New York Stories – The Canyons / The To Do List / In a World …

 The To Do List

By Glenn Dunks
August 14, 2013

The Manhattan Report: As a former Melbourne man, I can’t say I haven’t had pangs of jealousy watching the social media deluge out of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Having spent innumerable hours in years past in seats of questionable comfort watching film after film, it was sad seeing people experiencing the highs (a great film is such a rush) and lows (a terrible crowd is such a downer) of my beloved MIFF. Still, who needs that when I can create my own festival here? Yesterday alone I found time to see Lake Bell’s directorial debut In a World … (reviewed below), pioneering 1920s Russian silent Zvenigora, Brazilian documentary Elena, and Japanese cult comedy House. In New York, every day is a film fest!

The Canyons

The Canyons: When watching The Canyons, it is virtually impossible to ignore its history: funded through Kickstarter and plagued all through production. Literary enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis and Hollywood legend Paul Schrader have collaborated with the notorious Lindsay Lohan and a pornography celebrity named James Deen to bring this Molotov cocktail of sex, drugs, money, and power to life.

One could choose to view The Canyons as very good satire; a film with such contempt for Hollywood that it deliberately flails about badly from scene to scene in an effort to underline its central thesis: that cinema is dying and that Hollywood is going right along with it. I, however, tend to look at The Canyons as simply a very bad movie. A limp noir that’s only fleetingly as stylish as it thinks – the digital photography is frequently murky and ugly – and antagonises the audience it hasn’t the ounce of respect for. Featuring terrible performances, laughable dialogue, and a surprisingly chaste attitude to sex scenes, The Canyons is a ridiculously lobotomised attempt at legitimising its creators’ half-baked ideas. (Will play the Sydney Underground Film Festival this September.)


The To Do List

The To Do List: Writer/director Maggie Carey keenly takes on the task of shifting the coming-of-age mythology of losing one’s virginity from the man’s perspective to the woman’s. Audrey Plaza stars as Brandy Klark, a recent high school graduate using her last summer vacation before college to confront one thing that straight As simply can’t help with: sex. After taking a job as a lifesaver at a barely-functioning pool, Brandy sets out to conquer the sexual world and land the hunky, and hilariously named, Rusty Waters. All the awkwardness one would expect is there and Plaza is fantastic, as is the great comedy cast of Alia Shawkat, Rachel Bilson, Bill Hader, Donald Glover, Johnny Simmons, and Connie Britton (as her forward-thinking mum).

The screenplay is raucous as one should expect, and there are plenty of gross out gags, but they sit side-by-side with material that highlights the hypocrisy inherent in sex and cinema. As it mines similar territory to American Pie and other male-dominated titles, it does so with smarts and even wit. With its multi-faceted examination of female friendship, family, and above all sex, The To Do List makes for a frivolous comedy with a bit more bite. (No Australian release date as of yet.)


In A World

In a World …: Everyone knows those three words, but who knows the world behind them? In one of the year’s most surprising and charming debuts, writer/director and star Lake Bell pushes trailer voice-over artists to the fore with In a World. In equal measure irreverent, niche comedy, familial drama, and rom-com, In a World’s perky attitude certainly helps bypass the problems that can so often come from this type of material. The self-conscious quirk is thankfully dialled way down, and a romantic subplot for Bell and comedian Demetri Martin works as sweet background music without becoming treacly and overbearing.

Even more willing to tackle the topic of sexism in Hollywood than The To Do List, Bell and her snappy, if somewhat formulaic, screenplay successfully confronts the industry in a way that feels fresh. Her use of this largely unheralded art form that is slowly vanishing – just try and think of the last film trailer that used voice-over – juxtaposes nicely with the struggles of women to be taken seriously and be acknowledged based on merit and not gender. But really what matters most is that In a World is funny, and with its surprise cameos and original POV, that makes it a big winner. (No Australian release date as of yet.)


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