Sunday, September 8, 2013

YOU LEFT ME STANDING ALONE: a review of "Blue Jasmine"

Written and Directed by Woody Allen
**** (four stars)

Now that was a knockout!

"Blue Jasmine," film #43 (!) from Writer/Director Woody Allen, is an uncharacteristically emotional powerhouse. While Allen has explored the darker sides of human nature and existence many times and I am certain he will continue to do so in the future, it is rare to find him approaching an arena that could be described as "brutal."

Yes, with films like "Crimes And Misdemeanors" (1989) and especially, the England set class conscious, almost nihilistic thrillers "Match Point" (2005) and "Cassandra's Dream" (2007) and the underrated "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010), Allen has created an uncompromising vision of seemingly upstanding people making devastating life choices, and sometimes without any sense of retribution, while always remaining non-judgmental towards his subject matter and characters. These films all have their levels of internal disturbance but Allen, due to his style, never hits with blunt force. This is by no means a criticism. It is just an observation. But with "Blue Jasmine," Woody Allen, like a trained boxer, hits hard and fast and repeatedly so, making this his most volatile film since the bracing and excellent "Husbands And Wives" (1992). For those of you out there who are just craving an adult film about adults told in a strikingly adult manner, this is the one to head out and see post haste!

The plot of "Blue Jasmine" is perfectly simple. Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine Francis, the wife of multi-millionaire Hal Francis (a perfectly slick and smug Alec Baldwin), who finds her entire life and existence turned upside down when Hal is arrested, indicted and imprisoned for seismic financial fraud. Now essentially penniless, Jasmine relocates herself to San Francisco and into the home of her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), as she tries to make stock of her life and move forwards.

What makes "Blue Jasmine" so complex is not only the non-linear fashion Allen lays out all of the pieces of his story but mostly through the extreme emotional turbulence that Jasmine, and all of the supporting characters are enduring. Allen gives us a front row seat to sibling rivalry that stems from which sister received the "better genes" all the way through to issues of economic class status, as well as unflinching explorations of the underbelly of adult relationships, crippling regrets with life choices gone wrong, the secrets and lies we tell to others and ourselves, and primarily, the difficulty with shedding the scars and damaged skins of our pasts.

Where "Blue Jasmine" unflinchingly opens wounds is through Allen's pin-point examination of Jasmine's increasing mental illness as she suffers from severe anxiety, traumas, nightmares, the ghosts of once cherished memories, a series of breakdowns that finds her publicly speaking out loud to no one and how she constantly attempts to control or drown her demons with an addiction to cocktail medications and copious amounts of alcohol. There is essentially no scene in the entire film where Jasmine is sober and it is telling that we may be glimpsing the point in her life when she cannot even remember those days herself.

Dear readers, I cannot express enough to you how surprised I was to find myself so emotionally uncomfortable within the entirety of "Blue Jasmine." While a drama, Allen's satirical knives are freshly sharpened and sting every time he goes for an impact. The comedic areas of the film, most notably Jasmine's complete disdain with Ginger's home, lifestyle, ex-husband (beautifully played by none other than Andrew Dice Clay), current boyfriend Chili (enthusiastically played by Bobby Cannavale) and her attempts to better her life through taking computer classes and performing "menial labor" in a dentist's office, are all piercingly observed and filled with that social squeamishness that is ripe for comedy but so difficult to attain without becoming unwatchable. Yet Woody Allen maintains that fine line masterfully as his characters never descend into caricatures and again, he remains non-judgmental throughout, allowing the audience to make any connections and observations without any storytelling interference from him.

While the film's comedy is defiantly uncomfortable, it is through the film's larger, darker themes when "Blue Jasmine" becomes disturbingly devastating. Certainly Allen is making a grim statement about our society's over-reliance and addiction to alcohol as seemingly every character within the film at some point or another is numbing some pain, transgression or demon by whatever is filling their respective glasses and bottles. but furthermore, "Blue Jasmine" is an unnerving, and even distressing piece of work that I found to have the threat of violence and destruction hovering over the proceedings like the darkest of clouds ready to explode into a thunderstorm. On a physical level, there are mentions during the film to abusive men, and Jasmine herself is nearly raped in one sequence. But it is on the psychological level where 'Blue Jasmine" hits hardest as Woody Allen's depiction of debilitating mental illness is shattering to view and for that, we must send enormous thanks to Cate Blanchett.

As Jasmine, Cate Blanchett is a steamroller and this performance definitely deserves and Academy Award nomination as she has given us the fullness of a life of regrets, hoped for redemption, and furious indignity at the life she feels is unworthy of her. It is also a performance where an actress as gorgeous as Blanchett has performed without a stitch of physical vanity as she looks, frankly, horrible throughout the film as her face and figure are blotchy, haggard, sweaty, disheveled and made even moreso by her pathetic, vanity fueled attempts to remain the smashing high society woman she once was through the finest of clothing and her eloquent diction.

Beyond the visual, Blanchett gets completely under the skin of Jasmine, a woman who has held so many facades and has attempted to publicly re-invent herself so many times that she has quite possibly forgotten who she is, a dilemma that informs every single relationship she has within the film, from her turbulent rivalry with her sister to even a future with a potential new suitor (Peter Sarsgaard). Blanchett nails every single moment and curve ball that she is delivered with pitch perfect quality and an unhinged stature that you feel will crumble apart at any given moment. And somehow, she makes the once fond memory of the classic song "Blue Moon" feel at first like an elegy and finally, a life tragedy. This is high wire acting, the kind of which reminded me a little bit of Natalie Portman's work in Director Darren Aronosky's "Black Swan" (2010) and also Ellen Burstyn's nightmarish performance in Aronofsky's "Requiem For A Dream" (2000). The force with which Cate Blanchett delivers is superbly overwhelming.

As one would expect from any Woody Allen film, the performances by the entire cast are first rate as it his unparalleled screenwriting, which again shows how and why he is truly one of the best we have ever been graced to have. Of course, with someone as prolific as Allen, who is still cranking out film after film almost annually, not every work can be a gold standard. But, with "Blue Jasmine," we have his finest, and his dark underbelly to the magnificent "Midnight In Paris" (2011). While that film made your spirit soar with flights of fancy, and dreams of nostalgia (and travel), "Blue Jasmine" leaves harsh bruises as Woody Allen's theater of the mind is an unstable, tempestuous, roaring place to be.

And I think that it is also one of the very best films I have seen in 2013.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Screenplay Written by James McBride & Spike Lee
Directed by Spike Lee
*** (three stars)

It is a tremendously sad state of cinematic affairs when a filmmaker of the legend, stature and artistic excellence as Spike Lee continuously and increasingly has difficulty getting a movie made in the 21st century.

Yes, by Thanksgiving, Spike Lee will be releasing his controversial remake of the violent thriller and award winning South Korean film "Oldboy" but that film will be his first major studio release since the well intentioned but muddled and sluggish World War II drama "Miracle At St. Anna" (2008), and frankly, it feels as if this future release is only possible because it is  indeed a genre film and nothing like the very personal films that placed his name upon the cinematic map as a creative force to be reckoned with. But, by hook or by crook, Lee has continued to remain as prolific and as challenging (to audiences and himself) as ever, always finding ways to gets films made and released...BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.

His latest film, "Red Hook Summer," his first narrative feature since "Miracle At St. Anna," is an audacious return to the guerrilla style filmmaking he pioneered at the start of his career with the groundbreaking "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), as it is a self-financed venture with an 18 day filming schedule that ended up garnering the tiniest of film distribution, making it the second Spike Lee "joint" (after the extraordinary 2008 document "Passing Strange") I was unable to see in a movie theater. Just that factoid is simply depressing to me because if we have reached an era when films about people are in less and less supply and demand, then films about contemporary African-Americans will most certainly be even less so. But, in that way that my man Spike perseveres, the film was indeed made, released and is now currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray formats. I purchased the film this past Winter and due to the thematic subject matter, I felt that NOW, at the end of the Summer, was the time to finally view the finished work, which I have viewed twice over the past week. While not as triumphant as much of Lee's output,."Red Hook Summer" is a sincere, urgent, layered and complex tone poem of a film that despite its flaws, kind of sneaks up on you.

In the latest installment in what Spike Lee has now coined his "Chronicles Of Brooklyn" series, a collection of films that have included "She's Gotta Have It," "Crooklyn" (1994), "Clockers" (1995), "He Got Game" (1997), and of course, the untouchable "Do The Right Thing" (1989), "Red Hook Summer" details the transformative experience of 13-year-old Silas "Flik" Royale (played by Jules Brown), a spoiled, Middle class teenager from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, forced by his Mother to spend the Summer with his Grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (the great Clarke Peters), a fiery Baptist preacher of the Li'l Peace Of Heaven church, located near the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

The relationship between Flik (a self-given nickname because of his strict attachment to his iPad2) and Enoch grows increasingly volatile and strained due to the preacher's extreme determination to convert Flik to the ways and teaching of Jesus Christ via relentless sermons at home and at church and also through working in the church basement with the belligerent Deacon Zee (Lee's regular Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a boisterous alcoholic.

Flik's "vacation" begins to see a new light once he meets fellow 13-year-old Chazz Morningstar (played by Toni Lysaith), a brash, loud, asthmatic, fast talking, fast moving girl from the projects and the two begin to formulate their friendship and bond while spending seemingly aimless days and nights wandering through Red Hook, sharing their hopes, concerns, fears for their respective lives and futures.  

For "Red Hook Summer," believe it or not, Spike Lee, working again in collaboration with Author James McBride after "Miracle At St. Anna," has cited none other than Director Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me" (1986) as a personal favorite within the genre of films about teenagers and their formative and transformative years and has even utilized that film as a reference point. "Red Hook Summer" serves up a (mostly) child's eye view of the world, is simultaneously nostalgic and up to the minute, and carries a somber weightiness throughout via the merging of seemingly crisp yet saturated digital and Super 8 cinematograpy by Hye Mee Na, the film's evocative score by none other than Bruce Hornsby as well as a collection of songs by Judith Hill, and a meandering tone that fully emulates those Summer days that feel to stretch into infinity. As Flik and Chazz aimlessly wander and play, writing their names in cement and chasing each other with over-sized dead rats found in the church basement, the film often made me think of Stevie Wonder's masterful song, "Village Ghetto Land" as "Red Hook Summer" presents matter-of-fact vignettes of childhood in the 21st century housing projects.

Lee also enjoys utilizing a "Saliner-esque" quality with his body of work as "Red Hook Summer" shares cameo character appearances from a few of his previous films. A police detective from both "25th Hour" (2002) and "She Hate Me" (2004) played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. (the man who utters the classic expletive, "Sheeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiit!!") returns for a crucial scene. Even Mookie (played by Lee himself) from "Do The Right Thing" stops by, still delivering pizzas for Sal's Famous. Eagle eyes should keep their peepers out for the return of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), the main protagonist from "She's Gotta Have It," now seen in a startling new phase of her life.

In addition to witnessing past characters pepper a new story, "Red Hook Summer" shares serious thematic connective tissue to past films. Certainly, Lee utilizes the Summer season to channel a level of emotional intensity, revelations and explosive confrontations just as he performed with both "Do The Right Thing" and "Summer Of Sam" (1999). Even further, and more importantly, the film carries strong links with both "Crooklyn" and "Clockers." Yes, the plot point of Flik's physical journey from the South to the North is a reverse of a sequence from "Crooklyn" where young Troy (played with a natural inquisitive soulfulness by Zelda Harris) is sent from New York to visit her Southern relatives. But "Red Hook Summer" as a whole is a complete extension of both "Crooklyn" and "Clockers" as this film almost serves as Spike Lee's "State Of The Union" address as he brings us another portrait of the New York African-American neighborhood through themes of gentrification, alcoholism, the never ending presence of playground drug dealers (including one played beautifully by Nate Parker), child asthmatics and the grim child mortality rate in the housing projects, extreme economic disparity and class struggles within the African-American community.

The largest theme within "Red Hook Summer" is easily Lee's exploration of the slow disintegration of the Black church, as well as how new generations are not only openly questioning and challenging the notion of God but decidedly walking away from God altogether. Flik's agnostic and borderline atheist viewpoints stems from his own personal tragedies and the hypocrisy of what he sees around him and yet he is confronted with his preacher Grandfather Enoch which redefines "formidable" over and again, especially through three extended sermon sequences that Clarke Peters performs with voluminous energy and emotion.

The character of Deacon Zee, while utilizes primarily for comedic stretches, illustrates painfully how the church has undoubtedly failed one of its own leaders as Zee is drowning in self-inflicted alcohol abuse, bottomless rage against his own community and quite possibly the loss of (or the lack of access to) what may have been his real calling in life...the world of finance, as depicted through his rants about the economy and his daily reviews of the Wall Street Journal.

Most striking was one of the film's very best sequences which involves a heart to heart conversation between Enoch and Chazz's Mother, Sister Sharon Morningstar (played by Heather Simms), two individuals sharing a slow flirtation and discussing the very nature of faith itself and whether faith without action is meaningless. Aside from the candid nature of the dialogue, which was boldly refreshing to hear, Spike Lee offered up the visual acknowledgment of a societal demographic that is essentially NEVER seen in a motion picture, mainstream or independent--two contemporary middle-aged to elderly African-Americans sharing their viewpoints about the world in which they live.

Clarke Peters, who you may know from David Simon and HBO television's "The Corner," "The Wire" and "Treme" gives a powerhouse of a performance that ranges from demonstrative, hilarious, tender, forgiving, regretful, redemptive, enraging, monstrous, infuriating and glorious.It is the embodiment of a three dimensional piece of work detailing a three dimensional human being. A man who has established himself as a cornerstone (albeit a struggling one) of the community, so much so that even the neighborhood drug dealers allow him to pass unscathed. This quality is extremely crucial as the film does indeed make an extremely controversial tonal shift late in the proceedings, which is supremely jarring and alters everything we have seen previously. Of course, I will go into no further details but reviews did criticize Lee for including an element so seismic in a fashion that was perceived to be so random. Remember, I have seen "Red Hook Summer" twice over the past week and it was during the second viewing where I could see how slyly Lee had laid the groundwork from the very start and also illustrates how Spike Lee is truly one of the most fair minded filmmakers working today, a virtue he has never received nearly enough credit for having.

And so, with all of this praise, I have given the film a somewhat soft three star rating. As I have expressed in the past, star ratings are very arbitrary and at times, they are even meaningless. But with the level of greatness Spike Lee has produced over and over and over again, "Red Hook Summer" simply does not stand as tall at his most incendiary works. First of all, the screenplay by Lee and McBride could have used perhaps one of two more spins through the proverbial typewriter. Yes, I did appreciate the meandering tone of the film overall, but for stretches, it seemed to meander more to its detriment than its success. The film begins abruptly, ends just as abruptly and for a spell, you do have to wonder just what the point of it all was as it never really builds and ultimately feels somewhat anti-climactic, unlike most of Lee's oeuvre.

Most crucially are the performances of the two young leads by both Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith. With respect to both youngsters, I just did not feel that either of them were compelling enough actors to carry precisely what needs to be carried, individually and together, especially as their bond is designed to be the film's centerpiece and core. While Brown fares a bit better in his scenes with Clarke Peters, both Brown and Lysaith especially are obviously struggling when left on their own to carry scenes and dialogue of great complexity and depth. Sadly, both of them are truly out of their elements and while there is a certain charm to seeing young actors who are remarkably untrained and raw, Spike Lee indeed does have a story to tell with certain notes to hit and unfortunately, neither of these two children are up to the task, thus bringing the film down considerably.  

But for fans of Spike Lee or fans of cinema that does not adhere to the formulaic rules that have plagued Hollywood and independent features for far too long, Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer" is a film worthy of seeking out and viewing. Not every film can be a masterpiece but how often is it that you get to witness a master filmmaker like Spike Lee at work? We should be thankful for having him and our gratitude can be expressed just by watching something he has created with such purity, skill, passion and heart....the very qualities far too many filmmakers have long ceased to hold dear and to much greater notoriety and box office success.

Spike Lee deserves better. MUCH better.

Monday, September 2, 2013

ORIENTATION/GRADUATION: a review of "The Spectacular Now"

Based upon the novel by Tim Tharp
Screenplay Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Webber
Directed by James Ponsoldt
**** (four stars)

DUCKIE: What am I not facing?
ANDIE: The future.
DUCKIE: Well...whether or not you face the future it happens, right?
-Written by John Hughes from "Pretty In Pink" (1986)

Are we doomed to live up to only our weakest and worst tendencies as well as our darkest and most destructive perceptions about ourselves? Or are we ever able to transcend our largest transgressions and weaknesses? Do we, or can we, ever truly evolve and if so, is it even worth trying?

As of this writing, I am sitting in my study on the eve of a new school year basking in the afterglow of Director James Ponsoldt's beautiful new film, "The Spectacular Now," a teenage love story/drama that sits superbly alongside Writer Bert V. Royal and Director Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010) and Writer/Director Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" (2012), two excellent recent films about the teenage experience which had the sheer audacity to believe that teenage characters and audiences are worthy of stories and entertainment that are sensitive, superbly crafted, extremely well acted and as artful as any film made for adults. Ponsoldt has helmed a film that is as languid as a long summer's day and as tender as a teenager's broken heart as it explores the nature of beginnings, endings, the ever unfolding presence of the future and the tough questions of whether we are simply destined to live inside of a pre-conceived box or emerge into something new and perhaps an even better existence. "The Spectacular Now" very astutely offers no easy answers, allows its characters to ask the most difficult questions of themselves and provides us with a deeply felt emotional journey that carries a maturity and gracefulness that indeed puts most films to shame, films geared towards teenagers or otherwise. Take this latest Savage Cinema review as the annual "Back To School Edition" as we all take stock of where we have been ad where we may go as we all head into a new year.

Set in the Spring of a Georgia high school Senior Year, "The Spectacular Now" introduces us to the popular Sutter Keely (a terrific Miles Terrier), a most charming, friendly, life of the party who is breezing through his final year of high school with no veritable plans or destination in mind at all. He lives with his Mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), is estranged from his Father (a heartbreaking Kyle Chandler), carries and on and off again relationship with the pretty and equally popular Cassidy (Brie Larson), is an academic underachiever, works afterschool in a men's clothing store and is already nursing an increasingly dangerous addiction to alcohol as Sutter is rarely without his hidden flask or extra large spiked soda.

After yet another party and yet another drunken night drive back home, Sutter is awakened early the next morning by Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley in her warmest and best performance to date), a quiet, introverted classmate who finds Sutter unconscious upon the lawn across the street from her home. The twosome become friends, Aimee begins to tutor Sutter with Geometry, and slowly, Sutter and Aimee begin a tentative romance, a romance Sutter claims that he is uncommitted to and is certain will fail, despite how his feelings keep pushing him towards this girl, whose natural ease, subtle confidence, love of Science Fiction books and dreams of a future away from their Georgia town, continuously reveals an irresistible beauty to him, making him fall harder and deeper.

As graduation and the prospect of college approaches, Sutter is forced to come to terms with his cavalier, and thus fearful, attitude towards life beyond his teenage years and must face some hard choices of not only wondering if he is able to move forwards within his life but if he deserves to...and most notably, earn and keep the love of Aimee Finecky.

James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now," while containing a tremendous amount of inherent drama and urgency, is a film that never falls into histrionics, melodrama or any sense of pre-fabricated, calculated seriousness. This is a leisurely paced film, as well as one that is genuinely elegiac and disarmingly perceptive towards a specific time of life while also presenting the anxiety we all face with the inevitability of the future's arrival. This film emotionally took me back to the summer before I embarked onwards to college as well as placed me so firmly within any life stage when one chapter was closing as another simultaneously opened. "The Spectacular Now" chronicles the tumultuous stage in between for one boy, who is seemingly determined to reject the unfamiliar and therefore, the potential greatness of the unknown in favor of the familiarity of everything he is accustomed to, regardless of how self-destructive his behavior is and the ever growing realization that his special brand of charm can only last so long and that whether he wants it or not, time is indeed running out.

With a voice that is reminiscent of the late Christopher Penn, plus the swagger of a younger John Cusack and even a dash of Tim Matheson's quick witted cad from Director John Landis' "National Lampoon's Animal House' (1978), Miles Terrier delivers a star making and multi-layered performance as Sutter Keely. His friendliness feels authentic and is also infectious. His ability to charm, disarm and even see the greater potential in others while not being able to see it within himself provides the character with a painful dichotomy that is at times, difficult to watch, because we in the audience realize just how good of a person he actually is. While Sutter is a fast talking, fast moving, care free individual, we see throughout the film how his excessive drinking is used as if he is trying to outrun and frankly out drink his demons, a characteristic that makes him a close cousin to the character of the hedonistic Gary King in Director Edgar Wright's excellent "The World's End." Throughout, Miles Terrier never overplays even one moment, and always ensures that Sutter transcends the cliche of the "crying clown" by supplying true pathos alongside the requisite comedy.

Shailene Woodley is a wonder!! Now truth be told, I have not been entirely sold on Woodley mostly due to her starring role on the mercifully concluded and downright ridiculous teenage television...ahem...drama "The Secret Life Of the American Teenager." Even though she more than held her own alongside George Clooney in Director Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" (2011), I guess I still was not terribly convinced of the fullness of her abilities. Well, I have no more doubts as Woodley's performance is so effortless, so naturalistic, so beguiling, engaging, inviting, lovely and illuminating that she not only finds the depth and soul of the "nice girl," I really think that you will fall in love with her just as deeply as Sutter does. She truly epitomizes the girl of which boys may experience love at eighth sight and once that specialized brand of emotional lightning hits, that boy will kick himself profusely for not having noticed her brand of beauty sooner.

Together, Miles Terrier and Shailene Woodley as Sutter and Aimee, make for one of the most tenderly romantic couples I have had the pleasure to witness on screen. Their's is a romance I wanted to see succeed and I was thrilled to watch from its very inception as their chemistry is intoxicating. While I do not think that it will unseat the iconic romance as witnessed between Cusack and Ione Skye in Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything..." (1989), I do believe that this screen romance and the film overall sits proudly in the same neighborhood as the level of maturity, intelligence, choices and consequences the twosome face are of high quality and tremendous earnestness and fragility.

The fragile nature of the love story between Sutter and Aimee is deeply tested with the constant presence of alcohol, an element Ponsoldt never exploits for cheap drama. For Sutter, the alcohol represents such a crucial element in "The Spectacular Now" as it seemingly extends the "now" of Sutter's status as the life of the party. Even so, the film charts his slow awareness that he is not nearly as clever and sly as he thinks, and that it is difficult to remain the life of the party when the party has long abandons you. Furthermore, the film depicts the precarious stage when Sutter's choices could easily change him from being the life of the party to being yet another town drunk. The alcohol figures as a key element into the hows and whys his family has become so fractured while it also presents some dark foreshadowing to a potentially wayward, lonely future.

For Aimee, and especially as her relationship with Sutter grows (seemingly her very first relationship at that), alcohol is utilized as a source of bonding and connective tissue between them, the precarious glue to which Aimee will allow herself to indulge in order to remain in Sutter's embrace and affection. It is an element which even clouds or informs the fullness of their love story as Aimee certainly possesses unspoken fears losing Sutter by not imbibing, a decision which may unravel her own future.

And then, there is the nature of love itself, how we love and how can we love or be loved when we either do not love ourselves or feel unworthy of love. These are the major themes contained in the entirety of "The Spectacular Now" and again, I just marveled at the close and careful attention to the emotional details of human nature especially during this very difficult period of late adolescence when life decisions need to be made whether you are ready to make them or not.

Dear readers, we are truly living in a precarious time for the cinema when Hollywood is seemingly less and less interested in making films about people. Believe me, however much I love the spectacle, the flash, the power and the awe and WOW factor of some big budget releases, I will love movies about human beings just as much, if not even more. "The Spectacular Now" is just such a film that honors the human experience so completely that I am not able to urge you enough to go out and support a film that is this heartfelt and expertly delivered.

James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" is easily one of the very best films I have seen this summer. Will it be one of my favorites of 2013? We'll have to just wait and see. Until then, why don't YOU head right out and see this film for yourselves.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

LOST VOICE: a review of "In A World..."

Written and Directed by Lake Bell
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

With all due respect to Lake Bell, I feel compelled to be especially harsh on this one.

Dear readers, when I first saw the trailer for "In A World...," the debut filmmaking feature from Actress Lake Bell (who also stars), about a young woman's pursuit to gain a coveted foothold in the male dominated movie trailer voice-over industry, I just knew that I would be first in line if the film happened to make its way to my city. Through strong critical praise and surprisingly positive box office receipts in a initial release of only three theaters (!), "In A World..." has garnered a national release which did indeed find its way to my city. As promised to myself, I made sure that I was right there for its opening weekend as I felt that a good Hollywood satire had been long overdue and one that came from a fresh female perspective at that would just make the experience that much more unique. Well...consider my voluminous disappointment when the end credits began to scroll as "In A World...," despite its strong first and final thirds and the fact that Lake Bell is indeed a creative talent to keep your eyes out for, the film as a whole failed to keep its eyes on the prize in a spectacular way, making what could have been a one-of-a-kind film to celebrate and treasure something that was sadly formulaic, tepid and uninspired.

"In A World..." stars Lake Bell as Carol Solomon, a 30-year-old vocal coach to the stars, and one who possesses a special talent for mimicking accents of varying foreign dialects, who is desperately attempting to become a contender in the voice-over industry. making her ascent even more difficult is the fast that she is the daughter of the legendary Sam Soto (a brilliantly unctuous Fred Melamed), a voice-over giant, second only to the real world voice-over king Don LaFontaine, who coined the movie trailer introductory phrase "In a world...," a phrase that was retired after his passing. With the prospect of a potential mega-budgeted "quadrilogy" being readied for massive release, the "In a world..." phrase is looking to be resurrected for the film's trailer but who will at last have the chance to utter those iconic words? Will it be Sam Soto, looking to claim his long sought after brass ring despite the fact that he is about to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award? Or will it be the sleazy voice-over playboy (and Sam Soto's protege) Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), who unwittingly finds himself in a tryst with the one who will soon be his greatest competition...Carol Solomon!!

There is much to enjoy and celebrate about "In A World.." as Lake Bell proves herself to be a sharply observant comedic writer as she skewers the sexism within the voice-over industry while also providing the seeds for what could have been a equally sharp examination of a Father/daughter relationship as the Father in question cannot see beyond his own needs and the daughter is desperately trying to escape his looming shadow to blaze her own path. Add to that mix, Bell's very perceptive take on the seductive mystery, allure and power of the human voice, from a love of language and dialects to the actual sound. And then, Bell includes her most comedically scathing thoughts with the brutally satirical attack she places against a society of women in the 21st century who are seemingly determined to have speaking voices that sound like high-pitched, pseudo-sexual squeaks that ultimately diminishes women ever being taken seriously within any industry whatsoever.

As an actress, Lake Bell is undeniably charming throughout. Through her extremely quick wit, tenacious attitude, undeniable smarts as well as her uncharacteristic attractiveness, she makes Carol Solomon a character that you root for. As a filmmaker, Bell surprised me as her script is filled with clever, well-written dialogue that sets up the conceit and conflict of the film's storyline quickly and cleanly. As a director, Bell moves her film along with a swift, energetic pace that provides plenty of zing to the comic energy on display. and she elicits top notch performances from the film's entire cast.

What forced me to bring down this film so negatively was that by the film's mid-section, "In A World..." abandons its primary conceit of the voice-over industry, and therefore its entire purpose so completely and for so long that the film is astoundingly undone by a bad case of cinematic laryngitis. It is as if Lake Bell had forgotten what her film is even about and when it does regain its footing in the otherwise strong final third, the effect is so anti-climactic that nothing matters anymore.

"In A World..." is a film that advertises itself, and therefore should be, a Hollywood satire. What the film actually becomes is a romantic comedy and frankly, not a very good one as every contrived moment feels as authentic as an episode of "Three's Company" know, the one about the misunderstanding? You see, "In A World..." features our heroine not only unwittingly having a tryst with one of her main voice-over competitors but she is also having a sweet natured and nervous flirtatious dance with shy audio engineer Louis (played by Demitri Martin who often resembled Jason Schwartzman to me). We also have the story of Carol Solomon's frustration with her Father's new relationship with the 30-year-old Jamie (Alexandra Holden), she of the "non-ironic Midwestern accent," and then, there's a massively intrusive subplot starring Carol's sister and hotel concierge Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her marital woes with her husband Moe (a criminally underused Rob Corddry) when she has an extra-marital romantic dalliance with an Irish hotel guest.

Now look, I certainly do not believe that all films should just stick to their main subject matter rigidly. but I do believe that once you establish the film's core, everything else should function as satellites to that core. In regards to satirical films about Hollywood, past personal favorites like Writer/Director Christopher Guest's "The Big Picture" (1989) and Writer/Director Tom DiCillo's wonderful "Living In Oblivion" (1995) both injected romance into the proceedings without ever losing their main focus. Furthermore, the terrifically dark film "Swimming With Sharks" (1994) from Writer/Director George Huang, sadistic office politics and elements of the thriller were added to the satire. I have no issue whatsoever with Lake Bell desiring to have romantic comedy elements in her film but instead of satellites, Bell makes the romantic comedy became the whole movie and when there were much better fish to fry, I just didn't care about whether Carol and Louis would get together or especially if Dani and Moe would figure out their marriage. It was all so superfluous and disastrously torpid to sit through.

Additionally, I would say that an even bigger flaw was easily one of the most obvious. For a film that proposes to be about this young woman's life and times in the voice-over industry, we rarely ever see her working within that industry. Yes, at the film's start we get to have some really terrific comedy from her coaching vocal sessions with Eva Longoria who is overdubbing a cockney accent for her latest film. But I really think that to truly capture the industry ascent and the full hopes and dreams of Carol Solomon's journey, and to furthermore strengthen her rooting interest, is to actually watch her in that recording booth doing those voice-overs for the very products and films that are then giving her the desired attention she craves in such a male dominated field. But, almost none of that is to be seen during "In A World..." and that flaw was crucially glaring and let precious air out of the cinematic balloon lake Bell is obviously trying to blow up.

Look dear readers, Lake Bell has proven to me that she has some serious creative talent and in the male dominated world of Hollywood itself, we desperately need more creative voices like hers contributing to the art and entertainment that we all have the chance to view. I look forward to her second film with eagerness, do not get me wrong. But "In A World..." had the potential to be great and it just made me so crazy that Bell squandered everything new, inventive, risky and fresh away for the tried, true and overly familiar. If I were to offer Lake Bell any advice (as I am just certain she is just waiting with bated breath for me to deliver), it would be to remain steadfast and fearless next time, to swing for the fences and be as trailblazing as her own leading character.

Because when you have that chance to step up to the cinematic plate, why swing for anything less?


I'm so glad that's all in the past.

I think that if you were to judge the 2013 movie year based solely upon my reviews, I would gather that you would think that the quality standards of most film releases were of quite high standing. But, there are unquestionable factors to weigh in.

Remember, I don't see every single film that is released every year. Not only am I just financially unable to accomplish that feat, I simply and plainly do not want to see every single film released ever year as there are just so many films released that I do not want to waste my money or time upon. And that was the issue with this summer's offerings. Yes, I went to the movies almost weekly this year and yes, my ratings for the films I saw were typically high. But understand that between May and August, there were a plethora of films that I chose NOT to see because they all seemed to represent the creatively bankrupt era that we all happen to be living in...and some of the dwindling box office reports and surprising flops seemed to echo that sentiment to a certain degree. So far, the very best films I have seen this year have been the ones that have been a little left of center, and certainly ones that have been smaller budgeted pieces rather than the glut of sequels, re-boots, re-imaginings and so on.

So now, we arrive at Autumn and the beginnings of what are considered to be more high profile quality driven releases. While the month, overall looks to be fairly quiet, I do have some cinematic irons in the fire awaiting the fullest of my attention.

1. After a considerably long absence, my feature "Savage Cinema Debuts" will return with a film that I have had sitting in my DVD stack for quite a while, just waiting for the perfect time to be viewed. The identity of that film will be a surprise so stay tuned...

2. As of this writing, I am planning on taking in a screening of "In A World..." the Hollywood satire and filmmaking Writing and Directing debut of Actress Lake Bell.

3. Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" and the teen love story/drama "The Spectacular Now" have both finally arrived in my city and if I can swing it, I'll get myself to both of those as well.

4. And then, there is "Don Jon," the R rated Writing and Directing debut of Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which by the trailer looks to be extremely intriguing.

So, that seems to be more than enough to have upon my plate for the month, especially with the beginning of a new school year to tackle as well. As always, I will try to pace myself and do my best for myself and for you.

I'll see you when the house lights go down...