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Freaks – You’re One of Us



This movie steals its subtitle from the Tod Browning classic, but what we have here is actually a reverse Project Power. In the latter, a pill unlocks people's superpowers; in this one, people take pills do to suppress their superpowers.

Wendy (Cornelia Gröschel) and Elmar (Tim Oliver Schultz) stop taking the medications they've been on for years, decades even, and immediately discover that she has superhuman strength and he can generate electricity. Conveniently, neither experiences withdrawal symptoms. That is so not how drugs work.

Wendy and Elmar join forces with Marek (Wotan Wilke Möhring), whose role model seems to be Hancock (Marek is indestructible, which means that the filmmakers are not above ripping off even a Nickelodeon show); I’d say that this trio make the Mystery Men look like the Justice League, were it not that the Justice League is pretty pathetic itself.

The three take it upon themselves to set others like them free from their laboratory pison; this, plus the 80s soundtrack, is a transparent attempt to ride the coattails of Stranger Things. Their mission goes wrong and the triad have to escape under a downpour, but more on that later. While all this is going on, Wendy hides her powers from her husband but not from her son, with whom she has a relationship lifted right out of Unbreakable.

Considering the filmmakers’ absolute lack of originality and creativity, it's not surprising that the characters' powers don't include super intelligence. Wendy confesses to a non-existent affair to keep her husband Lars (Frederic Linkemann) in the dark; when the time comes to tell him the truth, he doesn't believe her because, even though she has been showing off her super strength all over town (in fact, her unbridled vandalism makes Dr. Stern (Nina Kunzendorf) — the de facto villain merely because she wants to get Wendy back on her meds — come across like the only sensible person in the entire film), she inexplicably refrains from giving him a simple demonstration.

Or how about Marek? He claims to have tried very hard trying to kill himself only to fail due to his indestructibility. Ok, he may be bulletproof, and fall-off-a-bridge-proof, and get-hit-by-a-truck-proof, but he presumably still needs to breathe; has it really never occurred to him to fill his pockets with rocks and take a long walk on a short pier?

Elmar, however, suffers the most from the sloppy scriptwriting. Wendy’s and Marek's powers are pretty basic, but Elmar would reasonably need time to learn to master his — and yet, this overly formulaic movie doesn't even bother with a training montage.

Elmar, who calls himself Electro Man (Max Dillon should sue him for gimmick infringement), is underwhelmingly easy to defeat; just put on a pair of rubber gloves and push him into a pool — which of course creates a plothole so big the Titanic could sail right through it: how come Elmar didn't short-circuit during the earlier downpour?



From Up on Poppy Hill



The characters in this movie are animated, but they are also human beings (as opposed to toys that come to life for no apparent reason or race cars that, as far as I can tell, must be as possessed as Christine) who encounter everyday problems not unlike those of flesh-and-blood people. The result is that we can easily identify with them. Who woulda thunk it?

The plot may not seem terribly exciting on paper, but the world that the protagonists inhabitant has been hand-crafted with such loving care that it just sucks you in — and I mean that as a compliment. A high school is people with students brimming with such joie de vivre (in the clubhouse, the boys live in orderly disarray, carrying on with the self-assurance of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn), and who champion their causes with the fervor that is the exclusive domain of youth (reminding me of the rebellious student strikers in Vargas Llosa's Los Jefes). A bar/cafe looks so cozy that you’d like nothing more than to stop there for a drink.



The animators have made it a point to include bookshelves replete with tomes in several scenes, as if to suggest that the characters are well-read, but this isn't just a trick; the dialogue (or at least the English subtitles, though I have no reason to believe the original to be different) is wickedly clever (Philosophy club member: "Show some respect, you second-rate alchemists!;" Chemistry club members: "At least we do experiments. Your ideas can't be proven"), and the Japanese voice work makes the characters sound articulate and eloquent.

Only once does the film takes leave of its senses, in a development that plays like a requirement of the script more than anything else. To its credit, though, the movie is fully aware of the improbability of this turn of events, describing it as "like some cheap melodrama."

Other than that, there's nothing here that can't be fully enjoyed on different levels, from the soundtrack whose piano evokes Vince Guaraldi's arrangements for the Charlie Brown animated TV series, to the painstakingly detailed interior and exterior foregrounds and backgrounds. Even a painting within the film looks like a true masterpiece.



The ending is no surprise except for an unabashed innocence that’s rather hard to come by these days (the filmmakers wouldn't even dream of robbing their characters of their happy ending, nor would we forgive them if they did). A poem is what sets the plot in motion, but the entire film is poetry in motion.



Fuego Negro (Dark Forces)



Director/screenwriter Bernardo Arellano must be David Lynch’s non-union Mexican equivalent. The protagonist of this film is Franco (Tenoch Huerta), best described as El Mariachi filtered through The Crow. Huerta was truly fearsome as a mara leader in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre; here, he’s reduced to doing Matrix cosplay.

Franco checks into the Mexican version of the Hotel California, where his brooding tough-guy pose qualifies him as the most normal tenant — one of the lodgers is told not to go alone to the rooftop because "There are a lot of weird people here." The person who’s given this piece of advice is an albino psychic; to paraphrase Fairuza Balk in The Craft, she’s the weirdo, mister.

This pigment-deprived clairvoyant is precisely whom Franco has comes looking for to help him find his missing sister Sonia. The psychic’s mother or manager or whatever warns Franco that he must wait until the next full moon (in two weeks) and then pay $2,000 up front, with no guarantee of success.

While he waits, Franco passes the time having nightmares, looking rough and gloomy, and getting to know other tenants better — some 'better' than others. For example, an aging possibly bisexual occult writer and his possible lover Diva (Daina Soledad Liparoti), who enjoys singing and a good nap after getting high.

And then there’s the seductive Rubí (Eréndira Ibarra), a waitress at the Eclipse Bar. She tells him to visit her at work, and to ask for the address at the hotel reception. When Franco shows up at the bar, Rubí greets him: "how nice of you to come see me." He then claims to have "found the place by accident." Huh? Soon, Franco and Rubí are having sex and sticking up restaurants; the latter presumably to pay the psychic.

The psychic gives Franco an address — or maybe he also found that "by accident;" either way, Franco goes there and proceeds to have a series of brief, poorly choreographed, amateurishly edited skirmishes, almost all of them involving women, for some reason. All of this gender violence is to no avail, though; Sonia has already been taken somewhere else.

All that we get out of this is that Franco knows his sister's captors very well, especially Max (Mauricio Aspe), for whom he apparently used to work. Franco asks him to return Sonia. Max demands that he go back to work for him. Franco replies, "I made you a lot of money... I saved your life." Max retorts that the only way to pay for whatever Franco has done is "with your death." Which is it, then? Work or death? Max's henchmen show up and Franco makes himself scarce.

And so on and so forth. The plot, such as it is, has all the complexity and logic of a Baywatch Nights Season 2 episode, but that's beside the point; what matters in this film is not the story but the tone and atmosphere. The argument is only an excuse; a clothesline on which to hang Damián Aguilar's cinematography. Like Dark City or the aforementioned The Crow, the world of Black Fire exists in a state of permanent midnight, the blackness interrupted only by red neon signs on the streets, or the smoky-blue inside a nightclub.

The hotel itself functions like a haunted house in an amusement park; you walk down a corridor and a skeleton falls from the ceiling, you enter a room and a mummy comes out of its sarcophagus. Similarly, the characters of are nothing more than archetypes, and in that sense they certainly deliver (except for Huerta and his Esai Morales-in-La Bamba impression). The only one who manages to transcend the cliché that she has been assigned is Ibarra, because she throws caution to the wind and swings for the fences.

While the others act as if they are in on the joke (though laughing at the audience, not with with it), she earnestly embraces her character; like a live-action Jessica Rabbit, Rubí is all whispery and hoarse and angsty and horny, depending, for better or worse, on the kindness of sexy strangers. Even when forced to speak such embarrassing dialogue as: "My name is Rubí, you will never forget it. Your name, angel of the night?", she means it, and because she believes it, we believe it.

All things considered, this movie is like the Spinal Tap record sleeve; all dark and shiny on the outside and full of crap on the inside. Its elaborate images have a visceral effect, but fail to cohere into a meaningful whole, and are quickly forgotten when it's all over. Fuego Negro works as a stylistic exercise, but fades as quickly as a will-o'-the-wisp.



It might be helpful if you posted some kind of primer to explain how your ratings work, because the sheer number of things that get a complete zero suggests to me they work a lot different than most people's.



THE DUEL


The Duel is the kind of movie that brings a knife to a gunfight. This is a western, mind you; we’re expecting a showdown at high noon your in standard frontier town with a wide Main Street, a saloon, and a room over the saloon occupied by a sexy hooker. Instead, we get a "Helena duel" (two, actually), wherein "You shall pour out each other's blood and we will cover it with dust. Whomever bleeds the dirt red the most today, his deeds shall not be forgotten." Yeah, I don’t get it, either.

As far as I can discern, this film is an allegorical indictment of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps; never mind that that group was dissolved six years before The Duel’s release (though the Minuteman Project, a comparatively less Ku Klux Klany organization, remains active to this day).

The problem is that the filmmakers can’t make up their minds on how they want to go about making their point. On the one hand we have the xenophobic, tyrannical, snake-handling preacher/mayor of the town of Mount Hermon (a border town; if nothing else, they got that part right), Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), and on the other, a Hunting the Most Dangerous Game-type plot.

Either of those two premises provides enough separation between the allegory and its intended target for the conceit to work; I would have stuck with the former, if only because the latter had been done to death even in 2016 — also, they had, on paper, the perfect actor for the power-mad evil preacher; unfortunately, Harrelson unusually phones his performance in. This role requires a Large Ham, like Guy Pearce in Brimstone, but Harrelson’s dial never even comes close to 11.

To unnecessarily complicate matters further, there’s David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth), an undercover Texas Ranger sent to investigate the Mexican corpses turning up in a strainer downriver from Mount Hermon. The notion of an undercover Texas Ranger is dumb enough as it is, but the filmmakers manage to make it even dumber. Kingston and his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) pose as a traveling couple just passing through. So far so good, sort of. The wheels start to come off when, out of the clear blue sky, Brant offers Kingston the vacant sheriff job. Kingston accepts the gig because "it's the ideal cover until I can figure out what's going on here."

In-universe, it is ideal — too ideal, perhaps; never for a moment does Kingston find it the least bit suspicious that Brant would give the second most important position in town to the first random stranger that literally rides into Mount Hermon, regardless of whether or not he’s qualified for the job (as a Texas Ranger, Kingston is certainly qualified, but Brant doesn’t know that... or does he?).

Now, if it’s the ideal cover, why not make that the actual cover, instead of the cover to the cover? First of all, who ever heard of a cop going undercover as a cop? And second, why didn’t the filmmakers simply have Kingston pose as the new sheriff? Why do in three steps what you can do in just one?

PS. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a Wikipedia article (albeit one that looks more unreliable than usual) according to which there was such a thing as a Helena duel; moreover, "Helena was once known as the self-proclaimed 'toughest town on earth' in the mid-19th century." Leave it to the makers of The Duel to set their movie in the next town over; this is like making a film about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 called The Last Days of the City Adjacent to Pompeii.



NOAH



Watching Noah, it occurs to me that it must have been made by atheists. After all, they are treating the Word of God as little more than a first draft. On the other hand, co-writer/director Darren Aronofsky doesn’t take the old 'thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,' making sure to substitute the G word with the epithet "the Creator."

Thus, Noah (Russell Crowe) tells his wife Naamah (Jennifer Connelly) that “[the Creator] is going to destroy the world” (after which he will presumably be known as “the Destroyer”) by way of a flood, which may have given rise to the expression 'when it rains it pours;' I mean, the characters are already living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; destroying it would certainly qualify as overkill.

Noah turns to his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) for advice — by the way, according to the Bible, Noah invented wine, but what the Good Book doesn’t say is that Methuselah invented tea; the latter is a miracle in itself, since water and leaves, the two essential ingredients to prepare this beverage (not to mention the fuel needed to start a fire and the kindle to keep it burning), are entirely conspicuous by their absence.

Luckily, Methuselah has a magical seed that can grow an entire forest overnight, but which he had apparently been saving to give to Noah. Noah uses the wood from the trees in this insta-forest to build the Ark, which follows the Field of Dreams Principle; i.e., 'If you build it, they will come' — 'they' being two of each animal, all of which without exception clearly belong to the computatrum generatae genus, but then the visual effects are one of the few pleasures to be had here; in particular the “Watchers” (fallen angels turned into semi-anthropomorphic rock formations voiced by Frank Langella and Nick Nolte, among others), as well as the montage that accompanies Noah's narration of Genesis.

Additionally, the Ark itself and the accompanying flood are not unimpressive, and I like how Aronofsky has Noah's sons succumb to Rapid Aging Syndrome to indicate the passage of the many years it would take to complete such a gargantuan project. The problem with this, however, is that they grow up to become Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, etc., all of them with impossibly perfect hair, skin, and teeth (unless, of course, Methuselah also invented shampoo and toothpaste).

All things considered, however, the real highlight of the film is Ray Winstone's performance as Tubalcain. Winstone is nominally the villain, but his character is really the most sensible person in the movie (and Winstone’s delivery lends even more weight to his convictions), correctly pointing out that both the Creator and the proto-David Koresh that Crowe plays Noah as — although his madness is justifiable; "if the noise of all those animals didn't drive Noah insane (not to mention the insect bites), the smell should have killed him" (The Skeptic’s Dictionary) — have become drunk with power.



The Hunting Party



The Hunting Party is an atypical artifact, even for an early 70s New Hollywood revisionist Western. When I think of snipers or guerilla warfare, it’s invariably in connection to war movies, not westerns; however, this film dusts off the then newfangled Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878 — "Fires a center-fire cartridge with the new DuPont gunpowder. Accurate up to 800 yards ... Jesus Christ himself couldn't get any more range out of it."

That’s good stuff. The Hunting Party is somewhat noirish in that there are no heroes, only hunters and prey. The problem, however, is not whether or not you like the characters, but whether or not you care about them; as it turns out, every tree is the wrong one to bark up in this movie.

Outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) and his band of rustlers and thieves kidnap Melissa (Candice Bergen), wife of cattle baron Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman; the character may or may not be named after firearms designer Bill Ruger). Ruger and four of his rich friends trail Calder’s gang, picking the outlaws off from a safe distance. Ruger pretty much writes Melissa off from the get-go ("[Calder]'s gonna pass her around. After he's through with that, maybe 15 or 20 of them. He'll accept $40,000 or $50,000 of my money. Thank you very much ... My Virginia-educated, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth wife used like a whore! Then I have to take her back pregnant with a bastard! And pay him $50,000 of my ******* money?"); the situation becomes nothing more than a serendipitous opportunity for the rancher’s sadistic instincts — of which we’ve already had an inkling — to reach new nadirs.

This is all right up Hackman’s alley, though perhaps somewhat lacking in the psychopathic charm of future evil cowboy roles (The Quick and the Dead, Unforgiven). Bergen is also a perfect fit for the would-be school marm — and I say 'would-be' because that’s what Calder thinks she is; he kidnaps her, and I’m not making this up, because he wants her to teach him to read. Like, really.

Make no mistake, though; he still wants to and does rape her — he just doesn’t pass her around; in fact, he protects her virtue, or whatever’s left of it, from the rest of the gang. This is beyond misguided, but it’s all right, because the film tacitly invokes the man-made myth of the rape fantasy: deep down all women want to be raped; it’s an acquired taste, but sooner rather than later they learn to like it (it happens to the best of them; only two years later Clint Eastwood himself would be guilty of it in High Plains Drifter).

In a nutshell, we have a Jerk with a Heart of Jerk, a supposed Jerk with a Heart of Gold who’s actually a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, and a broad who is dumb enough to have married the one and fall in love with the other. See what I mean about every tree being the wrong one to bark up?

All things considered, if we had to choose, it’d be comparatively easier to take sides with Hackman’s character, who is despicable but believable; as bad as he is (and the movie desperately wants us to believe he’s way worse than Reed), at least hypocrisy is not among his many flaws.



HIGH GROUND



After fighting in World War I as a sniper, Travis (Baker) is now a policeman in Northern Australia. He loses control of an operation that results in the massacre of an Australian Aboriginal settlement in 1919.

Travis, Eddy (Callan Mulvey), missionary Braddock (Ryan Corr), and little Gutjuk are the only survivors (how, despite the Aborigines only having spears, two of Travis's men end up with bullets in them, it's something I'm going to let you discover for yourselves).

Eddy sneakily suggests that they cover their backs; Travis tells him to do what he wants because he won't be there to see it, effectively handing over his badge. We cut to 12 years later, though the only one who seems to have aged in the interval is Gutjuk, who was raised by Braddock's sister Claire (Caren Pistorius) and is now a youngster known as "Tommy."

Eddy and his boss Moran (Jack Thompson) track down Travis so that he can help them find and capture Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), a rebellious Aboriginal leader who is blazing a trail of destruction, and who also happens to be Gutjuk's uncle. Travis convinces Gutjuk to help him look for Baywara, while Moran orders Eddy and the ominous Walter (Aaron Pedersen) to hang back and keep an eye on Travis, just in case.

Travis shows Gutjuk how to shoot a rifle (a decision he may or may not later regret) and teaches him, as they survey the landscape from a rocky ridge, a very important lesson: "When you have the high ground, you control everything." But the high ground that High Ground speaks of isn't just literally geographical; it also refers to moral high ground. For example, when it comes to Baywara, Moran likes to bring up words like "law" and "justice", but turns a deaf ear when Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika), Baywara's father and Gutjuk's grandfather, demands justice for the massacre of his family.

As for Travis, he's not your typical White Savior; he takes up the Aboriginal cause because it's the right thing to do, without expecting, or getting, anything in return — don't think for a moment that the Aboriginal people in this film are going to embrace Travis like the Lakotas do Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves; he will never be an honorary aboriginal any more than Gutjuk ever truly was "Tommy."

That’s for the content; regarding the presentation, High Ground looks and sounds great. Andrew Commis's cinematography makes the most of the locations (Kakadu and Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory), leaving us with a sense of a monolithic and cyclopean nature — a merciless world of hunters and prey, where a man can be crushed as easily as an ant, while at the same time, courtesy of the sound department the sound, even a fly’s wings can reverberate like helicopter blades. And speaking sound, the actors playing the Aborigines are so expressive, and their body language so rich, as to make subtitles moot.

Overall, the film is very comfortable spending time with its non-English speaking characters from the very beginning, and demonstrates an appreciation and respect for Aboriginal Australians not seen since Nicholas Roeg's 1971 Walkabout.



HEMINGWAY



Hemingway is an exhaustive — epic, even — documentary about the most important writer of the 20th century, totaling over five hours in three episodes. It is not a hagiography; director Ken Burns (of Burns Effect fame) takes note of, but doesn't emulate, Papa Hem's tendency to self-mythologize.

Additionally, Burns is not afraid to put call a spade a spade and shed light on the author’s self-destructive side. The result is as honest and unbiased as portrayal as humanly possible — and if at times it seems hyperbolic and superlative, it's simply because so are Hemingway's achievements.

To following his formation and consolidation as a writer is tantamount to a prose writing how-to, beginning with the Kansas City Star’s rules of style ("Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use strong English. Be positive, not negative." Etc.), which Hemingway would put to great use in his equally celebrated and eventful journalistic career.

In exercising this canon, Hemingway inevitably expanded on with his own contributions: "The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something you know; and not before; and not too damned after." And, of course, "Don't worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write a true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know. So I would finally write a true sentence and then go on from there. So it was easy because there was always a true sentence that I knew, had seen or heard someone say.''

This documentary is a detailed exploration of how, following these and other principles, Papa Hem perfected the short story and revolutionized the novel. Although not mentioned by name, the author's Iceberg Theory is the cornerstone of such masterpieces as "Hills Like White Elephants" and the two parts of "Big Two-Hearted River" (on abortion and war, respectively, though notably these two words are never even mentioned in either tale). It is also, however, "the story of a young man whose ambition and imagination, energy and enormous gifts bring him wealth and fame beyond imagination, [and] who destroys himself trying to stay true to the character he has invented."

The film is a study in contrasts; a man determined to live a life opposite to that of his religious and abstemious father, but who still cannot avoid the same tragic end; an individual whose disillusionment with war does not prevent him from glorifying death and violence — not in his texts, but as a hunter of large animals (WordReference.com even invokes his name in its Spanish definition of 'big-game hunter') and apologist of bullfighting (as well as a bully who book-slapped a critic who dared, with valid arguments, to question the integrity of his bullfighting treatise Death in the Afternoon, the source of his infamous statement about what’s moral and what’s not) it is), capable of the most beautiful descriptive language and the most corrosive vitriol.

The latter is perfectly illustrated by a rambling letter Hem wrote to Charles Scribner about the novel From Here to Eternity, which Scribner asked Papa to read, hoping for a positive comment he could print on the cover of James Jones's book; the result would be the opposite of 'printable.'

Hem's behavior became increasingly erratic as he aged due to a combination of factors, notably a lifetime of alcoholism, and a series of concussions sustained on the battlefield (as a medic in World War I and a correspondent in World War II, and before that in the Spanish civil war) and on a fateful safari during which he barely survived two plane crashes.

In the end, he couldn't even hold his end of an NBC interview, reading his answers — verbatim, including punctuation — from off-camera cue cards; ironically, the interview took place on the occasion of Hem having won the Nobel Prize for literature.

All things considered, Hemingway the documentary is a reminder of the Latin aphorism 'ars longa, vita brevis'; dead at 61, Hem's life was relatively short but fruitful, with a legacy unparalleled in the Western literature of the last century.

Papa may not have always been a paragon of humanity — nor was a "gin-soaked freak," at least not all of the time — and his four wives and three children would be the first to attest to this, but his uncanny ability to understand and convey the human experience is what endows his work with its universality and longevity.



An Imperfect Murder



I don't know, not having read it yet, if An Imperfect Murder takes any inspiration from On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, the satirical essay by Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), but director James Toback certainly resorts to the fine arts to try to convince us that the titular homicide is something Sublime and Transcendental. For example, during the opening credits, we see images of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (a triptych of which the protagonist has a copy in her apartment) scored to Shostakovich’s 7th symphony.

Both symphony and painting (especially the infernal third panel) have much more in common with each other than either work has to do with this movie. Like the replica that adorns Vera's (Sienna Miller) wall, these elements are nothing more than decoration.

The film opens with the 'murder' of Sal (Nick Mathews), ex-boyfriend of Vera (apparently a famous actress), who shows up at her apartment asking for money. She refuses, he produces a gun, they struggle for it, yada yada yada Sal bites the dust. This incident may or may not have been self-defense, and it may or may not have been a dream.

The next day Vera is visited by Leon (John Buffalo Mailer), ostensibly her current partner, though perhaps not for long. Leon is writing a thesis on "murder between Dostoevsky and Dickens" (I get Dostoevsky, but Dickens?), which they proceed to discuss, presumably to give us the impression of being Cultured and Intellectual people (she even quotes great American scholar George Costanza’s "it's not you, it's me").

Vera is later visited by Toback himself, who may or may not be playing himself. In this scene the director demonstrates that he learned from Ingmar Bergman that the human face is the most important subject in cinema, holding a close-up of Miller's face as he philosophizes, off-camera, about Life, Love, and Death. What he didn’t learn from the Swedish, though, is that Bergman may have been pretentious, but he wasn’t masturbatory.

After this scene we cut to the outside, where Vera is in the process of getting rid of the corpus delicti (if a delicti indeed it was). I'm sure no one will remember or even notice the woman in the oversized red scarf dragging a heavy trunk down the street that may or may not contain Sal's body. Actually, one of the two guys who help her load the trunk into her car begins to recognize her before she makes a graceful escape. By the way, Vera's car is as deep red as her scarf (SYMBOLISM!).

Back at the apartment, the monotony is broken by the entrance of the ever-reliable Alec Baldwin as Detective McCutcheon, who has been following Sal, who had a bad habit of getting in trouble with the law, losing track of him after he visited Vera. Baldwin is always a welcome presence, and sometimes, as in this case, even a necessary one; his scene — and sadly it's only one — is the best part of the movie, with Baldwin channeling his inner Columbo, troubling Vera for an autograph before asking her some awkward questions. As far as extended cameos go, though, this has nothing on the legendary Glengarry Glen Ross speech.

Following the oasis of charisma and affability that is Baldwin's performance, it’s back to long, boring, pointless scenes that make this movie seem a lot longer than its 71-minute running time). Vera has dinner with her mother Elaine (Colleen Camp) and her grandfather Arthur (Charles Grodin).

Arthur refers again and again to Vera's apartment as a "restaurant", asking "who owns it"?, but he is generally too lucid and articulate to suffer from Alzheimer's or some kind of senile dementia. (Grodin is wearing pretty much the same outfit as in his Wikipedia photo, taken in 2013, which leads me to believe that he was just visiting the set in his regular, everyday, non-working clothes, and Toback asked him if he would like to be in the movie. If that was really the case, Grodin should have politely declined).

Finally, the last visitor of the day is, inexplicably, American businessman Carl Icahn playing himself. Icahn tells Vera a story about him and her father in college, but at this point I've lost what little interest I had left.

Going back to Bergman, great filmmakers sometimes make "bedroom films" (the cinematographic version of a chamber play). However, like the earlier example of the human face theme, Toback has not gone beyond the surface of Bergman's work. The Swedish director's characters struggle with real inner conflicts beneath their perfectly illuminated (by Sven Nykvist) faces.

Vera, on the other hand, is nothing more than mildly embarrassed by Sal's death. She easily and quickly justifies and rationalizes her behavior and carries on with her bland life — and why shouldn’t she? She doesn’t really do anything wrong other than not reporting the incident with Sal to the police, an omission on her part that the film never gets around to explaining.

Two years earlier, Woody Allen (who has forgotten more about Bergman than Toback will ever know), gave the topic of murder and its aftermath a much more thoughtful treatment in Irrational Man, so you might want to watch that instead.



Koko-di Koko-da



Koko-di Koko-da is a strange little movie, the kind that only Scandinavians could or would make. Writer/producer/director/editor Johannes Nyholm owes more to von Trier than to Bergman, though, and even then seems to have limited himself to imitating the former's bad habits and none of the virtues that tend to redeem his excesses.

A happily married Swedish couple, Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) are on holiday in Skagen, Denmark with their only daughter Maja (Katarina Jakobson). At a restaurant, an allergic reaction to shellfish sends Elin to the hospital. The family spends the night in the hospital, only to discover the next morning that Maja has died in her sleep, presumably from her own belated allergic reaction. Three years later Tobias and Elin's marriage is on thin ice, so they decide to go camping in the woods, hoping this will somehow save their relationship (or maybe destroy it once and for all). All of this suspiciously reminiscent of von Trier's Antichrist.

The morning after the night of the journey, Tobias has a prophetic dream, and this is where the wheels start to come off, because the only thing Tobias's dream predicts is another dream, which in turn predicts another, and another, and so on and so forth.

Moreover, all these dreams are basically the same, with some variations; three characters from nursery rhymes (depicted on the music box that Tobias and Elin gave Maja for her eighth birthday) and a bull terrier show up to torment and humiliate the couple (I’m reminded of Antichrist’s 'three beggars').

After each dream we see a flashback to the night before and then back again to the next morning, in time for Tobias to have another false awakening. He becomes more and more aware of what is about to happen but doesn’t share that knowledge, so that poor Elin always gets the worst of every attack, while Tobias is reduced to a helpless bystander (except for one occasion when he oddly seems more a voyeur).

On the other hand, since she is nothing more than a character in Tobias's dreams, in reality it is he who suffers psychologically with each repetition — but something tells me I'm reading much more into this movie than the filmmakers actually intended.

This is pretty much a one-trick pony — a trick it repeats over and over again and which was not all that tricky the first time around. The movie is thankfully short (then again, any film that lacks a proper conclusion is bound to be brief), though that’s damning faint praise considering it could stand to be a lot shorter.



Love, Weddings & Other Disasters



Love, Weddings & Other Disasters is not particularly good, funny, or original, but it is a step in the right direction for director/screenwriter Dennis Dugan, in that this movie at least doesn’t star Adam Sandler or any of his cohorts. Three decades after his debut (Problem Child), Dugan has made, comparatively speaking, the best film of his career, even if it's a watered-down clone of Love Actually, ​​New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Day.

LW&OD follows several couples over a few of days, but the only one worthy of our attention is made up of Lawrence Phillips (Jeremy Irons) and Sara (Diane Keaton). Irons and Keaton are a match made in movie heaven.

Lawrence is an anally retentive wedding planner and Sara is, well, Diane Keaton — no points for guessing that she’s going to knock over a champagne glass pyramid that he has carefully set up —, and also a blind photographer. Is there a joke about going on a blind date with a blind woman? You bet there is; on the other hand, I’m surprised no one had thought of such a role for Keaton before — which, let’s face it, she was born to play (well, not the 'photographer' part; that’s just too condescending for it work).

As for Irons, he’s a gifted dramatic actor; LW&OD is arguably only his second foray into comedy, following 2009's The Pink Panther. Not that his characters don't have a sense of humor, but when they do, it's extra dry and extra Britishy. This, however, actually makes him the perfect foil for Keaton’s Yankee eccentricity.

I'm probably making this sound a lot better than it really is, but this is the effect Irons and Keaton have; both are so charismatic and talented, and have established such goodwill with audiences over the decades, that they can't help elevating the material any more than we could help caring about their characters.

In any case, Dugan should have focused exclusively on the two of them. As for the rest of the film, the best I can say about it is that it contains little to no scatological humor. This can be due to two things; 1) the aforementioned absence of Sandler as an actor, producer, and/or writer, or 2) that, in general, there isn’t a lot of any kind of humor here, toilet or otherwise.



Malcolm & Marie



I don't know many people who would enjoy a black and white film with a partially diegetic jazz/modern funk soundtrack, and with only two characters, who do nothing but talk for 100 minutes. The fact is, though, that Malcolm &Marie looks and sounds great, and the dialogue is spot-on. This film is a step, or rather a leap, in the right direction for the leads, especially considering their immediately preceding projects (Tenet and Spider-Man: Far from Home).

John David Washington in particular is a revelation. He really blossoms as an actor here, almost literally vibrating with emotion at times, displaying rich oral and body language, and using the space around him, both indoors and out, very effectively. Writer/director Sam Levinson allows him to express, through words and gestures, authentic thoughts, feelings, and ideas, rather than simply waiting around for the next action sequence, as Christopher Nolan had him do in Tenet.

Films as intimate as this one are usually based on plays (and Washington and Zendaya, at their most vitriolic, do remind us of Liz and Richard in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but this is an original script, written for the screen by Levinson, who proves to be a student of human nature and interpersonal relationships.

For example, Malcolm and Marie keep reminding each other of things they both know very well. If this were exposition, it would be very clumsy. However, this is not done for the benefit of the audience; Levinson knows that when a couple fights, the argument is mostly made up of old recriminations.

Since the cause of the rift between the protagonists is a movie (Malcolm is a director and screenwriter, and Marie is an aspiring actress; the action begins when they return home from the premiere of his latest film, which may or may not be based on them, adding an extra layer of meaning to the events), Malcolm & Marie is doubly educational; not only a study of a relationship in crisis, but also a commentary on the medium of cinema — on a filmmaker's motives and intentions, and how these can be (mis)interpreted by critics.

But the film is, above all, a public service. It’s now fashionable to talk about toxic people and relationships, but the reality is that all people are toxic if one gives them time and opportunity; the longer a relationship lasts, the staler the air becomes.

This movie is a warning about the danger of submitting to what I call the tyranny of the other's opinion. Everything that one does and says in a relationship has to be said and done based on the other person’s needs and desires; otherwise, the result is an endless debate on the same recurring themes, interrupted only by brief peaceful pauses, the price of which is having to walk on the proverbial eggshells, self-redacting our discourse of most words that aren’t ' sorry' and 'thank you'.

Why do so many people stay together? In the case of Malcolm and Marie, it’s most likely codependency; they’re both deathly afraid of being alone, and no one else is going to put up with them — and although there is a Dawn that follows the Crisis, there is no certainty that this hasn’t happened before, and no guarantee that it won't happen again; in fact, the sensation that we’re left with is a sort of hellish deja vu. Sartre wrote that Hell is other people. In Malcolm & Marie, Hell is the other person.



Do Revenge



Do Revenge is Mean Girls meets Jawbreakers meets Heathers by way of Strangers on a Train. Needless to say, nary an original thought went into making this movie. Moreover, I think the filmmakers may be a bit confused as to what it takes to get into Yale, though they seem to know that a teenager who devotes all of her time to the Revenge Business is bound to lose her high school scholarship; at the same time, however, they’re oblivious to the fact that a 28 year old high schooler is not what comes to mind when we think of an intelligent person.

Then again, the film is set in one of those high schools where the seniors are played by actors whom actual high schoolers would think of as senior citizens, and where no student is ever seen attending class or doing homework; as a matter of fact, Rosehill must be one of those teacher-less (there is a headmaster, although being of the female persuasion, I believe the correct term is headmistress — and I mean gramatically correct, however politically incorrect that might be) schools where all activities are extracurricular. What do you mean, there are no such schools?

All of the above notwithstanding, I can’t help feeling a measure of begrudging respect for a movie that references "Dante's eighth circle of hell" without feeling the need to actually explain the reference; the filmmakers either trust that the viewers are familiar with the Divine Comedy, or just don’t care if they aren’t. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to deduct the film a million brownie points for doing this:



Now Do Revenge is not just Mean Girls/Jawbreaker/Heathers; it’s also every generic, derivative teen comedy/drama coming of age flick that’s been released in the last five years or so. This is bar none the worst possible combination of lazy writing, clunky exposition, and disregard for suspension of disbelief. If I wanted to see text messages, I would look at my cellphone screen, not my TV screen.

Anyway, I guess Do Revenge deserves, all things considered, a little credit for the way it handles its premise. The takeaway is not so much 'two wrongs don’t make a right' as 'two wrongs cancel each other out,' which I suppose is an 'eye for an eye' sort of outlook in which the whole world doesn’t necessary have to go blind. Do the protagonists learn a lesson here? Kinda. Do they learn that lesson in a classroom? Hell no, for reasons cited above, but that’s still better than nothing, right?

PS. The aforementioned headmistress is played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, but I haven’t the slightest idea why. I mean, it’s not quite a cameo, but it’s not exactly stunt casting either. Let’s put it like this: her brief appearance in She’s All That made a whole lot more sense (she was, after all, dating Freddie Prinze Jr. at the time).



News of the World



There is a moment reminiscent of The Revenant's "We Are All Savages," but News of the World's influences, which the film proudly and openly wears like a badge of honor, go back to the John Wayne days of The Searchers and True Grit.

News of the World is great news for western lovers. This film is just bursting at the seams with the Home on the Range-type Scenery Porn that John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood (and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Costner) have accustomed us to.

It’s all here. The big hard sun, the impossibly blue sky, the monolithic rock formations, the seemingly endless plains, the wind drifting over the dusty roads, the small towns bustling with activity, and of course the inevitable campfire scenes under the stars.

And when I say 'it's all here', I mean it. With the possible exceptions of a huge rolling boulder and a suspicious-looking dust storm (nonetheless impressive in its scale alone), there are no CGI shenanigans in this movie, which was shot on location in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

All of this results is an overwhelming sense of authenticity, all the more enveloping because director Paul Greengrass is in no hurry whatsoever, and patiently allows us to absorb the local color during the first half of the story.

The film shifts gears with the sprawling centerpiece, a high-speed chase/cat-and-mouse gunfight up a rocky hill. From that point on the plot ebbs and flows between heart-stopping action and heartwarming introspection — which accordingly brings me to the heart of the movie, the relationship between Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former member of the Confederate Infantry who now makes a living as a traveling newspaper reader, and Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old girl who has been living with the Kiowa people for the past six years.

The latter represents a most valuable narrative commodity: a non-gratuitous Audience Surrogate. Kidd more or less reluctantly agrees to take care of Johanna, who provides him with another set of ears for him to articulate his thoughts out loud; however, since she doesn’t understand a word of English, Kidd can't be said to be merely dumping info on her — in fact, this particular turn of events is both character-driven and plot-relevant because Kidd is only too glad to be able to hear the sound of his voice without having to resort to talking to himself like a crazy person. Moreover, Kidd’s interactions with Johanna, as well as the adventures they encounter along the way, help him evolve from simply parroting the news to becoming a full-fledged raconteur.

Incidentally, Kidd is an unconventional badass in the the film’s Badass and Child Duo; a firm believer that discretion is the best part of valor, the Captain will run from a fight until there’s nowhere else to run — and then it’s ass-kicking time. In a flawlessly smooth example of the aforementioned heart-stopping-to-heartwarming back-and-forth, Kidd’s heroics lead to a moment of supremely moving dramatic irony wherein Johanna improvises a song, in the Kiowa language, singing his praises — that’s just damned good stuff right there.



Ordinary Love



Ordinary Love is exactly what the first word of its title promises, no more and no less, which is not neither good nor bad; it just is what it is and that's about it — here’s basically a modern example of what Horace called aurea mediocritas.

Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) are an old, though not necessarily elderly, married couple with no children (at least none alive; in fact, they seem to have outlived all of their relatives and friends, assuming they had any to begin with). Tom and Joan are moderately happy, although they seem to be more friends than lovers at this point (nothing wrong with that, mind you).

This comfortable uneventfulness is soon interrupted by a lump in one of Joan's breasts. The first doctor who examines her thinks it's a cyst, but we're all adults here; it would be a very short and prosaic movie if it was anything other than cancer.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers take on the thankless task of trying to inject some suspense into this most predictable of situations. Following a battery of tests, another doctor tells the couple that, all things considered, Joan might have cancer. Or, then again, she might not.

More specifically, he tells them that on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 means she has cancer, and 1 means she doesn't, Joan is a “three”. This leads to a conversation where she and Tom argue over whether three is closer to one than to five. He’s convinced that Joan doesn’t have cancer, while she’s convinced otherwise; to the surprise of absolutely no one, she’s absolutely right. Who woulda thunk it?

Joan undergoes surgery, during which she has a dream wherein she boards a train while Tom is outside by the track. The train starts to pull away with her in it, leaving him behind. Kind of ironic, isn’t it, train-related imagery for such pedestrian symbolism.

The 'suspense' returns after the operation, and Tom and Joan have another conversation, very similar to the previous one, in which they try to determine if the doctor keeping them waiting means that she has good news or bad news.

This dull material is executed better than it deserves, especially the performances of Neeson and Manville. There is nothing wrong or phony here, but nothing new or original either. The film is content to hit all the usual notes in this kind of story, but it lacks the ambition to aim for new heights.

This is not to say that Ordinary Love is not without small pleasures, even when they’re reduced to clichés. For example, Neeson has a bit of fun with the obligatory scene where he speaks to his daughter's tombstone (“Your mother has breast cancer… she told me not to tell you”).

The actor has another brief but satisfying moment that sees him crying after flushing his goldfish down the toilet, though sadly the film can’t leave well enough alone and tacks on a superfluous follow-up scene: Tom is at a pet store looking for a replacement fish; the clerk asks if he was fond of his late fish, and Tom says no — but since we’re all perfectly aware that he wasn't really crying over a dead fish, this scene is both redundant and condescending toward the audience.

As for Manville, her bravura performance is the only risk the movie takes. Moreover, the filmmakers are due credit for devoting as much, if not more, attention to chemotherapy as to cancer itself; they’re not afraid to show that the treatment is almost as bad as the disease, whereas most movies don’t even seem to realize how bad the disease really is.

At the end of the day, however, it all comes to about the same; whether it's cancer, chemotherapy, or both, the point is that Tom and Joan's marriage bends almost to the breaking point under the pressure of illness and treatment, as do all marriages in all cancer movies. Will their relationship survive this trial by fire? Is grass green? Suffice it to say say that Tom and Joan’s sex life experiences a revival.



Psycho Goreman



PG: Psycho Goreman is 90 minutes of early-to-mid '90s throwback fun with the goofiness of a Power Rangers episode, the burtonian aesthetic of Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!, the anarchic humor of Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Dark Helmet’s "good is dumb" mindset from Spaceballs.

Moreover, we have a family that feels as if the Smiths from Rick and Morty had adopted Louise from Bob's Burgers, and the relationship between the two leads and the title character comes across as both a homage to The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy as well as send-up of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Here’s a movie wherein a father, asked by his young son whether monsters are real, replies "in a way, humans are the real monsters. so the answer is yes" — only to go ahead and produce a literal monster (the titular Psycho Goreman, or "PG for short").

Here’s also a film where that same young boy and his little sister have late night Morse code conversations that rival the comicality of the English-spoken dialogue ("I think we woke up Grandma;" "I told you before, Grandma is in Hell forever"), and invent a game called "Crazy Ball" that will later help decide the fate of the Galaxy.

This flair for the farcical is refreshing in a day and age when mere imitation is what more often than not passes for parody. Equally welcome is the use of practical special effects. I just compared this movie to Mars Attacks!, but PG is actually superior because Burton’s aliens were CGI, while PG’s are, in the tradition of classic creature features, a combination of People in Rubber Suits and mechanical puppets.



PISTOLERA


Pistolera is an action movie with dialogue in English and Spanish, written by someone who must be not only illiterate pero además analfabeta. I know writing a film isn’t easy, but Romina Di Lella — who also stars — has such a knack for non sequiturs that, if anything, she should be writing comedy (which I guess she is, albeit unintentionally).

According to her self-written IMDb bio, "Di Lella,was born and raised in Berlin but her roots have always drawn her back to Italy, Milan - the city of fashion and artists of promotional film ... [an] outstanding artist ... [she] already had charisma since earliest childhood when cameras first recognized her potential ... Being a very versatile lady she ... shows in her productions that she is a woman with many faces. Delicate with a touch of mystery as a moderator, the powerful warrior in film, the beauty with speak of passion when dancing, the distinctive voice in musicals and the cold factual business woman with a dash of sex appeal in the TV series, not to forget the cheerful and playful little girl on stage."

That’s all verbatim, just in case. It’s also priceless, and far more entertaining than anything in this movie. Speaking of which, Pistolera kicks off with a prologue set "25 Years Earlier." Earlier than what is not very clear, considering that there’s a scene with a calendar hanging on the background wall, and the calendar says "Octubre 2018."

So, when the movie switches to the "present," does that mean we’re in the year 2043? Moreover, the little girl in the flashback speaks English like a normal person, while Di Lella, who supposedly plays the same character allegedly aged 25 years (yeah well, she wishes), talks, or attempts to, with the accent and diction of Eliza Doolittle in Tommy Wiseau’s My Fair Lady.

The titular Pistolera (Di Lella) is released from prison and devotes herself to the Revenge Business, which she conducts in full Tomb Raider cosplay. She recruits her cousin Rico, who also appeared as a young boy in the prologue, and is played now by Damian Chapa (who 25 years ago was already 25).

Chapa is also nominally the director, and one’s tempted to blame this incoherent mess on him (God knows it certainly looks like his usual work), but it’s clear that this is Di Lella’s baby — or, rather, abortion —, something that the way the opening credits are arranged leaves no doubt about.

The plot, such as it is, boils down to a series of random, poorly choreographed fights and shootouts, which make even less sense within (for lack of a better term) context, considering that much of the movie’s exposition is delivered by a person who mumbles in English and babbles in Spanish (and vice versa).

Her non-verbal communication, by the way, is equally monosyllabic, reduced to two basic facial expressions: one that makes her look constipated, and another that makes her look no longer constipated. And as for her body language, let’s just say that hips don’t lie, and they’re telling me those "25 years" are a dead giveaway that Di Lella is just as bad with numbers as she is with words.



The Day of the Jackal



I have mixed feelings about The Day of the Jackal. On the one hand, I’m a proponent of what I like to call The Evil Iceberg Theory (in a nutshell, the less we know about the villain, the better); on the other, the non-rhetorical question "who the hell was he?" — made in reference to the antagonist — is not exactly what you want to hear after almost two and a half hours.

Not knowing who the hell the Jackal (Edward Fox) is doesn’t preclude the movie from spending an awful lot of time following his comings and goings, as he commissions a custom-made rifle from a gunsmith and fake identity papers from a forger, among other, so to speak errands — and by 'awful' I mean awfully good.

This attention to logistic detail is what Frederick Forsyth, on whose novel the film is based, does best, and what made The Dogs of War (the book and the movie) so good. Here, however, there is a very faint yet not entirely imperceptible whiff of pointlessness to the procedings.

Take for example the Jackal’s customized gun; it is, before we even see it, discussed at length, and the finished product gets a lot of well-deserved praised (the Jackal calls it "really excellent" and describes it as a "beautiful piece of work," and he’s not lying) — too bad, then, that the Jackal only gets to shoot (and hit) a watermelon with it (though the way he calibrates the rifle, adjusting the scope until it’s just so, is a neat little touch).

I wasn’t expecting him to actually blow Charles de Gaulle’s brains out (for that, we’ll have to wait for a hypothetical Tarantino remake), but to put it in perspective, let’s consider the 1997 version, simply called The Jackal; in it, Bruce Willis tests the gun on the man who made it, killing two birds with one stone — not only does he eliminate a potential witness, but also a would-be blackmailer (the filmmakers wisely and economically conflate the gun-maker and the extorting document forger into a single character), and on top of everything, by using the weapon on an actual human being, he makes sure we know that the stakes are really life-and-death.

The other, bigger problem with The Day of the Jackal is that it’s bookended by fits of surreal, almost pythonesque humor that’s not comic relief (when it’s done well, comic relief never feels out of place, regardless of the setting; see The Exorcist III) because it occurs at the very beginning (the leader of a terrorist organization claims "No French soldier is going to raise his rifle against me;" cut to his death by firing squad) and the very end (de Gaulle inadvertently dodges the Jackal’s bullet when he leans forward to give some rather short guy the traditional French double cheek kiss), when there’s either nothing to relieve or you want to keep the tension tightly wound.

The latter bout of unintentional comedy is especially damaging; all the time that the film has spent building the Jackal up now kinda seems like a waste of time, because the last thing the movie does is make him look like a jackass (not that he needed a lot of help in that department; when being offered the job, he says "It would be more difficult than most targets ... Because De Gaulle has the best security in the world," but two minutes later he’s confident he "will have the cooperation of De Gaulle. He won't listen to his security service and stay out of the public eye." So, which is it?).

All things considered, maybe they should have called this The Day of the Jackass; either that, or The Day of the Red Herring (suffice it to say that Charles Calthrop is not an anagram of 'Chacal', French for 'Jackal' — and since everyone in France speaks English for some reason, they do have to clarify that that’s indeed the French word).



The Holcroft Covenant



This is one of those espionage/political intrigues where everyone is paranoid, or should be. Unfortunately, the movie itself is also schizophrenic. As a thriller, it fails to thrill because the plot is not so much nonsensical (not necessarily a deal-breaker) as it is downright stupid (here's a film where 'good' is as dumb as Dark Helmet claimed it was, but 'evil' is no Rhodes scholar either; you don't often see a car bombing wherein the car and the bomb are used separately, like Pop Rocks and soda), and as comedy it's too timid to go for big laughs.

"Noel Holcroft is a foreign-born American citizen working in New York City as an architect ... Holcroft's father, who committed suicide in 1945, was a key Hitler financial advisor, who became conscience-stricken about German war atrocities, turned against the Führer, and covertly diverted Nazi funds to a secret Swiss account. Under the terms of the covenant, Holcroft must locate the sons of his father's two associates so they can jointly activate their fathers' account" (IMDb).

This of course turns out to be a crock, which should be obvious to anyone who's allegedly smart enough to be an architect (not that we see him do any architecting); if Holcroft's dad (referred to as "General Clausen") and his two buddies (Kessler and von Tiebolt) did honestly repent their ways, why kill themselves? Truly changed men would have faced the consequences of their actions.

Holcroft (Michael Caine), however, perhaps taken aback by the astronomical sum of money ($4 billion) with which he is to be entrusted to "make amends" for the sins of his father, pays no mind to the latter's incongruent behavior.

Amazingly, the money does exist, and Clausen and his cronies intended all along for it to be used to fund a Fourth Reich; for some unfathomable reason, though, they set up the covenant so that Kessler's and von Tiebolt's sons (the very people, mind you, for whom the trust fund was actually meant, and who would be all too happy to honor their fathers' wishes) would have to keep jumping through hoops to get their hands on the money.

Thus, the bad guys are pissed that Holcroft's mother doesn't want him to sign the "covenant" — and indeed, Holcroft himself declares during the climax that "the only reason I am here today is because I couldn't be killed until I signed this document;" the question is, why did the nefarious General Clausen made it so that his son's signature would be indispensable to unlock the Swiss account?

As it turns out, there was absolutely no reason for involving Holcroft at all, other than, very belatedly and ill-advisedly, exacting vengeance on Mrs. Holcroft/Frau Clausen. Way to hold a grudge, dude; then again, couldn't you just have stipulated that some of that insane cash be used to take care of the Revenge Business? How about using one of those bombs with a side of car on Holcroft? But no, you had to add insult to injury, didn't you?

There are clues (the hyperbolic quantity of money being one of them) that the filmmakers didn't take this material too seriously, and the biggest tell-tale sign is Caine's deadpan dialogue, patently written and delivered for comedic effect (["there's a huge Mercedes behind us. It's been following us for three miles and now it's starting to close in"] "Probably just another Sunday driver. But on the other hand, as it is Tuesday...); moreover, the irony of casting Caine as a clueless New Yorker is nothing short of genius.

Actually, it is short of genius because the movie doesn't really run with it they way it should have (that is, like Top Secret! or The Naked Gun); Holcroft seems to be the only one who's in on the joke, and even he plays the whole covenant thing straight (though he deserves many points for calling his father's plan "brilliant" with a straight face).

It would be a lot easier to accept the premise's inherent silliness if the film were an all-out farce (along the lines of, say, Murder by Death); as it is, though, The Holcroft Covenant plays more like a parody of itself than of the genre as a whole.