Angst (1983)

THREE-STARS 200x50

Controversial filmmaker Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Enter the Void, Love) recently cited the little-known 1983 Austrian serial killer movie Angst (which had finally seen a DVD release) as one of his favorite films, praising it thusly: “It’s got the most amazing camera work in the history of cinema. Not so many movies that really impress when it comes to the camera work… But the camera work of this movie is so real. It added to a very violent story… And it’s got a [unique] voiceover. But the mix of that cruelty, the voiceover, and the camera put in positions that you’ve never seen before made me be obsessed with the movie.” The film’s cinematography, by Oscar-winning Polish animator/experimentalist Zbigniew Rybczynski (who is also credited as co-screenwriter with director Gerald Kargl), is special indeed. Rybczynski’s camera is literally all over the place—frequent, soaring aerial assaults by crane when you don’t half expect them; roving dollies from underneath or astride the action; fluid, angular tracking shots that follow our protagonist (an effective and emaciated Erwin Leder from Das Boot) as he scours the Viennese streets searching for victims, and even reverse-strapped to Leder himself, so that we see the psycho killer coming at us from mere inches away, way too up close and impersonal. And it’s got a pulsating electronic score by krautrock wunderkind Klaus Schulze which adds immensely to the creep factor. Noé is clearly enamored of Kargl’s film, one which he claims to have seen upwards of 50 times, and its influence on his own forays into controversial cinema is without question. For example, the Cult Epics release of Angst features an optically-restored tunnel murder scene that clearly lays the groundwork for Noé’s similarly sickening underpass sequence in Irréversible (2002). Noé picked his inspiration well: Angst provides an unusual perspective on the machinations of a disturbed individual by the strength of its techniques—camera, score, internal narration—and it remains a fascinating experience despite the sordid subject matter.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Mom & Dad (2017)

TWO-HALF-STARS 200x50

On hearing that the subversive dark comedy Mom & Dad, starring Nic Cage and Selma Blair, centers around a 24-hour period of mass hysteria in which parents torture their kids, my waggish 15-year-old wondered why that would be any different from the remaining 364 days of the year. No, literally torture them I explained, with power tools and kitchen implements and the like. They truly try to kill them, making Brian Jonah Hex Taylor’s latest more a horror film than its black comedy billing would suggest, although it does have many a moment of absurdity. Cage is right at home here of course, embarrassingly over the top and just plain terrible actually (‘Wicker Man terrible), while Selma Blair takes it down several notches and garners our sympathy with her conflicted portrayal of a mother hell bent on offing her offspring. The kids, played by Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur, are also surprisingly strong. Director Taylor has a good eye for pandemonium; the pace is brisk, the editing kinetic, and the 83 minutes simply fly by. The frustrating thing about this flick, though, is that the madness is never fully explained—not even slightly, actually—and the unsatisfying denouement just sort of sits there, down in the family basement, as if the filmmakers simply ran out of time, or money. Watch it if your children are driving you nuts, maybe. You might just pick up a few pointers.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Trip to Spain (2017)

TWO-STARS 200x50

Back in 2010, working with director Michael Winterbottom (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) and playing not even close to thinly-disguised versions of themselves, funny man Steve Coogan (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) and funny man Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) took The Trip to the North of England. There they sampled the region’s eclectic cuisine and, to keep themselves entertained no doubt, sparred along the way, competing for the best comic impression of Sean Connery, or Michael Caine, or Woody Allen. The gastronomic fare bit was under the guise of writing a series of restaurant reviews for the UK’s ‘Observer magazine.
     In 2014 the lads then took The Trip to Italy, taking in that country’s culinary delights and delighting us with more flavorful mimicry… of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Woody Allen.
     Since nothing succeeds like making the same exact film twice over, one positively dripping with snooty scads of white male privilege, Coogan and Brydon take their show on the road a third time with… The Trip to Spain. To wit: more spectacular European countryside, more spectacular local food, and yes those same dueling celebrity impersonations—Connery, Caine, Allen—although this time around we get even Moore! Roger Moore. And in one painful scene, more Moore than any one individual could be expected to handle in a single sitting (Brydon’s dining companions appear game but he simply will not give it a rest).
     The semi-improvised dialogue flows easily, fueled by flame-grilled sides of beef, olive oil sardines, and poached eggs with white truffles, but covers no new ground. Even the petty faux dramas—this time involving partners and offspring saddled with unanticipated pregnancies—remain; they’re wholly unnecessary. In fact, the whole bumpy ride is starting to feel a little stale and unashamedly lazy.
     The Trip to Spain is still watchable though, since there’s the sumptuous scenery and the mouthwatering meals to distract us from our entitled 50-somethings rambling on about Laurie Lee, Mick Jagger, and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, not to mention Coogan’s pet project Philomena (as producer and co-writer, Coogan picked up two of its four Oscar nominations and won’t give that fact a rest either).
     Completion of this repetitive triptych (pun intended) would be a wise time to end the franchise, I’d say, before we wind up in Germany with bratwurst-laced double entendres delivered via thinly-veiled takes on Curt Jurgens (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Christoph Waltz (Spectre). “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to dine!”


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Quest (2017)

THREE-HALF-STARS 200x50

Meet the Raineys: patriarch Christopher “Quest” Rainey, who deftly flips circulars onto endless row house porches for a living and runs a small home recording studio on the side; mother-to-many Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey, a dedicated women’s shelter worker; older teenage son William Withers, recently diagnosed with cancer and with a baby of his own to care for; and young daughter PJ, the brightest star in this family unit—basketball wiz, musical prodigy, a confident breath of fresh air—whose life will one day take a dramatic, life-changing turn. Shot in and around North Philadelphia over a ten-year period, Jonathan Olshefski’s moving, methodical documentary Quest follows this charismatic African-American family as they struggle with the typical and not-so-typical family challenges in a neighborhood “besieged by inequality and neglect.” It’s an intimate look at a couple whose love for each other is palpable, a beautiful and courageous partnership, one that provides an outlet for their neighborhood’s aspiring rappers and hip-hop artists via “Freestyle Fridays.” Watching this family go about its day-to-day business is mesmerizing and we don’t want the experience to end, despite the hardships and the pitfalls and the tragedies that beset them over the course of this remarkable decade. Socially trenchant, deeply compelling, and surprisingly hopeful, Quest is a tenderly-shot and eloquently-observed family portrait that reflects the fact that strength, hope, and love are not only welcomed here, but required.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Sweet Virginia (2017)

TWO-HALF-STARS 200x50

Canadian director Jamie M. Dagg’s sophomore effort Sweet Virginia (after 2015’s well-received River) is a leisurely-paced affair set in a gloomy Alaskan mountain town. It features Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver) as Sam, a former rodeo champion turned motel owner, and Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) as an unhinged hitman, Elwood, looking for a room for the night. Or maybe several nights… The ever-dependable Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married) plays Bernadette—Bernie; she has a connection to both these men, oddly—and Imogen Poots (She’s Funny That Way) is the catalyst that brings everyone, everything, together. Dagg elicits sharp performances from his principles in a drama that doesn’t rush to any conclusions and it’s that fine cast which keeps things interesting despite the screenplay’s reliance on small-town coincidences and perturbations (the script is credited to the China Brothers, twins Ben and Paul, who hail from Great Yarmouth in the UK, a small town itself despite the qualifier). The brooding Pacific Northwest atmosphere is a character in and of itself, with dark clouds forever hovering, pressing with leaden portent. If you like your thrillers more moody than thrilling, more character driven yet punctuated with occasional bursts of ugly, angry violence, then Sweet Virginia (named after the motor inn Bernthal’s character runs) should be just your cup of tea.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Mayhem (2017)

THREE-HALF-STARS 200x50

Embittered attorney Derek Cho (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) responds to his unjust firing during an airborne toxic event that ravages his die-hardened law firm in the nail gun-driven thriller, Mayhem.
     A little about that virus, a convenient eight-hour plague that places Towers & Smythe Consulting on lockdown… “To the uninitiated, the ID7 strain causes stress-hormone levels to rise and blocks neural paths, essentially attacking our id by throwing off a very important balance in our brains, the balance between emotions and reason that keeps us from doing stupid things, like punching our boss in the face when angry, or fornicating with our co-workers in public. The virus temporarily severs this balance, causing inhibitions to drop and basic instincts to rise to the surface as the infected fall victim to what experts like to call ‘emotional highjacking.’ In a nutshell, basic human dignity takes a sick leave.”
     What serves as a crucial plot element here is the legal precedent centered around one Nevil Reed, the first of the infected to be officially cleared for murder.
     “Reed’s legal defence alleged that those infected with ID7 cannot control their emotions, and therefore are not liable for their resulting actions. So the poor sap lost it, repeatedly stabbed a co-worker in the face until dead, and walked, thanks to a doctor’s note. God bless the justice system.”
     The pre-credits sequence to director Joe Wrong Turn 2: Dead End Lynch’s latest wild ride, with its slo-mo, blood-red tinted black and white photography, deadpan narration (by the affable Yeun), and breezy staging all set to the dulcet strains of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” gives us a pretty good sense of what to expect for the next eighty minutes or so: wit, art, sex, gore. There’s a clever elevator montage that helps set the satisfying tone early on and the whole thing is jollied along by a pulsing electronic score by Steve Moore.
     Mayhem is not really about the ID7 strain per se; the no-holds-barred virus simply serves as a bloody catalyst in a much more commonplace tale about a wronged employee who, along with a disgruntled client (Samara Weaving, a Margot Robbie type), literally fights for justice after he’s made the fall guy for a seven-figure mistake at his competitive law firm.
     Yeun is an awfully charismatic lead and his droll voiceover breathes comic life into a screenplay that’s already pretty lively (credit first-timer Matias Caruso for a smart script that nails it in the sheer entertainment department). Caruso skewers white-collar drudgery deliciously while introducing us to a volatile roster of well-defined scumbags: the megalomaniacal, coke-snorting boss (Steven Brand), the bulletproof siren with coveted key card-access to the upper floors (Caroline Chikezie), the unflappable senior partner (Kerry Fox), and the stone-faced H.R. hatchet man (Dallas Roberts). All are delightfully drawn and delivered.

     Yeun and Weaving have a blast clawing their way up the corporate ladder; Derek and Melanie’s insta-relationship is one based on revenge and shared hatred—the eight-hour quarantine imposed on their office building works to their get-out-of-jail-free advantage. As a result, Mayhem is memorable, murderous fun.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Alien: Covenant (2017)

TWO-STARS 200x50

To call Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant “a new chapter in his groundbreaking Alien franchise” is a bit of a stretch. Actually, it’s a lot of a stretch, since this latest entry is basically a redo of Prometheus with most (but not all) of the head scratching removed. Actually, it’s even more a redo of the original Alien from 1979, which further confirms that there’s nothing remotely “new” about it. It’s just the same old same old: motley crew of space explorers responds to distress call, lands on hostile planet, unwittingly brings aboard alien life form, watches in shock and horror as it decimates just about everyone until the tough broad finally blows it out the airlock. I’m a big fan of the four-star original, less so its James Cameron-helmed, testosterone-laden, military-heavy sequel, so it was nice to be reminded of the former every step of the way here. And ‘Covenant’s got that deep-space style (and splatter!) we’ve come to expect from the veteran Scott. But the film’s human stars—Katherine Waterston in the Sigourney Weaver role, Michael Fassbender in the Ian Holm role, Billy Crudup in the Tom Skerritt role—can’t really hold a candle to the original cast… although this is probably the first film to feature Danny McBride (Your Highness, Land of the Lost, Observe and Report) that hasn’t had me running for the exits (he’s actually a pleasant surprise here). But he’s the only surprise. Even the alien itself has morphed from a drooling, skeletal, reptilian beast into a humanoid disappointment. In space, nobody can you hear you roll your eyes.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com