Friday, June 6, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: DEVIL'S KNOT (2014); IN THE BLOOD (2014); and SMALL TIME (2014)

(US - 2014)

The story of the West Memphis Three, accused of the ritualistic murder of three little boys in West Memphis, AR, has been told in many ways since the horrific events of the summer of 1993. Books, countless investigative pieces, TV news profiles, and most notably, four documentaries--Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger's PARADISE LOST trilogy and the Peter Jackson-produced WEST OF MEMPHIS--seem to have covered the story from every possible angle.  With that in mind, it seems odd to make a dramatization of the events now and odder still that it's directed by the great Egyptian-born Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (EXOTICA). Egoyan's been in a slump for going on a decade now, with only 2008's ADORATION showing signs of the Egoyan of old:  2005's WHERE THE TRUTH LIES and 2009's CHLOE are easily his weakest films, with CHLOE in particular looking like a laughably dated erotic thriller that was found sealed in a film canister marked "1995." Egoyan's been spending a lot of his time in recent years making short films and documentaries, so it's likely that TRUTH and CHLOE were just mercenary director-for-hire gigs that provided a financial cushion.  Unfortunately, DEVIL'S KNOT, based on Mara Leveritt's 2002 true-crime account of the same name, falls into the same category. Other than some familiar Egoyan actors like Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas, and some shots early on that recall the remorseful sense of melancholy of Egoyan's 1997 masterpiece THE SWEET HEREAFTER, DEVIL'S KNOT takes the story of the West Memphis Three and turns it into a perfunctory, workmanlike courtroom drama that offers no new perspective on the case other than to belatedly suggest that the father of one victim and the stepfather of another may have been involved in the murders.  Despite some early signs that Egoyan might take a David Fincher/ZODIAC approach to examining the story, it doesn't take long to devolve into rote storytelling that anyone familiar with the case already knows, laid out in thoroughly by-the-numbers fashion by the screenwriting team of Paul Harris Boardman and SINISTER director Scott Derrickson, whose previous credits together include HELLRAISER: INFERNO, URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. With that pedigree, it's pretty obvious Egoyan's just punching a clock on this one.

All the expected story elements are here:  the parents demanding revenge, the town, the lazy police, and a stone-walling judge going into full-on, witch-hunt, "Satanic panic" mode. They're all in a frothing-at-the-mouth quest to pin the murders on a trio of social outcasts who had an interest in the heavy metal and the occult and a ringleader in Damien Echols (played here by James Hamrick) who was a loner from a broken home who dressed in black and was simply deemed "weird."  The police work in this case was horribly shoddy, with one suspect, Jessie Misskelley, Jr (Kristopher Higgins), obviously mentally incompetent and thought to be "mildly retarded," coerced into confessing to the murders with wrong timelines and details completely inconsistent with the crime scene, but the cops ran with it anyway.  Since these details, and the eventual Alford Plea release of the three convicted murderers in 2011 are old news, a lot of DEVIL'S KNOT focuses on the grieving Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of victim Stevie Branch, and her late discovery of Stevie's pocket knife in a box kept by her husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola).  This, along with another knife that was given to Sinofsky and Berlinger (who briefly appear as themselves) by John Mark Byers (a hammy Kevin Durand), the father of victim Christopher Byers, and the police department's botched handling of a bloodied African-American man who was found in the ladies' room of a fast-food restaurant the night of the murders, would appear to indicate DEVIL'S KNOT's agenda in probing deeper into the case.  If Egoyan was really interested in that, why not pursue Terry Hobbs and John Mark Byers for a documentary? Why devote time to defense team investigator Ron Lax (a miscast Colin Firth, struggling with a Southern accent) moping around after his wife (a one-scene drop-in by Amy Ryan) serves him with divorce papers? Who gives a shit about Ron Lax's failed marriage?  This is the kind of film where the judge decrees to a packed courtroom that Misskelley will be tried separately from the others, but Lax still has to immediately lean over to his assistant and whisper "Separate trials...Jessie's gonna be tried on his own" just in case the audience is having trouble keeping up. With Oscar-winners Firth and Witherspoon onboard, and with justice for the West Memphis Three a longtime cause for many in the entertainment industry, DEVIL'S KNOT looks suspiciously like transparent Weinstein Company awards bait, but this time it backfired.  The film got such a unanimously negative response at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival that Harvey Weinstein unloaded it on RLJ Entertainment, who rolled it out on VOD and a handful of screens a month before its DVD/Blu-ray debut.  It's a strangely appropriate burial for such a shallow endeavor that barely scratches the surface as it treads down a path that's already been explored in much more insightful detail by others.  (Unrated, 114 mins)

(US/UK - 2014)

Steven Soderbergh's HAYWIRE arrived with much publicity and positive reviews in early 2012 as the starring debut of former MMA sensation Gina Carano.  It had a unusually highbrow supporting cast for such action fare and promised old-school fight scenes and delivered, but mainstream audiences weren't especially taken with Carano or with Soderbergh's directing style, which turned HAYWIRE into more or less an MMA arthouse film. Nevertheless, while it's a fixture in DVD bargain bins at a retailer near you and already little more than a footnote in Soderbergh's filmography, it has a minor cult following and Carano's future as a B-level DTV action star seemed inevitable. After a supporting role in last year's FAST & FURIOUS 6, she's back with the rather pedestrian IN THE BLOOD. For all the complaints action fans had about Soderbergh's artsy-fartsy pretensions with HAYWIRE, at least he made the action sequences count.  Here, sometime hack actor-turned-fulltime hack director John Stockwell weighs things down with too many characters with too many subplots and not enough Carano ass-kicking. Shot in Puerto Rico, the first half-hour of IN THE BLOOD looks like a typical Stockwell effort, demonstrating his endless fascination with exotic, scenic tourist destinations (since 2002, he's also made BLUE CRUSH, INTO THE BLUE, TURISTAS, and DARK TIDE) as recovering heroin addicts and newlyweds Ava (Carano) and Derek Grant (Cam Gigandet) honeymoon in the Caribbean.  They met in rehab--she came from the wrong side of the tracks and saw her father (Stephen Lang in flashbacks) murdered by drug dealers, he's the scion of a wealthy family whose asshole father (Treat Willliams) disapproves of Ava and tries to bully Derek into signing a pre-nup.  While at a restaurant, Ava and Derek meet affable local Manny (Ismael Cruz Cordova) who talks them into a zip-lining excursion.  While careening down the aptly-named "Widowmaker," Derek's line snaps and he plummets into the forest below.  The medics won't let Ava ride in the ambulance and no hospital in town has any record of Derek being brought in.  The local cops, led by the predictably useless chief (Luis Guzman), and her sneering father-in-law think she staged a kidnapping, or even killed him to gain access to the family's wealth.  So, of course, under the tutelage of her father, she's been schooled in the ways of MMA (much to the surprise of Derek during an early nightclub skirmish), and she becomes an inevitable one-woman wrecking crew in the quest to find her missing husband.

Once Stockwell finally gets to the action, IN THE BLOOD has its moments, but they're few and far between. This should be a tight, fast B-movie, but at 108 minutes, it's at least 20 minutes too long and the pacing is laborious.  Did we really need clunky subplots about Guzman's police chief or the feud between island crime lords Lugo (Amaury Nolasco) and Big Biz (Danny Trejo)?  At least Nolasco's character eventually figures into the increasingly ludicrous plot, but Trejo has almost nothing to do until the script (written by Farrelly Brothers collaborator Bennett Yellin and THE HOWLING: REBORN screenwriter James Robert Johnston) clumsily has him turn up at the end and somehow be the hero, which seems completely counterproductive considering that this is supposed to be a Gina Carano vehicle. Carano would do better to work with an Isaac Florentine or a John Hyams, both the kind of low-budget action auteur who can really bring out the best in action stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, and Dolph Lundgren. Carano's niche is practically pre-carved, but ponderous duds like IN THE BLOOD aren't going to do much to help her make her case. You're better off watching HAYWIRE again.  (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2014)

Since his acrimonious departure from LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT in 2011 over a salary dispute, Christopher Meloni has been jobbing around from gig to gig, with an acclaimed but short-lived recurring role on TRUE BLOOD, supporting roles in 42 and MAN OF STEEL, and, more recently, the Fox sitcom SURVIVING JACK, which survived four episodes before being cancelled, and a hilarious arc as Julia Louis-Dreyfus' personal trainer/secret paramour on VEEP.  In 2012, Meloni shot the low-budget SMALL TIME, written, directed, and self-financed by 24 creator Joel Surnow.  It gives the veteran TV actor a rare big-screen lead, but it's also the kind of small, personal film that just doesn't generate much interest outside of film festivals. It opens strongly and succumbs to cliche and formula in its second half, but a decade ago, a film like SMALL TIME probably would've become a minor, word-of-mouth sleeper hit instead of getting the VOD dump-job from distributor Anchor Bay Films. Meloni is Al Klein, a master used-car salesman and co-owner of Diamond Motors, along with his best friend Ash Martini (Dean Norris).  Al is going through a midlife crisis and can't commit to girlfriend Linda (Garcelle Beauvais), and as his son Freddy (Devon Bostick) is graduating from high school, Al fears the years have slipped away. Despite the protestations of his ex-wife Barbara (Bridget Moynahan) and her wealthy investment broker husband Chick (Xander Berkeley, the go-to actor for "asshole second husbands"), Freddy wants to skip college and work as a salesman with his dad. Wanting some father-son bonding time, Al welcomes Freddy onboard as he and Ash school him in the ways of wheeling and dealing.

Despite some funny scenes of car-lot hustling, SMALL TIME isn't another USED CARS-type comedy. The focus remains on Al and the realization that maybe this isn't the life he wants for his son, especially since his gift for closing deals almost immediately gives the impressionable Freddy a swelled head, which isn't helped by the encouragement of Ash, a well-meaning guy who loves Freddy but often comes off as a bad-influence uncle, and some cynical salesman friends who teach Freddy that "people are shit and they'll believe anything." Al and Ash may be fast-talking salesmen, but they're generally honest, and Al worries about the side of Freddy that the job is bringing out.  SMALL TIME is a small labor of love for all involved, but once Freddy starts getting a shitty attitude, Surnow's script devolves into too many standard-issue tropes and conventions, culminating in a really bad moment when Bostick gets in Meloni's face and yells--what else?--"You're so...small-time!"  There's also too many whimsical elements that film fest folks love:  set in an undetermined period that would appear to be the early '80s, the film opens with an older Freddy narrating "It was the summer that changed my life"; montages set to soul and/or Latin music; gregarious ethnic supporting characters; and a kooky and improbably Scottish secretary (EXTRAS' Ashley Jensen) who has no idea how to make coffee.  There's a lot in SMALL TIME that should completely derail it, but the consistently-underrated Meloni is the glue that holds it together. He's terrific here and his rapport with both Bostick and Norris (as well as in the seemingly improvised scenes with their lunch group of crass, old-school salesmen buddies played by Kevin Nealon, Ken Davitian, and Barry Primus) really manages to redeem the film's many inherently self-destructive elements.  SMALL TIME is slight and predictable, but it's enjoyable enough, moves very briskly, and is a must-see if you're a Meloni fan.  (R, 94 mins)

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