Critical Mass: Reviewers go for “Nightcrawler,” not “Horns” or “Before I Go to Sleep”

jake1“Nightcrawler” has Jake Gyllenhaal as an amoral thief and sociopath  (Aspergerger’s, maybe a little?) who takes up freelance TV news crime and crash videography, and makes his mark in it. Feels a little dated in terms of its media savvy, but Dan Gilroy’s film has a marvelously icky vibe and Jake G. gives maybe his best ever performance in it. Great reviews greet the arrival of “Nightcrawler.”

“Horns” has Daniel Radcliffe continuing to go his own way as a movie star, picking this quirky dark comedy about murder, guilt and redemption as he plays a boyfriend whose girlfriend’s death has been pinned on him. He starts to grow horns, because that’s the way his community treats him. Heavy handed and way too long to sustain that light comic intent, I liked this more than the consensus of critics. They panned it. Me, not so much.

“Before I Go to Sleep” has my review as an outlier as well. It’s a compact thriller about an amnesiac (Nicole Kidman) who cannot decide who is telling the truth about her past — her husband (Colin Firth) or some shady sneak who says he’s her doctor (Mark Strong). Not as tricky as it needed to be, but that cast ensures that this is a real actor’s showcase. Marvelous performances, chilling.

“ABCs of Death 2″ is another compendium of horror shorts directed by 26 or so little proven filmmakers. Damned if it isn’t better than the first compilation — the jokes land, the surprises shock. I’m not the only one who says so, either.

“Hit by Lightning” is Jon Cryer playing another lovesick loser, this one being lured into killing some gorgeous Frenchwoman’s husband. Yeah, I know. Everybody hated it.

“Missionary” is a good looking and smartly conceived thriller about a Mormon missionary lured into a sexual relationship with an older woman he ministers to, a relationship that turns stalker and deadly. Bad reviews, mostly, for this limited release, including mine.  But apparently, the Village Voice reviewer, in the absence of door-to-door encounters with Mormons, is all on board with the film’s Mormon-bashing subtext.

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Movie Review: “Revenge of the Green Dragons”

dragionsBloody, brutal and melodramatic, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” is a straight-up gang war thriller whose release is “presented” by Martin Scorsese. The master of Italian-American mob movies saw much to like, and much that is familiar in this story of the rise of Chinese gangs in 1980s Flushing, New York.
“Inspired by a true story” (stay through the credits), “Dragons” follows a child smuggled into America in the early ’80s, enslaved washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant and eventually caught and coerced into joining one of the Asian gangs fighting to control Queens.
Unlike past depictions of this violent underworld of guns, knives and Mahjong parlors, co-directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo tell it totally from an insider’s point of view. The cops and F.B.I.agents (Ray Liotta) are too racist to care much about the flood of Chinese illegals and the drugs and violence the gangs that were smuggling them brought in with them. This is Chinese-on-Chinese violence, gruesome eye-for-an-eye stuff. Their rules for a clean kill? “Never shoot whites” is one of them.
Sonny avoids the gangs for a while. But when his “brother” Steven, the kid being raised in the same Chinese restaurant slave ring where he works, is kidnapped and tortured into joining, Sonny comes along. Can’t be any worse than the beatings that make up his dead-end world of dish washing.
Of course it can.
By 1989, Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu) are the Chinese equivalent of “made men,” mobsters in good standing with the clean-cut leader of the Green Dragons, Paul (Harry Shum Jr.). The Tienanmen Square protests on TV mean nothing to them. Their simmering war with the White Tigers gang does.
Sonny falls for the willowy daughter (Shuya Chang) of a Hong Kong singer smuggled over and supported by the Green Dragons. But whatever soul Sonny has long ago vanished from Steven, who has become a cold-eyed killer.
Leonard Wu makes a vivid impression as the gang’s brutish second in command, Eugenia Yuan is a quietly furious Snakehead Mama, an inscrutable cliche of Chinese gang movies since the silent era.
“Behind every fortune is a crime,” she purrs, every line a fortune cookie quip.
Scorsese must have appreciated the myriad mob movie cliches that make up “Revenge.” The violence is vivid and in your face. There’s a continuum to the American immigrant experience, which Scorsese’s films depict and Ray Liotta, playing an F.B.I. agent spells out for his slow-witted boss. Irish, Jews and Italians went through their mobster eras. Now, it is the turn of the Chinese. That was corny and dated back when Mickey Rourke was saying it in the middle of these wars in “Year of the Dragon” (1985).
Colorful early scenes capture the terror of children hunted by gangsters, the awful beatings the kids endure before they’re initiated. Later scenes descend into the trite, gory and predictable conventions of such movies — betrayal, the deaths of those close to the hero, laughably arch speeches about this war.
“There’s a storm coming, detective. And I don’t know any umbrella that’s gonna keep this city dry!”
This would work better if you thought the writers and directors were in on the joke.

2stars1
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence including a sexual assault, pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content
Cast: Justin Chon, Kevin Wu,Shuya Chang, Ray Liotta, Harry Shum Jr.,Eugenia Yuan, Jin Auyeung
Credits: Directed by Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, screenplay by Michael Di Jiacomo, Andrew Loo. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:34

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Movie Review: “Before I Go to Sleep”

before

Three of the best actors in the business put on a master class in mystery thriller in “Before I Go to Sleep,” a lean, twisty-turning tale in the “Memento” style.
Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up each day confused. Her eyes dart around the unfamiliar bed, the alien bedroom, the stranger’s hand draped across her.
Their bathroom is plastered in snapshots — of their wedding, their years together.
“I’m Ben, your husband,” the man (Colin Firth) says. “Christine, you’re 40…It was a bad accident.”
None of it rings a bell for her. Christine has lost 20 years and every night when she dozes off she loses that day’s memories as well.
A phone call promises help, a clue. Look in your closet, the voice of a man calling himself a doctor tells her. Look for the shoebox with the digital camera in it. Her video diary is there. Dr. Nash (Mark Strong) is the one who got her to start keeping one.
But something unsettles her, the bits of her past that the doctor, who insists she keep their relationship a secret, tells her. And she’s not sure what to make of the omissions her husband is leaving out of that story “to protect you.”
“So you edit my life?”
“Before I Go to Sleep” hangs on Kidman’s intimate performance. She whispers, girlishly, shocked at being told she had an affair, puzzled that the two men give her differing versions of how she lost her memory. At the beginning of each day, she is passive, naive and trusting. She gets into the car of the man who calls himself her doctor without question.
But as the days progress and the story advances, she adds to that diary and becomes assertive, questioning and suspicious. Some days, she suspects the husband of manipulating her. Some days, the doctor. Some evenings she’s drawn to the man who says he’s trying to heal her, and some she has sex with the man who insists he’s withholding details to save her pain and heartache.
Writer-director Rowan Joffe (he wrote the Clooney hitman thriller, “The American”), adapting an S.J. Watson novel, maintains the mystery at the heart of this puzzle picture and jolts us with the odd shock — a violent flashback, a loud horn blast from a passing truck that nearly hits someone.
But he wisely lets this be an actor’s picture. Strong, often cast as villains, is poker-faced here, close-ups capturing wheels turning that could be a doctor reasoning out a talking cure or someone with reason to keep Christine in the dark.
Firth, most often a romantic lead, wears a deflated look of loss that either masks the grief of a man whose great love has lost her sense of identity or something cagier.
And Kidman lets us feel Christine’s confusion, her desire to not stay in the dark even if every memory retrieved threatens more pain.
Whatever twists this puzzle tosses at us, the film reminds us that a great actor, in close-up, telling a story with just her or his eyes, is still the greatest special effect the movies have to offer. This cast telling this story ensures us that nobody will be dozing off “Before I Go to Sleep.”
3stars2
MPAA Rating: R for some brutal violence and language
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong
Credits: Written and directed by Rowan Joffe, based on an S.J. Watson novel. A
Clarius/Millennium release.
Running time: 1:32

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EXCLUSIVE: Mark Strong talks about maintaining his poker face for “Before I Go to Sleep”

strongIt comes as no surprise that renowned British character actor Mark Strong is a pretty fair poker player. He’d have to be. His screen reputation is “unadulterated villainy” (Sandra Hall, Sydney Morning Herald). He was the bad guy in everything from “Sherlock Holmes” to “Kick-Ass,” “The Guard” to “Welcome to the Punch.”

“You’ve got to have a good poker face” with that resume, he says with a chuckle. “You try to play it neutral, because you can’t give away your hand.”

He was warned by colleagues and others that he was acquiring baggage. The former Marco Giuseppe Salussolia, with his steely eyes and flinty, hawk-like features, could easily be typecast as a classic Brit villain. Heck, he even picked up some extra cash in a notorious TV commercial in which he, Sir Ben Kingsley and Tom Hiddleston declared that all the cool villains are Brits, and they all drive Jaguars.

It was “”Aren’t you worried, ALWAYS being the bad guy?'” Strong says. “I understood the question, but I could never turn any of the parts down. They were too interesting.

“Most of the guys I play have very strong characteristics. I’m drawn to those guys. Villains wear their hearts on their sleeves. They have a very definite intention within the story, and are key to the movie.”

And he just knew, he says, that someday directors would see past his ability to menace and start playing around with it. In films such as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”, “Anna” and the Oscar-contending “The Imitation Game,” he could be conflicted, ambiguous or heroic.

Strong’s baggage helps make his latest film, “Before I Go to Sleep.” Nicole Kidman plays a woman with a form of amnesia that wipes her memories almost clean with every night’s sleep. Something precipitated that condition. Who will give her, each day, a straight account of who she was and is, and what might be her problem — her husband (Colin Firth) or this fellow who says he’s her psychiatrist (Strong), and adds “Don’t tell your husband you’re my patient”?

“Maybe the hardest part I’ve ever played,” Strong says, “maintaining the mystery, being neutral. I can’t put that ‘point of view’ that so many of my characters show openly, out there. The audience has to wonder who they can trust.”

In this poker game, the deck is stacked with casting — the charming Colin Firth, the “unnerving” (Hall again, Sydney Morning Herald) Strong, the occasionally deceptive Kidman. Strong decided his doctor would wear a little stubble, “even the tiny glasses I wear in a few scenes have a sinister glint about them. He’s not your natural, obvious, friendly and helpful doctor.”

His rep as a heavy also pays off with the sorts of comic roles he’s given — the upcoming “Kingsman: Secret Service” and Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Grimsby” play around with it. And like any Brit villain, he can always escape his screen image by returning to the stage. He developed a passion for the plays of America’s Arthur Miller some years back, even got to meet the man during a British run of “Death of a Salesman.” His recent heralded lead performance as Eddie Carbone in “View from The Bridge” has warranted a revival of that production, opening in London’s West End in March.

Meanwhile, he’s playing with his newfound reputation for ambiguity. But might “Before I Go to Sleep” give away too much when the stubbly, steely-eyed Strong slips behind the wheel of the doctor’s car, which is French-made, not British?

“Maybe,” he says, chuckling. “You can’t ALWAYS tell the bad guys by their cars. Still, Peugot’s not really a bad guy’s car, is it? Not like a Jaguar!”

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Movie Review: “Nightcrawler”

jake2A gaunt Jake Gyllenhaal rarely blinks in “Nightcrawler,” turning himself into a chilling human special effect. As a focused but directionless petty thief who does discovers the rewards of recording and selling video to “If it bleeds, it leads” local TV news in Los Angeles, he not only acts like a reptile, he looks the part.

“Nightcrawler” is an utterly fascinating plunge into the ethical cesspool of freelance video journalism in the TMZ age. Writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) delivers a blistering, funny and instantly-dated skewering of TV news and the selling of fear to the huddled masses, which market research here reveals only care when white people are the victims of crime.

Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a socially awkward sociopath, a self-educated loner sharp enough to realize his petty thefts of copper tubing and iron manhole covers is not a business with a future.

But stumbling onto an accident and meeting a swaggering but brusque freelance videographer (Bill Paxton) convinces him there’s a career with a future, a business model he can make work. He wrangles a cheap camera and figures out, within hours, ways to get a leg up on the others shooting footage to sell to the various Los Angeles TV stations. Focus on the blood, ignore the cops and crime scene protocols and develop a cinematographer’s eye.

“I’m a very fast learner,” he says, without a hint of modesty or guile. He’s like a malevolent Dr. Sheldon Cooper of “Big Bang Theory” — borderline Asperger’s, with no compunction about how he gets the amazing shots he does.

Rene Russo is spot-on as Nina, an aging TV news director who is the only person Bloom will sell his footage to. She will run it, gore and all, over colleagues’ objections. She gently eggs Bloom on, flatters him and teaches him.

“Think of our newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut.”

Bloom hires a homeless man (Rick Garcia) as his navigator and assistant. And in a whirlwind montage, we see them hustle their way to the top of the overnight news video trade — nursing home fires, bloody wrecks, car-jackings. When nobody is looking, Bloom stages his photos, re-arranging the scene for a more grabby image. The viewer’s jaw drops, because we can sense the slippery slope this earnest, smiling young snake is all-too-eager to hurl himself down.

Gyllenhaal gives one of his more transformative performances as Bloom, an Internet-smart creep whose calculating nature runs from how to truly shove aside the competition to making the only woman in his life, Nina, fulfill both his professional and sexual requirements.

Gilroy gives their scenes, in which Russo’s Nina rebuffs and brushes off Bloom’s blunt advances, but never so firmly that she scares off her video savior, a breathless crackle. We never have to see them in bed. The haggling over going rates for video scenes are seductive enough.

Gilroy cut some corners on the casting, not spending the money on charismatic name actors to play the cops who suspect Bloom’s dark side or the one reporter at the TV station to object to this deal with the video Devil. That makes the story less predictable and entirely about its amoral central figure, whom we figure out early on and thus aren’t really shocked at each new transgression.

More problematic is the world Gilroy sets this in. It’s today. It’s video. Bloom is Internet savvy in the extreme. And yet the web nature of much video reportage — the TMZs of the world clobber broadcast TV when it comes to paying for video — is ignored. And Gilroy limits the competition in the media capital of the world to just a couple of freelance video rivals.

But from that first moment, when smiling Louis Bloom charms and then jumps a security guard, to a breathless third act where his finds that final moral line to cross, Gyllenhaal’s “Nightcrawler” pulls us in, mesmerized by this viper’s wide, unblinking eyes until it’s too late.

3stars2jake1

MPAA Rating: R for violence including graphic images, and for language

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Rick Garcia

Credits: Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. An Open Road release.

Running time: 1:57

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Movie Review: “Horns”

radIn his new film “Horns,” Daniel Radcliffe grows a pair.
Playing a young man whose girlfriend was brutally murdered, that’s a magically realistic way of him becoming what his suburban Seattle neighbors think of him.
“When they looked at me, they saw the devil,” Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) narrates. “Now, I had to look the part.”
But Ig is sure he could never have killed his sweetheart since childhood, Merrin. And new horns or no new horns, he starts asking around, investigating the case that the cops never quite made against him, hunting for “the real killer.”
And once he’s got the reddish, Satanic outcroppings on his head, Ig has help in this hunt. People tend to blurt out deep, dark thoughts — truths, suspicions, yearnings. The doctor he goes to (Alex Zahara) to get the horns removed is distracted — by his nurse and other temptations.
“I think I should grind up some Oxycontin and have a little snort!”
Ig’s mother (Kathleen Quinlan) confesses that she wishes her son, whom she has professed to love “no matter what,” would just leave. His father (James Remar) makes a heartbreaking confession about what he thinks happened on that rainy night, when Ig got drunk and blacked out only to wake up with a dead girlfriend.
“Way more people kill out of love than out of hate.”
Director Alexandre Aja (“High Tension,” the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes”) makes this film, based on a Joe Hill novel, a sight-and-song gag-riddled religious allegory for much of its length. Ig drives an ancient AMC Gremlin, lumber trucks rumble through a “Twin Peaks” world of closeted cops and judgemental rednecks, all subject to whatever suggestion Ig utters at them to buy time for his investigation.
We see the lifelong romance with Merrin (Juno Temple plays her as an adult, Sabrina Carpenter as a tween). Flashbacks show Ig’s circle of friends then and now. Actions in childhood reverberate into adulthood as Lee, a true-blue friend as a kid, is the only lawyer (Max Minghella) Ig trusts as an adult.
But as on-the-nose as “Horns” sometimes is — Heather Graham plays yet another tarty-trashy waitress — none of this set dressing is much of a distraction from a fairly straightforward love story/murder mystery. When you set aside time for sex scenes, a cover of Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” treated as a hymn in church and drag out the post-climax ending, you’re overstaying your welcome.
But Radcliffe, to his credit, never does. His American accent is spot-on, his torment at Ig’s loss, fear that he might be guilty and fury that he might be framed are all nicely underplayed.
And it’s refreshing to see Aja get back to something more demanding than the generic horror Hollywood sentenced him to after inviting him here after the superb French horror thriller, “High Tension.”
I just wish there’d been more to this allegory, something more than Radcliffe’s Ig explaining his protrusions to one and all with “They’re horns. It’s a crazy story.”

2half-star6MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, disturbing violence including a sexual assault, language and drug use
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Ma Minghella, David Morse, Heather Graham, James Remar
Credits: Directed by Alexandre Aja, written by Keith Bunin, based on a novel by Joe Hill. A release.
Running time: 2:00

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Movie Review: “Magical Universe”

magDocumentary filmmaking rewards the obsessive.
You have to be obsessed to dive into and put in the endless hours to finish your film, often in the thin hopes that PBS, a cable channel or Netflix will show it to the tiny audience that such films typically lure. And often, the most arresting subjects are obsessive themselves — obsessive Scrabble players (movie watchers (“Cinemania”), crackpot hermits who write long, psychotic unpublished (and unpublishable novels (“In the Realms of the Unreal”).
And then there are the quirkier, seemingly more normal obsessives who play with dolls and make art with them. “Marwencol” (2010) was about a brain-injured war vet who posed dolls in this vast, elaborate and fictional World War II town he created in his yard, then photographed as art.
“Magical Universe” is about an old man in Maine who does dioramas with Barbie dolls and then photographs them. Al Carbee had become something of a local celebrity/local character in Saco, Maine — stuffing a huge old house with art — dioramas and collages, photographs and sketches, paintings and the like.
He stuffed a huge barn, “the biggest in Maine,” with more of it. He pulled the barn down and moved it up against his house so he could create a vast, odd and self-absorbed gallery of his works. He dug a tunnel in his basement to create more space for this stuff.
Filmmaker Jeremy Workman was tipped off about him, made a short film and became a lifelong pen pal of Carbee’s. “Pen pal” means that Workman was subjected to hundreds of long, rambling stream-of-consciousness/narrate-the-minutia-of-my-day letters and self-absorbed videotapes.
And Workman maintained the connection, even if Carbee came off as “unsettling” and his letters as “the rants of some crazy person.”
Workman’s girlfriend Astrid also appears in the film, an exotic blond who becomes something of a fresh obsession for Carbee. She chastises the filmmaker for the way he characterizes Carbee, first in his short film and now (by extension) in this feature length treatment.
“You’re making a strong statement that he is weird.”
Well, yeah. “Magical Universe” feels like a visit to a hoarder masquerading as an artist. But wandering through the vast collage that was Carbee’s house, you can understand Workman’s mixed feelings. The film serves to validate the art, in an age where “art” can be anything with a good back story. But the viewer sits through these 80 minutes feeling like an armchair psychotherapist.
Carbee comes off as a narcissist who figured his every random thought was worth preserving on film, paper or painting.
He was a creator, sure. But Workman’s film feels exploitative, and the filmmaker cannot help but make Carbee look a little creepy and a bit pathetic. The only thing that eases your conscience watching “Magical Universe” is the difficulty in deciding, “Who was using whom here?”

2half-star6
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes
Cast: Al Carbee,Jeremy Workman and Astrid von Ussar
Credits: Written and directed by Jeremy Workman. A Sundance Selects release.
Running time: 1:20

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Movie Review: “ABCs of Death 2″

death1That miss-or-hit collection of horror shorts, “The ABCs of Death” becomes more hit or miss with its sequel, “ABCs of Death 2.”
Not to be confused with the similar “VHS” horror omnibus, “ABCs” gives up-and-coming horror writer-directors — more than 26, as many work in teams — a letter of the alphabet which they then turn into a word and build a four to five minute tale of death.
So we get director Hajime Ohata’s “O is for Ochlocracy,” a word which means mob rule. In this case, it’s rule by zombies who bring a zombie killer to trial for…wait for it…killing zombies.
The length means the filmmakers have to find a clever concept, a couple of decent shocks, and a great punchline. And the good ones do.
“B is for Badger” has actor-director Julian Barratt (“The Mighty Boosh”) playing a bullying nature show host whose hapless crew watches helplessly as the badger, supposedly driven away by a nearby nuclear power plant, turns out to be still there, much stronger and even more irritable than the host.
A Japanese teenage girl’s psychotic fantasy of what to do about her awful parents, who neglect her and her dog, becomes ‘s Sôichi Umezawa deliciously dark “Y is for Youth.”
“N is for Nexus” (Larry Fessenden) cleverly sends a dating couple, in costume, kiddie trick-or-treaters and a distracted, crossword-puzzle addict cabbie into a busy intersection on Halloween.
A few of the shorts are weak but watchable with filmmakers who seem to have a juvenile attachment to female nudity. It’s why boys go to film school — many of them, anyway. And a couple of the “ABCs” are student film amateurish, though not E.L. Katz’s nicely conceived “A is for Amateur.” A would-be hitman fantasizes “a job” — taking out a drug dealer by crawling through the duct work of his nude-girls-filled lair. Then the hitman gets to work, and we see what the movies never show you — how duct work was never made to be crawled through, all jagged sheet metal, with pointy screws more of a menace than vermin.
As with all of these shorts collections, the idea is to make a statement film and get a directing deal. But we the viewers also find names to try and remember, filmmakers worth watching for. Because you never know who the next Joon-Ho Bong (“The Host”) or Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) will be. A couple of them might make the grade after learning their “ABCs.”

2half-star6
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence, gore, nudity, drug abuse
Cast: Scores of players, none of great note (yet)
Credits: Written and directed by over 26 different filmmakers. A Magnet release.
Running time: 2:03

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Movie Review: “Hit by Lightning”

lightThe die was for Jon Cryer way back when “Pretty in Pink” launched him in the movies.
He’d always be the doormat, the witty loser who never gets the girl.
All he had to look forward to was getting older and balder, and better character names than the one John Hughes saddled him with — “Ducky.”
His niche has served him well as second banana all those years on “Two and a Half Men.” And here he is, still lovelorn and comically sad in “Hit by Lightning.”
As Ricky, the balding 40 year-old chain restaurant manager, he laments to his BFF Seth (Will Sasso) that they’re the last two guys from their high school class to marry.
And even though he knows the odds are long, even though he’s a nonbeliever who drinks and swears like Cryer never could on TV, he prays to God that he will “Find my soulmate…before I’m hit by lightning.”
The answer might be eHappily, an online dating service. That’s where his profile, in search of his “heartner,” lures Danita (Stephanie Szostak) into a date.
She’s beautiful, a “10,” and as Seth says, Ricky is just a “four” — even with that spray-on hair covering his bald spot. She’s nervous, a little on edge, but eager and into him. It’s only after the sex — MUCH later — that she blurts out that she’s married, that “My husband would KILL me” if she ever left, and that Ricky should help her kill him.
Whoa.
Ricky, in the film’s primary leap of illogic, doesn’t have to think twice before agreeing. Yeah, he’s that lonely.
It is up to the annoying lump Seth to set him straight. He shows him “Body Heat,” starring “Will Hurt, and Kathleen Turner, back when she still looked like a chick.” And “Wild Things.” This Danita is bad news, a regular “femme fatal.”
“That’s fa-TALE.”
Such is the nature of the humor in this comedy, written and directed by Ricky Blitt.
Sasso, who once starred in TV’s “$#*! My Dad Says,” tries the hardest, playing the loser who doesn’t know he’s a loser, dragging the pal he nicknamed “Hog” (better than Ducky, sort of) out of his shell, then shoving him back in it when Hog crosses the line.
Szostak (“Iron Man 3,” “The Sopranos”) is mainly just a nervous pretty French face for Ricky to obsess over. This part called for a lot more Sofia Vergara.
Cryer sort of shrugs and bears it, the way he does on TV only with less sex and more profanity, and the chance of violence hanging over the proceedings as Ricky/Hog meets the husband (Jed Rees). He starts to wonder if the man is the monster Danita portrays him as, or if she’s just leading them both to their doom.
Not that the script ever makes us care. Slow-witted and slowly paced, with characters kept at arm’s length, our biggest concern is not whether Ricky will indeed be “Hit by Lightning,” but whether anybody will find a spark of life in this corpse of a comedy.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: unrated, with gun violence, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Jon Cryer, Stephanie Szostak, Will Sasso, Jed Rees
Credits: Written and directed by Ricky Blitt. A Phase4 Films release.
Running time: 1:25

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Movie Review: “Missionary”

miss“Missionary” is a lean, slickly sordid indie thriller about a Mormon missionary who goes bad. Really bad.

Take away the not-so-saintly Latter Day Saint element and it would only occasionally rise to generic, a simple love triangle turned deadly. But add a little sin and a hint of insanity, suggestions of church complicity in the unfolding tragedy, and you’re bound to punch somebody’s hot buttons.

You see them in pairs, young men in white button-down shirts and ties, riding Schwinns and spreading the word about The Book of Mormon. They’re men on a mission, a rite of passage among the Latter Day Saints, going door to door in America and all over the world on self-financed outreach missions, recruiting for the church.

In central Florida, Elder Whitehall (Jordan Woods-Robinson, convincingly earnest) shows the ropes to Elder Brock (Mitch Ryan, charming yet chilling) drilling him on which scripture to quote when counter-arguments come up among the not-yet-converted. They track their progress on a board — “Finding” some potential members, “Teaching” others whom they’ve sensed an interest, “Baptizing” the converted.

They have a lot of rules. They must stick together, travel in pairs, to avoid temptation. They will live a strict abstinent life on the mission. And, apparently, they’re not allowed to goof off and play sports.

That’s the one that trips up Elder Brock. The shapely Katherine (Dawn Oliveri) is trying to teach her boy to throw a football. Elder Brock can help. Fine. That gets the missionaries in the door, as she feels a little quid pro quo is in order. She lets them pray with her and her son.

But, the newly-separated Katherine notices what a hunk this missionary is. And when chance throws them together alone, she makes her move.

“Missionary” turns sexual before you can say “position,” and before we know it the script has abruptly launched a Cougar and Christian dalliance that turns ugly the moment the not-quite-ex husband (Kip Pardue) re-enters the picture.

Elder Kevin Brock may spout off about creating a baptized Mormon family, headed by him and including Katherine and her kid Kesley (Connor Christie). But plainly, all that “pressure” he spilled his guts about, barely prompted, has gotten to him. He snaps in a heartbeat. And he goes from proselytizer to stalker in another heartbeat.

That’s a major shortcoming of “Missionary,” the leaps of logic and plot devices that clumsily slot together to move us from our first sanitized view of Brock to capable-of-anything man-scorned. A supposedly guarded missionary spilling his guts to a non-believer/stranger rings hollow, and it’s all downhill from there. Katherine may be the best-looking woman ever employed pulling in a junkyard, pulling old parts for DIY car repair.

Kevin’s racial attitudes are quoted as church dogma, his voracious appetite for forbidden sex is more uncorked than developed believably.

Where the recent church-sponsored documentary “Meet the Mormons” sugar-coated the present-day Latter Days, and was widely criticized for painting over some of the more unpleasant positions of recent church history, “Missionary” airs them — right up to the edge of Mormon bashing. The racism Kevin blurts out, supposedly now out-of-date within church teachings, the suggestion that he’s been treated the way the Catholic Church treated problematic clergy, lacks the subtlety that would have made those attitudes feel less like inadequate research instead of agenda-driven screenwriting.

That missionary commitment has been the setting for a pretty good crisis-of-faith drama (“God’s Army”) and an amusing crisis-of-sexuality comedy (“Latter Days”). So there’s no reason the missionary-recruiter turned stalker idea couldn’t work. But this one doesn’t.

1half-starMPAA Rating: R for violence, sexuality and language

Cast: Dawn Oliveri, Mitch Ryan, Kip Pardue, Connor Christie, J. LaRose

Credits: Directed by Anthony DiBlasi, written by Bruce Wood, Scott Poiley . A Freestyle release.

Running time: 1:30

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