Sunday, July 21, 2019


Director Brian de Palma

de Palma with actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

de Palma with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and actress Carice van Houten

DOMINO                   D                    
Denmark  France  Italy  Belgium  Netherlands (89 mi)  2019 d:  Brian de Palma

Kind of a throwback film from an earlier era, feeding into the global paranoia about Islamic terrorism, like the cheapo exploitation flicks pumped out by your typical Golan-Globus production, founded by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, which in the mid-80’s were cranking out more than a dozen films per year, coinciding with the VHS boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s, literally packing the shelves of local video stores, when the company had an insatiable appetite for high octane B-movies, where the secret was their embrace of the international market, something Hollywood was slow to comprehend.  Enter Brian de Palma, a shlock movie specialist with an affinity for films from that era, where this is only his second film in more than a decade, seemingly making this film on the fly.  Shot in Spain and Denmark with an international cast and crew, it couldn’t be more confusing, spoken in English instead of Danish, where the sound’s not in synch with the words being spoken, feeling like it was hastily completed.  As it turns out, de Palma had an additional hour that has been excised from the final version, with the release delayed for a year, with the director removed from the final product.  Completely frustrated with the process, de Palma is quoted a year ago as saying, “I had a lot of problems in financing [the film].  I never experienced such a horrible movie set.  A large part of our team has not even been paid yet by the Danish producers.  The film is finished and ready to go out, but I have no idea what its future will hold, it is currently in the hands of the producers.  This was my first experience in Denmark and most likely my last.”  Rife with stereotypes, exactly like all his earlier films, this is not exactly a picture of taste and refinement, using crude exploitive imagery that is not for the meek, revitalizing ISIS beheadings and suicide bombers, creating propaganda imagery as recruiting material, which this film is more than happy to recreate, emulating their style, suggesting de Palma actually finds cinematic aspects of ISIS propaganda intriguing, perhaps admiring the way (befitting of the age of selfies) terrorists love to document their own atrocities, using a lead character to speak the director’s mind, “Even the way they shoot it, it's like they're professionals.  I mean, the use of graphics, slow-motion, even a drone shot.”  If that’s not disgusting enough, less of an action thriller, this is really a threadbare romance taking place in a murky world of international terrorism, though there’s barely a pulse that registers, as the man in question is actually dead, killed off early in the film, yet the pangs of love survive.  There’s something silly and passé about the storyline, like recalling a bad dream, but it doesn’t have to make sense, though it’s an attempt to be topical.  

Set in Denmark, with a pan of the sleek architecture of Copenhagen reminding viewers where they are, we follow a pair of hard-nosed cops, the more flamboyant Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the older, internally repressed Lars (Søren Malling), who seems lost on a different wavelength, cynical and downbeat, as if uncomfortable in his own skin.  While Christian obsesses about food and sex, Lars is moody and inherently disinterested all the time, though he’s punctual, picking up his partner the next morning, but his female sex partner in bed doesn’t want to let him go, allowing himself to get distracted, actually forgetting his gun, an act for which consequences invariably ensue.  Responding to a routine call, described as a domestic dispute (altogether missing a van parked out front in plain view), they encounter a man on the elevator with blood on the tips of his shoes, Ezra Tarzi, Eriq Ebouaney, never better than portraying Patrice Lumumba in LUMUMBA (2000), also appearing in de Palma’s own FEMME FATALE (2002), but here he goes through the motions as the angry black man, arrested on the spot, handcuffed and apprehended, with Christian borrowing his partner’s gun to take a look upstairs while Lars awaits a patrol van to take their prisoner.  What he discovers is revolting, as Tarzi has been torturing a victim with a knife, but by the time he runs back downstairs, Tarzi has escaped the cuffs and stabbed his partner in the neck (without his gun to defend himself), making a break out the window onto the roof.  Unsure of what to do, but at the urging of his partner, he bolts out the window giving chase, where the steepness of the roof gives each of them problems, with both perilously hanging from a dangling gutter overlooking the street down below in an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), eventually falling into a crate of tomatoes.  While Christian is momentarily dazed, men in suits apprehend Tarzi, taking him away, leaving Christian to ponder what just happened.  But this sets the wheels in motion, as Lars lies unconscious in a hospital bed while Christian unravels the dark past of Tarzi, a former special forces Libyan whose patriotic father was beheaded by a terrorist mastermind Salah al-Din (Mohammed Azaay), who as it turns out spent 12 years in Guantánamo as a model prisoner without incident, but literally hours after his release he goes underground completely undetected, currently seen prepping a young female suicide bomber on her next mission, which will send fear into the hearts of the West while bringing glory to God and Islam (“Ending the lives of infidels is a great thing.  Scaring the millions of others who see it live on TV is something even greater!”), with de Palma in split screen capturing the face of the assassin mixed with the horrified faces of the victims as she machine guns actors, models, and photographers on the red carpet runway of the Netherlands Film Festival (an homage to his own film Femme Fatale shot on the Cannes red carpet), causing sheer pandemonium, but also utter jubilation when viewed from al-Din’s perspective. 

With underwritten characters that never come alive and a tepid orchestral score that falls flat, this borders on the banal, where easily the silliest thread in the film is the portrayal of the CIA, given comical stature from none other than Guy Pearce (in a bad accent) playing Agent Joe Martin, who has no redeeming moral values, so corrupt that he may as well be a criminal himself, essentially blackmailing Tarzi, who he kidnaps at the crime scene (while imprisoning his children), to do the dirty work that the CIA is hamstrung to do due to legal restraints, basically encouraging Tarzi to be a mad dog on the loose, operating with impunity, free to torture, murder, or rough up potential suspects as he pleases, hell-bent on revenge for the death of his father, ferociously targeting al-Din, with Agent Martin sitting on the sidelines casually taking credit for it all.  Meanwhile Christian joins forces with the detective assigned to investigate the case, Alex (Carice van Houten), who has a secret romantic history with his partner, a revelation that leaves Christian completely flummoxed, incapable of believing his partner kept secrets from him, but may explain his reticent behavior of late.  This romantic storyline is simply Hollywood overkill, as they love to express romance in the backdrop of war or some other tragic event, supposedly accentuating the power of love, but since Lars dies in the hospital while Christian and Alex are on the road in search of Tarzi, there is no love affair to speak of, as it all happened in a hermetically sealed universe, becoming more of a memorial tribute.  With all events converging in Almería, Spain, we discover a tomato motif used throughout the film is the means for weapons trafficking, smuggled while concealed in tomato crates onto ferries crossing the sea into Morocco, easily transporting weapons into Libya or Mali or the sites of other ISIS uprisings.  If it weren’t so comically simplistic, especially the coincidence of recognizing the terrorist leader in the front seat of a produce truck, following him to a bullring in the center of town where another planned attack is to take place, which must have lured de Palma, known for creating dynamic set pieces in real life locations, but this one kind of fizzles out instead.  Apparently they had funding difficulties, unable to find extras to fill the stadium to capacity, so the shot never materialized as intended.  Nonetheless, there are few memorable movie scenes shot in bullrings, so this has an air of anticipation, with all the forces converging at one dramatic point in time, a powderkeg about to explode, with de Palma mixing a modern era drone viewpoint with old-fashioned binocular shots, but few will likely find this resolution appealing, reduced to a one-liner from Agent Martin, explaining how he figured out what was going on, “We’re Americans, we read your emails.”  In the end, however, international terrorism has been reduced to a personal revenge saga, bathed in an unseen romance, with plenty of revolting propaganda footage taking center stage. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019


Director Ronald Bronstein


FROWNLAND                      B-                   
USA  (106 mi)  2007 d:  Ronald Bronstein   

A relentless, unsettling and wretchedly unforgiving film that’s not only in-your-face, but occasionally resorts to a sledgehammer approach.  Written, directed and edited by Bronstein, this is as confrontational as filmmaking gets emphasizing an extremely difficult subject matter, the life and tribulations of a man on the edge who’s borderline coherent suffering from a psychotic anxiety syndrome of some kind along with a brain deficiency, nauseatingly annoying to anyone he speaks to as he prolongs the agony of the ordeal by never quite spitting out whatever he has to say, requiring an amazing amount of patience and tolerance just to listen to him but also to pry oneself away, requirements that the human condition simply lacks.  In this film, Keith (Dore Mann) resembles the kind of intense, deeply agitated sicko most people avoid like the plague and here he’s in nearly every shot.  He has a suicidal girl friend Laura (Mary Wall, the director’s wife) who appears to have a psychotic fear of closeness, spending most of the film in tears while in his company, actually stabbing him with a push pin when he accidentally comes too close.  Stuttering for words, apologizing profusely for taking up people’s time, Keith goes door to door selling discount coupons that allegedly raise funds for victims of multiple sclerosis, a profession he’s obviously not cut out for, and while it’s surprising some actually listen patiently at their doors while he tries to spit out the right words, he never makes a single sale and is ridiculed and bullied by his supervisor and fellow co-workers who accompany him to and from his route.  It’s a troublesome film filled with nothing but troublesome moments, told in a realistic manner with Ulrich Seidl anti-humanist overtones where an unending tone of abject miserablism reveals what a rotten life he has.  Commercial filmmaking this is not, but it’s not exactly riveting either, and at least for the first half, there’s nothing drawing the audience into his world. 

That changes when we realize what an erudite and pompous ass his roommate is (Charles, played by Paul Grimstad), a stark contrast that obviously feels contrived, as in the real world, one would have nothing to do with the other.  So Charles, to express his annoyance with Keith’s smothering behavior, refuses to pay the electric bill, leaving them both in the dark.  This is typical of how people treat Keith, as the general rule is to abuse him as often as one can get away with, as if this somehow makes people feel superior.  Accordingly, viewers are implicated, as a pervasive impulse leaves audiences themselves laughing at the character, as if laughing at a “retard” onscreen has become acceptable social behavior.  Bronstein is a first time filmmaker who brings with him an Andrew Bujalski semi-hip audience that may have been swayed by critic Amy Taubin’s belief that Bujalski’s minimalist realism is the voice of the new generation, targeting an educated middle class that can't ever make up their minds about anything, who exist totally in a world of ambivalence spending their time at dead-end temp jobs that offer no challenge of any kind, resorting to snarky dialogue of stoned sarcasm that is used like a weapon, where putting down others is a major accomplishment in their day.  Yet films like this suggest Bronstein may speak for a “fucked up” generation that takes great amusement in their own dysfunctional perversities.  Keith is by no means stupid, but he has a pathological inability to communicate.  Somehow the audience mirrors the society at-large, tapping into that theater of being obnoxious when humor comes at someone else’s expense, where the greater Keith’s pathetic humiliation, the more the audience roars with approval.  Having no idea if this social phenomena is happening in other theaters, to say one grows uncomfortable with this particular audience reaction is an understatement.  Is it human nature to pick on those weaker than yourself, or is it socially learned behavior?  One suspects the latter.     

Thankfully, real humor arrives in an extended scene without Keith in it, an odd little sequence that features Charles taking a senseless law school LSAT examination that he feels will lead to his employment as a waiter.  Another character arrives who is at least as ill-bred as he is, both specializing in the verbal put down, otherwise known as the technique of mind-fucking.  The scene develops slowly accentuating the absurdity of the situation, perfectly capturing the nuances of the characters who finally come to mean something, even if it’s only for laughs.  This little oasis of hilarity is short-lived, however, a sequence where words are lobbed at one another like guided missiles aiming for a direct hit hoping to disintegrate the other, where under the surface aggression is expressed through carefully observed dialogue that accomplishes nothing but futility.  From this pathetic intellectual void, Keith re-enters the picture only to sink further into his own psychological descent as his condition is realized through an endless journey into the night told with a Cassavetes-like edge captured by some brilliant 16 mm camerawork blown up to a grainy look from Sean Price Williams who follows him through darkened rooms, dead end corridors, and a maze of ever decreasing options, feeling more and more like a last-man-in-the-universe horror film.  The music and sound design are anything but subtle, perhaps too obvious in their attempts to express something close to those 50’s sci-fi films where the score reeks with psychotic brain fragmentation, dissonance, isolation, fear, horror, and dread.  Much of the finale is wordless with a dark, nightmarish overtone that is expressed with an assured cinematic flair, yet the overall feel left by this film is like getting pounded over the head by a hammer.  While it’s rare for cinema to feature a character as abjectly dysfunctional as this one, and the director deserves credit for that risk, yet it never becomes a compelling subject due to the insistent way it’s filmed, continuously mired in its own wretchedness (like wading through a minefield), as viewers are witness to an unending assault to the senses watching a single hapless individual openly exposed to a mercilessly brutal and indifferent humanity that can’t stop itself from feeling superior by taking out their frustrations on weaker individuals, resorting to bullying every chance they get, like a Pavlovian condition.