(On TV, October 2017) There is an initial flicker of interest in Inkheart as it first seems that it will be about readers, books and fantastical adventures between fiction and the real world. I happen to think of myself as a Big Reader currently on hiatus while I focus my free time on a hundred years’ worth of movies I haven’t yet seen, so anything that reminds me of what fun it is to read is notionally laudable. Alas, as Inkheart goes on, it quickly retreats to show its true origins as yet another YA film adaptation, with the narrative compromises that this implies. It quickly turns into yet another quest fantasy, and the various ideas that stems from the film’s premise can’t quite save it from narrative ennui as it goes through the motions of so many other YA adaptations of the past decade. (No, Inkheart doesn’t get early-adopter bonus points. Not any more.) Despite his charm, Brendan Fraser can’t save the film, nor can Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany or Jim Broadbent. Despite everything in its arsenal, Inkheart only manages a tepid impact, and disappointment may be its most striking feature.
(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.)