The multiplex isn't the only place that's crowded with movies this fall movie season. Deadfall, starring Olivia Wilde and Charlie Hunnam, is one of many titles available right now on most video-on-demand service.
Crime and punishment is the theme of Stefan Ruzowitzky's new thriller, in which brother and sister crooks Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) score a big payday after robbing a casino, but have their partnership threatened by a series of unfortunate events that begins with a car crash and ends with a firearm-heavy showdown over Thanksgiving dinner. After their car flips over on an icy stretch of road and Addison is forced to kill a lone cop who comes to investigate, he and his sister (whom he thinks of as more than just a sister, if you catch my drift) go their separate ways to throw off the law's scent. He heads deeper into the woods where he holes up in a remote cabin, while she makes her way to a bar and attaches herself to ex-con Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a forcibly retired Olympic boxer recently released from prison. He's on his way back to his parents' (Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek) abode for Thanksgiving and decides to bring this lovely, damaged creature along.
Meanwhile, Addison is being tracked by inexperienced, but dogged state trooper Hanna (Kate Mara), an investigation that brings her to Jay's front door at the same time that gun-soaked holiday dinner is going down. Written by first-time screenwriter Zach Dean, Deadfall plays like one of those popcorn thrillers that line the shelves of the few remaining airport bookstores out there. That's not entirely a criticism, by the way; it's harder to make a solid B-grade crime picture than you might think and this one assembles the genre's requisite elements with a healthy amount of style and panache. It has the added benefit of a cast that's packed with talented, experienced actors; Bana and Hunnam are both suitably intense as dangerous men who come from very different moral backgrounds and Wilde finally shows some of the spark that's been missing from her supporting roles in more high-profile projects like Cowboys & Aliens and People Like Us. Deadfall is ultimately something of a slight, forgettable movie, but while you're watching it, it's the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner.
(Deadfall will open in limited release on December 7.)
Lay the Favorite
Two decades ago, British director Stephen Frears paid a memorable visit to the seedy world of betting and bookmaking in the nifty, gritty neo-noir crime picture The Grifters. Now he's back and working in a more comedic vein (or trying to, anyway) with Lay the Favorite, which stars the almost impossibly beautiful Rebecca Hall as Beth, a good-natured stripper, who makes her way to Las Vegas hoping to become a cocktail waitress, but instead winding up in a life-changing job with gregarious bookie Dink (Bruce Willis, in his laid-back, non-action star mode). Her bubbly personality and head for numbers makes her a natural for the profession, but her obvious attraction to her boss causes some major problems at work... especially whenever Dink's emotional hurricane of a wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) drops by. So Beth strikes out on her own, finding a new lover in the form of Joshua Jackson's New York-based journalist and a potentially crazy new employer who looks a lot like Vince Vaughn. Throughout a lengthy career that has included such terrific films as The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity and the sorely underseen Dirty Pretty Things, Frears has routinely demonstrated a strong rapport with actors and he coaxes relaxed, natural performances out of Willis and Hall -- who comes across as less-sleazy version of the wide-eyed Vegan newbie that Elizabeth Berkley played in Showgirls. But he's had an inconsistent track record when it comes to comedy and a healthy sense of humor is the main thing missing from Lay the Favorite. The movie is leaden when it should be light and flaccid when it should be fun. If Frears is interested in making another gambling movie, he should look for one more in the vein of The Grifters, which suits his skill set more comfortably than this miscalculation.
(Lay the Favorite will open in limited theatrical release on December 7.)
Pity poor family man and successful doctor Jeff (Tobey Maguire); although all seems well in the picture-perfect life he shares with his lovely wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) and their young son in a lovely suburban home, there trouble beneath the surface, trouble that's symbolized by the holes a gang of raccoons are digging up in his backyard. See, he and Nealy don't have sex anymore, which initially compels him to go trawling the Interwebs to get his release, before moving on to affairs with knockout family friend Rebecca (Kerry Washington) and kooky next door neighbor Lila (Laura Linney). Both of these acts of passion have negative consequences, though; Rebecca's husband Peter (Ray Liotta) catches wind of their dalliance and proceeds to shake down Jeff for cold hard cash. And then Lila announces that she's pregnant with their love child and has no intention of giving it up. Eager to believe that he's still a good person despite these failings, Jeff focuses his energies on improving the life of his basketball pick-up game pal Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), giving him a job and then one of his kidneys. These selfless acts of charity spur Lincoln to try and return the favor in regards to Jeff's Lila problem... although the solution he comes up with his more criminal in nature. With its darkly comic take on white people problems and overarching theme of how much (if at all) people should allow their less-than-noble actions to weigh on their conscience, The Details is like a cross between American Beauty and Crimes and Misdemeanors. While it's less obnoxious than the former, it's definitely not as incisive and witty as the latter, with writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes and the cast frequently fumbling the comic moments. (The broad, almost slapsticky scenes between Linney and Maguire are especially cringe-inducing.) The ideas are there -- it's the execution that's lacking.
(The Details is currently playing in limited theatrical release.)
28 Hotel Rooms
Actor-turned-director Matt Ross hit upon an intriguing, if somewhat limiting conceit for his feature filmmaking debut. Like the title suggests, this two-person chamber piece takes place in a series of hotel rooms -- 28 to be exact -- where we watch the relationship between an unnamed man and woman (The Mindy Project's Chris Messina and Boss's Marin Ireland) evolve from its beginning as a one-night stand into a full-blown romance, even though outside those rooms, both of them are involved with other people. In other words, it's kind of like what Up in the Air might have been had the whole movie featured George Clooney and Vera Farmiga meeting up for mind-blowing sex in hotel rooms. Although it could easily have felt confined and stagy (and, indeed, one can't help but wonder if this was originally conceived as a play rather than a film), 28 Hotel Rooms makes effective use of its various environments, as Ross gives each rented room its own distinct atmosphere that reflects where this couple is emotionally. But the real heavy lifting obviously has to be done by the stars and both Messina and Ireland are on point, transitioning between the various stages of their relationship smoothly without needing lots of dialogue-driven exposition. (Some of the movie's best scenes are those where not a single word is spoken -- instead their feelings are written all over their faces and in the way they're holding, or not holding, each other.) Even at only 82 minutes, though, 28 Hotel Rooms does feel somewhat overlong. The middle section in particular feels padded as we wait for the inevitable conflict that will blow up the happy little fling these two have going on. But credit where credit's due: thanks to the performances and Ross's precise direction, you won't want to check out before the film ends.
(28 Hotel Rooms opens in limited release on November 9 and expands on November 16)
Festival of Lights
The only unique element of this otherwise overly familiar coming-to-America immigrant's tale is the country of origin of its central characters: Guyana, located in South America just north of Brazil. When life in their native land becomes too dangerous, a married couple with a young daughter attempt to immigrate to the U.S., but while mother and child are granted a Visa, the father is forced to stay behind, though he promises to join them in their new home (Queens, NY -- the same place Eddie Murphy's Prince Akeem relocated to) soon. Soon stretches into months and eventually years; during that time, the mother re-marries and the girl grows up into a confused, rebellious teenager (Melinda Shankar), who is eager to learn more about the country (and parent) she left behind. Written and directed by Guyanese native Shundell Prasad, Festival of Lights has been made with obvious love and care, but sadly it's not especially compelling on a dramatic level, marred by clunky writing and uneven performances. One gets the sense that a documentary following a real life Guyanese immigrant family would be more interesting than this stiffly dramatized version of events.
(Festival of Lights is currently playing in limited theatrical release.)
The American Scream
Speaking of documentaries, two new features from noted non-fiction directors have recently debuted on VOD. The American Scream is Michael Stephenson's follow-up to his much-loved 2009 documentary Best Worst Movie, which chronicled the making and enduring cult popularity of one of the worst movies of all time (and one that he happened to star in), Troll 2. Scream stays in the horror realm, but it's not an autobiographical story; instead, Stephenson introduces viewers to a heretofore little-known pastime known as "home haunting" -- homes that are all done up for Halloween by families that love to indulge in a little showmanship. Basically imagine one of those elaborately decorated Christmas houses only with ghosts, ghouls and buckets of blood subbing in for Santa, reindeer and pine trees and you've got the general idea.
The film focuses in on three families as they prepare their houses for yet another spooktacular All Hallow's Eve. In between scenes depicting their labor-intensive preparations, we learn a little bit about their backgrounds as well as past moments of personal triumph and tragedy that help explain why this tradition has come to mean so much to them. Perhaps because it lacks a personal hook (and most certainly due to the fact that it doesn't feature any Troll 2 footage) The American Scream isn't quite as much fun to watch as Best Worst Movie, but it's a kind-hearted, generous look at yet another subculture of geekdom. The more weighty Head Games is the latest sports-themed documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James and it tackles a subject that's been in the news of late: game-related head injuries. Teaming up with former WWE star Christopher Nowinski -- whose own experience with head trauma led him to write the book on which the film is based -- James explores the dangers posed by sports where players take repeated cracks to the noggin (paying particular attention to football and hockey) and the relative slowness of the various professional leagues to respond to increasingly damning research. As with all of James's films, Head Games is well-researched and well-argued, but succeeds most of all because he finds a human hook through which to make his case. After seeing this movie, you'll happily bring along a sturdy helmet to your next pick-up football game.
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