Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: SHORT TERM 12 (2013) and BLUE CAPRICE (2013)

(US - 2013)

One of the most acclaimed indie films of 2013, SHORT TERM 12 is a feature-length expansion of writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton's 2008 short film of the same name, set in a foster-care facility where youths with problems ranging from psychological to legal await placement.  Most are there for a year tops, but some of the older kids usually remain longer, instead waiting for their 18th birthday when they're free to go.  Cretton worked at such a facility and there's little doubting the raw, natural feeling of the interaction between the kids and the counselors, and how they go about the day-to-day routine, from group sessions to emotional outbursts to half-hearted escape attempts, and the bureaucratic bullshit from the office-bound psychologists who don't spend time in the trenches.  Grace (Brie Larson) is a mid-20s supervisor who has a good rapport with the kids, though they know she's no-nonsense in the way she handles them and the staff working under her, which includes boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr).  Grace is shaken up with the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a morose, sarcastic cutter who reminds her far too much of herself at that age.  Grace is vague about her own past--most of the counselors are former foster kids themselves--so much so that even Mason isn't fully aware of the personal demons she's battling, and Jayden's problems with her abusive father and the absence of a mother eerily mirror Grace's teenage years, affecting her in a way that jeopardizes her job and her relationship with Mason.

For most of its running time, SHORT TERM 12 works so well and earns its emotions so honestly that you almost forget you're watching actors.  The cast does some remarkable work, particularly Larson, Dever, and Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who's about to turn 18 and doesn't want to leave.  They inhabit these characters so thoroughly--and you probably know people like them--and the story feels so credibly real that it's crushing when Cretton briefly skids with a frankly absurd third-act plot development involving Grace that feels like focus-group pandering instead of something she would actually do, no matter how frustrated and enraged she is at the time.  Cretton steers it back on course, mainly just by having Jayden quip "That's a little extreme, don't you think?" but it's such a ludicrous turn of events that the film never really recovers, though fortunately it's close enough to the end that it doesn't end up a deal-breaker.  For about 80 of its 97 minutes, SHORT TERM 12 is an absolutely terrific piece of work that perfectly balances emotionally-draining drama and dark comedy.  It's hard to forget Marcus' devastating, autobiographical rap, the sisterly bond that forms between Grace and Jayden, and Mason's heartfelt toast to his own foster parents on their 30th wedding anniversary, in a house filled with love, surrounded by adults who were once troubled children with nowhere to turn.  It's just one of many beautiful scenes throughout this often brutally honest, and mostly uncompromising film with what should be a star-making performance by Larson.  It's just a pity about that brief shark-jump in the third act.  (R, 97 mins)

(US - 2013)

A loose chronicle of the October 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, BLUE CAPRICE seems to adamantly refuse to get too specific about anything.  There's a methodical, riveting ZODIAC-esque thriller that could've been made about this subject, but that's not the film that director Alexandre Moors and writer R.F.I. Porto chose to make.  One's reaction to BLUE CAPRICE is largely predicated on accepting that it's a thriller second and an oblique, sometimes esoteric mood piece first.  The filmmakers stick close to the facts, but this is the kind of film where you almost need to study up on the subject or risk being lost at some points.  John Mohammed and Lee Malvo were the perpetrators of these killings--Mohammed was executed by lethal injection in 2009 and Malvo is serving multiple life sentences with no possibility of parole.  You won't learn that by watching BLUE CAPRICE.  You don't even get last names.  In Antigua, 17-year-old Lee (Tequan Richmond) is abandoned by his mother and attempts suicide by drowning when he's rescued by John (GREY'S ANATOMY pariah Isaiah Washington in his first noteworthy gig since getting fired from the show for homophobic slurs directed at openly gay co-star T.R. Knight), an American on vacation with his three kids--he's actually got a restraining order forbidding him to see his kids and his ex-wife and he took them without authorization.  John brings Lee back to his hometown of Tacoma, WA, where the pair move in with John's girlfriend (Cassandra Freeman).  John's temper and paranoia get them booted out and the pair shack up with his gun-nut buddy Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams).  A twisted father/son bond develops between John and Lee, more akin to brainwashing on Lee's part, as he absorbs all of John's bitterness and rage about his ex-wife and not knowing the whereabouts of his children.  Once it's discovered that Lee is a natural with firearms, John decides that it's time to make everyone pay.  Their killing spree--first in Tacoma, then going cross-country--ultimately lands them in the D.C. area, where John drives and Lee picks off random people with a rifle aimed through a small hole cut in the trunk of a beat-up Caprice.

The pair don't even make it to the Beltway until nearly 70 minutes into the film.  Until then, we witness John's manipulative and codependent relationship with his surrogate son as well as the manipulation and intimidation of those around him--it's strongly implied that he's sleeping with Jamie and even Ray eventually gets a bad vibe from his increasingly unhinged friend.  Washington, now 50 and pretty much persona non grata since the GREY'S controversy, is very good throughout and shows why he was once such a promising young actor.  The main problem with BLUE CAPRICE is that it never really comes together as a psychological character study and definitely not as a thriller, which is unfortunate because Moors' handling of the spree itself is both unique and unsettling:  rarely showing an actual shooting but instead showing the aftermath, intercut with the Caprice ominously and anonymously cruising down the expressway, accompanied by an unnerving reeds/string score by Arcade Fire side members Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld.  It's in these moments that the film really excels and you see the potential, but up to that point, it's too often plodding, mumbling, and deliberately, maddeningly vague.  We don't even see John again after the pair are arrested at a rest stop.  BLUE CAPRICE is well-made and the actors are fine, but this just could've--and should've--been something a bit more memorable and substantive.  (R, 93 mins)

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