Cinema Review: In a World…

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WRI/DIR: Lake Bell  PRO: Mark Roberts, Jett Steiger, Eddie Vaisman, Lake Bell  DOP: Seamus Tierney  ED: Tom McArdle  DES: Megan Fenton  Cast: Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Ken Merino, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Nick Offerman

 

The second I heard the title and premise of this film my mind instantly leapt to the sublime trailer that Jerry Seinfeld crafted for his documentary ‘Comedian’. Seinfeld himself is nowhere to be seen on-screen in the inspired promo. Instead we are treated to an increasingly frustrated sound engineer trying to coach an experienced voice over artist (Hal Douglas) away from clichés like ‘In a world…….’ .

Who knows whether the same skit had a similar impact on the writer/ director and star of this film Lake Bell but I was curious whether there is more comedic material to be mined in this area. The answer is – kind of.

This specialist corner of the movie industry should be fertile territory for laughs populated as it is by rich-voiced purveyors of bombast and hyperbole. The grave and portentous intonings of a talented voiceover artist can confer gravitas on even the most creatively bankrupt project while out on the promotion trail. It’s a marketing tool fundamentally but there can also be magic in the alchemy of a truly rousing voiceover. Injecting drama where none exists. Imbuing levity in the witless. Inferring class upon trash.

And in the western world, it’s a profession seemingly dominated by a male monopoly. That’s the clever entry point for this fiction as Bell’s vocal coach Carol strives to venture into the lucrative movie voiceover market. As depicted, studio approved vocal artists are drawn from a shallow pool. A very shallow pool including Carol’s own competitive father (Fred Melamed) who is an industry legend but still as insecure as any novice. Carol is intimidated at the prospect of breaking up the boys’ club but she is encouraged by a smitten sound engineer Louis (Demitri Martin) and her older sister.

Bizarrely, as Carol finally makes inroads in her career, her father resorts to subtly undermining her at first before turning openly hostile. The prize of securing the narration for a guaranteed blockbuster franchise ‘The Amazon Games’ becomes the crucible in which family allegiances are tested to the limit.

If that sounds a bit slight, you’ll have to sift through many subplots to keep track of the film’s central spine. Bell clutters proceedings with a variety of tangents and cameos that occasionally entertain but mainly distract. The conclusion that the film is being padded out to reach ninety minutes is hard to shake. For instance, a soapy relationship crisis for Carol’s sister generates few moments that would be missed if excised in its’ entirety. Similarly, an early brief appearance by Eva Longoria displays promise as Carol is hired to salvage the star’s apparently diabolical botching of a Cockney accent. It’s a funny notion, yet the scene fails to raise a smile nevermind a laugh.

In the end In a World is amiable and often impressive. It contains a couple of rib tickling moments and several sparkling one liners. It is uneven however. Logically enough because if all her roles before and behind the camera were judged separately, Bell would receive differing grades in each discipline. As a vehicle she designed for herself, the resultant film is more sturdy station wagon than Porsche.

And still my thoughts return to that ‘Comedian’ promo and the irrefutable feeling that it achieved more in a minute and a half than this feature manages in an hour and a half.

James Phelan 

 15A (See IFCO for details)

92 mins
In a World… is released on 13th September 2013

In a World… – Official Website

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Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock

DIR: Ang Lee • WRI: James Schamus • PRO: Ang Lee, James Schamus
• DOP: Eric Gatutier • ED: Tim Squyres • DES: David Gropman • CAST: Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber, Imelda Staunton

It’s the summer of ’69 and Elliot Tiber, a down-on-his-luck interior designer from Greenwich Village, returns home to Catskills in upstate New York where his parents’ down-market motel, the El Monaco, is on the verge of closing down. In an effort to boost the local economy and family business, Elliot gets a neighbour’s farmland to be an alternative venue for a music festival that has had its permit pulled, completely unaware of the generation-defining event it would become.

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, penned by the director’s long-time collaborator James Schamus, and based on Elliot Tiber’s own memoirs, never intends to recreate the awesome scale of the festival and the cultural zeitgeist it encompassed – instead it focuses on the effect an influx of half a million hippies had on a small community, and on the conflict between a young man who helped bring about this event and the old-fashioned values of his parents. Unfortunately these domestic tensions are not nearly engaging enough to warrant the long stretches of the running time they occupy – and, for a film with ‘Woodstock’ in the title, the lack of musical performance and spectacle is pretty disappointing.

In terms of casting this would appear to be a strong ensemble. However, comedian Demetri Martin is rather wooden in the central role, unassuming but unrevealing as the young man attempting to come out to his parents and come into his own. Soft-spoken British thespian Imelda Staunton heaves every line of dialogue as Elliot’s mother – necessary to show the character’s oppressive roots perhaps but still verging on an overbearing Yiddish caricature rather than a believable person. Meanwhile Emile Hirsch is wasted in the stereotype of a crazed Vietnam vet, and Liev Shrieber’s curiously blasé transvestite never receives much pay-off. These characters are inconsequential people on the periphery, existing simply to make Elliot’s journey seem more weird and wonderful (the run-down resort even plays host to a truly terrible theatre troupe who workshop in the barn and are prone to impromptu nudist rituals…)

Admittedly, the production design is stellar – paying careful attention to detail in the radical signage and new age paraphernalia of the time – long panning shots of crowds of hippies making their mellow way uphill in a haze of good-time vibes provide a flavour of the kind of bohemian energy that must have been in the air. The film picks up when Elliot joins the masses on their journey towards the abstract notion of the unattainable stage – however, just as he seems to be getting there and the music grows louder, he takes a detour into Paul Dano’s parked VW with said stoner and his girlfriend. This low-key acid trip culminates in a view of the stage and spectators, the hills themselves rippling in waves of drug-fueled elation. It’s a fleeting vision, about as close to witnessing the concert as this film is willing to bring us. And perhaps that’s all we can be allowed to expect? Those dissatisfied can go to the original 1970 documentary or simply take comfort in the fact that many who went there never actually saw the stage; but ultimately this is a flat offering that lacks the ambition and deliberate intent of previous Ang Lee works of Americana such as Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm – less a picture of the world at the time, all the music and cataclysmic new ways of thinking, and more a sour little family drama of greed, secrecy and acceptance.

Eoghan McQuinn
(See biog here)

Rated 16 (See IFCO website for details)
Taking Woodstock is released on 13th November 2009


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