Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 Catch Up: SHORT TERM 12 and YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHIN' YET


Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 has an earnest verisimilitude that’s nearly undercut by plotting neatly organized with hidden-in-plain-sight exposition, dramatic payoffs, and impeccable structure, each moment building expertly on the last with character arcs dovetailing oh-so-neatly. Set in a group home for at-risk kids, the film follows the routine of Grace (Brie Larson, in a remarkable performance of considerable poise and easy charm), a young woman who is helping these troubled teens out of an honest desire to help, and as a way to work through memories of her own troubled upbringing. The place itself is achingly convincing with a charming collection of struggling teens suffering from a variety of circumstances and emotional afflictions. The employees, mostly nice twentysomethings portrayed appealingly by John Gallagher, Jr., Rami Malek, and Stephanie Beatriz, are tough but compassionate, eager to be friendly with their wards, but quick to get serious and severe if necessary.

The main trouble kid is a new inmate, an abused teen girl (Kaitlyn Dever, a strong performance in a film of great young actors) who becomes Grace’s special case. She feels like she understands her more than anyone because - wouldn’t you know it? – she has been in her shoes. Cretton’s screenplay is so deft and polished that I wished it would step back and breathe, letting the great setting and hugely talented ensemble relax and settle into the film without being pulled along by plotting with obvious signposts and predictable symbolism. It easily generates such a strong, emotional impact through the cast and setting that I only wish that power arrived with as much unforced ease in the plotting. I realize it may seem a minor complaint that the film is too transparently well written for its own good, but it’s a frustration of mine in this case nonetheless.

In You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a French playwright’s assistant calls the man’s closest actor friends – real French stars like Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Lambert Wilson, and Michel Piccoli playing themselves – to inform them that their old pal has died. They’re called to one of the man’s mansions, gathered in a darkened screening room, and shown footage from a rehearsal in an empty warehouse of a humble new production of his Eurydice. Those gathered have performed this play before at one time or another, and as the evening stretches out, memory and screen merge. They act out their old parts, doubling dialogue, inserting themselves into the conversation, moving into an imagined dreamscape of remembered or present-tense performance with dramatically lit sets and deliberately phony CGI backdrops, twisting back into their seats, smiling warmly at one another. The formality of the words and loose playfulness of the imagery creates a fun tension, as does the richly appointed home stretching across the wide screen and the smaller frame-within-the-frame play-within-the-play-within-the-movie’s humbler, scrappy production. It’s mischievously esoteric.

Cinema has the ability to reflect our lives back at us, provoking warm memories, deeply held feelings and truths. These artists are called back into their Eurydice characters, and into the memory of their dead friend by nothing more than the dramatic circumstances of sitting together in the dark, watching a flickering image projected before them. Humans may be mortal, but if we’re lucky we live on forever in the emotions sitting ripe for the feeling within art. That this spellbindingly experimental and intimately heartfelt film is a product of an old master, 91-year-old Alain Resnais, who brings together his mesmerizing hypnotic symbolic abstraction (a la 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad), sharply observed acting, and giddy, playfully dreamy imagery (like his 2009 film Wild Grass), is once more a welcome sign that great artists can retain their sense of vitality. Here is a man, like the playwright in his film, who will live on in his art, forever calling forth an audience to see if anyone still cares.

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