Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some Girl(s)

It's Really Not You                          
by Mark Dispenza

A smart story and outstanding cast make Some Girl(s) a bold exploration of relationship trauma.

The screenplay is written by Neil LaBute from his stage play of the same title.  Since he debuted with In the Company of Men, LaBute has established himself as a perceptive and no-holds-barred chronicler of the ugly side of human nature.  Perfect casting and the superior direction of Daisy von Scherler Mayer make Some Girl(s) a more accessible and entertaining story than it otherwise sounds.

This film is a bold experiment by Vimeo into the new paradigm of indie film distribution.  Unless you caught the film's premiere at South by Southwest in March, you're not likely to see it on the big screen unless you live in New York or Los Angeles.  In concert with its release this week in those limited markets, the film is available as a download from Vimeo on Demand, as the first major release of what the online video content provider hopes will be a very successful foray into the future of film distribution.

As big screens are increasingly reserved for Hollywood's mega-budget experience films, the last remaining outlet for indie films will be delivery directly to your electronic device or television.  I applaud Vimeo for the boldness of the move and what I believe is a fair pricing model for both producers and viewers - $5.00 for the streaming rental or $10.00 for the download.

Adam Brody is spot-on as Man, a character so shallow and commitment-phobic that he's not even given a name.  Boyishly handsome, he's the type of guy who sounds so earnest that he may actually believe the lies he tells.  His charm makes him likable in the early scenes, as he comes across as a well-meaning but immature klutz more than a villain.  But as the story progresses his character reverses the normal protagonist's arc, as he devolves in perception from harmless, narcissistic man-child to emotional marauder.  By the end you'll hope he gets run over by a car.

As the story begins Man is about to get married.  He contacts five women with whom he had intense relationships in the past, telling them that he feels the need to make amends for past wrongs before he can move on.  He arranges to travel to the cities where they now live and meet with them one last time.  However, as the story progresses it becomes obvious that his real purpose is less apology than repetition of a familiar pattern.  By the end of the story, I was gratified that this protagonist doesn't get what he wants from these women, but they are able to achieve a measure of closure and put a painful chapter of their lives behind them.  In a sense he does manage to do some good, despite the fact that it's not in the way that he intended.

Jennifer Morrison

The first rendezvous is played mostly for laughs, with Jennifer Morrison as Sam, Man's high school flame.  It's clear that she was badly hurt after he deserted her, but somehow she put it behind her and moved on with her life.  Now he's re-opened that wound, and she's puzzled as to why.  His repeated attempts to apologize keep turning into barbs directed against her, making the meeting more awkward and surreal by the minute.  By the end of the meeting, she's grateful just to make it out of the room.

Tyler (Mia Maestro) is Man's next stop. She is sexy and playful, enjoying life minute-by-minute and letting the chips fall where they may.  For her it's all about the experience and having fun with life.  She makes it seem that he's going to get off easy at this stop, but that's not really the case.  As the scene evolves to its conclusion, she reveals that she was badly hurt by his abandonment.  And now the fun's over.

Emily Watson

The story takes a more serious turn during the reunion with Lindsay (Emily Watson), the professor with whom he had an affair while a student at the college where her husband is dean.  The older woman/younger man relationship exploded after Man deserted her when their affair was publicly outed, leaving her to endure the subsequent humiliation alone.  It's clear from the start that Lindsay has been nursing a lot of anger over the years, and she has no intention of hiding it.  No small measure of that is clearly self-loathing.  She should have been wiser.

Even here it's possible to have some sympathy for the poor young man, clearly outmatched as he is by a far more intelligent and resourceful woman scorned.  Watson delivers what is arguably the strongest performance of the film.

Adam Brody and Zoe Kazan

From there the story descends into darker territory with Reggie (Zoe Kazan), little sister of Man's former best friend.  He was a bumbling hormone-crazed teen when he seduced Reggie.  She was only twelve years old.  Kazan is another example of perfect casting.  Even as an adult, she telegraphs a precocious quality that makes it difficult to separate the child from the woman.

This is a scene that sneaks up on you without warning, and it's all the more effective for doing so.  Mayer has reported that one of her crew, who suffered an experience much like Reggie's when she was young, was so affected by it that she had to leave the set while it was being shot.

Adam Brody and Kristen Bell

Finally Kristen Bell brings it all home as Bobbi, who more than any of his past loves is "the one" that he let slip away, or more accurately, deserted like all the others.  Like Lindsay and Reggie before her, Bobbi takes some delight in getting her revenge through psychological torture, all the more effective because she can play off of her status as one of identical twin sisters whom he cannot tell apart.  This is a more clever and less obvious device than it might first appear.  The significance of that physical attraction, and what it says about their relationship, continues to resonate after he leaves Bobbi, all the way through to the very last scene of the film.

I'm excited to see that Bell is still delivering great performances and continues to grow stronger as an artist.  Truth be told, I'm a big fan of her Veronica Mars TV series, and I'm excited about the feature film version currently in development, thanks to all of the show's fans who supported it on Kickstarter.  If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and rent the three seasons on Netflix.  It was one of the best-written series on TV, and if you come from my generation, you'll find it to be a smarter and more contemporary version of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew teen sleuth mysteries I loved to read when I was a child.

Although I give it my recommendation, Some Girl(s) is not a film that you'll want to come back to for subsequent viewings, unless you're an actor, director or writer.  In the latter case I particularly recommend viewing it for it's great casting, smart story and wonderful dialogue.  It's power comes from the first viewing, and it may hit a little too close to home to inspire a desire to visit it again.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Before Midnight

Romance that Lasts Forever         
by Mark Dispenza

After an 18 year journey of romantic celebrationBefore Midnight delves into the reality of love.

This last installment of Richard Linklater's Celine and Jesse trilogy explores the challenge of sustaining romance years after the consummation of a relationship. Linklater has directed a number of films that focus less on action and more on smart and expressive dialogue.  Included among them are personal favorites like Dazed and Confused, The School of Rock and Bernie.

Audiences were first introduced to Celine and Jesse in Before Sunrise back in 1995.  Jesse (Ethan Hawke) was a young American on the last day of a two-week journey through Europe when a chance encounter on a train introduces him to Celine (Julie Delpy), a French girl returning to her home in Paris.  He convinces her to get off the train with him in Vienna, and they spend a romantic evening together before he must return to the USA the next morning.

In Before Sunset nine years have passed when Celine and Jesse encounter each other again in a Paris book shop.  With only a short time left before Jesse must catch his flight back to the USA, they reignite the romance that both have relived over and over again in their hearts and minds during the long years apart.  Complicating matters is the fact that Jesse is now married and has a young son.  Will he decide to miss his flight and change his life forever to salvage what might have been that night in Vienna years ago?

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke

Before Midnight takes up nine years after the events of the second film.  Celine and Jesse have been together since that time and have cute little twin daughters of their own.  The starry-eyed romantic idealism of nine years ago has now given way to the reality of Jesse's vindictive ex-wife, long periods of painful separation from his son, the challenge of raising a family and Celine's suspicion that she took a wrong turn somewhere in life.  It's the end of a six-week vacation in the Greek islands.  Their friends arrange to babysit their daughters so that Celine and Jesse can enjoy a rare romantic evening alone in a hotel before they return to Paris.

What is supposed to be a night of passion turns precarious when the two begin to discuss feelings suppressed during this time of familial obligation that supplanted the romance of their early years.  As emotions run high and the night slips away, will love conquer doubt and fear?

Before Midnight is worth the time, but be aware that this film is different in tone from the first two installments of the trilogy.  It is more cerebral and less romantic.  Even the title of the film differs from its predecessors in that it is more allusion than actual ticking clock.

In fact, the first hour of the film dragged for me.  I found myself looking at my watch at least twice while Celine and Jesse engaged in intellectual discourse about the nature of love with the group of friends they stay with in Greece.  It's smart conversation to be sure, but the experience is more akin to watching an episode of The View or one of those political panels on Sunday morning news shows.

The story doesn't really take off until the second half, when it's just Celine and Jesse again.  It's the chemistry between these two that gives Linklater's trilogy its heart and soul.  There's a connection that resonates.  How else can you explain how films that consist almost entirely of two people talking, as they stroll through beautiful European cities, continue to attract such a following?

It's been fun to watch Hawke and Delpy grow as actors.  Hawke was just a tad more forced and tentative in Before Sunrise.  After nearly two decades of playing this character, he is now a much more accomplished and mature actor.  The emotion with which he plays Jesse is real and believable.  And!  From the beginning her face has been so radiant and expressive that she could convey the feelings of her character entirely without dialogue if called upon to do so.

Taken as a whole, the Celine and Jesse trilogy is the best combination of emotional punch and intelligent dialogue that I've ever encountered in films of the romance genre.  In fact, I can't think of the Celine and Jesse films as "chick flicks" because their impact transcends gender.

I remember the odd combination of euphoria and sadness I felt at the end of each of the first two films.  Memories of my own Celine came flooding back each time.  Like Celine and Jesse, we first encountered each other on a train, and it was love at first sight.  Her name was Agnes, a sound that comes across as dated and old-fashioned in English, but pronounced in the French manner, is exotic and alluring.  It was on the Ginza subway line in Tokyo, when I lived there during the late '80s.  She was French-Vietnamese and I loved everything about her - her earnest heart and keen mind, her physical beauty.

Like Jesse, I was under a ticking clock.  In two weeks I would return to the USA, with no idea when I might come back to Japan, if ever.  But unlike the lovers in these films, there was no subsequent reunion, no opportunity to explore what might have been.  I never saw her again.

It's strange how all these years later I can't stop thinking of her.  For months she won't enter my mind, then suddenly she will invade my memories again in a single unexpected moment.  I can still recall every detail about her, long after my relationships with other women have diminished to near obscurity.

In the last hours of my life, I know that I will think of her again.  I wonder if she still thinks of me.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The East

Torn Between Worlds                                 
by Zac Ryan

Indie darling re-teams with her Sound of My Voice co-writer/director, , in the taut and tension-packed The East.

In her first assignment at a new job, the young and innocent, Jane (Marling), is tasked by her boss, Sharon (), to infiltrate the anti-corporate and anarchic group known as The East. Jane lies to her husband, dies her hair and takes on the alternate identity of Sarah, befriending someone she believes is a part of the collective that she met while free-riding in a train car. She thinks fast, finding a solution to infiltrate the secretive group.

As an outsider, she isn't easily accepted into the fold. One of the members, a deaf female, is quick to catch on that Sarah isn't who she says she is. Sarah confides in her, explaining that she is on a mission, in hopes that that she can create a bond with the woman. But that isn't the only hurdle that Sarah faces to be accepted. There is a wonderful dinner scene where Jane/Sarah learns to help others instead of only worrying about herself.

Brit Marling and Alexander Skarsgård

And the person behind such great wisdom? Benji (), with his long locks and beard, is the leader of the group. His piercing eyes, his smooth demeanor and his smile are all he needs to enrapture his flock. Together they fight back against the big corporations that are polluting and ruining society.

The first of the "jams" in the movie has the group conning their way into an upscale party for a big pharmaceutical company. This is Doc's () chance to get revenge on those who caused his on-going seizures and other ailments. Together they'll spike the celebratory champagne with their own drug, hopefully causing harm to get the drug off the market, and in the end, save more lives.

Alexander Skarsgård

Will Jane/Sarah figure out what is the right thing to do and successfully bring The East to justice for her employer? Or will Stockholm Syndrome take hold, causing her to fall for Benji, even though she's not really a captive? She must judge what's right, not only for her, but for her employer, the victims of the big corporations, and the possibility of a bigger catastrophe around the corner.

Marling consistently creates complex roles that are rare in mainstream films, especially those with a female lead, and we should applaud her for that.

Zal Batmanglij grows as a director from his previous collaboration with Marling. This film is bigger in scope, the cast larger, and at times, the idea seems to outgrow Sound of My Voice. The only problem, like in the previous film, is that it seems to drag in a couple of segments, yet still manages to click along at a steady pace overall. As Batmanglij's budgets grow, hopefully he'll have a shot at an even wider audience, and let's hope he brings Marling along for the ride.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Indies on Demand

In the Comfort of Home                  
by Mark Dispenza

More and more indies are now available in concert with limited theatrical release, so you no longer have to live in Los Angeles or New York to find art house favorites.  In fact you can view them from the comfort of your own home or even on your iPad.  

Here are notable titles currently available for home download...

LORE - As Nazi Germany collapses around her, a 14-year-old girl must cross a newly occupied and divided nation to bring her younger siblings to the safety of her grandparents.  In the process they come to depend on a newly liberated Jewish traveling companion and discover the lies and atrocities in which their parents were complicit.  More than a coming-of-age tale, Lore is a metaphor for the German people in the closing days of World War II.  The film features a striking performance by young actress Saskia Rosendahl.  Available on iTunes download or Netflix DVD.  

TO THE WONDER - It's Malick again - beautiful cinematography, great actors, poetic voice-overs, recurring scenes of nature. This may be one of his most accessible films.  Ben Affleck plays a disaffected man who can't decide if he wants to be with Olga Kurylenko or Rachel McAdams, while Javier Bardem laments his perceived irrelevance while searching for his true calling as a priest among a largely disaffected flock.  Available for download on iTunes.  

UPSTREAM COLOR - It's been nine years since former MIT philosopher Shane Carruth wowed the indie film world with Primer.  If thought-provoking, controversial films are your thing, you'll probably love this allegorical tale.  Just who is that enigmatic pig farmer anyway? Currently in limited release, this film is also available as a rental download from iTunes.  

ROOM 237 - Judging from the huge response we received after posting about this doc, there are a lot of Kubrick fans among our readers, or people who are just plain intrigued by hidden meanings and symbolism.  There's a lot of that here, as fans of The Shining share what they see or think they see behind Kubrick's elaborate and enigmatic scene constructions. Available as a download from iTunes.  

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK - Never before has mental dysfunction been so empathetic, funny and romantic.  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence shine as two mentally-challenged lovebirds who work through their problems to a more than merely satisfactory result.  An awards season favorite this year, Silver Linings Playbook is available as an iTunes download or Netflix DVD.  

THE IMPOSSIBLE - Like the family at the center of this drama about the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, this film will cause you to reconsider your life priorities and relationships.  A family separated in the midst of disaster overcome the odds to survive and find one another again. Cringe-inducing, realistic disaster effects and a standout performance by young actor, Tom Holland, makes it worth your while.  Available as an iTunes download or Netflix DVD. 

HOLY MOTORS - In French with English subtitles, this is a chaotic film that is one of the most inspired works of artistic vision vision to hit cinema in a very long time.  Director Leos Carax has painted a mesmerizing canvas around actor Denis Levant that delivers an unsurpassed showcase for a talented actor.  The visual contrast and social commentary that permeates every frame heightened my enjoyment of the film.  Available from Netflix as a download or on DVD.  

BEFORE SUNRISE/ BEFORE SUNSET - Before Midnight, the last of Richard Linklater's acclaimed romantic trilogy, has just hit the USA in limited release.  Before you see it, you can catch up on the early years of Jesse and Celine's story of timeless and tragic love by downloading or ordering the DVD for the two earlier films of the series that began in 1995 with Before Sunrise.  Available on iTunes, Netflix and a number of other platforms.