The first non-holiday Monday of every month Nathan Rabin reviews three direct-to-DVD movies for a blog feature we call Back In Bl–ur, Dispatches From Direct To DVD Purgatory. Today's entry includes Winona Ryder and Joseph Fiennes in The Darwin Awards, John Krasinski and Lacey Chabert's boobs in A New Wave and Michael Keaton and Brendan Fraser in The Last Time.

The Darwin Awards (2006)

What the hell happened to Joseph Fiennes career? In the late nineties Fiennes seemed to have it all: a pair of huge critical and commercial hits (Shakespeare In Love and Elizabeth), dashing good looks, a famous brother, even a smidgen of talent. Then he apparently hired Cuba Gooding Jr. to pick his roles for him and an endless procession of dogs (Rancid Aluminum, Killing Me Softly, Luther) and mediocrities (The Great Raid) followed. 2006's The Darwin Awards miscasts Fiennes and Winona Ryder, another former bright young thing desperately in need of career guidance, as an archetypal screwball pair: she's a tough-talking, hard-boiled dame while he's a spacey brain obsessed with the Darwin Awards, a tongue-in-cheek real-life institution that celebrates folks who improve the gene pool by killing themselves in amusingly idiotic ways. The Darwin Awards awkwardly interjects recreations of actual Darwin Awards anecdotes into Fiennes and Ryder's strained road romance as the mismatched pair try to find potential Darwin Award winners before they can successfully kill themselves. Ryder and Fiennes' romance is stillborn due to miscasting and non-existent chemistry and a subplot where Fiennes comes to admire and even emulate Darwin Award winners for their courage and audacity would ring truer if the winners' stories came off as something more than condescending, one-note hick jokes. The Darwin Awards ultimately fell victim to Darwinism itself: it couldn't hack it in the competitive world of theatrical releases and was wisely relegated to direct-to-DVD obscurity.

Just How Bad Is It? Pretty fucking awful.

A New Wave (2007)

Back when I lived and worked in Madison I would occasionally devote an entire day to judging a film and video contest for University of Wisconsin at Madison students that doubled as a grueling endurance test. By the end of the day I was ready to break into the Comm Arts department and destroy all the video equipment before any of my peers could express themselves creatively again. Well, the atrocious heist comedy-drama A New Wave gave me serious Studio Film and Video Competition flashbacks. It's amateur hour all the way despite the familiar faces dotting the cast, from Office cut-up John Krasinski to SNL also-ran Dean Edwards to Lacey Chabert. The film's central joke–film buff Krasinski plans a bank heist as if he's directing and writing a film–would seem fresher in a pre-Tarantino era: here it comes off as just another rote indie film cliché. A videotaped reading of the script would offer just as much verisimilitude and visual excitement as writer-director Jason Carvey's wholly amateurish debut. I suspect that if Krasinski hadn't become a big television star this never would have seen the light of day. Deservedly.

Just How Bad Is It? Terrible, terrible, terrible

The Last Time (2006)

As I wrote in an earlier entry in this feature I am a sucker for movies about salesmen. So I was primed to enjoy this dark vehicle for Michael Keaton and Brendan Fraser, two more appealing actors Hollywood doesn't seem to know what to do with. The pitch-black comedy of the film's opening scenes suggest Glengarry Glen Ross light as cold-blooded shark Keaton bullies fresh-faced kid Fraser while taking him on sales rounds. But then Keaton falls for Fraser's gorgeous, long-suffering wife (Amber Valletta) and Keaton's acid-tongued misanthrope loses his fangs and edge. The film follows suit. Keaton's fascinating as a rage-filled super-salesman but his evolution into a love struck teddy bear is as unconvincing and dreary as Fraser's de-evolution into a drunken, self-destructive monster. I am tired of movies that rely on badly telegraphed twist endings to explain why their lead characters behave in such erratic, incoherent and inconsistent ways. Keaton and Fraser deserve better. So do audiences.

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Just How Bad Is It? Not bad, just disappointing

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