Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere)


There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

(2000) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese, Susanne Oldenburg, Steen Svare, Alex Nyborg Madsen. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Finding love particularly when you reach a certain age can be devastating. You are already pock-marked with the scars of failed romances and broken hearts and letting others close can be tricky. For some, confidence has been so completely lost in one’s ability to be an adequate lover that even talking to someone they have a crush on can be a monumental task.

In a small Danish town there seems to be an epidemic of that kind of thing. Andreas (Berthelsen) however isn’t really on the lookout for love; he is recently widowed. A pastor, he’s been sent to the town to temporarily minister to the flock of the disgraced former Reverend Wredmann (Mejding) who heckles him mercilessly at the pulpit.

He has moved into the hotel managed by Jorgen Mortensen (Gantzler) who has been given the task to fire his close friend Hal-Finn (Kaalund) who manages the hotel’s bar but seems clinically unable to be nice to people. Jorgen can’t really bring himself to do it. He also has fallen hard for Giulia (Jensen), the comely waitress in the bar who speaks no Danish. Hal-Finn advises Jorgen to attend the beginning Italian class at the local adult education center but when the teacher (Valese) dies suddenly, the class is left without a teacher and because attendance is nearly non-existent there really isn’t much inspiration for anyone to step in and take over.

In the class is Karen (Jorgensen) the local hairdresser who is the caretaker for an elderly mother with dementia and Olympia (Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who takes clumsy to new standards. All six of these lost and lonely people will find each other in a class where not only are they learning a new language but learning to love as well.

Scherfig was the first woman in the influential Danish cinematic movement Dogme 95. Basically advocates of stripping down film to its basics, Dogme 95 eschew camera tricks, post-production and special effects in favor of hand-held cameras, live music during filming and concentration on story and character. It is a precursor to other similar movements including mumblecore.

Most of the Danish Dogme 95 films prior to this were melancholic affairs in the Scandinavian ethos. That Scherfig went the romantic comedy route was a bit surprising and controversial (fellow Dogme 95 adherent Lars von Trier criticized her for filming a story about romance that had resolution but Scherfig replied that this was her style) but the way she approaches her movie certainly seems to fall within the parameters of the style.

These are definitely realistic people, some (in the case of the boorish Hal-Finn) less nice than others. Jorgen is shy and a bit plodding in his romance of Giulia while Andreas’ slow warming to Olympia is handled with what seems to be a great deal of affection on the part of the director. In fact, she seems to have a lot of affection for all her characters – in an interview, she has said that while most audiences want to be like the characters onscreen, her onscreen characters want to be like the audience. Here, she succeeds in that attempt.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences at any rate but they all create characters with a good deal of depth and a good deal of realism. Likely you’d find yourself being irritated at Hal-Finn while watching a sporting event in the pub, while you might snicker at Olympia’s klutziness in the local pastry shop, or feel sympathy for Karen as she tells you about her mother’s latest and how hard it is to find good men around here.

That’s really where this film excels, in creating an atmosphere that’s familiar and heart-warming. You feel like you’re a part of the town and that these are people that even if you don’t know well are at least familiar to you in your day-to-day life. We are given a little bit of insight into who they are and how they live and in doing so we find that they are not all that unfamiliar to how we live and who we are. Inside like that is much more valuable than it appears to be on the surface of it.

WHY RENT THIS: Believable characters and story. Sweetness, heart and a touch of real people trying to find love and reinvent themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some salty words here and there as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To date the highest grossing Danish film in the American market.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.4M on a $1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O’Horten

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Underworld

Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road

The Big Bang


Noir, 21st Century-style.

Noir, 21st Century-style.

(2010) Mystery (Anchor Bay) Antonio Banderas, Sienna Guillory, James van der Beek, Snoop Dogg, Autumn Reeser, Sam Elliot, Jimmi Simpson, Thomas Kretschmann, William Fichtner, Robert Maillet, Delroy Lindo, Bill Duke, Rebecca Mader, Robert Ernie Lee, Rachel Handler, Sean Cook, Khanh Doan, Keith MacGeagh, Chandra Bailey. Directed by Tony Krantz

When you think of film noir, you think of hard-bitten detectives in rumpled suits, gorgeous dames in dresses two sizes too tight and big bruising thugs with brass knuckles. You think of soft black and white, foggy back alleys and sleazy private investigator offices. You think of Bogart, Bacall, Mitchum and Greenstreet. You don’t think of Antonio Banderas and neon colored strip clubs.

But they can be noir too. In this celluloid extravaganza Banderas is Ned Cruz, a P.I. from the mean streets of L.A. A Russian boxer named Anton “The Pro” Protopov (Maillet), freshly release from prison after killing a man in the ring, is looking for a girl. Not just any girl though – you can find one on the Internet – but the lovely Lexi Persimmon. You heard me. Anyway, she wrote him a bunch of letters in the slam but gave the galoot no info to go on, no address, no social security, no phone number – not even an e-mail.

There’s also this stash of $40 million in blood diamonds, a waitress named Fay (Reeser) who loves particle physics, a porn director (Dogg) who loves his product a little too much, a kinky movie star (van der Beek) with a dark secret, a cross-dressing nuclear physicist (Simpson), a crazy billionaire (Elliot) obsessed with finding the God particle and willing to re-create the Big Bang in the New Mexico desert to do it and the billionaire’s wife (Guillory) who might be the key to the whole sordid tale. Oh, and did we mention the three brutal cops (Kretschmann, Lindo and Fichtner) chasing down Cruz to find out where the diamonds are?

On paper this really does sound like my kind of movie – something smart but timeless, using the conventions of a noir detective thriller with a touch of sci-fi and a little bit of black humor mixed in. However, references to physics and science doesn’t necessarily a smart film make although this one is pretty clever in places.

Banderas is an engaging star but I didn’t really believe him in the role. Ned Cruz should have been a lot more badass than pretty boy; in some ways I think Danny Trejo might have been more suitable but of course Banderas is the bigger box office draw so from that standpoint I can’t really blame the producers.

The cast is pretty impressive for a low budget thriller with a tiny distributor but not many of them get the kind of screen time that makes for much of an impression. Most are little more than cameos although Elliot seems to be having the most fun playing the kind of character he rarely gets to play while Simpson camps it up nicely. Reeser and Guillory really don’t have much more to do but look pretty which to be fair they do very, very well – but I suspect if their characters had been given a little more fleshing out they would have risen to the challenge as well.

I don’t think the movie achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, but it is entertaining enough to be worth a look-see. Although I criticized his casting earlier, Banderas at least does an adequate job of playing the tough guy and of course doing the narration which is a noir tradition. While the movie takes a few left turns too many, it nonetheless at least doesn’t disgrace the genre and given that since its heyday many have tried but few have succeeded in giving us a good noir thriller I have to at least admire the attempt.

WHY RENT THIS: A noir thriller involving particle physics – I can’t make this stuff up. Decent cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes a little bit off into left field occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and quite a bit of sexuality (some of it graphic), a bit of foul language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an extended sex scene shot that got the film an NC-17 rating that was removed from the film in order to bring it down to an R rating; director Krantz refers to it on the home video commentary track but the scene isn’t included on the Blu-Ray release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Host

Nancy, Please


Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

(2012) Drama (Small Coup) Will Rogers, Eleonore Hendricks, Rebecca Lawrence, Santino Fontana, Novella Nelson, Wally Dunn, Timothy Chastain, Ellis Cahill, Steph Holmbo, Claire Molloy, Elizabeth Ansell, Peter Coleman, Alice Kemelberg, Alex Robles, Alexis Rose, Hilary Shar, Matthew Taylor. Directed by Andrew Semans   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

It doesn’t take much to annoy most of us. Petty little cruelties can prey on our minds. Most of the time we just brush it off and simply classify the perpetrator as a jerk and move on. Once in awhile however something just captures our brains and we get obsessed by the injustice, determined to exact our measure of triumph out of a situation in which we feel wronged.

Paul (Rogers) is a doctoral candidate at Yale, working on a thesis that follows the description of the English political process described by Charles Dickens in his classic novel Little Dorrit. To that end he has his own hardcover in which he has written notes covering the subject.

Life is actually pretty good for Paul. He’s just moved in with his beautiful girlfriend Jen (Lawrence) who is supporting him while he works on his thesis, which he is finally ready to start writing. However as he’s unpacking, he discovers to his chagrin that the crucial copy of the book has been left behind at his old apartment. Therefore he calls his old roommate Nancy (Hendricks) to see if he can drop by and pick up the book.

Days go by and he hears nothing. He is beginning to get frantic. His best friend Charlie (Fontana), a fellow doctoral candidate, urges him to simply drive over to his apartment and knock on the door. s they do, Paul is certain he glimpses Nancy inside but she doesn’t answer the door. The door turns out to be unlocked but Paul feels awkward about going in so he continues to wait.

The cat and mouse game between Paul and Nancy continues, escalating. Nancy does return his call a couple of times but always when Paul is unavailable. Paul is becoming obsessed, certain that Nancy has some sort of vendetta against him. Jen is becoming irritated because Paul is neglecting to do things around their house that he’d promised to do, forcing Jen who is supporting them to have to take care of things that Paul has more time to deal with.

However Paul is too busy dealing with Nancy to really focus on anything else. His faculty advisor, Dr. Bannister (Nelson) is growing impatient; it has been two years since Paul began his doctoral work and he has shown little or no movement in getting his thesis done. She is threatening to have him removed from the program. Paul’s stress is turning to desperation; he needs that book. So finally after a good deal of prodding from both Charlie and Jen, he decides to go in using a spare key Jen had when she used to come by the apartment to visit him and just get the book himself. This plan turns out to be disastrous.

Humiliated and physically injured, Paul’s paranoia about Nancy is reaching the boiling point. Jen, seeing that things have gone far out of control, finally takes matters into her own hands and in her mind (and in any other reasonable person’s mind) resolves the situation. But in Paul’s mind things are far from over…

This isn’t an easy film to sit through. I think that this is best described as a horror film that is going on only in the lead character’s mind. The innovative thing here is that it’s not actually a horror movie to anyone but Paul. Paul sees Nancy as some sort of cruel monster and she’s a vindictive bitch to be sure but Paul is about as passive a character as you’re likely to meet. He is so aggravating that Da Queen, not normally given to such hyperbole, proclaimed him the biggest pussy in the history of movies. She may have a point.

But so many male indie film leads could be described using that pejorative and you wouldn’t be far wrong and I think that part of the filmmaker’s intent is to satirize the somewhat cliché indie  saw of a passive male lead whose life is resolved either by a strong female presence or through some sort of external motivation. As someone who has seen his life transformed by the love of a good woman, I can’t argue that a man can’t find self-confidence and an improved sense of self-worth through that process. I can say though that it is used far too often in indie films of late.

The focus of the movie is on the antagonists Nancy and Paul and somewhat refreshingly it is more vital for those two to have chemistry than for Paul and Jen to have it and in fact that is the case. Hendricks gives a strong performance in a role that is pretty thankless; Nancy really doesn’t have any reason not to give Paul the book other than to inflict punishment for some sort of transgression – I assume it’s because he had the gall to move out on her. Given her actions it’s not surprising that he’d want to.

Even more thankless is the role of Paul. He’s the nominal “hero” of the piece but he’s far from heroic. In fact, the danger here is that Rogers might be too good in the role – he certainly makes Paul an unlikable lead, to the point where Da Queen really didn’t like this movie once. While my wife and I have nearly identical taste in movies, this is one instance where we disagreed somewhat significantly. I liked the movie precisely for the reason that she didn’t – because the filmmakers have the courage to present a lot of unlikable people in a situation that could easily be resolved but isn’t. Real life is often that way.

Maybe I can see a little bit of myself in Paul. I certainly am the sort who avoids conflicts whenever possible and I tend to let life walk all over me. My ambitions tend to be overridden by my shyness and I tend to need a bit of nagging to get moving on things I know have to get done. However I’m nowhere near as bad as Paul is in that regard – I can self-motivate and even if I do procrastinate on some things they do get done in a timely manner, just not in an instantaneous manner most of the time.

Personal identification aside, I can heartily recommend this movie because it is different and the filmmakers are showing how a simple situation can get complicated in a hurry. I admit that the movie has grown more on me than it did make an immediate positive impression and that may well be the case for you, but if you want to try something outside of the usual kind of movie this is a good place to start.

REASONS TO GO: Love the juxtaposition between the paranoid fantasy going on in Paul’s mind and the mundane reality.

REASONS TO STAY: Possibly one of the most frustratingly passive lead characters ever.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some brief violence, adult situations, a bit of sexuality and a modicum of expletives.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in New Haven, it was mostly filmed in Brooklyn and other New York City locations.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Be Good and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage

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)

Drive Angry


Drive Angry

Nicolas Cage can remember when it was his career that was on fire.

(2011) Supernatural Action (Summit) Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse, Todd Farmer, Christa Campbell, Charlotte Ross, Tom Atkins, Katy Mixon, Jack McGee. Directed by Patrick Lussier

It is said that a man will walk through the fires of Hell for his daughter. For some that’s more literally true than for others.

John Milton (Cage) has been away for a very long time. You might think he’s been in prison and he has, after a fashion; y’see, Milton’s been dead for several years – in the biggest, nastiest, prison of them all, Hell.

But he’s out now, walking the Earth from a place where you don’t exactly get paroled for good behavior. He’s a man on a mission; as it turns out, his daughter has been murdered by a charismatic cult leader going by the name of Jonah King (Burke) and not merely murdered, but butchered. To make things worse, her infant daughter (Milton’s granddaughter) has been kidnapped by King, earmarked for human sacrifice that will bring about a new world order – Hell on Earth.

Chasing him is the Accountant (Fichtner), an urbane demon who never gets ruffled but is someone you definitely do NOT want to mess with, as well as the police, as personified by the brutal Cap (Atkins). Assisting him is Piper (Heard), a waitress at a diner who Milton saves from being beaten up by her boyfriend (Farmer, who co-wrote the movie incidentally), and Webster (Morse), a former compadre of Milton’s.

Piper and Milton drive through the south, chasing the cult and trying to retrieve the baby before the full moon. Hell is walking the Earth and things are going to get strange before all is said and done.

Director Lussier has been impressive in some of the opportunities he’s had; this is very much a tribute to a variety of different grindhouse genres. Quentin Tarantino would have a field day with this kind of thing; in many ways, his Deathproof has the same pedigree as this does, which owes a little more to Race with the Devil in many ways with its satanic cult overtones.

Nicolas Cage has had a really bad run in terms of box office. The one-time Oscar winner and A-lister has taken on enough B movie projects to become in danger of becoming the next Steven Seagal. Milton is not really given much of a personality and Cage doesn’t really supply him one. He talks in a laconic monotone and doesn’t show very much anger or desperation. Maybe it’s because he’s dead, but he doesn’t seem to have much passion about…well, much of anything. The title of the film may be Drive Angry but Drive Irritated might have been more suitable to the tone as Cage projected it.

The movie is carried to a very large extent by Amber Heard. She kicks ass, but not in an unrealistic way; she gets beaten up early on but she takes no crap from anybody. The fact that she looks awesome in her Daisy Dukes (yeah, there are all sorts of references like that here) doesn’t hurt. She isn’t so much a damsel in distress, even though there’s a little bit of that here.

Fichtner, who’s created a nice niche for himself as a bureaucratic corporate sort, takes that role and plays it to the “nth” degree here, only with a certain amount of a sly wink. He has a good time with the role, giving it the right amount of attitude to make it memorable. I found myself looking forward to Fichtner’s screen time more than Cage’s.

Burke, best known for his work in the Twilight series, channels both Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin as the cult leader. It’s not amazing work, but solid enough; fortunately Cage doesn’t provide enough fireworks to make their showdown more meaningful.

However, there is plenty of bang for your buck here. Plenty of things get blown up, lots of jiggling boobs (including a great scene when Cage is having sex with a barmaid (Ross) when his hotel room is attacked by a horde of farm tool-wielding cultists, Cage starts shooting at his attackers, all the while remaining inside his partner even when one hits him with a taser, giving the lady a good shaking) and enough bullets flying to make an NRA highlight reel.

This movie is essentially mindless fun. If you try to think about what the plot means too much, your head might just spontaneously combust. However, it’s fine grindhouse entertainment that stands proudly alongside the best of that genre from the 70s and 80s.

REASONS TO GO: Mindless entertainment, lots of things blow up and lots of sex and violence.

REASONS TO STAY: Little plot, zero plausibility and Nicolas Cage is strangely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: Hmmm, where to begin? There’s violence, sex, nudity, rough language and disturbing images. There’s also baby sacrificing going on but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Milton drives a 1964 Buick Riviera, 1969 Dodge Charger and a 1971 Chevy Chevelle.

HOME OR THEATER: I know I’m in the minority here but I think this is one that should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Whip It


Whip It

Ellen Page flies around the track, hoping her Juno reputation isn't following her.

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Zoe Bell. Directed by Drew Barrymore

The movies have had a love-hate relationship with the roller derby. A number of fine documentaries have been made on the subject of the skaters and their passion for this sport that many dismiss as pro wrestling on wheels (and those that do are ignorant of how physically taxing it is) dating back forty years, but few feature films have captured that world.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a tiny Texas town outside of the state capital of Austin and like many trapped in tiny Texas towns knows that there are two things expected of those being raised there; that the boys will love football and try out for the team, and the girls will love cheerleading and enter into beauty pageants, which is what Bliss’ hyperthyroid mom (Harden) is pushing her into. Bliss despises it and despises what she is expected to conform into being. She and her friend Pash (Shawkat) are octagonal pegs in rhomboidal holes.

Then, while on a trip to Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for a female roller derby event, and thinking it might be fun, convinces Pash to attend with her. Bliss realizes that this is something that speaks to her, watching girls beat the crap out of one another while whirling around a banked track. Bliss apparently has some sadomasochistic tendencies deep in her teenaged DNA.

She wrangles a try-out with one of the league’s sad sack teams, the Hurl Scouts (so named because they dress like girl scouts…all the teams have gimmicks like that) and to her surprise, she makes the team. She adopts the skater persona of Babe Ruthless (and yes, these are the kinds of names the real skaters take) and quickly becomes a break-out star in the league. She also finds kindred spirits in fellow skaters Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), as well as a surly rival in Iron Maven (Lewis) who skates for another team, the high and mighty High Rollers.

Of course, the manure hits the fan when mommy finds out and while her henpecked dad (Stern) is all for it, her mom forbids her lil’ angel from competing in a sport where she actually might get…bruised. You see, she neglected to tell her team she’s underaged, a major no-no. With a big match coming up and the clutches of conformity reaching out to grab her, Bliss has to make up her mind to decide to be what others expect of her or to find her own way.

Barrymore makes her directorial debut and quite frankly it’s a pretty good one. Like Barrymore herself, the movie has charm, wit and heart, and an excellent indie rock soundtrack. While Barrymore seems to be at home acting in romantic comedies these days, she actually pulls together this coming of age dramedy quite nicely.

It helps that she has a nifty cast to help pull it off. Harden is making a nice niche for herself as the overbearing mom, and she pulls it off without a hitch. Stern, who was a presence in the 80s and 90s and has gone largely MIA of late, is also satisfying as the dad.

The roller derby sequences weren’t a disgrace either; most of the actresses did their own skating and a number of actual skaters play minor roles in the film. You get a sense of the physicality of the sport and the conditioning needed to be any good at it, which sets it above a lot of sports movies these days which rely overly much on treacle to sell their storyline.

There are a few lapses in logic however. For example, the movie is set in Texas but nobody other than Harden seems to have the twang. I guarantee you if you got this many people together in Austin more than one of them would have the distinctive Texas twang. Also, I find it hard to believe that a mom like Harden would have missed the bumps, bruises and cuts that her daughter surely would have after a full-contact sport like roller derby. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bliss would escape each of the matches without a scratch.

The movie has a fine empowerment message and looks at the sport and those who participate in it with some fondness and even reverence, which is a change from the low regard it is often held in. For my money, this is some superior entertainment that establishes Barrymore as a director with a future, and adds a little depth to Page’s resume as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The girl empowerment theme is done nicely. Page and her skating cohorts are believable in the derby sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough Texas twang here, as well as other lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is on the crude side there are certainly some sexual situations and drug usage but mild enough that most teens should be okay to see this, although the more impressionable sorts should get a long look before putting this in the DVD/Blu-Ray player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Shauna Cross was once a real-life skater in the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and took several of the character names, team names and backstage plot lines were taken from her experiences there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Perhaps owing to the movie’s disappointing box office receipts, there is a dearth of interesting features here; however, a Fox Movie Channel “Writer’s Draft” series on screenwriter Shauna Cross is a welcome addition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.6M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For those interested in the real thing, the TXRD website (the league depicted in the film) is here.

Powder Blue


Powder Blue

Ray Liotta looks for redemption in the seedy underbelly of L.A. where it is seldom found.

(Speakeasy) Jessica Biel, Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker, Lisa Kudrow, Patrick Swayze, Kris Kristofferson, Eddie Redmayne, Sanaa Lathan, Alejandro Romero. Directed by Timothy Linh Bui

Big cities are a terrible place to look for redemption. Cities are impersonal, seedy, uncaring and mean. Still, redemption can be found in places where you least expect it.

Charlie Bishop (Whitaker) is a former clergyman who is carrying a load of pain greater than he can bear. The death of his wife has left him overwhelmed and looking for release. He drives the city streets of Los Angeles in the dark of the night with a bag containing his life savings of $50,000. He intends to give this to whosoever can deliver him from his pain – with the gun that is also in the bag.

Rose-Johnny (Biel) is a stripper but not because she wants to be. Her son lies in a coma in a hospital bed and is unlikely to ever come out of it. She rails against the doctors and the world that is insensitive to the needs of a single mom who only wants to hold her laughing son once again. Her boss (Swayze) is more interested that she makes it to work on time than in the heartache she feels for the only one in the world she cares for.

Qwerty Doolittle (Redmayne) has inherited the mortuary that his father started and is barely keeping his head above water. He has no time for dating and partying and is intensely lonely, generally only kept company by the dead. He wanders through life knowing he wants more than just existing and also fully aware that he is unlikely to get what he wants.

Jack Doheny (Liotta) has just been released from prison after 25 years behind bars, but not because his sentence is up or because of good behavior. He has terminal cancer and nowhere to go, nobody to be with. An old buddy (Kristofferson) gives him a briefcase full of money and the name “Rose-Johnny” written on a piece of paper. What this is for is anybody’s guess.

Sally (Kudrow) is a waitress who is separated from her husband. She, too, is lonely and scared and wants to reach out to somebody but working the night shift in a coffee shop isn’t exactly conducive to meeting a nice guy. She remains cheerful and upbeat, but deep down she has needs and fears that are colliding in her heart.

For those who have seen movies like Crash and Traffic, these stories are meant to be separate but related, interweaving until the very end when they are theoretically supposed to be tied together with a nice big bow. It’s a means of storytelling that Robert Altman was a master at and that many independent filmmakers of the first decade of the 21st century have tried to imitate with varying degrees of success.

There’s not a lot of success here. Liotta fares the best out of all the actors, bringing dignity and pathos to a character who is Mickey Spillane-tough. Kudrow is also likable and sympathetic in her mostly supporting role.

The problem here though is not the actors, who do their best, but with a script that is scattershot and sometimes senseless, giving the actors lines to say like “You’re not a doctor! Doctors cure people! You’re not curing anybody!” Some of the dialogue is equally cringeworthy. You have to feel for the actors in cases like that, especially for Swayze (whose final screen appearance this is) who is made up in excessive eyeliner and looks like a transvestite version of his character in Road House had that character been castrated early on, and Biel who went to great lengths to learn how to be an exotic dancer and does indeed go topless. Not many actresses of her caliber are willing to do that these days.

Bui has a good eye for color and tone but at times he goes for style over substance. The strip club in which Rose-Johnny toils is a neon palace where the strippers are lit like rock stars and the patrons cheer, whistle and throw dollar bills like confetti on cue. Not that I spend my time in strip clubs, but I’ve seen my share and I’ve never seen one like that.

The problem with these kinds of interweaving stories is that you have to care enough about the characters to want to follow them through the weave of the tapestry that is being unfolded before you. That doesn’t happen here; even the great Forest Whitaker chews his scenery like he hasn’t eaten in weeks. The only thread I cared about was Liotta’s and I found myself wishing he was in more of the film. That’s a bad sign for a movie with this means of storytelling. Considering the top-of-the-line cast Bui assembled, this should have been a far better movie than it turned out to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Liotta does a solid job as the dying ex-con.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A scattershot script and some wacky over-the-top performances submarine this effort.

FAMILY VALUES: Much foul language, plenty of nudity and sexuality and some scenes of graphic violence. All in all, much more suitable for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The color blue is featured in some way in every scene.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Don’t Tell (La bestia nel cuore)