This Week on Demand: 17/03/2013

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After the paltry offerings that constituted last week’s slate of new releases, any collection of films would look appealing by comparison; exciting as this batch thusly seems, it is another weak week on demand, only three titles particularly noteworthy, the rest ranging from unbearably boring to mildly distracting. It’s largely a showcase for the independents, the vast majority of these precisely the kind of films that now rely on avenues like Netflix to reach their prospective audiences. A sole foreign feature and one blast from the past are all that break the mold, both welcome derivations from a disappointing batch. Let’s hope next week can life our spirits; this is starting to get a little tedious.


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16 to Life

Clearly riffing on Clerks in the constitution of its narrative structure, 16 to Life restricts itself to the confines of a single workday at an Iowan fast food stand, centring primarily on Kate as she celebrates her sixteenth birthday and laments her non-existent love life while meddling in that of her co-workers. Adherent to formula with very few exceptions, it’s a decidedly unremarkable but undeniably charming story, writer/director Becky Smith graduating from a career in television—How to Look Good Naked being her most noteworthy credit—with commendable success. Her dialogue, as delivered by a cast who seamlessly interlock, brings a naturalistic appeal to the comedy, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of this workplace. Well-intentioned dramatic efforts contribute a nice sense of character depth, Kate and her friends each fleshed-out to a restricted but effective extent in their various subplots as they while the day away with their entertaining interactions. WORTH WATCHING.


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Amber Lake

Taking its cue from Rashomon, Joe Robert Cole’s debut examines the circumstances that led to the death of a man from the respective perspectives of his three daughters, each of a different mother, each named Amber, and each, until one day prior, unaware of the others’ existence. Perhaps a passable plot on paper, Amber Lake immediately buckles under the weight of its painfully poor performances, each of its leads delivering their stale dialogue with wince-inducing theatricality. Nonsensically pitched at a point of shrieking hysteria, the bulk of the dialogue beggars belief in its inherent inanity, none of these characters apparently able to make it through a sentence without descending into sweary screams. As poorly directed as it is scripted, as unconvincing in conclusion as it is in construction, Amber Lake is a disaster from start to finish, a ludicrous offering from all involved, and a textbook case of how not to emulate a classic. AVOID IT.


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And They’re Off

A horseracing mockumentary cast in the mold of Christopher Guest, And They’re Off stars Sean Astin as wannabe trainer Dusty, whose dwindling prospects both professionally and personally offer the bulk of the comedy in long-time TV director Rob Schiller’s feature debut. Consistently witty, if never outrageously so, it’s a perfectly decent capitalisation on a oft-misused idea, Astin proving both a solidly dependably comic lead and pitifully schlubby magnet to audience sympathy. Stealing each and every scene he appears in, though, is Martin Mull as Dusty’s father, who—despite being saddled with one particularly unfunny recurring gag—elevates the movie to a whole new level of comic achievement. It’s evident from the credits-accompanying gag reel that much of the dialogue was improvisational; Mull exhibits an immense talent for upping the game and getting the best from his fellow cast members. It’s largely thanks to him that And They’re Off, despite its softness, works quite so well. WORTH WATCHING.


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Earthling

An ambitious enigma of a film, Clay Liford’s ponderous low-budget sci-fi Earthling is as mysterious to the viewer as the events of its plot are to its protagonists. Following their lives in the aftermath of a strange incident aboard the ISS, it reveals its hand slowly across its two-hour runtime, preferring to dwell on its characters rather than its more supernatural elements. Liford is at his best when channelling Cronenberg and Lynch in the disturbing oddity of his body horror, various strange tendrils and tongue-creatures providing plentiful gruesome imagery to keep the squeamish shrieking. Where he’s less successful, unfortunately, is just about everywhere else: his dialogue drops like lead from his actors’ mouths; his flat aesthetic makes the film a visual bore; his broad mythology is ill-suited to the short-form storytelling of a feature film. The bizarre direction the narrative eventually takes may well make sense; what doesn’t is why we should care. AVOID IT.


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Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film

Inspired to become an experimental filmmaker by little more than his dog urinating on an old home movie, Pip Chodorov brings an exquisitely honest perspective to this charming and candid overview of cinema’s most oft-ignored wing. Replete with interviews with the likes of Stan Brakhage and Robert Breer, Jonas Mekas and Hans Richter, Free Radicals makes no efforts to aggrandise its art; it posits these figures not as serious disestablishmentarians, but rather as playful creatives out to try something new. A liberal scattering of clips—and even a few full shorts—illustrate the observations of Chodorov’s cheerful and engaging voiceover, as do the amusing and enlightening interviews he conducts with these figures, now each in the throes of old age. Not quite a comprehensive guide to experimental cinema, Free Radicals stands nonetheless as a perfectly effective crash course, a witty and wistful ode to an alternate form of filmmaking. RECOMMENDED.


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Herpes Boy

A self-confessed hater of people—all people, without exception—Rudolph takes to the internet at every available interval to complain in vlog form about his life, his family, his unattractive facial birthmark, and everything else he can possibly think to complain about. When his attention-hungry cousin remixes his videos to feature her various talents and the pair go viral, he struggles to deal with haters amidst the real-world difficulty of his father’s death. At times amusingly quirky, at times gratingly shouty, Herpes Boy is an earnest coming-of-age comedy that struggles to settle on a target audience, its often-juvenile humour jarring with its sexual language and weighty thematic material. Scripted by star Byron Lane, it’s something of a meandering mess that nonetheless functions on a basic level, balancing humour and pathos to reasonable effect, largely thanks to a strong supporting cast including Beth Grant, Michael Chieffo, and Octavia Spencer. SO-SO.


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Metropolitan

Prior to his reappearance with last year’s Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman had a reputation as something of a cinematic spectre, emerging from nowhere to direct a trilogy of films about the mannerisms of the upper class in the 1990s before disappearing entirely from the face of the film industry. Metropolitan was the first of these, and earned Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay alongside several other honours; concerning a group of Manhattan preppies on Christmas vacation from their first year of university, it’s a slyly scathing take on the pretences of entitled youth. Edward Clements plays Tom, an accidental addition to this group who fulfils the dual role of audience surrogate and conduit to the film’s most interesting philosophical discourses, of which there are many. Its intellect is Metropolitan’s strongest facet, but also the factor that withholds meaningful emotional engagement; for all its achievements, it’s more a good film than a great. RECOMMENDED.


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One Hundred Years of Evil

What proof do we really have of Hitler’s demise? His body never recovered, supposedly burned after suicide, isn’t it possible that he might somehow have survived the war and lived on long after? That’s the silly supposition at the heart of Erik Eger and Magnus Oliv’s unyieldingly tongue-in-cheek mockumentary One Hundred Years of Evil, an increasingly absurd and delightfully deadpan emulation of conspiracy theory documentaries that traces the dictator through his secret post-war life in the United States and behind-the-scenes roles in the Red Scares, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Programme, and more. Supported with a wide variety of altered archival material, the film earns points aplenty to its rigid commitment to keeping a straight face, but its focus on this factual façade often comes at the cost of comedy, the laughs waning as the plot thickens. Amusing, if never riotously so, this is an original capitalisation on an idea ripe with potential. WORTH WATCHING.


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She Monkeys

Equally comparable to both Water Lilies and Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s powerful examinations of gender and sexuality, Swedish director Lisa Aschan makes her attention-grabbing feature debut in She Monkeys, the bipartite story of Emma and Sara, young daughters to a single father. The elder of the two and an amateur equestrian acrobat, Emma begins a sexually charged relationship with one of her teammates, their strange intimacy a suitably mercurial encapsulation of the odd power plays of pubescent youth. Sara, meanwhile—endearingly portrayed by the scene-stealing Isabelle Lindquist—reaches the age of sexual awareness, pestering her father to buy her a new bikini and innocently asking her babysitting cousin whether they are in love. Perfectly pitched between the sweet tone of the latter story and the sinister undertones of the former, She Monkeys is a brilliant debut, an intriguing look at issues of sexuality as funny as it is fascinating. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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The Dish and the Spoon

Opening to the sound of its lead howling as she speeds—dressed only in pyjamas—through a tunnel, The Dish and the Spoon is far removed from the fairytale optimism its title might suggest. She is Rose, a young wife distraught by the news of her husband’s affair who flees on a whim without even her wallet or phone, meeting along the way a lovelorn English immigrant with whom she aimlessly wanders through an indiscriminate coastal town. Strong performances from Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander can’t compensate for the underwhelming characters and tiresome tone—variously histrionic and humdrum—of director Alison Bagnall’s script, her mishandling of the material leading to a discordant conclusion that couldn’t seem more out of place. The leads’ strong interaction amounts to a reasonable scattering of effective laughs throughout, though never enough to lift the story from the dull territory in which it primarily resides. SO-SO.


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The Limits of Control

Working with the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his incredible work with Wong Kar-Wai, Jim Jarmusch creates in The Limits of Control a film alive with visual beauty, every minute detail of its central character’s daily routine rendered in sumptuous aesthetic effulgence. He is a classic “Man with No Name” type, his macabre mystique consummately channelled through Isaach De Bankolé’s stoic performance as he travels through Spain, meeting a series of strangers in pursuit of some unstated goal. Initially alluring in its cryptic approach, the film quickly grows as tiresome as Jarmusch does indulgent, calling on a troupe of famous friends for walk-on roles all repeating the same mysterious dialogue. Far less profound than it seems to think, The Limits of Control has been praised in some quarters as a savvy deconstruction of narrative itself; that’s all well and good, but does it have to be quite so tedious, devoid of all atmosphere and enticement? SO-SO.

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • Nothing here sound particularly noteworthy, except for She Monkeys.

  • Ronan

    Another rough week. Things had better start looking up by next Sunday!

  • Daniel Tucker

    I’d be interested to hear what you think are the best things on Netflix right now.

  • The Best of Youth!