before the martian organism, Calvin, takes over. Such makes the endeavor ultimately feel heedless and generic. In turn, this science-fiction/ horror entry never gives its proven capable cast, helmed by Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan and Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North (both of whom deliver satisfactory, serviceable performances), a chance to really make their characters a stand-out. Additionally, Ryan Reynolds again enacts another cloying, and unnecessarily comic, variation of his usual on-screen persona. This is in his one-note representation of Rory Adams. What also hurts matters is that the sets, though detailed, and low-tech effects are mediocre at best.

Yet, there is a dogged B-movie charm to the whole endeavor. This is heightened by the competent writing from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and Daniel Espinosa’s same-said direction. Such qualities make these flaws easy to forgive. Seamus McGarvey’s eye-popping cinematography, Jon Ekstrand’s score and Jenny Beavan’s costumes are also impressive. The same can be said of the sharply rendered sound department work as well as Mary Jo Markey and Frances Parker’s seamless editing.

Espinosa’s endeavor is never terrifying. It also fails to sufficiently erect and maintain a genuine atmosphere of suspense. This is despite its numerous attempts. Furthermore, the majority of the scares are of a garden-variety ilk.  Yet, this Skydance Media, Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) and Columbia Pictures release is certainly an enjoyable, if ultimately minor, distraction.

The project undoubtedly benefits from concluding on one of the most intriguing and smirk-inducing bits in the whole production. Such is a nice send-off to a third act that is, like the movie itself, alternately amusing and absurd. A prime example of this is found in a near-climactic segment which involves Gyllenhaal tearfully reading Margaret Wise’s timeless children’s book Goodnight Moon (1947). It is clearly designed to evoke an emotive resonance with its audience. Instead it conjures laughter. As this sequence goes on, it also proves to be extraneous. Still, the overall result of this severely flawed affair is familiar, but fair, entertainment. Espinosa has constructed the type of clunky, imitative picture that is best described as “a guilty pleasure”. It is one perfectly suited for viewing on a rainy day.

103 minutes. Rated (R) for violence and language. Opened on March 24th, 2017.

“Wicked Conclusions” – (Short Film Review)

By Andrew Buckner
**** out of *****.

“Wicked Conclusions” (2016), a twelve-minute and forty-four second short picture from resident Pennsylvanian and co-writer-director Phillip G. Carroll, Jr., is a tense, taunt and thoroughly satisfying horror entry. It tells the tale of Amber (in an always captivating and credible turn from Chloe Hendrickson) and Henry (in a masterful portrayal from Boy-Yo Korodan that treads effortlessly on the line of child-like naivete and unsettling menace). They are imprisoned in the basement of their captor, Ben (in a well-rounded depiction from Erik Searle that conveys the conflicts of his imagined persona in a way that colors him brilliantly as both possible protagonist and antagonist for the bulk of the piece). Such instantaneously garners our attention by opening with a disarmingly light set-up. This includes an unseen individual putting up a sign for a lost dog. During this time, a surprisingly upbeat number pours from the soundtrack. The next scene carries on this impression. Such transpires in a bit which involves Ben making pancakes while casually conversing with an unseen entity. This arrangement is interesting because of the immersive and magnificent angle in which it is shot. It is one which only shows the side of Ben’s face and focuses in mainly on his mouth. Because of this, Carroll immediately defies our expectations. Yet, when Amber and Henry are introduced in the next scene, the invention becomes increasingly engrossing for far more grim reasons. This is as Carroll smartly tackles the afore-mentioned question of Ben’s true intentions. He also engages spectators in a nail-biting tug of war. This is until the rousing, if ultimately predictable, climax. All the while, we attempt to figure out who to root for. This is by mentally reiterating the tagline of the labor: “Who’s the real monster here?”

This is as much a courtesy of Carroll and Roman James Hoffman’s breakneck paced, smartly-written screenplay as it is Carroll’s claustrophobic, stylish and accomplished direction. Carroll seems intent on taking a familiar arrangement, such as the one inherently held in his narrative, and making it rise. This is from its endlessly empathetic shifts in perspective alone. Such twists in viewpoint are administered triumphantly. Carroll and Hoffman’s dialogue also helps matters. This is by being both believably straight-forward and powerfully delivered by those on-screen. Consequentially, the illusion of watching the ghastly scenario that is unfolding before the eyes of the audience is never broken. These items, along with the clues that are casually issued early on as to what is truly transpiring, make the endeavor more clever and easy to admire. But, what works best of all is the masterful handling and staging of the fearful elements themselves. They are beautifully, seamlessly implemented into the account. This is in a manner that never feels artificial. Likewise, it is never as if these pulse-pounding constituents exist to momentarily upstage the character-oriented focus of the exertion. This act itself is something of a rarity in cinema nowadays.

Budgeted at a mere $800, this PGC Studios, Fear Crypt Productions and Frank Horror fabrication also benefits from Sasikumar B’s sharp and assuredly effective music. The cinematography from Ryan Geffert is dark, brooding and impressive. Carroll’s editing is equally striking. Samantha Morris’ sound work is crisp and remarkable. The three-person camera and electrical department further enhance the all-around quality of the enactment.

These components all come together to compliment the unbroken atmosphere of dread Carroll engineers throughout the photoplay. With his tenth stint as behind the lens administrator, Carroll has crafted a balanced, memorable and monumentally mounted fusion of talent. It is one which, in the tradition of the best brief fictions, does not have one extraneous ingredient. Everything directly correlates with the unraveling of the yarn at hand. Most importantly, it does this while being massively entertaining. Carroll has evoked a wonderfully harrowing, haunting, vivid and visceral voyage into darkness. It is one which is also noteworthy for its restraint. This is exemplified via its ability to terrify without ever dissolving into excessive violence. For this, as well as its brash displays of bravado and storytelling prowess, the Halloween day released “Wicked Conclusions” is an unshakably solid addition to Carroll’s filmography. It refreshingly enthralls from start to finish. Simultaneously, it operates as a victorious orchestration of progressively bleak tone. In so doing, it comes with my highest recommendation to genre fanatics. Carroll is a silver screen chairman to be watched.

“Elle”, “Get Out”, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”, “Passengers”- (Capsule Movie Reviews)

By Andrew Buckner

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016) is terrific. It is a slyly crafted, endlessly enigmatic, Hitchcockian thriller that operates just as well as a character-oriented drama. Yet, Verhoeven’s tale works so luminously because it is smart enough to hand the audience the pieces while allowing them the breathing room to put the puzzle together themselves. Such makes for an increasingly engrossing narrative. It is one that casually twists and turns throughout its one hundred and thirty-one minute runtime. This is without ever betraying the life projecting mirror it is holding up to bystanders. It also never once compromises itself to the expectations of either of its primary genres. This is as much a compliment of Verhoeven’s brilliant, nuanced direction and David Birke’s masterfully constructed screenplay as it is Isabelle Huppert’s triumphant, and Oscar nominated, turn as our lead, Michele LeBlanc. The ability of the picture to defy standards of structure at nearly every turn is just as admirable as the pitch perfect note it ends on. In turn, Verhoeven has given us one of 2016’s many highlights. ****1/2 out of *****.

Get Out (2017) more than satisfies as both social commentary and as a slow burn horror film. The first two acts are terrifically mounted. Moreover, they sport terrific performances. The same can be said of the writing and directing from Jordan Peele. But, the problem is the comparatively unfocused third act. Here Peele finds himself utilizing far more of the familiar genre elements he largely avoided beforehand. The flat finale, as well as the constant comic relief we find in the character of Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), further hinders matters. Because of this, the last thirty-five minutes become an intermingling of sequences that are hit and miss; a roadblock that steers Peele’s production to a solid overall sensation. Such is somewhat disappointing given the path to greatness that the effort seemed destined to reach in its earlier stretches. Get Out doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Still, for most of its one hundred and four minute length, it is engaging, enigmatic, well-made and certainly worthy of our time. **** out of *****.

Intimate, in-depth, engaging and massively inspiring, the PBS documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2016) is an all around exceptional portrait of an American icon. 113 minutes. ***** out of *****.

Passengers (2016) works remarkably well as romantic science-fiction in the first hour. With its constant character focus, leisurely and unforced pace and overall likability, the affair almost appears as if it beats with the heart of a quiet, intimate indie film. Than disappointment kicks in during the second half. This is as the picture largely abandons these carefully constructed elements for more of the expected big-budget genre schtick. From herein, the effects, Morten Tyldum’s direction and Jon Spaihts’ writing are clunky and ill-conceived at best. The same can be said for its hackneyed stabs at tension building. Even the sheer charisma of the movie’s leads (Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence) sharply diminishes in this later stage. But, it isn’t a complete bust.There are a few interesting ideas sprinkled throughout this faultering section. Yet, this is hard to fully embrace as Tyldum’s exertion steamrolls to its pre-conceived and predictable conclusion. The result is familiar, but fair enough, entertainment. 116 minutes. *** out of *****.