Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

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The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo di Caprio knows he's getting an Oscar nomination.

Leonardo di Caprio knows he’s getting an Oscar nomination.

(2013) True Life Drama (Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Miloti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, MacKenzie Meehan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

We are all aware that there is something broken on Wall Street; it is often depicted as a kind of testosterone-infused drug-fueled locker room in which over-stimulated men essentially rob America blind. While there are plenty of honest stockbrokers, there is some truth to the notion that the culture of greed exists.

Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) is the poster boy for that culture. He starts off as an ambitious stockbroker, taken under the wing of a successful broker (McConaughey) who initiates him in the cult of screw you – making the customer money is not the first order of business. Getting his fees are. And keeping those fees coming in even if that means selling some poor schmuck stocks he can’t afford or worse, stocks the broker knows are going to lose money.

Belfort quickly realizes that the real money is to be made in owning his own firm and that selling penny stocks were a vastly underserved market in which the brokers can make a huge amount of money in a short amount of time. With partner Donny Azoff (Hill) Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a literal boiler room where brokers make high-pressure sales of penny stocks.

Belfort found that defrauding his clientele was far more profitable for him personally than actually working for it and soon finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. Of course, men with more money than they know what to do with usually find things to do with it – drugs, prostitutes, a luxury yacht, a trophy wife. In Belfort’s case, the latter turns out to be Naomi (Robbie), a Jersey shore princess and model.

As Belfort’s shenanigans grow more egregious he and his firm attracts the attention of the FBI in the person of dogged agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Constantly in a drugged haze of cocaine and Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff decide to launder their money and use drug dealer Brad (Bernthal) and a loathsome Swiss banker (Dujardin) to do it. But as those who ride too high will tell you, the fall is inevitable and not very pretty when it comes.

Scorsese has delivered another masterpiece in his storied career. Frequent collaborator (this is the fifth movie they’ve done together) di Caprio is at his best. His manic portrayal of Belfort is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination later this month and is at the moment the odds on favorite to win the gold.

He is mesmerizing every moment he’s on the screen and this with a character that is basically a douchebag. He basically thumbs his nose at everything decent and does everything to the point where you could charitably call him evil and yet di Caprio is so good that we can’t turn away. Belfort is a train wreck of a human being and di Caprio keeps our eyes glued on him.

Hill also delivers what might be a superior performance to his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. His Azoff is smarmy, smart but not as smart as Belfort and a bit cowardly. He is the kind of guy who wants to live the high life but doesn’t have the brains or the charisma to get it himself so he rides on Belfort’s coattails. At the end of the day, Hill makes this guy less of a rat and more of a flawed human being whose mantra of every man for himself informs his every decision.

I’ve noticed that conservative viewers tend to look at this movie as a liberal Hollywood hatchet job on Wall Street so those who tend to get their information from Fox News might want to give this one a skip. While the excesses here seem over-the-top, they are all documented – by the real Jordan Belfort himself. I must also add that while Belfort bilked his customers out of more than a billion dollars, he did go to jail for it. Some of the Wall Street bigwigs from established firms stole far more from their clients and damn near bankrupted our economy yet none of them are in jail. I guess it’s all in who you know.

Part of the downfall for Belfort is his drug use and that is depicted pretty graphically here. If the sight of di Caprio snorting a line off of a naked woman’s breasts is uncomfortable for you, if the idea of seeing the results of Quaalude intoxication makes you queasy, this might not be the movie for you. I must admit that a scene late in the movie in which Belfort and Azoff take some powerful Quaaludes that don’t have a reaction in the normal amount of time turns into one of the funniest scenes of the year. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about laughing at it; watching a drug addict having a seizure after an overdose sounds cruel but I suppose if you can’t laugh at someone who has to roll their way down a staircase and only able to communicate in a kind of hooting grunt, who can you laugh at?

Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there’s a hint of controversy involved and the movie definitely isn’t for conservative Wall Street apologists. However for everyone else, there is something to be said for watching someone playing so fast and so loose without a care for the consequences of his actions get his which leads to my next point; if I have one gripe about the movie it’s that there isn’t anything about the very real human consequences to Belfort’s clients. That aspect might illustrate the real tragedy of the Jordan Belfort story in that the people who paid for his crimes and continue to do so never really get a face.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio and Scorsese hit another one out of the park. Hysterically funny in places, heartbreaking in others.

REASONS TO STAY: Belfort is such a scumbag it’s really hard to identify with him let alone root for him.

FAMILY VALUES:  More drug use than you thought humanly possible, graphic nudity and sex, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush and even a little violence for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Footage of the actual beach party in the Hamptons depicted here with the real Jordan Belfort can be found on YouTube.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boiler Room

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Punk Singer

Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

(2009) Biography (MPI) Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston, Jamie Harris, Sara Sugarman, William Thomas, Andrew Tiernan, Kinsey Packard, Ania Sowinski, James Jagger, Howell Evans, Ken Russell, Ferdy Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Olivia Grant. Directed by Bernard Rose

The 60s and 70s were the era when drug culture became widespread and suddenly there was a worldwide demand for narcotics. It took all kinds to make sure the supply kept up with the demand – and some drug dealers were the most unlikely souls indeed.

Howard Marx (Ifans) was an honest and well-adjusted boy from Wales who managed to earn himself an education at Oxford. He’s studying alone in his room one night when exchange student Ilze Kadegis (Pataky) bursts into his room looking for a secret passageway. When she finds it, a curious Howard follows her to an old storage room where Graham Plinson (Huston), the university’s biggest dope dealer, hides his stash. Ilze seduces Howard and introduces Howard to the joys of cannabis. From that point on, Howard is hooked and becomes one of Graham’s best customers with his academics suffering predictably as a result.

When Plinson and Howard’s friends start experimenting with harder drugs, tragedy ensues and Howard vows not to touch the serious stuff ever again and rededicates himself to his studies, passing by the skin of his teeth (and with a bit of underhanded chicanery). He marries Ilze and takes a job as a teaching assistant (what they called a teacher training position back then) at the University of London. By now, the swinging ’60s were in full flower and Carnaby Street was the bloom on the rose. Howard was fully into the scene, prompting a reprimand for long hair and flashy suits.

When Plinson gets arrested after plans to transport a shipment of hashish from Germany to England go awry, Howard – his marriage on the ropes, his job rapidly going down the toilet – figures he has nothing to lose and steps in to help. Because he’s not a known drug dealer, he sails through the customs checkpoints without so much as a second glance. Howard finds that the adrenaline rush of smuggling drugs appeals to him and he decides to take it up as a vocation  He eventually becomes one of the world’s largest marijuana traffickers – at one point controlling a fairly large percentage of the world’s supply.

However, the problem with this kind of lifestyle is that eventually people start gunning for what you have, and soon Howard finds himself playing a dangerous game. It’s one that will get him arrested and dropped into one of the nastiest prisons in the United States.

This is based on the autobiography of  Howard Marks (uh huh, this is a true story) and Marks served as a consultant on the film, proclaiming it as accurate even though there were some differences between his book and the movie. One gets the sense that there are a few brain cells not functioning quite up to optimum for ol’ Howard these days.

The same might be said of the filmmakers. The movie often feels like it was written by one stoned, and directed while the same. Plenty of stoner clichés – half-naked chicks rolling around on a bed full of cash, slow-mo shots of the arrest and so on – mar the film. While I liked that the first part of the movie was shot in black and white, switching to color when Howard takes his first psychedelic, at times one gets the sense that the film is stuck in neutral waiting for the GPS to kick in and send it somewhere.

Ifans is an engaging actor and as he did in Notting Hill he does a good job of playing the stoner. Although the Nice of the title refers to the city in France, it is also apt to the demeanor of Marks as portrayed by Ifans. I’m pretty sure the intent here was to portray Marks as a counterculture Robin Hood-sort, fighting the battle of worldwide weed, but I keep getting the sense that we’re seeing very much a self-promotion more than an accurate portrayal.  While honestly I have nothing against Marks, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated the movie more if he had a few more warts here.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent, although Sevigny has a truly terrible English accent. She’s a fine actress but I found the accent distracting and thought the film would have been better served if she hadn’t attempted it, or if they’d hired a British actress instead.

The era is captured nicely and we get a sense of the wide-open era that was the ’60s and ’70s. This is more of a throwback to films of that era in many ways – the drug dealer is the hero and unlike the modern version of heroic Hollywood drug dealers these days, he doesn’t have automatic rifles, machine pistols or military training. Howard is no Rambo by any stretch of the imagination.

Those who dislike movies about drugs and drug dealers should give this a wide berth. You’ll only give yourself an aneurysm. Stoners will find this to be excellent entertainment with a hero they can get behind. As for the rest of us, this doesn’t really distinguish itself much – but it doesn’t disgrace itself overly much either. A lot of how you’ll find this movie will depend on your attitudes towards cannabis to begin with. Me, I’m allergic to the stuff so that should give you some insight to where I’m coming from.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty decent performance by Ifans. Nicely immersed in the era it’s set.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of runs together and loses cohesion. Sevigny’s accent is atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug use and foul language as well as some sexuality and violence (and a bit of nudity).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Marks’ autobiography on which the film is based, he claimed to have been betrayed to the American authorities by Lord Moynihan but that isn’t brought up in the film here for legal reasons.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Fruitvale Station


A precursor to tragedy.

A precursor to tragedy.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Shears, Destiny Ekwueme, Bianca Rodriguez III, Julian Keyes, Kenny Grimm, Thomas Wright, Alejandra Nolasco. Directed by Ryan Coogler

On December 31, 2008 a young man and his girlfriend left their daughter at a relative’s house and took a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to San Francisco to celebrate the new year. After a few hours of revelry, they returned home on the same train. A fight was said to have broken out, so the train was stopped at the Fruitvale Station so that the transit police could investigate. Four young African-American men were pulled off the train and detained, including the young father. When he rose up to protest, he was forced to the ground with an officer’s knee in his face. While he was down, another officer shot him in the back. He would die the next morning from his wounds.

The young man’s name was Oscar Grant III and his death provoked massive protests and outcry particularly on the West Coast. In the wake of the recent Trayvon Martin decision, his story is more relevant than ever.

The movie opens with actual footage of the incident (many passengers on the train captured it on their cell phones, as did surveillance cameras on the station platform) and then flashes back 24 hours as we see Oscar (Jordan) in the last 24 hours of his life. This young man was no saint – he had a temper and had been incarcerated for selling drugs. He’d recently lost his job in a grocery store for being late to work too often and had recently cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz).

Still, he clearly loved his daughter Tatiana (Neal) and was trying his best to be a good father to her. Despite his indiscretion, he wanted nothing more than a more permanent relationship with Sophina. And he adored his mother Wanda (Spencer) and looked up to her as a role model. He, Sophina and Tatiana spent the evening having dinner with Wanda and celebrating her birthday. Worried that traffic in and out of the city would be bad and that with all the drunk people on the road it might be dangerous, Wanda urges Oscar to take the train which he and his buddies (along with Sophina and another girl) elect to do, a train that will take Oscar to his final moments.

This will undoubtedly go down as one of the best films of 2013 and will certainly merit some awards consideration (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Weinstein do a brief theatrical re-release right around Christmas to remind Academy voters how good this movie is). I won’t lie and say this is a completely objective movie, but neither is it unrealistic – Oscar Grant had some issues in his short life and his family would undoubtedly be the first to say so. He’s not portrayed as some kind of saint here, but as a real guy struggling to better his life and the lives of his family. Most of us are no different in that regard.

Jordan delivers a real star turn here. He has the best onscreen smile since Tom Cruise and shows amazing screen presence and charisma here. He transforms Oscar Grant from a name on newscasts into flesh and blood. I don’t know how close he was to capturing the personality of the real Oscar Grant (although friend of the family Jack Bryson indicated that it was) but Jordan makes the impending tragedy hanging over the bulk of this movie like a Sword of Damocles all the more poignant because while he was far from perfect, Oscar Grant was a good man.

Octavia Spencer has already won an Oscar and she might just get another one as Oscar’s tough loving mom. She demands – and receives – respect from her son, and is the kind of mom that everyone loves and whose respect and approval everyone craves. Spencer gives Wanda inner strength (which the real Wanda possesses in abundance) and her grief for her son in the movie’s closing scenes is hard to watch.

The movie is highly fictionalized, portraying an incident in which Oscar watches a dog get hit by a car after which it dies in his arm (portending his own fate) and a shopper at the grocery store (O’Reilly) trying to get a recipe for a fish fry whom he connects with his grandma (Shears). In fact, Oscar is constantly on his phone, a conceit that is used throughout the movie by projecting the phone screen onscreen to show us the texts he’s receiving. It’s very effective.

There are those who will grouse that the movie is manipulative, but that’s bull. It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by the events that transpire onscreen. It’s hard not to like Oscar Grant and wish he was still around to take care of his family. But it’s harder still to avoid the conversation that should and does ensue – that even now, 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, we as a nation still treat our African-American citizens with suspicion and prejudice. While I can’t say it’s entirely unjustified to be wary of young African-American, they still deserve better than to be profiled and shot like animals. That we’re still having this conversation in 2013 is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and moving. Career-defining work by Jordan. Possible Oscar consideration for Spencer and Diaz.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of foul language, a bit of drug use and some violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Film Audience Award at Sundance, and Best First Film at Cannes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100; the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boyz ‘N the Hood

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Red 2

Café


Jennifer Love Hewitt wonders why “Ghost Whisperer” got canceled.

(2011) Drama (Maya Entertainment) Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jamie Kennedy, Alexa Vega, Madeline Carroll, Daniel Eric Gold, Michaela McManus, Khan Baykal, Gavin Bellour, Derek Cecil, Adam Shapiro, Richard Short, Olivia Hoff, Katie Lowes, Hubbel Palmer, Clayton Prince. Directed by Marc Erlbaum

 

A coffee house, a neighborhood place to sit, hang out, surf the web and just talk over a cup of coffee with a friend. Every neighborhood worth its salt has one, whether it be a Starbucks or a local joint, unique to its environment. Some however are much more unique than others.

This particular café has a pair of baristas – Claire (Hewitt) and Todd (Gold). Todd has a thing for Claire, but she’s in a relationship with a brutal, abusive jerk (Bellour) and he’s what you might call a little bit on the mousy side. Just a little bit.

It also has a cast of regulars – a writer (Short) who has a secret connection to Todd. A drug dealer (Kennedy) who is beginning to get the idea that he needs a career change. A married man (Cecil) who attends the movies with a woman (McManus) whom he is desperately attracted to. A cop (Prince) who is looking for his cousin who is a junkie and also a regular at the café.

All of which is witnessed by a man (Palmer) on a laptop who gets a video message from a young girl named Kelly (Lowes) who claims that the café is a computer generated environment she created. The man is at first skeptical but when the programmer makes some things happen, he realizes it’s the truth. He realizes he is face to face with his world’s God.

This is a bit of an allegory, but it’s far from being preachy although there are certainly some Christian overtones. At least you aren’t hit over the head with it, as some faith-based films are prone to doing. No, this can be taken just as easily as a treatise on the nature of reality. Whether the creator is a computer programmer, an all-powerful entity or a series of random events, our existence is shaped by the knowledge – or ignorance – of that which created us.

I have to admit I didn’t expect much from this film, not hearing much of a buzz about it but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie has a great deal of heart and I found myself feeling very comfortable in the café, like one I was familiar with and hung out at all the time which I suspect was the goal of the filmmakers in the first place.

Hewitt is one of those actresses who sometimes doesn’t get the credit that she deserves because of her face and figure which are both spectacular. She’s also a gifted actress who sometimes doesn’t get parts that suit her but here she plays a little bit out of her comfort zone as a battered girlfriend and she does a stellar job.

In fact the entire cast does a pretty solid job. Some of the storylines work better than others (while I like the two characters from the movie infidelity storyline, was it really necessary to the plot?) as is usually the case in movies like this. However, the focus is Gold and Hewitt to a large degree (which is a bit strange given the whole Avatar-Programmer storyline which is the crux of the plot) and they carry it off nicely.

This is probably going to be a little hard to find but worth the effort. It’s a charming film that asks some pretty big questions, doesn’t lead you towards any set of answers and doesn’t seem to conform to any specific philosophy. I like pictures that have both brains and heart – we humans are possessed of both and films that cater to both of them are both rare and appreciated.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice ensemble piece. Had more heart than I anticipated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all the storylines work as well as they might.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some bad language, some drug use and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in a working café in West Philadelphia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diner

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Molly

The High Cost of Living


 

The High Cost of Living

Zach Braff’s fortunes have plummeted since Scrubs was canceled as the mean streets of Montreal can attest.

 

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Zach Braff, Isabelle Blais, Patrick Labbe, Aimee Lee, Julian Lo, Sean Lu, Mylene Savoie, Paula Jean Hixson, Pierre Gendron, Nicole Barber, Anick Lemay, Graham Cuthbertson, Tony Robinow, Kyle Switzer, Ian Finlay, Nicole Jones. Directed by Deborah Chow

There are those who believe that life is a chain of random events strung together linked only by our presence in them. It’s not destiny, it’s not fate – it’s just random chance. People drop in and out of our lives like summer storms and some leave more of an impression than others.

Henry Welles (Braff) is an American living in Montreal on an expired visa. He sells stolen prescription drugs to make ends meet and goes club-hopping at night to  deliver his goods to a variety of clients. He lives above a Chinese food restaurant and those around him don’t know what he does for a living.

Nathalie (Blais) is pregnant and her husband Michel (Labbe) alternately dotes on her and treats her with indifference. One night she feels the labor pains begin – prematurely. Her husband is out so she calls a cab. The visibility on the snowy night is poor so she steps into the street looking for the cab to take her to the hospital. She is promptly struck from behind by a cab going the wrong way up a one way street.

She winds up with a concussion but worse still the baby dies in utero. Normally labor would be induced but the doctors don’t think that a stillbirth would be the best thing for her mental state so she is forced to carry the dead fetus for a couple of weeks longer. A couple of weeks after she gets out of the hospital, she is sitting in a cafe having a drink when a busybody chastises her for drinking while obviously pregnant. She loses it and is aided by Henry, whose compassion and gentle caring nature touches her, unlike her husband who grows more distant with each passing day, blaming Nathalie for losing his child. He and Nathalie eventually split up.

But she and Henry begin to form a strong relationship, even after she discovers what he does for a living. But she won’t be so sanguine when she finds out that it was Henry who ran her down and left her and her baby to die. And he doesn’t know how to tell her

This is not a sunshine and light kind of film but it isn’t a complete death dirge either. This is more about connections, and the very fragile nature of them, of how we sin against one another sometimes and how redemption is not always possible – but forgiveness can be. These are all some pretty deep subjects, and the lot of them in a single film is a pretty daunting task but Chow actually does pretty well with them.

Part of her success is in her casting. Both Braff and Blais (a veteran French-Canadian actress) do some superb work in their roles. Braff in particular is best-known for comedies (he became a fixture on hipper radars with “Scrubs”) but shows he has some dramatic chops that he can boast as well. I’m not sure he’s ready for mainstream leading man-ness but he certainly can hold a film on his shoulders.

Unfortunately there are too many plot points that simply don’t bear much weight. For example, there is no doctor alive who would have a woman carry a dead fetus in her womb for several weeks before she is emotionally ready to have it taken out. First of all, that’s essentially a rotting carcass she has inside of her and no doubt there would be dangers of infections galore and from a medical standpoint I’d think getting it out as quickly and as humanely as possible would be the order of the day. Even if that weren’t the case, I think it would be far more traumatic for a woman to be carrying around her dead baby inside her than to have it taken out. I don’t know; I’m obviously a woman but I suspect most women would agree with me.

The situation is a bit cliché but a movie could withstand that and still be enjoyable. It’s just that there’s too many of them here, from the quirky neighbors to the insensitive husband to…well, that would be telling. In any case, Chow the director deserved better than Chow the writer was able to deliver.

That’s not to say that Chow the writer doesn’t show some promise but I think it’s safe to say she’s more advanced at this moment as a director than she is as a writer. Given some quality material, I think she’s got a career chock full of potential. However, this film is merely a pretty good start for a first-time director with some good performances and some good moments. It’s worth seeing for Braff’s performance but those who aren’t into him might be forgiven if they give this a pass.

WHY RENT THIS: The acting is pretty good, particularly from Blais and Braff.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many indie clichés and a preposterous plot submarine the film’s best intentions.

FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use, some violence, and plenty of sexuality. There is also a plethora of foul words throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Chow’s first feature film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a brief interview with Braff and a short film, Mr. Stache.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Town

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Safety Not Guaranteed

Super


Super

Rainn Wilson is getting tired of all the Dwight Schrute cracks.

(2010) Comedy (IFC) Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Sean Gunn, Stephan Blackehart, Don Mac, Linda Cardellini, Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry, Rob Zombie (voice), Zach Gilford, Mikaela Hoover. Directed by James Gunn

Sometimes we all feel powerless against the forces conspiring to make our lives miserable. All of us wish at one time or another, for the power to right wrongs, to punish the wicked and maybe even protect the weak. It is what inspires comic books and daydreams.

Frank D’Arbo (Wilson) has more reason than most to feel downtrodden. The product of a strict (some would say abusive) religious upbringing, he works as a line cook in a big metropolitan area. His sad sack looks and somewhat dorky demeanor have made him the target for ridicule.

He does have a wife, Sarah (Tyler) that he damn near worships. She’s a recovering drug addict and his marriage to her is one of the two happiest moments of his life (the other is the day he pointed a cop in the direction a purse snatcher ran).

However there is rain on his horizon. His wife has fallen off the wagon and is on heroin, thanks to the drug dealer Jacques (Bacon) that she is now living with. Frank is disconsolate. He can’t sleep, he is moody and irritable and when he discovers what Jacques is he gets beaten up for his troubles.

Apparently Frank has had visions all his life and he has one now; one in which his skull is peeled off and his brain is touched by the finger of God (voiced by Rob Zombie – perhaps the coolest thing in the movie you don’t know you’re experiencing). In that vision, a cable access low-rate Christian superhero named the Holy Avenger (Fillion) tells Frank he has a destiny. Frank believes that destiny is to be a superhero.

Of course, it’s tough to be a superhero without a power but that never stopped Batman or the Green Arrow, so Frank settles on a pipe wrench. He pieces together a costume for himself and voila the Crimson Bolt is born. He hangs out in alleys, waiting for crime to happen (which apparently is a long wait), but when crime happens, he swings into action with his wrench. At first, he goes after obvious criminals but soon his image of absolute justice begins to blur a bit as he attacks line jumpers and car keyers.

He also reluctantly takes on a sidekick – the nerdy geeky clerk at a comic book store, Libby (Page). She’s enthusiastic and a little socially awkward but she quickly figures out what’s going on, especially after Frank gets shot after an abortive attempt on rescuing Sarah. Libby takes on the guise of Boltie and it becomes real evident real fast that she’s very attracted to Frank, particularly in his Crimson Bolt persona – but he still believes he’s very married, although Libby is far too horny to pay attention to such niceties.

Deciding to arm themselves better, Frank gets another vision that brings him to believe that ready or not, they must rescue Sarah now, which turns out to be true since Jacques’ deal with Mr. Range (Mac) apparently includes the sexual favors of the drugged Sarah. Storming the fortress-like ranch of Jacques with well-armed and trained thugs, can the Crimson Bolt and Boltie hope to prevail?

This looks like a superhero spoof on the surface, but it’s far darker than the average spoof. Gunn has created a very realistic look at what superheroes would look like in the real world; there is plenty of blood and viscera here. That might put off the squeamish or the easily offended.

There is something here to offend everybody in that sense, whether it’s the excessive and realistic-looking gore of the wrench assaults, to the somewhat squishy rape of Frank to a vision in vomit. The movie is unrated and probably would have gotten an NC-17 had it been submitted for one although I might have given it an R myself.

Frank is a character not unlike the one Wilson plays on “The Office.” Like Dwight Schrute, Frank isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and he doesn’t quite get that he is the joke. He’s uptight and a little bit on the humorless side, but Frank is a little nicer than Dwight deep down I think.

Page is awesome as the ADHD Libby who turns out to be even more psychotic than Frank. She looks awfully good in her Boltie duds, and she captures the character’s frenetic energy and also her deep-seated need to be somebody, squealing “I always knew I’d be on television” when a police sketch of her and Frank appear on the local news. She can laugh maniacally when she kills a bad guy, but she also seems to have insecurities that Frank feeds into but also bolsters her from in a weird way. It’s a far more complicated role than it looks.

Bacon is great fun as the oily but ultimately evil Jacques. He is smarmy to the point of being a used car salesman, but at the same time he takes delicious fun at testing his new product on his girlfriend. He’s in the great tradition of comic book baddies – he knows he’s bad but he just doesn’t care.

Part of the joke of the movie is that EVERYBODY in it is psychotic or neurotic to one degree or another – except for Sarah, the junkie and even she is an addict. The line between good and bad is blurred to the point that it’s extinct and if we can’t see it, how can a schlub like the Crimson Bolt even hope to figure out where it is?

The reaction I’ve seen to the movie has been polarizing. Some get the joke and laugh loudly while others are simply offended by it. I tended towards the former. Once the Crimson Bolt and Boltie go off to rescue Sarah, the movie goes completely dark and the humor which had been peppering it for most of the film takes a back seat, despite the homage to the comic books a la the old “Batman” TV show with cartoonish BAMs and POWs accenting the violence.

There are religious overtones that some may find offensive, there are fight sequences that some might find offensive, there’s sex and rape that some might find offensive. Those with thick skins however might actually find this cooler than Jesus – literally, since Jesus makes a cameo sitting on a wall during one of Frank’s visions. The point is, if you approach this seriously (as many critics did), then you’re missing the point. Super may lampoon some of the baser elements of superhero conceits, but this isn’t a spoof. No, indeed like Frank himself, this is far more than what it appears to be on the surface.

REASONS TO GO: Darkly funny with lots of laugh out loud moments. Unrepentantly gross.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too ultraviolent for some. Could have used a few more laughs in the final reel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some extreme violence, lots of foul language, some fairly graphic sexuality and nudity and a goodly amount of drug use, among other things, make this so very not for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gunn was formerly married to Jenna Fischer, Wilson’s co-star from “The Office” who recommended him for the role.

HOME OR THEATER: Would fit right in on an old battered television set.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Charlotte’s Web (2006)