There’s a famous and brilliantly subversive British-Irish comedy called Father Ted (if you haven’t seen it, go relish in the genius of the late, great Dermot Morgan) about three priests sent to a craggy island (called, of course, Craggy Island) for sins against the church. The Club is its dark kin, but there's little humor here.
The central figures are again priests in exile, this time in a small seaside village in remote Chile. But the minor sins of Ted and friends (drinking, idiocy, heading to Las Vegas with the collection plate) are paltry compared to the venal transgressions of his exiled clergy.
Director Pablo Larraín opens with an apposite Biblical quote (Genesis 1:4 "God saw that light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness") on the tale of four men and their housekeeper. They spend their time quietly, in seclusion, training their pet greyhound, with dreams of racing him in Santiago. It’s only when one is referred to as Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro) that it’s revealed that they are priests. Then it’s only with the arrival of, first a new resident, then a spiritual director (Marcelo Alonso as Father Garcia) from the diocese, that it is subtly implied that this isn’t just a retirement home. They are the dark that is being kept separate from the light, each with sins and secrets that the church would rather not see publicly discussed.
Larraín stares unflinchingly at the personal ramifications of the Vatican’s abuse cover-up. This isn’t an apology for the priests – far from it, as shown when a drunk villager turns up at the house to recount, in graphic detail, his abuse by clergy as a young orphan. That alone puts it within a larger global cinematic movement, including the startling documentary Call Me Lucky and the Oscar-winning Spotlight. But it’s also specifically Chilean, such as one former chaplain (Jaime Vadell) tackling his complicity in the crimes committed under the military junta.
The script, by Larraín, Guillermo Calderón, and Daniel Villalobos, is a lesson in cold savagery and righteous anger that never once becomes pat. Similarly, the priests are each given depth and nuance, with that becoming an excuse. They reveal their crimes, but without contrition, only to those that know they have already been indicted. When it comes time to hide the truth from the surrounding villagers, they are calmly capable of hideous deception. As the proxy for the Holy See, Garcia’s own complicity becomes an unspoken accusation against the institution of the church.Chilean cinema is under somewhat of a cinematic spotlight, with Eli Roth promoting the work of genre activists like Nicolás López (Aftershock), Guillermo Amoedo Schultze (The Stranger) and Ernesto Díaz Espinosa (Redeemer, Mandrill.) Yet Larraín’s work was rightfully his country’s selection for the best foreign language film Oscar (his second after No), and his portrayal of the need for personal and collective contrition places him on a par with a master of political cinema like Costa-Gavras.
The Club (Music Box Films) is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. Also on home release now:
Regression (Anchor Bay) wades into similarly murky moral waters, but to a more understanding and forgiving end point. A decade ago, this would have been a tent pole movie for an arthouse studio: David Thewlis, Ethan Hawke, and Emma Watson, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, the creative force behind Open Your Eyes, The Others, and The Sea Inside, tackling the Satanic Panic era and the perils of pseudo-psychology, perhaps even verging on Oscar bait. Instead, it’s another in the increasingly fascinating library of Hawke-fronted crime procedurals with a surprisingly profound insight into our darker instincts.
Hawke plays Bruce Kenner, a Midwestern detective working as lead investigator into a bleak abuse case. Angela Gray (Watson) accuses her father John (Swedish character actor David Dencik, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) of raping her. Yet as her testimony is taken, it becomes increasingly clear to Kenner and psychologist Kenneth Raines (Thewlis) that this one accusation is actually the tip of the iceberg of a ritual abuse scandal.
Except it also becomes clear that this is not a supernatural shocker. Kenner’s willingness to believe everything Angela says, crossed with Raines’ devotion to regression therapy and recovered memory syndrome, sends them down every evidentiary dead end.
Thirty-three years after the satanic abuse witch hunt that rocked Jordan, Minn., in 1983 (here transferred to the fictional Hoyer, Minn., in 1990), Regression could readily have been either exploitative, or just redundant. Instead, it’s a fascinating and rueful exploration of how eager people can be to convince themselves of even the craziest ideas. And yet again, Hawke proves he is exactly the actor to add a stubbly gravitas to this kind of film. It could readily have become either a low-budget slab of ostentation, or simply tacky with some stunt casting of well-known names. But as with the upcoming In a Valley of Violence, and the criminally underseen Predestination (quietly one of the most intriguing works of cinematic LGBT SF in recent years) he adds a gravitas and an emotional intelligence that undercuts the hokeyness and emphasizes the very real tragedies.
Speaking of cults: Lifetime original movies have become a guarantee of abysmal quality and inept storytelling (as anyone that endured the bizarrely appalling Flowers in the Attic adaptations can testify). So the fact that Manson’s Lost Girls moves beyond camp appeal and feels like a title that would turn up midway through a respectable film festival is borderline astounding.
It may seem a little redundant at this point to do another flick about Charles Manson, his family, and the Tate-LaBianca murders. Not only has the story been told a million times, but it’s hard to imagine anything matching the fiery, accusatory tone of House of Manson, or the sheer psychotropic madness of The Manson Family. So the script by veteran TV writer Stephen Kronish (The Commish, Profiler) and Matthew Tabak (Ted Bundy bio The Stranger Beside Me) shifts the focus away from Manson himself, and onto Linda Kasabian (MacKenzie Mauzy, The Bold and the Beautiful.) Pushing Manson himself (Jeff Ward, portraying the cult leader as a weaselly little sociopath) to the side, they examine instead why Kasabian and the fellow members of the infamous family would fall under his sway. It’s not anything about him, but about them, and why they would fall for this straggly-bearded maniac with his harebrained schemes and bad tunes (short answer: heavy dose of manipulation, an undercurrent of threats, and a looooooooooooot of drugs.)
The crimes themselves are scarcely seen (after all, Kasabian’s defense, and what made her the strongest possible witness for the prosecution, was that she was there, but not involved). And with Manson wisely on the periphery, the emphasis is on the titular "lost girls." Kasabian is portrayed as the typical good girl who makes some bad decisions. But it’s Susan Atkins (Eden Brolin) who become the most frightening point of focus. Manson, the film contends, was wired that way. Terrifyingly, she is the one who flings herself gleefully into Helter Skelter, and Brolin's warm smile/dead eyes performance makes her plausibly terrifying.
Plausible is not the term that leaps to mind to describe Submerged (IFC Midnight), a sealed bottle/flashback heavy action-thriller that takes place primarily in a limo at the bottom of a canal. Matt (Jonathan Bennett, best known as nice guy Aaron from Mean Girls and as the host of Cake Wars. No, really) is the driver who has been forced off the road by a gang of surprisingly well-armed mercenaries, who are trying to kidnap steel heiress Jessie (Talulah Riley). Unfortunately for them, Matt is a gun-toting murder machine. Unfortunately for him, he’s pinned in the driver’s seat five fathoms down, Jessie is unconscious, and there are four of her most idiotic, spoiled friends in the back, turning on each other while the unseen assailants try their best to get in.
The script by Scott Milam (responsible for the 2010 remake of Mother's Day) starts from an interesting place. A small town in economic collapse as the steelworks closes, the dangerous drifter, the convoluted back story of deception, have all the hallmarks of vintage noir. If it was played that way, with a light dusting of action sequences, it might have worked. But it becomes a generic action film for its closing showdown (including the less-surprising-and-less-plausible-than-it-should-be reveal of the villains), and director Steven C. Miller (The Aggression Scale) is no Shane Black.
It’s the back-and-forth structure that’s the real problem. While the narrative is centered around Matt (and Bennett does the best he can with limited script resources), it ripsaws between previously unseen characters, with little indication whether they’ll be relevant or not. When the rewind exposition is over and the action settles into the sealed environment of the limo for the final act, it’s hard to empathize with the quartet in the back – especially when they start making suicidally bad decisions.
Ultimately, it’s not successful, but there are some smart conceits, like having Matt (the only person in the car with combat experience) be trapped and pinned in the driver’s seat, unable to play the action hero. Yet for every ingenious moment, there are glaring holes and leaps of logic (not least, why do these kidnappers in a small town seemingly have more specialized technical resources than G.I. Joe?).
Emelie (Dark Sky Films) centers on a different kind of abduction threat. Call it the Cuckoo’s Nest syndrome, the primordial fear of the interloper within the family home.
Historically, babysitters in horror movies have either been the first victim or the last girl. But when Anna (Sarah Bolger, Once Upon a Time, The Tudors, the ill-fated Locke & Key pilot) is hired by a suburban couple to look after their kids while they head for their anniversary dinner...
Richard Raymond Harry Herbeck’s script takes all the right lessons from the landmark of the genre, 1987’s The Stepfather, in that he never tries to pretend to the audience that everything is right with Anna. Like Terry O’Quinn washing blood off his hands after he killed his last adopted family, only here it's the girl the family thinks is Anna being assisted by a strange man in kidnapping the real Anna. Once she's in the house, and the siblings are in her clutches, it's a slow unraveling as her terrifying and tragic plot is revealed.
Music documentarian-turned-first time narrative director Michael Thelin doesn't just tap into those underlying fears of opening your doors to a usurper. He also pulls together surprisingly strong performances from Bolger (who is both menacing and plausible) and Joshua Rush as Jacob, the oldest son and self-appointed protector. He balances that with simple, naturalistic moments from the two youngest kids, who barely feel like they're acting. It's a risky move, but undoubtedly pays off.Most importantly, both Raymond and Thelin understand that the kids are kids. When Jacob takes it on himself to defend his younger siblings, he does it as an 11-year-old. This isn’t The Monster Squad. This is a domestic horror akin to the skin-crawling Proxy. Watch them back-to-back, and you may never open the door again.
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