~Harry H Long
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 105m / $26.98 / NR
Melding arthouse and genre is a tricky thing, particularly when the genre is horror. The Germans managed it in the silent era but with the arrival of sound and horror becoming a more rigid set of tropes only a handful of directors have managed to pull it off: Edgar Ulmer with “The Black Cat”, Jean Cocteau with “La belle et la bete” (in the guise of a fairy tale) and Georges Franju with “Les yeux sans visage” come to mind… and maybe Alfred Hitchcock with “The Birds”. Co-writer/director Jessica Hausner’s film isn’t close to being in the same league with those but that isn’t to say it doesn’t try. Plant breeder Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) has developed a lovely flowering plant whose enticing aroma makes the recipient happy. Knowing this will make it a best-seller her company is naturally eager to rush it to market. Some of her fellow breeders are a bit cautious as long-term effects haven’t been studied; Emily, against company policy, takes one home to her teenage son, Joe (Kit Conner), for some unofficial observation. One fellow breeder (Kerry Fox) starts insisting that her dog, which has been exposed to the pollen is no longer her dog and Emily becomes of the opinion that her son (and the new girlfriend with whom he’s shared “Little Joe”) are beyond happy; they’re spaced out like cult members and over-protective of the plant, which also seems to possess telekinetic abilities.
Methodically paced and with a refusal to indulge for the most part in shock this film is not for the average horror fan or even the average movie fan. The closest analogy I can think of is Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” which similarly has low key, nigh minimal performances and not very much happening for a long, long time. But the subtle differences don’t pay off in as unsettling a way as they do in the Russian director’s surreal work. Hausner’s film actually works best when it’s not being so restrained, such as when one breeder is trapped inside the greenhouse, inexplicably locked in, so that she is exposed without the usual protective gear to the new plant’s pollen. (And thus falls victim to the personality change.) Otherwise there’s a lot of lethargic pacing, lingering shots of the flower beds with nothing happening or at most some breeders watering the plants. There’s a potent finale but it loses some impact by being too long in coming. It’s admirable that there’s a message here about rushing products to market and that it isn’t pounded home with a sledgehammer). It isn’t just an artsy remake of “Invasion if the Body Snatchers”, either, even if it does revisit some of that film’s themes. But the film is just too restrained (which some will find laudable) and a tad too long for its own good.
LONE STAR DECEPTION
2019 / Tricast Entertainment / 106m /NR
streaming on Amazon, FlixFling, Vimeo on Demand, Vudu, In Demand and Fandango
Mostly in the time since I’ve been reviewing DVDs for this column, any title I receive that purports to star (or prominently bill) Eric Roberts turns out to have the actor onscreen for very few minutes (sometimes always within the same set) and obviously only buying his marquee value for a day or two of work. It was refreshing therefore that while he doesn’t have the lead role here – that would be Anthony Ray Parker – he does have a substantial one as Bill Sagle, the behind-the-scenes power in Texas Republican politics. When Sagle’s nephew, running for governor, is blackmailed after having his liaison with a black hooker video recorded he’s forced to drop out of the race. He also commits suicide. Sagle decides to substitute one of his employees, Tim Bayh (Parker) and – as a Republican candidate is a nigh sure win in that state – have the first black governor of Texas. (That Bayh has to switch parties is makes no nevermind.) But the blackmailer (who is also the hooker’s pimp and apparently a drug dealer behind the façade of his restaurant) isn’t giving up on his expectations of a financial windfall that easily.
Co-directors Robert Peters and Don Okolo (the latter co-scripting) don’t spend much time on the social issues here. Sagle presents Bayh to the circle of power brokers who very quickly get past their racism and say okayfine to a black, former Democrat as their gubernatorial candidate, After that things move into tried and true action mode. Sagle gives Bayh a glock and send him off to intimidate the blackmailer (isn’t that the sort of thing you should send a thug to do?). The blackmailer responds by kidnapping Bayh’s daughter and Bayh goes out single-handed to rescue her… and burn down the restaurant while he’s at it. There’s gunfire aplenty and an exploding car and by the time Bayh’s x-military buddy joins him in a climactic shoot-out pretty much all believability is gone – just in time for a jaw-dropping final reveal. Now I’m not suggesting then film should have abandoned its action hero stuff for political thrills but the territory was ripe for more exploration than what’s presented. Saving everything is a solid turn by Parker in the lead role, the supporting one by Roberts, as sly and untrustworthy as a panther, and Brian Thornton as Bayh’s buddy. Technical aspects are mostly good; this film just needed a better script. And perhaps it’s best not to judge too harshly a film that took two years to complete with multiple directors, producers and writers coming and going as production was suspended several times. That it exists at all is pretty amazing.
1924 / Alpha Video / 110m total / $6.98 / NR
This may not be one of Keaton’s masterpieces (if you watch no other Keaton in your lifetime see “The General,” the greatest silent comedy ever made), but it’s fun and, as with all Keaton, it features at least one moment of sheer brilliance within its sublime slapstick. Buster is a movie projectionist but he is desirous of becoming a detective. So when his sweetie’s (Kathryn McGuire) poppa’s watch goes missing and he is framed for the theft, he puts himself on the case. That’s the entire slender plot on which Keaton builds his gags as he shadows his rival in romance (Ward Crane) –the cad really is the culprit, having pawned the watch to buy an expensive box of candy. Not getting anywhere – except having misadventures involving a train (Keaton loved trains) – he returns to his job and drifts off to sleep; in a dream he steps into the movie screen (an idea Woody Allen would lift for “The Purple Rose of Cairo”) of a melodrama involving the theft of a pearl necklace. The actors in the film are replaced by the people in Buster’s real – or should that be reel? – life and he becomes Sherlock, Jr., the World’s Greatest Detective. The cad (or The Shiek as he is referred to) has stolen the necklace with the butler as his accomplice and the two attempt to murder “Sherlock” with elaborate traps – including an exploding pool ball – all of which go humorously awry. The film ends with the slyest of all its jokes: the girl and her father solve the mystery of the watch theft while Buster slept.
The film had bad previews so Keaton edited it way down to 45 minutes, making it a lean collection of one joke or visual trick – such as when he packs himself into an improbably small suitcase – after another. Not a frame of film is wasted here. Because the feature is so short three of Keaton’s two-reelers are included: “The Paleface”, “The Playhouse” and “The Frozen North”. The first has some content that was typical of the time but is un-PC now, yet it has Buster helping a Native American tribe thwart a robber baron’s scheme to take their land so maybe the less than informed content can be overlooked. The second has one of the comedian’s most famous gags as, through camera trickery, he becomes everyone onstage, everyone in the orchestra pit and everyone in the audience (“This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” remarks attendee Keaton). “The Frozen North” has Keaton uncharacteristically playing a total jerk – though he would sometimes essay a clueless, entitled rich boy – as he terrorizes a Canadian town, parodying William S. Hart and Erich von Stoheim (the only time he would tweak other stars though he would sometimes guy other movies). It contains one of my favorite Keaton jokes when, at the film’s beginning he emerges from a subway station… in the far north. Image quality is variable but mostly acceptable. Sharper prints are available from other companies but for a much higher price.