7/24/12: Boss S1, Brake, On the Inside, The Deep Blue Sea, The Monitor

Boss: Season One (NR, 2011, Lions Gate)
“How long?” are the first two words the premiere episode of “Boss” pries from Chicago Mayor Tom Kane’s (Kelsey Grammer) mouth, and it’s hard to imagine another thousand — never mind two — that could set Kane’s saga in motion any more dramatically. As alluded by its marketing, to say nothing of the equally loaded word that comprises its title, “Boss” is a bitterly unflattering look at a political machine running on a full tank of oil. Some of the themes are predictable, primarily with regard to a story arc centered around a gubernatorial primary between an incumbent (Francis Guinan) whose alliance with Kane is crumbling and an exciting upstart (Jeff Hephner) who is Kane’s new project but who is far from spotless when potential voters aren’t watching. Fortunately, “Boss” transcends its themes with relentless energy, exhaustive detail — both with regard to character design and the city in which these politicians, advisors, city employees and journalists do battle — and a complete disdain for preachiness and idealistic naiveté. (It couldn’t possibly get away with any, but major points anyway for dismissing the notion outright.) Lording over all of this is Kane himself — a seemingly popular control freak with a broken family, a nuclear temper and a degenerative neurological disorder diagnosis, revealed during that opening scene and before we hear him say a single word, that gives him a few years at most to live. Had everything else about “Boss'” anti-tribute to politics per usual fallen completely flat, Kane’s presence alone likely would still make this worth watching. Connie Nielsen, Troy Garity, Kathleen Robertson and Hannah Ware, among others, also star.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus commentary and a behind-the-scenes feature.

Brake (R, 2011, IFC Films)
Freshly-woken Jeremy (Stephen Dorff) has no idea where he is — only that he’s trapped inside a very cramped enclosure, the only faint source of light being a mysterious timer that’s quickly ticking down. His only comfort: a CB radio, tuned to a frequency that lets him communicate with another man stuck in an identical plight. If this setup is sparking any déjà vu, perhaps it’s because Ryan Reynolds found himself in semi-similar straits a couple years ago in “Buried.” As with that movie, espousing any further on what it all means or what happens next would spoil too much, so that’s all she wrote for the details. Fortunately, if you enjoy movies about people being trapped in tiny enclosures but also like a little variety, that effectively is where the similarities end. Whereas “Buried” is a harrowing slow burn that preys beautifully on claustrophobic nerves but keeps it simple with the story, “Brake” goes for thrills and (as hinted by our friend on the CB) positions Jeremy’s predicament as part of something that’s bigger than him alone. The road to the finish line is paved with some warts, particularly with regard to dialogue that occasionally ventures into SyFy Channel movie territory. And oof, that finish line. Let’s just call it polarizing and leave it vaguely at that. On the plus side, “Brake” certainly doesn’t take the dull way out. And, warts or not, it very rarely produces a dull moment en route to getting there.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

On the Inside (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
That “On the Inside” remains rather compelling despite being something of a mess is an unarguable achievement. With that said? Yep, “Inside” is something of a mess — primarily because it never convincingly establishes what, exactly, compelled someone to ensure it exists. “Inside” begins as the story of Allen (Nick Stahl), who received his sentence at a psychiatric hospital for killing a man he suspected had raped his girlfriend. He killed the wrong man, but Allen also was deemed mentally unfit to convict for murder despite appearing pretty clear-headed during the time we spend with him here. That seemingly gives “Inside” enough to chew on for its 90-minute runtime. But then we meet Ben (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who takes a curious interest in Allen for whatever reason. And then there’s Mia (Olivia Wilde), who’s at her wit’s end as her release nears, and Carl (Dash Mihok), who makes it instantly clear that if somebody dies in this movie, it’ll likely be because of him. “Inside” concentrates primarily on these four characters while giving additional time to a supporting cast (Shohreh Aghdashloo, Tariq Trotter) with potential of its own, but it never really threads everybody through one storyline. Stuff definitely happens, and again, there’s something about this group that makes “Inside” eminently intriguing the whole way through. But that engagement comes in spite of the eventual realization that a central storyline never develops and most of the side stories either chase their tail or feel half-told. “Inside” offers enough to keep the issue somewhat at bay, but there’s nothing it can do to keep it wholly out of mind. No extras.

The Deep Blue Sea (R, 2011, Music Box Films)
Passion, like everything else, is relative. This is something to keep in mind during every anguished exchange between Hester (Rachel Weisz) and the Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hiddleston as Freddie) with whom she embarked on an affair behind her British judge husband’s (Simon Russell Beale as William) back. Set one day after Hester tried and failed to kill herself, “The Deep Blue Sea” reaches back to deconstruct the marriage (dependable but emotionally arid) and affair (tumultuous, emotionally ravaging but laced with a passion her marriage lacked) that brought her to her current state. What “Sea” does not do is thoroughly (some might say satisfyingly) cover the spectrum of either relationship. As deconstructions of an affair’s afterglow go, “Sea” is gently brutal as it slowly but painfully picks away at whatever initial happiness the affair brought Hester and Freddie. But that early ecstasy is almost completely absent from the film, which calls to it by speaking of it more than simply showing us what has been lost. What made Hester’s marriage to William initially work, besides the obvious allusions to comfort and stability? What did Hester and Freddie look like when their affair evoked possibility instead of stress? And what, besides beauty and garden-variety implications about desire and passion, makes Hester herself worth all this agony to these two men? “Sea” alludes to the answers, and we’re all smart enough to figure them out ourselves. But it’s a disservice to these characters and their story, which, despite the excellent efforts of its cast, feel pretty stock as result of all those gaps.
Extras: Director commentary, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, companion booklet.

The Monitor (R, 2012, Lions Gate)
“The Monitor” doesn’t expound on what Anna’s (Noomi Rapace) husband did to her and her eight-year-old son Anders (Vetle Qvenild Werring). But if her frazzled disposition and decision to disappear and enforce a restraining order are any indication, it was pretty bad. Probably. Maybe? After painting a pretty straightforward picture of Anna as an overprotective mother still struggling to straighten out her nerves, “The Monitor” starts getting muddled. Are the screaming voices she hears on her son’s new baby monitor real or invented? Why does her memory completely fail her at times, and which of her memories are real or simply imagined? All good questions, but unfortunately, not many that are much fun to answer. Even when it’s clear as a bell, “The Monitor” exudes a murky, hopeless tone that makes Anna difficult to understand and her son strangely unlikable for a kid. As the clouds gather and the reality of everything comes into question, the air is one of mess more than mystery, and the longer we’re at the mercy of Anna’s scrambled mind and slack-jawed expressions, the more tiresome she becomes. A subplot, involving a comparably fragile electronics store employee (Kristoffer Joner) who sells her the aforementioned monitor, doesn’t help matters. His story pretty emphatically ties into hers — to rather obvious effect following a couple of second-act revelations that telegraph the ending — but having another brittle character to watch over does no favor to a movie that’s already on shaky ground. In Norwegian with English subtitles, but an optional (and awful) English dub is available too.
Extras: Deleted scenes.