Friday, June 29, 2012

Brave (2012)

Dir. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell

3.5 out of 5

Back in 2010, Disney released an animated film that featured a headstrong teenage girl struggling to make sense of her lineage while bristling under the thumb of a strict mother figure. That film was Tangled, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale that reinforced its old-school themes as much as it riffed on them. It’s somewhat surprising, then, to see all those elements pop up again in Pixar’s Brave, a gorgeously-realized film that carries the studio’s mannered execution but assumes the shape of a traditional animated fantasy—with the requisite modern tweaks to the princess formula. The result is a contented hybrid of a film with new technology applied to an old yarn in a way that, while not entirely fresh, is altogether satisfying.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the rebellious daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), the rulers of a thriving clan in the ancient Scottish highlands. A tomboyish wild child who has no interest in learning courtly manners, Merida has a falling out with her mother when she’s offered for betrothal to the worthiest of three competing clans. The proto-feminist narrative takes a detour into the supernatural as she seeks out a witch to provide a spell that can “change fate” and convince Elinor to let Merida follow her own path. But the spell has unintended consequences that make Merida and Elinor dependent on each other for survival as they try to prevent testosterone-fueled tensions from escalating into unnecessary violence.

Brave represents several firsts for Pixar: its first female protagonist, first period setting, first story based in legend and folklore. That last element makes it feel especially like a tale cast from the typical Disney mold and gives the ensuing drama a disappointing off-the-shelf vibe. It’s also arguably the most moralistic entry in the Pixar canon, though the filmmakers are careful not to confuse simple platitudes for real emotional heft. Despite the muscular rhetoric of Fergus and his rival clan leaders, the threat of war isn’t as urgent as the dissolution of the mother-daughter bond.

The entire affair is heavy on professionalism and craft but light on whimsy (or at least an alternative to the slapstick hijinks of Merida’s brothers, a trio of terrible toddlers). Connolly’s twinkly beefcake is one of the few light touches in an unquestionably dark film that emphasizes its stunning visuals. Details like Merida’s unruly shock of red hair are painstakingly rendered, and the brooding Scottish landscape creates an environment as expansive as any live-action epic. Unfortunately, the story struggles to live up to the grandeur of the images. It needs to be more than a mixed-message commentary on gender roles—matriarchal power is mostly limited to getting men to lay down their grudges, though some critics detect LGBT undertones. Brave stirs in the right amounts of suspense and sentimentality in showing that positive relationships are often the result of compromise, but it ultimately follows a scenic route to a familiar destination.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dir. Benh Zeitlin

4.5 out of 5

A bayou fever dream unmistakably inspired by the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, Beasts of the Southern Wild presents an enthralling mixture of historical record and folklore to tell its emotionally charged story of pain, loss, and renewal. In many ways, it’s a stunning visual representation of the oral tradition. The plot concerns Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a precocious 6-year-old girl living with her tempestuous father, Wink (Dwight Henry), on a remote Delta island dubbed “the Bathtub.” When a flood of Biblical proportions threatens to wipe out their ramshackle community, Wink spearheads the group of locals that attempts to ride it out. His increasingly restless daughter, however, seizes on the opportunity to explore her independence and re-imagines her displacement as a quest to find her absent mother.

Though relying on real-life resonance to create its waterlogged environment, Beasts is remarkable as a vibrant, clamorous American fairy tale in the mold of Mark Twain's puckish chronicles of human fallibility. And like Twain’s most famous adventures, the film privileges a child’s point of view. Director Benh Zeitlin conjures up powerfully uncanny images—thundering herds of prehistoric beasts, floating houses, an alligator used as an IED—that would fit right into the vivid imagination of a kid like Hushpuppy. Wallis’ affecting performance also helps the film hit its tricky notes of magical realism and avoid the beatification of childhood innocence. If there’s a problem with other characters’ attempts to mentor Hushpuppy, it’s that her obstinate nature and stormy relationship with Wink makes the constant encouragement of her self-reliance somewhat redundant. But by skeptically crinkling her nose at Wink’s demonstrations of tough love, she’s still able to convey her discomfort in discovering that the world can be a harsh place.

More of a sensual experience than a narrative exclamation, Beasts takes its time brewing an intoxicating blend of gauzy photography, emotional immediacy, and straight-up tall tales. When it all comes together, it’s sublime—a supple flashback where Wink finally reveals his softness for Hushpuppy’s mother establishes her beguiling presence without ever showing her face. There’s a sudden sense of urgency when the Bathtub refugees are hauled off to a group shelter, exacerbating an illness that Wink has (unsuccessfully) tried to keep his daughter from discovering. But Hushpuppy is sharp enough to understand how he’s terrified of losing his dignity. She observes that the onshore world deals with a “sick animal” by plugging it into the wall, and connects it to that world’s refusal to let the Bathtub struggle and survive on its own terms. Positing kin and community as forces stronger than natural disaster, Beasts of the Southern Wild affirms that a way of life is synonymous with life itself and is worth fighting for, come hell or high water.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rock of Ages (2012)

Rock of Ages (2012)
Dir. Adam Shankman

2.5 out of 5

It doesn’t take long for the ‘80s glam metal musical Rock of Ages to announce itself as a thick slab of Aquanet-and-spandex-inspired cheese—making her way from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to fulfill her dreams of rock stardom, Sherrie (Julianne Hough) gets four lines into “Sister Christian” before an entire busload of people is crooning along. The rest of the film is just as brassy and bombastic, an uninhibited ode to the sloppy excess of rock bands and the groupies who love them. It’s 1987, and the hottest club on L.A.'s Sunset Strip is the Bourbon Room, where aspiring rocker Drew (Diego Boneta) works under the employ of the establishment’s slightly addled owner (Alec Baldwin) and sarcastic manager (Russell Brand). Meanwhile, the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a conservative scold bemoaning the corrupting influence of rock ‘n roll, schemes to shut down the club by demanding repayment of delinquent taxes. Suddenly, the Bourbon’s financial future is dependent on erratic rock legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), whose band is playing one last show at the venue before he goes solo.

Rock of Ages is a hammy, painfully literal piece of filmmaking that never stops trying to top itself. While this leads to some inspired (and even subversive) sequences, the film can’t sustain such a high level of energy throughout an overstuffed plot that has the nasty habit of pushing its best performers to the margins. The squeaky-clean Hough is slightly miscast as a diehard rock ‘n roller, but she tackles her character’s clichéd arc with a winning enthusiasm. Plus she’s tough as nails compared to her love interest, Boneta, who has the babyface of a glam rocker but none of the attitude. That’s a shame, since the rest of the casting is nearly perfect. Cruise brings a welcome unpredictability to his scenes as a batshit Axl Rose/Jim Morrison hybrid—especially when playing against his weasely manager (Paul Giamatti)—and the underutilized Zeta-Jones is a fantastic hoofer and a commanding presence in the movie’s two most impressive musical numbers. A Rolling Stone journalist who falls for Jaxx (Malin Ackerman) and a strip club madam who tends to a down-and-out Sherrie (Mary J. Blige) are thinly drawn but enjoyable additions to the film’s seedy chorus.

The movie’s appeal is directly tied to the musical era it celebrates, which is actually something that Rock of Ages struggles to pin down. The music is a mishmash of new wave, arena rock, and hair metal, with a heavy emphasis on the last category. But for a jukebox musical, it definitely has a bunch of skippable filler—a soundtrack with no less than three Foreigner songs is practically inviting criticism of its sins of omission. At least Adam Shankman’s direction is good-natured and fully aware of its ridiculous mission, and he can get away with things that would never, ever fly in most movies. (See: Zeta-Jones singing an erotically charged version of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in a Catholic church while husband Bryan Cranston experiments with rosary-assisted bondage in the parish office.) While Rock of Ages promises nothin’ but a good time, it is really nothin’ but empty nostalgia, another blotto, unfocused approximation of a bygone age.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Crazy and Thief (2012)

Crazy and Thief (2012)
Dir. Cory McAbee

2.5 out of 5
For a filmmaker with only one feature-length movie to his credit (2001’s The American Astronaut), Cory McAbee has a sizable and somewhat inexplicable cult following. Some of that notoriety stems from fronting the surrealist rock band The Billy Nayer Show, as well as occasional media projects like the web serial Stingray Sam. He uses cinematic language like a Rosetta stone (or, on occasion, a whipping post) for the deepest and weirdest parts of his psyche, unapologetically following his muse wherever it leads him, and his dream-like imagery can punish or illuminate depending on how much is lost in translation. Even his most ardent fans don’t always know what they’re getting into when the words “A Cory McAbee Film” appear onscreen.

Anybody expecting his typically skewed view in Crazy and Thief, however, may be surprised at how relatively tame it is. That’s unquestionably a function of its lead actors: McAbee’s seven-year-old daughter Willa and his two-year-old son John. As they toddle around New York City without parental supervision, they imagine themselves as a renegade duo of explorers—she’s “Crazy,” he’s “Thief”—following a haphazard path dictated by graphics of stars depicted on storefronts, advertisements, and street murals. Two adults eventually interrupt the kids’ idyllic wanderings. One’s an urban crackpot (Greg Russell Cook) whose advice to seek the Star of Bethlehem compels the kids to hop a train out of the city. The other is a kindly painter/handyman (Graham Stanford) who intercepts the children at their destination and tries to figure out where they really belong.

Crazy and Thief walks a fine line between presenting a sweet fable of unspoiled childhood and being one of the most indulgent home movies ever made. Bursts of creative madness are few and far between as McAbee takes gentler inspiration from his own inner child. Disappointingly, this child seems to favor tedious scenes of playtime and walking—so much walking. The film’s weirdness is confined to its tone: McAbee can spoon on the saccharine, but he also has a strangely offhand way of putting his kids in peril. This too requires a delicate touch. The McAbee-composed music helps lend a pleasantly silly vibe to Willa and John’s unsupervised adventures, turning Crazy and Thief into something along the lines of a Raffi video mixtape. But the adult characters introduced to flesh out the plot also contribute an unintended menace and give the movie an off-putting subtext. Generously padded even at less than 60 minutes, Crazy and Thief is an idealized Kodak moment of a film interspersed with amusing from-the-mouths-of-babes situations. But as movies go, it’s probably more suited for family gatherings than general audiences.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Beyond the Black Rainbow
Dir. Panos Cosmatos

3 out of 5

Writer-director Panos Cosmatos’ sensory deprivation capsule Beyond the Black Rainbow is set in 1983 inside the Arboria Institute, a mysterious psychiatric complex introduced via a promotional video in which its founder, Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), lays out his utopian goals of promoting human happiness. But the Namaste vibe is a ruse designed to mask the institute’s true purpose as a laboratory for the study of psychotropic drug regimens and mind control experiments (among others) performed on human guinea pigs. One of them, an orphaned girl named Elena (Eva Allan), has spent her entire life inside Arboria as a captive of Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), a real creeper whose psychosexual obsession with his favored patient only scratches the surface of his issues.

Part psychological thriller and part chase movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow resembles the 1980s style homage House of the Devil in the way it attempts to tap into the horror at the outer limits of American society during the Reagan years. Rainbow’s best bits involve the mundane details of on-the-clock life at Arboria as well as Nyle’s bizarre life outside the facility. With the film’s heroine under heavy sedation for the majority of the film, sleazy mad scientist Rogers also rises to the occasion as a pathetic symbol of yuppie disappointment, racing home in his black sports car to swallow rows of antidepressant pills. He’s like a sadder, scrawnier version of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, except he's even worse at hiding his inherently twisted nature.

However, Rainbow is more of a mood piece than a character study. The portions exploring how the hermetic evil cultivated inside Arboria is seeping into the real world are a respite from the maddening slow burn of the film as a whole. Cosmatos has clearly chosen style over substance, creating an aesthetic that is best described as Tron inside a haunted house. The constant assault of audiovisual phantasmagoria isn’t boring, per se, but it often befuddles when it should intrigue, and makes it seem like Cosmatos is casting a smoke screen over a mystery that could be compelling if it was less obtuse.

The film doesn’t break free until Elena does the same, taking advantage of Nyle’s mental breakdown after an interminable flashback to the origins of his association with Arboria in the 1960s. That juicy subtext—the limitless possibility of new scientific and social frontiers gradually corrupted by Establishment excess and self-interest—gives the third act the impetus for its riotous spiral into madness. Cosmatos simply can’t resist providing the conventional horror movie payoffs once Elena begins her harrowing escape and triggers Nyle’s violent rampage. These tropes are like a breath of fresh air after a deluge of non-starting or perplexing sequences. But Beyond the Black Rainbow is challenging in a good way, too. It’s the type of impressively ambitious debut that tracks a visible improvement in the filmmaker’s skills from beginning to end. Cosmatos is a superb visual stylist, and deserves credit for seeing his premise all the way through to a wonderfully ambiguous ending that forgives flaws like the film's vexing pretension and lack of storytelling chops. While the former may or may not be fixable, he’s certainly earned the latter.

"Beyond the Black Rainbow" is currently playing in a special one-week engagement at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Red Flag (2012)

Red Flag (2012)
Dir. Alex Karpovsky

4 out of 5

Red Flag
stars writer-director Alex Karpovsky as Alex Karpovsky, an independent filmmaker fresh off a breakup with his girlfriend of 5 years (Caroline White). As he embarks on a promotional tour for his quirky nature mockumentary, Karpovsky launches into a downward spiral of loneliness and self-pity that’s exacerbated by the monotony of the road. The two connections he does make are mostly regrettable: an obsessed fan (Jennifer Prediger) with whom he has an ill-advised one night stand, and his somewhat estranged friend (Onur Tukel), a spacey children’s book illustrator. Both of these misfits tag along with the director as he traverses the southern United States, providing Red Flag with a surprisingly tense love quadrangle in addition to the wacky hijinks that annoy Karpovsky as he tries to make sense of the life he willingly turned upside down.

The film’s potentially distracting meta-ness (the movie Karpovsky stumps for is Woodpecker, an actual previous credit) is offset by the way it navigates the conventions of “bad trip” movies. Mediocre motel rooms, physical ailments, and irritating companions set a comedic backdrop similar to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or the Vacation series but with a much more grounded lead performance. Karpovsky doesn’t overindulge in cartoonish rage. Instead, he falls apart in little pieces. It’s an escalating chain of negative reactions from bemusement to exasperation to full-on delusion as he tries to convince the woman he just abandoned to fly to Louisiana so he can attempt to execute a poorly-timed reconciliation. Credit also goes to Karpovsky’s tormentors, who know exactly how to push his buttons. Tukel’s destiny and death-obsessed man-child is a standout in this regard, enlivening his scenes with a flip so-it-goes attitude that plays well against his friend’s puckered anxiety.

Still, Red Flag elicits more cringes than belly laughs. Karpovsky has no qualms about presenting himself as an irredeemable screw-up and accomplished bullshitter pathetically clinging to any semblance of success. (A scene near the end of the film finds him presenting the movie-within-the-movie to a class of glazed-over schoolkids.) Red Flag's achingly personal, warts-and-all style will draw obvious comparisons to Lena Dunham, who cast Karpovsky in her debut feature Tiny Furniture, as well as her HBO series Girls. Though the jokes in Red Flag are easier to digest than Dunham's queasy humor, its dramatic outlook is considerably bleaker and its tonal shifts can be a little jarring. Nonetheless, Karpovsky makes some very brave choices, taking his character to a place where many of us fear to tread, beyond the bend in the road where there's no room to turn back, and proves that sometimes you have to hit a dead end before you can begin to chart a new course.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Dir. Ridley Scott

4 out of 5

A robed figure stands on a rocky outcropping above a waterfall, watching a massive spaceship drift into the fog. He (she?) opens a small box containing a filmy substance and ingests it. A shocking transformation occurs, suggesting the creation of a new life form. These are the mysterious images that appear before the opening credits of Prometheus, a film that puts director Ridley Scott back at the helm of a voyage into the cold, moody depths of space horror he explored over 30 years ago in Alien. In the year 2089, archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover a pattern repeated in the prehistoric artwork of far-flung cultures with no possible way of coordinating their efforts. It’s the image of a star chart pointing to way to a distant planet-sized moon. It's there they believe the origins of human civilization will be found. With a ship and crew paid for by the hologram of deceased corporate benefactor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the scientists follow the ancient map to find answers to the who, how, and why of life on Earth.

Even though Scott has refused to confirm that Prometheus is a prequel to his 1979 genre classic, everything from its thematic overtones to its visual design to the characterizations of its beleaguered crew suggest a close kinship between the films. But unlike the original film—essentially a slasher flick in space—Prometheus fits neatly into the clash of cultures motif that runs throughout Scott’s filmography, in events that occur both on and outside the titular spaceship. Shaw and Holloway are caught off guard by Weyland corporate officer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who firmly reminds everyone that this trip is ultimately about the bottom line, not academic curiosity. (She obviously can’t hear the noble tones of Marc Streitenfeld’s score.) The humans’ quest for self-understanding is also paralleled by David (Michael Fassbender), the first in a long line of melancholic Weyland androids. Surrounded by beings obsessed with discovering where they came from, David is left largely to his own devices, watching movies and proving his human-like fallibility.

While its first half is gorgeously meditative, Prometheus gradually becomes enamored with the type of hoo-ah martial thrills seen in James Cameron’s superlative sequel Aliens. The movie’s coquettish dance with derivation extends to the action beats, as many of them resemble the greatest hits of the Alien franchise. But the obvious craft of those sequences, as well as excellent performances by Rapace, Fassbender, and Idris Elba as the ship’s working class-philosopher captain, keep the film from feeling like a simple remix of the director’s favorite themes. Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof take great care not to undermine the originality of their conceit, at least until the film’s surprising final shot. I was shocked not by the contents of the shot, but that it was included at all. I can understand the decision, though. Prometheus displays a thorough awareness of how difficult it is for modern prefab blockbusters to mediate inventive storytelling with fannish expectation. That it also manages to be entertaining as hell is icing on the cake.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the Amblog's launch (with a review of The Trip). Time marches on, and there are many movies to see, so I won't spend a lot of time reflecting. Instead, I'd just like to point out a few highlights from Year One:

- I'm pretty proud of my 2011 Year in Review, probably my best long-form piece to date. I'm also quite fond of the Studio Ghibli edition of Jump Cuts, though I didn't know that I would also be seeing the superlative Grave of the Fireflies just a few weeks later.

- Drive remains my only "perfect" 5-star review. I wanted to see it again immediately after it was finished, and I don't have that reaction very often. The ratings, by the way, are more art than science. I'll usually go with whatever my gut says as I start to write a review. The words are far more important than the numbers, obviously. The Interrupters and Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie are a couple more of my better raves.

- The only enjoyment I derived from The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence was in panning it last October; it's still my favorite takedown. Two more of the worst that brought out my best: The Vow and Margaret.

- It's easy to forget that I did not initially intend for this blog to focus on movie reviews. For the first month, my Wide Angle posts covered topics from music to patriotism to travel. Weird stuff, but very indicative of my various preoccupations (and loads of free time!) before I started to spend my weekends at the multiplex.

- My relentless posting got me noticed by the founders of Screen Invasion, where I've cross-posted my reviews and contributed some original content. Though I enjoy being a hermit in my little corner of cyberspace, I'm also very proud to contribute to such a dynamic and diverse site with writers voracious love of pop culture matches my own.

I've been blogging (or writing an "online journal," if you remember that term) in some capacity for almost 10 years, toiling away in front of a monitor for hundreds and hundreds of unpaid hours. I'm amazed that I keep doing it! But I'm even more amazed - and humbled - to know that there are people who enjoy reading what I write. Thanks to all of you who visit this space and keep on coming back. You've made this more rewarding than I could've hoped.

Happy Blog-aversary, Ambler Amblog!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Men in Black III (2012)

Men in Black III
Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld

3 out of 5

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) return in Men in Black III, providing another cheeky glimpse at the flipside of an absurdly unflappable bureaucracy - a vision that now seems prescient for evoking DHS and ICE as much as the CIA. The agents' newest assignment involves the escape of notorious alien criminal Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) from space prison and his long-simmering hatred of Jones, the agent who put him behind bars. But instead of seeking immediate vengeance, the baddie returns to 1969 to eliminate his nemesis before the lawman's moment of triumph. Adding time travel to a typically nonchalant outing of a creaky franchise is a move that raises more red flags than a Chinese battleship. However, MIB III bucks these negative trends by using the gimmick as an opportunity to explore the fascinating backstory of Jones and the MiBs (and the significantly less fascinating backstory of new agency head Emma Thompson), as Smith pursues his quarry into the past with an equally urgent motivation: to locate the young K (Josh Brolin) and pry from his taciturn partner the secrets of his professional past.

The unexpected widening of the familiar J-K character dynamic is crucial, as the convoluted plans of a scenery-chewing Clement amount to a lot of legwork for a relatively simple payoff. Diversions like Brolin's retconned romantic history and a noisy chase sequence on lame looking gyro-cycles (I thought of South Park more than once) pad the running time, but at least the film avoids the broad fish-out-of-water comedy that typically accompanies tacked-on time travel plots in big franchise sequels. A more welcome addition is Michael Stuhlbarg as another target of Clement's wrath, a precognitive alien who dresses like an elfin Sherpa and serves as the movie's metaphor for chaos theory. Launching into scene-stealing monologues about the infinite possibilities presented by a variable timeline, Stuhlbarg makes the burden of choice sound both exhausting and exhilarating.

Men in Black III is a film that succeeds in spite of its own clumsiness. It's at odds with itself almost from the beginning, torn between scenes of Smith shouting schticky lines like "You look like you came from the planet damn!" and its worthwhile exploration of loftier themes like the need for secrecy in long-term relationships. And while Barry Sonnenfeld's direction is riddled with instances of hand-holding for audiences too lazy to connect the minimal number of dots, the film's condescension is alleviated by Smith and Jones finding a bit of malaise in their world-weary space suits, Brolin finding a new layer to a grizzled interstellar cowpuncher, and Stuhlbarg finding a way to transform his walking plot device into the movie's most sympathetic character. MIB III retains the series' humor and CGI-heavy antics while expanding the emphasis on the heroes' cosmic destinies. It all adds up to a surprisingly pleasant summer blockbuster, the rare threequel that sees its existence not as an entitlement but as a storytelling challenge, telling us something new about these people that's cleverly integrated with what we liked about them in the first place.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lola Versus (2012)

Lola Versus (2012)
Dir. Daryl Wein

3.5 out of 5

Romantic comedies strike a hard bargain with moviegoers. In order to replicate the powerfully insurgent feelings associated with falling in (or out of) love, they lean on a heightened version of reality and, in some cases, require a greater suspension of disbelief than an action movie. Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones tried to combat the genre's illusory tendencies with meta-commentary in 2009's Breaking Upwards, which dramatized the dissolution of their real-life relationship. Their latest co-scripted feature,
Lola Versus, has a much more conventional structure but it's also about as honest as these types of films get. Essentially a catalog of what works and what doesn't in a variety of human relationships, it affirms that being in love with one's own self is a prerequisite for loving another. That sounds narcissistic, but Wein and Lister-Jones explore the concept without taking themselves too seriously, molding Lola Versus into something with more warmth and sympathy than you might expect.

It helps that Lola is played by the luminous Greta Gerwig and her everlasting Cheshire Cat grin. Her smile quickly disappears, however, when her fiancé (Joel Kinnaman) gets cold feet a mere three weeks before their wedding. The jilted bride attempts to pick up the pieces with the help of the ex-couple's mutual buddy (Hamish Linklater) and her flibbertigibbet best girlfriend (Lister-Jones). Despite a discouraging stretch that drops Lola in the shallow end of the dating pool and artificially limits her options (too much time is spent on Lola's dalliance with a skeevy rollerblader), the film evolves into something more believable by focusing on her circle of friends. The polar opposite of chaste sidekicks, these supporting characters are aware of their romantic free agency and act accordingly. And though they are there to help guide Lola's wayward heart, they also point out when she's being unreasonable: trying to strike a difficult balance between unapologetic and selfish, Lola is flawed in ways uncommon to rom-com protagonists.

Wein and Lister-Jones' script has a good sense of the comedy-drama rhythm required to pull off the story. Lister-Jones is given a lot of leeway in turning herself into a quip machine (imagine a mousier version of Chelsea Handler), but her rat-a-tat style is a fine complement to Linklater's more relaxed brand of humor. Gerwig is the glue holding it all together, saving the movie from its wackier impulses with a disarming blend of kewpie sweetness and exhausted candor. The wonderfully frank quality she brings to Lola only makes it seem more disingenuous when she makes one last attempt to get back at her ex-fiancé, but she
ends up in the right place thanks to a well-timed intervention from the rest of the ensemble. It's nice to see these characters pick each other up (in more ways than one) as Lola Versus drifts along with the easy affability that makes it a welcome delight, a charming ode to the marvelously dumb things we'll do on account of our marvelously dumb hearts.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Safety Not Guaranteed
Dir. Colin Trevorrow

3 out of 5

A movie sourced from a fake classified ad planted in a survivalist magazine (that later grew into a popular Internet meme with its own YTMND) already starts out with one foot in the hole, so it’s something of a miracle that Safety Not Guaranteed is able to construct a coherent, entertaining story out of what is essentially a 15-year-old practical joke. Screenwriter Derek Connolly uses the cryptic text – which begins “Wanted: someone to go back in time with me” and is peppered with disclaimers like “I have only done this once before” and, of course, “Safety not guaranteed” – as unexpected inspiration for a low-key dramedy about the ways people cope with their regrets. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a bored intern at a Seattle-based magazine where her boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson), stumbles upon the ad and smells a story. He drags Darius and her shy fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) on a road trip to track down the ad’s author. The man they find is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an eccentric thirtysomething grocery store clerk whose conversations veer toward arcane pseudoscience, wilderness survival tactics, and conspiracy theories about the unseen authorities shadowing him. When Jeff’s intrinsic smarminess proves to be a deal-breaker for Kenneth, it’s Darius who deadpans her way into the crackpot’s good graces—and, eventually, his heart.

It’s not always easy to see where this one is going. First-time director Colin Trevorrow gradually reveals kernels of information about Kenneth, whose intense nature is nonetheless simplistic and childlike. His adolescent obsessions with martial arts (he’s rarely spotted without a headband) and cloak-and-dagger games conceal an obvious emotional trauma that isn’t fully understood until much later. However, the toughest nut to crack often has a way with getting others to yield: Darius’s prickliness is explained when she opens up to Kenneth about her mother’s untimely passing. In the film’s other main plot thread, Jeff has a brief reunion with his high school sweetheart (Jenica Bergere) that forces him to consider how he’s squandered his youth, which he tries to resist by hectoring a hesitant Arnau through various rites of young adulthood. Set next to the tentative bond developed by Darius and Jeff, these sequences make it seems like Trevorrow is assembling the pieces to a larger thematic puzzle about the journey toward maturity. But despite solid work by the entire cast, the finished image doesn’t quite match the one on the box.

Torn between its winningly low-key story of oddball romance and its diversions into the realm of Michel Gondry-esque fairy tales, Safety Not Guaranteed makes a noble effort to serve both of its masters. But much like Kenneth’s overblown stories of hardship and heroism, there’s just something a bit off-putting about the combination of realism and fantasy. The notes of whimsy don’t suit the film’s grounded nature, and the attempt to put a question mark on the ending registers as confusing instead of beguiling. It feels like a cop-out, as if the film is alternately thrilled and terrified by its own open-endedness. At least Duplass is game—he combines know-it-all bluster with zither-playing sensitivity in his best turn yet, and playing aside him seems to have inspired Plaza to add some warmth to her prickly persona. Who wouldn’t be curious to see what his endgame is?