In a World… (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">In a World…</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) The nice thing about being a cinephile is that movies often self-congratulate themselves and their viewers. I’m not being malicious here: if you’re a fan of movies, you will find the best validation for your obsession at the movies themselves rather than in novels, music or other competing entertainment media. (The same goes for the other media, naturally). In the case of In a World, knowing about Don Lafontaine’s voice and how it was used in major movie trailers until his death in 2008 is enough to prime you for an entire movie about movie trailer voiceovers. But never mind those high-flying considerations, especially when In a World proves to be a perfectly charming low-budget romantic comedy. It’s certainly has to do with Hollywood insider material, but it’s accessible enough to wider audiences, and universally successful in how it deals with its characters. Actress Lake Bell successfully marks a transition to writer/director status with her first film, and gets a great lead role as a likable vocal coach who ends up in the movie-trailer voiceover specialty. There are plenty of conflicts involving her family and a blooming romance with a co-worker on the way to major industry recognition. It’s not a particularly dense film, nor much of an outright laugh-getter, but it feels genuine and friendly in a way many bigger-budgeted productions often don’t. Bell is exactly who she should be as the protagonist, but she also lets other players such as Fred Melamed claim a big place within the movie. The opening sequence is brilliant (seamlessly going from explaining Lafontaine’s legacy to introducing many of the film’s characters) and there are a few good plot twists on the way to a more conventional underdog-triumphant story. While In a World is universally accessible enough to be worth watching by anyone, cinephiles will get a lot out of exploring one of the hidden corners of Hollywood.

Dark Tide (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dark Tide</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) Sometime, it’s obvious from the beginning that a movie’s not going to get any better. So it is that Dark Tide‘s opening sequence serves as a rote prologue and an eloquent warning: This is a movie about sharks. It’s not a refined effort. It’s not going to be particularly impressive. Halle Berry will bring nothing to the role. And characters will be eaten by sharks. Once this is established, there’s nowhere left for Dark Tide to go despite the remainder of its running time. The plot may move “one year later”, but we know what to expect as two tourists walk aboard her ship and head for the sea in an effort to swim with the sharks. Much of the following hour is spent in false scares, perfunctory character development and minor anticipation as the plot builds itself up toward a pre-ordained third act: By the time the storm starts, night falls, the boat capsizes, and sharks attack, well, we knew it was all leading to this. The only surprise is how badly-shot that ending sequence becomes: A mushy blur of black and white, with occasional flashes of red to tell us that someone is being killed. Director John Stockwell isn’t completely incompetent (there are a few sequences earlier in the movie to suggest that he has at least an idea of what he should be doing) but he completely loses whatever visual grasp he had over the story late in the film, and it’s tempting to simply fast-forward past the noise and the confusion to see who makes it alive to dawn. Berry herself gets a few dramatic bickering scenes with Olivier Martinez (usually a good actor, wasted here) but doesn’t seem to bring anything more to the role than the bikini used on the film’s posters. Dark Tide is really just a tedious and forgettable B-grade thriller, more or less destined to become cable channel filler material. Don’t expect much from it, and if you do there’s always the first few minutes to set you straight.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) Charlie Sheen and self-indulgence go really well together, but there’s a difference between showing it in tabloid headlines and seeing it in a full-length feature film. Billed as a comedy, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III stars Sheen as a circa-1970s graphic designer dealing with the abrupt departure of his latest girlfriend. Delusions, flights of fancy, anxiety attacks, crippling doubt all follow, inevitably leading to wacky despair-fueled hijinks and acceptance of sorts. It’s as good as any excuse to prop the Charlie Sheen persona as a romantic lead, and for writer/director Roman Copolla to do whatever he wants with the tools of cinema. (It all culminates, somewhat amusingly, into an intensely self-reflective final shot in which the actors name their characters and the artifices of filming are revealed all the way to a mirror shot of the director and camera operator.) As a light-hearted romp playing with cherished visuals, competent actors in small roles (including Bill Murray, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman and Patricia Arquette), A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III isn’t without occasional interest. It does not, however, coalesce into something more meaningful that scattered vignettes and Sheen playing some idealized version of himself. (Or, rather, some idealized version of what other people should be thinking about himself.) I’ll admit that it’s easy to transfer any feelings about Sheen-the-persona onto Swan-the-character, but then again the film makes it easy to do so. I don’t happen to particularly like the Sheen persona (although, like many others, I find it unexplainably compelling), and that may explain a decidedly tepid reaction to the film despite by usual fondness for meta-cinematographic tricks and showy set-pieces. At best, it’s a surreal, strange and kind-of-wonderful film. But for anyone even remotely aware of Sheen’s antics over the past few years, it definitely takes a special state of mind to go past the misogyny, self-adulation and conscious myth-making at play here.

Hummingbird aka Redemption (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hummingbird</strong> aka <strong class="MovieTitle">Redemption</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) At a point when nearly everyone knows what “a Jason Statham movie” is supposed to be, here comes Redemption to show something just slightly different enough to be interesting, although not necessarily likable. It starts like many other Statham films, with the actor playing a down-on-his-luck ex-military protagonist scrambling to survive. But then an exceptionally lucky break allows the lead character to stop running and start improving his situation. Alas, this doesn’t translate in sweetness and light: our hero takes up a job as an enforcer and starts filling up his fridge with bundles of cash. Whatever emotion he’s got left are spent avenging a murdered friend and seducing a preposterously attractive nun. That plot summary fits with Statham’s righteous-avenger persona, but it’s the ending that sets Redemption apart, one where the character voluntarily accepts the end of his summer in the sun, and his fatalistic return to obscurity. Various odds and ends make the rest of the film more uncomfortable than it needed to be: the seducing-nun subplot is a lot less fun than you’d expect (it smacks of an exploitation device in a film that tries to be something more serious), there’s an off-putting human-trafficking sequence that causes more cringes than illumination, and the ending seems to reach for pathos that the rest of the film hasn’t justified. Perhaps worst of all is how slow and occasionally dull Redemption can be. Even as writer/director Steven Knight’s conscious attempt to tackle deeper themes within a framework immediately familiar to Statham and his fans, it doesn’t quite have the grace or the compelling hooks required to keep sustained interest throughout. Redemption is somewhat audacious, sure, even beautifully shot at times and symbolically deeper than anything we’d expect (all the while showing why Statham is both a limited and charismatic actor at once) but it doesn’t add up to something more than “interesting”.

Planes (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Planes</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) I can still remember the cackles that accompanied the first trailers for this “From the world of Cars” spinoff: Everyone knows that Cars and its sequel are regarded as the weakest Pixar movies yet some of Disney’s biggest merchandising brands. Now that Disney can do whatever they want with the concept, handing over the franchise to another studio and creating new licensing opportunities seemed like the easiest, crassest thing possible. But here we are now, with a Cars knock-off that barely attempts to hide its source of inspiration. The “little plane that could” set-up has the first half-hour of Cars (with small town characters, a wise mentor and scenery shaped like vehicles) leading to a globe-trotting tour borrowed from Cars 2. The film, obviously geared for boys, doesn’t spend much thought in trying to deliver something different, or to avoid casual racism-by-nationality. (Ah, yes, the harassment-grade romantic behavior by a Mexican boy-plane that eventually sweeps the French-Canadian girl-plane off her wheels rather than earn the harasser a restraining order…. is this the kind of thing we need to show today’s pre-teens?) The story is dead-simple, with obvious narrative threads picked up just in time for the predictable climax. Even the flying sequences seem surprisingly short. I’m not going to complain about the impossible logistics of the Cars universe any further except to say that this film just pushes the whole thing into I-don’t-care-anymore nonsense. And yet, for all the basic silliness, there are a few good moments in Planes: most of them have to do with the sheer joy of flying, and the animation can be impressive when the planes behave like planes rather than oddly-shaped characters. It’s not quite enough that make Planes a good film, but it is enough to make any adult sit down and watch the entire film, which is probably just what the filmmakers intended. As I write this, the trailer for Planes: Fire and Rescue is already out, making it clear that the Cars universe will keep spinning off more licensing opportunities whether we like it or not.

Monsters University (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Monsters University</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) No one really demanded a prequel to Monsters Inc, and the fact that Pixar delivered one anyway is yet another cautionary item in the growing list of why the studio had gone from great to merely good. Still, for all of the mixed expectations surrounding the film and the somewhat generic nature of the end product, there’s no use denying that Monsters University is a high-energy, high-concept, high-budget film, carefully plotted and attentively executed with an astonishing amount of near-imperceptible detail. Coming off as I did from an extended diet of low-budget films, it feels like a breath of fresh air and a reaffirmation of the possibilities of imaginative cinema. Oh, all right: Monsters University isn’t that good. It curiously adopts a college-film plot template in a film destined to older kids, presents set-pieces that are a bit scattered, suffers from a drawn-out ending, and doesn’t quite get full marks on the “Revenge of the Nerds” frat comedy character interest scale. On the other hand, well, the money shows: the animation is as good as any other animated movie so far, with the cartoonish nature of its creatures only enhanced by the photorealism of the background. The universe of the first film is expanded coherently, and the lead character work is just fine. As damning as it is, Monsters University apes one of its lead characters by being technically proficient but not quite fully invested emotionally. It’s a pleasant disappointment, a fun but ultimately forgettable piece of entertainment. It’s all well and good to stay in business and generate merchandising opportunities for monster-corporation Disney, but Pixar hasn’t become the dominant animation studio by taking the easy way forward. Is it now happier just delivering the expected?

Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) Bob Guccione will forever remain famous as the publisher of adult magazine Penthouse, but for me he was first and foremost the mad genius who put together the now-legendary OMNI magazine in all of its blended fact/fiction science/speculation glory. Filthy Gorgeous takes us through Guccione’s full life, spending a lot of time on the more scandalous aspects of his career, while not forgetting the way in which he tried to move beyond adult magazines and create something new: The infamous exploitation movie Caligula, the launch of OMNI and other magazines, the ill-fated investments in fusion power reactors and Atlantic City casinos. Guccione remains a compelling figure throughout, as artist, businessman and dreamer, first-amendment fighter and social nexus for high-powered visionaries and supermodels alike. Guccione’s role in expanding the limits of allowable discourse is also carefully explained here, cementing his place alongside Larry Flynn and Hugh Hefner. (Ironically, though, the most infamous Penthouse issue, featuring a nude pictorial of then-Miss America Vanessa Williams, eventually proved a costly crest for the magazine, which suffered significant consequences from the episode and so may have started its own downfall.) As a documentary, Filthy Gorgeous is a fairly standard assortment of talking heads and archival footage, albeit with a bit of tasteful nudity in accurately portraying Guccione’s artistic pursuits. A fascinating subject makes for a fairly interesting documentary film, and it’s hard to ask for more than that.

Three Inches (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Three Inches</strong> (2011)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) There is one truly essential thing to understand about Three Inches: It was the pilot to a never-approved series, and it’s quite specifically geared to be a TV show. This becomes obvious minutes into the film (from the dull opening credit, modest cinematography and obvious breaks where commercials should be inserted), but it helps understand why it seems to hold back so much potential, and also appreciate how a better-than-average script can improve even a failed pilot into something interesting. Three Inches tells the story of a young man who, thanks to being hit by lightning, develops an telekinetic ability –albeit limited to moving objects a mere three inches in distance. What seems like a near-useless supernatural talent, however, is quickly co-opted by a small team of similarly oddly-super-powered individuals, teaming together to accomplish contracts for wealthy clients. Three Inches is probably best in its opening minutes, as a sympathetic hero (Noah Reid) deals with his sudden superpower while undergoing the complicated life of an underachieving twentysomething: Good dialogue, self-aware plotting and decent characters (including a short but funny turn by Andrea Martin as the protagonist’s mom.) Then, alas, it turns into a somewhat far more ordinary quasi-superhero team story, and the freshness of the first few minutes evaporates. The budget issues also become more noticeable, and as the story wraps itself to a conclusion, there’s a strong sense of an entire series premise being set up. Sadly, that potential will remain untapped, as Three Inches will now only exist as filler for cable TV channels. Still, the film is quite better than its “failed pilot” label may suggest, and there are some undeniably good moments early on.

Getaway (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Getaway</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) As a fan of car-chase movies, I took Getaway‘s horrible reviews with a spoonful of salt: Most B-grade action films get low grades anyway, and as we know that it’s really the action sequences that make or break these films, right? Well, it turns out that the reviewers completely understood the film: Getaway is a frustrating waste of money and talent, in the service of incompetent directing by Courtney Solomon (of Dungeons and Dragons infamy) and a near-worthless script. There’s a small comfort to find out that the film doesn’t take a long time before degenerating into nonsense: From the incoherent opening credit sequence alone, it’s obvious that this film will really not be any good. A mess of random camera angles edited with a blender, Getaway makes a blurry mush of its action sequences, wasting several dozen cars in the process: the action scenes flash on-screen with no sense of geography, continuity or excitement. (It’s not a surprise if the film’s best shot, a lengthy uninterrupted driving shot reminiscent of C’était un rendez-vous, temporarily dispenses with the two-cuts-a-second aesthetics) If the incomprehensible action is the worst of Getaway‘s, problems, don’t think it gets off any easier on the rest: Selena Gomez is completely miscast as kind of a shrill and rebellious hacker/car enthusiast: she has the aggressiveness of a kitten, and Getaway (unlike Spring Breakers) can’t even claim to have her turning against type. Ethan Hawke seems out of place here, turning the wheel and looking intensely in front of him as Jon Voigt’s voice barks “Do it now!” over and over again. There’s a smidgen of interest in setting the action in Sofia, but none of it goes anywhere as the film almost trips upon itself in trying to justify why an all-American cast should be involved. All it does in underscore how unredeemable Getaway becomes. Not even a half-clever final coda can save the film. It is awful even by the generous standards of car movies, and even enthusiasts are advised to watch something else.

Game of Thrones, Season 4 (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Game of Thrones</strong>, Season 4 (2014)

(On Cable TV, April-June 2014) As a promise for this season of Game of Thrones, “adapting the second half of George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords” couldn’t have been a more enticing prospect given the book’s sheer density of high narrative points. What we got was a bit more than that: a restructured narrative thread that mostly stuck to the book, but went cherry-picking plot threads from latter book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series in an effort to even out the pacing and even added subplots and a crucial bit of information not found anywhere in the books so far. Not that the additions were all required: simply telling the story as written was crazy enough, with plenty of role reversals, character deaths and sweeping set-pieces. As an adaptation, you can see the TV show slowly becoming its own thing, trying to keep order over the increasingly out-of-control sweep of the book series. But it’s still remaining broadly faithful to the books, enough so that fans should be pleased with the results. Peter Dinklage and Lena Headley once again steal the show as the lead actors, although new actors such as Pedro Pascal shine by fully incarnating minor characters with a great deal of skill and charm. Otherwise, it’s continuity in action, as the level of quality of the series remains constant and there are few major tonal shifts in what’s on-screen. The budgets are either getting bigger or the production team is getting better, because it seems as if the visual aspect of the show gets more impressive each season. Still, it’s the writing that remains so interesting, especially the way the screenwriters are wrestling a massive thousand-page epic into a format digestible and enjoyable by TV audiences. There’s no watching this series casually now: with the number of characters, the convoluted back-story and the multiplicity of sub-plots, it takes dedicated effort to watch Game of Thrones, and to its credit HBO isn’t even trying to dumb it down to network-TV standards. Even hitting its fourth season, Game of Thrones is more impressive than ever. Of course, the real challenge begins next year, as the adaptation hits what is widely acknowledged as the weakest/dullest book of the series, and the plot lines start venturing past what has been published to date. But it’s been a solid series so far –let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the show-runners for the rest.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

<em class="BookTitle">Ancillary Justice</em>, Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 410 pages, C$17,00 pb, ISBN 978-0316246620

I went into this novel with the best of intentions.

For one thing, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has, in the first few months of 2014, accumulated an impressive shelf of honors. In between winning the Nebula, BSFA, Clarke, Locus (First novel) awards and getting a much-remarked Hugo nomination, Ancillary Justice has become one of the best-received debut novels in the SF field since Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. As someone who’s always on the lookout for the hot new SF writers, Ancillary Justice earned a spot on my to-read list early on, and cemented its acquisition the moment the Hugo nominations were announced.

So, to repeat: I went into this novel with the best of intentions.

And to be clear: I think Ancillary Justice is a good novel.

Thus, the above being said: Wow, I had a hard time getting into the book.

Ancillary Justice is billed as a far-future space opera, and that’s eventually correct. It involves a future in which a vast empire has conquered a good chunk of the galaxy, via AIs being incarnated in repurposed human bodies (the titular ancillaries), a leader splitting herself into multiple instance in order to rule the empire, fancy weapons, big starships, space stations and the rest of the hardware that is expected of space operas.

But it takes a while to get there: As Ancillary Justice opens, we’re stuck with the lead character on a cold isolated planet, nursing an old acquaintance back to health after a coincidental encounter. Flashbacks to nearly twenty years earlier progressively fill in the back-story of our protagonist, an AI fragment seeking justice for what happened to her and her ship.

So it goes for a long time. A really long time. I’m not the dedicated omnivorous reader I used to be, and novels that don’t immediately grab me are now far more of an annoyance than they were before. But even by my previous standards, Ancillary Justice takes forever to develop into something that I’d consider interesting, and even longer to become compelling reading. By the end of the novel I was all-in, but it felt as if much of the novel was build-up while waiting for something to happen.

I’m not going to pretend that this personal reaction should be considered a universal assessment. I know, for instance, that I’m really not interested in the kind of gender-recoding that Leckie commits to in the early pages of the novel (the protagonist can’t easily distinguish between genders and doesn’t really see the difference, so everyone is labelled female), and I have a similar lack of interest into many of the elements (songs, multiple temporal strands, fine prose, etc.) that give personality to the novel. Much of what specifically attracted other reviewers to this book were lost on me. I had to wait 40% in the novel before the back-story became clear, and 80% until the present-day action became earnestly interesting. I suspect that this may make me a bad reader; I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not reading with the same concentration than I used to. I am, mind you, a bit surprised at the tenor of the acclaim that the book received: Pacing issues aside, Ancillary Justice makes competent use of well-worn tropes, but I found the idea density to be a bit on the low side for space operas.

Thus I come away from Ancillary Justice with the sense of having done my duty as a genre SF reader, but not as having had any fun. This doesn’t make Ancillary Justice any less of a success as the novel it meant to be: it’s written competently, put together with skill and is a self-assured contemporary representative of the genre. It’s not a bad nominee for the Hugo. But as for its impact, I remain underwhelmed.

Ah well; you can’t love them all.

[August 2014: Ancillary Justice has won the Hugo Award, sweeping whatever awards remained to be swept.]

American Mary (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">American Mary</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) Three things make American Mary a distinctive film: One good, one disturbing and one bad. It does have, as a considerable asset, a very good performance by Katharine Isabelle as the titular Mary, a medical student who, though debt and happenstance, eventually becomes an underground surgeon specializing in extreme body modifications. (It’s a meaty role that asks for girl-next door likability, model-grade good looks and focused intensity –fortunately, Isabelle can deliver on all three requirements) The disturbing part of the film is how Mary turns to the dark side of medical arts, becoming a torturer/murderer while (mostly) retaining our sympathies. Alas, though, there’s the ending of the film, which doesn’t conclude as much as it’s amputated, half a dozen sub-plots left dangling by a cheap and unsatisfying climax that doesn’t have much to do with the theme or content of the film. The film is ably helmed by the Sloska twins sisters (who also wrote the script), and while their showy extended cameo late in the film feels like one more plot thread that leads nowhere, they do manage to put together three quarter of a pretty good film, backed by a directing style that effectively creates a surgically-creepy atmosphere. I’m not so sure about the film’s feminist credentials when rape-as-a-plot-device sends the protagonist firmly to the dark side of medicine, but Mary is a strong and memorable character and it’s a shame that the film couldn’t wrap up a more effective ending. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like here for fans of off-putting horror: American Mary (A Canadian production, ironically enough) is off-beat, slick, has good cinematography for its budget class and features an intriguing performance from Tristan Risk. It’s a promising effort from the Sloska Sisters: I’ll gladly have a look at whatever they do next.

Excision (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Excision</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) Setting the right tone from the start is crucial: So it is that Excision doesn’t waste any time in trying to disturb its viewers: from the opening moments of the film, we’re thrown off by the violent fantasies of an outcast teenager, and the horror seldom stops on the way to a gory conclusion. Shot with unnerving static full-frames of the actors speaking at the camera, Excision never tries to make things comfortable. There may be moments of levity as we spend time with our wise-cracking lead character (her prayers do reveal a sense of humor beyond her behavioral problems), and it’s not as if our heroine considers herself a victim (…which is a real problem by the end), but this is not an easy film to watch, even when its transgressive intentions become clear. The film gets bonus points for casting John Waters as a reverent and Traci Lord as a religious mom, but the star of the show is AnnaLynne McCord, who undergoes a complete transformation (hair, posture, speech, make-up) as “Pauline”, keeping her radiant self for the bloody dream sequences that introduce yet another off-putting element in the mix. The most disturbing element, though, might be how the film sets up Pauline as the typically-likable movie outcast: quirky, interesting, determined, isolated but somehow sympathetic despite clues that not is well… and then truly confirms that she is not even remotely worth cheering for. That may or may not affect viewers, but the real knock against Excision is its lack of sustained plotting: adapted from a short film, it merely seems to expand Pauline’s character study without adding much in way of story. The end, as viscerally shocking as it may seems, can be seen coming from five minutes away and merely plays out the consequences of a Truly Bad Idea. All of the queasy atmosphere, bravura lead performance and disturbing dream sequences may be shocking in the moment, but Excision doesn’t entirely add up to a satisfying whole. There’s definitely a bright future in store for writer/director Richard Bates Jr., but a more sustained script may be helpful in fulfilling the expectations he creates.

The Hole (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Hole</strong> (2009)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) Just about the only noteworthy thing about The Hole is that it’s directed by Joe Dante, a veteran whose influence in the eighties and early nineties has faded to nothingness ever since. His professionalism certainly shows through this minor production: Despite an imperfect script and a family-friendly focus, horror film The Hole is handled professionally, has a pleasant rhythm and doesn’t let late-script disappointment get the better of its presentation. The 3D motif feels silly on the small flat screen, but the direction is clean and polished throughout. The story of three teenagers who discover a bottomless hole in their basement reflecting their deepest fears, The Hole is decidedly a horror film for young teenage audiences: it’s barely gory, low-key in its scare sequences and plays off childhood fears more than deep-set adult trauma. Nonetheless, the quality of the production holds it aloft even if the script doesn’t quite manage to hold together: not only does it spend its time on the symptoms of the hole rather than its root, it squanders some promising leads when it devolves to fairly standard “confront your deepest fears” messaging, along with a suddenly-bizarre finale that literalizes too many metaphors with sub-standard special effects. Chris Massoglia is a bit dull in the lead role, whereas Haley Bennett easily steals her scenes with a bubbly girl-next-door portrayal (although, typically, later script revelations contradict her early-movie reactions). There is, frustratingly, a lot of untapped potential in the initial set-up that is nowhere nearly fulfilled by the rest of the film. Still, it’s handled fairly well, can be watched without too much trouble and generally holds interest until the end. As far as horror movies go, it’s not too bad, and considering the wretched horror films aimed at younger teenagers, The Hole eventually ends up feeling like a welcome throwback to the kind of movies that Joe Dante himself was directing in the eighties.

Pawn Shop Chronicles (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Pawn Shop Chronicles</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, June 2014) I’ve been on the lookout for direct-to-video crime comedies lately, and even misfires like Pawn Shop Chronicles serve to remind me why. An anthology of three interlinked stories, loosely connected by a deep-south pawn shop, this a movie with significant tonal problems and an ending that really doesn’t bring it all together, but the quality of the direction and the number of known actors popping up in small roles is interesting enough. To be fair, Pawn Shop Chronicles starts out well: The first story, “The Shotgun”, brings together people such as a near-unrecognizable Paul Walker and a Thomas Jane cameo for a comic redneck meth heist thriller in which stupidity is never an impediment to attempted crime or loose supremacist affiliations. Director Wayne Kramer’s deft touch is already apparent, with a free-floating camera and small flourishes of visual style. It’s lighthearted and fluid enough to set up good expectations. The second story, “The Ring” is by far the most interesting, but it breaks the tone of the film in a way that’s irredeemable. Matt Dillon turns in a Bruce-Campellian performance as a newlywed husband ready to sacrifice anything to solve a mystery from his past. The story quickly turns gruesome as he keeps investigating, culminating into an abominable discovery that is as gut-wrenching as it doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. (Curiously enough, I immediately thought about a similarly affecting/atonal scene in Running Scared… and then found out that both movies were directed by the same person.) The ending of the segment can be seem coming from half a country mile away, but there’s a lot of good stuff along the way, including a radiant appearance by Rachelle Lefevre and another quirky performance by DJ Qualls. Still, by the end of “The Ring”, Pawn Shop Chronicles has left a sour taste, and “The Medallion” shifts gears into far more mystical territory with an Elvis Impersonator (Brendan Fraser, quite effective) making a deal with a supernatural entity to ensure an escape from terminal career implosion. There are numerous eccentric sequences along the way, but by this time Pawn Shop Chronicles should be busy bringing together its sub-threads, and while it does, there’s no overwhelming feeling of success: The epilogue set in the pawn shop itself feels more redundant than effective, and by that time the tonal problems are acutely unpleasant, especially when a psychopath thought to have been eliminated earlier reappears on-screen and gets rewarded for his actions. By that time, anyone could be forgiven for giving up on the film as anything more than a collection of interesting sequences loosely strung along a disjointed structure and a lack of satisfying payoffs. (Although it does feature an unexpected “At least Jesus didn’t write Battlefield Earth” bumper sticker.)