Content Sponge #5

Hail Zeitgeisters, here are some foreshortened, compressed and encapsulated reviews of films that I have glommed and ingested in the last two weeks.


Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a magazine in Seattle. She becomes part of a three person team who investigate a classified ad which reads: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

The writer who heads up the investigation, Jeff (Jake Johnson) has an ulterior motive for going to the seaside town of Ocean View. He grew up there and has some unfinished business. The third of the trio is Arnau (Karan Soni) a bookish biology major who is interning for extra credit. Darius eventually meets Kenneth the man who placed the ad. He is an eccentric who works at the local grocery store. The pair click.

Safety Not Guaranteed is described as a comedy-drama. It could also be described as an Indie Rom Com with a touch of science fiction. However one categorises it, director Colin Trevorrow’s first feature film is a confident debut. Comedian/actor Plaza has a fan base from television’s Parks and Recreation and here she expands upon her usual deadpan palette of expression.  Indie all-rounder Mark Duplass does a solid job of the potentially time travelling Kenneth. Jake Johnson’s pushy, insensitive reporter Jeff is also nicely nuanced.

The film has a slight plot and relies upon an audience bonding with its characters. I saw this on a hot still night at the Somerville Outdoor Cinema.  One of my film-going companions hated this on the grounds that it is filled with whimsy. And it is indeed replete with a whimsical spirit. If that kind of thing bothers you, then avoid this at all costs. I found the conditions that I viewed this film in, less than conducive to enjoying it, but I was fully on board for the ride. Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly have crafted a sweet tale about some young people who are looking for direction.  (7/10)


Director David O Russell’s latest project is turning out to be the little movie that could. Made for $21 million by the Weinstein Company it has taken quadruple that amount worldwide; not that a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro can be precisely described as little, but in an era of tent-pole pictures like The Hobbit and The Avengers–big, expensive films designed to hoover up movie-goers’ readies–it’s heartening to see a film of a more human scale doing well at the box office.

The story concerns Pat Solitano (Cooper) who has spent the last eight months in a mental institution following an incident involving his wife, Nikki. Pat has bipolar disorder and at the time of the incident was extremely stressed. He believes if he stays fit and reads the syllabus his wife is teaching her students, that he can get his life on track and reunite with the estranged Nikki. He has returned home to live with his parents (De Niro, Jacki Weaver). One night he goes to dinner and meets Tiffany, a recent widow who it turns out has been prescribed as many pharmaceuticals as Pat has and is now also trying to bring her life together.

Previously, I’ve only enjoyed Cooper as the A-Type, pain-in-the-ass he played in Wedding Crashers. I found him somewhat opaque in other roles. In SLPb, I felt that I could understand what made his character tick. Jennifer Lawrence is expectedly good; she has been strong in everything I have seen her in. Deniro was also solid. It’s good to see Australia’s Jacki Weaver having international success as the third act to an amazing career. Director David Michod’s casting her for Animal Kingdom (2010) has been a mitzvah.

Russell has adapted Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, into a film that combines an Indie sensibility with the old school moves of a studio comedy from the 1930s. A lot of the last section concerns gambling and suddenly it feels like we’re in Little Miss Marker territory. Russel has said numerously in interviews that his chief reason for making this is that his son has bi-polar disorder and OCD and he wanted to show him in particular and audiences in general what this can mean for families.  This is Russell’s tightest and most accessible film to date. A crowd pleaser (8/10)


Director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s theatrical musical of Victor Hugo’s novel is finally out here in the world and is doing very well at the box office and in terms of award nominations. It has garnered nine BAFTA noms and eight Academy Award nominations and won several Golden Globes. It is more or less beyond criticism for people who take awards seriously; and beyond criticism for those who number themselves as fans of the stage musical. And yet, I found the 158 minutes of Les Miz, quite the endurance test.

Before you take up arms for Hugo, Boublil, Schönberg or Cameron Mackintosh, let me get several things out there. I love musicals. I knew Les Miz would be sung all the way through. I think Hugh Jackman is awesome and I always nearly always enjoy Anne Hathaway’s acting. So I didn’t go into this with any negativity, I thought the trailers looked good and I was looking forward to seeing a film version of a musical that I have never managed to see on stage.

I still plan to see it on stage because I don’t think Mr Hooper made the best of the material. Firstly, this decision to record all the singing live seems like a crazed act of sabotage. Movie musicals have used lip-synching since the 1930s. Yes, a live performance isn’t lip-synched either, but we, the audience are working with different expectations when we watch a live performance. Not only do I not expect a pristine vocal delivery from a theatrical Jean Valjean, but I also don’t expect to see into his eyes nor do I expect to sit about one metre away from Fantine when she is belting out I Dreamed a Dream.  Why combine the best visual toys and techniques without providing a similar level of polish for the songs? I think Hooper creates a disconnect between the images and the audio.

I was also put of by the frequency of the close ups and how I felt that affected my response to the performance. To go back to Hathaway’s barn-burning version of I Dreamed A Dream, I was right there emotionally until the acting started.  Hathaway is nailing the song and then she begins to act out its final third; she tears up, she sobs, she hyperventilates with sorrow. I got it, thanks Tom Hooper, this is the lowest point in Fantine’s very hard life. The music and the lyrics had combined beautifully to tell me everything I needed to know, but then everything is underlined three times with a red biro. THIS IS TRAGIC! THIS IS HEARTBREAKING! Yep, tear ducts drying.

By comparison, Samantha Barks in the role of Éponine delivers On My Own without any additional acting, she sings it beautifully and is very moving.  Most of the ensemble singing does the job, too. One Day More and Do You Hear The People Sing? are as rousing as you’d hope. The Master of the House sequence is wittily done.  The set pieces around the barricade are exciting. When the film is opened out to show us the milling, riotous crowds, then the spectacle of the story is up on screen where we want it. Although this will make me sound like David Stratton, some of the handheld camerawork is a bit subpar. There’s some slow reframing and the occasional focus problem. Seems like 60 million bucks doesn’t stretch to reshooting slightly duff takes.

In the end, I enjoyed the film more than not. Jackman and Hathaway are good. Russell Crowe is somewhat miscast. Amanda Seyfried is fine in the poorly-conceived role of Cosette (we care more for her as an infant than as a young woman). Eddie Redmayne whom I found annoying in his television roles like Birdsong, is good in this.  He plays the idealistic Marius who falls for the boring Cosette. Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are good, however it may be time for HBC to give anything with a mockney or Victorian feel a miss – at least for a while. I am rating the film 6/10 of on account of the numerous Les Miz earworms I’ve tried to eradicate over the last few days.

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