Thursday, June 21, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

          Is There Anybody Going to Listen to My Story?
                                             Review by Ken Burke
Incisive witty dialogue, unpredictable plot situations, plus an unusual blend of romantic comedy and time-travel add up to a great film, with Juno-Young Adult reverberations.

            Before I even get to my usual avalanche of diversions (Be still, your beating hearts!), I’ll begin with a different diversion brought on by my taking stock, on this first day of summer (at least when I wrote this; the posting is another matter entirely, due to the “sophisticated software” of Google Blogspot—hey, Thought Police, back off with that Delete All button!), of where I’ve evolved with these reviews since beginning them 6 months ago in mid-December and now having imposed 34 postings and 68 reviews on the world, including this one.  Within this time I see that I have essentially agreed with at least the majority of other published, notable colleagues on 38 of my 63 film reviews (the other 5 were of the Academy-nominated Live-Action Short Films, to which I gave individual reviews but others did not)—at least if you separate out the various colleagues who are tallied for Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or Movie Review Intelligence into their various clusters (because of those 63 films there were only 7 times where the tallied critics in each of those clusters came to the same consensus across the 3 groups: Melancholia, Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, Wanderlust, Mirror Mirror, The Five-Year Engagement, and Prometheus; if those more famous folks can’t agree amongst themselves any better than that, why should I care too much about how my numbers stack up against theirs, although by noting that it happens about 2/3’s of the time—at least with one of those prestigious groups—I can at least see that I’m not totally out in critical left field [and speaking from a baseball perspective, this is a faulty metaphor anyway because right field is the more obscure one, at least in terms of number of balls hit thereto]).  Further, of my other 25 non-harmonious reviews (at least in comparison to the folks in the big leagues, to keep playing on the baseball metaphor), 17 of mine have been lower than theirs, so again I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away to the cinema artists of the world.  In fact, of my total 68 reviews I’ve given 4 stars just 19 times and my coveted 5 stars only once (to the magnificent revival of Abel Gance’s 1927 classic Napoleon, presented at Oakland’s Paramount theatre with full Polyvision and a live orchestra for this multi-hour triumph last spring).  All of this got me thinking, especially when I asked myself, “Why only 3 ½ stars for Wes Anderson’s witty Moonrise Kingdom [reviewed in my June 14 posting, back on another favorite national celebration occasion, Flag Day] but 4 for what seems at first glance to be the equally funny Safety Not Guaranteed from Colin Trevorrow?”  Are my tastes and decisions as murky as Jackson Pollock’s 1947 Full Fathom Five(Could be, given that the painting—shown above on the left—and I were created in the same year.)  But there’s a bit more to it than that for me, Pollock, Moonrise Kingdom, and Safety Not Guaranteed.

            You see, not only am I very stingy with handling out 5-star ratings, reserving that level for only what I consider the very best thereby skewing my comparisons with other critics, many of whom would (and did) give their top 4-star evaluations to both Moonrise Kingdom and Safety Not Guaranteed, but I’m also picky with the ranking of 4 stars because, auteurist that I often am, I sometimes penalize established artists a bit for not transcending their earlier triumphs, even if the current work floats notably above the sludge that defines most of the movie market.  Case in point with Mr. Pollock:  while many consider his most famous images to be those “drip paintings” from roughly 1947 (beginning, for many art critics, with Full Fathom Five) to 1953, with 1952’s Blue Poles (directly above) being the culmination of those “splatter shots” (with one of them parodied as an unrecognized drop cloth in Baltasar Komákur’s action-fest Contraband earlier this year), and there being many undisputed priceless masterpieces of this type of art produced in these years, I still can’t consider all of them equivalent in final composition and impact so if I were having to rate these paintings (Now there’s an idea for a blog; where’s my trademark lawyer?) I couldn’t give all of them the same ranking, even though any one would sell on the open market (or the black market as was the case in Contraband) for more millions than I will ever see in my lottery-less life.  Similarly, with Wes Anderson, I think that Moonrise Kingdom is a precious, enjoyable, funny, well-acted, and well-shot example of contemporary cinema from a singularly creative source, much better than most of what I see on a weekly basis.  However, for me it’s the kind of approach I expect from the stylistically-secure Anderson (just as were Pollock’s carefully controlled splashes and swirls from his highest period), yet it’s not fully of the caliber of something somewhat similar that he did over 10 years ago with The Royal Tenenbaums, which also mixed the foibles of somewhat insane (older) adults and precocious (adult) children in a manner that I think will hold up a bit better over time than Moonrise Kingdom despite the high praise handed out by current reviewers for Moonrise (Rotten Tomatoes—94, Metacritics and Movie Review Intelligence—both 84; just for comparison, Tomatoes critics gave Tenenbaums an 80, Metacritics a 75 [film not archived with Movie Review Intelligence because they didn’t begin until 2009], scores that would be equivalent to the 4 stars I’d give it [on my 5 = 100% system]).

          In essence, while I thoroughly enjoyed both Moonrise Kingdom and Safety Not Guaranteed I admit that I subjectively have lower expectations for virtually-unknown director Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly than I do for Anderson (unfair as that might be in a perfectly objective world; wake me up if the Prometheus or any other deep-space vehicle ever gets that far from our subjectively-driven planet), so that I can not only be taken more by surprise by their hilarious film but I’m also not arbitrarily hindering them with the previous-accomplishment baggage that unfortunately burdens artists in any medium, making it difficult to rise above their earlier triumphs (although, with Pollock as an example, it’s always possible as I’ll note below with some brief references to a couple of films made after the 1960s—the latest decade for any of my All-Time Top 10 [see my March 30 posting on Napoleon. etc. for the specifics] that easily earn my precious 5-star praise).  So, with all of that extensive background foregrounded here’s the actual review of Safety Not Guaranteed for anyone still reading (sounds like the crickets are still awake at least).

            With assurances to my wonderful (beautiful, intelligent, creative, just-retired-with-lifetime-medical-benefits-that-include-me [OK, now I’ve forever lost the anti-pension crowd]) wife, Nina, that the next statement is purely hypothetical, I could watch anything with Aubrey Plaza, even if it weren’t nearly of the quality of Safety Not Guaranteed (Even though I doubt that I’ll actually reconnect with the several films of hers that I haven’t seen     [I don’t get the impression that she’s that critical to any of them nor do any of them sound that critical to me, except in the critically dismissive sense, and once was enough with her sharing screen time with Adam Sandler in Judd Apatow’s 2009 Funny People], while my available time just hasn’t expanded enough yet for more weekly TV shows, although if she’s also this good in NBC’s Parks and Recreation then I’ve got even more reasons than Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari to try to schedule this one in next fall).  As the interestingly-named Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza adds crucial elements to both the romantic comedy and time-travel aspects of this largely-unpredictable, howlingly-funny film.  Her character begins as a post-college, generally-depressive, not-exactly-a-slacker-but-just-barely-better intern at the fictional version of actual Seattle Magazine, where she gets a chance to enliven her life a bit when sent on assignment to help investigate the story behind a guy who takes out a newspaper ad looking for “Someone to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke.  You’ll get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.  Safety not guaranteed.  I have only done this once before.”  As things evolve, Darius is better suited than her co-conspirators to get close to this assumed-to-be-nuts guy, not because she initially believes in his mission but because she can fake the attitude needed to gain his trust better than her jerk reporter-boss, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson, better known to many for his role as Nick on Zooey Deschanel’s FOX TV series, New Girl—another one I’d watch if more time permitted, but more for Zooey than him although he's quite effective as both of these characters).

            The assumed nutcase, Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass, another guy I should know more about [Damn! I keep feeling like the Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976) over-30 termination squad is going to take me away before I can even finish this review] from his independent film acting/directing/producing work, but I just haven’t mustered up enough enthusiasm to get me to The Puffy Chair [2005], Baghead [2008], or Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2011, although Nina did see this one and highly recommended it, but there was that time factor thing again, and we’ll probably see him in Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister anyway]) is clearly a troubled, paranoid soul with delusions about many things—including the true circumstances of his lost love whom he wishes to set things right with by travelling all the way back to … 2001—although when Darius tracks her down for an interview we find that his reality doesn’t mesh much with hers, so who knows what a return trip might yield for him if she wasn’t that connected with him to begin with.  However, despite his many flaws, he proves to be more intriguing to Darius than she ever intended; soon she’s not only trying to probe his inner motivations but is also helping him rob a science lab that has necessary devices for his time machine.  Along the way she begins to find value in his unhinged, survivalist personality, eventually falling for him and choosing to accompany him on the time trip, even though she has to overcome the anger that results from what she perceives as outright lies about the ex-“girlfriend.”

            By the time the actual departure takes place—but their disappearance from the here and now is all you get for a conclusion, as this film is much more about exploring the personalities of those who would embrace or reject time-travel than it is about showing its consequences (go rent the Back to the Future series [Robert Zemeckis; 1985, 1989, 1990] if you want to take literal chronological leaps)—she’s ready to journey with him, not because they need to return to the past for romantic purposes but instead to hopefully prevent the sudden, random death of Darius' mother in 2001, the defining event of her despondent life ever since.  (While my upcoming speculative questions about time-travel are beyond the scope of this very short [86 min.], seemingly inexpensive film, I have to wonder if/when our new lovers get to their destination they might inadvertently merge into their younger selves.  If so, she’d be 14 then, and he’d be just a little older, so if that were the case then they’d benefit from seeing Moonrise Kingdom before they leave the present because they’re probably also going to be dealing with running away from protective parents [once Darius' mom's fate is changed], but maybe there'd be no problem with Kenneth's family because he seems to have been raised by wolves.  Or maybe their young adult selves will just save Mom, then return to the present and get on with their newfound lives.  Or maybe they'd be able to co-exist with their even younger selves—assuming they’d have any interest in such conundrums, and if so they'd better also watch the temporal mindfuck film Primer [Shane Carruth, 2004, a big indie hit at Sundance that year just as Safety Not Guaranteed was this year—in order to remain who they are now but steal 11 years from the space-time continuum.  [Mr. Einstein, could you come over here and sort this out?])  But whatever happens after their time-jump finale, they’ve now merged as soulmates, leaving us to applaud their existential bravery and speculate on the myriad possibilities of what comes next for them.

            What likely won’t be coming anytime soon for Jeff (Remember him from a couple of paragraphs ago?) is any sense of adult responsibility, at least based on the actions he distinguishes himself with throughout Safety Not Guaranteed.  Like Mavis Gary (the recently ubiquitous Charlize Theron) in Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (from late last year; see my review in the 12/21/11 posting), Jeff’s main reason for taking the assignment in Ocean View, WA is to hook up with an old flame, but at least Mavis wanted to reacquire her ex for a permanent life move whereas Jeff just wants more hot sex from a woman whom he assumes will still look like she did as a teenager some years ago.  Even when he does locate Belinda (Jenica Bergere) he’s immediately put off by the reality that she’s aged a bit (as has he, seemingly unbeknownst to him); when he does finally approach (and bed) her, he seems to make a mature move by wanting a serious relationship with her but only from his perspective as he expects her to drop everything and move to Seattle with him.  She’s not interested in following his whims without at least some conversation about it, so he leaves in a huff, noting that he’s “going by choice,” his standard exit line.  Even when he was just entering the return-to-Ocean View scenario it was with crass dismissal and stereotyping, saying that of the several available interns he’ll take the “lesbian” (Darius, seemingly because she wasn’t involved with a man at the time and had a sour attitude toward life) and the “Indian,”  Arnau (Karan Soni), to whom he offers “professional” advice only in the sense of getting him laid by an available young woman simply because Jeff’s concept of manhood has yet to evolve beyond those long-ago Belinda blowjobs.  Yet, even Jeff may find some hope now that he’s witnessed the time-machine departure of Kenneth and Darius, along with corroborating testimony from the government agents tracking Kenneth—not because of any interest in his time-travel device but because his lab thefts tag him as a possible spy—therefore it's possible that he might write a superb article on how our universe has been changed by a simple employee from Grocery Outlet/Bargain Market, forging ahead with fierce determination and a healthy dose of self-induced delusions.  Or maybe he’ll just go back to the nearest Ocean View bar and see what this generation’s version of Belinda might bring.  He’s that kind of guy in that kind of film, good for us if not for him.

            For me, Safety Not Guaranteed has the unexpected impact and biting wit of Juno (as with Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman, 2007, with Picture, Director, and Actress all nominated for Oscars and Diablo Cody winning for Best Original Screenplay [she also wrote Young Adult]) as well as the delightful screen presence (ease up, Nina; we’ll soon be watching Al Pacino again in our annual Godfather marathon) of Aubrey Plaza, as independent and charming in this current film as Ellen Page was in the previous one.  I couldn’t recommend Safety Not Guaranteed more highly, at least within my afore-elaborated arbitrary limit of only 4 stars for the wonderful but not quite timeless cinematic moments that it provides.

            But to prove that there are some films that do belong in my hallowed 5-star (or even 4 ½-star, although I’m not quite sure what falls there yet; maybe the wonderful Bride of Frankenstein [James Whale, 1935], with its delicious mix of horror and humor, or the original Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977] or Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981] which are classics in their own right but not fully “timeless cinematic moments”) realm, I’d like to note 2 that I bring to your attention solely because they’ve just recently re-crossed my viewing path on DVD, Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 Autumn Sonata and Sam Mendes’ 2008 Revolutionary Road, both of which, for me, should have been the Best Picture winners in their respective years but that was not to be.  Bergman’s searing encounter of Charlotte Andergast, a haughty world-famous-pianist mother, and Eva, her married-to-a-country-pastor-while-bearing-the-responsibitity-of-caring-for-her-disabled-sibling angry daughter, is still powerful to watch, not only for the incisive dialogue written by Bergman and directed by him in an intimate, intentionally discomforting manner but also for the flawless performances by screen legends Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann (not as legendary to non-art-house moviegoers as Ingrid, but an actress who nevertheless deserves to be discussed in the same lofty league as Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep).  For some cinephiles Autumn Sonata may bring up the hard-to-call-it-a-classic-when-the-artist-has-done-such-signicant-other-work discussion with which I began this review, especially in Bergman’s case with The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), Cries & Whispers (1972), and Fanny and Alexander (1982), but for me Autumn Sonata belongs in that hallowed group, even though it’s smaller in scope but just as powerful as the others.  Motion Picture Academy voters didn’t agree in 1978, not even nominating it for best Foreign Language Film, although they did see fit to nominate Ingrid for Best Actress (lost to Jane Fonda for Coming Home [Hal Ashby]) and Ingmar for Best Original Screenplay (also lost to Coming Home’s team of Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt, and Robert J. Jones; Michael Camino’s The Deer Hunter took Best Picture that year).  But, hey, what do they know compared to my brilliance?  I encourage you to see for yourself.

            Jump ahead 30 years (I think that Kenneth and Darius can help you with that) and you’ll find another 5-star winner from me, Revolutionary Road, which also is more impressive in my eyes than to the Academy voters.  Despite my choice of this film for Best Picture it wasn’t even nominated for that category; in fact, Best Supporting Actor for Michael Shannon (see the long clip noted below), Art Direction, and Costume Design were its only contending options in the year of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle) and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan; and the pubic outcry was much louder for the omission of the Batman film for Picture and Director contention, thus leading to the expanded options today for up to 10 nominees for Best Picture).  At least Kate Winslet was honored that year as Best Actress, but for The Reader  (Stephen Daldry, also nominated for Director along with his film for Picture), so she didn’t have to compete with herself as did Jessica Lange in 1982 when she lost for Frances (Graeme Clifford) as Best Actress but won as Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, also nominated as was his film, but that was the year of Gandhi [Richard Attenborough] and Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice [Alan J. Pakula]).  Despite the Academy's snubs, Revolutionary Road gives us the intense, heartbreaking 1950s story of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit-ish Frank and April Wheeler, an originally devoted couple who lose themselves in their era and its stifling expectations, but this film didn’t have the same Academy resonance as Mendes’ 1999 American Beauty (Best Picture, Director, Actor [Kevin Spacey], Cinematography [Conrad L. Hall], and Original Screenplay [Alan Ball]) so Revolutionary Road seems to be regarded by some in the industry as a lesser work, but it’s Blue Poles for me (you may have to re-read the first couple of paragraphs for that to make sense) and still one of the best films I’ve seen since 2001 (where we assume Darius and Kenneth ended up, if his engineering is better than his charisma).  I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these viewing options, no matter how many stars they’ve racked up with me or anyone else.

            If you’d like to know more about Safety Not Guaranteed here are some suggested links: (an 8-minute review done by a couple of reasonably well-informed guys [although the story doesn’t take place in northern California, as they state] after they had just seen the film at Sundance before there was a lot of other information all over the Internet; ultimately, they’re as wordy as I am but from a much younger perspective if you’d be interested in their views)

            If you’d like to probe back into the past via seeing a classic older film (1978) here are some suggested links for Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata: (a 10:39 clip from the film that shows its quiet but increasingly intense confrontation between mother and daughter; the power of the scene comes through quite well and gives you a great opportunity to decide if you could stand to watch 90 min. of this scorching intergenerational encounter, but it’s a bit distracting visually because the slightly wide-screen format has been compressed into traditional 4x3 ratio which gives this clip a “squeezed” look)

            If you’d like to go back just a bit to the past with a great 2008 film, but one that then takes you even further back than Safety Not Guaranteed’s 2001 destination with a searing trip into the land of 1950s aspiring middle-class American lost souls, then here are some suggested links for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road: (4:25 clip where it all falls apart and all the leads really shine, especially Michael Shannon as the “crazy” but honest Americana accuser and DiCaprio as the defensive—but “caught”—accused; this is absolutely the essence of the film despite its many fine other moments)

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