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)

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White Noise 2: The Light


White Noise 2: The Light

Katee Sackhoff is thrilled that fans think "Battlestar Galactica" is better than "Firefly;" Nathan Fillion isn't so sure.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Nathan Fillion, Katee Sackhoff, Craig Fairbrass, Adrian Holmes, Kendall Cross, Teryl Rothery, William MacDonald, Josh Ballard, David Milchard, Tegan Moss. Directed by Patrick Lussier

I don’t often review direct-to-home video releases; they are almost always uniformly bad. I caught this one because it was initially going to get a theatrical release but was pulled and exiled to direct-to-video land instead. I expected the worst; instead, I actually was rewarded.

Abe Dale (Fillion) has a wonderful life that becomes shattered when his wife (Cross) and son (Ballard) are murdered before his very eyes while taking breakfast in a local diner by a psycho named Henry Caine (Fairbrass) who then turns the gun on himself. They had just been sitting down to pancakes; the crime was as senseless as it was brutal.

Understandably, Abe is distraught and eventually becomes overwhelmed by grief. He takes a bunch of pills with the intention of easing his pain permanently but his best friend Marty Bloom (Holmes) discovers what he’s up to and rushes him to the hospital. There Abe dies and experiences travelling through a tunnel of light where he sees his wife and son waiting for him, but it is not to be. His heart is re-started and he returns to the operating room.

He wakes up in a hospital bed and things don’t look quite right. He is administered to by a sympathetic nurse named Sherry Clarke (Sackhoff). Dr. Karras (MacDonald), his attending physician, writes off his enhanced eye-sight as a by-product of the trauma to his system, believing the effect will go away after a few days. Abe can see electrical auras, discharges from iPods and cell phones, even the auras of people. The horror is that the only auras he can see are in people who are about to die.

He also discovers that he can prevent those about to die from expiring and when he does, their auras go away. However, he then discovers to his horror that three days after their lives are saved they are possessed by the Devil and go on a murderous rampage. He also is shocked to discover that Henry Caine is still alive and moreover had the same ability as Abe does. It becomes his mission to get to the bottom of it and discover how he can prevent the devil from possessing the saved – because one of those he saved was Sherry, whom he has developed a certain attachment for.

Director Patrick Lussier makes some really smart choices here, going for more of an atmospheric thriller and distancing the movie from White Noise, a surprise hit horror film that concerned itself more with Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) and wasn’t nearly as good as this is.

Much of the reason this works so well is Nathan Fillion. I think he’s one of the most underrated actors out there; he is just so damn likable, even when he’s playing a scoundrel (as he does in Serenity). I’d be willing to bet that Katee Sackhoff is going to join him on that list. She’s as far off from Starbuck (her “Battlestar Galactica” character) as it’s possible to get, and she’s actually very likable here.

The problem with the movie has to do with a couple of elements. First off is the ending of the movie. I don’t mind a movie taking a leap off the deep end into fantasy, but when it does so sideways and in a manner that defies logic, I take exception. Without going into much detail, Abe – who’s shown himself to be a smart fella throughout the movie – does some pretty dumb things. That’s a screenwriting sin that just absolutely drives me crazy; changing a character for the sake of advancing the climax. Write better is the only advice I have in this case.

For the most part, this is well-directed, well-acted and well-conceived. While it fails when it tries to combine science with the supernatural, it nonetheless is a solid bit of horror entertainment (although I somehow doubt most would qualify this as a horror film – it’s more of a supernatural thriller). And as for a direct-to-video sequel outshining the original? That in itself is a feat worth recording.

WHY RENT THIS: Fillion is one of my favorite actors right now. There is a pretty good concept here that deserved a better fate. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending dives into the deep end of the preposterous pool.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing images and a few instances of blue language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dr. Karras character’s name is an homage to Father Karras, the priest played by Jason Miller in The Exorcist.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted scenes are a home video staple, there is more than half an hour’s worth of them, making this an abundance of unseen footage. There is also a nifty featurette on Near Death Experience survivors.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Surveillance

Trucker


Trucker

Michelle Monaghan discovers the joys of motherhood.

(Monterey Media) Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams, Jimmy Bennett, Bryce Johnson, Brandon Hanson, Maya McLaughlin. Directed by James Mottern

For everything in life there is a cost. Even freedom to do what you like doesn’t come without a price. That price can be more than you might be willing to bear, but it’s nearly always too late by the time you figure that out.

For Diane Ford (Monaghan), she has lived by her own rules her entire life. As a big rig driver, she competes as a woman in what is very much a man’s world. She has to be twice as tough as any man to survive and she knows it; what’s more, she’s okay with it. She drinks to excess, uses caffeine and cigarettes far too much and sleeps around.

One of the few guys she won’t sleep with is her neighbor Runner (Fillion), who is married. The two are best friends and drinking buddies and Runner has surely got a thing for Diane. Most men do, as a matter of fact, but she wants or needs no man. She had a kid eleven years earlier during the one tryst that lasted more than a night, but that relationship couldn’t stand up to the call of the open road.

One afternoon there’s a knock on the door of her small southern California home. It’s Jenny (Adams), the girlfriend of Len (Bratt) who was the man she had her son with. It turns out that Len is very ill, colon cancer. Jenny is no longer able to care for his son – Diane’s son – and care for Len. She needs Diane to care for Peter (Bennett) – that’s her son’s name – for a short while.

Diane takes to this like a cat takes to platform diving. It would be bad enough to take on a roommate after years of taking care of herself, but a kid? The thing is, Peter is a pretty sharp tack. He understands that his mom really doesn’t want anything to do with him, and he can see pretty clearly just how messed up the situation is, but rather than whine about it he just deals with it. It’s a pretty mature performance, and also very nice to see a kid who’s not precocious in a sickly sweet way.

Diane is forced to take Peter along with her on the road, something which crimps her style more than she’d like but as it turns out, the company is kind of a welcome thing in a twisted way. The two are like a couple of caged bantam roosters warily circling one another. Bonding is certainly not going to be very easy. Is it even possible?

First-time director Mottern should be applauded for delivering a slice-of-life type of movie that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to show the warts. The characters aren’t heroic; these are real people just trying to make their way through day by day, just like the rest of us. They aren’t especially brave, nor smart nor particularly talented; they just do what they do.

Monaghan is impressive here, giving the kind of performance that can only come from deep down inside of a very talented actress. Although she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for her work, she surely could have been – and maybe should have been. Unfortunately, this was distributed by a small company rather than one of the major studio affiliates; I’m pretty sure the performance didn’t get the kind of publicizing that other actresses got.

Bennett is also worthy of mention; most twelve-year-old actors come off as stiff and mannered; you see it all the time on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or ABC Family. Bennett instead is natural and raw; he doesn’t hold anything back. It’s one of the better juvenile performances I’ve seen in a very long time.

Fillion, Bratt and Adams deliver solid backing performances in roles that have more depth to them than most supporting roles, and the three of them known what to do with characters who have some meat on their bones.

There are times that the movie gets overly raw; some of the emotions that come to the surface are painful, even. However, there is a sexual assault that occurs nearly two thirds of the movie that just left me going “huh?” with a bit of a slack jaw. It didn’t really need to be in there, other than to highlight the vulnerability of a single woman and that’s kind of a given.

Short of that one misstep, this is solid work elevated by a scintillating performance by Monaghan. I have never had an ambition to drive a rig, but I do understand the siren song of the open road. I also understand the pain of living exactly the way you want to. Sometimes it’s getting what we want that causes us the most pain.

WHY RENT THIS: Michelle Monaghan gives the performance of her career. Her supporting cast gets kudos for fleshing out roles that for the most part are layered and deep. A great example of a “slice of life” film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie can be a little too raw in places. The sexual assault scene comes out like it’s almost part of a completely different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of swearing (hey, it’s about truckers) and some sexuality, including a scene depicting a sexual assault. There’s also significant amounts of drinking and a little drug use, some of it involving minors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monaghan learned to drive a big rig for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Education of Charlie Banks