The Little Death Review – Tightening the Screw


Director: Josh Lawson

Writer: Josh Lawson

Stars: Josh Lawson, Bojana Novakovic, Damon Herriman, Lisa McCune


Release date: September 25th, 2014

Distributors: Entertainment One, Hopscotch, Magnolia

Country: Australia

Running time: 96 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The invigorating performances.

Worst part: The last scene.

Despite the consistent quality and commendable intentions, the Australian film and television industry is stuck in a critical and commercial pot-hole. Allowed few resources, many  productions use out-of-the-box ideas to impress audiences. Today, film-goers gravitate more towards spectacle than story or character. Sadly, our cinematic accomplishments are either ignored or brushed off. Despite the heavy subject matter of entries like Somersault and Animal Kingdom, there are brighter efforts out there.

Josh Lawson & Bojana Novakovic.

This year, our industry has steered itself in a whole new direction. Analysing specific demographics and trends, genre flicks like The Rover, Predestination, and The Babadook received enough attention for wide release distribution. Now, thanks to talented comedic actor Josh Lawson, modern sex-comedy The Little Death is tickling us in all the right places. This romantic comedy figuratively – literally, depending on your tastes – explores our many sweet spots. Examining sex’s natural and unnatural elements, this project gives new meaning to the term: “down under”. The movie discusses sex, romance, death, marriage, taboo, and everything in between. In fact, given its out-there premise, I’m surprised it didn’t explore the terrors of taxes and insurance claims. Don’t be afraid, this local effort is actually a breath of fresh air. The narrative juggles several peculiar story-lines and characters. Dealing with multiple couples, the story touches on many life stages. We are first introduced to an attractive couple, Paul (Josh Lawson) and Maeve (Bojana Novakovic), in full cuddle mode. Maeve, afraid of her emotions, asks Paul to fulfil her rape fantasy. Meanwhile, Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie(Kate Mulvany)’s marriage counsellor tasks them with conducting role-play to spice things up.

Damon Herriman & Kate Mulvany.

In addition, Richard (Patrick Brammall) and Rowena (Kate Box) must adjust to a loved one’s sudden death. Bafflingly so, Kate’s libido kick-starts whenever Richard cries. Propelling the narrative from light-hearted fluff into unadulterated overdrive, Lawson elevates said three plot-threads  above everything else. Connecting each strand, we see a middle-aged man, Steve (Kim Gyngell), informing his new neighbours of two things: he bakes Golliwog cookies and is a convicted sex offender. The three central story-threads, despite the exposition-driven set-ups, are almost worth the admission cost. However, Lawson, handing himself the lead role, lends significant attention to his and Novakovic’s plot-line. The other two, despite the positive vibes, are given little personality. Beyond our central story-lines, we get several underdeveloped and listless strands. One sub-plot, involving a loveless marriage between desk jockey Phil (Alan Dukes) and ball-busting housewife Maureen (Lisa McCune), goes nowhere. The intricate narrative, born from Lawson’s hyper-snappy mind, is The Little Death‘s biggest flaw. Despite the ambition, Lawson’s talents don’t stretch to fit the feature format. Introducing story-lines and character arcs at random throughout, Lawson’s screenplay resembles a brainstorming session gone horribly wrong. Despite the intriguing premise, none of its plot-strands connect succinctly. Despite the occasional meet-ups, restricts our characters to their specific threads.

“Whatever happened to good all fashioned, run-of-the-mill sex? People have to complicate it with all this kinky shit.” (Glenn (Ben Lawson), The Little Death).

Erin James.

Whilst promoting The Little Death, Lawson landed himself in controversy by slamming the Aussie film industry’s dark side. Putting his first feature on a high pedestal, Lawson’s high-minded promises aren’t fulfilled. Having achieved recent success with TV corporate-drama House of Lies, the export’s vanity project lands with a whimper instead of a, ahem, bang. Introducing, picking up and dropping sub-plots and character arcs without warning, Lawson’s feature – busy riding  mainstream and indie tropes – never develops a satisfying through-line. Thanks to the movie’s disparate structure, it becomes a series of skits, pratfalls, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. Its skittish story-telling tropes – used to expand the wafer-thin narrative – overshadow the more alluring ideas and scenarios. These sketches, despite the pitch-perfect comedic timing, amplify the screenplay’s lack of charm, guile, or emotional resonance. Despite the flaws, the movie bares several positive aspects. The dialogue, alleviating the tension, elevates certain sequences. In addition, its talented performers elevate the mediocre material. Sadly, Lawson’s commentary on suburbia and relationships is startlingly condescending. Focusing on good-looking, upper-middle class people, the movie alienates a significant portion of its audience. With first-world problems guiding the narrative, most of its conflicts become cold-hearted. Lacking resolutions, Lawson’s daring vision never pays off.

The Little Death, almost reaching crying-after-sex disappointment, is saved by its…climax. A sign language translator, Monica (Erin James), is caught between a deaf man and a phone-sex operator. Interpreting their horrific words, the translator gains a firm understanding of the world around her. This scene pumps blood towards the movie’s heads. However, despite Lawson’s ambition, his first feature goes hard and fast for only short bursts.

Verdict: A sexy, stupid, and shallow comedy.

Wild Review – Witherspoon’s Wily Walkabout


Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

Writers: Nick Hornby (screenplay), Cheryl Strayed (book)

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman


Release date: December 5th, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 115 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Reese Witherspoon.

Worst part: The frustrating flashbacks.

Any movie placing the word ‘wild’ in its title – no matter how big, small, good, or bad – is taking a major risk before release. Tackling one of cinema’s most popular adjectives, this word is a cliche not worth tripping over. Though fulfilled heartily in The Wild Bunch and The Wild One, movies like Wild Hogs, Wild, Wild West, and The Wild highlight this trope’s overt simplicity. Oscar-hungry drama Wild, grappling wholeheartedly with the cliche, appears wholly obvious and generic.

Reese Witherspoon.

Despite the title’s simplicity, there’s a saying everyone should cling onto before seeing Wild: you can’t judge a book by its cover. In fact, the movie’s poster is surprisingly simple. Presenting its lead character, the American wilderness, and neat stylistic choices, the poster promises everything audiences expect nowadays from small-budget performance pieces. Fortunately, despite its many flaws, this walkabout is worth taking. Just make sure to see it with an open mind and a box of tissues. Wild delivers a story drenched in heart, heartache, and heartbreak. Our poster-hogging character is thirty/forty-something traveller Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). After a string of poor choices, disappointing outcomes, and failed reboots, Strayed decides to venture down a well-known, well-worn path. Walking the United States’ notorious, over-1000-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from the US-Mexico border in California to the US-Canada border in Washington State, Strayed fashions her three-month trip as the ultimate jumpstart. Having divorced nice-guy husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), Strayed reflects upon her adulterous indiscretions and addiction problems. Along the way, we see – via flashback – Strayed interacting with optimistic mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and snarky brother Leif (Keene McRae).

Witherspoon’s haunting artistic journey.

On her tumultuous trip through America’s unrelenting mid-section, Strayed meets several bright and enthusiastic characters serving as significant bursts of energy. In recent cinema history, survival-thrillers/road-trip flicks have relied on roller-coaster-like pacing, visceral gore, blockbuster storytelling tropes, and CGI-driven worlds. Dodging Life of Pi‘s visual stimulus, Tracks‘ sweeping scope, and Cast Away‘s volleyball/Angry Tom Hanks sequences, Wild carries is tried-and-true formula across the windy, dangerous path less taken. Shifting gracefully between major plot-points and interactions, director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) bolsters this ombre tale with a real-world approach. Similarly to The Way, the movie’s grounded narrative analyses one of history’s most sumptuous activities. Despite Hollywood and the general public’s lack of interest in the PCT, this drama – based on Strayed’s real-life memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – makes a compelling argument for travelling, spiritual guidance, and self-worth. Across the vast stretch of land, the movie falls for Strayed’s gripping adventure. learning whilst doing, our hero seeks human interaction, core strength, and re-birth. Finally, another well-intentioned female character! Proving the journey is more valuable than the destination, the story, revolving around her intensifying character arc, is worthwhile. Despite this, the heavy-handed symbolism – outlined by Strayed’s run-ins with a poorly-rendered creature – adds little to the story or message.

“I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.” (Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), Wild).

Witherspoon pleading for more Oscar buzz.

Infatuated with the Western world’s untouched landscapes, the European  filmmaker fuses its gut-wrenching story with a thought-provoking agenda and sterling comedic jaunts. Like with his preceding effort, his style draws life from generic plot-points  and characters. Trudging the arduous dirt path, as the movie switches from lively road-trip flick to dour relationship-drama/character study, Vallee, Witherspoon, and screenwriter Nick Hornby hold our interest throughout the 115-minute run-time. In the first scene, we get an uncompromising glimpse into Strayed’s cruel world. Strayed, stranded on top of a rocky hillside in an undisclosed location, pulls off her sock, rips off an infected toenail, before watching one of her boots tumble down a steep hillside. From there, Vallee and Witherspoon’s project pins us down and never lets go. Obviously, credit belongs to Witherspoon for shredding her starry persona. Grappling with a reprehensible character, the A-lister attacks each scene with award-worthy bravado. Despite its overwhelming positives, its story-telling and technical flourishes distort the narrative. Giving its supporting players little screen-time, the movie’s cold, lifeless flashbacks paint broad strokes. In addition, its pro-feminism message renders many the male characters mute and/or abrasive. However, it difficult to avoid the movie’s crisp, unrelenting locations. Yves Belanger’s wondrous cinematography – along with the immense scenic vistas – develop a momentous sensory assault.

Honouring its succinct title, Wild tells a haunting and visceral tale of man, nature, and existence. Valle, following up his 2013 Oscar contender, moulds an impactful and wondrous drama out of this profound true story. Aided by Witherspoon’s heart-breaking performance, the movie’s comedic moments and emotional resonance overshadow the minor flaws. Like our lead’s topsy-turvy career, the movie surges fourth despite the odds.

Verdict: A haunting and precious Oscar contender.