I'm not exactly sure why but I wasn't expecting much from "Dark Places;" the plot description suggested the same-old-same-old and that it was adapted from a novel by "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn meant nothing to me (I've read neither it nor the book this movie derives from). Libby Day (Charlize Theron), now nearly 30-something, is the only survivor of a massacre that claimed the rest of her family save her brother Ben who was convicted of the crime. She's grown up dysfunctional (to put it mildly) and has lived on the contributions of sympathetic donors; her 15 minutes of fame are used up and so is the trust fund so she undertakes an assignment from a local crime-solvers club. Some of their members don't buy Ben as the culprit — one even accuses Libby out outright lying — and treasurer Lyle (Nicholas Hoult) hires Libby to revisit the crime and determine if what she thinks she saw was truly what occurred. Flashbacks to the events leading up to the killing reveal an abusive, drunken and absent father who shows up every now and again to force money from his wife. The family farm thus in danger of foreclosure. Other suspects are some teens who profess devil worship as an excuse to go on sprees of destruction, including taking pick-axes and the like to a herd of cows.
"Dark Places" does have the latter-day plot twists that are sometimes a detriment to what passes for whodunits but here they are all nicely foreshadowed rather than coming out of left field (though there is one that is so murkily indicated it nearly qualifies). Rather we get clues doled out as Libby investigates, even finally forcing herself to visit Ben (played as an adult by Corey Stoll and impressively as a teen by Tye Sheridan) in prison where she receives the surprising information that he falsely confessed to the murders because it made him feel important. (But is he telling the truth?) Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has filmed the proceedings in a dark and gritty, almost documentary manner that lures in the viewer. He is aided in this by a uniformly excellent cast and in particular by the performances of Theron — who makes Libby a vulnerable character for all her offputting unsociable ways — and Hoult as her sympathetic employer and fellow investigator. It may be Sheridan who really deserves the kudos for making young Ben such a damaged and lost soul that you root for Libby to exonerate him. The film has the additional benefit of exploring some substantial themes but never doing so in a heavy-handed way. "Dark Places" is definitely worth your time.
2014 / Lionsgate / 113m / $24.99 BR [R]
Love & Mercy
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I never got into the music of The Beach Boys — and yes, I was around at the height of their fame. Beatles and British Invasion pop was more what my crowd grooved to; the Beach Boys were considered hopelessly square — something vaguely addressed in "Love & Mercy." Years later, I can appreciate their sophisticated and intricate vocal arrangements but the music still doesn't do anything for me. That Bill Pohlad made me care for Brian Wilson, the composer who engineered the group's sound (and arguably something of a genius), at least for a mite over two hours, says a great deal. His film takes place primarily in two time periods: the 1960s when Wilson (Paul Dano) is putting together the group's revolutionary "Pet Sounds" album while falling deeper into the psychosis that would derail his talent — not to mention his life — and in the 1980s when (now played by John Cusack) he fell under the influence of controversial therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). During this latter period, he meets the woman who will become his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Her distrust of Landy — a control freak possibly even more psychologically damaged than his patient — prompts her attempts to pry her lover free from his oppressive manipulation.
There is a trio of excellent performances in "Love & Mercy," beginning with Cusack who has been stuck playing minor roles in independent movies where a few days' work allows the producers to bill his name prominently on posters and DVD cases. His work here, as the damaged and socially awkward Wilson, reminds us of just how good he is. (No, he looks nothing like Wilson but to whom exactly does that really matter?) Giamatti also scores as the creepy Landry whose cheerful facade is so forced you know almost instantly there's something deeper going on. The real kudos probably should go to Banks, who conveys her conflicted feelings about Wilson, attracted and intrigued but also a tad puzzled by and wary of his peculiar behavior, in a performance that seems effortless. Some writers have waxed enthusiastic about Dano but I was less taken by what struck me as a one-note turn. Extra marks to Pohlad for conveying the creative process so well; this is something that has eluded the talents of some great filmmakers but here it is presented remarkably well.
2015 / Lionsgate / 122m / $19.98 [PG-13
The Avenging Fist
There are, I am sure, exceptions but when approaching Oriental fantasy films, it's wise to check logic at the door. "The Avenging Fist" is promoted as science fiction but it has even less science in it than "H. R. Pufnstuff." If I tell you that the production features characters named Meganova, Iron Surfer, Combat 21 and Thunder you probably get the picture. Sometime in the future the police force has invented a glove, the Power Fist, which allows the wearer to access the 80 percent of the brain that goes unused. (That we don't use all of our brains is of course currently dismissed, which is a terrifying thought.) For reasons best known to whoever wrote this folderol, that area is known as The Forbidden Zone. One of the gloves is in the hands of former cop Combat 21 and he has assembled an army of followers in a movement clearly styled on the Third Reich (cue lots of Nuremberg rally imagery). Another is in the possession of Thunder, who through its use has become a running dog lackey to Combat 21. The third is held by Inspector Dark (Sammo Kam-bo Hung, the only name in the cast familiar to me) who passes it on to Meganova — who just happens to be Thunder's son — to prevent the neo-Nazi leader from achieving his aims.
Or something like that. It's unclear why Nova needs the Power Glove as he already possesses the ability to soar through the air. His sister, Belle, can generate heat from her hands (something she claims she has been able to do since she was a child) and Iron Surfer can take a fall from a hundred stories up without so much as getting the breath knocked out of him. There is no explanation for any of these X-Men-like talents — aside from what Belle offers, if you can call that an explanation. You just have to go with it in a film clearly inspired by mangas — and frequently adopting their visual style. It's all an excuse for a series of battles that have less to do with stunt work than with wires and CGI (which in my book makes them less impressive). There is some eye-popping production design, both in the sets and a CGI megalopolis that would make Fritz Lang green with envy. For those in the mood to succumb to its silliness, "The Avenging Fist" is fun. All others should probably steer clear.
2001 / Well Go USA / 98m / $14.98 [NR]
Escobar: Paradise Lost
Due in no small part to a disappointing ending (you are warned) the main reason to watch "Escobar: Paradise Lost" is for a superior performance from Benicio Del Toro. In this roman a clef thriller set (aside from a lengthy flashback) in the final 24 hours before he goes to prison, De Toro plays Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The movie isn't really about Escobar, despite the title, but rather about Canadian surfer Nick (Josh Hutcherson) who relocates to South America for the waves and meets, courts and marries Escobar's niece Maria (Claudia Traisac). He turns a blind eye to the family business — Maria explains that Colombians have been dealing in cocaine for centuries and her uncle is just exporting a native product; soon he's deeply involved in it. He also doesn't seem to notice the discrepancy between her assertion that every penny the old guy makes goes to the poor while he maintains an incredibly lavish lifestyle. In his final days of freedom, Escobar is busy hiding all his assets and Nick is charged with taking what must be a couple bazillion pesos worth of diamonds (to judge from the size of the crates) to a cave that will be sealed with dynamite.
Nick is also tasked with killing the guide who takes him there, and he soon susses out that he, too, will be eliminated as part of an orgy of killings that will winnow Escobar's minions to only his very most trusted. The Minister of Justice who engineered Escobar's imprisonment is also assassinated for good measure. Nick has to figure out how to get to the safety of the Canadian Embassy (and get Maria there as well) while eluding those who follow the drug lord's commands — which includes a police force that looks suspiciously like the army. Del Toro turns in such a powerful performance that you forget he's offscreen for lengthy periods of time and the main story is one we've seen many times. "Escobar: Paradise Lost" is an effective thriller once Nick gets called on to bury the treasure but the film would be better had it focused on its title character (particularly as played by Del Toro) than the bland lovers who typically ignore the crap around them so long its growing roses.
2014 / Anchor Bay / 120m / $26.99 BR [R]
Happyish, Season One
Any TV series whose opening episode quotes dialogue from Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" (the speech that begins with "They give birth astride a grave") has my attention. My problem was not so much getting interested in "Happyish" as it was staying interested. Ad man Thomas Payne (Steve Coogan) gets the last thing he wants for his birthday: new bosses at the agency who insist on cluelessly being hands on and demand the staff embrace the new social media in their thinking — though they can't seem to offer a hint how. They insist on revamping anything they deem old, such as substituting the cartoon Keebler elves with real little people and having the commercials deal with real problems and directed by Rob Reiner. (I can't imagine how much the producers shelled out for clearances to abuse actual name brands.) Also, in the first episode, Payne gets the information from his immediate supervisor (Bradley Whitford) that Sigmund Freud wasn't out to make people happy — only less miserable so they'd be like most of humanity. The best anyone can expect is to be sort of happy so at the end of the day Payne goes home to his wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn), a frustrated and not very talented artist, and their cute but sub-average son.
Creator Shalom Auslander also wrote all 10 episodes and it seems there is nothing is modern life that he doesn't despise except home and hearth. While the satire is spot on and extremely funny (but more about that in a bit) it is also all-encompassing. Everything in our society except Payne's marriage is broken to judge by Auslander and ultimately that's as shallow and generic as Glinda the Good Witch's advice that "There's no place like home." The only thing keeping episodes so depressingly bitter you want to open a vein is the comic abilities of the cast (imagine how things would have played out had that Duke of Downbeat Philip Seymour Hoffman played Payne, as originally intended). Something that may also dim the humor for some viewers is the language; profanity flows like the Mississippi (the f-bomb gets the kind of workout normally seen only in David Mamet scripts) and the series is wildly sacrilegious — against all religions, by the way, not just the one whose followers in the U.S. see themselves as an oppressed minority. If you can get past those two hurdles and the sense that the series is a forum for ranting about how all of life is crap you might enjoy "Happyish." But you'll have to do so on home video — the series wasn't renewed for a second season.
2015 / Showtime Entertainment, CBS DVD, Paramount / 272m (2 discs) / $42.99 [NR]
The western film is decidedly making a comeback but I doubt if those who made the westerns of old would much recognize it. The new entries like "The Timber" are more character study than shoot-em-ups and they make no bones about how life in the old west was brutally hardscrabble. (If I ever had any notions about the romance of the old west they've been effectively quashed.) Brothers Samuel (Josh Peck) and Wyatt (James Ransome) set out on a bounty hunting mission to raise the money to save their farm from foreclosure. The man they are expected to bring back dead or alive happens to be their father, who has been accused of murder. The banker who holds the mortgage at the last minute insists on a guide, Col. Rupert Thomas (Mark Caven), to direct them through the snowbound wilderness to the mountainous region where dad is believed to be holed up. We learn fairly early on that it is Thomas' task to see neither the father nor his sons returns alive because the banker wants to take possession of the land. The old plot thread of the evil banker manipulating things so he can seize the property is the closest this film comes to a traditional western and his reason for wanting to do so fall well within standard parameters.
Otherwise, "The Timber" is less conventional and a solid entry in the New Western category. The brothers face an irreparable breakdown of their buckboard, loss of their horses, a cave dweller who has been driven to cannibalism to survive and of course the life threatening weather. When they do finally locate pops he turns out to be somewhat less than a terrific fellow who'd prefer killing his sons to returning for justice — for that matter one of several flashbacks reveals that Wyatt is somewhat less than a Boy Scout. But then Anthony O'Brien's film is all about revelations, many of which subvert the expectations his screenplay (co-authored with Steve Allrich and Colin Ossiander) sets up. I'm thus loathe to reveal too much about the proceedings. So too, it would seem, is O'Brien because his approach is nigh elliptical with action occurring just outside the frame or revealed in such quick cuts that the viewer only gets an impression of it. Some scenes are cut away from before they're properly ended leaving only an inference of what has transpired. Those who need things spelled out might find the film frustrating but I appreciate a director who trusts the viewer to fill in the blanks.
2015 / Well Go USA / 80m / $29.98 BR [NR]