SXSW 2011: A Bag of Hammers

Not every film that played at SXSW this year was fortunate enough to walk away with a distribution deal (in fact, very few did), but if there’s one movie that deserved to, it’s “A Bag of Hammers.” A relatively clichéd dramedy with all the markings of an indie film, Brian Crano’s directorial debut nonetheless manages to carve out an identity of its own thanks to a great script and an even better ensemble cast. Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig make an excellent team as childhood best friends Ben and Alan, a pair of misfit conmen who run a bogus valet service at funerals in order to steal cars and sell them for cash. It’s not the most lucrative career, but in addition to the money they earn from renting out the house in front of their laidback bachelor pad, they get by. But when their new tenants – the recently divorced Lynette (Carrie Preston of “True Blood”) and her neglected son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury) – begin to attract unwanted attention, Ben and Alan decide to step in and create the family they’ve always needed.

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Consider Crano incredibly lucky for getting the actors that he did, because it’s hard to imagine “A Bag of Hammers” working quite as well without them. Sandvig and Ritter are especially good in the film’s more comedic moments, while even Rebecca Hall manages to make the most of a role that requires she wear a silly waffle hat and perform an ever sillier dance. The real standout, however, is Preston, who delivers what is easily the most heartbreaking performance that I’ve seen this year as the hopelessly desperate single mother. Additionally, while the constantly shifting tone between quirky comedy and grim family drama may annoy some people, Crano actually handles it remarkably well, particularly when the movie enters some pretty dark territory midway through the story and never looks back. It’s a shame that he didn’t see that version of the film through to the end, because while there’s nothing wrong with the happy ending he opts for, “A Bag of Hammers” would have been so much more memorable with the disheartening, more realistic finale that he teases just before it.

  

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NBC: What’s New for Fall 2010

MONDAY

The Event (Mon., Sept. 20 @ 9:00 PM, NBC)

* The competition: “Dancing with the Stars” (ABC), “Two and a Half Men” and “Mike & Molly” (CBS), “Lone Star” (Fox), “Gossip Girl” (The CW)

Starring: Jason Ritter, Sarah Roemer, Blair Underwood, Laura Innes, Scott Patterson, Ian Anthony Dale, Zeljko Ivanek

Producers: Steve Stark (“Medium”), Evan Katz (“24”), Nick Wauters (“The 4400,” “Eureka”), Jeffrey Reiner (“Friday Night Lights,” “Trauma”)

Network’s Description: an emotional, high-octane conspiracy thriller that follows Sean Walker, an Everyman who investigates the mysterious disappearance of his fiancée, Leila, and unwittingly begins to expose the biggest cover-up in U.S. history. Sean’s quest will send ripples through the lives of an eclectic band of strangers, including: newly elected U.S. President Martinez; Sophia, who is the leader of a mysterious group of detainees; and Sean’s shadowy father-in-law. Their futures are on a collision course in a global conspiracy that could ultimately change the fate of mankind.

The Buzz: NBC ain’t playing around with this one: the big question of the summer for TV fans has been, “What is ‘The Event’?” Most of those who’ve seen the pilot seem to at least be hooked enough to come back for Episode 2, though I’m sure no one is counting on finding out what ‘The Event’ is anytime soon. On a related note, there’s some very reasonable concern from folks about whether they’re going to be let down by a promising sci-fi pilot that starts strong but then either peters out early in the season or never gets properly resolved before it’s canceled. (“FlashForward,” anyone?)

Pilot Highlight: There are several moments which will have you raising your eyebrows both at what you’re seeing and what it means, particularly the final scene, but the most effective sequence begins when Sean – who’s on a cruise with Leila – returns from a solo outing to find things aren’t quite the same as he left them.

Bottom Line: The rapid-fire back and forth between past and present combined with people getting the sensation that NBC’s trying for the next “Lost” is going to make it a tough sell for some, but, damn, the first episode sure intrigued the hell out of me.

Chase (Mon., Sept. 20 @ 10:00 PM, NBC)

* The competition: “Hawaii Five-0” (CBS), “Castle” (ABC)

Starring: Kelli Giddish, Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, Rose Rollins, Jesse Metcalfe

Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer (“CSI”), Jonathan Littman and Jennifer Johnson (“Cold Case”), KristieAnne Reed (“The Forgotten,” “Miami Medical”)

Network’s Description: a fast-paced drama that drops viewers smack into the middle of a game of cat-and-mouse as a team of U.S. marshals hunts down America’s most dangerous fugitives. U.S. Marshal Annie Frost is a cowboy boot-wearing deputy whose sharp mind and unique Texas upbringing help her track down the violent criminals on the run. The members of Frost’s elite team are Jimmy Godfrey, an East Texas kid who never grew up and is a true American cowboy; Marco Martinez, a good intelligence guy who loves to talk; and Daisy Ogbaa, a weapons/tactical specialist and a woman of few words. Rounding out the cast is Luke Watson, the fresh-faced newcomer, whose Washington, D.C., upbringing did little to prepare him for the Lone Star State.

The Buzz: It ain’t great. For one thing, Bruckerheimer was nowhere to be seen at the panel for the series (he was apparently on the set of the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, but he somehow managed to make it in for ABC’s panel for “The Whole Truth” a couple of days later), and then the panel itself was notably shorter than the ones for some of the other new entries on the NBC schedule. Maybe we shouldn’t make too much of either of these things, though. It’s more likely that it’s just a case where the show was too pedestrian to inspire much in the way of unique promotion.

Pilot Highlight: Nothing, really, and I can’t help but recall that I had this same problem with one of NBC’s pilots last year, too. (Would you please rise from the grave and take a final bow, “Mercy”?) Sometimes, a show arrives, follows its formula, and departs without leaving much of an impression. “Chase” is one of those shows.

Bottom Line: Don’t let the Bruckheimer name suck you in this time. “Chase” is the most by-the-book, formulaic cops-and-robbers drama I’ve seen in awhile, with no “hook” to make it stand out from the pack. If “Hawaii Five-0” doesn’t blow it out of the water, then I’ll have to echo Alex O’Loughlin’s sentiments and concede that I’m completely bewildered and have no idea how television works at all.

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