Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sundance 2013 Quick Reviews, Part II

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

In her first film since The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo, Rooney Mara joins Casey Affleck and the indie-ubiquitous Ben Foster in a near-modern day Western about a pair of Texas criminals. After a job goes south, Affleck's Bob takes the fall for his wife shooting a police officer, allowing the pregnant Ruth to raise their child in freedom, waiting for the day they can be reunited.
But then Bob springs loose after four years, and things get complicated as both the law and a trio of underworld scum come looking for him at Ruth's doorstep.

The film is a taught, quiet, slow-burn thriller, showcasing the acting chops of all three of its leads. Affleck is particularly good as the tortured soul, hardly remorseful for his past sins and motivated by a singular goal of joining his family. Mara, who despite her A-list making role in the aforementioned David Fincher adaptaion is still relatively unknown to audiences, gives us a wholly new side of herself, adopting a convincing Texas drawl and the emotional subtlety of a woman torn between past and present.

Grade: B+

In A World...

Most Sundance comedies come with an asterisk, some sort of dark element or imbedded creation that toes the line between laughter and tears. How surprised I was, then, to see a bona-fide, low stakes comedy and, what's more, a really good one at that.

IAW follows Carol – played by writer, director and star Lake Bell – the daughter of a Hollywood voice-over legend struggling to break her way into the business. The film is set after the real life death of "The Voice of God" Don LaFontaine amidst a fictional trio of voice actors vying to take over the now empty throne of movie trailer narration (hence the title, i.e. "In a world, where no one is safe...").

The movie is structured as an ensemble comedy, with the plot playfully and effortlessly hopping between several sub-plots involving marriage problems, daddy issues, and a bit of romance. Most notably, Bell has so carefully and expertly rounded out her cast with a who's-who list of underrated comedy actors (Rob Corddry, Demitri Martin, Nick Offerman, etc.) that essentially everything that takes place on screen zips and buzzes with perfect timing and chemistry.

The final five minutes over-extends the movie's welcomes, and the ultimate climax leaves a little to be desired, but overall In A World.. is one of the more sincere and effortless laughs I've had in some time.

Grade: A-

Afternoon Delight

In this riff on the bored housewife tale, Afternoon Delight gives us HIMYM's Josh Radnor and Girls' Kathryn Hahn as a married couple with a flickering flame. After a spice-it-up date night at a local strip club, Hahn's character develops a sort of curious fascination with a stripper/sex worker (Juno Temple) who she then hires as a live-in nanny.

Her justification for doing so is a new-feministic desire to help a fellow sister out of a bad situation, but it becomes increasingly clear that the wife's motivation lies in some vicarious obsession with the danger and raunch of the young woman's taboo life.

The characters in Afternoon Delight never seem fully realized, and their motivations similarly dip into convenience from time to time. The resolution after the inevitable crises is also swept up with a little too much haste, quickly arriving at catharsis without really demonstrating exactly how, or why, anything has changed.

But, the film is nothing if not interesting, lingering in the quiet moments between words and the
hidden meanings behind the actions and routines shared by friends, lovers and strangers. Radnor and Hahn are enjoybale as an extremely everyday alt-Hollywood portrayal of a married couple and while the premise is not likely something most people will encounter in their own lives, the characters seem like an amalgam of everyone you've ever known.

Grade: B

Ass Backwards

With a cast that includes the amazing Casey Wilson (Happy Endings), June Diane Raphael (New Girl, as well as my favorite podcast How Did This Get Made), Bob OdenKirk (Breaking Bad) and Jon Cryer (Sixteen Candles -- I refuse to acknowledge his more current role) it's somewhat baffling how AB could have gone so terribly, terribly wrong.

To simply say that this "comedy" fails would neglect the physical discomfort you feel while watching it. It's a lot like watching two hours of bad high school improv.

Written by Wilson and Raphael, Ass Backwards follows the dimwitted Chloe and Kate as they make a road trip home to participate in a pseudo-reunion of a beauty pageant they lost as children. The structure is essentially a female Dumb and Dumber, as an incessant series of implausible and contrived errors lead the pair to a community of uber-feminists, an amateur night at a strip club (gee, no one's ever done that joke before), the hovel of a crack addict and finally, to the beauty pageant where the audience is ultimately put out of their misery.

Grade: D-

Very Good Girls

In VGG, Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen play a pair of 17-year-old besties in their final carefree summer before the onset of college-aged adulthood. They're portrayed, a little heavy-handedly, as a perfectly joined yin and yang, with Fanning the daughter of a rich mansion-dwelling nuclear family and Olsen the hippie offspring of gluten-free and free-range dining Richard Dreyfous and Demi Moore (who, oddly, is given almost nothing to do in the film).

One day, while biking the boardwalk on Coney Island, they meet David, a grumpy but beautiful ice cream vendor. He is the poster child of cliched YA fiction male romantic interests, with his gruff and sullen exterior hinting at a gentle and artistic center that both women immediately pick up on and swoon over.

David's lazy creation is but the most egregious of the film's two-dimensional character and plot constructions. The plot ambles along well-traveled paths, briefly arriving at an impressive union of sight and sound in the middle section, only to lose itself in a swamp of inexplicable character actions and forced conflict as it limps its way to the finish line.

It's not that Good Girls is particularly bad, it's just that its coming-of-age retread is aggressively mediocre.

Grade: C+

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