Bag of Hammers, A (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) made a living by pretending to be valet parking attendants at a cemetery. As soon as the unsuspecting grieving people handed the car keys to one of them, Ben and Alan picked up their “Free Valet Parking” sign, loaded it in the car, and drove the vehicle to a car shop owned by Marty (Todd Louiso). Marty would then pay the duo thousands of dollars, all part of a day’s work. When Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her young son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), moved in next to the crooks’ house, it became increasingly obvious that Kelsey was being neglected. “A Bag of Hammers,” written by Jake Sandvig and Brian Crano, was a comedy-drama with some good ideas but since its characters weren’t fully fleshed out, the revelatory scenes that were supposedly charged with intense emotions didn’t feel entirely convincing nor earned. The script did a good job establishing that Alan and Ben were goofballs. The early scenes which involved the two of them pulling scams were mildly amusing. The actors benefited greatly from their charming looks. If Ben and Alan were played by buff guys with tattoos, there would be nothing funny about their actions. But what was the true nature of Ben and Alan’s relationship? The two lived together. They didn’t date anyone. Ben had an ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) but hell freezing over had a better chance than the two of them getting back together. Understanding their relationship, in which one could either translate as a romance or a bromance, was of particular importance because of the happenings in the latter half. We learned that Ben and Alan had difficult upbringings, but I wasn’t convinced that their partnership, as vague as it was, was strong enough to be able to relate to the kid being abused by his mother. Alan and Ben’s struggles were different–though it isn’t to suggest any less serious–and potentially moving, but since the script did not allow us to get to know them openly and in consistently meaningful ways, a strong emotional bridge wasn’t established as they tried to convince Kelsey that they could relate to what he was going through. Luckily for the film, Preston did a wonderful job portraying a woman who was drowning–drowning in poverty, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and depression. Each time her face, so tired and forlorn, was front and center, especially during her job interviews, every part of her screamed desperation, from her nervous yet glowering eyes to her very tense shoulders. It was scary and sad when she entered the house in a rage and Kelsey just sat in the kitchen, living off another Monster Energy drink for dinner. The moments when I felt something real–something visceral–most often involved the scenes of mother and son. Another interesting but underdeveloped character was Mel (Rebecca Hall), a waitress at a diner and Alan’s sister. Although she was the voice of reason with an air of seriousness about her, I liked it when she smiled. You could tell she was smart, so why not give her funnier and wittier things to say? Directed by Brian Crano, for all of the weaknesses of “A Bag of Hammers,” it managed to hit some emotional truths. It felt right that our sympathies were almost never toward Ben and Alan but always for the boy trapped by the cards he’d been given.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Day, “Straight-Jacket” was about a popular 1950s actor named Guy Stone (Matt Letscher) who must hide his homosexuality with the help of his agent (Veronica Cartwright) in order maintain his fans’ adoration. When a jealous fellow actor took a photo of Guy being arrested and was accused of being gay, his agent and the studio head (Victor Raider-Wexler) came up with a plan to keep his name clear by means of marrying an unaware fan/secretary named Sally (Carrie Preston). But things didn’t go quite as planned when Guy met a writer (Adam Greer), someone totally different from his type of “big, dumb and blonde.” I detested this picture’s exaggeration of pretty much everything: the slapstick, the wordplay, the acting, the set, among others. I felt as though it was looking down on me because it didn’t let me try to figure out what’s really going on in the characters’ heads because it was too busy hammering me with “this is funny!” moments. I also found this movie particularly difficult to watch because it had great trouble when it came to finding a consistent tone. With all the craziness that was going on screen, a little stability pertaining to the style of storytelling really would’ve done wonders. I like energy when it comes to the comedy but there’s a vast difference between energy and manic randomness. I found no redeeming factor in “Straight-Jacket” but I really have to mention one thing that deeply bothered me while I was watching it. The characters talked about having different kinds of homosexuals out there in the world, yet the film only focused one kind of a homosexual male: good-looking in the face, a built body, with snappy comebacks readily spit out. They’re in Hollywood, for goodness’ sake! Where are the lipstick lesbians, the drag queens, and stout effiminate directors? For a story that touches upon the glamour of Hollywood, this one simply lacked color and diversity. And I guess that’s why I hated this film: it’s unaware that it’s one-dimensional. There are a plethora of bad LGBT movies out there and this one, unfortunately, belongs in that category. What a waste of a hundred minutes.