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On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: VALLEY OF THE GODS (2020) and EMPEROR (2020)

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VALLEY OF THE GODS
(Poland/Luxembourg - 2020)


If VALLEY OF THE GODS wasn't so incredibly dull, it would be the must-see, instant classic Batshit Cinema event of 2020. As it is, it's so ponderous and heavy-handed that it ends up being a virtual arthouse parody. Given a stealth DTV/VOD release in the US after nearly four years (!) on the shelf, VALLEY OF THE GODS was written and directed by Polish auteur Lech Majewski (THE MILL & THE CROSS), who fashions it an utterly impenetrable hodgepodge of Navajo mythology, midlife crisis melodrama, existential L.A. ennui, sociopolitical/environmental treatise, and surrealistic bullshit all rolled into one self-indulgent fiasco. The best thing that can be said about it is that the cinematography in and around the title Utah region is beautifully shot and these sections of the film would've been breathtaking on a big screen. But the downside is that is you have to endure the rest of it. After his wife (Jaime Ray Newman) leaves him for her hang-gliding instructor, Los Angeles-based would-be novelist John Ecas (Josh Hartnett) walks away from his industrial marketing job and, at the suggestion of his therapist (John Rhys-Davies), tries various methods of finding inner peace. This includes walking down a busy street backwards while blindfolded, and then gathering all of his pots and pans, tying them to his ankles, and climbing a mountain. He heads out to Monument Valley where he unloads an old wooden desk out of the back of his SUV and, in the middle of the desert, begins to write his Great American Novel longhand with a fountain pen. Meanwhile, Navajo tribes in the area are rising up in protest against the purchase of the Valley of the Gods by Tauros Engineering, a nefarious corporation with plans to drill for uranium in this sacred area. Tauros was also John's employer, and the company is owned by Wes Tauros (John Malkovich), the world's richest man, and an enigmatic, Howard Hughes-like trillionaire who lives in a castle atop a mountain that's accessible by an elevator in a secret passageway in a brick building at its base.





Sound a little strange? That's only the beginning, because it's about to get really fucked-up. One of the Navajo locals climbs to the top of a mountain and has sex with a rock formation, which later, after a torrential downpour, spawns a child with a firehose-length umbilical cord connected to the rock. Tauros frequently sneaks out of his mansion and wanders the streets of L.A., pretending to be homeless because it's the only way he feels alive. John sets his SUV ablaze after receiving a divorce petition from his wife via a fax machine in his glove compartment. He's also invited to meet with Tauros at his mountaintop compound, where he's greeted by loyal Alfred-esque butler Ulin (Keir Dullea sighting!), who's introduced delivering a monologue about Elvis' fat years as they stroll through a courtyard filled with statues of "Tauros' friends." A financially-strapped mother (Berenice Marlohe) arrives in a CGI stretch limo the length of a train that snakes along mountain roads, and is given a makeover to resemble Tauros' dead wife, after which she has sex with him while Ulin stays in the room and watches (she also wears a ring with her son's extracted kidney stone in place of a diamond). Tauros invites a ton of guests to a formal gathering where he drives a Rolls Royce onto a giant catapult and sends it flying off the mountain. The guests are actually prisoners kept in cells and cages in a secret dungeon under the compound where Tauros has the power to turn them to stone if they're disobedient. Then Ulin oversees the mummification of Tauros, who's laid into a tomb and reborn as a giant, bare-assed kaiju-like rock-baby that stomps through downtown Los Angeles like an infant Malkozilla. Majewski borrows equal parts Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Matthew Barney, and especially Stanley Kubrick with the castle's ornate interiors (the presence of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY's Dullea is an obvious nod, plus longtime Kubrick inner-circler Jan Harlan is one of a couple dozen producers), but VALLEY OF THE GODS is almost nonstop nonsense, executed in such a monotonous, molasses-paced way that it's never as bizarrely entertaining as a summary makes it sound. For what it's worth, Majewski made exactly the movie he wanted to make, though I'm not sure it's for anyone but himself. It might make a great midnight movie if anyone can stay awake before it boards the crazy train. (Unrated, 127 mins)



EMPEROR
(US - 2020)


Arriving as a DTV/VOD title after the pandemic canceled its planned April theatrical release, EMPEROR ends up getting pretty much the gala premiere it deserves. The directing debut of veteran B-movie producer Mark Amin, whose name was on a ton of straight-to-video Vidmark/Trimark titles throughout the '90s and into the early '00s, EMPEROR is a simplistic biopic of Shields "Emperor" Green, a runaway slave who became a key figure in abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Little is known about Green's life prior to his association with Brown, so EMPEROR feels free to take some significant dramatic license, citing it as being "based on a true legend." The film opens with the birth of Green and the supposition that he descended from African royalty, with his mother declaring "Your grandpa was a king, and you will be...an emperor!" Before you can even finish rolling your eyes, EMPEROR jumps ahead to 1859 Charleston, with Green (Dayo Okeniyi), affectionately called "Emperor" by his fellow slaves and a figure of some respect on a plantation owned by the kindly but heavy-drinking and financially hapless Duvane Henderson (comedian/podcaster Paul Scheer, in stunt casting that's almost as distracting as his combover wig/cap). Henderson loses the plantation to evil Randolph Stevens (M.C. Gainey) in a card game, and with his crew of brutal overseers, Stevens makes it clear to Emperor and the others that things are gonna change. When his young son Tommy (Trayce Malachi) is whipped for having the audacity to know how to read, Emperor snaps and kills three of Stevens' guys, and in their attempt to escape, Emperor's wife Sarah (Naturi Naughton) is shot dead.






Now a fugitive, Emperor becomes a folk hero as he makes his way along the Underground Railroad, encountering a seemingly kind but treacherous slave (Mykelti Williamson) who tries to turn him in to buy his own freedom, as well as affable white bank robber (Keean Johnson). In hot pursuit is ruthless bounty hunter Luke McCabe (Ben Robson) as EMPEROR basically becomes a pre-Civil War version of THE FUGITIVE before he crosses paths with Brown (James Cromwell), Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix), and Robert E. Lee (James LeGros). The dialogue is as leaden as can be, with someone telling Emperor "You're not just a runaway slave anymore...you're a symbol!" and a wide-eyed Emperor asking Brown "Is that who I think it is?" as Brown replies "That's right, son...that's Frederick Douglass." Nigerian actor Okeniyi (whose credits include small roles in THE HUNGER GAMES and TERMINATOR: GENYSIS and was one of the corrupt crew of cops on the Jennifer Lopez/Ray Liotta NBC series SHADES OF BLUE) turns in a strong performance and gives the flimsy material a lot more gravity than it deserves, but even he can't overcome an inane finale that finds Emperor outrunning a CGI explosion that looks like something out of an Asylum ripoff of 12 YEARS A SLAVE. He gets solid support from the always-excellent Cromwell and Bruce Dern, who's upstaged by a hilariously terrible wig but nonetheless sympathetic as Levi Coffin, an ally along the Underground Railroad. (PG-13, 99 mins)



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