It’s unfair to judge the actors on their performances, because there isn’t a single real character in the film.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
SXSW is known for showcasing films the organizers feel demonstrate the wide variety of filmmaking styles active in cinema today. Somebody Up There Likes Me is a quaint and harmless film dealing with the myriad complaints we all have as we progress through adulthood, but its cutesy script and bland visual flourishes feel too forced for anything to be genuinely profound. Directed by Bob Byington, whose previous film Registered Sex Offender made a splash at SXSW a few years ago, the film strains to imitate the Wes Anderson style of hyper realism and instead ends up with a meandering and frustrating story about a man who has no redeeming qualities and with whom we can’t even begin to identify.
The movie traces 35 years in the life of Max (Keith Poulson). We see his first marriage fail; his courtship and marriage to his second wife, Lyla (Jess Weixler); the birth of his son; and the disintegration of his second marriage. Through all this, Max, Lyla, and Sal (Nick Offerman), Max’s best friend, do not age or change in any way. This decision by Byington is never explained or even addressed, as if the mere idea is supposed to be insightful enough with no need for justification.
The film’s tone is somewhere between a mumblecore rip off and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. It’s unfair to judge the actors on their performances, because there isn’t a single real character in the film. Someone is like watching a bad staging of a Eugene Ionesco play, except with much less subtext and importance. While Somebody deals with many serious issues and has several moments of comedic success, it fails to come together as anything close to a successful movie.
This year’s slate of documentary films is loaded with fascinating titles; one such offering is Girl Model from directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. This highly engaging work deals with one of the more disturbing and shady underworlds of the fashion and modeling industry. In Siberia, girls as young as 12 years old are brought by their parents to casting sessions in hopes of being discovered by an international talent agency. If selected, the girl will travel (by herself) to Japan in an effort to book jobs modeling in what typically results in very lascivious outfits and/or situations.
One girl who is closely followed is 13-year-old Nadya who, according to former model-turned-talent scout Ashley, has the perfect appearance for the Japanese market. This “perfect look” means pre-pubescent in appearance and free of any indication she is nearing womanhood. After being selected by Ashley, Nadya is sent to Japan, where her contract guarantees her at least two modeling jobs and an $8,000 payment. This is not exactly what happens for her.
What is most interesting about Girl Model is the filmmakers’ conscious decision to not involve themselves in such a despicable series of events. Their refusal to interfere reinforces the authenticity of the situations in which these unfortunate girls find themselves, making the events that unfold that much more disturbing. Ashley is at once the film’s protagonist and antagonist due to her past as a model and her current job luring batch after batch of young girls into a potentially dangerous and financially irresponsible decision. The film paints her almost like a tragic Patty Hearst replica. Having been inducted into this world at an early age herself, it is the only thing she knows how to do. But there are plenty of moments over the course of the film that clearly shows she not only knows what she is doing is wrong, but that she is quite remorseful about her complicity.
Another disturbing yet interesting documentary this year is Jeff, directed by Chris James Thompson. Jeff is Jeffrey Dahmer, the man who in 1991 was arrested for killing, dismembering, and eating portions of at least 17 people. The film itself focuses much more on the other people who were involved in the crimes, including Dahmer’s neighbor, the detective who interrogated Dahmer after he was arrested, and the medical examiner who examined the bodies.
This approach to Dahmer’s crimes is definitely unique and effective, but Thompson impedes his own work by including running reenactments of Dahmer’s activities leading up to the crimes. Whereas this method worked well in Errol Morris’s brilliant The Thin Blue Line, in Jeff, these vignettes only distract the viewer from the otherwise gripping story.
Thompson does do a terrific job interviewing those involved. Dahmer’s neighbor Pamela Bass highlights what the effects his actions had not only on the victims and their families, but also the people living in his apartment building, who were eventually forced to move out because of the relentless pressure from the news media and individuals who wanted to experience a part of the Dahmer saga. Detective Patrick Kennedy gives the film’s most candid recollections of the events as he discusses the relationship he developed with Dahmer over the course of the interrogations and trial.
While Jeff is an insightful look into the aftermath of such a horrific series of crimes, Thompson’s narrative method ultimately hurts the film and takes away from its overall impact.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed will certainly be the most improbable success of SXSW 2012. Given an absurd premise, director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly somehow manage to take what could have been a one-note Saturday Night Live sketch and turn it into a hilarious and moving work of cinema.
What is most amazing about the movie is that its premise is grounded in something that actually happened. Years ago, someone place a classified ad in a newspaper looking for a partner with whom he could travel back in time. In Safety, three reporters (well, one reporter and two interns) infer that whoever placed the ad must be crazy and decide to track him down. The movie starts out with everyone (including the audience) assuming he will be a backwoods, conspiracy theory nut, but slowly, the possibility of him actually being for real becomes more and more likely.
Due to the fantastic performances of the cast, the filmmakers are able to take the film to an absurd end which, in less talented hands, would have been more hilarious than wonderful. Mark Duplass (one half of the filmmaking duo the Duplass Brothers) gives a pitch-perfect performance as Kenneth Calloway, the man who claims he will travel back in time. Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza delivers a surprisingly good performance as the intern who tags along just to get out of the office, but discovers more in Kenneth than most people care to see.
Safety Not Guaranteed is definitely a unique film that could have been a throwaway comedy had it not been for the talented filmmakers and wonderful cast of talented actors.
Director William Friedkin is a legendary filmmaker who gave us both The Exorcist and The French Connection, two of the greatest films of all time in the horror and crime genres, respectively. His latest film, Killer Joe, makes its U.S. premiere as SXSW 2012 and, despite the enthusiasm surrounding its screening, has been the most disappointing movie thus far.
Ostensibly, the movie is about what happens when petty criminals try to step up into major league crime. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a small-time drug dealer who gets in serious trouble when some of his product goes missing and he can’t afford to pay his supplier. Since he is sure his mother took the drugs, he decides to hire crooked police detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to kill her so that he can collect the insurance money and pay his debts. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and soon Chris owes Joe a significant amount of money that he has no way of getting.
For whatever reason, Friedkin decides to inundate the audience with an obscene amount of gratuitous nudity and violence. Neither serves the story, nor are they grounded in any sense of authenticity for the characters. Nudity and violence are perfectly acceptable when they can be justified by the characters or the story, but in Killer Joe, the gruesome acts are simply there to push the boundaries of good taste simply for the sake of shock value. There is nothing redeeming at all about Killer Joe; it should be avoided by any person with a sense of dignity. | Matthew Newlin