Deadline (2009)


Maybe she should have taken a shower.

Maybe she should have taken a shower.

(2009) Psychological Thriller (First Look) Brittany Murphy, Thora Birch, Tammy Blanchard, Marc Blucas, Claudia Troll, Michael Piscitelli (voice). Directed by Sean McConville

Writers block is a bitch. When in the throes of it, you can’t think and you certainly can’t write. Everything feels wrong, like things are out of place and you can’t think where they are supposed to be. It’s frustrating and there is no sure way to break it.

Alice (Murphy) is a screenwriter with a deadline coming up. She is fast in the grip of Le Block but has good reason to be – her boyfriend tried to drown her in their bathtub, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with at the time. Her boyfriend was sure that she was sleeping around and the baby wasn’t his.

A producer friend with more money than sense offers up a decrepit Louisiana plantation he has access to for Alice and tells her that if she locks herself alone in there with a week’s worth of food and drink with nothing else to connect her to the outside world the words will start flowing like the Mississippi. Alice, despite the fact that her homicidal boyfriend is being released from jail, agrees to it despite the misgivings of her friend Rebecca (Blanchard).

So to distract herself from the blank pages Alice explores the crumbling mansion and in the attic discovers a box of videos taken by the house’s former owners and a camcorder. She begins to watch them and discovers they are of David (Blucas) and Lucy (Birch), a couple who simply left the mansion one night and never returned. Nobody knows where they are.

Alice discovers some eerie similarities to her own situation. Lucy, for one thing, was pregnant. And David was growing paranoid, thinking that the baby wasn’t his. And Alice is becoming more and more certain that Lucy haunts the old plantation. And that her boyfriend (Piscitelli) is stalking her and knows right where she is. Is all this really happening or is it a product of Alice’s paranoid imagination?

This was the last picture to be released during the late Murphy’s lifetime (another one, in the can, still awaits release later this year although she passed away four years ago) and it isn’t a bad one from her perspective. She nails the role nicely, giving Alice a kind of emotionally fragile veneer but with a personality that’s endearing enough to make you identify with her character. Even those who aren’t fans of her work as I am will find this performance worth checking out.

It’s a shame that she wasn’t given a lot more to work with. The script is fairly routine, with the usual jumps and twists that you expect to find in a psychological thriller/is the house haunted or is she crazy kind of movie. There are also some real head-scratchers here; why would anyone agree to go somewhere remote all by themselves when there was prospectively someone who wanted to do them harm running around on the loose? And if the couple disappeared, what were their videos doing in the attic, particularly if there was damming evidence on the tapes (i.e. Lucy’s murder)?

One gets the sense that the script was written in a hurry by someone with writer’s block just borrowing whole cloth bits and pieces from other movies. The concept is nice (although it could have gotten there with a little more logic) and there is some genuine creepiness to be found. Those and Murphy’s performance are pretty much the film’s saving graces but I wouldn’t look too hard for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performance by Murphy. Some chilling moments. Nice concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Basically kinda been there, done that. No real surprises and a whole lot of stuff that must be taken on faith.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, some disturbing images, a bit of violence and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The DVD was pulled from Redbox shelves after star Brittany Murphy passed away 19 days after the video release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Lies Beneath

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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The Dead Girl


The Dead Girl

The late Brittany Murphy is about to become The Dead Girl.

(2006) Mystery (First Look) Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Toni Collette, Bruce Davison, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Searcy, Mary Steenburgen, Kerry Washington. Directed by Karen Moncrieff

Every so often we experience something profound; it changes our point of view and might well change our lives completely. Not all of these experiences are pleasant. Some, in fact can be grisly and ugly. That is simply the nature of life; not all of it is pretty.

Arden (Collette) discovers a badly beaten and mutilated body of a young woman while out jogging. She calls the police and becomes a bit of a local celebrity which gets the notice of Rudy (Ribisi), a bagboy at her local grocery who asks her out. Arden lives with her mom (Laurie) who is a bit of a sadistic monster, forcing her daughter to wait on her hand and foot and generally degrading and belittling her.

Leah (Byrne), a graduate forensics student, finds out about the body on the news and thinks it might be her long-missing sister. Her mother (Steenburgen) urges Leah to let go and move on but Leah is convinced it’s the missing girl. However, after a close medical examination it turns out that Leah is mistaken.

In the meantime Ruth (Hurt), a devout Christian, suspects that her husband Carl (Searcy) is sleeping with another woman. She sets about finding proof of his infidelity and discovers instead evidence that her husband might be a serial rapist and murderer. She is torn between her loyalty to her husband and telling the police what she’s found.

The dead girl is identified as Krista Kutcher (Murphy) and her devastated mom (Harden), from whom Krista had run away from years back, tries to pick up the pieces, visiting her roommate (Washington) to find out more about the daughter she never knew – and to meet the granddaughter she never knew she had.

Finally, we see the last day of Krista, her relationship with her pimp boyfriend (Brolin) and the love she has for her daughter and the determination that she doesn’t repeat her past mistakes. We also discover what led her to the fateful encounter with the man who would leave her in that field for Arden to discover.

The story is told in a series of five vignettes, each concerned with a specific woman and how she is affected by the discovery of the dead body, even indirectly (as with Ruth). Moncrieff who attracted some critic love with her feature debut Blue Car resists the temptation to interweave the vignettes and instead tells them consecutively, back to back to back to back to back, letting each story play out to its conclusion and leaving us to wonder about the dead girl until the final tale.

She cast some very strong actresses here starting with the late Murphy, who would die tragically young only three years after making this. She makes Krista a strong woman but one who has allowed her emotions to override her sense time after time. She’s a little unstable and that has led to her girl being raised by others. Although we know in advance what fate is to befall her, she is not portrayed so much as a victim here as much as someone who refuses to be one any longer.

Harden also gets kudos as the mom who alienated her daughter to the point where she ran away, now realizing too late she can never make things right between them. It’s a powerful portrayal and while there is much pathos to it, Harden is never manipulative in the role, preferring to make her character try to understand her daughter rather than grieve nonstop over her.

Some of the vignettes work better than others (the first two are less effective than the last three) but all of them work as a whole. There is a certain squalor here – this isn’t a pretty picture as mentioned earlier – and a dark undertone that is relentless throughout. This isn’t a happy tale, although there are moments where characters experience some kind of enlightenment.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch. It hits hard on an emotional level, aided and abetted by strong performances throughout (including the ones highlighted). It is definitely a woman’s movie, about how women are affected by the death of a sister, a daughter, a stranger. It also illustrates how vulnerable women are in a world where men will absolutely take what they want regardless of consequence, both to themselves and to the woman involved.

WHY RENT THIS: Very well-acted and the stories resolve together nicely. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like all of these sorts of anthology films, not every vignette works.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language, some nudity and sexuality and some images that are a bit grisly and disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Dead Girl’s last name is Kutcher. Actress Brittany Murphy dated Ashton Kutcher for a time after both starred in the movie Just Married.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $905,291 on an unreported production budget; it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the movie lost money during its brief theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Hatchet II

August


August

Robin Tunney and Andre Royo are baffled by Josh Hartnett's rehearsal of an Oscar acceptance speech.

(First Look) Josh Hartnett, Adam Scott, Naomie Harris, David Bowie, Rip Torn, Robin Tunney, Andre Royo, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Ron Insana, Caroline Lagerfelt. Directed by Austin Chick

America is fascinated by entrepreneurs, particular the ones that seem to live by their own rulebook. We applaud their aggressiveness and secretly admire their ability to take risks and go after whatever they want, an ability that most of us don’t possess.

Tom Sterling (Hartnett) is the public face of LandShark, a dot com whose product is never really detailed. His brother Joshua (Scott) is the genius behind LandShark, the programmer who developed the product that has made the executives of the company billionaires when the company went public. Tom is the salesman, the loud, brash jerk who has a perpetual middle finger extended to those who don’t get with the program.

That was at the beginning of 2001. As the summer would wear on, the bursting bubble of the dot.com world would render their shares nearly worthless. The capital needed to operate the company was evaporating. Tom’s rock star lifestyle of parties, clubs and an endless supply of willing women is a cover for his increasing loneliness and stress.

As the problems at LandShark continue to grow worse, the rift between the brothers grows incrementally. Joshua is everything Tom is not; where Tom is flashy, Joshua is reserved. Where Tom is aggressive, Joshua is mellow. Where Tom is self-absorbed, Joshua is all about his family. Tom has spent most of his money; Joshua has saved as much as he could.

Their parents (Lagerfelt, Torn) are refugees from the Sixties, socially aware and in the case of the father, a bit contemptuous of the accomplishments of his sons. Throw into the mix Sarrah (Harris), an architect that Tom once had a thing for and still in fact does and Tom’s life is about ready to explode.

This might easiest be explained as Wall Street.com but that’s not really the sum of its parts, not really. Tom Sterling is no Gordon Gekko, although the two share an ego that dwarfs the island of Manhattan. Certainly it is a cautionary tale that bears some resonance in an era when the excesses of unregulated business has brought our country to its economic knees.

However Hartnett carries the movie quite nicely; he is just enough of a prick to be interesting, just vulnerable enough to allow us to relate to him. It’s not what I would call an Oscar-worthy performance, but it does illustrate why Hartnett is becoming one of the most solid lead actors around; while he hasn’t gotten the major studio roles that can bring recognition and better roles, he is due for one.

Bowie shows up in the last reel as an old money venture capitalist that holds the fate of LandShark in his hands, and the part is memorable to say the least. Torn, Harris and Scott all do well in their roles as well. In fact, the movie is uniformly well-acted.

The writing could have used a little shoring up. At times, the movie seems to lose its focus and by the end of the movie I found myself wondering if there was a real point here, other than to say “hey, business is, like, bad, dude” in a nasal, asthmatic wheeze. There was a story here but I’m nt sure they told all of it. Even so, there’s enough here to make it interesting viewing if you’re looking for something you haven’t seen yet.

WHY RENT THIS: The arrogance and frenetic lifestyle of the dot.com millionaires is perfectly captured. Hartnett performs solidly and Bowie is a pleasant addition in the third reel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders a little bit and the point is a little elusive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of foul language and a whole little bit of sexuality, enough to make this for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nathan Larson, who composed the electronic score for the movie, is married to Swedish pop star Nina Persson of The Cardigans.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Clash of the Titans (1981)

The Amateurs


The Amateurs

Jeff Bridges goes on a junk food binge while Patrick Fugit captures it on video for the tabloid shows.

(First Look) Jeff Bridges, Ted Danson, Lauren Graham, Joe Pantoliano, Jeanne Tripplehorn, William Fichtner, Patrick Fugit, Tim Blake Nelson, Glenne Headly, Steven Weber, Brad Garrett, Isaiah Washington, Eileen Brennan. Directed by Michael Traeger

It is a human need to feel like one has accomplished something. Success breeds self-confidence; the lack thereof breeds its opposite.

Andy Sargentee (Bridges) is one of the latter. He has gone through scheme after scheme with a spectacular lack of success. His wife Thelma (Tripplehorn) has divorced him and remarried Howard (Weber), a millionaire. His son is understandably impressed by his new father-in-law but he still loves Andy for who he is. Love is one thing, however; respect is another.

Andy feels like he has to do something to get his son’s respect. But what to do? He ruminates for several days in a local tavern, his friends and neighbors, knowing Andy’s penchant for harebrained schemes, steer well clear as best they can. At last, Andy hits on an idea: porn. Not only that, amateur porn. It generates billions of dollars in revenue on the internet; why can’t the good townsfolk of Butterface Fields grab a slice of that tasty pie?

Of course, talking about it is one thing. Assembling a cast and crew is quite another. Most of Andy’s buddies share a distinct tinge of loser in their make-up, but all are game and are all on board. Some Idiot (Pantoliano) whose name is…well, it’s too much to go into right here but trust me, it’s apt…lobbies for and is made the writer/director of the budding skinflick. Then there’s Otis (Fichtner) who wants to feel a part of the movie but doesn’t want to screw it up is given the executive producer title. And let us not forget Moose (Danson) who is gay and is blissfully unaware that everyone knows, and Barney (Nelson), Andy’s best friend who pines away for Helen (Headly); they are both producers. Their best asset, however, may be Emmett (Fugit), who works at the video store and has taken some filmmaking classes. So deeply has the bug bitten him that he carries a small videocamera wherever he goes, documenting everything.

However, the stumbling block is getting actors – particularly actresses. There is no shortage of willing male participants but there are few women in town who are – ahem – photogenic that are willing to be schtupped on camera in living color for the world to see. Even if they do get enough women to make the epic porno they have in mind, can these lifelong screw-ups pull it together to actually make the film?

First-time director Traeger has assembled an impressive cast, led by the redoubtable Bridges. This is a role that Bridges can play in his sleep and often has; Andy has a great deal in common with characters Bridges has played in The Big Lebowski and The Fisher King. He’s good-hearted and a little bit off the deep end. He is supported with some pretty impressive actors, all of whom ooze charm.

Charm is not what this movie is short on. What it is short on is laughs. I don’t have a problem with a movie relying on quirky characters for its humor but there is a dearth of truly funny moments and jokes, not a good sign for a comedy. Still, there is enough to make it through.

The narration of the movie tends to drag it down. Bridges is a charming enough narrator but the movie relies too heavily on it. I would have preferred less explanation and a little more action, to quote the King.

While the subject matter is certainly titillating, there’s little overt sex. It’s true that most of the film’s actresses, particularly those involved in the porno (Hedley, Melinda Dahl and the veteran Valerie Perrine, too long absent from the big screen) are easy enough on the eyes, there’s no nudity to speak of (except that which is implied).

I have to admit that the film’s charm won me over. I know the small town with the eccentric citizens is a bit of a hoary cliché, but when it is done well – as it is here – it can be a very entertaining conceit. While the movie is far from perfect, I enjoyed my visit to Butterface Fields and wouldn’t mind a return visit.

WHY RENT THIS: Quirky and relentlessly good-natured, the movie handles the sensitive subject matter flawlessly. Bridges is intensely likable in a role he can play in his sleep.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie relies overly much on the narration and some of the humor doesn’t work. Too many characters make for too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is a bit much for kids, even if it is handled humorously. The language, however, is a bit foul.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the characters were named after characters from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Friday the 13th (2009)

10 Items or Less


10 Items or Less

Morgan Freeman discovers that people will do all sorts of things when told to over a loudspeaker.

(First Look) Morgan Freeman, Paz Vega, Anne Dudek, Jonah Hill, Alexandra Berardi, Bobby Cannavale, Kumar Pallana, Jim Parsons, Danny de Vito, Rhea Perlman. Directed by Brad Silberling

As we move through life, our lives intersect briefly with other lives, and then we move on. Sometimes even the briefest of interactions can affect us profoundly, having an impact on the remainder of our lifetime.

An actor – nay, a movie star – known here only as Him (Freeman), is considering a new project (not a film – things aren’t to that stage yet). He hasn’t committed to it yet, which is somewhat surprising, since he (or is it He?) hasn’t done a movie for four years and is coming dangerously close to being “Say, weren’t you that guy who…”

Because the role is as a grocery store manager, the production company sets up an opportunity for Him to research the role at an actual grocery store in the godforsaken wasteland that is Carson, California. He is driven there by an overeager Kid (Hill) who is not so much starstruck as he is hyperactive. The Kid promises to be back in an hour, but we never see him again, which isn’t very surprising to anybody, not even Him.

He finds himself drawn to Scarlet (Vega), an acerbic check-out clerk in the Express Checkout Lane – the one where you can have no more than ten items or less in your cart. She foils customers who would skirt the rules, terrifies an assistant manager (Pallana) who is deaf as a post and slower than that molasses spill on aisle four, and has a running war with the only other checkout clerk (Dudek) in the market who despite the dearth of help seems content to sit on her behind while Scarlet does most of the work.

Scarlet, who emigrated to America from Spain, has found life incredibly hard in the Land of Milk and Honey. She’d gotten married to a man in what turned out to be a major mistake, has had most of her hopes and dreams crushed by the realities of Los Angeles and has been burned so often that she doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe – often they are one and the same in her experience. Despite all this, she finds a common bond with Him.

In turn, he is fascinated by her and her ethics. When he discovers she is going on a job interview later that day, he is keen to go with her, but insists on taking her shopping at Target for new clothes. As an actor, he understands that first impressions are everything during an audition, and when playing a role, one must look the part. The two couldn’t be any more worlds apart than they are, but still they develop a surprisingly intense friendship.

Silberling, director of such blockbusters as Lemony Snicket and City of Angels, picked this indie project for the challenge of completing shooting in 15 days.  It’s a quiet little movie, offering no great emotional resolution nor any particular insight that you can’t find elsewhere. Still, it is refreshing to watch a movie content to remain within its own framework.

Freeman does a bang-up job of essentially playing himself. Although there are some differences between Freeman and Him, there are enough similarities that it becomes eerie at times. For me, however, the opportunity to watch Vega (previously incendiary in Spanglish) is well worth it. Not only is she one of the most beautiful women in the world, she is a tremendous actress who truly wears her heart on her sleeve. I was riveted every time she made an appearance.

This is a shamelessly independent movie; the production values are next to nothing and at times, it seemed like the pace of the movie was hurried a bit, as if they had some sort of deadline to meet even after the movie had been shot. I liked it and found it charming at times (enough to give it a recommendation), but I can see where that charm would wear thin on people. Think of it as “Seinfeld” without the laughs.

WHY RENT THIS: Paz Vega. Charming without being overbearing. Paz Vega.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground broken here.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit too coarse for young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie to be available legally on the Internet while it was still playing in theaters.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: This has one of the most light-hearted set of features that aren’t out-and-out parodies. A Q&A session with the two main stars and director Silberling in the middle of a Target store, as well as a making-of feature that is notable in that it is longer than the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Leap Year

Sukiyaki Western Django


Sukiyaki Western Django

Six-shooters are for pussies.

(First Look) Hideaki Ito, Koishi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Quentin Tarantino, Masanobu Ando, Takaaki Ishibashi, Yoshino Kimura, Teruyuki Kagawa. Directed by Takashi Miike

Some movies go beyond description. Any attempt to do so is to invite failure for these movies are so innovative, so out there that no description of the plot or the film can really do it justice.

Sukiyaki Western Django is just such a film. Japanese director Miike, one of the most prolific and crazed directors of the last decade, does his take on the Italian western of Sergio Leone and his ilk and filters it through the eyes of…well, I’m not really sure.

To try and summarize the plot is pointless. Let’s just say that it is loosely based on the 1966 Sergio Corbucci movie Django but also on the Japanese historical epic novel “The Tale of Heike,” whose warring factions are used here – the Red (Heike) and the White (Genji) clans. They are both seeking a treasure in the hills of Nevada, which look suspiciously Japanese in a mining town that is entirely populated by Japanese and has a striking architectural mix of Old West saloons and pagodas.

In the middle of all this is a mysterious gunslinger (Ito) whose participation would tip the balance in favor of one clan or the other, so he is vigorously pursued by both. Tarantino shows up as a legendary gunslinger (mostly in old age make-up to the point where he’s barely recognizable) who appreciates a fine dish of sukiyaki as long as its not too sweet.

There are shoot-outs – a ton of them – and plenty of blood, with a sense of the whimsical. In the first post-prologue scene, one of the nameless thugs gets a hole blown in his stomach, and while he stares at the gaping wound in astonishment an arrow is shot through the hole to impale another thug sitting on a horse behind the first thug.

Miike has an impressive visual style and he lets it go wild here. The prologue takes place on what is obviously a set with a stylized backdrop that recalls Japanese anime as it might have been done on the backdrop of a saloon stage. Flowers give bloom to…fetuses. An eight-armed animated gunslinger turns up from time to time.

The action is frenetic. Miike wisely avoids dwelling too much on the finer points of the plot and instead concentrates on the mayhem. Now, keep in mind that twenty minutes were cut out of the Japanese version which I haven’t seen; it’s possible that there may have been more emphasis on the story there. I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it without my head exploding.

The cast, who mostly don’t speak a word of English, deliver their lines in phonetically learned English, making for odd pronunciations and emphases. Think of it as on-set dubbing; while the dialogue matches the actors mouth movements, it contributes to the overall surreality of the movie.

If I were to tell you that this would be a dangerous movie to watch while on acid, that would first off imply that I would have first-hand knowledge of acid, which I do not. Secondly, that would be as close to a one-sentence description as I can possibly come to this movie and in all likelihood the fairest and most accurate description of it. Those who love movies that are visceral and have a complete absence of intellectual properties are going to find this their kind of meal. Those who don’t like roller coaster rides on their DVD player should probably give this a miss.

WHY RENT THIS: This samurai spaghetti Western is so over-the-top that all you can do is admire it. Fans of Tarantino’s best should flock to this one.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit of a mish-mash and can be hard to follow from time to time. The thick Japanese accents are nearly indecipherable for some of the cast.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of gunfights, much slow motion blood and a rape. Definitely not family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look closely at the arm of the mechanical wheelchair that Tarantino is using, the duck hood ornament from Deathproof which he directed is visible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Mostly standard making-of stuff, except that it’s in Japanese with subtitles. In any case, any opportunity to get into the mind of Miike is well worth the visit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: CSA: The Confederate States of America