Directed by: Sam Levinson
Run time: 108 minutes
The Lowdown: Welcome to hell, social media style.
Assassination Nation, the riveting, giddily in-your-face, pitch-black satire, the second film by writer-director Sam Levinson, is a blast of nihilistic rage bottled in the form of four young women, who become the hunted prey of a testosterone-fueled mob in a little town called Salem (Sound familiar? Anyone? Anyone?)
The four friends – Lily (Odessa Young), Em (Abra), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Bex (Hari Nef) – find themselves in the cross-hairs following a data breach that exposes the twisted secrets of many of the town’s most elite residents.
Levinson’s film is uber-violent, but he never allows the gun-blazing carnage to overshadow his point, that young women, especially in 2018, have two choices – they can allow themselves to be labeled and packaged by society into the most form-fitting and constrictive boxes possible, or they can own their identities and write their own narratives, regardless of the consequences.
Levinson targets all the buzz words that we’ve become accustomed to hearing every day on the nightly news: white privilege, misogyny, transphobia and more.
He bravely makes one of his quartet a trans-woman (Bex) who must face the outrage of high school jocks terrified of acknowledging their own dark and wanton urges, and it’s Bex’s story, and her unlikely relationship with a football star, that resonates loudest. It’s difficult to watch the abuse that Bex endures, but it’s also imperative that you do.
Then there’s the high school principal (Colman Domingo, Fear the Walking Dead) who is incapable of quelling his own predilection for too-young women. And the community stalwart and respected father (Joel McHale), who simply wants to subjugate his daughter’s friends and use them as sexual playthings.
Assassination Nation is a blast, and it deserves to be seen following a tepid theatrical rollout that did the film a great disservice.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Oh yes.
Nudity – Brief.
Gore – Gun violence.
Drug use – Yes.
Bad Guys/Killers – Social media.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
The House with a Clock in its Walls (Universal, 105 minutes, PG, Blu-Ray): I initially resisted this collaboration between director Eli Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke for three reasons.
One, Roth hasn’t helmed a good film since 2007’s Hostel: Part II. Two, Kripke hasn’t really done anything that piqued my interest since he launched Supernatural way back in 2005. And, honestly, this just looked like another opportunity for star Jack Black to run around and overact, a la Goosebumps.
Well, I’m a dummy.
Not only is The House with a Clock in Its Walls the best film that Roth has ever directed, it’s a wonderful, and often hysterical, family adventure firmly on par with some of the best offerings from Amblin Entertainment (which makes sense, given that company helped finance).
The House… is set in Michigan in 1955, and that period setting goes a long way in making the film more enjoyable. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I find it refreshing to watch movies that allow their characters to actually interact instead of showing them spending an inordinate amount of time on a smart device.
Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) comes to live with his uncle following the death of his parents. His uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Black), is an eccentric character who prefers wearing a kimono, even when out on the town, or playing saxophone outside late at night, much to the chagrin of his neighbors, and he lives in a gorgeously gothic estate complete with a maze garden populated by giant shrub creatures and a looming tower.
When Jonathan arrives back home with Lewis in tow, one of his neighbors, the pesky Mrs. Hanchett (the always enjoyable Colleen Camp), can’t help but exclaim, “You’re responsible for keeping a human child alive?”
Even better, Jonathan shares his estate with the lovely, and acerbic, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blachett), and it should be noted that I’ve now decided that Blanchett is my new Helen Mirren-esque crush. Meee-ow.
Kripke’s script is rife with wonderful sequences. On Lewis’s first day at school, he’s in gym class, the last of two students waiting to be picked for a game of dodge ball, which Roth’s camera eye captures with a wonderfully extended pregnant pause.
“Clark, make a decision,” the coach says.
Roth’s camera pans back to the bleachers to show Lewis sitting there, in over-sized goggles, and a young boy sitting next to him with arm braces. Clark eventually picks the boy with braces, and there’s yet another extended pregnant pause as Roth’s camera captures the boy slow-slow-slowly hobbling over to his team, his braces squeaking loudly from lack of oil.
“Good hustle,” the coach says, once the boy reaches his team.
Now, that’s funny.
The House… kicks into high gear shortly thereafter. Jonathan tells Lewis that his home is unlike any other, which is his way of saying it’s haunted, which is revealed in a series of nicely executed reveals, including a chair with a mind of its own and a collection of menacing mannequins who advance whenever they’re not being watched.
More so, what Jonathan doesn’t immediately explain is that he is a warlock, and Florence is a former high witch, but they have been trapped for some time inside the house because of a curse. There’s a clock hidden deep within the bowels of the home, a clock that keeps ticking, counting down to some awful, unknown event that will take place as soon as it stops.
Roth might have made his career presenting the goriest images imaginable, but he seems completely free from the burden of expectations when navigating kid-friendly waters, and The House… zips along with urgency, constantly one-upping itself with each new disclosure or appearance of some other ghostly manifestation.
Even Lewis joins the fun, enlisting Jonathan to teach him how to become a warlock, which – if you’ve ever watched a classic Amblin film – you immediately know will be his destiny.
Best of all, Roth keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, never letting his worst impulses take over, minus one third-act sequence that finds Black imagined as a cartoonish baby with an oversized head. It’s an unnerving image, truth be told, but thankfully one that passes quickly.
If you’ve seen this title available to rent or buy, and you hesitated, I completely understand why, but BVB is here to assure you, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a winner, and also a film that should hold up well through repeat viewings.
Starman: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, 115 minutes, PG, Blu-Ray): Of all the John Carpenter classics, I find it odd that Starman is the one I remember the least, and maybe that’s because it was so far afield from Carpenter’s typical oeuvre.
Released in 1984, and starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, Carpenter’s extraterrestrial tale of an alien race that answers Earth’s call to be visited, and sends an emissary who assumes the form of Allen’s deceased husband, Starman had more in common with Steven Spielberg than the guy who gave us Halloween, Escape from New York and Prince of Darkness.
There’s no blood in Starman, no captivating creatures, no over-the-top DIY-guerilla-style filmmaking, which was his hallmark. It’s a love story and a slight chase film, the kind of well-meaning, feel-good sci-fi that populated and defined the 1980’s heyday.
For fans, this collector’s edition will be a joy to unpack. And for Carpenter devotees, like me, it’s a nice opportunity to explore the director’s softer side, which was rarely on display in his most well-known works.
The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory, 94 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): I remember The Jerk. I remember watching Steve Martin’s big-screen debut when my family first ordered HBO. I remember the opening line, most of all: “I was born a poor black child.”
But, what I don’t remember, what my pre-pubescent brain failed to retain over the ensuing 39 years, is just how fucking funny and wryly on-point the film was for its time. Released in 1979, and directed by Carl Reiner and written by Martin, Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Doctor Detroit, Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D) and Michael Elias (Young Doctors in Love, Head of the Class), The Jerk has stood the test of time and, even better, presents a worldview that’s sorely lacking today.
There’s not a single stereotype on display, even with Martin’s character, Navin, who truly believes that he’s African-American. He’s raised as a foster son in a loving black household. When he grows up, he is genuinely mortified to discover his true heritage. “You mean I’m going to stay his color?” he cries at one point.
Unlike modern comedies, which tend to paint with a broad brush, and never seem to pass up an opportunity to denigrate or mock minorities, The Jerk was laser-focused. It never strays too far from its core objective, which is to paint a full picture of a lost soul just trying to find where he belongs.
At one point, Navin discovers that he’s been included in the local phone book, which he sees as a major accomplishment. “I’m in print! Things are going to start happening to me now!”
As repayment for his sweet naivete, a serial sniper (the late, great M. Emmet Walsh) targets him after dropping his finger randomly in the phone book listings and planting firmly on Navin’s name.
Even the random adventures he experiences open up a wealth of comedic opportunities, none of which strain credibility or believability. Navin joins a traveling carnival and immediately gets noticed by the resident daredevil stuntwoman, who takes him back to her trailer.
“I want to guess your weight,” she says, grabbing his crotch.
“Wait a minute! What’s happening to my special purpose?’ Navin exclaims. “When I was a kid, my mom told me that was my special purpose, and someday I would find out what that special purpose was.”
She hoists him up and throws him down on her bed. “Today’s the day,” she shouts.
“Hey! Hey! This is like a ride,” he squeals.
Eventually, Navin meets his true love, Marie (Bernadette Peters), only she’s already romantically involved.
“Do you think the next time you make love with your boyfriend, you could think of me?” Navin innocently asks her. “And maybe one day, you and I could be making love and you think of him?”
“Who knows,” Marie says. “Maybe you and he could make love and think of me?”
“I’d just be happy to be in there somewhere,” Navin confesses, without an ounce of irony or phobia at her suggestion that he engage in a same-sex tryst.
It’s those moments where The Jerk shines, and serves to remind us that comedy doesn’t have to be mean-spirited or divisive to be funny.
It’s a lesson I wish more current comedians might learn. Actually, more people, in general. Imagine if more men behaved like The Jerk in 1979, and stopped being the awful jerks we have come to abhor and hate to have to contend with on a daily basis today.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, 90 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Much like the often-steep divide between fans of films based on Marvel and DC comics, there’s an equally robust distinction between fans of the classic Universal monsters and those who prefer and love the respective Hammer Films versions.
While one shouldn’t have to pick a side, it’s understandable why some purists tend to gravitate to one or the other. I tend to straddle the line. I grew up on films from both camps, but I definitely appreciate the noticeable style aesthetics that punctuated the British horror genre throughout the 1960s and ‘70s heyday.
Released in 1966, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, stands out due to being a threequel, following 1958’s Horror of Dracula (aka, Dracula), and 1960’s The Brides of Dracula. All three films were directed by Terence Fisher (Hammer’s The Mummy, The Revenge of Frankenstein and many more).
Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a hoot and features another star turn from Christopher Lee as the immortal bloodsucker. Sadly, there’s no Peter Cushing as Van Helsing to combat him once again, but the film, complete with its sumptuous color palette and creepy castle backdrop, stands as a high-water mark in the Hammer canon.
Schindler’s List: 25th Anniversary Edition 4K Ultra HD
An Afghan Love Story
Not to be Overlooked:
New Releases from December 25, 2018
White Boy Rick