Mediocre: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter (1987)
Directed by Marc Shmuger, John Bloomgarden, Arthur Penn
Written by Anthony Gilbert, Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Produced by John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger, Michael MacDonald
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Jan Rubes, Roddy McDowall, William Russ, Mark Malone, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson
Shmuger’s and Malone’s admittedly clever reworking of My Name is Julia Ross was sufficiently dissimilar to Joseph H. Lewis’s mediocre noir melodrama and the novel from which it was adapted (Gilbert’s The Woman in Red) for them to circumvent both copyrights and any associative legal action, but the goofy, glossy result is only technically superior to its source. Later a failed executive of Universal Pictures and Luc Besson’s tiresome EuropaCorp, Shmuger was reportedly unprepared for his first week’s directorial difficulties, and hired Penn to helm this picture while his co-producer Bloomgarden did so intervallically. Nina Foch’s working girl lured though an employment office by a mother and her twisted son to their seaside estate, where’s she’s confined and publicly paraded as his missing wife, is recharacterized as an unemployed actress (Steenburgen) hired at a casting call by the vivacious valet (McDowall) of a crippled psychiatrist (Rubes) to perform a screen test at the shrink’s mansion during a snowstorm in upstate New York on behalf of a Canadian filmmaker who’s reportedly lost to squabbles his leading lady, to whom she’s identical. It’s certainly nice to behold: Jan Weincke’s sharp, brilliant photography is commendable for its distinct yet balanced contrast, exhibiting Bill Brodie’s splendid production design and sets appointed by Mark S. Freeborn and Paul Harding that emphasize the luxuriance of the wealthy mythomaniac’s manse and cozy modesty of Steenburgen’s apartment. Especially in dramatic worm’s-eye and lingering still shots, Penn’s usual craftsmanship is executed as adroitly as ever, and snappily cut by Rick Shaine. However, this particular journeyman’s inclination to grant his casts carte blanche has always determined the varied quality of his best (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks) and worst (Alice’s Restaurant, Penn & Teller Get Killed) movies. Perennial ham Rubes looks and sounds like elderly Werner Herzog channeling one of Adam Sandler’s zanier characters; he hasn’t a line too brief or gesture too small to overplay. Once infallible even whenever over the top (see The Legend of Hell House), McDowall’s instincts were diminished either by years of roles in B-features or Rubes’ influence, for he seems to be vying with the elder Czech for the blue ribbon with laughably mincing mannerisms. Steenburgen tackles three parts with gusto, but falters in two when attempting to maintain tonal accordance with Rubes. Consequently, the third act descends into a silliness that should’ve been suspense. For all this tale’s riveting twists, its production’s polish and a couple of appellative winks to Julia Ross, it’s largely ruined by Rubes’ gaping japery, and his co-stars’ attempts to meet it.

Execrable: Phoenix

Phoenix (1995)
Directed by Troy Cook
Written by Troy Cook, Jimmy Lifton
Produced by Dan Bates, Troy Cook, Jimmy Lifton, Morgan Salkind
Starring Stephen Nichols, Billy Drago, Denice Duff, Brad Dourif, Peter Murnik, William Sanderson, Robert Gossett, Betsy Soo, Jeremy Roberts, Leland Orser
Most of these rather languorous, fifth-rate fantasies that aired during afternoons of the nineties and early aughts on the Sci-Fi Channel (to the middling approval of children and teenagers) seem less produced than cobbled for prompt airplay. In this one, the bloody insurgence of military androids posted to a lunar mining colony provokes their manufacturer’s oily CEO (Drago) to dispatch a strike force under the oversight of his testy lackey (Dourif) to neutralize the offending automatons and their undersized honcho (Sanderson). Treachery, corporate conspiracy, psychic side-effects of the mine’s exclusively extracted element and a few instances of shocking ineptitude create complications substituted for any sort of plot. Nichols is blandly macho as the team’s commander, lacking a dash of chemistry with his dubious love interest (Duff). His team’s cadre are stock stereotypes: doomed black lieutenant (Gossett); tough hussy (Soo); brainish clown (Roberts). Usually a reliable character actor, Sanderson is here either deliberately stiff or merely sedated. Dourif’s contrarily seething overperformance is amusing enough, as is a single sinister note played greasily by Drago. Expenses incurred by what passes for this flick’s production design certainly couldn’t exceed any budget in the low six figures; most of the costumes are inferior to middling togs of cosplay, and off-world mines, corporate complexes and hospitals of the future respectively resemble boiler rooms, warehouses and dentists’ offices of the ’90s sparsely adorned with neon lights. Congruous spacecraft consist of adorably toylike miniatures and graphics to rival those in cutscenes of coexistent shmups. Excepting a few unintentionally hilarious lines, most of Cook’s and Lifton’s dialogue is as shopworn as their story defined by derivation; even the malevolent corporation’s eponym Rydell is suspiciously similar to Tyrell. This is recommended only for indiscriminate potheads and Dourif’s fans, especially those who supported the twitchy thespian before Peter Jackson revived his career.

Instead, watch Scanners, Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell.

Palatable: Tricked

Tricked (2012)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Kim van Kooten, Paul Verhoeven, Robert Alberdingk Thijm, Anne Karina Westerik, Esther Schmidt, Kenneth Dingens, Tamara Bosma, Renee Van Amerongen, Martijn Daamen, Fleur Jansen, Sander Blom, et alia
Produced by Mardou Jacobs, René Mioch, Justus Verkerk
Starring Peter Blok, Gaite Jansen, Ricky Koole, Robert de Hoog, Jochum ten Haaf, Pieter Tiddens, Sallie Harmsen, Carolien Spoor, Ronald van Elderen

“Few men would be deceived if their conceit of themselves did not help the skill of those that go about it.”

–Marquis of Halifax, Cheats

Viewers of this brief feature’s first few prefatory minutes scripted by Van Kooten submitted thousands of continuative scenarios, from which diegetic devices were garbled, then integrated into the densely, tidily plotted shooting script of Verhoeven’s first good flick in twenty years. The semicentennial birthday of a shaky construction firm’s founder and CEO (Blok) is disrupted by attendances of his scheming partners (Haaf, Tiddens) and erstwhile, evidently enceinte mistress (Harmsen). In its aftermath, their revelations threaten to profitably unravel his professional life and business, but a backstair percontation by his stolid son (Hoog) and the flirty friend (Jansen) of his his dumpy, drunken daughter (Spoor) exposes connivance, though almost everyone involved is peccant for deceit. Staged, shot and acted with polished assurance at a brisk pace, this small production finds Verhoeven back in good form after his wearisome succession of doltish, bloated blockbusters stateside and in his native Netherlands, wasting not one of its sexy, silly fifty-five minutes, even if half of the twists recurring every five are too predictable.

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.