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On Blu-ray/DVD: AT ETERNITY'S GATE (2018), THE FRONT RUNNER (2018) and THE BOUNCER (2019)

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AT ETERNITY'S GATE
(UK/Switzerland/Ireland/US/France - 2018)


Beautiful and ponderous in equal measures, AT ETERNITY'S GATE does have an Oscar-nominated performance by Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh to carry it most of the way. Dafoe is so good--here and in general--that he successfully manages to overcome the major obstacle of being a 62-year-old actor playing someone who died at the age of 38. Directed by artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel (BASQUIAT, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY), AT ETERNITY'S GATE focuses on the last few months of Van Gogh's life and his artistic obsession, with a lot of time devoted to his almost sycophantic clinging to his successful contemporary Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). Financially supported by his younger brother Theo (Rupert Friend), Van Gogh and his work would never be recognized in his lifetime, and while Gauguin sees potential, he feels Van Gogh is too erratic and psychologically unstable to focus and think his painting through ("You're changing things so fast that you can't even see what you've done"). It's at Gauguin's suggestion that Van Gogh leaves Paris to find inspiration in Arles in the south of France, and when Gauguin visits him and has to leave to attend to some sales of paintings back home, a devastated Van Gogh melts down and cuts off his left ear to show his devotion. After a stint in a mental hospital, Van Gogh spends his final days on a furious tear of productivity in Auvers-sur-Oise before meeting a tragic end.





Working from a script co-written with 87-year-old Jean-Claude Carriere, a frequent Luis Bunuel collaborator (DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, BELLE DE JOUR, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE) still going strong as he approaches the seventh decade of his screenwriting career, Schnabel often stages his scenes as painterly images, where the screen starts to take on the look and texture of a Van Gogh work, a technique that's reminiscent of but not quite as immersive as Lech Majewski's 2011 film THE MILL AND THE CROSS. Elsewhere, Van Gogh's increasingly fragile mental state is conveyed by the intentional repetition of many lines of dialogue just seconds apart and in a series of distorted camera angles, blurred images, extreme close-ups, and shaky-cam that wouldn't be out of place in a found-footage horror film. Falling on the side of esoteric in comparison to the 1956 Hollywood biopic LUST FOR LIFE, with Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, James Donald as Theo, and an Oscar-winning Anthony Quinn as Gauguin (or even Robert Altman's pre-comeback 1990 film VINCENT & THEO, with Tim Roth as Van Gogh, Paul Rhys as Theo, and Wladimir Yordanoff as Gauguin), but AT ETERNITY'S GATE is sometimes standoffish to a fault, with Schnabel's techniques growing self-indulgent and tedious after a while. Not surprisingly, it works best when he takes a break from the directorial wankery and lets Dafoe work his magic, whether it's a long monologue or in scenes with Isaac, Friend, Mads Mikkelsen as a priest counseling Van Gogh at the mental hospital, and Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Ginoux, the "Woman from Arles" who inspired Van Gogh's famed series of "L'Arlesienne" paintings. (PG-13, 111 mins)



THE FRONT RUNNER
(US/Canada - 2018)


Hitting a handful of theaters on Election Day 2018, THE FRONT RUNNER didn't really catch on and only got a half-hearted, 800-screen rollout from Sony over the next couple of weeks, its gross stalling at $2 million and the film completely forgotten by December. A chronicle of the three weeks leading up to Colorado senator Gary Hart's withdrawal from the 1988 Presidential campaign over allegations of an affair with Donna Rice, THE FRONT RUNNER isn't very subtle about making connections to present-day issues, particularly in an embarrassingly heavy-handed scene late in the film between two Washington Post reporters. Hart, played here by Hugh Jackman, doesn't think the public cares about allegations and politicians' private lives, but as his campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, cast radically against type as "J.K. Simmons") tells him, "It's not '72." In the Senate for 15 years and losing the 1984 Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale, Hart's political star was on the rise, and going into 1988, he was posited as the front runner until a Washington Post reporter (Mamoudou Athie) brings up a brief separation from his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) several years earlier. Already whispered about in political circles as a womanizer, Hart doesn't even mask his indignation and invites the press to "follow me around, put a tail on me...they'll be very bored." Following an anonymous tip, a pair of Miami Herald reporters, Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Jim Savage (BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD creator Mike Judge) do just that and see Rice (Sara Paxton) visiting Hart at his D.C. townhouse. The senator insists she was there for a job interview, though it soon surfaces that they met a short time earlier in Miami on a crowded booze cruise arranged by Hart's lobbyist friend Billy Broadhurst (Toby Huss), on a yacht prophetically christened "Monkey Business."





A relatively tame preview of the media circus that was the Clinton era, the Gary Hart scandal is generally considered ground zero of tabloid journalism working its way into present-day politics. Director/co-writer Jason Reitman (JUNO, UP IN THE AIR) wants to fashion THE FRONT RUNNER as a rallying cry against the 24/7 cable news coverage that was on the horizon, but the end result is superficial and strangely aloof. It takes neither a methodical, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN approach nor one of satire along the lines of VICE. It's just...there. It gets off to a clunky, plodding start and takes a while to recover and find its footing (it doesn't help that every other character seems to be named "Bill" or "Bob"), and keeps everyone at a distance, never really getting into the heads of Hart or his family, with everything reduced to melodramatic proclamations like "The public doesn't care about this!" from Hart and "I told you to never embarrass me!" from Lee. Jackman does what he can with the shallow script (he's very good in a scene where Hart talks a nervous young journalist through some mid-flight turbulence), Alfred Molina is badly miscast as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Paxton has some good moments with Hart's sympathetic top female campaign staffer (Molly Ephraim) who's quietly resentful that Hart is abandoning her to a media that paints her as a bimbo. But much of this ultimately rings hollow if you're aware that Ephraim's character, like the Post reporter played by Athie along with several others, is a composite or an outright fictional creation. There's a few worthwhile bits early on, like Hart and Rice's first meeting during the loud and rambunctious booze cruise, with their conversation barely audible and being drowned out by Boston's "Long Time" (watch Jackson's face when Hart first sees her and immediately turns on the charm), but THE FRONT RUNNER plays like a forgettable HBO biopic, offering about as much insight into the scandal and its impact on future political news coverage as Gary Hart's Wikipedia entry. (R, 113 mins)



THE BOUNCER
(France/Belgium - 2018; US release 2019)


Released in Europe last summer as LUKAS, THE BOUNCER finds Jean-Claude Van Damme in the kind of serious actor mode he's generally avoided since his 2008 meta arthouse confessional JCVD. It comes at the right time, as he's really been skidding in his headlining action vehicles of late, littered with forgettable duds like POUND OF FLESH, KILL 'EM ALL and BLACK WATER in between the rebooted KICKBOXER nostalgia trips. Dumped on US VOD in early January, the French-Belgian co-production THE BOUNCER is a bit different from the film's LUKAS cut in that it's shortened by several minutes and all of the characters have been dubbed into English, where LUKAS had a mix of English, French, and Flemish. Van Damme is speaking both English and French in the overseas LUKAS trailer, but it's all English in THE BOUNCER, and while he's dubbing himself, the obvious revoicing of the French-speaking actors does this version a bit of a disservice. That hiccup aside, THE BOUNCER is Van Damme's best film in years, a surprising departure in a grim, gritty, somber character piece with shocking bursts of violence and some Alfonso Cuaron-inspired tracking shots and unbroken takes by director Julian Leclercq (CHRYSALIS). In Brussels, Lukas (Van Damme) is a bouncer in a club that looks like a Gaspar Noe wet dream. He's tossing out an unruly patron for roughing up a waitress, and a scuffle ensues when the kid plays the "Do you know who I am?" card, ending up with a serious head injury after taking a swing at Lukas, and even though he was defending himself, Lukas still gets fired. He's a widower and single dad with a vague past as a bodyguard in South Africa, struggling to get by and raise his eight-year-old daughter Sarah (Alice Verset). Though he's a loving and doting father, he has no job skills other than beating the shit out of people, and as a result, he ends up looking for work as a bouncer at a strip joint where the job interview consists of six guys locked in a dimly-lit, Tyler Durden-esque basement and the last man standing gets the job. Of course, Lukas gets the job.





The club is owned by Jan Dekkers (Sam Louwyck of EX-DRUMMER), who's known in the Brussels underworld as "The Dutchman" and is running a counterfeiting ring. This puts Lukas in the sights of ambitious cop Maxim Zeroual (Sami Bouajila), who offers to take care of the pending assault charges from his last job if he works as an informant supplying information about The Dutchman and his chief henchman Geert (Kevin Janssens of REVENGE). Story-wise, THE BOUNCER doesn't really bring anything new to the table, but director Leclercq succeeds in creating a bleak and oppressive atmosphere as Lukas gets in too deep, with Van Damme turning in an effective and very internalized performance and using every line and wrinkle in his aged, weathered face to convey just how weary and tired and beaten-down-by-life Lukas has become. During the '00s when he was cranking out some quality DTV actioners and nobody was paying any attention, Van Damme very quietly became a character actor disguised as an action star. Lately, he's been coasting, but THE BOUNCER is a welcome look at the direction his career should've taken after JCVD. That's why it's too bad the only version that's available stateside has all of his scenes with Bouajila and young Verset dubbed into English (quite badly in Bouajila's case) when they were in French in the LUKAS cut. Still, THE BOUNCER is a must-see for JCVD fans interested in seeing him stretch beyond the confines of his usual Redbox fare. He's a much better actor than he's ever gotten credit for being. (R, 87 mins)


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