Later this summer Chris Evans will become a legitimate leading man with a little movie called Captain America: The First Avenger. However before he goes all star-spangled he’s headlining a wonderful independent film called Puncture in which he plays a troubled but talented Texas personal injury lawyer fighting the good fight in a world gone greedy.
Directed by Mark (who co-stars as Paul Danziger) and Adam Kassen this dramatization of a true story follows Mike Weiss (Evans) a functioning drug addict and crusading do-gooder who stumbles upon a major case-within-a-case while checking in with Vicky (Vinessa Shaw) a client and former nurse who contracted HIV after being accidentally pricked by a dirty needle on the job. She tells him and his partner Paul about her family friend Jeffrey Dancourt who has developed and produced a “Safety Point” syringe that retracts and locks into place after being used so that it can’t be repurposed or reused. The product could save millions of lives across the country but the domineering Healthcare Group Purchasing Organizations consider it too costly for mass implementation. The fight to inform America’s healthcare workers of the existence of Safety Point and to get these secure syringes flowing through U.S. hospitals is what Puncture is all about.
Well that’s almost what it’s all about. Writer Chris Lopata balances the narrative by focusing much of his script on Weiss struggling with his inner demons which are plentiful. A good lawyer who’d go to the grave fighting for the right cause he’s also a hard-partying cocksure womanizer who’ll do any drug on the table (an oxymoronic set of vices considering his commitment to his career and clients.) Whether this behavior is meant to turn the audience on to or off of the character is neither here nor there; in a film as bleak as Puncture often is Evans is the comic relief beating heart and magnetic MVP. His signature witty delivery and nonchalant body language contrast the overabundance of rigid legal lingo to make the movie more enjoyable for everyone (as will his abs for the female viewers and the filmmakers show plenty of them.)
Of course in most cases it takes more than just a good-looking star to carry a movie and Puncture doesn’t solely rely on one man’s performance. Kudos to Mark Kassen who shines in front of and behind the camera as Mike’s straight-laced best friend and business partner Paul and his brother Adam for making a stinging statement about a corrupt institution in an entertaining fashion. The brothers don’t show off too much in their feature debut; instead they let their actors define the film while offering occasional technical assistance to heighten or visualize the drama. Sometimes they’re a bit conspicuous like when they splice scenes together using dialogue as a through line. Others instances like over exposing lights while playing with the cameras focus to put us in Mike’s trippy state of consciousness are more subtle.
Though the directors have made a touching and relatable film it’s as much a victim of formula as you’d expect a legal drama to be. From pacing to plot points you’ll feel as though you’re watching a cross between A Few Good Men The Insider and Philadelphia as it makes its way toward an inevitable conclusion. Further it delves into a few dead-end subplots (involving some shady figures who you’re led to believe will help turn the picture in an unexpected direction) that are frustratingly out of place much like the topic of the picture at this time. Still these cons aren’t enough to bury Puncture’s quality as a whole. It’s easily Evans’ best performance to date and a hearty freshman effort from the Kassen Bros.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
Imagine the sci-fi spirit of Blade Runner crossed with the drug-induced musings of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and set to trippy animation. Now consider that this animation plays like a book by Philip K. Dick (who also penned Blade Runner’s novel) and you’re likely spinning with imagery; welcome to A Scanner Darkly. Set in Anaheim California seven years into the future an undercover narc named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to spy on his druggie friends (Robert Downey Jr. Woody Harrelson Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane). They’re all hooked on Substance D the latest suburban drug and its side effects--including possible manifestation of separate identities--can be downright nasty. Unfortunately Bob the “scanner ” is hooked too and he leads the ultimate double life unbeknownst to him: By day he partakes in “D” consumption; by night he watches the surveillance tapes as a cop--not realizing he may in turn be spying on himself. Scanner marks a welcome return of sorts for all five actors to their more decadent (cinematic) days. Downey and Harrelson are up to their old Natural Born Killers tricks even though their characters share nothing other than insanity with those in Oliver Stone’s movie. Downey perennially the most underrated actor steals every scene he’s in with his character James’ mile-a-minute psychobabble. Not far off is Reeves who somehow grasps Bob’s drug-induced psychosis almost too well and is much more comfy (and likable) playing the central character in a film that’s not carrying an entire production company. We haven’t seen Ryder in a major release since ‘02’s Mr. Deeds and although her part isn’t as meaty as the boys’ she gives a compelling performance. And Cochrane whose breakout role was the dopey burnout in Scanner director Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is an often funny casualty of the paranoia associated with Substance D. Linklater’s last release was Bad News Bears and his next is October’s Fast Food Nation. Clearly and to his credit no director offers us as much variety with so many of his films clicking on all cylinders; to his discredit however parts of his latest film don’t click. The biggest flaw is the animation which while truly amazing to behold detaches us. What began as a winning experiment--on his 2001 philosoph-ilm Waking Life--can no longer be dismissed as such but rather a gimmick behind which Scanner hides. Sure it’s apt for Dick’s futuristic dystopia but this film didn’t need any added complexity to bog our brains down. In addition Linklater’s Scanner outcasts fail where his others have been immortalized: They don’t endear us--yes that truth is faithful to the source material but films can’t get away with such disconnect. Ultimately all we feel towards the characters is fascination over their animated likenesses. But Linklater is praiseworthy for even tackling such a novel and the adaptation will find a fervent cult following.