Mini Reviews (November 2013)
Escape from Tomorrow, The Book Thief, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Sunlight Jr.
Escape from Tomorrow (November 1/13)
It's ultimately clear that the story behind Escape from Tomorrow's production is far more compelling and interesting than the film itself, as the final product, which was shot without permission at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, has been infused with an aggressively experimental feel that grows more and more infuriating as time progresses. There's little doubt, however, that Escape from Tomorrow fares relatively well in its opening half hour, with the intriguing storyline, which follows Roy Abramsohn's Jim as he begins to experience a mental breakdown during a family vacation, heightened by strong performances and an impressively cinematic visual style (ie the movie doesn't look like it was surreptitiously shot on the cheap). The meandering narrative is, then, initially not as problematic as one might've feared, as filmmaker Randy Moore has infused the proceedings with a palpably ominous feel that does, at the outset, hold a great deal of promise (ie is this all in Jim's mind or are there actually people out to get him?) It's only as writer/director Moore begins emphasizing elements of an increasingly surreal nature that Escape from Tomorrow loses its grip on the viewer, with the movie unable to recover from its turn for the terminally weird at around the halfway mark (ie the film becomes incoherent and baffling to the point of exasperation). The end result is a frustratingly misguided art-house disaster that could (and should) have been so much better, and it's ultimately obvious that the gimmickry on display is the only thing preventing Escape from Tomorrow from sinking into the obscurity it so clearly deserves.
The Book Thief (November 14/13)
Based on the (comparatively stellar) book by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief follows nine-year-old Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) as she and her adoptive parents (Geoffrey Rush's Hans and Emily Watson's Rosa) attempt to survive during the Second World War. It's really quite remarkable the degree to which The Book Thief ultimately fails, as the movie suffers from a lack of positive attributes that's nothing short of disastrous - with filmmaker Brian Percival's inability to even fleetingly hold the viewer's interest compounded by an almost comically deliberate pace. There is, as such, never a point at which one is able to work up any interest in or sympathy for the film's thinly-developed central characters, and it's clear that the pervasive lack of momentum highlights the absence of compelling elements within Michael Petroni's misguided screenplay. Far more problematic is the palpably less-than-authentic feel that's been hard-wired into virtually every aspect of the proceedings, with the rampant artificiality - eg the sets look like sets - exacerbating The Book Thief's hands-off, perpetually uninvolving atmosphere. Percival's last-ditch efforts at tugging at the viewer's heartstrings fall hopelessly flat, and it's ultimately impossible to label The Book Thief as anything less than a complete misfire on almost every level. (The performances are pretty good, admittedly.)
The Broken Circle Breakdown (November 22/13)
The Broken Circle Breakdown details the relationship between a fledgling bluegrass singer (Johan Heldenbergh's Didier) and an impulsive tattoo artist (Veerle Baetens's Elise), with the movie, which unfolds in a non-linear fashion, exploring the pair's initial coupling and their eventual efforts at coping with their child's health concerns. Filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen does a superb job of immediately drawing the viewer into the deliberately-paced proceedings, as the director, working from a script cowritten with Carl Joos, has managed to transform the movie's two central characters into intensely compelling and thoroughly sympathetic figures - with this vibe heightened by the stirring performances from both Heldenbergh and, particularly, Baetens. It's clear, too, that The Broken Circle Breakdown is often a far more emotionally devastating piece of work than one might've initially anticipated, as the narrative's decidedly downbeat nature is heightened by Van Groeningen's unflinching treatment of the material. There's little doubt, however, that the film does start to lose some momentum once it passes a certain point, with the inclusion of a few questionable scenes and sequences - eg Didier unleashes a virulent rant during a concert - resulting in a final half hour that feels somewhat padded out. The movie recovers with a powerful and palpably heartrending closing stretch that more than compensates, which ultimately confirms The Broken Circle Breakdown's place as a difficult-to-watch yet thoroughly rewarding foreign drama. (Oh, and the bluegrass music sprinkled throughout is awfully good, too.)
Sunlight Jr. (November 24/13)
Sunlight Jr. follows downtrodden couple Melissa (Naomi Watts) and Richie (Matt Dillon) as they attempt to overcome a series of financial obstacles, with the movie detailing the pair's exploits over the course of a few especially trying days. Filmmaker Laurie Collyer has infused Sunlight Jr. with a persistently subdued feel that's reflected in its various attributes, with the understated vibe perpetuated by a less-than-eventful storyline and several low-key performances. (This isn't to say, in terms of the latter, that both Watts and Dillon aren't quite good here, as the two actors convincingly step into the shoes of their impoverished characters to a rather remarkable extent.) The authentic atmosphere goes a long way towards initially capturing the viewer's interest, as Collyer does a superb job of establishing the impoverished environs within which the protagonists reside. It is clear, however, that the novelty of the film's downbeat modus operandi eventually wears off, and it does, as a result, become more and more difficult to overlook the rather repetitive nature of Collyer's screenplay (ie the film, past a certain point, seems to strike the same gloomy notes again and again). The movie consequently suffers from a lack of emotional resonance that's both unfortunate and disastrous, with the arms-length feel ensuring that Sunlight Jr. grows increasingly tedious in the buildup to its oddly abrupt conclusion - which effectively cements the picture's place as a well-intentioned yet decidedly underwhelming piece of work.