By far the thinnest field of releases to hit Netflix since this column’s humble beginnings all the way back in April, the mere six selections on offer this week still manage to bring a reckonable range of cinematic treats to the table. How fitting that the year’s final batch should come entirely from this year; taking us from one of the 2012’s most well-received releases to one of its worst, these films together encompass an impressive encapsulation of a fine year of film. Here’s to a great year on demand.
Comparable above all to last year’s emotionally wrenching We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague shares that film’s focus on the AIDS-inflicted gay community’s DIY efforts toward curing the epidemic, left as they were without the support of government or—for the most part—wider society. Divergent in his focus particularly upon the bureaucratic aspects of the campaign and the community’s own underground drug testing, director David France perhaps loses the directly personal resonance of We Were Here yet finds an emotional relativity all of his own in the valiant tales of those determined to do what they could in the face of homophobic cultural sentiment. Rightly praised aplenty as one of the year’s most powerful and important works of documentary film, How to Survive a Plague speaks out for those who no longer can, its intermittent death toll gradually rising along with the frustrations and furies sure to be raised in every viewer. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
One of two features from Mark and Jay Duplass to see release in 2012—the other, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, is also released on demand this week (see below)—Jeff, Who Lives at Home unites Jason Segel and Ed Helms as brothers: the former is the eponymous, Signs-obsessed slacker; the latter is the hard-working newlywed long disparaged with his freeloading sibling’s antics. Playing off a script delicately poised between silly comedy and genuine—if slightly strained—drama, Helms and Segel work wonders together, as too does Susan Sarandon as the pair’s mother. The increasing oddity of the narrative, chiefly structured around an investigation into Helm’s wife’s apparent affair, never stands in the way of its probing investigations of these characters; for all the abstractions of its overwrought thematic yearnings and some ineffective humour, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an honest look at the family dynamic, a witty and warming take on love in all its many forms. RECOMMENDED.
One for the Money
The first big screen outing of Janet Evanovich’s popular bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, now the star of some twenty novels, One for the Money explores the character’s introduction to her unusual profession, her desperate financial worries leading her to take whatever job she can find. Presumably aiming to lay the groundwork for a potentially lucrative female-helmed action franchise, One for the Money abandons all potential in favour of (predominantly unfunny) comedy, Stephanie routinely failing at all turns and having to be rescued from sticky situations by, of course, a man. Lazily scripted and hammily acted, what might have been a strong heroine rapidly becomes a sordid joke, Heigl doing her best to retain the character’s dignity amidst a nonsensical plot complete with abhorrently flat romantic interest. Many criticised Haywire’s Gina Carano for a lacklustre performance: at least she existed as a strong, self-sufficient character; beside Heigl, she fast becomes a female Rambo. AVOID IT.
An appropriate accompaniment to this year’s masterful horror comedy Excision, Sassy Pants similarly tackles the fallacy of teenage femininity, boasting a powerhouse performance from Ashley Rickards as home-schooled eighteen year old Bethany, victim to an overprotective mother who rigorously holds her daughter to the pink-clad archetype of young womanhood. As much an affecting, dramatically abrasive investigation of the damage such gender-specific expectations can render as a relentlessly funny comic adventure, it’s an exceptionally well-balanced work of spiteful satire, writer/director Coley Sohn displaying a charismatic confidence so rarely observed in first features. Her script is so sharp, so measured, so hilarious as to make her a name worthy of careful watch. Elevated yet further by its flawless supporting cast, none better than a stunningly different Haley Joel Osment as the young lover of Bethany’s estranged gay father, Sassy Pants is viewing worthy of prescription not only to all teenage girls, but simply to all people. HIGHLY RECOMMEDED.
Considered together with Jeff, Who Lives at Home, it might be fair to observe that The Do-Deca-Pentathlon attests a certain self-reference to the Duplass’ work, this second film’s focus again on a pair of brothers a sure hint of certain autobiographical tendencies to their filmography. We can only hope not: if Jay and Mark Duplass share any similarities to their central characters here they must be emotionally stilted and unbearably petulant people indeed. A far more modest offering than Jeff, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon sees squabbling siblings Mark and Jeremy recreate the titular 25 event contest, the source of their disconnect some two decades prior. Playing essentially like a discarded idea for the year’s other Duplass film—the characters’ living situations are even remarkably similar—this is a work of such lesser quality as to inspire wonder as to how it can have come from the same minds at all, neither its comedy nor drama even half as convincing. AVOID IT.
The Well Digger’s Daughter
Continuing to work as one of France’s most respected actors now into his seventh decade, Daniel Auteuil takes the directorial reins of The Well Digger’s Daughter, making his behind-the-camera debut with this unashamedly traditional wartime tale of a father torn between the honour of his family name and his love for the daughter who finds herself unexpectedly with child. Earnest, simplistic class drama follows when the child’s father is revealed as the heroic soldier son of a well-to-do family; Auteuil, co-writing as well as portraying the titular well digger, avoids excess obsession with the plot’s darker thematic questions, keeping proceedings primarily light and witty. His own character at times seems underwritten, preaching love while never practicing, yet there’s enough in the charismatic charm of the performance to gloss over such minor qualms. Sweet and satisfying, if ever so slight, The Well Digger’s Daughter is a fondly old-fashioned family drama upheld by its strong cast. WORTH WATCHING.