By Carl Kozlowski
This weekend, you could join the millions of people crowding into overpriced multiplexes to see the latest soulless superhero movie when The Dark Knight Rises hits the nation’s movie screens. Or you could strike a note for free-thinking independence and seeing a movie that actually has some thought behind it.
After all, who needs another superhero movie, especially when Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips describes the latest Batman movie as “overworked and almost ridiculously grim.”
Even more embarrassing for Knight is the fact that some early negative reviews sparked such a frenzy of response on Rotten Tomatoes that Warner Bros.—which released Knight and owns the Tomatoes site—had to shut down the comment thread on Rotten Tomatoes.
Thankfully, there are other films worthy of attention with the romantic drama Take This Waltz and Safety Not Guaranteed, which is turning into an art house hit, offering twisty, witty fun for everyone.
Of the two, I recommend Safety, primarily because it’s so clever and original that I predict it will land on my year’s-end 10 Best list, and because it’s a chance to see a great performance by this year’s breakout indie star, Mark Duplass.
This character-driven comedy with strong sci-fi elements focuses on a reporter named Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza of NBC’s Parks and Recreation) and Amau (Karan Soni), who work for a Seattle newspaper and go searching for the writer of an unusual personal ad in their paper. The ad is from a man looking for a partner to travel with him back through time. The ad says he will pay the partner after they return to the present. The catch: The partner, whose safety is not guaranteed, has to bring his or her own weapons for protection.
The trio finds that the ad’s writer is a mysterious fellow named Kenneth, who lives Unabomber-style in the woods of Washington and is almost finished building his time-travel device. Jeff orders Darius to feign romantic interest in Kenneth in order to break down his defenses. In the meantime, Jeff takes off in hopes of rekindling an old flame with a past high school lover.
The parallel stories of attempting to revive lost love by cynical jerk Jeff and a genuine romance forming between oddball innocents Kenneth and Darius provide Safety with a strong emotional spine.
At first, Safety seems like dozens of other quirky comedies whose low budgets force them to be low-key. But writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow have way more up their sleeves, and the film gains momentum throughout, building to a genuinely exciting climax while providing plenty of laugh lines along the way. Bold and unpredictable, it’s everything that a pre-fabricated special-effects juggernaut is not.
Waltz, meanwhile, features frequent Oscar nominee Michelle Williams as Margot, a young woman about to celebrate her fifth wedding anniversary with her husband Lou, played by Seth Rogen in a performance which puts to rest any doubts about his abilities as a dramatic actor. Yet, there’s little worth celebrating here, as Lou claims to love Margot, yet is uncommunicative when it comes to even casual conversation. For her part, Margot veers wildly between wanting to seduce Lou and fending off his amorous advances.
Then, while on a long flight, Margot has an electric and funny meeting with a stud named Daniel (Paul Kirby), who just happens to be one of her neighbors. As she spends her days bored and neglected by Lou, who’s constantly cooking chicken recipes to test for a new cookbook he’s writing, she’s drawn more and more to wondering what life would be like with the more adventurous artist Daniel.
What little plot Waltz actually has explores the dual relationships that Margot finds herself in, despite the fact that she hates being stuck in the middle of any of life’s conundrums. But writer-director Sarah Polley, who created the highly praised Alzheimer’s-related drama Away from Her in 2005, draws affecting performances from her lead actors.
Polley also has a unique visual sense, using fluid camera movements and unusual angles throughout to convey the increasingly off-balance nature of Margot’s mind and heart. There is also a pair of magical scenes in which Margot and Daniel ride a high-speed, indoor carnival ride amid swirling lights and a blast of classic ’80s pop music. Ultimately, however, Waltz might leave a sad impression on those looking for a nice date film, for Margot’s choices wind up making her even unhappier.
But either of these films should give thoughtful moviegoers a happier choice than The Dark Knight Rises.