Sublime: Destiny

Destiny (1921)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Produced by Erich Pommer
Starring Lil Dagover, Bernhard Goetzke, Walter Janssen, Eduard von Winterstein, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Paul Biensfeldt, Károly Huszár, Hans Sternberg, Karl Rückert, Erika Unruh
Upon his visitation in a pastoral town, stern, somber Death (Goetzke) pays handsomely to lease a parcel alongside a cemetery that’s been designated for its graveyard’s expansion, where he erects a sepulchral stronghold inaccessible to all save a doughty, doleful damsel (Dagover) whose young fiancé (Janssen) he’s consigned to the hereafter, and for whose restoration she obtests. So moved is the Grim Reaper by her impassioned impetration that he challenges her for a chance at her wish: incarnated as treble doxies of as many men soon to meet their end, they may be reunited if she can rescue but one of them. In a Persian city of strident muadhdhins, whirling dervishes and veiled beauties, the sister (Dagover) of a cruel caliph (Winterstein) struggles to rescue her secret lover, a Frank (Janssen) pursued by authorities after daring to visit her in a mosque during Ramadan. Lusty, conspirative Venice is the backdrop of a tragedy whereby a corrupt councilman (Klein-Rogge) designs to dispatch during Carnival the sweetheart (Janssen) of a noblewoman (Dagover) to whom he’s hatefully engaged. Finally, Dagover and Janssen are enamored assistants to a preeminent magus (Biensfeldt) who’s commissioned to entertain China’s tyrannical Emperor (Huszár) on the occasion of his birthday in exchange for his life; when the despot claims her and imprisons her man, she may need more than magic to save them both. For its innovatory set design, Orientalist and Italian charms, dated yet vivid special effects and Lang’s captivating composition, his fatalist, fabular fantasy is nearly as impressive as it was a century ago. Moreover, its presentation of morbid theurgy is among the medium’s first and best, serving to influence many posterior. Creating her woebegone, mettlesome maiden in broadly histrionical strokes, Dagover inhabits another of many sacrificial heroines prevailing in Weimar cinema, and Goetzke’s implacably forbidding as a solemn foil to her often hysterical fervor. Exciting, funny, touching, poetic and rich with symbolic auspices, Lang’s centennial classic evokes a bittersweet poignance reliant on the verity of its burden: ever salvational, love may endure a quietus that it can never defeat.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Seventh Seal.

Palatable: Escorts

Escorts (A.K.A. High Class Call Girls)
Directed by Dan Reed
Produced by Dan Reed, Tom Costello
Starring Emily Banfield, Cookie Jane
No realm of commerce has been unaffected by online interaction; for the obsolescence of pimps and madams, and its suppled transactional dynamics, prostitution is no exception. Two tart trulls (Banfield, Jane) residing together with their cute dogs in one of London’s richest districts command considerable compensation from a carefully selected clientele as fond of their personable ribaldry as their artificially augmented anatomy and lineaments. Obnoxiously likable and oversexed, they could be easily misappraised as mere dingbats, but their entrepreneurial acumen and ambitions would belie such a facile estimation. These cocottes receive trustworthy tricks, only accept cash, and leave very little to chance. Banfield narrates a crucial, collapsed relationship and addiction to cocaine spanning from her late teens through her mid-twenties, whence she rebounded into the relative comfort and security of pornographic and meretricious careers, while Jane’s metier apparently attends her insatiable libido and aversion to conventionally respectable labor. Interviews with the latter bawd’s parents disbosom their discomfort with their daughter’s chosen profession, as well as a contrast between that quiet desperation of Albion’s past and graying generations, and the histrionic, often hysterical effusions that have come to typify the urban British ethos over the past forty years. Some scenes are instructive for the uninitiated, depicting online discourse between the trollops and their potential and frequent customers, or a house call when they’re administered injections of Botox. As Jane launches her own online agency whereby her circle of escorts can negotiate libidinous encounters, Banfield saves and seeks a permanent partner as her career winds down. Despite Chad Hobson’s largely direful music, Reed’s strictly observational portrait of these cyprians is usually as amusing as its subjects. It also instantiates how molls and johns alike are mutually exploited in their engagements, and explodes the delusion advanced by some feminists that empowerment neutralizes exploitation; here, technology manifestly conduces a harlot’s market of which exploitation’s immanent.

Mediocre: The Stranger Beside Me

The Stranger Beside Me (1995)
Directed by Sandor Stern
Written by Bruce Miller
Produced by William Shippey, Nick Smirnoff, Ronnie D. Clemmer, Richard P. Kughn, Bill Pace
Starring Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Eric Close, Gerald McRaney, Lorrie Morgan, Alyson Hannigan, Steven Eckholdt, Casey Sander, Patrick Labyorteaux, Robert Crow, Suzanne Ventulett, Darrin Long, James Quattrochi, Suzanne Turner
So many compulsives can never be satisfied, such as a naval seaman (Close) who spends too many free and unaccompanied hours peeping and raping pretty blondes in his neighborhood. His sweet, steadfast spouse (Thiessen) stands by him until she’s confronted with incontestable evidence of his deviant recidivism, then investigates a succeeding string of sexual assaults for which he’s obviously responsible in an attempt to forestall more, and protect their newborn daughter. Viewers familiar with Stern’s usual docudramatic sexual misconduct-by-numbers (Without Her Consent, Web of Deceit) know what to expect from this competently shot, crudely cut, moderately goofy thriller, which rides on fair performances by charismatically creepy Close, luscious Thiessen at her popularity’s pinnacle, and McRaney as her disabled, avuncular buddy. Hannigan’s meanwhile less chafing than usual as the flagitious rape artist’s pouty, posttraumatic cousin. Everyone here fares variably with Miller’s soupy script, but for whomever prefer their television tawdry, these 90+ minutes beautified by their photogenic leads will be pleasantly spent.

Mediocre: Unspeakable Acts

Unspeakable Acts (1990)
Directed by Linda Otto
Written by Jan Hollingsworth, Alan Landsburg, Hesper Anderson, Joanna Strauss
Produced by Joan Barnett, Don Goldman, Alan Landsburg, Howard Lipstone, Linda Otto
Starring Jill Clayburgh, Brad Davis, John Mazzello, Gary Frank, Season Hubley, Bebe Neuwirth, Mark Harelik, Gregory Sierra, Bess Meyer, James Handy, Maureen Mueller, Sam Behrens, Valerie Landsburg, Jeff Seymour, David Wilson, Ashleigh Sterling, Alan Sader, Jenny Gago, Paul Eiding, Maria Cavaiani, Rick Warner, Terence Knox, Guy Stockwell, Byrne Piven, Laura Owens
Onscreen, it seems so simple: children and infants of an upscale neighborhood in Miami-Dade County are entrusted by their parents to a babysitting couple (Sierra, Meyer) who introduce them to collectively sexual sport and threaten them with Satanic rituals; after the deranged couple’s ineludible arrests, married, compassionate juvenile psychologists Laurie and Joseph Braga (Clayburgh, Davis) gently pry confessions of these abominations from the older victims to successfully inculpate their assailants and secure their convictions, despite the pettifoggery of their defense (Samek, Stockwell). Both this televised docudrama and the book on which it was based (penned by former television reporter Hollingsworth while in the therapists’ employ as a consultant) alter and omit numerous crucial details: the Bragas were not accredited criminal psychologists and coerced the victims during interviews; co-defendant Ileana Fuster was subjected by the prosecution and her defense attorney to a lengthy series of aggressive interrogations and probable hypnotism, then blatantly coached when providing a deposition as a witness against her husband, Francisco Fuster-Escalona; their adopted son, who has maintained their innocence for decades, is here depicted as a little girl (Cavaiani) tormented by their atrocities; most significantly, Janet Reno prosecuted the Fusters while serving as Miami-Dade’s State’s Attorney with the same unscrupulous and energetic efficiency that characterized her stint as the United States’ Attorney General, using a discredited and unethical methodology that also led to two wrongful convictions of accused sexual offenders, who were later exonerated — yet despite her authority and individual conduct in this case, she’s only mentioned twice by her inferiors. Previously convicted for counts of assault, manslaughter and child molestation, Fuster-Escalona’s culpability is overwhelmingly probable, corroborated by consonant confessions of his victims to their parents before they reported them in turn to the authorities, as well as symptoms of sexual abuse observed by their doctors. However, the question of prosecutorial misconduct is never seriously raised in this unconscionable fictionalization, characterizations of which are childishly broad, presented melodramatically to manipulate unsuspecting audiences. Performances among the ensemble vary drastically in quality. As the heroic kiddieshrinks, Clayburgh is surpassing and Davis charismatic, though he untypically overacts certain scenes, weirdly coiffed with a preposterous ponytail. Neuwirth, Mueller and Hubley are especially convincing as mothers of the traumatized tots, and Sierra greasily exudes their abuser’s slimy perversity. That any of the players under Otto’s ham-fisted direction breathed plausibility to Landsburg’s, Anderson’s and Strauss’s schmaltzy script — itself emotively and expositionally bounteous with cornball conversations — is a testament to their talent. In reality, the improprieties of this movie’s protagonists casts as much doubt on the validity of its judicial proceedings as Ileana Fuster’s famously inconstant claims regarding its verdict. Fuster-Escalona is likely where he belongs, but one can only wonder.

Execrable: The Midnight Meat Train

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Written by Clive Barker, Jeff Buhler
Produced by Clive Barker, Gary Lucchesi, Eric Reid, Tom Rosenberg, Jorge Saralegui, Richard Wright, Beth DePatie, James McQuaide, Peter Block, Jason Constantine, Joe Daley, Anthony DiBlasi, Robert McMinn, John Penotti, David Scott Rubin, Fisher Stevens
Starring Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Vinnie Jones, Roger Bart, Brooke Shields, Barbara Eve Harris, Tony Curran
His movies have only ever been tolerable — and occasionally enjoyable — for their expert choreography, involving production design and photogenic performers; with only the last of those three elements present in this dreary, typically overproduced American foray, the limits of Kitamura’s directorial deftness are particularly prominent. To satisfy the demands of an influential gallerist (Shields) and his ambition to capture treacherously intriguing imagery, a photographer (Cooper) stalks, then investigates a spruce, burly butcher (Jones) who extends his labor into an avocational late shift by hammering, hooking and exsanguinating passengers of a subway’s nightly route. Very few of Barker’s stories have been competently dramatized, and the antic appeal of Kitamura’s cartoonishly artificial CG and gimmicky, slow-mo or whirling panoramic and perspective shots mesh poorly with Buhler’s tiresomely prosy, humorless screenplay. Digitally rendered trains, bullets, blood, limbs amputated, organs eviscerated and enucleated appear doubly fake in contrast to several impressively realistic practical effects. In observance of two cinematographic trends, Jonathan Sela’s photography is nicely shot in very high contrast, but many scenes are ruined by their excessively applied tints. Cooper and most of his co-stars have screen presence to spare, but they’re unmemorable for dialogue so musty that it sounds like mad libs. Shields makes the best of her role as an imperious socialite, and thewy footballer Jones is certainly imposing as the industrious serial killer, but neither are framed effectively. Now lagging well behind Larry Fessenden in their unwitting(?) undertaking to match John Hurt’s mortal onscreen record, Ted Raimi again plays one of several brutalized victims. This is somewhat engaging until its insufferably inane third act, which leads to a predictably cyclic conclusion from which the Lovecraftish abominolatry of Barker’s short story was expunged in favor of still more gore that’ll only satisfy the most undemanding splatterhounds.

Instead, watch The Taking of Pelham One Two Three or Train to Busan.

Palatable: The Acid House

The Acid House (1998)
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Written by Irvine Welsh
Produced by David Muir, Alex Usborne, Carolynne Sinclair Kidd, Colin Pons
Starring Stephen McCole, Maurice Roëves, Alex Howden, Annie Louise Ross, Garry Sweeney, Jenny McCrindle, John Gardner, Stewart Preston, Simon Weir; Kevin McKidd, Michelle Gomez, Gary McCormack, Tam Dean Burn; Ewen Bremner, Arlene Cockburn, Martin Clunes, Jemma Redgrave
Perhaps because he scripted this raunchy, riotous, revolting adaptation of three among twenty-two stories from his eponymous anthology, it’s likely the best picture based on Welsh’s fiction. During his life’s last, worst day, a footballing loser (McCole) is cut from his carousing league, by his deviant dad (Howden) dislodged, nubile girlfriend (McCrindle) jilted, manager (Preston) axed and a police sergeant (Gardner) brutalized, then confronted in a pub by cantankerous God (Roëves), who transmogrifies the swilling dud in disgust for his shortfall of ambition. Newly mutated, the bitter flop of The Granton Star Cause exacts petty vengeance with newfound stealth, but not with impunity. If he wasn’t such A Soft Touch, a gutless, married father (McKidd) wouldn’t suffer repeated humiliations by his slatternly wife (Gomez), or the loutish, lascivious lunatic (McCormack) with whom she’s clamantly cuckolding him, whose varied, parasitic impingements aren’t possible without a perfect poltroon. A tab of potent LSD and bolts of lightning swap the minds of a doltish football hooligan (Bremner) and a hideous, vinyl neonate at the moment of exchange born to an insufferable, upscale married couple (Clunes, Redgrave). Reveling in this supernatural infantilization, his devoted girlfriend (Cockburn) designs to remold him into a better person, but a casual encounter between the commuted clods intervenes in The Acid House. Consistently comical and leavened with psychedelic fantasy, this felicifically foul time capsule from Scotland’s late ’90s dramatizes Welsh’s navel-gazing prime with fine, funny, filthy performances against squalid locations in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and good musical selections by The Pastels, Glen Campbell, The Chemical Brothers, Nick Cave, The Verve, etc. Viewers unaccustomed to nearly unintelligible Glaswegian accents will need subtitles.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Trainspotting.

Execrable: Indiscretion

Indiscretion (2016)
Directed by John Stewart Muller
Written by Laura Boersma, John Stewart Muller
Produced by Laura Boersma, John Stewart Muller, Timothy Rhys, Thomas Beach, Gabe Lang, Alexandra Bentley, J.C. Cantu, Joseph Suarez, Dylan Matlock, Frederick Schroeder, Aric Avelino, Randy Newman, Keylee Sanders, Therese Beach, George Kevin Chapin, Karen Clark, Barbara Gallagher, Ron Gallagher, William Kyte, Jerry Lang, Joni Lang, Kevin Lynch, Kathleen S. Muller, Aaron Peterson, Susie Peterson
Starring Mira Sorvino, Christopher Backus, Cary Elwes, Katherine McNamara, LisaGay Hamilton, Shane Callahan, Melora Walters
For pleasure and political profit, a psychiatrist (Sorvino) unsatisfactorily wed to a maritally derelict, reputedly unfaithful New Orleanian councilman (Elwes) assesses, seduces, then manipulates an obsessively unstable sculptural bricoleur, whose ascendant repute exceeds his talent, to murder her husband so that she can undertake for his flagging senatorial campaign by exploiting popular sympathy to endorse a ticket of disarmament. That stratagem’s exposited by her dupe at the denouement of this garishly lit, positively prognosticable crime drama evidently occurring in Lifetime’s and Netflix’s parallel universe, where detectives don’t exist. Your complimentary spoiler isn’t half so much an affront as the conjoint investment by extravigesimal, moneyed barnacles to produce this dreck, which portrays as predictably as its plot marriage as a cell to be escaped, for the gratification of embittered housewives and monition of young, germinal careerists — an intimation that’s familiarly pernicious in mundane, contemporary agitprop. Like everyone else here, Sorvino and Backus (whose career’s initiation concurs with that of their marriage) are clearly grinding through the motions, generating exiguous eroticism during their characters’ fling, and even less interest while he’s loudly stalking her or romancing her gorgeous, gormless daughter (McNamara). As poorly plotted as thrillers come, it only deviates from convention at its unbelievable conclusion; as seedy bait for vicarious and disgruntled devil’s advocates, it’s as putrid as any of the effluent issued by Blumhouse.

Instead, watch Diabolique, Fatal Attraction or Obsessed.

Execrable: The Damned

The Damned, A.K.A. Gallows Hill (2013)
Directed by Víctor García
Written by Richard D’Ovidio, David Higgins
Produced by Peter Block, Andrea Chung, David Higgins, Richard D’Ovidio, Cristina Villar, Mauricio Ardila, Julián Giraldo
Starring Peter Facinelli, Sophia Myles, Nathalia Ramos, Sebastian Martínez, Carolina Guerra, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Gustavo Angarita, Julieta Salazar
Preteen girls might be rattled by this hackneyed horror’s witching-by-numbers, as drippy and dreary a contribution to the genre as any in the past decade. En route from Bogotá to Medellín, a flash flood and their everyday idiocy strand a photographer (Facinelli) and his fiancée (Myles), opportunistic sister-in-law (Guerra), irksome daughter (Ramos), and her boyfriend (Martínez) in Colombian backcountry, where they find shelter from an unceasing downpour in a hotel that’s been shuttered for nearly thirty-five years. Against warnings from its aged proprietor (Angarita), that aforementioned stupidity motivates them to free from his basement a suspiciously imprisoned girl (Salazar), along with the dead witch who’s possessed and preserved her. Despite a few bright ideas invested in D’Ovidio’s story and Asdrúbal Medina’s fastidiously fine production design, any hope for a single scare’s smothered by syrupy reminiscence, unconvincing CG, a sequence of exhausted cliches and Frederik Wiedmann’s hoary score, which reliably disturbs any emerging trace of spooky mood. Facinelli’s blandly adequate as a milksop who’s as senselessly unprepared for action as the rest of his party, and so a fit lead subject to García’s able, unremarkable direction. Were Ramos less obnoxious, and D’Ovidio’s and Higgins’ dialogue not so bathetic, this might’ve been mediocre.

Instead, watch either version of The Old Dark House.

Palatable: The Party

The Party (1968)
Directed by Blake Edwards
Written by Blake Edwards, Tom Waldman, Frank Waldman
Produced by Blake Edwards, Ken Wales, Walter Mirisch
Starring Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Gavin MacLeod, J. Edward McKinley, Denny Miller, Steve Franken, Fay McKenzie, Kathe Green, Allen Jung, Danielle De Metz, Linda Gaye Scott, Herbert Ellis, Sharron Kimberly, Frances Davis, Timothy Scott, Jean Carson
Tati meets the Marx Brothers meets Mad Magazine, then bombs after its opening night, which concurred with Martin Luther King’s assassination! Between Pink Panthers, Edwards and Sellers contrived this experimental extravaganza starring the comic genius in brownface as a cordial, calamitously clumsy Indian actor inadvertently invited to a soiree at the swankily hideous mansion of a studio executive (McKinley) whose war epic he’s accidentally wrecked, where he repeatedly makes an ass of himself and a shambles of nearly everything he touches. Goofy revelry and mishaps ensue his encounters with the stuffy harbinger and his wife (McKenzie), a progressively drunken cater waiter (Franken), one friendly, French actress (Longet) accompanying a lecherous producer (MacLeod), a raucous star of Westerns (Miller) flirting with a juicy Italian actress (De Metz), and a painted elephant adopted by the hosts’ sprightly daughter (Green), whose clamorous coterie further enlivens the party, as does a jazz band and a rumbustious, Russian ballet troupe. In wide static shots and drifting pans, slapstick stupidities partially improvised from Edwards’ and the Waldmans’ skeletal screenplay bump, bumble, stagger, stumble and crash in plotless luxury, as the gentle, inelegant Hindu and deliberately disorderly guests carouse with rising ruction to a riotously, redundantly sudsy culmination. Sensible viewers can safely ignore ludicrous leftists who liken Sellers’ silly yet sensitive creation of his lovably mansuete goofball to minstrel shows. A victim of critical misevaluation and unfortunate coincidence, this commercial washout deserves reappraisal as a tarnished comedic gem of late Old Hollywood and Edwards’ and Sellers’ most daring collaboration, shot observationally with understated craft on a stupendous set populated by character actors who don’t miss a beat. For such quality, and its commentary on the predatory predispositions of Tinseltown’s loathsome elites and the culture shock that redounds to half of its protagonists’ follies, this farce is a few cuts above.

Recommended for a double feature paired with A Shot in the Dark or Playtime.

Execrable: Hot Girls Wanted

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)
Directed by Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus
Written by Brittany Huckabee
Produced by Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus, Rashida Jones, Brittany Huckabee, Mary Anne Franks, Debby Herbenick, Bryant Paul, Daniel Raiffe, Kat Vecchio, Abigail Disney, Barbara Dobkin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Chandra Jessee, Evan Krauss, Ann Lovell, Julie Parker Benello, Gini Reticker, Jacki Zehner
Starring Tressa Silguero, Riley Reynolds, Rachel Bernard, Kendall Plemons, Kelly Silguero, Emeterio Silguero, Ava Kelly, Lucy Tyler, Michelle Toomey, Ivan H. Itzkowitz III, Levi Cash, Tony D.
In this abhorrent age when exhibitionism and prostitution are selectively celebrated, nobody comes cheaper than an amateur pornstar, such as several vacuous vicenarians and teens (Silguero, Bernard, Tyler, Toomey, et aliae) by Craigslist procured, then housed in a Miamian residence by an oafish “talent agent” (Reynolds). These halfwitted harlots earn an average pittance of $800 per shoot (approximately $2,400-$4,000 weekly), yet pay steep vestural and medical costs while sustaining much more physical and emotional wear than moderately successful camgirls and models who’ve superior recompense. Bauer’s and Gradus’s sloppily shot documentary accidentally divulges these girls as opportunistically obscene yet gullibly gormless and remarkably self-centered, less victims than fungible, cretinous, covetous cogs who extenuate their degrading, entirely elective profession in a tired and contracting industry that competes with homemade pornography and relatively restrained streaming sluts by working cheap, disposable, superabundant talent. Somberly, suggestively depreciative intertitles cite statistical data regarding the popularity of amateur porn and its industry’s lack of regulation to provoke sheltered boomers and Xers, but provide no further context to the movie’s accurate postulation that the normalization of pornography proceeds from an urban cultural degeneracy, a condition to which this production owes its trashy trappings. Neither does it comparatively explore the myriad of lucrative online options for attractive young women of limited means and intelligence, only a few of which are scarcely mentioned. They have obliged budding hustlers if the filmmakers have deterred but a few hundred from participation in this especially sleazy, abusive, potentially injurious form of porn, as by their even-handed depiction of Silguero’s ordinarily short career, resultant maladies and retirement at the advice of her mother and spinelessly dithering boyfriend (Plemons). Akin to this flick’s other aforelisted, preposterously profuse productional parasites, that overt dearth of talent that Bauer, Gradus and especially Jones have evidenced in their piffling corporate careers has always been supplemented by their galling congenital privilege, which they agonize to arrogate to a patriarchy that hasn’t existed for decades. As heritors of nepotism and commissaries of a contemporary feminism that’s far more disposed to gainfully exploit the unfortunate indiscretion of poor and middle-class women and skew its consequences as “oppression” rather than empower them by promoting an embarrassment of available alternatives, they prove themselves specimens of their ignoble, incompetent, pietistical class. So few in their stratum care to grasp that the little people who whore themselves do so volitionally.

Instead, watch Escorts or Rocco.