The best of the rest…
Your Sister’s Sister
Set in the idyllic Pacific Northwest, writer-director Lynn Shelton’s latest feature (and one of my personal festival favorites) “Your Sister’s Sister” is a humorous and witty take on the nuances of friend and family relationships. At the behest of his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), Al (Mark Duplass) ventures off to her family’s cabin for some quality alone time in the woods to try to come to terms with his brother’s death a year earlier. But instead of peaceful isolation, he finds Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has taken refuge there in order to nurse a bad breakup with a bottle of tequila. What begins as an innocent night of drinking and commiserating eventually ends with them waking up together when, lo and behold, Iris arrives in the morning bearing groceries. The next several days unfold in a tangled web of emotions as both Hannah and Al, for their own reasons, try to hide their tryst from Iris, while Iris begins to think her feelings for Al have evolved from being just friends. Needless to say, all relationships are put to the test. Under Shelton’s writing and direction, the interplay between the trio has a raw and unscripted feel, but less in a reality television way and more like the audience is a ghost in the house experiencing the drama in real time. The intimacy and verisimilitude are all a part of the film’s charm. While the scope of the story may be slightly limited, the intricacies of the characters will draw you in and leave you wanting more.
Juan of the Dead
Capitalizing upon the success of recent zombie comedies, Alejandro Brugués’ “Juan of the Dead” follows a group of unlikely heroes as they cope with the destruction of their hometown, Havana, at the hands of an undead outbreak. A hilariously violent action flick that doesn’t quite outdo its British predecessor (2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” from director Edgar Wright), Brugués’ Cuban-set story is nonetheless a refreshing and thinly veiled political allegory. Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are two average slackers engaging in their favorite pastime, drinking rum on the roof of their tenement while spying on those below and in adjacent buildings, when they begin to notice people behaving a bit strangely. Cuban newscasters calmly inform the public that it is merely an issue of social dissidents paid off by the American government, but after seeing one up close, the two friends quickly realize that the city has a much bigger problem on its hands. Holing up on their roof, the two are soon joined by Lazaro’s brawny son and Juan’s estranged daughter, the neighborhood’s spunky transsexual. As the zombies multiply, Juan, perpetually strapped for cash, decides to milk the situation for profit – by charging civilians for killing their undead loved ones. Under Juan’s leadership, the group makes a decent killing; that is, until Havana becomes completely overrun and it seems as though his crew are the only humans left. At this point, Juan decides that maybe they ought to just hightail it to Miami, but with their city infested with zombies, it might be too late to make a break for it.
Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, last seen with 2007’s “28 Weeks Later,” is back on the scene with “Intruders,” a thrilling supernatural tale that crawls under your skin and toys with your subconscious childhood fears. Mia (Ella Purnell), a young English girl, finds an unfinished short story hidden in a tree outside her grandparents’ house and decides to appropriate it for a school assignment. Cutting between her experience and that of the story’s rightful author, a young Spanish boy, the film explores the power of the imagination. Despite being separated by time and space, as both children become increasingly absorbed in the story, its protagonist begins to haunts them in eerily similar ways. At first it seems as though the children are merely scaring themselves by playing into their own words, but with the more they write, the stronger the monster becomes, to the point that the children’s parents can see him too. “Intruders” blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality, and while certain elements may not quite hold up after you leave the theater, it is still thoroughly chilling. Physical manifestations are less relevant, the film seems to suggest, when the real culprits of fear and innovation are already present in the mind.
“The Oranges,” Julian Farino’s riotous mix of romantic comedy and dysfunctional family drama, is like the anti-holiday movie that simultaneously plays into and subverts the usual conventions. In the suburbs of New Jersey (which inspired the film’s title), live-at-home college grad Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat) recounts the fateful holiday season that forever changed her family and their best friends and neighbors, the Ostroffs. Vanessa and Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester) were once best friends, but somewhere around adolescence, Nina became pretty and popular while Vanessa remained a gawky outsider. Years later, Nina finally returns home for Thanksgiving after a bad breakup and instead of falling for Vanessa’s brother Toby (Adam Brody) like her parents wish, she finds herself drawn to David (Hugh Laurie), the Walling patriarch. (“House” fans may or may not be pleased to see the actors paired up again.) When the affair goes public, both families are thrown into an uproar, culminating in one of the most hilariously awkward Christmas Eves ever recorded. The film flirts with the age question in relationships, as Nina and David face ceaseless judgment from others, and despite their affection for one another, the issue is ever present like a dark cloud over their heads. Without spoiling who ends up with whom, the message remains that sometimes it takes a scandal of epic proportions to put things in perspective.
Emily Browning (“Sucker Punch”) takes on another misguided feminist role in director Julia Leigh’s haunting debut “Sleeping Beauty,” in which she plays Lucy, a struggling university student who joins a sinister escort agency in order to make ends meet. After an initial meeting with Clara (Rachael Blake), the manager of the establishment, Lucy joins the lowest ranks as a “silver-spoon waitress” (read: serving drinks at private parties while wearing lingerie). Eager for higher wages, Lucy is promoted to sleeping with the clients; Clara puts her in a drug-induced slumber for the night, during which the client can do what he pleases so long as there is no penetration. After performing this duty several times, Lucy, as any girl would, becomes curious about what exactly happens when she’s asleep. Naturally, this breaches the client’s confidentiality (Clara’s only apparent moral scruple), so Lucy embarks on a mission to uncover the truth. While the premise is not so far from reality, what with the growing trend of young female students seeking sugar daddies to pay off their debts, Lucy’s utter passivity does not make for a very compelling story. No one in “Sleeping Beauty” is particularly sympathetic, and even the camera seems to share in our indifference, exploiting both the scantily clad women and the creepy men who hire them. If Lucy ultimately became empowered by the experience in some way or Clara and her clients were punished, then perhaps the narrative would feel less problematic. But instead, the film lacks purpose and feels more like an excuse to look at Browning’s nubile body.