Tribeca Film via Everett Collection
For a film that involves a love triangle, mental illness, a Bohemian colony of free-spirits, an impending war and several important historical figures, the most exciting elements of Summer in February are the stunning shots of the English country and Cornish seaside. The rest of the film never quite lives up to the crashing waves and sun-dappled meadows that are used to bookend the scenes, as the entertaining opening never manages to coalesce into a story that lives up the the cinematography, let alone the lives of the people that inspired it.
Set in an Edwardian artist’s colony in Cornwall, Summer in February tells the story of A.J. Munnings (Dominic Cooper), who went on to become one of the most famous painters of his day and head of the Royal Academy of Art, his best friend, estate agent and part-time soldier Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens), and the woman whom they both loved, aspiring artist Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning). Her marriage to Munnings was an extremely unhappy one, and she attempted suicide on their honeymoon, before killing herself in 1914. According to his journals, Gilbert and Florence were madly in love, although her marriage and his service in the army kept them apart.
When the film begins, Munnings is the center of attention in the Lamorna Artist's Colony, dramatically reciting poetry at parties and charming his way out of his bar tab while everyone around him proclaims him to be a genius. When he’s not drinking or painting, he’s riding horses with Gilbert, who has the relatively thankless task of keeping this group of Bohemians in line. Their idyllic existence is disrupted by the arrival of Florence, who has run away from her overbearing father and the fiancé he had picked out for her in order to become a painter.
Stevens and Browning both start the film solidly, with enough chemistry between them to make their infatuation interesting. He manages to give Gilbert enough dependable charm to win over both Florence and the audience, and she presents Florence as someone with enough spunk and self-possession to go after what she wants. Browning’s scenes with Munnings are equally entertaining in the first third of the film, as she can clearly see straight through all of his bravado and he is intrigued by her and how difficult she is to impress. Unfortunately, while the basis of the love triangle is well-established and entertaining, it takes a sudden turn into nothing with a surprise proposal from Munnings.
Neither the film nor Browning ever make it clear why Florence accepts his proposal, especially when they have both taken great pains to establish that she doesn’t care much for him. But once she does, the films stalls, and both Stevens and Browning spend the rest of the film doing little more than staring moodily and longingly at the people around them. The real-life Florence was plagued by depression and mental instability, but neither the film nor Browning’s performance ever manage to do more than give the subtlest hint at that darkness. On a few occasions, Browning does manage to portray a genuine anguish, but rather than producing any sympathy from the audience, it simply conjures up images of a different film, one that focused more on Florence, and the difficulties of being a woman with a mental illness at a time when both were ignored or misunderstood.
Stevens is fine, and Gilbert starts out with the same kind of good-guy appeal the won the heart of Mary Crawley and Downton Abbey fans the world over. However, once the film stalls, so does his performance, and he quickly drops everything that made the character attractive or interesting in favor of longing looks and long stretches of inactivity. He does portray a convincing amount of adoration for Florence, although that's about the only real emotion that Gilbert expresses for the vast majority of the film, and even during his love scene, he never manages to give him any amount of passion.
Cooper does his best with what he’s given, and tries his hardest to imbue the film with some substance and drama. His Munnings is by turns charming, brash, and brooding, the kind of person who has been told all of their life that they are special, and believes it. He even manages to give the character some depth, and even though he and Browning have very little chemistry, he manages to convey a genuine affection for her. It’s a shame that Munnings becomes such a deeply unlikable character, because Cooper is the only thing giving Summer in February a jolt of life – even if it comes via bursts of thinly-explained hostility. It's hard to watch just how hard he's working to connect with his co-stars and add some excitement to a lifeless script and not wish that he had a better film to show off his talents in.
Unfortunately, by the time Florence and Gilbert are finally spurred into activity, the film has dragged on for so long that you’re no longer invested in the characters, their pain, or their love story, even if you want to be. Which is the real disappointment of Summer in February; underneath the stalled plot and the relatively one-note acting, there are glimmers of a fascinating and compelling story that’s never allowed to come to the forefront.
Most people had Michael Cera "figured out" around the time Scott Pilgrim vs. the World came and went from theaters in 2010. Arrested Development introduced us to his signature brand of mumbly, improvised comedy. Superbad solidified it. By Scott Pilgrim, people wanted something more from the actor — even though the movie was something more.
In what might be seen as a quest of reinvention (but is likely simply Cera's efforts to challenge himself with unique material), the 24-year-old actor rode the critical praise and soft box office numbers of Scott Pilgrim all the way to Chile, where he connected with director Sebastián Silva (The Maid), a relative unknown here in the States. The plan was to costar in one of Silva's movies — the psychological thriller Magic Magic — but along the way their collaboration spawned a second project, Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012. In an unexpected move, Sundance premiered both of the films in the span of one week. But it was far from Cera overkill; the only things the two films have nothing in common are the presence of the actor and the effect they have on the perception of him. You haven't seen these sides of Michael Cera.
Silva's Crystal Fairy is closer to the Cera's American films, a dramedy fueled by drugs and entranced by the world of Chile. Cera plays an American stoner, Jamie, desperate to hunt down and stew the San Pedro, a cactus packing a legendary high. He has friends in the South American country, but to the driven druggie, they're more tour guides than faithful companions. When Jamie isn't pressing his buddies to help him find the cactus, he's snorting up coke or smoking weed, a perpetual state of lackadaisicalness. The kind of high that could keep a guy staring at a Hieronymus Bosch painting for an hour (and does).
Jamie floats through the lush landscapes, eventually embarking on a trip to the coast where his ritualistic "taking of the San Pedro" will commence. But the plan is thrown a curveball when his posse crosses path with a hippie named Crystal Fairy (a long awaited return from Gabby Hoffman). Having accidentally invited Crystal to tag along to the beach, Jamie engages the crystal-loving, organic-food-eating, zen mistress in a battle of wits, while his pals annoyingly embrace her lifestyle. A simple conflict with plenty of opportunities for Cera to cut loose and find an less desirable side to his personality. Jamie needs a wakeup call in life and he finds it through the antics of Crystal Fairy.
Silva matches the lethargic nature of Crystal Fairy's performances with loose camera work and natural light — it's clear the film organically grew from the pair's work on Magic Magic, with direction that feels like they picked up the camera and hit the road. It's the antithesis of his style choices in the latter film, a character-driven ensemble piece that's dramatically lit and perfectly framed. Perfectly framed to drive the audience insane.
Cera takes a costar role in Magic Magic, paving the way for a breathtaking performance by Juno Temple as a co-ed stricken with intense anxiety. When Alicia (Temple) arrives in Chile to visit her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning), she's seemingly normal. But as soon as the pair head out to Sarah boyfriend Augustin's vacation home, along with his sister Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and their flamboyant, douchebag friend Brink (Cera), Alicia's mind starts to slip away. She's nearly panphobic, the littlest provocation sending her off the deep end. Conversing with new people, the sound of birds at night, a dog humping her leg, even the slightest jab from Brink — one minute Alicia is calm, the next she's hyperventilating and bawling her eyes out.
Like Rosemary's Baby and the greats of psychological horror, Magic Magic is a sensory assault calibrated to bore into the audiences' mind. It's hard to recommend Magic Magic — it's bound to give a few people actual panic attacks — but it's a brave experiment and one worth stumbling upon without much anticipation. While Silva's darker film is Temple's stage, Cera makes an impact — especially when juxtaposed against Crystal Fairy. If you checked out of Cera's "shtick" years ago, Sundance sports two performances that will make you rethink the actor. At least until Arrested Development returns this year.
[Photo Credit: Braven Films]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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The latest movie in the Step Up franchise aims for a politicized message behind all the flashy moves but it could do with a lot less plot and a lot more dancing. In Step Up Revolution the Miami dance group "The Mob" takes to the streets (and other random locations) to perform intricately choreographed routines with their own DJ a camera guy who uploads their videos to YouTube and a graffiti artist who leaves their signature behind. It takes at least that much effort just to get hipster New Yorkers to ride the subways without any pants on once a year; it's hard to believe that The Mob could pull off their elaborate schemes without getting caught but that's the magic of movies.
The Mob represents the more diverse working class side of Miami a young multiracial group of friends who create incredible works of art that disappear before they get shut down. One of the Mob's leaders Sean (Ryan Guzman) earnestly explains to newcomer Emily (Kathryn McCormick) that the group's reason is to give a voice to the voiceless or to be happy or to dance or something. It's not really clear but they have a lot of fun and look amazing doing it.
Once Sean and his friends find out that a greedy developer plans to raze their neighborhood to make way for another South Beach-style hotel monstrosity they have a reason to rally but until then they're just trying to win a cash prize by getting clicks on YouTube. The typical Step Up twist is that Emily is the developer's daughter. Mr. Anderson (Peter Gallagher) doesn't approve of Emily's love of dancing or other frippery and he certainly wouldn't approve of her hanging out with the people causing such mayhem in the streets of Miami.
Step Up Revolution biggest misstep is trying to give the movie more of a hook than the franchise's typical Romeo and Juliet-style love story and tap into "the Zeitgeist" (I swear that's from the studio-provided press notes) of flash mobs. The film could have cut out most of the plot and characters and still have a completely intact film insofar as the point of the film is its multimedia dance routines. The sort of productions The Mob pulls off are more akin to carefully planned art installations or music videos in terms of scope; it would have been better to at least make that somehow feasible in terms of the storyline. Yes we are here for a spectacle and we surely get a spectacle but it needs to have some roots in reality.
The dance scenes are fun sexy and occasionally a little sappy but overall quite enjoyable for people who enjoy "So You Think You Can Dance" type of shows. Kathryn McCormick and Stephen "tWitch" Boss both appeared on "SYTYCD" and their costar Misha Gabriel is a classically trained ballet dancer turned pro back-up dancer for folks like Beyoncé and Michael Jackson. Guzman doesn't have a dance background but he is an MMA fighter who obviously took his training very seriously. The entire outfit is pretty damn entertaining to be honest.
As far as the 3D goes it makes most of Miami look overcast and grey. The extra zings added in to make sure we get our money's worth like sand flicking out at us or a breakdancer whose foot seems to be aiming for our face only serves to distract from the real show at hand. There is also an awful lot of ramping and generally spazzy editing tricks that look cheap. The screenplay by Amanda Brody is definitely not its strong suit.
Step Up Revolution is the cinematic equivalent of a trashy beach novel. It's embarrassing to be caught actually enjoying it and you'll forget about it almost immediately but it's a decent way to spend a summer afternoon.
Jena Malone believes in Sucker Punch. I mean really believes in Sucker Punch. I learned as much back in November of 2009, when I encountered the then-25-year-old actress on the set of Zack Snyder’s sprawling action-sci-fi-burlesque fantasy flick. All five of the film’s female stars (Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, and Malone) gave interviews, and all five uniformly raved about how awesome it was to be part of such an amazing project and how strongly its message resonated with them and how the around-the-clock training they were required to undergo for several months prior to filming was intensely grueling but also incredibly empowering, and that they were all better friends because of it. But Malone stood apart: She seemed particularly enthusiastic, speaking with a kind of breathless conviction about Sucker Punch that made me wonder if my initial appraisal of the project as a relatively lightweight girls-with-guns CGI binge was perhaps inaccurate. Perhaps it was something much, much more profound.
Last weekend, on the eve of the Sucker Punch’s release, I met with Malone in a conference room at the Beverly Hilton to determine if her passion for the Sucker Punch Ethos still burned as brightly, now that she was over a year removed from principal photography. It was an unusual atmosphere. Feeling “pacey,” she requested to stand throughout the entirety of the interview. Not wishing to address her at waist-level for 10-15 minutes, I went for the lesser of two awkwards and chose to stand as well. Also standing, off in the corner of the room, was a scruffy but well-dressed rustic-hipster type I assumed to be her boyfriend, smoking an American Spirit and observing us with a kind of detached amusement (or maybe disdain). He looked legit -- I would not have been at all surprised if he were later revealed to be a Decemberist or a Monster of Folk or dare I say a King of Leon. Also smoking was Malone. Another man, dressed in a more minimalist mesh-hat-and-t-shirt ensemble, sat impassively behind a laptop at an adjacent table, possibly scanning Google results for “journalist + intimidate.”
Whatever vague fears I harbored of a potential ambush were quelled by Malone, who proved friendly and effusive and altogether lovely, even if she did come off a bit pacey:
Now that you’ve been away from this project for a while, what do you think is your primary take-away from it?
That I have discovered an inner strength that I didn’t even know was possible. Basically, I feel that I could do anything – and I’m not putting that lightly. I really did things that I never thought in my life I would ever be able to achieve or do or pull off or actually be good at, although one thing I wasn’t able to get that good at was pole-dancing. It’s extremely difficult.
That’s why those women who do it professionally are paid so well.
Yeah! It should be an Olympic sport, because, by the way, you need a lot of discipline and muscle and technique. It’s kind of incredible. And to do anything in seven-inch heels should be a sport. [Laughs]
When I saw the film last night, I was surprised to see how big a role your character, Rocket, plays in the ensemble. Is that how the role was originally written? I talked to Carla Gugino earlier and she mentioned that her role changed and evolved a lot through the process.
As written. I feel like the film is actually very true to the script. Which is funny, and it shows you how detail-oriented Zack is. A lot of the action pieces had been written almost exactly the way that they’re shown. There was a lot of detail, and all of the character development was kind of already there. And then it was just allowing the little nuances between the characters, allowing the group dynamic to really show. I think that was sort of the improvisational element that really kind of changed things a bit on set, how closely we had all bonded. Which I don’t think Zack had really expected. He wanted [us to bond] of course, but didn’t expect how far we had gone and how much we loved each other. So I feel like that really added to what was already on the page. It brought it up to a new height.
Zack is obviously a gifted artist and an exceedingly intelligent guy, but I notice that sometimes he struggles a little to articulate himself in interviews, as if he’s distracted or something. Is he like that on-set?
Well, the thing is that he has 7,000 ideas coming in his head at all times, you know? And he’s super excited about all of them, so it’s really hard sometimes for him to be able to express exactly what the thing is. But what’s incredible is that if you do ask him a direct question about a specific thing, he has answers for everything. You just sort of have to know how to phrase it so he doesn’t get too excited and tell you too much, because there’s so much in there, all of these amazing details that you would never have been able to catch just on the page.
One thing I wanted to ask you about the message of the film is … actually, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the message of the film is. Could you perhaps spell it out for me?
For me it’s this: No matter how crazy the circumstances are, how much oppression, how much dilemma, how much negative energy is surrounding you, you are able to, through your own willpower and the power of your imagination, escape into a better place and transcend that negative environment and turn it into something positive – even if you can’t physically transcend it. On the flipside of that is: What are you willing to sacrifice to get to that point? Do you sacrifice your physical safety? Do you sacrifice your friends? Do you make sacrifices that [bring about] things that you would be completely terrified of beforehand? That’s what I think is really the theme of the film.
Wow. That’s impressive.
Well, we’ve been talking about it for three months. [Laughs]
But I get a sense that that actually means something to you.
It really does! Absolutely. Particularly because there were a lot of parallels between what I was learning as just Jena, not even “Actress Jena.” Just my own personal things. Like I was really getting good at deadlifts. I got super into them.
I remember you mentioning that.
Yeah. And the funny thing is that I learned that I have such mental blockers about what I think my strength is. They [the trainers] would be like, “All right, this is 200 lbs., you gotta pull it,” I couldn’t pull it. Because in my mind, 200 sounded so much bigger than it actually was. And so we got to this point where they kind of figured out this thing where they were like, “Okay, we’re not gonna tell you anymore. We’re not gonna tell you what you’re pulling. You just step up to the thing and you f*cking pull it.” And once that happened and once I sort of cleared my head and didn’t have that battling me, I was able to do 235. I did a 300 rack deadlift. That’s an ungodly amount of weight for a woman who was like 115 lbs.
Do you think maybe they were just lying to you?
No way. I counted it after. Because I was like, really? Are you kidding me?
I wanna see that featurette on the DVD. The Deadlift Featurette.
Yeah. It’s gonna be fun.
I can’t imagine any of your upcoming projects requiring as much deadlifting.
You never know. I think it’s really interesting that now I was sort of given this physical training and a physical entry point into a character, that the film that I did after [Sucker Punch], this film called The Wait, written and directed by M. Blash – Chloe Sevigny is in it as well – I kind of realized that getting into some form of physical preparation for a character helped sort of release certain things. And she was a character that held a lot of pressure, so I remember that in the mornings I would wake up and just sort of hold my body and just tighten everything and not release it until I couldn’t anymore, and then let it go. And I was using all of these physical acting things that I had never used before, things that Sucker Punch had sort of enlivened in me. Being able to use extremities of pushing yourself physically, to have more of the emotion come out and not always just using the heart as an entry point, but to also use the pain of the body.
It sounds as if Sucker Punch helped you become a better actress.
Oh yeah, absolutely. It gave me tools and techniques that I didn’t even know existed before.
When you said “tools and techniques” like that, I couldn’t help but think of, well, not Scientology, but, well, a kind of philosophy or set of principles--
Well, it shows how much care went into it. We had incredible trainers that really taught us a lot about our bodies and our limitations and how to take care of it – basically treating it as a temple, and what you would do to be able to become the best version of yourself. These are things we all need to know about: techniques for breathing, techniques for releasing stress, being careful about what you eat so you’re not spiking insulin levels, so you’ll be able to carry energy throughout the day. And to know when you’re slacking that you need to be good to yourself, and rest is just as important, you know?
These “sexy” archetypes that you guys play around with – the sexy nurse, the sexy schoolgirl, etc. – why do you think they appeal so much to men?
Who knows? That’s like a dissertation, in the sense of going back to the beginnings, the origins of archetypes. Why do we have caveman instincts still in our bodies? Why do I sometimes feel like I wanna beat my chest and scream out loud? There’s things that are a part of our collective consciousness that we’ll never fully understand. But it’s really beautiful that we get to carry on ancient things that have been passed down to us from ancestors, relatives, people who lived in a completely different era, but somehow we still have it inside of our bodies, these myths that we carry, you know? It’s a beautiful thing.
Sucker Punch opens nationwide Friday, March 25, 2011.
Think Mean Girls meets High School Musical meets whatever other high school teen scenario you can think of. Here four teenage girls make up the Bratz contingency each come from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds—just like the dolls they are based on. There’s Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) a quiet Latina beauty with a great voice; Sasha (Logan Browning) the outgoing black cheerleader who loves to dance; Jade (Janel Parrish) a lovely Asian fashionista who also a wiz in chemistry; and Cloe (Skyler Shayne) the tall Caucasian blonde who despite being a klutz is a star on the soccer field. They’ve been best friends forever (or BFF as they lovingly refer to it) but once they hit high school they drift apart and into respective cliques organized by the narcissistic class president Meredith (Cheslea Staub). Still these BFF’s—who live for clothes make-up and hair products—won’t be pushed down. They’re gonna shake things up and prove it’s always best to just be yourself and stick together. You can’t really blame the unknown girls—each very cute in their own way—for wanting to bring the Bratz dolls to life. It’s a big deal! They get to sing and dance and wear all these cool clothes! They get to throw food in a cafeteria lunch fight! They get to serve sweets at Meredith’s Sweet 16 party dressed as clowns and still look fabulous! All the young girls in the audience will idolize them and wish they were a Brat too (perhaps to their parents’ chagrin). No it’s the adults in the movie you have to scratch your head about and ask “Do they really need the money that bad?” Character actors such as Lainie Kazan who plays Yasmin’s wise grandmother and Jon Voight as the inept high school principal and Meredith’s father just embarrass themselves over and over again—especially Voight who along with his mediocre appearance in Transformers has become the go-to guy to star in movies based on toys. And what’s with this latest trend to make live-action flicks based on toys? You can understand Transformers because they already had their own cartoon show and you know the movie would at least be action-packed full of cool visual effects. But a Bratz movie is a little too much. Even though it tries really hard to send positive messages there’s really nothing redeeming about turning little dolls—who frankly dress a little on the trashy side—into flesh-and-blood teenagers obsessed with how they look and dealing with high school politics. Bratz really only distinguishes itself from other Mean Girls-type movies because of the toy franchise. It would have been easier to take had it aired on the Disney Channel.