Saint John of Las Vegas


Saint John of Las Vegas

Some pictures can't be done justice by a simple caption.

(2007) Black Comedy (IndieVest) Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Emmanuelle Chirqui, John Cho, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew McDuffie, Ben Zeller, Aviva, Danny Trejo, Avu, Josh Berry, Isabel Archuleta. Directed by Hue Rhodes

Sometimes, the most expedient solution to facing one’s demons is to run away. It is also one of life’s truths that the easy way is generally not the right way to deal with problems.

John Alighieri (Buscemi) has a particular demon – gambling. He has lost everything due to his addiction and is desperately trying to find himself a “normal life” and by fleeing the gambling dens of Sin City may have found it in the auto insurance company he finds employment at in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But what is insurance but a different kind of gambling? And although John has found himself a new girlfriend – the effervescent Jill (Silverman) who is far prettier than John could have possibly hoped for – he still finds himself in need of cash, so his boss Mr. Townsend (Dinklage) gives him a mission for his sins . Okay, that’s a different allegory.

He sends John out into the field to investigate the claim of one Tasty D. Lite (Chirqui), a stripper in Las Vegas. Accompanying John is Virgil (Malco), a taciturn man who is one of the company’s top investigators.

Into the desert they go, where they meet a strange collection of nutjobs and oddballs, like Smitty the Carnival’s Flaming Man whose fire suit has malfunctioned, going off every twenty seconds or so, turning him into an inferno. Smitty has to wait until the fuel is exhausted but has a desperate craving for a cigarette, which isn’t exactly fire-retardant.

Then there’s Militant Ned (Nelson), a nudist with an automatic weapon dead set on preventing anybody from entering his land. And Tasty herself, who is in a wheelchair after her accident; John asks her for a lapdance which she gamely provides.

The whole point, as Virgil informs John, is to find a way to deny the claim. As John discovers, a normal life may be a whole lot less fulfilling and honest than the one he was trying to avoid, one which he meets head-on in the shopping marts and casinos of Las Vegas.

First time filmmaker Rhodes loosely based his script on the Inferno of Dante Alighieri, and all the temptations show up in one form or another – some more obliquely than others. The problem here is that for a black comedy, there’s far more black than comedy. Some of the bits are pretty funny (the Flaming Man bit for example) while others are mere head-scratchers.

Buscemi is perfectly cast, playing a man who is not entirely sin-free who is in a constant state of confusion. Nobody does the guilty conscience like Buscemi. Dinklage as always strong in his role, playing the money-grubbing and bullying boss to perfection. Silverman, also as always, is wasted in a role that plays on her sex appeal but doesn’t use any of her comedic talents.

This is a wildly uneven movie, well-done in some parts and horrible in others. The concept itself is interesting, but when you think about it, how many people know their Dante well enough to really figure out what’s going on, or more importantly, care? In your case, it’s probably a wash; Buscemi is worth checking out but there is little more than that out there that will either make any sense or worse still, elicit any laughter.

WHY RENT THIS: Buscemi, Malco and Dinklage are solid and the quirky characters that show up throughout the film are at least entertaining. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wildly uneven; some of the bits work like magic, others fall completely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spike Lee was one of the producers for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $111,731 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was not profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Delgo

The Darwin Awards


The Darwin Awards

It's not so much flying as falling with style...

(MGM/Bauer Martinez) Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, Wilmer Valderrama, David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Nora Dunn, Lukas Haas, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Penn, Julianna Margulies, Alessandro Nivola, D.B. Sweeney, Kevin Dunn, Ty Burrell. Directed by Finn Taylor

The human race numbers nearly seven billion people. That’s a lot of variety in the gene pool. That also means there are a lot of people whose genes the human race would be better off without; sometimes they demonstrate this in the method in which they remove themselves from said gene pool.

Michael Burrows (Fiennes) is a police detective in San Francisco with a brilliant mind. In true Sherlock Holmes-like fashion he is able to observe the smallest details in order to create a profile of the criminals he is investigating. Unfortunately, he does have a slight hang-up; he has a phobia about the sight of blood. It causes him to faint. In that particular line of work, this can be a liability.

This comes to pass when he, through brilliant deductive work, manages to corner the North Beach serial killer (Nelson). However, when blood is shed, Burrows passes out and the killer gets away. He loses his job because of it.

Burrows is a methodical and logical sort, so he doesn’t panic. He knows that his gifts would be of great use in other industries. He has also developed a fascination for the recipients of the Darwin Awards – people who die in foolish and bizarre manners, so-named because those who cash out in these manners have failed the basic law of evolution: survival of the fittest. He realizes that the insurance companies pay millions out to survivors of these people and that his expertise might be useful in not only determining the difference between legitimate accidents and Darwin Award candidates, but also in pinpointing people who exhibit the kind of behavior that would make them susceptible to that kind of demise. 

He interviews at a large insurance company to pitch them his skills. At first, the executive (Kevin Dunn) who is interviewing him is skeptical but when Burrows makes some observations of the executive that are painfully close to home based on almost no information, the executive changes his tune. He pairs Burrows with Siri Taylor (Ryder), an investigator who specializes in bizarre cases.

She is none too thrilled to have a new partner, but has to admit grudgingly that Burrows is good at what he does when he figures out that what appears to be an industrial accident when a vending machine falls on a hapless office worker (Burrell) is actually a result of that worker over-balancing the machine in violation of the warning plainly visible on it.

As they travel from city to city, Taylor is at first a bit put off by the fastidious Burrows’ quirks and mannerisms, and his almost total lack of social skills. However, as she begins to see the man behind the mannerisms, she grows softer towards him, especially as he saves the insurance company millions. However, Burrows has some unfinished business to take care of; a serial killer in San Francisco with whom Burrows must face down one last time.

I have to admit liking the concept for The Darwin Awards a great deal. The execution is another matter. Director Taylor stages the death sequences well enough and there is some morbid humor in them, but they aren’t enough to carry the movie. Fiennes isn’t a bad actor – he has shown some chops in Shakespeare in Love but he is very low-key, which works to a certain extent here but at times he is too deadpan. He could benefit from an infusion of a little Nicolas Cage.

Ryder is a fine actress as well, but the chemistry between her and Fiennes isn’t really there. Their romance isn’t really convincing and in all honesty, I think the plot could have done without it. It’s a cliché that brings things down a little bit.

One of the conceits used in the movie is that Burrows is being followed around by a documentary filmmaker (Valderrama) who is using the footage (starting when Burrows was a police officer and carrying over to his new job) for a graduate thesis. There are moments when the movie benefits from it, but the filmmakers try too hard to integrate the documentarian into the action, especially joking how he is unwilling to help when someone is in trouble, even refusing to dial 911 when the serial killer is cornered. That whole component could have been done better, and have still been funny.

Black comedies are notoriously difficult to pull off. The filmmakers have to walk a very thin line between funny and grim, and sometimes it pays off – and other times it doesn’t. There are moments that make The Darwin Awards worth a look, but too often I found myself wishing the filmmakers had come up with a better film.

WHY RENT THIS: The premise is mightily intriguing. Some of the death scenes are cleverly staged.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fiennes’ character gets a little bit too over-the-top with the quirkiness. Deadpan humor gets to be so deadpan as to be un-funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some squirm-inducing death scenes, a little bit of drug usage and sexuality as well as a fair amount of blue language, all enough to make this unsuitable for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Mythbusters” hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage appear as surplus store salesmen to the rocket car driver; in the first episode of the show, they dealt with this very urban myth.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Amateurs