Friday, January 24, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: IN A WORLD... (2013) and SUNLIGHT JR. (2013)

(US - 2013)

One of the most acclaimed films at Sundance in 2013, IN A WORLD... is exactly the kind of movie that plays better at film festivals than in commercial release. It's pleasant, occasionally amusing, and it's made with the best intentions.  There's nothing egregiously wrong with it, but it doesn't really do anything with its ideas and is rather slight and forgettable by the end.  CHILDREN HOSPITAL's Lake Bell, a proven comic and dramatic performer who rarely gets the attention she deserves, writes, directs, and stars in this labor of love as Carol, a Los Angeles-based vocal coach who specializes in helping actors nail accents (she's introduced getting a voice mail from a sound mixer who needs her to work with Eva Longoria on a period film, as her Cockney accent "sounds like a retarded pirate").  She's successful in her field, but lives in the shadow of her legendary father Sam (Fred Melamud), a famed movie trailer voice who had a mentor in the late, great Don LaFontaine (Bell opens the film with a nice tribute to that great "In a world..." voice).  She lives with Sam, a widower who promptly kicks her out so his one-year-younger-than-Carol girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) can move in.  While working with Longoria in the studio where the actress has to re-loop her entire performance, Carol narrates a trailer as a goof, and she nails it so well that she finds herself in the running to voice the trailer for the Cameron Diaz blockbuster "AMAZON GAMES quadrilogy," which puts her in conflict with her dad and Gustav (Ken Marino), the other main voice in the trailer business.

Movie buffs will appreciate the occasional glimpses at the inner workings of the voiceover industry, but too much of IN A WORLD... is devoted to standard-issue rom-com stuff, with Carol falling for sound mixer Louis (Demetri Martin) and trying to patch things up between her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry) when concierge Dani fools around with AMAZON GAMES director and hotel guest Terence Pouncer (Jason O'Mara), plus some easy jabs at THE HUNGER GAMES and L.A. women with "sexy baby voices" who talk like every sentence ends with a question mark?  Bell and Watkins have a nice sibling chemistry, Holden's Jamie is unpredictably handled in the way she legitimately loves Sam and is not just drawn by his fame, and Melamud has a voice that was made for trailers (Marino, however, does not), but the whole "female empowerment" message that Bell is going for is too heavy-handed by the end, and she can't resist the indie hipster crutch of using '70s and '80s hits ironically (Dani and Moe reconcile to the tune of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line," and Carol and Louis' night out is a montage set to Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," for some reason).  In the end, there's a few chuckles for film dorks, but that's ultimately the biggest problem.  Bell got all of her cult comedy friends together (there's also supporting turns by Nick Offerman, Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro, and Jeff Garlin, plus Geena Davis as a ballbusting movie exec), and it grossed $3 million on 144 screens against a $1 million budget, but its appeal is too narrow.  It feels like the kind of movie Tom Dicillo made in the '90s that nobody outside the industry gave a shit about.  Bell is a charming and immensely likable actress, but IN A WORLD... too often comes off like little more than a rejected IFC pilot.  (R, 93 mins)

(US/UK - 2013)

Here's another example of a well-intentioned film that just has no chance once it's away from the secure and loving embrace of the film festival circuit.  It was a major title at last year's Tribeca fest, and it's the kind of offering that the indie and the festival scene just eats up:  gritty subject matter, socially and culturally relevant themes, name actors working for scale or less and getting their hands dirty on a pack-your-own-lunch labor of love that shows how serious they are about their craft...and it was ultimately given a zero-publicity VOD dumping while only playing on a few screens nationally.  Written and directed by SHERRYBABY's Laurie Collyer, SUNLIGHT JR. stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon as Melissa and Richie, a severely down-on-their-luck Florida couple who've been beaten to shit by life:  he's a hard-drinking paraplegic living disability check to disability check, fixing VCRs and siphoning gas from cars, and she's supporting them by scrambling for shifts at a rundown convenience store called Sunlight Jr., where she's routinely hassled by her stalker ex Justin (Norman Reedus), who demonstrated his love by routinely beating her and getting her hooked on prescription painkillers.  They live in a fleabag motel but they're happy together, and that happiness intensifies when she discovers she's pregnant.  But, since this is a depressing indie drama that could almost be called BLUE VALENTINE: THE LATER YEARS, that joy is short-lived as her asshole boss (Antoni Corone) threatens her job and Justin's behavior grows more menacing now that his restraining order's been lifted.

Watts, Dillon, and the film are moving along just fine until the pregnancy, when Collyer just starts piling on one misfortune after another in a way that crosses the line from realism into deck-stacking misery porn.  The problems with her boss exist only to make the story take a more miserable turn.  It's a corporate chain--as evidenced by a company HR rep visiting to administer drug tests--so there's no reason Melissa can't tell someone higher-up that she's being sexually harassed by her boss ("Are those pants wet because of me?" he asks Melissa after she walks to work in the rain), and his other managerial practices are flat-out abusive and intimidating.  And given Justin's behavior, there's no valid reason for the restraining order to be lifted other than Collyer needs him to show up at Sunlight Jr to cause dramatic conflict and offer Melissa some painkillers.  And later, when they're kicked out of the motel and have to move in with her alcoholic mother (Tess Harper) and her brood of unruly foster kids that she lets run wild so she can keep the foster care checks coming in, there's not only Richie's ramped-up boozing and the foster kids being bitten by bedbugs, but also the mom's asshole landlord--who else?--JUSTIN!  To Collyer's credit, she doesn't turn Melissa and Richie into martyrs or succumb to white trash caricaturing, and she does a commendable job of capturing the atmosphere of crippling economic depression, shooting in locations that look like a desolate wasteland of homeless people, closed-down strip malls with weeds growing through the concrete, pawn shops, flea markets, and dive bars. Watts and Dillon are excellent until the plot developments start threatening to turn the characters into cardboard cutouts; Watts perseveres but Dillon can't do much with the clich├ęd arc undergone by Richie.  SUNLIGHT JR sometimes falls victim to ham-fisted melodrama, but there's a lot of positives to be found with the performances, a very Ry Cooder-ish score by J. Mascis, and Collyer's compassionate depiction of a struggling underclass.  (Unrated, 95 mins)

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree with your review of IN A WORLD... I'd also add that after I left the theater, I thought about trailers I've seen and...there really is no voice-over industry for theatrical previews anymore. So it made all the fuss over a female voice narration seem moot. Popular music, graphics, and text sell movies nowadays, not disembodied voices.