Mini Reviews (June 2014)
Belle, Fed Up, Maleficent, The Fault in Our Stars, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Obvious Child, Being Ginger
Belle (June 2/14)
Inspired by true events, Belle follows the title character (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an 1800s Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode's John Lindsay), as she attempts to navigate the stuffy, upper-crust landscape into which she's been dropped. Filmmaker Amma Asante has infused Belle with a somber, deliberately-paced atmosphere that's part-and-parcel with movies of this ilk, and there's little doubt that the film is, for the most part, rarely as engrossing as Asante clearly wants it to be - with the underwhelming vibe exacerbated by the inclusion of several less-than-compelling subplots (eg Belle is embroiled in a love triangle between two competing suitors, even though it's immediately apparent which man she'll end up with). It's clear, though, that Belle benefits a great deal from Mbatha-Raw's consistently captivating turn as the sympathetic protagonist, with the actress' immersive performance ensuring that the movie is at its best when focused on her character's day-to-day struggles - and yet scripter Misan Sagay is unable or unwilling to sustain the focus on Belle for more than a few minutes at a time, choosing instead to flood the proceedings with one superfluous periphery element after another. (It's difficult, for example, to work up much interest in the trial that dominates much of the film's third act.) The lack of passion or emotional resonance ultimately cements Belle's place as a lackluster and terminally static period drama, and it does seem obvious that the inherently stirring material could (and should) have been employed to much better effect (ie this is just lifeless, for the most part).
Fed Up (June 5/14)
Fed Up, for the most part, boasts the feel of a short news piece that's somehow been expanded to feature length, as director Stephanie Soechtig hammers the viewer over the head with her (admittedly cogent) message for the duration of the movie's 92 minute running time. Soechtig, along with co-writer Mark Monroe, has set out to explore America's obesity epidemic and the degree to which it's been perpetuated by the food industry, with the filmmaker offering up a wealth of facts and interviews to support her difficult-to-deny point. It's ultimately clear that Fed Up, though watchable from beginning to end, is only able to wholeheartedly hold the viewer's interest in fits and starts, as Soechtig employs a scattershot approach that paves the way for a distinctly (and palpably) uneven atmosphere. The inclusion of undeniably fascinating tidbits (eg most fruit juices are as bad for you as soda) goes a long way towards initially compensating for the erratic vibe, while Soechtig's decision to spend time with a few overweight kids and teens proves effective at infusing the proceedings with a much-needed human component. There inevitably reaches a point, however, at which Fed Up demonstrably runs out of steam, with the movie striking many of the same notes in its second half as it did in its first - with the only respite Soechtig's sporadic emphasis on eye-opening elements (including the revelation that "soda is the cigarette of the 21st century"). The end result is a well-intentioned documentary that simply doesn't earn its full-length running time, which is too bad, certainly, given that the movie boasts an important message and a number of thoroughly intriguing factoids.
Maleficent (June 6/14)
Inspired by the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent follows Angelina Jolie's title character as she places a curse on the first-born daughter of a vicious king (Sharlto Copley's Stefan) - with the movie detailing Maleficent's change of heart as she grows closer to said offspring (Elle Fanning's Aurora). It's clear immediately that first-time filmmaker Robert Stromberg isn't looking to reinvent the genre here, as Maleficent boasts a high-energy, larger-than-life sensibility that's reminiscent of such similarly-themed contemporary updates as Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful - with the movie stocked to the gills with impressive special effects, scenery-chewing performances, and an overall atmosphere of kid-friendly entertainment. And while the superficial, eye-candy-heavy vibe is engaging enough for a while, Maleficent slowly-but-surely loses its tenuous grip on the viewer as the almost egregiously thin storyline plods along - with the meandering midsection playing a pivotal role in securing the film's downfall (ie Linda Woolverton's script spends far too much time on elements of a less-than-engrossing nature, including the exploits of three bumbling fairies). It's clear, however, that Maleficent does possess a number of positive attributes that sporadically buoy the viewer's interest, with Jolie's energetic performance and the heartwarming resolution of the title character's curse standing as highlights. (Of course, Stromberg immediately counteracts the effectiveness of the latter by closing the proceedings with a needlessly broad, CGI-heavy battle.) The end result is a typically forgettable blockbuster that falls right in line with its fast-paced and empty-headed predecessors, although, to be fair, Maleficent does benefit from the inclusion of a few surprise plot twists along the way (ie the movie doesn't always follow the pattern of its 1959 inspiration).
The Fault in Our Stars (June 7/14)
Based on John Green's superb novel, The Fault in Our Stars details the relationship that unfolds between two cancer-afflicted teenagers (Shailene Woodley's Hazel and Ansel Elgort's Gus) and the impact the coupling has on their own lives and the lives of the various characters surrounding them. Filmmaker Josh Boone, along with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, does a superb job of capturing the atmosphere and tone of Green's book, and there's little doubt that the movie benefits substantially from its array of pitch-perfect performances - with Woodley and Elgort stepping into the shoes of their literary creations to an extent that's nothing short of astounding. (It doesn't hurt, either, that there's a palpable degree of chemistry between the two actors.) It's equally clear, however, that Boone doesn't quite have the cinematic sensibilities demanded by the material, as the director, for the most part, has infused The Fault in Our Stars with an overly faithful and far-too-deliberate feel that paves the way for a distinct made-for-television feel - which does, as a result, dull the impact of the narrative's many emotional twists and turns (ie it's possible to walk out of the film having shed nary a tear, even if the book provoked waterworks during similar moments). And while the movie is ultimately unable to become the engrossing, electrifying adaptation one might've hoped for, The Fault in Our Stars is nevertheless a satisfying drama that perhaps might fare better among viewers without any knowledge of the source material (ie Green probably set the bar too high for the film to reach).
SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (June 13/14)
Directed by Mike Myers and Beth Aala, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon chronicles the life and career of Hollywood insider Shep Gordon - with the film following Gordon from his early days as Alice Cooper's manager through to his friendships with various celebrities and his work in the movie industry (and beyond). Filmmakers Myers and Aala have infused SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon with a fast-paced and impressively easygoing feel that proves an ideal complement to the movie's subject, as Gordon is portrayed as an affable nice guy with nary a bad word to say about anybody - which naturally does ensure that he becomes an increasingly engrossing figure as the proceedings unfold. And although Myers and Aala devote just a little too much time to Gordon's Alice Cooper-fueled exploits, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon moves at a brisk clip that's perpetuated by an ongoing emphasis on thoroughly amusing anecdotes - including the revelation that Gordon agreed to share custody of his cat with next-door neighbor Cary Grant. It's clear, too, that the film benefits substantially from its peek into Gordon's personal life, with Myers and Aala offering up a number of engrossing tales of Gordon's philanthropy and penchant for cookery and house parties - while the movie, impressively enough, also boasts several unexpectedly heartrending and emotional moments (eg Gordon's friendship with Teddy Pendergrass, his failed marriage to an aspiring chef, etc). The end result is a very loving, very one-sided portrait of a man with, seemingly, few faults, and yet it's impossible not to become wrapped up in this engrossing story of a life almost excessively well lived.
Obvious Child (June 15/14)
A thoroughly entertaining and engaging comedy/drama, Obvious Child follows struggling comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) as she falls pregnant after a drunken one-night stand - with the remainder of the movie detailing Donna's ongoing efforts at dealing with this life-changing event. First-time filmmaker Gillian Robespierre has infused Obvious Child with a heartfelt, engrossing feel that's heightened by Slate's revelatory performance, as the actress steps into the shoes of her appealing character to an absolutely (and consistently) astonishing degree - with Slate's magnificent turn ensuring that Donna becomes a thoroughly charismatic and endearing figure right from the get-go. The compulsively watchable atmosphere is heightened by Robespierre's naturalistic sensibilities, as the writer/director does a superb job of establishing Donna's relationships with the various people in her life - including her divorced parents (Richard Kind's Jacob and Polly Draper's Nancy), her pragmatic best friend (Gaby Hoffman's Nellie), and the father of her unborn baby (Jake Lacy's Max). (It's generally clear that the movie's sweetest moments come courtesy of the central character's ongoing interactions with the latter.) Obvious Child's shift from very good to great is triggered by several heartfelt and unexpectedly emotional moments that crop up in its final third, and there's little doubt that Robespierre's ability to comfortably balance comedy with drama ultimately confirms the film's place as a seriously impressive debut - with Slate's jaw-dropping turn as the affable protagonist surely marking the arrival of a fierce new acting talent.
Being Ginger (June 21/14)
A slight yet affable documentary, Being Ginger follows redheaded filmmaker Scott P. Harris as he explores the apparent bias against individuals sharing his distinctive hair color - with the movie also detailing Harris' efforts to land a girlfriend and, eventually, his exploits at a festival just for redheads. There's little doubt that Harris does a superb job of immediately drawing the viewer into the proceedings, as Being Ginger opens with an appealing stretch revolving around Harris' interviews with attractive bystanders - with the director's ulterior motive of looking for a girlfriend resulting in an unexpectedly compelling romcom vibe. From there, Being Ginger segues into a midsection that's rife with asides and tangents of varying effectiveness - as Harris tackles a variety of issues related to his central thesis (including the bullying he underwent as an adolescent). It goes without saying that certain topics fare better than others, although it's equally clear that the movie remains perfectly watchable from start to finish - with the most entertaining portion of the film certainly Harris' interview with a bubbly woman who absolutely (and unabashedly) abhors redheads. Harris' earnest personality goes a long way towards compensating for the movie's erratic atmosphere, with the viewer's growing affection for the filmmaker ensuring that the final stretch, involving Harris' exploits at a festival for redheads, packs more of an emotional punch than one might've anticipated. And although Harris misses a major opportunity by not introducing (and possibly dating) his sarcastic camerawoman, Being Ginger ultimately comes off as a engaging little film that bodes well for Harris' future endeavors behind (and in front of) the camera.