Safety Not Guaranteed (2011)

Time travel movies generally belong to the geeks. Back To The Future, 12 Monkeys, Donnie Darko… With Safety Not Guaranteed, though, geeks are just going to have to accept it – time travel has been pinched by independent film. And thank goodness for that.

A unique, offbeat genre-splicer, SNG is entirely its own thing. That much is clear from the offset with the involvement of mumblecore kid Mark Duplass, the writer-director of improv dramedies Baghead and Cyrus. Here, Duplass swaps writing for acting as Kenneth Calloway, a loner who believes he’s discovered the secret to time-jumping. All he needs is a co-pilot, which is what prompts him to post an ad in the paper in search of one.

That ad is discovered by cocky magazine worker Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), who recruits two interns – mopey twentysomething Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and uber-nerd Arnau (Karan Soni) – to help him get his story. Except then Darius starts to get close to Kenneth, who may not be as crazy as he at first seemed.

Safety Not Guaranteed debuted at this year’s Sundance Festival to rave reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. Though the time travel aspect offers a zesty sci-fi twist, SNG is really an amiable, affecting character drama with bags of heart. Much of that comes courtesy of Darius and Kenneth’s unfurling relationship, which is sensitively navigated with all schmaltz thankfully trimmed.

Most impressive is Plaza, who’s been trading acerbic barbs on the big and small screen lately in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Damsels In Distress and TV show Parks And Recreation. Here, she shaves down the hard edges of her previous screen-carnations, emerging as a quirkily winsome and unconventional leading lady.

If all this sounds vaguely sombre and meandering, fear not: SNG is also laugh-out-loud funny. Whether it’s Jeff’s motor-mouthed insults or the ludicrous training activities Kenneth puts Darius through, there are more laughs in SNG than most comedies you’ll see this year. The final scene is also pure unadulterated joy, and ensures you’ll leave the cinema with a big grin on your face.

That Safety Not Guaranteed even works is, in itself, a miracle. With its mash of romance, comedy and sci-fi, not to mention big themes and many mysteries, it should really be a jumbled muddle. First-time director Colin Trevorrow makes it look easy, though, and his film is a peculiar, idiosyncratic vision that’s tender and refreshingly original. Welcome to the cult classic of tomorrow… 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

The Artist (2011)

There’s a certain poetry in the fact that a black and white silent film – which features nary a full sentence of audible dialogue – has been eliciting hollers and hooplas of delight the world over. Because that’s exactly what The Artist, a rare and exquisite production, has been receiving. Not because it pushes boundaries or breaks any rules, but because it’s an opportune reminder of just what filmmaking is all about.

Yes, The Artist is a silent movie. And yes, it’s in black and white. But in this era of overblown CGI and audience-baiting 3D, it is the perfect antidote to the technology-gone-wild filmmaking that has taken modern cinema hostage. With his sweet, even-tempered ode to classic picture crafting, director Michel Hazanavicius has proven that while James Cameron and ilk are championing in-yer-face 3D thrills, there’s nothing better than a simple story told well.

And boy does The Artist tell it well. Dipping into timeless themes that extend beyond its 1920s setting, The Artist stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent movie actor who finds that the advent of ‘talkies’ means he’ll either have to change with the times or get swallowed up by the onset of flash new technology. Meanwhile, bright young thing Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is just breaking into the biz, and finds herself swept into the movie industry as its breakout pin-up – not least thanks to a fateful encounter with Valentin.

It’s not hard to sympathise with George. In The Artist’s opening moments, a panic not dissimilar to George’s mistrust of ‘talkies’ sets in. “What’s this?” an inner voice whimpers. “An entire film with barely a single line of dialogue, nor a solitary explosion of diagetic sound?” Such fears are quickly quelled, though, in the presence of director Hazanavicius’s confident moviemaking. Brisk, flirty and hilarious, The Artist is a breath of fresh air in an arena increasingly crowded out by big budget brutes.

Why the denial of a sound five stars? Well, while The Artist garners giggles and well-earned affection in its opening two acts, its third suffers through unmistakable slumps. Early scenes are playful and buoyant, but as the comedy dissolves into noirish drama, The Artist stretches itself a fraction too thinly. Meanwhile, a final scene development works thematically (just watch those changes roll in), but fails to achieve the undying classic status it’s clearly reaching for.

In this era of technology gone mad, though, The Artist is a joyful, rousing reminder that not everything on the big screen need have cost the same as Madonna’s latest 50 acre pad. Exhilarating and super-smart, The Artist is quite possibly the film of the year. And that’s really saying something. 4/5

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold isn’t the most obvious choice for a new adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’, Emily Brontë’s rousingly romantic nineteenth-century novel. But by breaking away from the sterilised likes of Laurence Olivier’s 1939 rendition, Arnold returns Heights to its grubby, twisted roots.

Confidently making Brontë’s story her own, Arnold’s film is at once a modernisation (her characters hurl F-bombs and C-grenades that would have made the author herself blush), a respectful adaptation and a gutsy re-imagining.

If Brontë evoked the barren Yorkshire moors as a representation of central character Heathcliff’s innately wild nature, Arnold takes the metaphor one step further by casting the traditionally white role anew. Here, Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) is a young black boy who’s dragged in from the moors (“It was the Christian thing to do”) and befriends twin spirit Catherine (Shannon Beer). But with Catherine’s brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) crippled by jealous rage, Heathcliff’s in for a tough time.

Music-less and virtually dialogue free, Arnold’s film relies on helter-skelter images and meaningful glances for its impetus. Filmed in a loose, hand-held fashion, Heights is best in its superior first half when it unites the coarse beauty of the Yorkshire moors with an impressive cast of young first-timers, all of whom deliver raw, unsentimental turns that pulsate with feeling.

Despite her exceptional players, there’s no question who Arnold thinks the real star is. The director is in love with her turbulent Yorkshire landscapes, and embraces the elements almost to a fault. While the rain-lashed imagery kindles a fittingly feral mood, her repetitive use of certain images derails any sense of pace. At times, Heights nearly resembles a David Attenborough documentary.

Something to be respected more than enjoyed, Heights is too long by a good 30 minutes (its second half struggles to hit Brontë’s emotional beats), and would have packed more punch with a little careful pruning.

Anticipation: Andrea Arnold skips from kitchen sink drama to period tragedy. Intriguing. 4

Enjoyment: Passionate and faithful, Arnold’s film is striking but staggers toward a lethargic climax. 3

In Retrospect: A gutsy if not entirely successful interpretation of Brontë’s tome. 3

Via Little White Lies