Upon finding himself trapped in a Lucite coffin in the opening minutes of the silly thriller "Brake," Secret Service agent Jeremy Reins (Stephen Dorff) figures he's being shaken down for his outstanding gambling debts. Upon finding yourself trapped with Dorff for 91 minutes, you may correctly remember that Rodrigo Cortés' 2010 morality play "Buried" took the same, single-setting premise to places far more interesting than the empty cynicism found here.
Agent Reins quickly learns that the stakes are bigger than those at the card games he frequents. Terrorists have abducted him and if he doesn't reveal the location of the president's secret underground bunker, they will kill Reins, his estranged wife and the family of the State Department worker he's been communicating with via CB radio.
Yes, Reins' glass tank comes equipped with a CB as well as a digital timer that counts down time increments of various lengths. Once the clock reads zero, the kidnappers unleash a new form of torture into the coffin in order to prod him to talk. But since it's quickly established that our hero is resolute and will never spill the beans, director Gabe Torres cannot wring much suspense from the peril even when the scope of the terrorists' plot becomes clear.
So we stay with Dorff in the box, waiting to see how Torres and screenwriter Timothy Mannion pry the lid off. They deliver two twists, the second even more preposterous than its predecessor and, in the process, negate both common sense and the previous hour and a half.
"Brake." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.
Swinging wildly between screed and lament, "Detachment" doesn't take much to tap into the raw emotions many people feel about the state of public education in the United States. Adrien Brody brings his offbeat brand of weary, roguish intensity to the role of substitute teacher Henry Barthes, a damaged empath whose commitment to a dispirited student body is admirable, while his bond to an underage prostitute (Sami Gayle) he tries to save carries worrisome shades of "Taxi Driver."
Former teacher Carl Lund's lost-souls screenplay has all the hallmarks of something issue-smart yet dramatically amateurish, which in the hands of filmmaker Tony Kaye ("American History X") — not known for subtlety — certainly makes for emotional unpredictability.
"Detachment" is a movie you keep expecting to fizzle because of its punching-the-air gracelessness, but there's something weirdly effective about the artistic desperation, which includes inserts of chalkboard animation and to-the-camera testimonials.
Eventually the movie's accumulated details, especially the fine cameo splashes from Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks and Lucy Liu as fellow educators, culminate in an unmistakable sadness about one of our country's worsening institutional tragedies.
"Detachment." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
Wartime can make for curious allies. Ismael Ferroukhi's "Free Men" dramatizes one such little-known nugget of World War II resistance in Nazi-occupied France: the Paris Mosque's sheltering of North African Jews by providing them with falsified Muslim identification.
Director/co-writer Ferroukhi's gateway into this world is an Algerian-born black market operator named Younes (Tahar Rahim), coerced by German authorities into spying on Vichy-friendly, culturally sophisticated mosque director Ben Ghabrit (a true historical figure, played with effortless authorial weight by Michael Lonsdale). Younes is eventually swayed to the mosque's protection of freedom fighters, however, through his friendship with talented singer — and secret Jew — Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby).
As far as political awakenings go, Ferroukhi never makes Younes' transformation a melodramatic sea change, preferring to let a tense atmosphere of burgeoning immigrant workers' rights, urgent spycraft and nudged morality show how someone hard-wired for self-preservation can turn those skills toward helping others.
Rahim, star of "A Prophet," once again shows how quietly magnetic and appealingly enigmatic he can be, while Ferroukhi's use of music — whether the lone trumpet underscoring Younes' actions or the scenes in which Salim's Arab Andalusian singing (dubbed by Pinhas Cohen) brings momentary joy to hounded lives — is exemplary.
"Free Men." No MPAA rating; In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles.
Known as much for his wild lifestyle as his intense character studies such as "Bad Lieutenant" and "King of New York," filmmaker Abel Ferrara apparently has mellowed and straightened out, giving his most recent work an increasingly elegiac cast.
In his new film, "4:44 Last Day on Earth," he depicts a couple (Willem Dafoe and the filmmaker's real-life girlfriend, Shanyn Leigh) as they face down the end of the world, which has been calculated as occurring at 4:44 in the morning. In their downtown Manhattan loft, she paints, they make love, order in Chinese food and tie up loose ends with family and friends via Skype, striving to meet what's coming with dignity and acceptance.
Dafoe, who also starred in Ferrara's woefully underseen "Go Go Tales," brings a quiet grace to his role, while Leigh has a rough-hewn emotional directness.
Emerging intact from his own shady underworld of hustlers and addicts, with "4:44 Last Day on Earth" Ferrara movingly celebrates connection, cooking life down to just its barest essence: a man, a woman and a need.
"4:44 Last Day on Earth." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
The hugely engrossing, stranger-than-fiction documentary "Last Days Here" tracks three roller coaster years in the recent life of fiftysomething burnout Bobby Liebling, the outrageous frontman of 1970s doom metal band Pentagram. Co-directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton have created a deft and weirdly affecting portrait of how a drug-addicted man-child knocking on death's door manages an astonishing resurgence.
When we first meet Liebling, he's living in the sub-basement of his aging, long-suffering parents' suburban Maryland home. Strung out on crack, heroin and who knows what else, scratching his skin raw from imagined parasites and surrounded by frat house squalor, the wraith-like Liebling still dreams of the rock 'n' roll stardom that, thanks to a staggering series of botched opportunities, eluded him and his revolving door of bandmates.
That Pentagram has maintained a strong cult following in the Facebook age is not lost on Liebling's friend and manager, a good egg and Pentagram nut named Sean Pelletier. The über-fan's longtime goal to rally the band — and keep the erratic Liebling sober and focused long enough — for an awesome reunion concert (Liebling OD'd at the last one in 2005), makes for highly eventful, never-say-die drama.
But it's the offbeat love story at the heart of Liebling's resurrection that provides the film's most powerful — and touching — surprise.
"Last Days Here." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles.
"The Raid: Redemption" is a slam-bang, knock-your-socks-off action bonanza with some of the most peerlessly shot, performed and choreographed fight sequences you're likely to see on screen. Welsh-born writer-director-editor Gareth Evans ("Merantau") proves a visionary force, grabbing hold of the audience with a barrage of virtuoso set pieces that are both hide-your-eyes violent and mind-bogglingly stunning.
The Jakarta-set film lays out its do-or-die mission in a few brief, well chosen sentences and never looks back. The deal: An elite special-forces team must fight, destroy and kill their way — floor by floor — up to the 15th story of a rundown apartment tower to take out a brutal crime lord, Tama (Ray Sahetapy), and his combat-crazy henchmen, Andi (Doni Alamsyah) and the aptly named Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian, co-fight coordinator with Iko Uwais).
But when stalwart rookie cop and expectant father Rama (Uwais) must take over for the SWAT team's fallen leader (Joe Taslim), he finds himself in one bone-crunching battle after another (the dazzling martial arts styles here include silat and judo), all while trying to protect his dwindling army of lawmen.
A tornado of character twists and plot complications ensues as fists fly, axes hurl, machetes slice and the walls literally come tumbling down. It's exhausting, exhilarating, riveting stuff that fans of high-octane filmmaking should not miss.
"The Raid: Redemption." MPAA rating: R for strong brutal bloody violence throughout, and language; in Indonesian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; Pacific's The Grove Stadium 14, Los Angeles; AMC's Century City 15, Century City.
"Reuniting the Rubins" takes a time-tested concept — the dysfunctional family reunion movie — then sucks out the charm, wit, warmth and, for good measure, logic. What's left is a frantic, badly constructed, slightly offensive muddle that doesn't so much end as run out of things on a checklist.
Timothy Spall, the snaggletoothed veteran of the "Harry Potter" series and the Mike Leigh oeuvre, plays Lenny, a vacation-bound lawyer guilt-tripped by his elderly mother (Honor Blackman) into convening his strange, estranged adult children for what she believes might be her last Passover seder.
Gathering his curiously bickering offspring — an obnoxious capitalist (James Callis), a rigid rabbi (Hugh O'Conor), a strident eco-activist (Rhona Mitra) and a serene Buddhist monk (Blake Harrison) — is, by design, no easy task for the long-widowered Lenny. But writer-director Yoav Factor makes Lenny's mission, like everything else here, twice as convoluted as it needs to be.
The path to Pesach is then littered with broad obstacles and button-pushing revelations (Grandma's a Holocaust survivor! Lenny's wife died giving birth to the future rabbi!) instead of on much-needed back story and character development. Plus, the film's penultimate day is jammed with so many life-changing, time-consuming events, including perhaps the world's most quickly arranged Jewish funeral, it's truly laughable.
"Reuniting the Rubins." MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and language. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.