Friday, October 10, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: COLD IN JULY (2014) and OBVIOUS CHILD (2014)

(France/US - 2014)

Based on a 1989 novel by genre-hopping author Joe R. Lansdale (BUBBA HO-TEP), COLD IN JULY is the latest film from the team of director/writer Jim Mickle and writer/actor Nick Damici. Their previous efforts--2007's MULBERRY ST, 2011's STAKE LAND, and 2013's WE ARE WHAT WE ARE--were firmly grounded in the horror genre, and while the crime thriller COLD IN JULY is a departure for the duo, it doesn't lack for terrifying moments and its share of disturbing plot developments. COLD IN JULY veers all over the place in tone, but Mickle and Damici's script and Mickle's confident direction handle these shifts with expert precision:  one false note or overplayed line reading could've stalled or even derailed the momentum. And it is a relentlessly-paced piece of work, exhilarating and unpredictable, audacious and wild, the hard-boiled crime equivalent of Adam Wingard's YOU'RE NEXT. Mickle wears his love of John Carpenter on his sleeve, down to the Carpenter font title card and the pulsating, synth-heavy score by Jeff Grace. IFC didn't give this much of a release (73 screens, grossing $423,000) and primarily relegated it to VOD, but it's one of 2014's best films, anchored by a trio of pitch-perfect performances.

Set in East Texas in 1989, the film opens with picture framer Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) and his schoolteacher wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) awakened in the middle of the night by a burglar. After nervously loading his gun, Richard confronts the intruder and kills him after his finger slips on the trigger. It's an open-and-shut case of justifiable homicide for local cop Ray Price (Damici), who IDs the intruder as one Freddy Russell and arranges for the county to give him a quick burial. Trouble arrives in the form of Freddy's recently-paroled ex-con father Ben (Sam Shepard), who's none too pleased with Richard for killing his son and promptly begins threatening him, following him around, showing up at his young son's school, and eventually terrorizing his family. When Price informs Richard that Ben was arrested just over the Mexico border, Richard is relieved that the threat is gone but when he sees a Wanted mugshot for a "Freddy Russell" at the sheriff's office, he can see it's obviously not the guy he killed. Price starts behaving in an overly evasive fashion with Richard, enough that Richard starts following Price around, leading to the first of the film's unexpected detours. Needless to say, Price is hiding something and an unlikely alliance is formed between Richard and Ben--Richard wants to know why Price is lying to him and Ben wants to find out what's really up with his missing but very much alive son (played by Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn's son Wyatt Russell, a dead ringer for his dad). Ben calls in a favor from his Korean War pal, pig farmer/flashy private eye Jim Bob Luke (damn near career-best work by Don Johnson), whose investigation into Freddy's whereabouts takes the film into some grim places involving the "Dixie Mafia," prostitution, and snuff films, prompting the three men to take matters into their own hands.

Hall, Shepard, and especially Johnson (who doesn't appear until nearly an hour in and when he does, he immediately steals the film from his co-stars) make such a terrific and oddly likable team that even a blatantly comedic sequence involving a car accident somehow manages to fit in with the brutal goings-on. Mickle and his regular cinematographer Ryan Samul create an extremely stylish look for COLD IN JULY, with garish reds, greens, and blues that give it an almost giallo hue at times. This extends to the gore-drenched finale, where Mickle manages to make something stunningly artistic out of blood from a blown-off head splattering a ceiling light and turning the room into a dark shade of crimson. Some elements of COLD IN JULY are reminiscent of the Coen Bros. in BLOOD SIMPLE mode, but it really is its own film, and it's the definitive cinematic statement thus far from Mickle and Damici, who've made some interesting yet flawed films but haven't knocked one out of the park until now. The brazenly original COLD IN JULY is the cold-cocking, knock-you-on-your-ass real deal. Nice job, guys. (R, 110 mins)

(US - 2014)

Jenny Slate's time as a featured player on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in the 2009-2010 season got off to the worst possible start when she secured her place in SNL lore by dropping an F-bomb during her first on-camera appearance. She wasn't brought back for a second season but has spent the subsequent years busting her ass on TV, with recurring roles on BORED TO DEATH, HELLO LADIES, PARKS AND RECREATION, HOUSE OF LIES, and MARRIED, and guest appearances on numerous others. She's continued building a name for herself in stand-up comedy circles, and OBVIOUS CHILD was supposed to be her big-screen breakthrough. While it received critical accolades and was riding on significant Sundance buzz, it didn't quite bring Slate into the mainstream as a headliner. It grossed just $3 million, which isn't bad for something only rolled out on 200 screens, a better tally than most things hailed as game-changers on the festival circuit only to land with a thud with the general public. Expanding her 2009 short film of the same title, which also starred a pre-SNL Slate, writer/director Gillian Robespierre handles sensitive and potentially divisive issues and takes risks in presenting a main character who she isn't afraid to show in a warts-and-all fashion. In a remarkably vanity-free performance, Slate is aspiring stand-up comic Donna, who's just been dumped by her thinks-antiperspirant-in-deodorant-causes-Alzheimer's boyfriend (Paul Briganti) right before she learns the indie bookstore where she's worked for five years is closing in a few weeks. Heartbroken Donna's sets at the comedy club turn into drunken, meandering rants, and she ends up having a one-night-stand with nice-guy video-game designer Max (Jake Lacy, "Pete" on the final season of THE OFFICE), and can't bring herself to tell him when she finds out she's pregnant several weeks later and has decided to get an abortion.

OBVIOUS CHILD handles its subject in as mature and matter-of-fact fashion as any film dealing with abortion has, and that includes Slate's portrayal of Donna, who's introduced as someone who doesn't seem to take things very seriously but her situation forces her to grow up fast and see her life in different ways. Robespierre isn't afraid to let Slate sometimes come off as mildly irritating at times, and despite the glowing reception she gets from the comedy club audience, her stand-up isn't always that funny. There's a tendency throughout to rely on Donna's obsession with scatological and bodily function-based humor and observations--though this isn't a grossout comedy, there's lots of talk about such things, and the moment Donna decides to go home with Max is right after they're pissing in an alley together and he accidentally farts in her face. It's presumably to make Donna (or Slate) a "real" and "just one of the guys" type, but Slate plays "real" emotion better in a beautifully-acted scene where she lays it all out for her judgmental, dismissive mom (Polly Draper), who responds with open arms, sympathy, and a revelation that she had an abortion herself during college. Slate and Draper play this scene perfectly and it's one of OBVIOUS CHILD's best moments. Slate's initial tendency toward the annoying and being the type who ends every sentence with, like, a question mark? dissipates as the film goes on, and her performance grows more steady and assured as Donna matures. In the end, OBVIOUS CHILD is a short and slight little character piece, charming and raunchy in equal doses and sometimes overly reliant on indie hipster tropes (it is set in Williamsburg and Brooklyn, after all), but admirably, other than a few cliches like the obligatory gay best friend (Gabe Liedman), a romantic comedy that isn't really interested in most conventions of the romantic comedy. Also with Richard Kind as Donna's dad, Gaby Hoffmann as her roommate, and David Cross in a small role as a comic friend who just scored a pilot deal. (R, 84 mins)

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