Saturday, May 26, 2012

Duplass Times Two

Safety Not Guaranteed
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
by Mark Dispenza

The year 2012 is turning out to be the year of the Duplass brothers.  Following the successful red carpet rollout of Jeff, Who Lives at Home at SXSW in March, the brothers screened two more new films at the very same festival.

Safety Not Guaranteed was not actually made by brothers, Jay and Mark, but was produced by their company and stars Mark Duplass as the male lead. It is scheduled to be released in the USA on June 6, and the Do-Deca-Pentathlon, written and directed by the Duplass brothers, will be released two days later.

An actual want ad that appeared on the Internet was the inspiration for Safety Not Guaranteed: 
Like many, writer Derek Connolly was intrigued and wondered what kind of story was behind it.  Was the man who placed the ad a kook or was something else going on?  He ran with the idea and wrote a comedy about three journalists who descend on a small town to find the man and expose the story, whatever it might be.

After spying for a while on Kenneth, played by Duplass, Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) decides to get closer by pretending to be a legitimate candidate for Kenneth's trip back in time. At first she finds him to be paranoid and secretive, but as she gets to know him better, she finds herself attracted to his passion and falls for him.  Realizing that her job and reputation may be on the line, she tries unsuccessfully to hide her growing affection for the man everyone else believes is a kook--everyone, that is, except the high tech company he was fired from and mysterious US Government agents who watch him closely.

Aubrey Plaza

Although this sounds like the premise for a science fiction/action/adventure story, it has very little of those elements, which may be why Safety Not Guaranteed debuted to a mixed reaction from audiences at SXSW.  Some enjoyed the film while others left disappointed.  The story is actually a romantic comedy about casting aside the expectations of others and going for what really excites us in love.  If that kind of story appeals to you, you will probably put this film in your "plus" column.

The film works primarily thanks to Duplass and Plaza, whose charisma as actors and on-screen chemistry holds it all together.  Plaza, a cast member of the television series, Parks and Recreation, has a way of showing vulnerability and drive beneath a deadpan comedic style that inspires empathy from audiences and entertains them at the same time.

I found other elements of the film less than spectacular.  First-time feature helmer, Colin Trevorrow, was adequate if not somewhat less than inspired in his direction, and the story took off on tangents about the love lives of the supporting characters too often, taking the audience away from the story of Darius and Kenneth, who are the true heart and soul of the film.  Lost was the opportunity to explore their characters in greater depth, something that would have given audiences a more rewarding experience and resulted in a stronger film.

This is kind of a "cute" film, so I was surprised to learn recently that it was given an "R" rating.  Although I recall some, mostly suggested, sexual situations, and a bit of colorful language, my memory of the film is far more tame than the rating suggests.  It should be fine for most audiences.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was actually shot by the Duplass brothers after Baghead (2008), but was left in post-production limbo after their first big film, Cyrus, was greenlit.  Five years later, the brothers decided to finish it and get it out to audiences.  I'm on the fence about whether or not that was a good idea.

I say that not because it's a bad film, but because the brothers have come a long way since their struggling indie filmmaker microbudget days, and this film takes us back to that smaller, simpler time.  Coming so soon on the heels of bigger, star-powered Jeff, Who Lives at Home, arguably their best film to-date, Do-Deca may be too little too late for more recent fans of Cyrus and Jeff.

Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis

Like those two films, Do-Deca is about a dysfunctional family on a journey of reconciliation.  It's quirky and outlandish in places, but these maladjusted people are somehow familiar to us.  Maybe they're not so different after all.

The Duplass brothers based their script loosely on the true story of two brothers who competed fiercely with one another during childhood.  A series of competitive events that was supposed to prove once and for all who was the alpha dog of the pack was left uncompleted, with years of bad blood and regrets in the aftermath.  Years later the brothers come together at their mother's house and decide to redo the unfinished Do-Deca-Pentathlon, to the consternation of their mother and everyone else in the family.

The film stars Duplass brothers friend and frequent acting collaborator, Steve Zissis, who actually shines in this role to a greater extent than in any of his other performances I've seen.  Mark Kelly plays the brother who took a different path in life.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Newport Beach Film Festival

Lives in Crisis                                       
by Zac Sanford

The theme for this year's Newport Beach Film Festival appears to be "Characters in Crisis."  Many of the characters have hit a rut - the mid-life stepping stone or even a quarter-life crisis - and are looking for a change to get out of it.  Some will sleep their way to enlightenment, while others will hit the road to find their purpose.  Each will be better for it in the end.  I'm not sure I've changed much by watching these journeys.

Dreamworld:  Everyone has had that moment of "Love at First Sight", and for Oliver Hayes (Whit Hertford, who co-wrote the script), he finds that moment in a chance encounter with a pixie named Lily Blush (Mary Kate Wiles).  The connection is instantaneous, leaving the newly-employed Oliver questioning whether to take the ride up the coast for the chance of a lifetime to find his way into Pixar.  Animation has always been his dream.  The leads are charming and the chemistry radiates on screen, but as the miles rack up, personal demons come out, putting the new relationship to the test.

Free Samples:  An episodic day in the life tale that is light on plot, following Jillian (Jess Weixler) as she hands out free samples from a frozen yogurt food truck.  She's hung over, on a break from her college boyfriend and her studies in college.  As people come throughout the day, little is done to shift Jillian's attitude until a chance encounter with a former actress and classmate start to stir her emotions and attitude, which she has a lot of.  The sarcastic nature pushes most of the laughs, but it does get a bit repetitive towards the end.  Thankfully Weixler is endearing and enjoyable in the cranky role.

Magic Camp:  Young magicians duke it out in this heart-warming documentary at the famous Tannen's Magic Camp, held yearly at Bryn Mawr College, where the boys far outnumber the girls.  The camp allows the kids to not only practice their skills, but to connect to others who share their passion and desire to entertain.  While some of the aspiring magicians become homesick, others spend their hours practicing their acts to perfection to enter the final battle of the top five magicians.  The film was awarded the prize of Outstanding Family Film after having its world premiere at the fest.

 The Woman in the Fifth:  A dark and moody thriller for the first two-thirds of the film, it completely falls on its face for the last part, leaving many of the mysteries open and unresolved in the end.  Even if the mysteries set forth in the film are never fully answered, the film does contain some amazing performances from Ethan Hawke as a author who moves to be closer to his daughter, Kristin Scott Thomas as a mysterious woman with some stringent rules on when and where they can meet up for their affair, and Joanna Kulig as Hawke's soul confidant.

Save the Date:  Two sisters are polar opposites.  Beth (Alison Brie) prepares for her wedding to the man she loves, who just happens to be in a band with Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), who wants to pop the question to her sister, Sarah (Lizzy Caplan).  Beth pushes Kevin not to pop the question, knowing that it will end in heartbreak.  But what is the big deal?  Kevin and Beth just moved in together, so it seems to be the next logical step.  But Beth is in a totally different mindset.  Even as she prepares to move out, she questions her decision on this commitment.  Once Kevin pops the question during his band's performance at a sold-out concert, he is left alone, only to have the entire moment broadcast across the net.  Beth must balance her newly single life, a blossoming relationship and another possible life-changing moment.  A hilarious romp with a fun soundtrack, Save the Date just recently landed distribution with IFC films.

Ira Finkelstein's Christmas:  Ira loves everything that has to do with Christmas.  Problem is, he's Jewish and hasn't even seen real snow in his entire young life.  While on a layover to visit his grandparents (which he haven't seen in years), Ira meets up with another kid who is on his way to Christmastown, WA.  The two swap identities and set out for their ultimate destinations.  If you're able to get over the fact that the airlines mix up the kids and the other family members don't remember what the kids look like, it is a heart-warming tale about dreams and family.  The only thing bogging down the film is a subplot involving Ira's father (David DeLuise), who is producing the most awkward and embarrassingly bad Christmas film since Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

 Summer Song:  While Alexa Vega sizzles on screen as the talented musician at the center, ultimately this film crawls at a snail's pace as melodrama drags it down.  Beautifully shot in Cape Cod and with a running time of under eighty minutes, the film could have used an editor other than writer/director Aram Rappaport.  I don't require films to be straight-forward in storytelling, but many scenes didn't seem to add to the overall forward thrust of the narrative.  You can only watch a father or a bible-thumping brother over-act and be abusive so many times before it becomes dull and boring.  Sometimes blood is not thicker than water, especially when you have dreams you'd love to achieve.

Adventures in Plymptoons:  A hodgepodge of clips, interviews and admiration of the king of weird animation, Bill Plympton.  What?  Never heard of him?  While Bill has flown under the radar of mainstream success, he has been an inspiration for many artists over the course of a long and twisted career.  While the production values may be a little sub-par, if the film had delivered a high-quality and pristine flick, it really wouldn't have been in the spirit of all things Plympton.

Lola VersusGreta Gerwig, one of the reigning queens of the indie film scene, shines as the titular character, Lola, another twenty-something going through her quarter-life crisis while juggling love and a career in New York City.  While some may blow this off as a younger version of Sex and the City, the film has some heart buried in the trysts between the sheets.  A full review is forthcoming when the film is released this June by Fox Searchlight.

Servitude:  Like Waiting and Slammin' Salmon before it, Servitude is another in a long line of films about the disgruntled wait staff at a restaurant on the verge of change.  Even though this film is an export from our neighbors to the north, don't expect a polite and light comedy. Instead the film holds back nothing and delivers some of the biggest and most offensive laughs of the entire fest.  Be on the lookout for the almost unrecognizable Margot Kidder and a handful of other Canadian comedy mainstays.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sound of My Voice

Traveling Through Time                  
by Zac Sanford

Every great cult has a charismatic leader who expertly uses language and tone to play with the emotions of their fellow cult members.  These leaders find unsuspecting people looking for a purpose and a deeper understanding of life, and usually lead them to disaster.

In Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling plays Maggie, the frail and weak leader of a cult situated somewhere in  the San Fernando Valley.  All her food is grown specifically for her.  She walks in slow movements while wheeling an oxygen tank behind her.  But when she speaks, when she makes eye contact with her fellow devotees, they grasp onto every word she says.

Two fellow members are Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius).  They haven't come to this hideout because they believe in Maggie's story.  Peter fancies himself a documentary filmmaker.  The plan is to capture video from his glasses while the transceiver in his stomach captures all the details.  At first, neither Peter or Lorna believe the leader, and why should they?  Maggie claims to have come from the year 2054.

During the second night in the compound, Maggie serves the members an apple (an over-used metaphor).  As her devotees dig in, Maggie claims that the food is toxic, and this is how they are all slowly dying.  Member after member regurgitates the apple, spewing out the poison.  Well, everyone does except for Peter.  Peter claims he's never been able to throw up, even as a child.  Maggie digs in deep, throwing Peter under the bus for being a weak human.  Soon the emotions start to flood out, including the food that was previously ingested.  Later Lorna questions Peter's past, only to have him blow it off, saying that it was nothing but lies.

And that is what the script (co-written by Marling and the director Zal Batmanglij) does best, twisting  the perception of those within the cult and those in the audience.  As Peter gets deeper into the cult, Lorna questions his true intentions and motives.  Is this really all about the film or is there something more, a connection between he and Maggie that is no longer there with Lorna?  The film is delivered in small chapters with each being broken up by a single title card before entering the next section of the film.  Some come across very straight forward, while others will leave you scratching your head, wondering what the connection is until the very end.  What is the point of the little girl?  Who is the suspicious woman checking in to a hotel and looking for bugging devices?

It all comes to a satisfying end... at least for me.  The question of what was real and what may have been faked has clues and some answers, but they are thrown together so quickly at the end, that the viewers must question their own beliefs.

This is also Brit's second foray into the ultra low budget sci-fi realm.  Last year she delivered (and also co-wrote with Mike Cahill) Another Earth, a somewhat lesser film to this one.  She knows her way around sci-fi conventions and how to deliver a powerful story and characters within the backdrops usually reserved for aliens and other-worldly creatures. Neither of these films are loaded with special effects (except the second Earth in the previous film), as her stories try to ground themselves in a world that could possibly exist.  As she continues to grow as a writer and star, I can only hope that she delves deeper into the world deep within.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


A Smooth, Albeit Short, Criminal             
by Zac Sanford

Based on the novel by Jo NesbøHeadhunters is a fun thrill ride that doesn't let up until the very end.  A stylish mix that delves into bits of slapstick, Headhunters is the latest in a line of Norwegian thrillers to hit the States since the runaway success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Instead of hackers and disturbing images of rape, Headhunters deals in the fine art of stealing art.  In the days when Munch's famous painting, The Screamfetches north of $120 million, the hero imagines finding a piece of art that could allow him to retire from the game and enjoy life with his gorgeous and way-out-of-his-league wife.

The hero, really an anti-hero, is Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie).  A short man with a Napoleon complex, Roger always tries to over-compensate in everything he does.  He has the lavish modern home, the luxury car, paintings worth more the most will make within five years or more and a wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) who towers above him by a good half a foot.  His job as one of the top headhunters in Norway, landing some of the biggest corporations to fill the holes in their executive staff, isn't enough to keep him from being neck deep in debt.  Instead he's swimming in it, and even his financial adviser tells him it's time to make changes in his life.

Instead of tightening the purse strings, Roger continues to live the lavish life, which he finances moonlighting as a high-end art thief.  He even has rules in place.  He never stays more than ten minutes.  He must case the place to be sure he's alone.  He must sell the painting off as soon as possible before the original is seen as replica.  This is all part of his mantra until one of two things happens - he's caught or he finds the painting that allows him to leave the game.

In walks Clas Greve (Game of Thrones Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a recent transplant to the country who can use Roger's services.  Clas recently worked for a company that dealt with high end GPS microbes that allow the smallest device to be placed on a person without ever being known.  Sadly, his grandmother has passed away, sending him to Norway to renovate the apartment and find homes for the art collection, including a priceless Rubens painting that could fetch over $100 million.  Roger puts his scheme into motion and the tension and suspense ratchets up from here.

At the outset, Roger isn't a very likable character. The fact that he steals art is just the tip of the iceberg.  He's conniving and easily manipulates those around him.  And not only does he have the wife that he doesn't fully deserve, he has another woman that he keeps on the side, but will easily toss her to the side when she becomes too clingy.  But while everything seems to be going right, you just want to root for Roger to get his comeuppance... and boy does he.

Once Roger is able to get his hands on the Rubens painting, his life is quickly turned upside down, turning the film into a constant cat and mouse game.  As the tension mounts, the sympathy switches to that of the anti-hero, and with the constant barrage of events, once ould only root for him to come out on top.  This is where director Morten Tyldum really shines, racheting up the tempo of the story, not allowing the viewer to question the constant conveniences that are being thrown at us.  It isn't until a very (and I do mean VERY) over-the-top car accident that I was taken out of the film for a bit.

In some ways Roger is a bit of a superhero similar to those martial artists in the chopsocky films of yesteryear.  He can take a beating and plenty more, yet somehow he's able to get up and continue on, only to endure another round of brutality.  A mere mortal could never survive the hand he's dealt, but somehow his desire to over-compensate allows him to stand tall against his never-ending foe.

As the puzzle pieces fall together, every setup has a payoff that blends perfectly in the script by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg.  As in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it won't be long before the Hollywood machine finds a way to remake this Norwegian delight.