Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Catch-Up: Late Spring/Early Summer 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: smaller movies trying to stand out against the big studio tentpoles.

Obvious Child
Dir. Gillian Robespierre

3.5 out of 5

Though it's admittedly reductive to say so, it's hard not to see Obvious Child as one big "take that!" to the concept of the cinematic Meet Cute.  When the film's recently-dumped protagonist, part time bookstore clerk and stand-up comedian Donna (SNL alum Jenny Slate), falls into bed with a nebbishly handsome WASP named Max (Jake Lacy), the revelation of their one night stand is not some comically stark but ultimately meaningless incompatibility.  Instead, there are slightly different results: Donna is pregnant!  By a guy she barely knows, and might not even like!  And once she examines her dire financial prospects and her generally shambolic lifestyle, she comes to a quick, firm decision: she's getting an abortion.  Unfortunately, she keeps bumping into Max, who wants to pursue a more "serious" relationship but has no idea exactly how serious things really are.

Taking a premise from her 2009 short film of the same name, writer-director Gillian Robespierre has made a movie about the alchemy of turning pain and tragedy into comedy in a very literal way, as Donna's on-stage monologues begin drifting from the candidly observational to the recklessly confessional.  It's never overbearing, however, thanks to the clear-eyed script and the talented Slate, whose repertoire of facial expressions alone (in Donna's stand-up, she says her kisser looks "like a menorah had sex with Natalie Imbruglia") makes you wonder how she doesn't already have a cable sitcom.  And though Obvious Child can feel like slight and under-dramatized - Donna has privileged, supportive parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) to fall back on, and a loyal best friend (Gaby Hoffman) - it successfully maintains an intimate authenticity that makes her easy to love, never forcing her to represent anything bigger than the one funny, flawed, and spirited human being that she is.

Dir. Jon Favreau

2 out of 5

Jon Favreau jumps out of the frying pan of big-budget blockbuster misfires and into the kitchen with Chef, writing, directing, and starring as Carl Casper, a stressed-out, thin-skinned head chef at a Los Angeles hotspot who finds himself again with the help of food trucks and social media.  Though he's exploding with culinary creativity, Carl's boss (Dustin Hoffman) who puts a clamp on his artistry by forcing him to stick with a pedestrian menu of crowd-pleasing favorites.  When said menu is sampled and savaged by a smarmy online food critic (Oliver Platt), Carl's nuclear reaction becomes a viral video hit.  The ensuing embarrassment forces him to rebuild his career from the ground up as Carl embarks on a dual crusade to rekindle his passion for cooking and repair his relationship with his 10-year-old son (EmJay Anthony).

The ironies here are thicker than Hollandaise sauce.  Carl explodes when his cooking is called "cloying" and "needy," which are the two adjectives that best describe Chef.  It's also retrograde, dull, and unforgivably sappy, sometimes all at once.  It has a strange obsession with the mystical powers of the Internet, treating us to a scintillating scene where Carl learns how to use Twitter.  At the same time, Chef desperately tries to convince its audience of its hipness and authenticity, associating itself with the street food revolution in Carl's route back to personal and professional bliss.  Amazingly, Chef is often quite nice to look at, especially for fans of foodporn.  However, it's not nearly enough to make up for the movie's many weaknesses, which range from a lack of compelling scenes or convincing dialogue to the flimsy parts for Favreau's A-list friends (Scarlett Johansson; Robert Downey Jr.).  For a movie pitched as a feel-good love letter to foodies, Chef serves up little more than leftovers.

The Sacrament
Dir. Ti West

2.5 out of 5

In House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, a couple of the freshest horror films in recent memory, writer-director Ti West established on appealing style based on two elements: relentlessly slow-burning action laying a subtle breadcrumb trail to a bone-chilling payoff; and a refreshingly empathetic stance toward his doomed characters.  I wondered where that filmmaker went throughout The Sacrament, a predictable potboiler with a gimmicky found-footage twist.

When a fashion photographer (Kentucker Audley) receives a letter from his estranged sister (Amy Seimetz), a member of a group preaching a back-to-nature lifestyle free of economic and technological encumbrances, a VICE news reporter (AJ Bowen) and cameraman (Joe Swanberg) join him to investigate the group's secluded jungle compound located in an unnamed tropical country.  When the men arrive, they're creeped out by the commune's unquestioning devotion to their leader (Gene Jones) - addressed only as "Father" - and begin to witness even more unsettling events over the course of their one-night stay.

Anyone familiar with the popular history of cults and fringe religious movements will not be surprised by the eventual direction of The Sacrament - it hews so closely to its main inspiration, in fact, that it would likely be a spoiler to identify it by name.  But the main issue isn't the familiarity of the story.  Rather, it's the way West needlessly sensationalizes it beyond the bounds of his typically stark yet humanistic horror and pushes it way over the top.  At least Jones gives a fantastic performance, oozing oily charisma through gold-tinted aviator shades and delivering anti-capitalist harangues in his buttery Southern drawl.  In these moments, The Sacrament shows flashes of promise, but it mostly lives up to the less desirable parts of Father's catchall critique: flat, decadent, and uninspired.

The Immigrant
Dir. James Gray

4 out of 5

Polish Catholic immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) faces multiple dilemmas upon arriving at Ellis Island in 1921.  Her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), is sick with tuberculosis and immediately gets whisked away to a quarantine unit, facing eventual deportation if her condition does not improve.  Before Ewa can protest, she lands in trouble of her own: some of her shipmates accused her of being a "woman of low morals" and her family members in Brooklyn appear to have vanished, leaving her alone, destitute, and in line for deportation herself.  In jumps the concerned Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who bribes the right officials to release Ewa into his care - only to force her into the ranks of his bawdy burlesque showgirls who he also pimps out on the side.

With its gaze fixed on the dark corners of urban life and its rollercoaster of worm-turning melodrama, The Immigrant feels like an adaptation of a lost Upton Sinclar or Theodore Dreiser novel.  Ewa and Bruno's relationship becomes more complicated as the latter begins to develop a romantic attachment.  Joining in the sentiment is Bruno's illusionist cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), the white knight of this scenario who pledges to rescue Ewa from the clutches of a nefarious pimp and two-bit hustler.

But there are many narrative curveballs before the men's inevitable conflict boils over, and much more for Ewa to assert than the typical damsel in distress.  The film takes its time establishing a unique emotional texture - a kind of faded rococo melancholy that matches the keenly-observed details in the period surroundings of early 20th century New York City.  It's a triumph for director James Gray, whose obsessions with immigrant communities (The Immigrant was reportedly inspired by firsthand accounts of Gray's own relatives) and the self-destructive behavior of individuals are ideally realized here.  And though Gray still has a tendency to elide character motivations that lead to sudden changes of heart, he can fall back on the offbeat machismo of Renner and Phoenix, as well as Cotillard's magnificent tour de force.  Even couched in the euphemism of a different and more discreet era, The Immigrant pulses with raw, confused human passion.

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