Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review: "Short Term 12"

Director: Destin Cretton
Runtime: 96 minutes

Short Term 12 ends exactly the way it begins: with a story that provides a glimpse into the lives of one of its characters. There are differences in subject matter and outcome, but by and large the bookends feel almost identical, as though nothing has changed. Yet given what transpires between those bookends, it would be foolish to judge Short Term 12 as being without narrative accomplishment. At the heart of Destin Cretton's festival sensation is a story rooted in the day-to-day triumphs and failures of humble people in humble surroundings. They don't change the world by the time the credits roll, but that doesn't mean that their journeys are less valuable. 

Though certainly nowhere near as expansive and dense (few things are), it's tempting to compare Cretton's film to HBO's The Wire. The series' final scene is a montage of the city of Baltimore, showing how much it has stayed the same, despite all of the efforts of its protagonists. Yet rather than condescend, The Wire and Short Term 12 utilize this juxtaposition of big and small pictures to lend a human face to a far-reaching issue.

For Short Term 12, that issue is abused and neglected children. Based on Cretton's own experiences, the writer/director's sophomore feature follows the lives of the youthful staff at a foster care home. Opening with the arrival of Nate (Rami Malek), a new employee, the story's actual focus is Grace (Brie Larson). If anything, Nate is our window into the foster care home's world and rules. While he struggles (often with uncomfortably funny results) to adjust to the vibe, Grace and her co-worker/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) show him the ropes. In the elegantly paced opening reels, Cretton communicates information through effective dialogue and imagery that keeps the freeform narrative from stagnating. 

More importantly, the script, as brought to life, is full of tenderness that never borders on sappy manipulation. There's ample opportunity for Short Term 12 to slip into ham-fisted white savior territory (3 of the 4 main staff are white; the kids are quite diverse), yet the interactions avoid condescension and stereotyping. As Grace and Mason go through their own isolated drama, Cretton remains firmly committed not only to their time at work, but the lives of the kids they're doing their best to care for. Some, like Marcus (Keith Stanfield), are nearing the end of their stay, while others, like Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) have only just arrived. Yet the handful of cases that the script really hones in on are smartly chosen and delicately woven together in this portrait of kindness and frailty. 

Grace and Mason, though never blank, are intelligently used to build up the subplots of the kids. They have to put their personal drama in the background for work, and the film follows suit. The first moments to really hit home are those of Marcus and Jayden. As Marcus, Stanfield delivers a beautifully reserved performance, and his scenes are easily among the most powerful. The young actor possesses a quiet magnetism that could fill up an entire movie all on its own. Even something as simple as a haircut comes loaded with deeper meaning, yet Cretton never pile drives the characters for the sake of exploitative suffering. These are people who have lived through horrific experiences, and the script is intelligent in its refrain from histrionics. 

The closest that Short Term 12 comes to faltering - from a narrative perspective - is the run up to the climax. It's designed to take the open-ended nature of the character study and build to an emotional breaking point. Were it not for the strength of the characters, and Cretton's level-headed directing, the amount of bad events that pile up flirts with contrivance. Thankfully, the flirtation is brief, and it leaves no lasting marks. Aided by Joel P. West's delicate scoring, the film moves along effectively, yet never shortchanges a moment, even when as a few musical beats feel a touch on the nose. 

Of course, the main source of all of the fuss about Short Term 12 has been Ms. Larson, and not without reason. With so much emotional turmoil going on around her, Grace is a figure of strength, capable of relating with the kids while still keeping order. Or, as Hemingway would put it (were he a fan of name-based puns), she's an example of grace under pressure. Always an engaging and watchable performer, Larson has never been given such a meaty role, and she nails every moment. Rather than go for big emotion, she keeps Grace in line with the film around her, only letting the cracks in the surface show when necessary.

Every bit her equal is Gallagher, who more than makes up for his puzzlingly flat work on The Newsroom with a charming and heartfelt turn that never feels generic or forced. Cretton takes his time pulling back the layers with Grace and Mason, especially the former, but the end result is authentic and filled with quiet beauty. By the time we reach the end, and see that the film is ending just as it began, it's hard to see the scenes as identical. As easy as it would be to dismiss the final lighthearted interaction, it's but the surface of these people's lives. Like Larson's performance, Short Term 12's authenticity and measured compassion are what make it such a quiet revelation. American indie cinema doesn't get much better than this.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: "You're Next"

Director: Adam Wingard
Runtime: 94 minutes

Next to a January release date, being kept on the shelf is one of the most obvious signs that a movie is a dud. So it's rather baffling that You're Next, Adam Wingard's home invasion horror-thriller, managed to stay in the dark for almost two years. After being acquired for US distribution during the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, Wingard's film never quite managed to secure a solid release date. Thankfully, the studio finally realized what a hugely enjoyable ride they had on their hands. Following in the footsteps of The Conjuring, You're Next ensures that 2013 will go down as the year that horror, not superheroes, truly ruled the summer. 

As is common of the home-invasion story, it's not the story that matters, so much as the specifics of the execution. Working from Simon Barrett's script, Wingard wastes no time dispensing with the feeling of safety. From the moment that parents Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) open up their sprawling mansion, it feels as though bloody mayhem is ready to break out in an instant. It doesn't take much longer for that promise to be fulfilled. Once the cast of expendable characters arrives and settles in for dinner, a group of masked strangers starts firing crossbow bolts through the windows. 

Rather than drag out the inevitable, You're Next happily dispenses with a large chunk of its ensemble in rapid succession. By immediately trimming the cast down to fewer players, the film opens itself up to less cluttered character interactions. Better yet is Barrett's sense of humor, which helps break up the flashes of blood and terror. Even in the midst of total chaos, Barrett tosses in a stray line of black comedy that never detracts from the overall sense of tension. Are these characters (and some of their conflicts) cliched? Absolutely. The difference is that You're Next executes and subverts those cliches in a manner that is a never less than enjoyable.

The secret weapon of the film, however, is Sharni Vinson's Erin. The girlfriend of Paul and Aubrey's son Crispian (AJ Bowen), she also has a (perfectly loopy) background that has given her a talent for fighting back. As one of the few characters to constantly keep a cool head, Vinson is the glue holding all of You're Next's winking cliches together. Vinson may not do anything extraordinary with the role, but she's more than convincing as a closet-badass. As the mansion's residents are picked off, Erin moves closer and closer to center stage. Paralleling this shift is the film's transition from standard slasher horror to domestic thriller. The film's last half hour, in an inspired decision, jettisons much of the horror, and transforms into the grisliest Home Alone movie ever made. 

Throughout the entire endeavor, Wingard's direction is to-the-point and unfussy. The violence and teases of violence (there are some great shots involving reflections) is never exploitative, despite the amount of fun that Wingard has with the staging. Whether it's a stabbing or simply a lingering shot on a creaking door, the atmosphere is consistent and engaging. The ominous score, which could have easily been a distraction, only adds to the malevolent overtones, without becoming overbearing. Like the movie around it, the music gets the point across, without ever stretching beyond its tidy ambitions. 

When compared to The Conjuring, You're Next offers up less in the way of obvious craft. However, it makes up for this by being a much snappier and more entertaining bloody thrill ride. With its off-kilter sense of humor, satisfying horror jolts, and badass heroine, Wingard's film proves to have been well worth the two year delay. And even though the film as a whole likely won't give you any nightmares, there's a good chance you'll hesitate to stare out of an open window, lest one of those simple-yet-menacing white animal masks pops up. 

Grade: B

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review: "The World's End"

Director: Edgar Wright
Runtime: 109 minutes

It's easy to make a spoof of a particular genre. There are lists of horror cliches that are routinely mocked by writers, comedians, bloggers, and even other movies. Yet it takes a special sort of love and craftsmanship to create a send-up that also functions as a legitimate genre film. Edgar Wright has made this the defining strength of his career. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz satirize the zombie and buddy cop genres, respectively, but the ace in the hole is Wright's ability to make a better zombie and buddy cop movie than most of those he's poking fun at. The same remains true, albeit to a lesser extent, for his final chapter in his trilogy of genre send-ups, The World's End

Wright's co-writer, Simon Pegg, is once again the lead. As Gary King, Pegg is an immature, roguish lad whose best days are far behind him. He's quick on his feet and always a hoot to watch, but his Peter Pan complex is starting to wear thin around his friends. While Gary still rocks his punk-ish rings and rides around in his car from high school, his circle of friends have left him behind for adult life. Determined to reconnect and relive his glory days, Gary ropes his friends into visiting their hometown to complete the Golden Mile: drinking a pint at twelve different pubs, culminating at the titular establishment. 

However, like Hot Fuzz, the small town of The World's End is hiding a dark secret. But where Wright's cop comedy used that secret to further his plot, here he uses it to introduce a different genre. Genre mashups can deliver inspired results, but The World's End's mix of buddy comedy and alien invasion thriller makes it Wright's least elegant film to date. The shaggy charm, best exemplified by Pegg's character, is still there, but it all feels in service of a story that's constantly being pulled in opposite directions. 

That's not to say that The World's End is without its considerable pleasures. Wright's directing is as vibrant as ever, and his knack for fight scenes - even those shot largely in tight close ups - is once again put to great effect. And even as Wright and Pegg's script reveals its structural faults, it also delivers some truly outstanding comedy. Frequent collaborator Nick Frost (cast, for once, in a straight man role) leads the supporting roster, filled out by Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Rosamund Pike. When the lads (and lady) are together, bickering and reminiscing, The World's End feels the most comfortable in its own skin. 

Pegg, however, is the one who really takes hold of the spotlight. In a drastic detour from his previous collaborations with Wright, Pegg is the one character who is an absolute wreck. The best he can hope for, hence his determination to complete the Golden Mile, is to complete a high school fantasy, as though it will somehow solve his problems. Once the film rolls into its (surprisingly action-free) climax, Pegg is given the most emotional material in any of Wright's work to date, and he succeeds with flying colors. For all of the clumsiness of the plotting, Wright and company never lose sight of the story's humanity. 

Though once Wright takes us through the poignant and hilarious finale, he tacks on an epilogue that feels ripped from a completely different genre spoof. It's in those final minutes that The World's End moves from being awkward to totally overstuffed. In wrapping up the loose group of films known as The Cornetto Trilogy, Wright and Pegg seemingly felt the need to really go big or go home. The better strategy might have simply been to make a fourth film. The World's End, for all of its heartfelt hilarity, is ultimately kept from greatness because it tries to take on too much for its own good. Like the Golden Mile, The World's End is a riotously enjoyable experience, but by the time you reach the end, you've simply had more than you can handle.

Grade: B

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review: "The Butler" AKA "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Director: Lee Daniels
Runtime: 132 minutes

Though Lee Daniels' The Butler (or is it Lee Daniels' The Butler?) features actors playing five presidents, they are ultimately bits of amusing stunt casting. And that's the way it should be. Though the roster of A-list cameos adds star power to the project, Daniels' follow-up to the trashtastic The Paperboy, it never gets lost in them. Instead, they're used to push and pull the quiet Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), as he plays the role of observer to some of the most tumultuous years in modern American history. So many films (often biopics) try to capture decades of history and feel like hasty powerpoint presentations. The Butler, despite its share of faults, manages to flesh out its historical stepping stones effortlessly, all without feeling self-important.

As Cecil and his hard-drinking wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) avoid involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, their son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes an active participant. The range of opinions - Louis' fiery activism, Cecil's neutrality, white authority's slow progress and/or hostility - is what keeps the story so consistently engaging. Even with the copious amounts of vaseline smeared on the camera lenses, The Butler is neither cheap nor trashy. And, compared to Daniels' previous films, it feels much more restrained. There are histrionics, to be sure, but they never feel contrived or manipulative. The emotions and issues that make up the film's story are big, and the acting is always in perfect sync.

In the film's trickiest role, Whitaker is a quiet marvel. It's a complete 180 from his Oscar-winning turn in The Last King of Scotland, and has him as a reserved, passive figure. Yet for all of the serving and observing Cecil does, Whitaker never slips into blankness. The character's conflict, solidly sketched out, ensures that he never becomes boring or an empty audience surrogate. The issue of what it means to be black and a servant as the Civil Rights Movement rages outside is an emotionally complex internal struggle, and Whitaker captures it quite gracefully.

Lending strong support are Winfrey and Oyelowo, both of whom provide different sorts of foils. Winfrey's Gloria, who gradually moves towards sobriety across the narrative, is the livelier of the couple, always trying to draw her husband out of his shell, while also holding the house together. Though we may not spend nearly as much time with Gloria as we do with Cecil, she still feels like her own independent character. It's role that demands both energy and empathy, and Winfrey proves herself more than up to the task. Though her name is undoubtedly a draw (reports are that the role was expanded after her casting), her performance never throws one out of the film. Whatever decisions may have led to her being cast in the role, she is authentic, and there's not an ounce of celebrity vanity to be found in the performance.

Oyelowo, meanwhile, makes a strong impression as Louis, who proves to be quite the lightning rod as time goes by. One of the most compelling aspects of Strong's script is seeing how drastically Louis changes, while Cecil does his best to stay the same in his little bubble at the White House.  Unlike the film's hall of presidents, Cecil and his family are rounded characters who help ground the film in the complexities of black American life. 

That said, the presidents and their wives are handled nicely, even as the casting creates a few chuckles at first glance (Robin Williams as Eisenhower set off more than a few people). James Marsden makes an appealing JFK, and Liev Schreiber provides some humor as Lyndon Johnson. That humor is, thankfully, not contained strictly to LBJ's scenes. For as much sadness and anger as there is, The Butler can be very funny, which only makes it more emotionally accessible. Even John Cusack, so totally miscast as Richard Nixon, is convincing with the broad strokes he's required to play. Of the presidents, however, it's probably Alan Rickman's Ronald Reagan who comes off as the most complex. After helping Cecil ensure equal pay for black White House staff, he then struggles with aiding South African anti-apartheid movements, which only puts Cecil in a more emotionally conflicted corner.

Scenes and characters from outside of the White House or the Gaines' home prove equally compelling, and provide the film with some of its high points. Louis' early brushes with activism - participating in a sit-in and becoming a Freedom Rider - are absolutely gut-wrenching. They let the conviction of the protesters, as well as the hatred of their opposition, take center stage. It's intense stuff, and Daniels plays it completely straight. While some scenes border on cheesy (so much vaseline), the depictions of the Civil Rights Movement are frighteningly real, which only magnifies their power. 

With so many narrative balls to juggle, it's impressive that Daniels and Strong never let any of them drop. For a film that covers so much time, what they have pulled off is something to be proud of. The script and direction keep Cecil and his family front and center. With the ensemble coming and going, Daniels and Strong never lose track of the Gaineses  as the narrative's anchor. Even with its sappy score and on-the-nose voiceover, The Butler is a surprisingly effective portrait of family up against a canvas that spans decades. It may contain only a few brushes with true greatness, but The Butler deserves to be commended for taking on so much without ever feeling overburdened.

Grade: B 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: "Elysium"

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 109 minutes

I once read an astute assessment of director Neill Blomkamp's District 9, wherein the author pointed out that one of that film's best traits was the feeling that there was an entire world beyond the confines of what was captured on the camera. Blomkamp's lived-in, grungy alien ghetto in Johannesburg, with its crustacean-esque inhabitants, was one of that film's best attributes. For that matter, so was the alien technology, which struck a refreshing balance between looking economical and futuristic. Blomkamp's gift with tech design remains firmly intact with Elysium, and it's only magnified with his much larger budget. Unfortunately, what Elysium packs in great design, it lacks in compelling characters or consistent writing. 

Where District 9 imagined a world where aliens became refugees in the present, Elysium catapults humanity into the future (surely, someone is already at work proving that the two films exist in the same timeline). As expected, everything is bigger in Elysium, with its massive (titular) space colony (for the 1%-ers, naturally), and chaotic, sprawling cities. Like many a dystopia, the main earthly setting is Los Angeles. However, the city looks like a frigteningly large slum, rather than the chilly neon metropolis found in, say, Blade Runner. To put it bluntly: Earth has become something of a hell hole.

The fact that Elysians have miraculous medical pods that can cure basically anything certainly isn't helping relations between the colony and the overcrowded blue sphere below. Officials like security minister Delacort (Jodie Foster) try to make sure that things stay that way. When three ships try to break into Elysium to utilize the med-pods, Delacort swiftly orders her rogue agent Kruger (District 9 lead Sharlto Copley) to shoot them down. All in a day's work between brunches and housewarming parties. 

So who's to stand up to Delacort's violent elitism? If you guessed that it's the fella who looks like Matt Damon, you'd be correct. After an accident at work leaves Damon's Max with only five days to live (pointed out in a darkly funny exchange with a medicine-dispensing robot), the ex-con decides to try and make his way to Elysium to heal himself. Of course, complications arise (for both Max and Delacort), and soon Max's mission becomes not just a quest to heal himself, but to try and break Elysium's stranglehold on its near-miraculous health care technology.

Yet even within the confines of a relatively straightforward set-up, Blomkamp ultimately falls victim to his larger budget. The look of his world, as rendered through truly stunning special effects work, is first rate. It's sleek and detailed without ever looking plastic. Rather than go all out with huge VFX battles, the director keeps the action largely contained to shootouts and fistfights. He allows his technology to merely enhance the action, rather than overtake it. Even more impressive is that Blomkamp allows his conflicts to get appropriately grisly (credit should also go to the studio, for not forcing Blomkamp to make the film PG-13).

But all of the cool gadgetry in the world can't cover up the thin writing. For the first two thirds, Elysium manages to stay afloat, as it builds its world and the various conflicts. Damon has some appealing moments as he jokes with (or openly mocks) the brutish droid police. And, as evidenced by the Bourne films, he makes for a compelling action hero, even with a frame significantly more compact than many of his contemporaries. Sharlto Copley, meanwhile, appears to be having a lot of fun as the sadistic Kruger, while Alice Braga injects some appealing naturalism into her role as a friend from Max's childhood. 

The performance that's sure to leave most people talking, and not necessarily in a good way, is Jodie Foster. What seems like a strong match of character and actor is thrown off by Foster's puzzling pseudo-French accent. It doesn't derail the performance, but it's an unnecessary distraction that's only made worse because Delacort isn't much more than the average cold hearted antagonist. Like most of Elysium, she's functional and expected, despite a level of visual craft that suggests something far superior.

The relative blandness of the writing rears its ugly head once the final act arrives, and permanently throws Elysium off course. The stakes are there, but there's little tension because of the disconnect between the effort put into the film's look, versus the effort put into the film's characters. By the time the finale starts, Damon's character almost feels like an afterthought, even though he remains the protagonist. Instead of tension, the ending turns into tedium, as the plot lurches along through a checklist of events necessary for the big moments at the end. Blomkamp's strengths as a visual artist are still commendable, but even they can't elevate a story that's simply been done too many times. 

Grade: C+/C

Review: "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"

Director: David Lowery
Runtime: 105 minutes

While festivals like Cannes or Venice often feature the latest works from established names in world cinema, Sundance has always prided itself as being a platform for new voices to make themselves heard. The downside to this is that Cannes tends to be overly harsh, while Sundance is often too lenient, even with the good films. Yet 2013 has seen the festival premiere an uncommonly promising slate of first and second feature films. 

The latest to hit American theaters is David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which earned strong reviews and won Bradford Young a prize for cinematography. It's easy to see why the film played so well at Sundance. Lowery's sophomore feature film is an accomplished tale of love and crime that immediately brings up memories of Terrence Malick's Badlands. Unlike Badlands, however, Saints is unlikely to go down as a classic. Instead, it's a tantalizing taste of new talent, rather than a full-blown success on its own terms.

Lowery's writing and directing may take cues from early Malick (among others), but Saints is easily distinguishable as a more accessible film. Malick reaches for the heavens; Lowery stays firmly earthbound. Even as fugitive prisoner Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) repeatedly tries to build himself up as a mythic figure, he finds himself cut down to size in ways both friendly and violent. More grounded is Muldoon's girlfriend Ruth (Rooney Mara), who he hopes to reunite with. Separated after Muldoon took the fall for their headline-grabbing crime spree, the pair have gone in different directions in the years they've spent apart. Muldoon is still caught up in the romanticized vision of their romance. He sees himself as Odysseus, on an epic quest to right wrongs and return to his unwavering loved one (as well as a daughter he's never seen). Ruth, however, is now far too grounded to have her head in the clouds.

Even when she learns of Muldoon's escape from prison, she insists to local police officer Wheeler (Ben Foster) that there's no way Muldoon would try and see her again. Thanks to Mara's quiet, stoic turn, Ruth's story retains a touch of ambiguity as the film builds towards it grim finale. In a complete 180 from her icy turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara is wonderfully natural as a young woman thrust into adulthood far too soon. After firing off a round of a local boy's BB gun, she lets a tiny smile etch its way onto her face, an elegant reminder of the life she had when violence seemed to have no real consequences. Her scenes with Foster (an underrated actor who ought to have made it big by now) are made more compelling by the way they highlight the uncertainty running behind her demure appearance. 

If Ruth's half of the story is all hushed voices and internal anxiety, Muldoon's half is - on paper - the more exciting and forward-moving portion. Yet it's in the scenes built around Muldoon that Saints runs into some serious hurdles that it can't quite overcome. After a tight opening half hour that establishes Ruth and Muldoon's pre-arrest romance (and some aftermath), Saints struggles to move effectively between its two halves. Lowery's direction is more effective in the more open-ended moments that make up Ruth's story, rather than Muldoon's West Texas outdoor adventures. The pacing falters, and scenes that aim to build either suspense or an ambiguous sense of dread tend to fall flat. 

And where Ruth's story has some compelling relationships to keep it moving, Muldoon's feels limited. Affleck's performance, unfortunately, fails to elevate the material. As the outlaw tries to create his myths and maintain a sense of control, Affleck seems slightly uncomfortable. The role requires a boyish sense of enthusiasm and half-hearted swagger, yet Affleck seems a little too sleepy. There's no sense of adventure or danger to his take on the character. As such, he seems too similar to Foster's milquetoast police officer.

As Saints carries on, aided by Young's photography (using only natural light) and Daniel Hart's lovely music, Lowery's script starts to burn through the goodwill established in the opening passages. A trio of nameless antagonists feel too removed from the main plot, and their inclusion is little more than a contrivance to enliven the final act. More compelling are the established roadblocks to Muldoon's goal: the law, and former associate Skerritt (Keith Carradine, a welcome presence). By keeping the conflicts relegated strictly to established forces, the story could have built an intensity rooted in its characters, rather than letting plot mechanics get in the way. As a result, the climax is overcrowded and rushed, and in need of further refinement. Unfortunately, said refinement would have to go past the editing room, and all the way back to the page. 

Yet something surprising happens as the film enters its final minutes. After the chaos leading up to the climax, Lowery somehow finds that special balance from the opening section again. Just when I was ready to write the ending off, I found myself once again engaged with the material, and unable to look away. Somewhere along the line, enough of Ain't Them Bodies Saints got under my skin to the point where I was invested, and moved, by its closing. Some films fumble their beginnings or endings. For David Lowery, the issue seems to be with parts of the middle. It's hardly a unique problem, and one that I look forward to seeing the writer/director (hopefully) overcome with his subsequent features. Ain't Them Bodies Saints may not be the unqualified success it was initially hyped as, but it does introduce yet another promising young voice into the independent film world, one who knows how to start and end a quietly compelling tale. It's a teaser of a career who is now in a position to really soar, and maybe even reach the heights of those who influenced him. 

Grade: B

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: "In a World..."

Director: Lake Bell
Runtime: 93 minutes

We've all heard a trailer that opens with the cheesy grandeur of "in a world..." As said by the late Don LaFontaine, the words became iconic in the world of movie trailers. LaFontaine's voice was deep, rich, and - here's the kicker - completely masculine. But what if those same words were to come out of the mouth of a woman? That's the question at the center of writer/director/star Lake Bell's debut In a World..., a zippy, funny showbiz comedy that is one of the most purely enjoyable releases of the year.

Despite a plot that occasionally dips into sitcom-level subplots, it's easy to see why Bell's screenplay won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award back at Sundance. With its limited budget and dialogue-heavy scenes, Bell's film is a marvel of cut-to-the-chase efficiency, without ever forgetting to craft real characters. When we first meet aspiring voice artist Carol (Bell), she's groggy and frizzy-haired, trying to wake up and pull herself together. This may be how Bell first appears to us in front of the camera, but behind-the-scenes this new triple threat is firmly in control of her voice.

Kicking off with a montage dedicated to LaFontaine, In a World...'s story concerns a major gig in the voice over industry: the chance to resurrect LaFontaine's famous phrase for a series of post-apocalyptic action films. Yet even though the films, a mix of Mad Max and The Hunger Games, center on female protagonists, the main candidates to play the authoritative voice of the marketing are all men. Chief among them are the obscenely wealthy and self-absorbed Gustav (Ken Marino), and Carol's own father Sam (Fred Melamed). Then there's Carol, who works as a vocal coach, and is reminded on a daily basis that the trailer industry is meant to be dominated by male voices. 

Yet the simple plot, which predictably builds to a competitive audition for the gig, is smartly spread out to allow room for Bell to build her characters. There's a hint of romance with sound mixer Louis (Demetri Martin), and marital strife involving Carol's sister (Michaela Watkins) and her brother-in-law (Rob Corddry). So many likeminded films completely drop the ball when it comes to subplots that draw attention away from the central narrative. It's a pleasure, then, to see Bell tackle the angles of her story with such snappy conviction. Even the sister subplot, the one with the most room to go horribly wrong, is wrapped up before it becomes too messy. One could argue that Bell's solution is a too tidy, but the characters and performances are drawn well enough to ensure that the resolution doesn't ring false. 

Subplots aside, though, In a World... is really a terrific, unselfish showcase for Bell's talents as a comedic actress and writer. Sexism in the entertainment industry remains a problem, yet Bell gets her point across by being likable, rather than by talking down or wagging her finger. Despite the feminist underpinnings, she's here to tell a story, and a frequently hilarious one at that. The film's point is presented amiably and is open for conversation, even as it's icily underlined via a terrific cameo from Geena Davis as a cutthroat executive. The bluntness of Davis' big scene could have been heavy-handed coming on the heels of such a light story, but everything leading up to it feels authentic and earned.

Only when In a World... tries to move from comedy to romantic comedy does it start to dip in quality. Scenes where actors improv by awkwardly stammering feel like something out of a bad Woody Allen movie. They clash with the more clearly structured exchanges that provide the film with its best moments. In a film that elegantly walks the line between sitcom and reality, the more obvious attempts at creating 'genuine' awkwardness feel at odds with the purposefulness of Bell's writing.

This small quibble aside, it's hard to really have any ill will towards Bell or her film. In a World... is more likely to help her career than be fondly remembered years down the line. Its greatest strength is simply that it allows Bell to humbly take center stage and announce herself as a talent to watch, all while providing some solid laughs. And, even though Bell has room to refine and develop her voice, it doesn't hurt that she's come out of the gate so strongly on her first go round. She can only go up from here, and that's a world that Mr. LaFontaine would be proud to announce. 

Grade: B/B+

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: "Lovelace"

Directors: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Runtime: 92 minutes

Within the first 15 minutes of Lovelace, the second fiction film from documentary directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the only word that comes to mind is "workman-like." Despite avoiding the sleaze of its time period and subject matter, this biopic/behind-the-scenes look at the life of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace goes through the motions from start to finish. Capable performances, especially Amanda Seyfried's lead role, are enjoyable and hint at a richer, more insightful story. As it stands, however, Lovelace is content to be ordinary down to the bone, mostly for worse. 

As Lovelace herself remarks late in the film, she only spent 17 days in the porn industry. Yet the shadow of her breakout film and performance - the first porno to break into the mainstream - looms large over her life. That's a fascinating dynamic to explore, and touches on the ways in which celebrity figures can be defined by the briefest moments in their lives (especially when those moments are mistakes). Yet Andy Bellin's screenplay, determined to cover everything as though checking events off on a list, is more concerned with simply getting from point A to point B, without taking time to explore the emotional and thematic undercurrents of his characters. 

Once the film peaks, with Deep Throat becoming a phenomenon, Lovelace starts to lose the already muted momentum that its first 45 minutes kicked off with. Epstein and Friedman do a perfectly adequate job of telling the story, but their techniques are no more insightful that the typical surface-only approach found on a Lifetime movie. As the story takes a darker turn, detailing Linda's fallout with first husband Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard), Lovelace starts to drag, rather than compel. What little spark the film musters up is strictly relegated to the scenes involving the production of Deep Throat, largely stemming from the comedy the film wrings out of the pervy director (Hank Azaria) and producers (Bobby Cannavale and Chris Noth).  

Seyfried, meanwhile, is left to navigate a character whose rich dramatic potential is squandered by the material. Seyfried's breakout performance came as the stunningly air-headed Karen in 2004's Mean Girls, a film that used her comedic gifts to excellent effect. Since then, the actress has been trying to move over into meatier roles. Lovelace should have been the one. When Linda sees the promotional shots taken of her for Deep Throat, Seyfried captures the quiet awe of a repressed young woman finally seeing herself as beautiful. Unfortunately, the script provides her with too few of these moments, even skimping on her frosty relationship with her dad (Robert Patrick) and ultra-religious mother (Sharon Stone). 

Yet as Lovelace focuses on the rise of a porn icon (one who would go on to become an anti-pornography crusader), it manages to neglect the beginning and end of her story. It avoids outright sleaze, but it also has little interest in true drama other than Chuck being abusive and controlling towards his wife. Though never exploitative, the scenes of abuse (which include Chuck essentially paying a group of men to gang rape his wife), are given far too much weight. They make Linda's dramatic arc into one of a victim, and the shrift her fight against domestic abuse gets only makes the issue more troubling. 

Even the star-studded ensemble can't do much to make something more out of Bellin's crushingly simplistic writing. Sarsgaard (who recently completed a stellar turn on AMC's The Killing) makes for a good charmer-turned-abuser, but no one else is really give the time or depth to make an impact outside of a one-liner. What should have been one of the most impactful moments - Linda's reunion with her parents - is little more than shrug-worthy. It's certainly not the cast's fault. One can see the effort being put in by Stone and Seyfried to make the moment work, and Stone almost saves it with a funny remark. But it's too little and far too late. In its standard 90 minute framework, Lovelace succumbs to the hallmark problem of many modern biopics: it tries to cover everything, does it too fleetly, and winds up feeling like a Cliffnotes version of a much richer narrative. 

Grade: C/C+

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: "Byzantium"

Director: Neil Jordan
Runtime: 118 minutes

We know vampires when we see them. No reflections, pale skin, fangs, an aversion to sunlight and crucifixes, and a taste for blood. Yet aside from the pale skin (which can be explained by the British heritage) and bloodlust, the vampires in Neil Jordan's Byzantium (adapted from Moira Buffini's play) couldn't be more different. They don't even have fangs, for one thing. Instead, they're outfitted with a nifty retractable thumbnail that can be used for puncturing. 

The surface details, however, are but the start of what makes Byzantium such a satisfying entry in the vampire film canon. Though its story spans at least two centuries, Jordan and keeps the film, which only has its momentary sluggish points, firmly locked on its characters. Though widely overlooked upon its limited release earlier this year, Byzantium deserves to be put in the company of Park Chan-Wook's Thirst and Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In as one of the best vampire films of the 21st century. 

The most compelling aspect of Byzantium's blood suckers is how they are - for the most part - ordinary. They have no extraordinary senses or super strength, making them much more vulnerable and compelling figures. This is complemented nicely by the mother/daughter and sister/sister dynamic between vivacious Clara (Gemma Arterton) and introspective Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). Rather than stalk the big city, the duo are residents of an unnamed coastal English town, where Clara provides for them by working as a prostitute. Though their lives are relatively stable, the two soon find evidence that they're being pursued by a centuries-old order of their own kind. 

Complicating matters is Clara's involvement with kind-hearted local Noel (Daniel Mays), and Eleanor's burgeoning romance with her classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Through it all, the narrative hops into the past, exploring how the two ladies rose from impoverished origins before their transformations. At times the jumps to the past can feel clumsy, but for the most part Jordan is able to weave a quietly engaging tale, heightened by a chilly atmosphere and effective performances. 

Even the introduction of the teenage romance is a far cry from the cringe-worthy pining of the Twilight franchise. Though Eleanor and Frank's early encounters are among the film's low points, the gradual development packs a wallop once it comes to a close. Similarly, Ronan's performance also benefits the most from the progression of the plot. At first, she seems headed for the same lifeless territory of Kristen Stewart's Bella Swan. Yet as her character's stakes raise, and her morality comes into focus, she emerges as a conflicted and tragic figure, rather than a one-note moper. In the film's best scene, Ronan verbally dominates a teacher (Maria Doyle Kennedy), by barely exerting any aggression. It's a marvelous melding of pain and regret, all wrapped up in an icy, barely-perceptible threat. 

While the second half allows Ronan to take command of the screen, the first half is Arterton's show. The actresses' free-spirited, saucy performance keeps the tone from slipping into morose navel-gazing. With her sexy clothing, and surrounded by the bright neons of the local amusement park, Clara is content to live her life on the run to the fullest. Despite being the older character and the provider, she knows how to balance both her wild side and her maternal instincts. Arterton blends these two sides into a cohesive character capable of lust, violence, and compassion.

The roster of supporting cast members are solid as well, though their roles tend toward the one-note variety. Jonny Lee Miller stands out as a nasty figure from Clara and Eleanor's past, even as his domineering sneers are somewhat cartoonish. Sam Riley, meanwhile, is pleasant enough but ultimately disposable as one of the vampires trying to track Clara down. His role is more of a plot-point than a fleshed-out character, though the script never focuses on him enough for this to become a distraction. Landry Jones, however, manages a few nice moments with Ronan, even as they're used more to develop Eleanor than create a deeply-felt romantic connection.

Aside from Arterton and Ronan, the real stars of Byzantium are Jordan, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and composer Javier Navarrete (Pan's Labyrinth). Even some of Jordan's best work can, at first glance, feel choppy. With Byzantium, he's crafted one of his most fluidly paced endeavors. Only a portion between acts one and two starts to drag, and even then the director and his team keep the film afloat through the atmosphere. The framing, while never ostentatious, creates many small moments that add up, and Bobbitt's use of color is gorgeous in its range and vibrancy.  

Yet nothing sticks the landing quite like Navarrete's scoring. Ranging from classical arrangements to subtle electric guitars, the Spanish composer turns in some of his best work to date. Befitting of the story and Jordan's command of the imagery, the music is sinister, seductive, and even operatic when called for. Navarrete never overpowers the visuals or the performances. Instead, he accents them and helps them reach full potential, lending already striking scenes a perfect finish and after taste. 

Even though it runs nearly two hours, Byzantium's slow burn of a narrative is worth the investment. Despite the dip in the middle, Jordan has crafted a sumptuous modern vampire tale. For all of the blood that flows (there's even a scene of Clara bathing in a waterfall of the stuff), Jordan and Buffini have grounded the story in a character study of love, loss, and family. There are certainly bumps along the way, but so much of Byzantium flows so elegantly that the occasional dip or bit of convoluted history hardly matters. It's a character piece first, and a vampire movie second, which is all the more reason why it's such a bloody good time (couldn't resist).

Grade: B/B+

Review: "The Canyons"

Director: Paul Schrader
Runtime: 100 minutes

From its opening montage of abandoned theaters, it's clear that Paul Schrader's The Canyons has something to say about the state of movies and modern forms of entertainment consumption. Yet only moments after this solemn opening, it becomes clear that Schrader and screenwriter/novelist Bret Easton Ellis are on wildly different paths. Part commentary, and part sleazy sex drama, The Canyons has basic sketches of ideas rooted in fertile ground. Unfortunately, this micro-budget film never takes its ideas past the sketching stage; the final product tries to say too much, and winds up saying absolutely nothing.

One of the film's big selling points is the return of troubled actress Lindsay Lohan to the silver screen. Here she's cast as Tara, the girlfriend of slasher director Christian (porn star James Deen). The pair enjoy sexual trysts with strangers who they meet - where else? - via apps on their phones and tablet computers. Yet even though Tara is fine with these free-wheeling sexcapades, it's clear that Christian is the dominant (perhaps too dominant) voice in the relationship. There's also some nonsense about Tara's former flame Ryan (Nolan Funk) and his girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks), who happens to be Christian's assistant. As expected, things take a dark turn once the couples collide, and Christian's mistress (Tenille Houston) turns the love quadrangle into a pentagon.

Yet for all of its connections among its characters, with their secrets and struggles, The Canyons rarely excites or provokes. Ellis, the mind behind novels like "American Psycho," is where most of the problems start. There's nary a hint of satire or a dramatic point. Even when characters address each other by looking straight into the camera, one degree away from breaking the fourth wall, there's a deadness to the imagery and acting. The conversations advance the plot at a snail's pace, and the empty eyes of the leads do little to improve matters.

However, it must be noted that Lohan actually appears to be putting in effort with this role. Last seen in the disastrous Lifetime movie Liz & Dick, in which she was barely present, the actress actually tries to make the most of the wretched material that's been thrown her way. There's only so much an actor can do with bottom-of-the-barrel writing, and Lohan is the only one who manages to create fleeting moments of conviction and authenticity. Lohan clearly wants this to be her Mickey Rourke/The Wrestler moment, with a performance capitalizing on her personal life. Too bad that no one else (save for Mr. Schrader, and even that's doubtful) wants to help her.

That said, she's certainly lightyears above Deen, who should probably just stick to literally screwing around on camera. As the increasingly sinister and dangerous Christian, Deen shows all of the hallmarks of an unseasoned performer. He somehow over and underacts, and a major climactic speech delivered over a phone is uncomfortably lifeless, yet still over-the-top. Only Funk outdoes Deen in the bad acting department, if only because his role doesn't even have room for shoddy attempts at sociopathic menace. 

The Canyons ends the same way it begins, with shots of dilapidated movie theaters. Yet once those images resurface, they're left feeling like little more than lazy pretension. Ellis' script mistakes mentions of smart phones and tablet computers for commentary about the ways our modern technology isolates us and removes us from the collective experience of the big screen. Fittingly, the film was made available on VOD the same day as its theatrical release in the US. But that's hardly a good sign, when the best bit of commentary is found in the film's release method, rather than anywhere in the finished work.

Grade: D