A Bag of Hammers


A Bag of Hammers(2011) Dramedy (MPI) Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston, Todd Louiso, Gabriel Macht, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Josh Cooke, Micah Hauptman, Barbara Rossmeisl, Devika Parikh, Greg Clark, Ricardo Chacon, Dale Waddington Horowitz, Jordan Green, Sally Kirkland, Elmarie Wendel. Directed by Brian Crano

Responsibility for a lot of people is a four-letter word. While it’s true there are few who eagerly go out looking for it, most of us are able to accept it when it comes time. However there are those who flee it at every available opportunity.

Ben (Ritter) and Alan (Sandvig) are really good friends and why shouldn’t they be? They have a great deal in common. For one thing, neither one is particularly interested in growing up. Neither of them are out to make a conventional living and for the most part, neither one cares what the rest of the world thinks one way or the other.

They make a living with a scam in which they set up a valet parking stand at funerals. Someone gives them their keys, they give the bereaved a ticket, drive off with their car…and keep going. The bereaved will have something else to mourn.

Mel (Hall), Alan’s sister, works as a waitress and nags them both to find a respectable occupation but neither one is ready to. They’re having too much fun. Then Lynette (Preston) moves into their neighborhood along with her son Kelsey (Canterbury). Kelsey takes a liking to the boys and they to him. He begins to accompany them on their scams and actually turns out to be pretty helpful.

When a sudden tragedy forces the boys to take stock, they begin to see the world as finally not revolving around their immediate gratification. In short, they grow up fast. But is it too late for them and more importantly, for Kelsey?

In many ways this is a coming-of-age indie comedy although it is also in many ways a forced-to-face-responsibility indie drama. It blends both of those chestnuts together into a kind of hybrid which, even if it isn’t exactly fresh is at least diverting.

Ritter and Sandvig play their roles like they’d been acting together since childhood. They have an easy banter that goes beyond the occasionally very witty one-liners they’re given to work with. They have that ability to anticipate each other in an organic way so it at least seems like people who are familiar with each other doing the give and take thing. You know, like real people actually conversing.

The dialogue also for the most part impresses. So often in indie films the screenwriters sacrifice authenticity for hipness, which might appeal to the horn-rim glasses-wearing PBR-drinking bearded guy crowd but few others. Here yeah there is a certain patina of smug hipness but there is also at least some reasonably genuine emotional content too.

This is more of a pleasant diversion than it is a deep-thinking exploration of The Way Things Are, but there’s much to be said for the former. It won’t challenge you overly much but it will draw you in if you’re anything like me. I liked the vibe here and it was a place I wanted to stay in after the movie ended. You can’t ask for more than that from any film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Ritter and Sandvig. Well-written dialogue.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seen it before kind of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, adult themes and disturbing parenting techniques.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Simmons, who plays Kelsey at age 18, is the same age as Jake Sandvig who plays his adoptive father.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: To Be Takei

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