Scraping the Bottom

Watch out for those straight-to-video releases—there's a good chance you'll want that 90 minutes back

First and most urgently, whatever you do, do not rent Chapter 27. According to IMDb, star Jared Leto is, in fact, working as an actor again, but after witnessing his indulgent performance as psychotic assassin Mark David Chapman, it's easy to imagine casting directors all over Hollywood deleting his agent's number from their Blackberrys. Press accounts while the film was in production made much mention of Leto gaining more than 60 pounds to portray Chapman, but in the buzz vacuum that accompanied its modest theatrical run and express DVD release you didn't hear much about his actual performance, which is executed in a narcotized, adenoidal wheeze that makes you wish someone would shoot him five times before he opens his piehole again. Perhaps this was supposed to be a brave and vanity-free plunge into character, but all it does is call constant attention to the unpleasant and unconvincing Leto/Chapman hybrid that makes this not-very-good movie absolutely unwatchable. Oh yeah, and the other big name is Lindsay Lohan.

If I wasn't able to reach you before you popped it in the player, well, that is regrettable, but it illustrates the tricky part of renting stuff that never played at your local multiplex. After all, some of the most vital filmmakers working today—Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, say, or the pre-Pineapple Express David Gordon Green—can barely get a U.S. theatrical release outside major culture capitals. But if you've heard of the people in the movie and you've never heard of the movie outside of previews on other DVDs, this is generally not a good sign. Take Quid Pro Quo.

Nick Stahl has been in his share of good films (In the Bedroom, Bully, Sin City) and Vera Farmiga futures are still trading high among actor trainspotters even after her misuse in The Departed. And at the outset, writer/director Carlos Brooks' rookie feature seems able to transcend its slightly lurid subject matter and also-ran provenance. Stahl is a wheelchair-bound public-radio host who stumbles across a community of fellow urbanites with body integrity identity disorder—otherwise healthy people who want limbs amputated in order to feel whole, or who long to be paralyzed, as he is. Farmiga plays his would-be liaison with the BIID scene and a woman with a whole host of issues herself. What starts as a potential story for his radio show starts getting more intense and personal. Things start getting a little bit Red Shoe Diaries, in fact, but Farmiga is a formidable performer, even when she's working with unsubtle, borderline bunny-boiling material. And then, Brooks reveals his big twist, and you find yourself thinking... really? This is what you brought us all this way for? This? By the time another twist makes the first twist sorta/kinda/almost make sense in the final reel, you may find yourself wishing you could have the last 90 minutes of your life lopped off.

Your odds are almost better going with nothing from nowheresville, especially if you happen to luck into something like The Killing of John Lennon. The box for writer/director Andrew Piddington's film makes it look like a quickie schlock cash-in, the inevitable competing project seemingly mandatory for almost every biopic, even one based on Mark David Chapman. It is, in fact, an ambitious and artful, if not entirely successful, film energized by a genuine tour de force performance by an utter unknown who didn't bother guzzling pints of Haagen-Dazs and didn't need to.

There are some benefits to Jonas Ball's out-of-nowhere status, the main one being that you don't have to look past a star to see Chapman. With his disheveled wardrobe, perma-stubble, and head-down trudge, Bell just shows up and commands the screen. Drawing the film's near-constant internal monologue from Chapman's own words, Piddington submerges you in Chapman's reality as he scorns his playgirl mom, browbeats his meek young wife, and generally huffs aimlessly around sunny Honolulu, his own permanent dark cloud in tow. When Chapman makes his first true breaks with reality, obsessing over The Catcher in the Rye and ultimate "phony" John Lennon, you barely even notice, so immersed are you in the world as he sees it. It's only when Chapman travels to New York and his own world starts brushing up against the real world that the vastness of his distance from sanity becomes apparent.

Piddington creates no small suspense in building to the fateful moment when Chapman guns down the ex-Beatle, but The Killing of John Lennon lingers long after the murder, following Chapman into a squad car and on into the legal system, the true nature of his crime sinking in onscreen and off. Dramatically, this de facto coda becomes a slog, but Piddington, Ball, and cinematographer Roger Eaton have created an impressive attempt at getting inside the head of one of recent history's most renowned psychos, and it's at least worth a stoop to a lower shelf at the video store.