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Films I Neglected to Review: Wrecker? I Hardly Know Her!
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "I Smile Back," "Victoria" and "Wrecker"

Ever since Charlie Chaplin decided that he wanted to inspire tears as well as laughs from his audiences, most screen comedians have longed to have an opportunity to show their fans that they can handle dramatic material as well. Some of these attempts to cross over have worked out brilliantly--Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation" and Adam Sandler in "Punch Drunk Love" come to mind--while others haven't fared quite as well. In "I Smile Back," Sarah Silverman takes her turn on the serious side as Laney Brooks, a seemingly happy upper-class wife and mother who is barely covering up a massive drug problem and an ill-advised affair with the husband of her best friend. After a major crackup lands her in rehab, Laney struggles to pull herself together again but will her desire to return to her family outstrip the temptation to succumb to the very same elements that landed her in trouble in the first place.

After hearing the premise of the film and knowing of Silverman's reputation for extremely edgy comedy, one could be forgiven for thinking that the film is actually a spoof of the rehab/recovery subgenre but no, "I Smile Back" treats its story in a deadly serious and earnest manner with nary a laugh to be had at any point. To her credit, Silverman does commit fully to the material and delivers a good performance that will no doubt come as a surprise to those who only know of her as a comedienne. The trouble is that it is the only surprise to be had here--the screenplay by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman is depressingly familiar stuff that feels like it is ticking off boxes rather than telling a story and director Adam Salky brings it to the screen in an equally lifeless manner that will put most viewers in the mind of lesser Lifetime TV movies than anything else. Despite Silverman's considerable efforts, "I Smile Back" is a dour drag but hopefully someone out there will see her work in it and give her a chance to once again demonstrate her dramatic chops--this time in a project more worthy of those talents.

Anyone can make a movie based around a gimmick--the trick is to make one that is strong enough to hold the interest of the viewers even after the initial appeal of said gimmick has worn off. Luckily, the new German thriller "Victoria" is one of those films. It has one hell of a trick at its center--it runs 138 minutes, takes place in a number of relatively far-flung locations and has been shot entirely in one take without a single cut to speak of. In this one, a young Spanish woman named Victoria (Laia Costa) starts off an evening dancing by herself in a Berlin disco when she meets up with a quartet of strange guys and impulsively goes off into the night with them. Big mistake because one of the guys owes a lot of money to a dangerous criminal who wants his money back that night or else--to do this, he has planned a heist for he and his friends to pull off that very night and Victoria elects to go along with them to serve as their getaway driver. Without giving anything away, I think I can safely reveal that things do not go entirely as planned.

The one-shot gimmick is one that has been employed in the past in such films as "Rope," "Russian Ark" and "Gravity" so aside from the sheer amazement of pulling off such a technical feat in a seamless manner, the trick itself is not that unique. However, co-writer-director Sebastien Schipper seems to have realized that going in and has taken care to create a film in which the visual approach supplements the story instead of replacing it entirely. The heist details, while not especially groundbreaking either, are deployed with a minimum of fuss and a maximum amount of style and excitement that lasts for pretty much the entire running time. Better still, he gets an enormously winning central performance from Laia Costa in the central role--what she does in the film may strike some viewers as foolhardy at best and insane at worst but she plays the character in a way that actually allows you to understand why she makes the various choices that she does in a way that helps ground a film that might have otherwise flown off into complete absurdity.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A motorist driving a long distance over a remote route makes the mistake of passing a truck along the way and is pursued by the seemingly murderous vehicle and its conspicuously unseen driver until it turns into a kill-or-be-killed situation. Sure, you are probably thinking that, based on this description, that the woeful thriller "Wrecker" sounds more than a little bit like "Duel," the highly influential 1971 TV movie that proved to be the first major work from a then-unknown filmmaker by the name of Steven Spielberg, working from a screenplay that Richard Matheson adapted from his own short story but there are plenty of differences between the two. For one, the harried driver has transformed from an unassuming suburban salesman played by Dennis Weaver to a couple of ready-to-party babes essayed by Anne Hutchinson and Andrea Whitburn. For another, the beat-up and vaguely demonic-looking semi that pursued them back in the day has been replaced with a beat-up and vaguely demonic-looking tow truck here.

Finally--and it only takes but a few minutes to figure this out--director/co-writer Micheal Bafaro is no Steven Spielberg, who managed to wring an enormous amount of anxious excitement out of the material despite working under the financial and artistic compromises inherent with doing a made-for-TV film of that particular era. Bafaro, on the other hand, never gets out of first gear--our heroines are not particularly interesting or engaging, there is virtually no tension to speak of (even the sudden shock effects are telegraphed enough to render them useless) and he is unable to figure out how to deal with the constraints of working without a lavish budget (especially during the finale, which cuts away from the moment everyone has been waiting for in order to save a few bucks in a manner that even Roger Corman might have found to be excessive). Unless watching blatant ripoffs of superior films amuses you somehow, I cannot think of anyone who deserves to sit through this creatively bankrupt timewaster--unless, of course, they think that it is actually stealing from "Joy Ride."

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originally posted: 11/07/15 03:36:07
last updated: 11/09/15 16:27:32
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