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On DVD/Blu-ray: THE BAG MAN (2014) and AT MIDDLETON (2014)

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THE BAG MAN
(Bahamas - 2014)


This low-budget, Bahamas-financed thriller was shot in Louisiana in 2012 and released on 15 screens a month ago.  It plays like one of those forgettable post-PULP FICTION Tarantino knockoffs that flooded video stores well into the late 1990s. There's an added bit of THE USUAL SUSPECTS tossed in, along with some occasional would-be David Lynch eccentricity that provides a few fleeting amusing moments but mostly just feels rote and tired, with cinematography so dark and murky that it's often hard to tell what's going on.  Based on an unfilmed screenplay titled MOTEL (the film's original title) penned by veteran actor James Russo, THE BAG MAN is the debut of writer/director David Grovic, who manages to corral a pair of slumming big names like John Cusack and Robert De Niro for a sort-of THINGS TO DO IN NEW ORLEANS WHEN YOU'RE COASTING. By now, it's no surprise to see Cusack or De Niro in this kind of Redbox-ready clunker that keeps a roof over the heads of guys like Michael Madsen or Tom Sizemore or Val Kilmer or Christian Slater, but not that long ago, this would've been a major release in theaters nationwide.  De Niro's been taking mercenary jobs for a few years now (you think he even remembers making RED LIGHTS?), and once in a while, a SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK might accidentally happen, but Cusack's fall from the A-list has been shocking in its suddenness because nothing really brought it on.  It's not like he got old or was involved in a scandal or had a string of bombs or a reputation for being unusually difficult. What gives?  Who did he piss off?  What the hell happened to John Cusack?


Here, Cusack is Jack, a flunky for Dragna (De Niro), a powerful New York mobster prone to windy, overly-scripted speeches that reference the likes of Herman Hesse and Sun Tzu.  Dragna gives Jack an easy, quick-money assignment:  retrieve a bag, don't look inside, drive it to no-tell motel in an off-the-beaten-path podunk town, and wait for him to arrive.  Jack arrives at the motel with complications already in tow--a guy who tried to get the bag from him is now a corpse in his trunk.  The situation doesn't improve once he goes through the hassle of checking in (Crispin Glover is the twitchy, wheelchair-bound desk clerk):  Jack shoots some mystery men waiting for him in the next room, then finds himself paired up with Israeli hooker Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), who's being hassled by a pair of vicious pimps, one an eye-patched Nick Fury lookalike (Sticky Fingaz), the other a bad-tempered Serbian dwarf (Martin Klebba). Bodies start piling up and the sheriff (Dominic Purcell, who's actually good here) keeps nosing around before Dragna makes his explosive reappearance to inform Jack why he was selected for this job, and it's a front-runner for 2014's dumbest plot twist. There's lots of would-be Tarantino dialogue ("If you could fuck any woman from history, who would it be?") and quirky touches (Glover sternly telling Cusack "Don't touch my wheelchair...it belonged to my dead mother!" gets a big laugh), and De Niro, hamming it up and sporting near-George Romero-eyeglass frames and a big silver pompadour in a role that seems like it was written with Christopher Walken in mind, has a long monologue that centers on an episode of FULL HOUSE, but those moments are disbursed in a stingy fashion throughout a drab, dull, stagy noir that's going nowhere fast, much like Cusack's career if he doesn't stop seemingly choosing his scripts at random.  (R, 109 mins)


AT MIDDLETON
(US - 2014)


If you happen upon AT MIDDLETON in its last five minutes, you might think you missed a powerful, heartfelt look at two people who make a connection over the course of a day and are forced by the circumstances and the realities of their lives to part ways and return to their respective spouses.  But if you watch the rest of the film leading up to that finale, you'll get a grating, phony, and pandering middle-aged rom-com filled with obvious jokes, cliched plot turns, cardboard characters, and some frequently atrocious acting, the kind of fawned-over festival favorite that ultimately gets dumped on 20 screens with little fanfare.  There's a good film to be made--one that could deftly balance drama and comedy--about parents of an only child facing an empty nest when that kid goes off to college, but until its surprisingly poignant ending, AT MIDDLETON takes the easy route to stale laughs and even staler drama nearly every time and has almost nothing substantive to offer. Taking place over one day at the mid-level, mostly average Middleton College, the type of place no one really wants to go but they just sort-of end up there, AT MIDDLETON finds heart surgeon George Hartman (Andy Garcia) and his son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) arriving for a campus tour when George has a meet-cute with Edith Martin (Vera Farmiga), when she steals his parking spot.  Edith is there with her ferociouly ambitious daughter Audrey (Farmiga's little sister Taissa of AMERICAN HORROR STORY; there's a 21-year age difference but they look so much alike that the initiallly odd casting works).  George is a milquetoast sort who wears a bow tie, while Edith is brash, loud, and free-spirited and prone to embarrassing Audrey. Gee, is there any way opposites won't attract and that dweeby bow tie won't be undone before the end of the movie?


George and Edith get separated from the tour group and spend the afternoon on their own, stealing a couple of bikes, crashing a drama class, going into the music building and playing "Chopsticks," climbing the campus bell tower, watching THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, watching a young couple have public sex, running through a fountain, and generally making nuisances of themselves campus-wide. In the film's worst stretch, George and Edith blaze up with a couple of stoner pre-med students.  Can you do anything new with the concept of square parents getting high? As evidenced by a baked Garcia rapping "I'm a cardiac surgeon!" over some background reggae beats, the answer is a resounding "no." It just gets worse when one of the stoner dudes starts talking about a diseased dog's distended ballsack, which leads to the mantra "The ballsack is life," which is at least a brief respite from the film busting its ass to make "feckless" a punchline.  A mannered Vera Farmiga, who appears to have prepped for the role by visualizing the worst of Diane Keaton and running with it, is really hard to take at times, and in the most unintentionally telling shot, she actually grabs a crutch and starts using it for no reason. The younger actors don't fare much better, though they aren't required to embarrass themselves quite as much. Still, Taissa Farmiga gets one of the worst lines after a spat with Conrad--when he puts his earbuds back in and walks away, she yells "Confusion has a lot of great soundtracks!" What?  What does that even mean? Peter Riegert appears briefly as a cynical DJ named Boneyard Sims, who gives communications major Conrad some pointers.  The best performance is a two-scene bit from Tom Skerritt as a famed linguistics professor who advises the driven Audrey to slow down and use college to explore her options when she melts down after he declines her request to be her mentor.  Skerritt brings a quiet, scholarly dignity to the role that's completely at odds with the cookie-cutter histrionics going on almost everywhere else, and with about four minutes of screen time, he succeeds in making you wish this was a film about his character. As George and Edith grow closer over the day, they question the decisions they've made and the complacency that's set in, but AT MIDDLETON isn't interested in that.  It's the kind of movie where a staid, uptight guy loosening his bow tie and rapping after a couple of bong hits is supposed to be instantly hysterical.  And there's the moment when Edith starts crying because the day's coming to an end, and she looks at George with tears streaming down her face and says "I thought you fixed hearts!" Really?  Pros like Garcia and Vera Farmiga read that line in director Adam Rodgers' script and said "Yep...sounds good!  Let's do this!"?  But then at the end, something happens.  It gets serious, and the final moments are genuinely emotional as the two parties go to their respective vehicles and get on the road home, presumably never to see each other again.  The expressions on Garcia's and Farmiga's faces convey the pain, the missed opportunities, the uncertainty over the future.  They're exhibiting the best acting they've done in the whole film and then you realize why: because they aren't talking.  (R, 100 mins)



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