|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Hal," "The New Romantic" and "Prospect"
If you had to name one person who best symbolized what happened when Hollywood made its seismic shift from the Seventies, when studios were more willing to take chances on offbeat projects shepherded by iconoclastic filmmakers on the assumption that some of them might strike it big with the public, to the Eighties and beyond, when the accountants essentially took over and chancy projects were shoved to the side in order to focus almost exclusively on pre-sold blockbusters, Hal Ashby is the one who most immediately leaps to mind. Having made his bones in Hollywood in the Sixties as an editor--winning an Oscar for ''In the Heat of the Night''--he shifted into directing with the quirky 1970 counter-culture comedy ''The Landlord'' and spent the ensuing decade making such largely acclaimed films as ''Harold & Maude'' (1971), ''The Last Detail'' (1973), ''Shampoo'' (1975), ''Bound for Glory'' (1976), ''Coming Home'' (1978) and ''Being There'' (1979). Unfortunately, things quickly went south for him in the next decade as he found himself losing out on promising projects (he was set to direct ''Tootsie'' at one point), becoming inexplicably attached to unpromising ones (such as ''The Slugger's Wife,'' arguably the least funny comedy to ever have Neil Simon's name attached to it) and even getting shut out of the editing of what proved to be his final film, ''8 Million Ways to Die'' (1986) before dying far too young of liver cancer in 1988.
With the continued veneration directed at 1970s American cinema, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a documentary centered around Ashby and the continued influence of most of the 13 features he was able to get made and that film has arrived in the form of Amy Scott's ''Hal.'' Using plenty of clips from his filmography and interviews from coworkers (including Jeff and Beau Bridges, Jane Fonda, Caleb Deschanel, Lee Grant and Jon Voight) and acolytes (such as Alison Anders, David O Russell and Judd Apatow), the film presents its case that Asbhy belongs right up there in the pantheon with his more celebrated contemporaries. It does a pretty good job of it as well, though anyone who is even a casual student of the era being covered here will many of the stories recounted here to be a little on the familiar side. Personally, I wish it had delved a little more into his later years to examine how things could have gone so wrong so quickly (the grim saga of ''The Slugger's Wife'' is not even mentioned at all, though the film does offer a much-needed reappraisal of ''Lookin to Get Out,'' which is easily his most underrated work and which contains some moments of pure comedic genius) and less about ''Harold & Maude,'' a film whose status as an eternal cult classic continues to baffle me. That said, this is still a good primer on the man and his work that is worth checking it out, especially if you are able to carve out some time afterwards to watch some of the films under discussion--''Shampoo,'' ''Being There,'' ''Coming Home,'' ''The Last Detail'' and ''Lookin to Get Out'' being the top picks in my opinion.
''The New Romantic'' tells the story of Blake (Jessica Barden), a college senior whose romantic life has been in a prolonged slump--bad enough under normal circumstances but even more so when you are the sex columnist for the campus newspaper. Threatened with the loss of her column, Blake is searching for something to write about when she makes the acquaintance of Morgan (Camila Mendes), a fellow student who is part of a so-called ''sugar daddy'' relationship, an overtly transactional version of a typical romantic situation in which a younger woman ''dates'' an older and well-to-do man who gives her cash and gifts in exchange for companionship. After meeting a professor (Timm Sharp) who is interested in making such an arrangement with her, Blake decides to go through with it in order to get her column back and to win the Hunter S. Thompson prize for Gonzo journalism and its attendant $50,000 prize. At first it all seems swell as the gifts come in but after a while, Blake slowly begins to realize that this kind of relationship is not all that it is cracked up to be, at least on her end, as she years for something that the professor is simply unwilling to give.
Needless to say, this is material that some might deem problematic at best, especially for a film that is supposed to mostly be comedic in nature--you would need someone along the lines of Billy Wilder at the absolute peak of his powers to come up with a story that would be funny and incisive without coming across as sleazy or stupid. As it turns out, writer-director Carly Stone is not the second (or third) coming of Wilder and she has created a film that cannot decide if it wants to be a smutty sitcom or a terrible made-for-TV movie torn from last year's headlines and winds up coming across as a mashup of both. The jokes are not funny, the insights are glib and uninspiring and while Barden is passable in the lead, her presence does not help matters much since she looks and sounds as if she could have easily starred in ''Eighth Grade'' without anyone being the wiser. (Oddly, the film never takes good advantage of this odd casting quirk, which might have pushed it into some more intriguingly provocative areas.) My guess is that the only group that might find this film to be of interest at all would be ''Riverdale'' fans wanting to see Camilla Mendes in a different role than that of Veronica--she is probably the best thing in the film but unfortunately is not in it long enough to rescue it from terminal mediocrity.
In the low-budget sci-fi/Western hybrid ''Prospect,'' teenager Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her father (Jay Duplass) hurtle off on a risky mission to mine a cache of precious gems from a deposit hidden in the toxic forest of a remote moon. The landing does not go as planned and while Cee is more interested in figuring out a way of getting off the moon before all is lost, Dad insists on setting off to find the deposit. Along the way, however, they run across a couple of nefarious types and after the situation temporarily gets out of control, Cee is forced to team up with one of them, the dangerous but loquacious Ezra (Pedro Pascal) in order to try to find a path to safety through a journey that finds them running up against a number of unexpected obstacles along the way. The film is from the writer/director team of Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, whom the trailers have dubbed ''visionary'' despite this being their debut feature (though it is an expansion of their 2014 short of the same name) and while such self-aggrandizement usually sets my teeth on edge, I will let it pass this time because it does mostly live up to the self-hype. The blending of sci-fi and western tropes is handled fairly well (though the Roster Cogburn-like dialogue spouted throughout by Ezra may annoy and endear in equal measure), it creates a convincing depiction of a future existence that relies more on inspiration and atmosphere than a large budget to carry the day and the central performances by Thatcher and Pascal are quite good. The unabashedly ambitious film doesn’t quite connect all the time--it starts to slacken off towards the end--but it hits more than it misses and even when it stumbles, it is still making more of an effort than a lot of recent genre efforts. ''Prospect'' is definitely a film worth checking out but more importantly, it makes me intensely curious to check out what Caldwell and Earl may present for a followup so as to see whether it can live up to the promise offered by this fairly impressive debut.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4151
originally posted: 11/10/18 02:26:03
last updated: 11/10/18 03:24:58