Mark Duplass has found himself in an enviable position. He’s making the films he wants to make with complete creative control. And he’s doing so not by making it big in Hollywood. Instead he signed a four-picture deal with Netflix that offers him artistic freedom while also ensuring the financial backing that many independent filmmakers struggle with.
For the most part Duplass has steered clear of Hollywood’s courting, instead making small intimate films with miniscule budgets. His first movie for Netflix certainly fits that description. “Blue Jay” is Duplass completely in his element and it gives us a good idea of the creative leeway he has been given. It’s shot in black-and-white, it stars essentially a two-person cast, it took only seven days to film, and it was green-lit by Netflix without seeing a script. That’s a trusting partnership.
Duplass not only writes the screenplay but stars in “Blue Jay”. He plays Jim, a 40-ish bachelor who returns to his small California hometown to renovate the house left behind by his late mother. While in the grocery store Jim bumps into his old high school sweetheart Amanda (Sarah Paulson) who happens to be back in town to visit her sister. Their meeting is bit awkward but a cup of coffee at the town’s diner loosens things up and before long they are reminiscing about the good old days.
We learn all we need to know about these two characters through their conversations and recollections. As we slowly piece together their deep connection it becomes clear that their entire lives have been effected by the past they shared. There’s also this neat bit of early 90s nostalgia that shows itself in the scenes where Jim and Amanda cast aside their present-day cares and playfully immerse themselves in their history together. But their memories aren’t wound-free which becomes evident the more time we spend with them.
Director Alex Lehmann wisely keeps himself in the background and allows his two actors to carry the load. Duplass and Paulson have a convincing chemistry and there is an organic flowing rhythm to their dialogue. Much of it is due to a considerable amount of improvisation in place of a conventional script. While Duplass is a natural fit for his character, Paulson is the true highlight. Watching her navigate her character’s many emotional layers left me wondering why she doesn’t get more of these roles.
“Blue Jay” manages to be funny and playful while also taking an honest look at the insecurity and fragility of its characters. Later on it does get a touch melodramatic but it always remains truthful and feels plucked from real life experiences. The wonderful choice to soak the film in black and white adds a wonderful layer of nostalgia and melancholy. It’s a bold choice for a 2016 character drama, but again it demonstrates the audacity filmmakers can show when given creative liberties. That’s why I’m excited for what else this Duplass/Netflix partnership will deliver.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
There are some things we know we will get every movie year. Perhaps tops on that list are the mediocre and formulaic PG-13 horror flicks. Many of these aren’t terrible. They can be pretty entertaining despite their clichéd stories, rehashed scares and forgettable outcomes. Representing the Class of 2015 in this category is “The Lazarus Effect”. As with the majority of these films, “The Lazarus Effect” isn’t a bad movie. It simply does nothing original and leaves no real lasting effect.
The film was distributed by Relativity and it was a no-lose scenario. With a miniscule budget (overall estimates being from $3 million to $8 million tops) and an opening on over 2,600 screens, the film could have a mediocre box office run and still turn a pretty big profit. That’s what happened so financially the film was a success. But as a movie it falls right in line with so many other recent horror pictures. It follows popular trends and does nothing to differentiate itself.
The movie is basically a twist on the familiar ‘bring them back from the dead’ story angle. Still, it starts with a fairly interesting premise. Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and her fiance Frank (Mark Duplass) lead a group of medical research students in the development of a serum meant to assist coma patients. But their experiments wander into morally questionable grounds when they bring a dog back from the dead. Frank sees this as a monumental breakthrough even after the dog begins to show erratic and troublesome behavior.
But soon things go bad for the team and they find themselves sneaking into the lab to recreate their experiment. In the process Zoe is electrocuted and killed. Against better judgement a grief-stricken Dr. Frankenstein…errr Frank uses his serum on Zoe and as you can probably guess the results aren’t as planned. This spins the movie into scenes filled with dream sequences, manufactured jump scares, and a number of other predictable horror devices.
What is really unfortunate is the film has some effective and genuinely creepy moments. A handful of surprises and a few visual flairs actually work. Wilde certainly sells her part well and Duplass is quite good in his dramatic role. But they really don’t have a lot to work with. For all of its good creepiness there are also attempted scares that you anticipate from a mile away. The film begins clinging to these clichés which drains the second half of the movie of any good horror.
Director David Gelb is handed a fairly interesting idea but he doesn’t do much with it. He doesn’t add a twist of originality or anything fresh. He has a good and somewhat nostalgic concept and he has a couple of interesting lead actors. Again, he doesn’t make a terrible movie, but when you’re getting this types of run-of-the-mill horror flicks on a routine basis, you begin to yearn for something fresh. Alas “The Lazarus Effect” doesn’t provide enough of the freshness the genre desperately needs.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS
“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a modest little movie from writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow. With a budget well under $1 million, “Safety Not Guaranteed” puts its focus on a smart and witty script and solid performances from its cast. It turns out to be a nice concoction featuring a mixture of drama, romantic comedy, and even a pinch of science fiction. But everything revolves around the characters and that’s where this movie will either sink or swim. Fortunately it does swim.
Supposedly “Safety Not Guaranteed” was inspired by an actual classified ad that was placed in a magazine as a joke. In the movie a writer for a Seattle-based magazine named Jeff (Jake Johnson) and two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a frustrated college graduate with no real direction for her life, and Arnau (Karan Soni) who is only there to diversify his resume, are sent to the small town of Ocean View to investigate and write a story about this unusual classified ad. The ad was placed by someone seeking a partner to venture with him back in time. Knowing the person is nuts yet smelling a good story, the three trace the ad to a seemingly harmless grocery store worker named Kenneth (Mark Duplass).
Now Darius is really the main character here and I thought Aubrey Plaza was very good. Having only seen her small part in “Damsels in Distress” and a little bit of the underwhelming “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”, I wasn’t that familiar with Plaza’s work. Her character is very well written but it’s Plaza who brings her to life. Darius is witty and intelligent but she has no sense of place in the world. That’s one reason she can see past Kenneth’s eccentricities and feel genuine sympathy for him. Duplass is also good and I had a hard time figuring him out. Was he certifiably insane? Was he a sad man trying to make up for a sad past? Was he smarter than everyone was giving him credit for? This question is the centerpiece for the entire film.
There are also some scenes featuring some really good humor. Jake Johnson’s Jeff character is for the most part a detestable jerk. He basically took the assignment so he could hook up with an old girlfriend of his that lives in the community. He’s arrogant and pompous but he can also be pretty funny especially when he’s giving Arnau a hard time. Arnau is your typical socially awkward geek who’s more interested in his tricked out gaming laptop than anything else. His dry and low-key lines probably made me laugh more than any other thing in the film. I’m not familiar with anything else Karan Soni has been in but he cracked me up repeatedly.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a small but precise little picture that’s very efficient with what it has. Derek Connolly’s smart script actually has a lot more going on than what’s on the surface. I really appreciated that. Now I won’t say that this is a movie that will leave a sweet, long-lasting taste in your mouth. But it certainly is an entertaining picture wrapped in a tight 86 minute package. And in those 86 minutes you’ll find some good humor and heart and I assure you that after the final scene you’ll be smiling just like me. Short, simple, and sweet.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS