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Movies Without Pity

I Want My VOD: January 2014

by Ethan Alter January 9, 2014 6:00 am
I Want My VOD: January 2014

How cool is Bryan Cranston? As cool as night.

Cold Comes the Night
Bryan Cranston could literally have done anything after Breaking Bad, so it's a little surprising that the first movie he agreed to was this low-key, low-budget crime drama about the odd relationship that develops between a nearly-blind drug runner, Topo, (Cranston) and a financially-challenged motel owner and single mother, Chloe, (Alice Eve) trying to make ends meet and her daughter out of foster care. Then again, given the way Bad completely remade the actor's image, maybe he liked the idea of vanishing into another role that audiences wouldn't expect from him. Not so much the drug runner part, but the fact that Topo is an old-school Russian gangster who feels adrift in what's increasingly becoming a young man's game. And believe it or not, Cranston actually adopts a credible accent for the part, and communicates a world-weariness that's notably different from Walter White's white-hot intensity. Topo's not simply Heisenberg's Russian cousin -- he emerges as his own man.

The movie itself, however, is considerably less distinctive. Co-written and directed by Tze Chun, who debuted with the well-received indie Children of Invention a few years back, Night is another one of those attempts to plug famous Hollywood faces into gritty settings on society's lower rungs. (See also: Sunshine Jr. and Out of the Furnace.) Sometimes these films succeed but oftentimes, as is the case here, the director overcompensates for his casting choices (and, let's be honest, the movie likely wouldn't have gotten made without the participation of name-value actors like Cranston and Eve) by wallowing in the despair and grime of their characters' existences. Thus, not only is Chloe's motel noticeably a one-star joint, it's also a haven for local prostitutes and a place where her married cop boyfriend Billy (Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall-Green) carries on his less-than-legal side businesses. Meanwhile, Topo is clearly cash-strapped and dependent on the "kindness" of his old boss's hotheaded son. Thus these two are bonded not only by plot circumstances (after spending a night at her hotel by chance, he essentially takes her hostage when his drug money is mistakenly appropriated by Billy), but also their shared miseries and hope for a better life. The two actors, who generate more (platonic) chemistry than you might expect, try to invest this relationship with feeling, but they're outmaneuvered by the slack pacing of the "crime" part of this crime drama. Don't worry, though -- between the upcoming comedy Get a Job and the summer blockbuster wanna-be Godzilla, there'll be plenty more Cranston to go around in 2014. And those movies will hopefully be a bolder, more memorable transition out of the Breaking Bad universe than this one.
(Cold Comes the Night is currently available on most On Demand platforms and is in limited theatrical release)

Free Ride
Be prepared to feel old, children of the '80s and (early) '90s: 20 years after she co-starred in (and won an Oscar for) The Piano as the young daughter of a single mother, Anna Paquin has aged into single mother roles herself. Writer/director Shana Betz draws on her own life story for this '70s family drama, casting Paquin as her mom, Christina, who fell into a Florida-based drug smuggling ring for fun and profit. In the movie's version of events, Christina fled an abusive husband with her two daughters, 15-year-old MJ (Liana Liberato) and 7-year-old Shana (Ava Acres), and ended up in the Sunshine State, where she cleaned houses before being introduced to drugs -- both recreationally and professionally -- by a close friend (Drea de Matteo). As you might imagine, she soon finds that the pros of a drug smuggling career (a bigger house, cooler friends, lots of extra spending money) are soon eclipsed by the cons (dangerous associates of those cooler friends, the constant threat of police arrest, feeding your own habit) and her relationship with her children -- particularly MJ, who is often forced into the role of the responsible parent -- is almost fractured beyond repair.

Knowing that the filmmaker lived through some of the incidents dramatized onscreen lends Free Ride a certain resonance, but as a story unto itself, it covers awfully familiar ground in a not-particularly distinctive way. Part of the problem is that Betz seems deeply conflicted about how to portray her mother, playing up her irresponsibility and ignorance for much of the movie before shifting gears in the final act to argue that she was a loving mom just trying to do her best in a difficult situation. Paquin is equally uncertain how to reconcile the role's contradictions, offering a stronger portrayal of the flighty, free-spirited side of the onscreen Christina's personality than the caring maternal figure. The most intriguing part of Free Ride comes towards the end, when the real Christina appears onscreen just before the end credits to offer her own take on her past. That brief clip speaks to what a more compelling version of this material might have been: a feature-length conversation between Betz and her mother revisiting their family's complex, emotionally-fraught history.
(Free Ride will be available on most On Demand platforms on January 10)

Reasonable Doubt
When the credits rolled on Peter P. Croudins's directorial debut, I had to check closely to make sure that the script (credited to Peter A. Dowling) wasn't an adaptation of a mid-'90s John Grisham thriller I'd forgotten about. All the elements that were pro forma in those airplane potboilers recur here, from the young, happily married legal eagle (embodied here by Dominic Cooper's Chicago D.A., Mitch Brockden) to the instigating incident that screws his life up but good (a hit-and-run traffic accident that he flees from) to his eventual need to go off the reservation, trading his lawyer suits for the outfit of an amateur action hero (a switch that occurs when the man charged with the crime Mitch committed, Samuel L. Jackson's Clinton Davis, starts manipulating him to suit his own revenge scheme). But no, it turns out that Dowling came up with this storyline himself… though the debt he owes to authors like Grisham and James Patterson is blindingly obvious. If only he had their flair of pacing and intrigue (well, at least the pacing and intrigue of Grisham in his heyday anyway -- I never got into Patterson) as well. Despite solid performances by Cooper (whose accent is a little shaky, but holds the screen well) and Jackson (reviving his psycho bad guy persona from Lakeview Terrace) and the picturesque Chicago backdrop, Reasonable Doubt lacks any sense of urgency or even basic tension. The plotting is so routine, even the characters seem aware of what's about to happen five minutes before it actually does… probably because they read about a similar occurrence in a John Grisham novel.
(Reasonable Doubt will be available On Demand starting January 17)

Best Night Ever
Having exhausted moviegoers' goodwill for film spoofs that aren't even up to current MAD Magazine standards, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (the duo behind Date Movie and Meet the Spartans) try their hand at an original idea for a change. Of course, since these are the makers of Date Movie we're talking about, "original" means a blatant rip-off of the The Hangover and Project X (the 2012 house party comedy, not the 1987 Matthew Broderick-befriends-a-chimp drama). With her wedding date looming, blushing bride-to-be Claire (Desiree Hall) rolls into Vegas with her three best girlfriends (I'd name them, but honestly, they're all interchangeable) for a wild bachelorette party, that gets far wilder than she anticipated. The trouble starts when they lose their deluxe suite and move to considerably less posh trappings at a fleabag motel where the… um evidence of past hooker/client hook-ups are literally sprayed all over the walls. Over the course of the next 12 hours, they're tossed out of a male strip club, robbed at gunpoint by a gun-wielding parking valet, become accidental home invaders and flee from a stark-naked, plus-sized harridan. In their typically blunt way, the directors aim for shock value rather than sustained laughs and mostly achieve it through stunts like full-frontal nudity (both male and female) and the steady flow of bodily fluids (including an on-camera defecation). But the characters are so shrill and the film is so desperate to be outrageous, it becomes more of a chore to sit through than any of the director's feature-length spoofs… even the Kim Kardashian Klassic, Disaster Movie.
(Best Night Ever is currently available via Magnolia on Demand and iTunes)


Summer in February
The most interesting thing about this dry-as-unbuttered-toast period British romance is that it represents Dan Stevens' first big feature film role since fleeing the hallowed halls of Downton Abbey. And based on the finished product (not to mention the disappointing fourth season premiere of Downton, he should've stayed put. Derived from a true story, Summer casts the former Matthew Crawley as British soldier Gilbert Evans, who -- when he was home from the front -- resided in a renowned artists' commune in Cornwall also inhabited by his best friend, painter Alfred Munnings (Dominic Cooper). A wizard with the ladies as well as with paint brushes, the happily single Alfred soon falls under the spell of newcomer Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning), who also strikes sparks with Gilbert, despite him being reluctant to intrude on his pal's territory. Seizing the initiative, Munnings proposes marriage and Florence accepts, though the fact that she then attempts suicide not long after her wedding day suggests trouble ahead. Only Gilbert is capable of keeping her happy, and they pursue a romance with the tacit acknowledgement -- and, one senses, relief -- of her husband and his best friend. Torrid love triangle-structured drama is intended to ensue, but these characters are so flatly written and blandly performed, they deserve each other as it would eliminate their general dullness from the rest of the gene pool. Frankly, the absurd Matthew-in-a-wheelchair storyline from Downton's second season was more moving (and believable) than anything that happens in the real world-inspired Summer in February.
(Summer in February is currently available via Tribeca on Demand)


Back in the Day
If Edgar Wright's The World's End was a nostalgia tour done right, Michael Rosenbaum's Back in the Day is a prime example of how the standard "guy/girl returns to his hometown" premise can careen off the rails when everyone involved is just going through the motions. The former Smallville villain wrote and directed this star vehicle, assigning himself the lead role of aspiring actor Jim, who takes a time out from his largely unsatisfactory stint in Hollywood to attend his 20-year high school reunion in smallville small town Indiana. In addition to re-connecting with his old crew of guy pals, Jim also starts prowling around his ex-sweetheart Lori (Morena Baccarin), who has since moved on and gotten engaged to her old boyfriend's one-time football nemesis (Jay R. Ferguson, who plays Stan "The Man" Rizzo on Mad Men, so really Morena is doing pretty great for herself). Having made the pilgrimage home, the unfulfilled, unsuccessful Indiana refugee finds himself reverting to his old teenage ways and wondering why he'd ever want to leave, even as his behavior wreaks havoc on the people around him. The World's End came up with an ingenious answer to this conundrum, but Back in the Day contents itself with familiar platitudes about growing up and moving on mixed in amongst bits of raunchy broad humor that feel ripped out of American Reunion, the recent nostalgia-centric installment in the American Pie franchise. On the other hand, the appearance of the always-appealing Emma Caulfield in a supporting role here did make me nostalgic for her glory days as Anya on Buffy. Book her a gig on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Joss! Lord knows that show needs all the help it can get.
(Back in the Day is currently available on most On Demand platforms and opens in limited theatrical release on January 17.)


Dumbbells
Speaking of movies with an unhealthy amount of nostalgia for the past, Dumbbells feels like a wholly unnecessary attempt to recreate the slob comedies of the 1980s. And not legitimately good slob comedies like Caddyshack and Revenge of the Nerds, but knock-offs and imitators like Hot Dog… the Movie and Hunk, which were (and still are) too crass, too sloppy and too… well, dumb to even register as dumb fun. The ostensible hero of Dumbbells is Chris Long (Brian Drolet, who co-wrote the script), a former college basketball ace who blew out his knee and lost, in turn, his scholarship, his future and his knockout girlfriend (Mircea Monroe). Now employed as a gym rat at a health club owned by one-time superstar male model Jack Guy (Hoyt Richards), Chris is slow to care about anything and anyone, an attitude that doesn't fit in with his employer's plans to reinvent his flatlining business by turning the place into the setting for a reality series. It seems like a smart move, what with increased attendance and a drive-by appearance by Fabio (which tells you what era the film's sense of humor is trapped in), but then all manner of personal and professional complications crop up that put Chris and Jack through their respective paces. Not that those complications result in anything amusing, mind you. Mostly, they just serve to run out the clock on a premise that's barely capable of sustaining a two-minute viral video spoof of '80s slob comedies, to say nothing of a feature length homage.
(Dumbbells will be available on most OnDemand platforms on January 10.)


Brightest Star
Were it a bit bolder, Maggie Kiley's feature filmmaking debut could have been a knowing Noah Baumbach-esque character portrait of a self-absorbed loser who doesn't realize he's a loser. (See also: Greenberg and the Jeff Daniels character in The Squid and the Whale.) Early on, that seems to be the premise of Bright Star, which introduces us to a character credited only as "The Boy" (Chris Lowell), a directionless college student who prioritizes the girl that got away (Emily Peck) above all other life concerns, including career path and finding a place to live. As written by Kiley and co-writer Matthew Mullen and portrayed by Lowell, the Boy is wholly unsympathetic and more than a little creepy in his refusal to move on from this broken romance, even as he takes up with a new girlfriend (Jessica Szohr) and accepts a corporate gig from her old man. But instead of continuing down that path, the filmmakers do an abrupt about-face and insist that this guy is on some kind of deeper personal journey that viewers should respect and encourage, hanging it all on a belabored metaphor about the Boy's interest in astronomy. (Because the girl has always been his guiding star, right? And when she ditches him, he's left adrift, looking for another light to guide his way… aw, forget it.) The film grows so enamored of their irritating leading man that, in its closing act, it actually goes so far as to suggest that his old girlfriends are actually the problem, since they don't understand that he's got to be his own man, man. Ugh. Somebody call up Roger Greenberg and get him to knock this tool around a little.
(Brightest Star will be available on most OnDemand platforms later in the month.)


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