The first, or maybe second, third or even fourth Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday of every month Nathan Rabin writes about three DVD premieres for Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory.
Nearing Grace: Ever since being bowled over by Mean Creek I've kept an eye out for a young filmmaker named Jacob Aaron Estes with a keen visual eye, a flair for creating compelling, multi-dimensional characters and a genius for capturing the fumbling, inarticulate rhythms of adolescence. So I was surprised to see him credited as the sole screenwriter of Nearing Grace, a maddeningly generic-looking teen romance about a brooding intellectual in love with the most popular girl in school. The DVD box makes it look exactly like every other teen movie ever made, as does its plot. But the standard-issue trappings mask surprising ambition. For starters the film is both a period piece and an adaptation of a 1979 novel by Scott Summers. Gregory Smith stars as an intense, self-stylized intellectual (i.e pretentious jackass) who goes into an emotional tailspin following the death of his beloved mother. While philosophical dad David Morse tries to drink himself into oblivion Smith enters into a mercurial relationship with a rich tease (Jordanna Brewster) who seems to derive an almost sexual pleasure out of toying with Smith's emotions. In time-honored teen film tradition, Smith's moony infatuation with his unattainable dream girl nearly costs him the friendship of his best bud (Ashley Johnson), who nurses a painful crush on him he's too myopic to reciprocate until it's narratively convenient for him to do so. As in Mean Creek Estes captures the blinding emotional intensity of adolescence. There are neat little moments scattered throughout the film, from the way Smith furtively smells Brewster's shoe when hiding in her closet as if expecting to smell lilacs and lavender to the giddy little skip Johnson does after giving Smith an erection. But if Nearing Grace is unexpectedly poignant, evocative and well-crafted for a film about a high school loner who overlooks his pretty best friend in his lust for his school's teen queen it is, alas, still a film about a high school loner who overlooks his pretty best friend in his lust for his school's teen queen and climaxes at a big dance. Just How Bad Is It?Much better than it looks, but not quite as good as it could have been.
Lonely Hearts (2006): Martha Beck is a legend of the sordid true crime world, a morbidly obese, 200-pound shrew who helped lover/soul mate Raymond Fernandez cheat and kill a string of lonely, desperate single women. Shirley Stoler unforgettably played Beck in the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers, setting a precedent that would be hard to top. So who do you get to play Beck in 2007? A portly unknown? A chubby known actress willing to pack on pounds or wear a fat suit? How about Salma Hayek in glammed-up sex goddess mode?
The new direct-to-DVD misfire Lonely Hearts opts for the third choice. Now that Hayek has played a famously gargantuan, unattractive real-life killer a whole new world of roles has been opened up to her. Why not play Harriet Tubman next? Or Eleanor Roosevelt? Or Linda Hunt? Or Lady Mecha-Godzilla? Alas, the miscasting of Hayek is the least of the film's problems. Written and directed by Todd Robinson, the grandson of one of the detectives that cracked the case, Lonely Hearts stars John Travolta as a tormented detective who throws himself into tracking down the Honeymoon killers as a way of working through his guilt over his wife's suicide. James Gandolfini is burdened with delivering the film's groaningly over-written narration as Travolta's partner, a hard-ass with a heart of gold, a sharp mind and an endless font of hard-boiled clichés.
Leto meanwhile seems to be channeling the cast of
Reefer Madness as a hopped-up and love-crazy Hernandez. Handsomely mounted like a dead animal in a hunter's lodge, Lonely Hearts is sub-James Ellroy pulp, all empty noir posturing, dime store Freudianism and groan-inducing purple prose. Sure casting Hayek makes the sex scenes a lot more palatable but considering the film's leaden, inert emptiness that's an empty victory. Just how bad is it?Pretty damned bad Moving McAlister: Why, given the subgenre's anemic box-office track record, are video store shelves flooded with wacky road-trip comedies? Maybe because they're so deceptively easy to make. Just pair an uptight guy with a freewheeling gal, send them pinballing across the open road and kick back while life lessons and hilarious misadventures ensue. But if road trip comedies are easy to make they're exceedingly difficult to make well. Case in point: Moving McAlister, a sleepy road comedy about a sniveling white-bread sycophant (screenwriter Ben Gourley) who is dispatched to help move the freewheeling daughter (Mila Kunis) of his fearsome boss. Kunis promptly sets about turning Gourley's orderly life upside down with her free-spirited ways. Will Gourley learn to kick back and enjoy life, possibly with the help of a zany drifter played by Napoleon Dynamite cut-up Jon Heder? Will mutual hostility give way to love once this cranky jerk and playfully sadistic minx let their guard down and embrace the crazy cosmic circus known as life? Will McAllister hit every expected beat en route to a pre-determined happy ending where Gourley decides that gosh darn it, Kunis might just be the gal for him after all? The answer, not surprisingly is yes, yes and also yes. Will I regret having seen this movie instead of something more interesting and worthwhile? I'm guessing you know the answer to that one already. Just How Bad Is It? Really bad