Mediocre: Bless the Child

Bless the Child (2000)
Directed by Chuck Russell
Written by Cathy Cash Spellman, Thomas Rickman, Clifford Green, Ellen Green
Produced by Mace Neufeld, Stratton Leopold, Bruce Davey, Lis Kern, Robert Rehme
Starring Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Holliston Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Angela Bettis, Christina Ricci, Michael Gaston, Lumi Cavazos, Dimitra Arliss, Eugene Lipinski, Anne Betancourt, Ian Holm, Helen Stenborg
Who would’ve guessed that a supposedly autistic, wonderworking ginger (Coleman) birthed and deserted within a fortnight by a junkie (Bettis) and raised lovingly by a psychiatric nurse (Basinger) in her sister’s stead was destined to fulfill some unspecified, pivotal prophecy? Only an unctuous self-help guru (Sewell), who instructs his Luciferian cult to locate, slay and brand children of NYC sharing her birthday until they identify by her thaumaturgy the Delphian tot, and deliver her by abduction to their heresiarch’s corrupting claptrap. Less dopey than but just as predictable as coetaneous Stigmata or End of Days, Russell’s briskly paced and constantly conventional religious thriller has as little sense as doctrine, but it’s entertaining enough as a vehicle for its gracefully aging leading lady. Smits is fitly typecast as a federal agent whose investigation of the serial juvecides leads him into the orbit of Basinger’s aunt, as are perennially ghoulish Bettis as her sordidly squirrely sister and Ricci, half as sleazy in the recreant role of another heroin addict. Holm’s fugaciously frittered late in the second act, playing a crippled, defrocked Jesuit who paraphrases Baudelaire’s famously reiterated quote and furnishes vatical exposition in a bogus brogue. Despite Peter Menzies Jr.’s warmly attractive photography, most of the interiors are consistently overlit. Spuriously digital rats, winged demons and a cameo by Beelzebub himself are qualitatively comparable to figures of a video game’s cutscene, but a trio of volatile, irradiant angels (resembling those mortally recorded in Brainstorm) are prettily imaged without physitheistic banality during the picture’s climax. Neither Spellman nor the adapting screenwriters bothered to research European sorcery, here misattributed to druids of the 16th century and Hebraically incanted by Sewell’s reprobate! For fans of Basinger, still felicific and photogenic well into her fifth decade, or of genre pictures that treat of their extramundane subject with moderate religiosity and theurgy, this passable, periodically preposterous pic should fit the bill.

Palatable: Brother

Brother (1997)
Directed and written by Aleksey Balabanov
Produced by Sergey Selyanov
Starring Sergey Bodrov, Yuriy Kuznetsov, Svetlana Pismichenko, Viktor Sukhorukov, Mariya Zhukova, Vyacheslav Butusov, Irina Rakshina, Sergey Murzin, Tatyana Zakharova

“I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come – if alive.”

–William Tecumseh Sherman, letter to Ulysses S. Grant, 1864.3.10

Not to be confused with Kitano’s underwhelming, cross-cultural Yakuza flick shot stateside a few years later, Balabanov’s grimy crime drama was a domestic hit as much for its depiction of Russia’s chaotic zeitgeist as its crafty economy. At the insistence of their mother (Zakharova), a tough, resourceful young veteran (Bodrov) of the First Chechen War peregrinates to St. Petersburg to reunite with his big brother (Sukhorukov), a freelance assassin employed by local gangsters. For his enterprise, martial invention and tactical cunning, he betters his sibling’s success as a slippery gun for hire, but soon finds that urban life is as spiritually insidious as remuneratory. When he isn’t greasing culprits of low character, the gifted gunsel beds a battered housewife (Pismichenko), troops with a trendy druggie (Zhukova) and an aging, weathered, German chapman (Kuznetsov) who resides in a Lutheran cemetery, and fixates on, attends a performance by and encounters at a party his new favorite band, Nautilus Pompilius, who provide most of the picture’s music. Armed to kill with discrimination checked by rectitude and a CD steadily spinning waist-high in his Discman (an accessory of any upright young man in the ’90s), Bodrov’s felon is for his farouche humor, adaptability, fraternal fidelity and uncertain circumstances an embodiment of the plights and pertinacity that typified the ethos of young Russians during their nation’s post-Soviet tumult. Practiced portrayals and St. Petersburg’s backdrop contribute to this little landmark’s plausibility, but its youthful audiences came for excitement and returned to see one of their own heroized for a principled criminality.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Three Days of the Condor, Le choc or Brother 2.

Mediocre: Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland (1986)
Directed by Clive Donner
Written by Glen MacDonough, Paul Zindel
Produced by Tony Ford, Neil T. Maffeo, Anthony Spinner, Bill Finnegan, Patricia Finnegan, Sheldon Pinchuk
Starring Drew Barrymore, Richard Mulligan, Keanu Reeves, Jill Schoelen, Googy Gress, Pat Morita, Eileen Brennan, Walter Buschhoff, Shari Weiser, Rolf Knie, Gaston Häni, Pipo Sosman, Chad Carlson
Middling production values and design, clever yet unmemorable musical numbers and plenteous daffy havoc distinguish this sweet yet slight televised adaptation of Victor Herbert’s and Glen MacDonough’s fabular operetta from its six predecessors. One inanely implausible automotive accident during a blizzard on Christmas Eve delivers a preteen (Barrymore) to a fantastic municipality resembling a tidy, second-rate theme park populated by bipedally anthropomorphic animals and characters from nursery rhymes to unite a pair of lovers (Reeves, Schoelen), learn a few lessons from a magian artisan (Morita) in Santa’s employ, and thwart the maniacally pleonexic designs of a feathered, usurious scoundrel (Mulligan). For adults, entertainment resides in these principals’ alternately wooden and hammy delivery, and Donner’s perfunctory direction leaves but a bit to the imagination, but this musical’s adequate for families whose wee ones aren’t yet terribly demanding, fans of America’s favorite little addict when she was still only incipiently corrupt, and anyone apt to ogle Reeves and Schoelen for their pulchritude. Brennan’s comic timing exceeds that of her co-stars, but she’s granted regrettably scanty screen time. Don’t expect much of Herbert’s music, which is quoted occasionally in Leslie Bricusse’s score and songs. Two versions were broadcast in the United States and Germany, respectively running 140 and 95 minutes; the condensed shorter of these is commonly available on videocassette and videodisc, though both are streamed by various services.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Wizard of Oz or Disney’s superior Babes in Toyland.

Palatable: Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Directed and written by Werner Herzog
Produced by Randall M. Boyd, Henry Kaiser, Tree Wright, Julian P. Hobbs, Andrea Meditch, Erik Nelson, Phil Fairclough, Dave Harding
Starring Werner Herzog, Samuel S. Bowser, David Ainley, Clive Oppenheimer, William McIntosh, Olav T. Oftedal, Regina Eisert, Libor Zicha, Kevin Emery, David R. Pacheco Jr., Jan Pawlowski, Peter Gorham
For mundivagant Herzog, Earth’s final, frigid frontier was an inevitable destination nearly a century after explorers Roald Amundsen, then Robert Falcon Scott planted their respective Norwegian and British flags at that desolate destination. This documentary’s finest sights are transcendent for meditative shots of chaste polar landscapes and watery wonders, but it’s too often derailed when Herzog’s narration or worst subjects digress absurdly. Vintage footage of the terminal impasse that stymied Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and destroyed his ship Endurance, and the subsequent hardship of his crew’s grueling passage to South Georgia Island is cleverly juxtaposed with that of a humongous omnibus driven for the convenience of passengers at McMurdo Sound by one Scott Rowland, who relates one of his adventures in Guatemala. Rowland and McMurdo station’s forklift operator Stefan Pashov are two of numerous roving professionals who seem to constitute a majority of Ross Island’s population; the latter fancifully proposes that zetetics are by commonalities impelled to convergence at their southernmost post. In the austral summer’s five months of constant daylight, the station’s industrial hideosity contrasts with the stark beauty of Ross Island and the Ross Sea. To escape it and its amenities (dully comfortable residential quarters, a bowling alley, an aerobic studio) that repulse him, Herzog departs for several field camps after one Kevin Emery mandatorily trains him and other newcomers in the rudimentary construction of snowy trenches and igloos (wherein trainees are required to sleep overnight) and cooperative navigation via lifeline in conditions where visibility and audibility are null. Nutritional ecologist Olav Oftedal and his crew study the dietary peculiarities of docile, roly-poly Weddell seals, extracting with a forcible yet harmless method from nursing cows a milk of uncommon viscosity and chemical composition noted by physiologist Regina Eisert. An utter silence common to the vicinity of Oftedal’s station is often broken by phocine vocalizations in waters six feet beneath it: resonant whirrs, burbles, blips and howls that could be mistaken for those generated by an analog synthesizer. At the mainland’s coast, cellular biologist Samuel Bowser quietly exudes either anxiety or melancholy on the occasion of his last antarctic dive, during which he observes exotic fauna and flora in gelid immersion. From another dive ensuing toilsome drilling and detonation elsewhere, three captured specimens are genetically determined by zoologist Jan Pawlowski to be of theretofore unknown foraminiferal species. Slow and static shots of Shackleton’s hutch reveal it unchanged over a century, one of a faded empire’s innumerable proto-civilizational relics. Further, a monument erected alongside the numerous flags raised at the south pole commemorates Amundsen’s and Scott’s pioneering attainments…though Herzog can’t help but bemoan this progress and a presumptive loss of its site’s pristine serenity, a value that’s never qualified. Cocks of a waddle wait on eggs for hens to return at Cape Royds, where Herzog interviews eremitic marine biologist David Ainley, who graciously replies to an asinine question regarding homosexual penguins with his observations of polyamory and transactional congress in the colony. A visit to Mt. Erebus finds volcanologist and geochronologist William McIntosh displaying and demonstrating the functionality of a rugged observational camera designed to withstand explosions, emplaced to monitor the volcano’s lava lake. Tasked with examination of the volcano’s gaseous emissions, his subordinate colleague Clive Oppenheimer historically contextualizes the relative severity of known volcanism. Our impressionable filmmaker’s existential despondence, now inspired by climatic pseudoscience repeatedly reworked and consistently unproven over the course of a half-century, spoils what could’ve been a pleasantly amusing scene: in a frozen subterranean passage leading to the precise center of the South Pole, two workers deposit a frozen sturgeon in a niche opposite another garlanded with strung popcorn, containing little floral prints…while Werner the doomsayer verbalizes a stale, silly scenario in which extraterrestrials visit the niche perhaps a millennium following mankind’s extinction. Finally, physicists led by Dr. Peter Gorham launch an enormous balloon to loft instruments constructed to detect neutrinos above any distractions of terrestrial electricity.
Sublimed by the ethereal vocal plangency of Dragostinov’s Planino Stara Planino Mari performed by The Philip Koutev National Folk Ensemble, and Alexander Sedov’s rendition of Bortnyansky’s Retche Gospod Gospodevi Moyemu, among others, this picture’s underwater and underground highlights are extraordinary for deft exhibition of the former’s magnificent aquatic biota, and in both icy formations submersed and caverned — those latter accessed though fumaroles by McIntosh’s spelunking team. If these speechless sequences characterize Herzog at his best, redundant commentary by his interviewees and his pestilentially pessimistic narration represent the worst he has to offer. Some of Pashov’s philosophical musings are mildly interesting, while others are as negligible as the dreams that glaciologist Doug MacAyeal recalls before addressing his far more intriguing surveyal of a calving iceberg (B-15). David Pacheco is McMurdo station’s demonstrably adept plumber, who bloviates about his allegedly Aztec ancestry and more environmental paranoia, but not his duties there. Linguist William Jirsa recounts how he came to keep the station’s greenhouse, and he’s only marginally more occupying than Karen Joyce, whose African and South American extravagations decades before was surely as perilously imprudent as it’s tediously told. Earlier scenes show two seemingly pathetic penguins mysteriously, intractably bound for the mainland’s interior and their likely quietus; one can imagine Herzog’s apposition of these apparently disoriented birds with the errant baizuo vacuously reporting their own misadventures. Those subatomic particles that Dr. Gorham tracks and describes are enthralling, but his own gushing fascination with them is not. One bright exception is Libor Zicha, a machinist still visibly haunted by trauma suffered during the Cold War, who keeps an impressively comprehensive survival kit in a rucksack at his side at all times. An extraneous interview of irritatingly ingenious publicity hound Ashrita Furman comprises a most glaringly inapposite aside.
This might’ve been another of Herzog’s documentary masterworks, but it’s marred by the trendy and sentimental faults that so endear it to Anglophones. His undue familiarity, rambling, risible ruminations and desultory indulgences might be apropos to one of Errol Morris’s features, but for them this 100 minutes is a fifth padded and hardly so graceful than it should be. Unlike the foregoing sacred music, Henry Kaiser’s and David Lindley’s score is almost unbearably grating. So untypically personal, unprofessional and subjective is it that its conclusive dedication to Roger Ebert comes as no surprise.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Into the Inferno or Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Palatable: Cube

Cube (1997)
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Written by Vincenzo Natali, André Bijelic, Graeme Manson
Produced by Mehra Meh, Betty Orr, Colin Brunton
Starring Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, Maurice Dean Wint, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller, Wayne Robson
Natali’s cult favorite requires little introduction, but that anglophonic score who’ve yet to see it probably won’t be disappointed by this misadventure of a seasoned recidivist (Robson), police officer (Wint), draftsman (Hewlett), student (de Boer), physician (Guadagni) and autist (Miller) mysteriously waking within and collectively struggling to escape from a massive matrix comprised of interconnected cubic rooms. For whoever can decipher them, the integral or Cartesian signification of triplex trinumerals printed within each room’s six doorways seemingly signify which contain deadly traps not necessarily more hazardous than the strange sextet’s internecine umbrage and paranoia. Not as sophisticated as it’s become, Natali’s tolerable direction isn’t half as imaginative as his, Bijelic’s, and Manson’s script, as much for its geometrically Gordian setting and diegetic twists as its characterizations of distinct personal types altered by extreme pressure in prickly situations: the pessimism of Hewlett’s omega gifts him with a surprising fortitude; at first wholly dependent, de Boer’s beta proves herself as essential a mathematician as an intermediary; Robson’s sigma is laid low early to leave the survivors without their most resourceful member; at first a natural leader, Wint’s alpha is reduced by petty indignation and encroaching madness into a Procrustean tyrant; Guadagni’s skittish, shrewish gamma unearths an unexpectedly quasi-maternal affection for Miller’s autistic savant, who’s in possession of a vital verve he can’t use alone. Against Jasna Stefanovic’s superbly impersonal, industrial production design, the cast’s porcine performances contrast oddly well, and for what they lack in realism and restraint, they compensate with photogenic presence. Comparably, CG by effects firm C.O.R.E. is noticeably artificial, but smartly designed. This sleeper found its audiences via home video and nonstop cablecast on the Sci-Fi Channel in the ’90s; it’s now just as omnipresent on streaming channels and worth watching — first for fun, then again for details you might’ve missed.

Mediocre: Back in Action

Back in Action (1994)
Directed by Steve DiMarco, Paul Ziller
Written by Karl Schiffman
Produced by George Flak, Rae Crombie, Allan Levine
Starring Roddy Piper, Billy Blanks, Bobbie Phillips, Kai Soremekun, Matt Birman, Nigel Bennett, Damon D’Oliveira, Rob Stefaniuk, Sam Malkin
Supererogative emphasis on that titular action forms and fills to its brim the paltry plot of this desipiently diverting B-grade actioner pairing its strapping pro wrestler and expert exerciser turned action stars. Cliches compel and conjoin in vengeance a police detective (Piper) whose partner was messily slain and a veteran of the Special Forces (Blanks) violently striving to locate his presumably kidnapped, senselessly injudicious sister (Soremekun), who choke, clout, kick, flip, slam, stab, stomp, throw, shoot and defenestrate a horde of henchmen resembling barmen, bikers, janitors, electricians, street magicians, Michael Bolton, G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band, and the Super Mario Brothers to confront the Final Boss, a natty, minaciously eccentric drug lord (Bennett) and his greasily merciless coadjutor (Birman) bedizened with nocturnal sunglasses and a medallion. They hardly duplicate that macho magic nailed by Piper and Keith David when memorably brutalizing each other, brooding together and slaughtering extraterrestrial cops and yuppies in They Live, but the lovably lunky Canadian grappler is nicely complemented by beefy Blanks, who ably performs most of his flying stunts and…recites his lines clearly. The entire cast amuse deliberately and otherwise, especially toothily toothsome Soremekun, whose mobster’s moll could scarcely be more absent in her vestural frivolity to her impending peril. As intentionally funny as not, this caboose of the ’80s’ explosive glut is, subject entirely to one’s palate, delightful or discomfiting, perhaps both. As vital viewing for fans of either lead, it hasn’t a dull or sensible second.

Recommended for a double feature paired with They Live or Hell Comes to Frogtown.

Palatable: One of Us

One of Us (2017)
Directed by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Produced by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Alex Takats, Liz F. Mason
Starring Etty, Ari Hershkowitz, Luzer Twersky, Chani Getter, Yosef Rapaport
Ostracism and contingent harassment await whoever dares to leave Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, as explicitly related by a trio of such deserters in extensive interviews and observations. Pseudonymous Etty struggles to retain custody of her seven children after forsaking a routinely ill-arranged marriage to an abusive and unloving husband, and finds some comfort in a support group organized for therapeutic congregation of other whilom Hasidim. Still reeling from the harrowing humiliation of his public pedication and shunned by former friends, Hershkowitz revels in newfound freedom before and after his recovery from an addiction to cocaine. Aspiring actor Twersky ekes emolument as a driver for Uber where he’s resettled in Los Angeles, residing in a parked RV and willingly typecast in Hasidic roles to assert his individuality and distance himself from the ex-wife and offspring he’s left behind. Ewing’s and Grady’s prior feature on religious extremists was the amusive, hyperbolically marketed Jesus Camp, which presented a laughable evangelical summer camp and its silly, sanctimonious attendees as unduly significant, and was strategically edited either by the filmmakers or their co-producers to nearly omit extensive evidence of their subjects’ unrequited fealty to Israel. Slickly shot, scored, cut and titled, this dour documentary finds them in better form, exploring how the cultish Hasidic tribe sustains its traditions, security and continuity by means both kind and cruel, commanding private schools, ambulances and a police force to support one another and enforce their precepts while domiciled in Brooklyn’s best subsidized housing. Both the mistreatment they’ve suffered and curiosity concerning the outside world fortify the resolve of these three anathemas, who pine for past fellowship while basking in the United States’ secular liberty. None of them were at all prepared for life beyond Brooklyn, all speaking English second to Yiddish, nearly innumerate for the calculatedly selective deficiencies of their education, and as ignorant of the Internet for its proscription — a bitter irony in light of the Ashkenazic affinities for mathematics and online entrepreneurialism. Geller (who organizes the aforementioned support group) expounds how the uncompromising stringency of Hasidic piety and insularity is as much a reaction to the sect’s decimation during the Holocaust as devoted abidance by its tenets. Reactions of Hasidim to those who’ve abandoned their fold vary depending on their circumstances. Etty’s persistently terrorized by her husband and his family, and threatened with the loss of her parity because nomistic Hasidim can collectively afford the lawyers she can’t. All but isolated for his abandonment, Hershkowitz is advised by one of his community’s friendly yet firm elders (Rapaport), who voices compunction for his adversity and disapproval that it wasn’t redressed, but also admonition for his relatively liberal lifestyle and existential and theological inquisitiveness. Those few acquaintances from whom Twersky isn’t estranged only treat him with stilted civility. Outside the Islamic world, tergiversation is seldom met with such alienation, but these are not apostates: notwithstanding Hershkowitz’s doubts of divinity, they’re all practicing Jews more dedicated to dogma than most. This picture’s portrayal of Hasidim discloses of them qualities seemingly paradoxic: they’re at once scholarly and stagnant, loyal yet parasitic, neurotically fanatical in their crusade to resist modern, godless progress in a manner less extreme but far more aggressively adamant than that of the Amish. Ewing, Grady and their interviewees impart that this enclave needs to change — not to neglect or degrade their customs or consecration, nor to intromit outsiders or their culture, but to mend and forfend ingrained cycles of domestic and institutional abuse. If a stable society requires accountability, then a fortiori is it indispensable for any so closed.

Mediocre: Class Action

Class Action (1990)
Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Samantha Shad, Carolyn Shelby, Christopher Ames
Produced by Robert W. Cort, Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Christopher Ames, Carolyn Shelby, Kim Kurumada
Starring Gene Hackman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Colin Friels, Joanna Merlin, Laurence Fishburne, Donald Moffat, Jan Rubes, Matt Clark, Fred Dalton Thompson, Jonathan Silverman, Joan McMurtrey, Anne Ramsay

“Lawyers with a weakness for seeing the merits of the other side end up being employed by neither.”

–Richard J. Barnet, Roots of War, 1971

Conflicts of interest, filial gall and malversation taint a civil suit in which 150+ plaintiffs who’ve suffered third-degree burns and loss of limbs and loved ones from a station wagon’s elusive yet replicable, often fatal flaw are represented by a lawyerly firebrand (Hackman) renowned for his demagogic shifts and advocacy for underdogs in the cause of civil rights, opposed by his disaffected daughter (Mastrantonio), a viciously efficient litigator serving as counsel of a top-grade firm to the carmaker. When it isn’t yawing into embarrassingly soppy contretemps, Apted’s juridic drama works well its eminent cast in the service of a sensational story’s gravamen, all but undone by periodic, incredibly sloppy dialogue in a script that was treated for five years in twenty-five drafts! Authenticity endued to its most engrossing legal details is likely attributable to Shad, a civilist and attorney familiar with the knotty pitfalls of such cases. Regrettably, too much running time is spent in living rooms and offices, and too little in courtrooms before the climactic third act, and at least fifteen of these one hundred and ten minutes are alloted to unpalatably saccharine filler. Only faltering for delivery of their very worst lines, Hackman, Mastrantonio and most of the supporting cast are otherwise as excellent as expected, mirabile visu when judicially sparring. Effectively reprising his corporate crook from Darkman sans slaughterous intent and Raimi’s high camp, Friels is divertingly conniving and not without some genuine humanity as an accessary partner in Mastrantonio’s firm and bedroom, but both are bettered by Moffat, whose stiffly upstage bearing as their chief counsel precludes any notion of another in the role. Similarly, Thompson smoothly underplays an unconscionable automotive supervisor clearly unruffled by incidental deaths; would that Jan Rubes (who isn’t half so hammy here as in Dead of Winter) weren’t so goofy as one of his former electrical engineers, a witness as vital as stultifiable. All of this picture’s best and worst traits can be observed in a few microcosmic, consecutive scenes early in its second act: after Hackman’s wife and Mastrantonio’s mother (Merlin) mawkishly expires at the steps of a courthouse’s concourse, her sequent funeral’s almost unendurable for its gospel atmosphere and an anecdote recounted in Hackman’s eulogy, which both beggar bathos of ordinary conception. After sharing a pleasant, private dinner, father and daughter essay to casually overcome their estrangement before her acrimony surfaces regarding his extramarital infidelities and professional repercussions, and an ensuing feud showcases both performers at the plausible pinnacle of their powers, both hitting their marks with reciprocal timing and expression as credible as any they’ve delivered…until this affray culminates to a cliche as corny as a contrivance from Law & Order‘s seventh season. That it so often descends into such mush is truly unfortunate, for this movie posits insights not explored in too many others: how calculation of actuarial expenses inspires automotive manufacturers to expose their emptors to terrible risk; that personal tragedy may eventuate from even the most noble judicatory achievement; how the sanctimony of social activism too often veils and feeds an inherently selfish nature; inadvertently, that common careerism can’t be conciliated with a healthy personal and particularly familial life. That last applies to both genders. After an entertaining clash in court and the judge’s (Clark) chambers, dessert consists of a conclusion so sentimental that any viewer thereof whose lifeblood isn’t pure syrup may from their horripilation suffer a dermic malady. Essential viewing only for fans of Mastrantonio and especially Hackman, it’s not without some great moments…and at least as many schmaltzy enough to discountenance anyone who watches in good society.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Verdict.

Palatable: The Panic in Needle Park

The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Written by James Mills, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion
Produced by Dominick Dunne, Roger M. Rothstein
Starring Kitty Winn, Al Pacino, Alan Vint, Richard Bright, Kiel Martin, Michael McClanathan, Warren Finnerty, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Raul Julia
No PSA, educational short or after school special yet produced has matched the gruesome verisimilitude of this monitory classic. From a failed relationship with her former inamorato (Julia) and the traumatically unprofessional abortion to which it culminated, a jaded, ailing, aimless miss (Winn) rebounds into the sphere of a charming drug dealer and petty thief (Pacino), who shares with her a mutual affection and appetite for heroin that she readily adopts. Their complete immersion (with the audience) into a decisive, dehumanizing, sordid stupor dependent on every critical, forthcoming fix provokes degradation, disloyalties and disasters, draining from them both love and liveliness to leave a relationship first radiantly adoring a vacant and toughened husk. Mills’ graphically harrowing, bipartite, photographic exposé on narcotic subculture published in Life constituted the basis for his novel fictionalizing the notorious lifestyles of addicts who congregated regularly at Verdi Square and Sherman Square in Manhattan’s upper west side; after Dominick Dunne purchased the book’s filmic rights from Avco Embassy to extend his cinematic career, his brother John and famed sister-in-law Didion aptly adapted the realism of its terse dialogue and sickening squalor to a script as fit for cinéma vérité as any realized during the begrimed blossom of New Hollywood. Schatzberg’s own career as a top-flight photographer is evinced in his compositional expertise and dispassionate manner. A broad latitude accorded his players sunk his debut feature of a year anterior, the handsomely crafted but dramatically inert Puzzle of a Downfall Child. In their leading premieres, Pacino and Winn flourish for Schatzberg where Faye Dunaway flailed, so perfectly, personably plausible that certain inobservant theatergoers mistook this gritty fiction for a documentary. From his junkie’s disarming sweetness to raging desperation, Pacino hasn’t a sour note in him to spoil this first great performance, itself quietly overshadowed at every turn by Winn’s wide-eyed vulnerability, best expressed in silent shots yet brimming with laconic import. Of course, this success was followed by decades of his superstardom and her cult renown on stage and screen. Bright shone in sleazy roles paired with or without everyone’s favorite diminutive Sicilian, here credibly scummy as Pacino’s brother, who’d sell his family or anyone else’s for diacetylmorphinic respite. A half-century since it’s launched two fine celebrities, no other movie (certainly not Aronofsky’s clownish, grossly overestimated Requiem for a Dream) so vividly pictures the vile vitiation heroin afflicts upon one’s morals, mind and body.

Execrable: Girls’ Night Out

Girls’ Night Out (2017)
Directed by Philippe Gagnon
Written by Lisa Steele
Produced by Ian Whitehead, Kaleigh Kavanagh, Jean Bureau
Starring Mackenzie Mauzy, Kelly Kruger, Jacob Blair, Katherine Barrell, Hannah Emily Anderson, Cody Ray Thompson, Tristan D. Lalla

“Women complain about sex more often than men. Their gripes fall into two major categories: (1) Not enough, (2) Too much.”

–Ann Landers

Muted, the first twenty minutes of this crime drama excreted from the bowels of Lifetime could easily be mistaken for a carousal of alcoholic hookers; in actuality, it’s a bibulous bachelorette party thrown by her whilom sorority’s sisters (Kruger, Barrell, Anderson) for a copywriter (Mauzy) in a hotel room, limousine and strip club. Her loony ex-boyfriend (Blair) meanwhile abducts to torture her fiancee (Thompson), then threatens the wassailing quartet of ditzy careerists with blackmail by footage of their licentious collegiate indiscretions, coercing their fulfillment of several dicey, disgusting, destructive, absurdly agonizing and abashing tasks. None of these ladies are for their sleaze and self-righteous egoism significantly more sympathetic than their antagonist, now unhinged by a criminal trial in which he was acquitted years before that devastated his budding sporting career. Whoever can overlook this flick’s trashily garish photography (of an oversaturated sort common to televised fare or ugly features lensed by the likes of Ben Seresin), downright distasteful characters whose noisome personalities were defined by their inane collegial culture, and a few yawning plot holes may also be sufficiently suasible or dupable to believe that a rape can be inflicted by a man upon his doxy of over a year while both are drunk. Its cockamamie contrivances are sporadically fun, but this pernicious, preposterous propaganda is plainly aimed to inspire in stupidly susceptible young women the inkling that sex in any conceivable circumstance may be assault, and victimhood’s a mere question of post-coital dissatisfaction. Trash of this fashion would be decried detestable in a normal society; in those where mendacious accusations of rape are spotlit monthly by corrupt news media outlets until they’re debunked, it’s all the more repugnant for its mundanity.

Behold — the most unconvincing headshot yet shot: