Answers to Nothing


Dane Cook emoting.

Dane Cook emoting.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Dane Cook, Elizabeth Mitchell, Julie Benz, Barbara Hershey, Zach Gilford, Erik Palladino, Gillian Vigman, Kali Hawk, Hayes MacArthur, Greg Germann, Tony Denison, Alan Rachins, Mark Kelly, Caitlin Gerard, Karley Scott Collins, Jacqueline Pinol, Brian Palermo, Aja Volkman, Miranda Bailey, Leslie Durso. Directed by Matthew Leutwyler

Ensemble movies with inter-weaving storylines can be really interesting when done well. When they’re not, they can be exceedingly frustrating to the viewer.

Here the lives of several people entwine and intersect in L.A. against the backdrop of a high-profile child abduction case that has Angelinos riveted to the unfolding events. Here we meet Ryan (Cook), a psychologist who is having an affair with a singer (Volkman) that is strongly conflicting him. His wife Kate (Mitchell) is an attorney and the two of them are having trouble conceiving a child. She finds out about his affair just before going under anesthesia for an in vitro fertilization although unbeknownst to her he has already decided to call off the affair.

One of his patients is Allegra (Hawk), an African-American who writes for TV. She also hates African-Americans which is not as unusual as you might think. She has been dating a young white guy (Gilford) who is sort of caught in the middle of her identity issues. Meanwhile one of Kate’s clients, Drew (Bailey) has all sorts of guilt issues. Her brother Bill (Palermo) is completely disabled but was only a year earlier an accomplished marathon runner. She feels guilty because his injury occurred in a post-race car crash after a celebration in which both Bill and Drew, who was driving, had both been drinking. She means to run the same marathon in tribute to her brother. Meanwhile she is fighting her parents who want to put Bill in a home.

Frankie (Benz) is Kate’s best friend and the lead detective on the child abduction case. She initially suspects Mr. Beckworth (Germann), the next door neighbor of the family but when some questionable porn is found on the father’s computer the suspicion shifts over to him. Lonely school teacher Carter (Kelly) becomes even further obsessed with the case and pesters his neighbor Jerry (Palladino), a police officer and a fellow gamer, to do some investigating. Jerry, a beat cop, tries to keep Carter calm but Carter is growing more and more psychotic about the case and the fate of the little girl.

That’s an awful lot of stuff happening for a single film, even one that’s more than two hours long. I think a good deal of the fluff could have been trimmed, as much as half an hour’s worth. As it is there are too many characters, too many storylines and not enough really holding it together. The entire Allegra subplot could have been excised from the story quite easily and really, so could the Drew and Bill story.

It’s not that I mind character studies – in fact, I love them but there has to be some strong characters worth studying and there simply aren’t many here. I did like Palladino’s performance as the police officer and Mitchell, a veteran of Lost, as the lawyer. Both were the most sympathetic characters. As for most of the rest of them, I really didn’t want to get to know them any better. That spells bad news for any film.

Leutwyler has been involved with some pretty impressive films before now as producer, writer and/or director (he performs all three functions here) but this is sadly not one of them. There are some worthwhile moments if you want to check them out but quite frankly this is a bit of a hot mess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the performances here are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many storylines and not enough story. Way too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly strong sexual content and nudity, a fair amount of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leutwyler studied film at the San Francisco Institute of Art.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,029 on a $3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crash

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

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Saw V


Saw V

This being a Saw movie, you know things are going to end badly for this gentleman.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Mark Rolston, Carlo Rota, Julie Benz, Greg Bryk, Laura Gordon, Meagan Good, Joris Jarsky, Mike Butters, Samantha Lemole, Niamh Wilson.  Directed by David Hackl

As we continue to plumb the depths of human depravity in the Saw series, the question is not how low will human beings sink to. No, the more prevalent question is whether or not the Saw series has enough steam to continue.

A serial killer meets a gruesome end, observed by a mysterious figure. A hero cop turns out to be not so heroic after all. A real estate deal turned deadly finds the principals locked together in a deadly game of elimination. A horribly injured detective looks to clear his name and find out who the accomplice of a serial killer is. The wife of that serial killer discovers something game-changing in her safety deposit box.

What do all these things have in common? They’re part of the plot elements of the fifth installation of the Saw series. Former director Darren Lynn Bousman is out and art director of the past three movies David Hackl is in, making his feature directing debut. While most of the rest of the behind-the-scenes crew are back (including writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, as well as series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell in production roles), the familiar faces of the series in front of the character are seen mainly in flashback.

The whole point of the film is essentially to establish how Detective Mark Hoffman (Mandylor) became the apprentice for Jigsaw (Bell). Much of the movie is done in flashback (as is Bell’s participation) and therein lies the issue. Jigsaw is one of the most memorable villains of the 21st century and certainly right up there with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in terms of all time horror film serial killers.

Killing him off has robbed the series of much of its vitality. While Bell is a presence when onscreen, he is not an active one. Jigsaw’s participation is essentially that of a memory, motivating the actions of Hoffman who is far less interesting and far less charismatic than his mentor.

The result is a movie that while still possessed of the clever traps the series is noted for, possesses less impact than the others. I will say that going back to group traps as the series did in the first and second films was a smart move – that nets the movie much of the goodwill I’m willing to give it.

Both Mandylor and Patterson (as Detective Strahm, who barely escapes by giving himself a tracheotomy in one of the more gruesome scenes) are pretty decent actors, but their characters are so loosely drawn with so little personality that they wind up disappointing as leads. The supporting characters generally wander around and those who are in traps look terrified and scream a lot, while those who aren’t look befuddled and frown a lot.

There are hints at a larger story that this is all a part of, and hopefully that will be the case. For the most part, this feels like a redo of things in the saga they’ve already done and better. Maybe this is meant to be a more transitional movie as they build up to a climax. I hope so – I’d rather see this series go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some pretty delicious traps here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The first four movies of the series are way better. The story doesn’t have any Oomph.

FAMILY VALUES: All the gore and blood that anyone could ask for and some brief nudity as well. The language is coarse which is understandable given the situation.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Detective Hoffman meets Jigsaw for the first time on an elevator, screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton are both briefly glimpsed as passengers on the same elevator.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113.9M on a $10.8M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Arlington Road

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day


The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

The McManus clan prays for an audience to show up this time.

(2009) Action (Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Connolly, Julie Benz, Clifton Collins, Peter Fonda, Judd Nelson, Brian Mahoney. Directed by Troy Duffy

Once upon a time writer/director Troy Duffy wrote a script called Boondock Saints that became the subject of a heated bidding war among studios both major and otherwise. Miramax won that war and wheels were set in motion to get the movie made.

Unfortunately all the press and all the accolades went to Duffy’s head and his ego began to reign unchecked. All of this was captured in a documentary about the making of the movie called Overnight. When the movie finally came out, it did anemic box office on an extremely limited run and the documentary got better ratings than the film it chronicled did. It looked like Duffy’s career was over before it began.

A funny thing happened then; the movie took off in home video rentals and sales. In fact, it made enough to warrant a sequel, albeit ten years later. Despite the critical shellacking it took, people began to discover that Boondock Saints actually wasn’t a bad movie especially if you’re into Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino.

So how does the new movie rate? Well, it picks up about a decade after the first one left off. The McManus boys Connor (Flanery) and Murphy (Reedus) have been living quietly in Ireland on their dad Noah’s (Connolly) farm. Then news comes in that a beloved priest in Boston was murdered and pennies left on his eyes, a McManus brother’s trademark. It seems someone is sending a message; not only do they want the McManus boys back in the States they also want the authorities to think they are already.

Not being ones to back down from anything, they hop on a freighter and sneak into Boston. Aided by Romeo (Collins), a fan of their work and also a pretty good driver, they begin digging into the murder to try and find out who’s behind it and take them out before either the authorities or the murderers find the brothers. And by digging, I mean shooting everybody who gets within range and looks like they might have anything to do with it.

Doggedly on their tail is Eunice (Benz), a super-hot FBI agent who has inherited the case from Agent Smecker (a cameo by Willem Dafoe, who played the role in the original) who may be the one agent who can handle the boys and who has an agenda of her own to do so. And when things look bad, dear old Da comes in from Ireland to set things right.

The plot is pretty simple and the execution of it much better this time around. The body count is certainly higher and there is a bit more humor than there was before. One of the secrets to the movie’s charm is that the McManus brothers come off as guys you wouldn’t mind having a drink or ten with at the pub, and certainly guys you’d want in your corner if there was a fight at said pub. After the fight, you no doubt would want to go back to the pub with them to celebrate. Ah, to be Irish!

Reedus and Flanery step back into their roles as if no time has passed at all. Although the parts are a little bit less clearly written than they were in the first movie, they still hold the center of the movie together and put the Irish back into action anti-hero. Connolly is one of those actors who illuminates everything he’s in, and with his leonine mane and ridiculous amount of on-screen charisma, he is more of a force of nature than an actor here. He literally dominates every scene he’s in.

Benz, fresh off of “Dexter,” is scorching hot, something she didn’t particularly explore either in “Dexter” or in her new family show on ABC, “No Ordinary Family”. Not that it’s something she wants or even needs to pursue, but if she wanted to go the sex kitten route in her career, she’s certainly got the ability to go there.

Duffy knows what to do with violence in his action films, and some of the sequences here get superior marks for their execution, particularly the climactic gun battle and another involving a forklift in a factory. The movie has a phenomenal pace, and leaves no time for boredom.

Duffy and company set up the potential for a third movie and to be honest, I’d be interested to see it. That’s what you want to do with any sequel, and by that standard, mission accomplished. Hopefully we’ll get the chance before 2019.

WHY RENT THIS: The McManus boys are well-written and the film has the feel of a bunch of hell raising guys in a pub going out to blow off some steam. I’d walk a mile to see anything with Billy Connolly in it, and a mile more to see Julie Benz pulling off the sex kitten/FBI agent role. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie breaks no original ground and seems to coast on its own momentum in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of violence and foul language as well as a little bit of nudity; definitely for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequel made more money in its opening weekend than the first film made in its entire theatrical run.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with Connolly and Duffy gives some insight into their working relationship, and there is also some manic footage from the cast’s appearance at the San Diego Comic Con with extra-special guest ex-porn star Ron Jeremy(!).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.6 on a production budget of $8M; the movie didn’t quite make back its production and marketing costs.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ponyo

Punisher: War Zone


Punisher: War Zone

The Punisher takes aim at the critics.

(Lionsgate) Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Julie Benz, Stephanie Janusauskas, Mark Camacho. Directed by Lexi Alexander

When you seek vengeance, there is almost always some kind of collateral damage. How much that damage is depends on how far you’re willing to go to get vengeance – and whether or not you’re interested in justice at all.

Frank Castle (Stevenson) watched as his family was massacred by mobsters after they witnessed a mob execution while picnicking in the park. Since then, he’s been on a rampage in his new identity as the Punisher, executing anyone having to do with organized crime while the police turn a blind eye to the whole she-bang.

When he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent while going after the gang of Billy Russoti (West), Castle undergoes a crisis of conscience. He begins to wonder for the first time if what he’s doing is crossing the line. In the meantime, Russoti – who was horribly disfigured by the Punisher and now goes by the name of Jigsaw – wants to find the money that was last seen in the hands of the FBI Agent and turns his attention to his pretty wife Angela (Benz) and daughter (Janusauskas).

With the Russian mob moving a bio-weapon into New York with the aid of Jigsaw (which is why he needs the money so badly) and the FBI sending agent Paul Budianski (Salmon) to take down the Punisher, things are getting complicated. Castle knows he can’t turn his back on the widow or her daughter with Jigsaw after them; he turns to his friend Microchip (Knight) to arm him for one last battle. Unknown to the Punisher, Jigsaw has liberated his insane and ultra-violent brother Loony Bin Jim (Hutchison) from prison and the two are taking aim on Angela, the Punisher and everyone they care about.

While the plot here is paper-thin, it doesn’t really need to be much more than that. In a movie about the Punisher, what you really need is an excuse for blazing guns and body counts. Director Alexander realizes that and gives us all the action we can handle.

In a sense, that’s what separates this from the 2004 filmed version with Thomas Jane in the lead role. While that was more of a straight revenge movie, this one finds the Punisher well along the path of being a crazed killer, the actual killers of his family having long been put in their graves. Now, all he lives for is taking down organized crime. The point becomes when does it stop being vengeance and start becoming bloodlust?

There are no easy answers to that nor should there be. Stevenson could have easily played Castle as a one-dimensional lunatic whose only focus is on dispensing punishment. Instead, he is a living, breathing tormented soul who misses his family terribly and can’t stand to see the helpless being victimized. In that sense, he finds justification for all the carnage he delivers in his quest to protect people like Angela and her daughter.

Alexander really seems to get the comic book and its spirit – in fact, this movie is closest to the spirit of the books than any of the three film adaptations that have been made of the character. There is plenty of action and spent cartridges, but there is a sense of humor involved as well, particularly among the villains who are so out-of-control that control isn’t even in the rear-view mirror anymore. West and Hutchison take bite after bite of the scenery and find it finger-lickin’ good but that’s really what you want in a comic book villain.

While not for the faint of heart, the Punisher satisfies on a visceral level and certainly fans of the comic are going to want to beat the drum for this. Not since Death Wish or Rambo have we had movies that so effectively utilize violence in a vigilante setting.

WHY RENT THIS: Stevenson does a credible job as Frank Castle. The action is virtually non-stop; this is certainly a movie that captures the spirit of the comic book title.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While the acting needs to be over-the-top, it exceeds the bounds of reason in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence ranging from the comic book to the excessively brutal, along with some drug use and some foul language. Definitely not for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title role was originally offered to Thomas Jane, who played the part in the 2004 film. However, while Jane was interested in doing the character again, he wanted a grittier, more realistic film instead of the more comic book film that War Zone was becoming and so he passed, leaving the role open for Stevenson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Whip It