Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2012

While I wouldn't be that quick to declare 2012 a banner year for movie posters or even movies in general, what was good happened to be excellent. And as usual, there tends to be a direct correlation between a film's quality and the print advertising behind it. It can hardly be called a coincidence that some of the year's best films resulted in the strongest posters and vice versa, proving that when a studio chooses to get behind a movie or not, their commitment (or lack thereof) is almost always reflected in the print advertising. As a general rule, simple, clean, but visually striking designs always seem to fare best. Give them enough to get them interested, but not too much. So, with that in mind, let's get to it.

The Best...

10. Wreck-It Ralph

It would seem an 8-bit image would be the only way to go in teasing a movie about a videogame character but that still doesn't make it any less effective. This was the initial teaser for Wreck-It Ralph and no others seem necessary. It gets the point across loud and clear, and even if you had no idea what the movie is, an angry 80's retro gaming face is just about the best way to get kids (and probably some young adults) interested. It also doesn't hurt that it just looks cool.

9. Casa De Mi Padre

It seems like ages since Will Ferrell's starred in a truly hilarious film and I have no idea if this is one or not, but the one-sheet stands as a great example of why an artist's (in this case the great Akiko Stehrenberger) brush always trumps photoshop. Some probably can't stand that folded, retro worn look so many posters are adapting these days, but I'm not one of them. It definitely fits here. Trying to make this look like a Spanish epic or Spaghetti Western poster was unquestionably the right move. And it actually kind of succeeds in making me want to see this, which is no small feat. 

8. Django Unchained

We could have a whole discussion about how this minimalistic Saul Bass-inspired design is being done to death, but the reason it's being done to death is because it works. The bright red, the chain and two silouettes gets the job done. It helps that you have a film that basically sells itself by just the name of the director attached. A messy, cluttered cast poster would have been a huge mistake and the advertising department deserves credit for realizing it. You'd expect to see this hanging on someone's wall rather than in a movie theater, which is the hallmark of a great design.

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Could this one-sheet have possibly captured the visual scheme of Moonrise Kingdom (or basically any film written or directed by Wes Anderson) any better? Yeah sure I know it's really wordy but that cursive font just adds to the storybook look and feel. This could easily BE the cover of any of those books Suzy brought on her getaway with Sam.

6. V/H/S

It's always fun when a poster can say two things with a single image and still have it look good in the process. Glancing at it once isn't enough as you almost have to do a double take to see the skull. Or maybe you saw the skull first before realizing they were tapes. Either way, considering V/H/S/ is a low budget, found-footage anthology horror film, I'd say this sells the movie as well as possible.

5. Zero Dark Thirty

Talk about risky. This might be the first instance of a movie's poster redacting its title, but it's hard to deny the creative experiment wasn't a success in generating interest and mystery, not to mention tying into the actual film. It is a teaser but that there isn't a single star shown or director mentioned when they had plenty to brag about is an unusual show of restraint in this era of over-the-top marketing. Only the web site is completely visible and I'm willing to bet traffic's been busy.  

4. Looper (American and French Versions)

My most anticipated film of the year, which I'm still waiting on pins and needles to finally see, had two of the year's best one-sheets. While I slightly prefer the Drew Struzan-inspired French version both are equally impressive and artistic in their own way, with one emphasizing the time travel duality theme with mirror images of JGL and Willis, while the other is all about the action.

3. Killing Them Softly

It may have had the worst title of the year and bombed hard at the box office, but at least Killing Them Softly produced some great posters (also see below). This one's the best. It may not tell you anything other than it'll be be a murderous splatterfest but that suffices when the visual scheme is this arresting. Great mix of colors and you have to respect any poster designer with the guts to shoot Lady Liberty through the head.      

2. The Cabin in The Woods

It isn't often you see a modern movie poster incorporate or pay homage to a classic work of art, then somehow manage to do it in a way that's not only looks original and inspired, but directly relates to the film in question. I may have been less enthusiastic than most in my assessment of Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods but I couldn't possibly be more enthusiastic about this print by Phantom City Creative, a clever take-off of MC Escher's "Staircase." In both idea and execution it's almost as clever as the famous piece that inspired it. 

1. The Master (American, French and Turkish versions)

The toughest sell of the year resulted in what was easily 2012's most fascinating and brilliantly conceived set of posters. If I had to pick the American wine bottle teaser would be my favorite if only because, much like the film itself, we've never seen anything exactly like that before. It's just such a rich looking, "half-full, half- empty" image that tells us both everything and nothing about the movie at the same time, while effectively conveying the film's seafaring setting. Both The French and Turkish versions work as neat visual plays on the infamous Rorschach test Joaquin Phoenix's troubled Freddie Quell undergoes, with the evil eyes and mirror reflection of the typography highlighting the former. The latter features more dual imagery, accompanied by some incredible inkblotted artwork of the three stars. There was a black and white version (see below), but for some reason the color print just works better and jumps out at you more. Arguably the year's finest film, The Master was way too challenging to cultivate more than a cult (no pun intended) following, and the best thing about these designs are how well they reflect that challenging sensibility, avoiding the temptation of selling this as something it wasn't.        



And The Worst...

Don't ever cross Alex Cross because he's Alex Cross and you shouldn't cross him. Get it? It's his name!

Look familar? You know a poster's in trouble when even two Amanda Seyfrieds can't save it.

Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise in Tom Cruise: Cruise Control.

You might remember Vince Vaughn from his starring roles on TV's Dawson's Creek and Fringe. Hey...wait.  If this atrocity of a poster is any indication, Joshua Jackson is probably be grateful he was credited as someone else. Likewise, Vaughn is probably grateful he wasn't pictured.

Is this busy or what? I never thought I'd feel nostalgic for a Schwarzenegger poster but now here's another area where the original's starting to look better and better. Great shot of Beckinsale though.

It's a shame because the alternate poster for this is kind of over-the-top cool in all the ways this isn't. With this much fire you'd think it was a sequel to Backdraft.

                                                                                        Taken 3 starring Nicolas Cage

For such a high-profile release the entire series of Hunger Games posters sure were lazy and underwhelming. But those ridiculous hanging portraits put this one over the top.  

Well, at least it's over. We'll never have to look at another one of these again.

No one would argue John Goodman is the man and deserves to be on a great character poster, especially considering the film itself is fantastic. But boy is this silly looking. I can only imagine what people who haven't seen Argo think of it.

The Avengers poster looks exactly like you'd expect The Avengers poster to look like. I was hoping they wouldn't do that. A photoshopped disaster that unfortunately does get the job done in selling the movie. But it deserved better.

I have a theory that no movie characters own electric toothbrushes. This needlessly airbrushed image of Leslie Mann apparently doesn't contradict that. The less said about Paul Rudd on the toilet with an iPad the better.

Please accept this invitation to join Dennis Quaid for a game of golf. Or tennis. Or polo. Or whatever country club type sport he plans on partaking in this afternoon. For all that's wrong with this boxy Brady Bunch style poster, it says a lot that I still get the biggest laugh out of that image of Quaid.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Magic Mike

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Riley Keough, Betsy Brandt
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Going by only commercials and advertisements, you couldn't be blamed for thinking Magic Mike is  entirely about male stripping. But I get it. There's a movie to sell and the smartest way to fill theater seats was to cater to the women and gay men interested in seeing Channing Tatum star in "Chippendales: The Movie." After watching its trailer, that audience definitely wouldn't be wrong in expecting two hours of non-stop stripping and maybe some laughs. So, you have to wonder how they reacted when one of the very first scenes featured topless female nudity. Or that there are only really three of four big stripping sequences. And that the picture above is a far better representation of what the film is than all those billboards of shirtless guys in ties and suspenders. It's kind of a miracle the movie did as well as it did at the box office considering how much it managed to misrepresent itself. But it's good news for people who like smart movies. But anyone familiar with Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker knew we wouldn't be getting anything too commercial or fluffy. And we don't. Yet, the movie is still fun in its own cool, laid back kind of way.

Mike Lane (Tatum) is a 30 year-old budding Tampa entrepreneur who dreams of one day owning his own  custom furniture business, but works odd jobs in construction during the day to make ends meet. When 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) quits his first day on the site, Mike takes him under his wing and introduces him to his night gig as a professional dancer at the Xquisite Strip Club, which is owned by a washed-up, forty-something stripper named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). He has ambitions of someday building an empire, but his biggest star is "Magic Mike". Hired initially as the prop guy, Adam is thrown on stage and initiated into the world of male dancing with Mike promising his disapproving sister Brooke (Cody Horn) that he'll look after him. He's also clearly interested in her, but seems tied up in very casual  relationship with vapid grad student Joanna (Olivia Munn). Despite being a quick learner, Adam's inexperience and recklessness prove to be a problem off stage, as he plunges headfirst into the hedonistic lifestyle accompanying the job. Just as Dallas' greed and ego start growing out of control, so does Mike's desires to possibly start exploring other options in life.        

Making the character of Adam an entry point into this male stripping world was the smartest decision Soderbergh could have made to appeal to more skeptical viewers uninterested in seeing a "stripper movie," which this isn't anyway. For the first half of of the movie he's our protagonist, seeming as put-off and uncomfortable with the whole idea of real guys actually doing this to earn money as we are. But the funniest aspect of this just might be how Mike tricks Adam into thinking they'll be spending the night hitting clubs and picking up women. In a way, this is true. He just leaves out the part about him being a male stripper, perhaps knowing the inevitable reaction. Audiences don't have that luxury and you kind of wish they did because the biggest surprise of the film is how the profession is shown to have a backstage grind that's comparable to any other occupation.Which isn't to say it's boring or they're pushing papers, but we see the work and it's definitely a job. At first, it would appear to take more time in the gym than the dance floor to be able to do this but there's definitely a stark contrast between some of the goofy, hilariously choreographed routines they do as a group and when "Magic Mike" takes the stage solo.

The screenplay is based on Tatum's own brief run as a stripper before he got into acting so it would make sense he'd know what he's doing out there. Even with that information, it'll still surprising just how good a dancer he is, notwithstanding the actual stripping, which almost seems like an afterthought. And it results in one of the best sequences, as Adam's overprotective, uptight sister Brooke begrudgingly watches Mike's show-stopping routine with the same perpetual scowl she has plastered on her face throughout three quarters of the picture's running time. And it's such a great scowl because you always see this hint of a tiny smile cracking through that we know we can look forward to finally seeing by the end of the film. She hates that her brother has is resorting to doing this for cash, but can't conceal her guilt that Mike's slowly growing on her. Tatum will never be accused of being an actor of incredible range (at least yet), but within that range he can be excel, as he proved earlier in the year with 21 Jump Street and Haywire. His low, one-key performance here is as strong as those, if not stronger because he has to carry much of the film's load as its title character.  He also has real sparks with newcomer Cody Horn, who simply possesses this grounded, natural likability on screen that does actually make you want to root for the potential couple to succeed and for Adam (whom Pettyfer plays with endearing cluelessness)  to stay out of trouble. Any guy reluctant to see this would have problems finding a better excuse than her.

When the initially shy and unassuming Adam starts falling in with the wrong crowd and is swallowep by the limelight, the film travels in a more familiar, but no less effective, route, as Mike struggles to keep his promise to look out for the kid. Hovering on the sidelines, but hanging over the movie like a dark cloud, is Matthew McConaughey's performance as Dallas. We really don't know anything about the guy and even the one scene in which he's discussed doesn't reveal much history, but it hardly matters. We sense everything there is to know the second McConaughey appears in the opening scene as the M.C. and in each appearance following it. This is a man consumed with the spotlight living all his dreams vicariously through his younger charges, whom he basically treats as cattle. Driven by greed and greener pastures in Miami, he'll have to be dragged offstage kicking and screaming before he's pathetically milked every last second of his 15 remaining minutes of notoriety. There's something hauntingly pathetic about it, and that trademark charisma and likability McConaughey brings to even the unworthiest projects is finally given its proper outlet, but with a sharper, darker edge that really plays to all his strengths (even incorporating his infamous bongo drumming skills).  Basically Mike is the future Dallas, unless he escapes out right now. The rest of the talent (played by Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez and former WWE star Kevin Nash) don't figure in too much, but still have some funny individual character moments that give us a glimpses into their personalities and  the locker room atmosphere backstage. Olivia Munn has just a few scenes as Joanna, but in them she successfully manages to make  her pretentious character as unlikable and irritating as can be. And, yes, that's a compliment.

Magic Mike isn't a chick flick in the slightest. In fact, I'm more than willing to bet most women who see it expecting a comedic flesh fest will probably find it boring since the tone and content is so far removed from from what it was advertised as. It's actually about something, with the stripping world merely providing the fascinating backdrop for a story about a guy reaching a crossroads and needing to change. Even the way it's lensed, in that typical hazy, washed-out Soderbergh style he's perfected of late, suggests we're watching a documentary or being invited to just hang out and eavesdrop on these characters' lives. Some will find more fun in that approach than others, lending a bit of irony to the fact that the audience of serious moviegoers most likely to appreciate this are the ones least likely to give it a chance because of the subject matter or how they'll be perceived having seen it.The profession may be stripping, but that it could have been replaced with any other job and still been an interesting film speaks to the fact that the screenplay is, first and foremost, about these characters and their relationships, even while doubling as kind of a modern social commentary. I was hoping it would play like this. More truthfully, I was hoping it would play as anything other than what it was promoted as. Luckily, it does. And it's still a good time.                

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochrane, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 120 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The first ten minutes of Argo are so exciting and suspenseful it's almost impossible believe it all actually happened. But it did. Of course, how closely the events depicted on screen match what really unfolded will be subject to debate, as is always the case whenever a film is "based on a true story." As far as political, Oscar friendly topics like this go, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything that fits the mold as well as the one director Ben Affleck covers in his most assured outing behind the camera yet. That George Clooney co-produced this is of little surprise since Affleck feels like this year's Clooney, starting out as a star struggling to be taken seriously as an actor and eventually earning that respect by now only directing and starring in projects he believes in.

Fully deserving every bit of praise it's gotten, his film is bookended by two thrilling sequences, the latter so tense it's almost unbearable to watch, actually drawing applause in the theater when it concluded. And that's despite us knowing how this ends. At first glance it looks like a fine, if completely by the book, point A to point B type of biographical drama/thriller, but upon closer inspection it's clear there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. Intelligent and well-made, it seems like the type of film easier to respect and admire than outright love, but I was surprised just how much I loved it. And given the tricky ground it covers, that certainly wasn't a foregone conclusion.

The film tells the story of a mission that until 1997 was kept classified. When the U.S. Embassy in Iran was stormed by militants in November, 1979 for sheltering the deposed and recently ailing Shah, more than 50 embassy staffers were taken hostage. Six escaped, hiding in the home of the Canadian Ambassador as CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) are brought in to come up with a game plan for getting them out. Mendez makes a call to his old friend, Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who recruits legendary, but washed-up producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to conceive a fake science fiction fantasy movie called Argo, that will shoot in Iran.

The plan is for Mendez to pose as the fake film's producer, and with phony passports and identities, sneak the six escapees back to the U.S. as members of his production crew. They go so far as to actually write a script, take out real ads in Variety and pretend to scout out locations to pull off a ruse that just might be crazy enough to work, especially given the recent success of a little movie called Star Wars. But due to the potential embarrassment if it fails, the plan could be too crazy and dangerous for the government to get behind, putting Mendez's entire mission at risk. There's also the enormous obstacle of successfully prepping the six escapees and managing to safely get them past airport security. Already limited in options, if Mendez attempts to go through with this, there's a good possibility they all could die. If he doesn't try, they definitely will.

That this never manages to feel like a historical recitation while being so fully entrenched in history during its two-hour running time is quite an accomplishment. Even the actual newsreel footage is incorporated in an exciting way that feels organic enough to the story that it's sometimes indistinguishable from the filmed scenes. There's something to be said for telling a fact based, true life story in a no-nonsense, straightforward manner that's free of emotional fat or needless editorializing.You can thank Affleck for this as the pacing, editing, production design, cinematography, and musical choice are all so spot-on, yet lack the showboating flare that can unnecessarily draw attention to them. Because of that, it's possible more casual moviegoers could be shaking their heads wondering what all the fuss and awards attention is about. This isn't to imply they don't "get it" or come off as a stuffy film snob since that reaction most closely mirrors my own immediately after it ended.

Much reflection isn't necessary to recognize the attributes in every aspect of this project from top to bottom, brimming to the rim with scenes that don't so easily leave your mind. Even more unusual is a director executing so invisibly well and with such an objective eye that it doesn't even seem like anything's being done. Then, before you know it, it's over. That it is very much being done, and milked for such great suspense, at the service of what's essentially a biographical procedural, is even more impressive. It's one of those technically gifted films (a lot like the Clooney-starring Michael Clayton) that comes out looking clean as a whistle after you slide it down the conveyor belt and inspect for flaws.

If there's one thing that does attract attention, it's a production and costume design that's so 1970's it's almost impossible not to stare in disbelief or even maybe laugh out loud. That's not at all a flaw, but rather an exposure to our ignorance of just how silly the fashion and styles were back then. I don't doubt the period detail is completely spot-on and a separate documentary could probably be made about Affleck's shaggy helmet of hair which seems to enter each scene five minutes before he does. Yet this only adds to the authenticity of the proceedings, as it genuinely feels like we're being transported to another time in a way that few historical dramas have successfully pulled off as well. 

This is a really loaded cast, but again, in such a subtle way that you might not realize just how many great roles are afforded to some of the best, most under-valued character actors currently working in TV and film. That Affleck is a fan of them and thought enough to give each a showcase in the right capacity speaks to his intuition and integrity as a craftsman. Perhaps no choice speaks to that more than the casting of Bryan Cranston in a semi-huge role as Mendez's superior, O' Donnell, who appears at first only to dispense and receive information until events change course and his character has to re-adjust on the spot. What he does and how he does it is surprising, and will be even to those with knowledge of how these events unfolded.

There's also Victor Garber as Canadian Ambassador Taylor, Kyle Chandler as Carter's Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, and also a slew of brief, but entirely functional appearances from Chris Messina, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Clea DuVall and Zeljko Ivanek sprinkled throughout. As one of the six escapees, the long underrated Tate Donovan gets a chance to step up and shine as the defacto leader of the group. If an Oscar category was ever instituted for best ensemble, Argo would have it in the bag as its difficult recalling a cast as meticulously assembled and well utilized as this.

Despite their top billing, it's ironically Alan Arkin and the great John Goodman who leave the tiniest impressions, with the former doing another variation on his "grumpy old man" routine while the latter seems to be the only key supporting player slightly marginalized by Chris Terrio's script. There's also a clever joke involving the fake movie's title that's funny the first time, but less so after five or six, as if they just wanted to make sure we got it. But that's a small nitpick. And for all praise Affleck's received behind the lens, his work in front of it this time out hasn't gotten nearly the attention it's deserved as it could be the most quietly effective performance he's ever given, playing a man torn between following orders and doing what he knows is right. In either case, Mendez is playing chicken with everyone's lives.

I fear Arkin will be nominated for this when a far more deserving performance is given from a mustachioed Scoot McNairy as cynical escapee Joe Stafford, who isn't the slightest bit interested in cooperating with Mendez's risky plan and is more than willing to stand his ground. The character could have easily come across as just a stubborn jerk, or worse, a plot contrivance, but McNairy plays him as being aggravated and petrified for he and his wife Kathy's (Kerry Bishe) safety. He brings up legitimate holes in the plan and an argument can even be made that every objection he has is completely correct. Unfortunately, the only other alternative is staying there and waiting for certain death. He has a scene in the last act that simply defies description, so ratcheted with tension it causes you to hold your breath until it's over. It's clearly the moment when political implications of the entire situation collide head-on with the universal effect movies can have as a means of communication between cultures.

In a cast like this it's difficult to stand out, but McNairy does, much like the film, by not standing out and just doing his job expertly. So much so that if I I have a complaint it's that the time spent with Mendez cutting through bureaucractic red tape may have been better spent with the escapees, but considering these office scenes often play like a cross between All The President's Men and Zodiac, that's a very small quibble. Criticisms by some that Canada's role in the mission is downplayed seem silly when at one point it's made perfectly clear through actual footage the extent of their involvement was and how they were eventually credited. Given that this entire situation was essentially a huge cover-up anyway, it keeps in the spirit of true events that the movie wouldn't put heavy focus on Canada's cooperation. Not to mention it's just par the course for adjustments to be made so that true events can be streamlined into a cohesive two-hour narrative.

It's almost too obvious to compare Affleck's creative transformation to Clooney's, so it might be more accurate to point out that he's simply completed his transformation into Ben Affleck, fulfilling (if not exceeding) his full potential as a director and actor. After this, the sky really seems to be the limit in terms of what he can do, having gone even a step further than Clooney in not only taking inspiration from the paranoid thrillers of the 70's, but actually setting one in that time period based on actual events. To call this his Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck. wouldn't be far off, except it's better realized, taking what could have come off as a dry history lecture in lesser hands and molding and shaping it into suspenseful, first-class entertainment. It's become a running joke that the last two or three months of the year are reserved for smart, sophisticated dramas aimed at adults. If only that were a joke. After watching something like this I wonder how some critics aren't tempted to just take the first ten months of moviegoing off and show up now. Luckily though, Argo was more than worth the wait. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Kristen Bell, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."

It isn't often a film's synopsis is a classified ad, but that ad above is actually based on a real one placed as a gag in a 1997 issue of  Backwoods Home Magazine. It provides the loose inspiration for Safety Not Guaranteed, which shouldn't be considered a time travel movie, at least not in the strictest sense. And yet while this really isn't "about" time travel the entire movie still manages to rest on the "idea" of it. The ad probably could have inspired at least ten equally different but still inspired stories, but director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly still somehow knew the deepest, most interesting angle of approach. That's why criticisms that this becomes just another low-budget indie romance if you take away the time travel element would be wrong. It takes a certain type of person to place an ad like that and also a certain type of person to respond. It's about reading between the lines. Are they really looking for someone to travel back in time with them or it it something else? The answer is more complicated than you'd think going in. Since the nature of traveling through time is built on a desire to go back and change the past it makes sense that anyone this obsessed with the idea would likely be full of regret and have something big to fix. We can all relate, which is why during a movie we can always accept the "idea" behind time travel and then talk about how crazy and unrealistic it is when we get out of the theater. And it is. But someone's desire to isn't. Here's a movie that finally calls us out on that. 

Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) is a lonely, depressed college grad living at home with her widowed father (Jeff Garlin) while interning at a Seattle magazine for a bitchy boss (Mary Lynn Rajskub). When cocky writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) proposes pursuing this lead of a guy putting out a classified ad for a time traveling companion, he chooses Darius and nerdy biology major Arnau (Karan Soni) to join him. But his real motivation for the trip is to hook up with his old high school girlfriend Liz (Jenica Bergere), while dumping all the grunt work on his two lowly interns. The man behind the ad is an eccentric supermarket clerk named Kenneth Callaway (Mark Duplass) and Darius seems to be the only one capable of connecting with him on any level, making her the ideal candidate to pose as his potential time traveling partner. She soon finds out that he's dead serious and is frantically putting the wheels in motion for this mission to take place as their relationship grows closer.  Where he wants to go, why he feels he needs to and how it dovetails with everyone's story, would be giving away too much, but it all together constitutes the essence of the film. With Darius' feelings for Kenneth deepening, she must confront the fact that either this guy is completely crazy and needs help or there could actually be something to his time travel project. It's surprising how much evidence points the latter, while the former still remains very likely. 

There comes a point where it almost ceases to matter whether Kenneth is really telling the truth or not, whether he's sane or not, and of course, whether he's really invented a time machine. The story is about so many other interesting things that his plan becomes the vehicle for which the other characters can find a release. In a sense, they're no different than he his and are going through something similar, but in different ways. All three are dealing with major regret in their past while one of them is still at the point where he's capable of preventing it. For Darius it's the loss of her mother, which seemed to have caused a chain reaction that sent her spiraling into a permanent state of depression that's followed her through high school and college into young adulthood. Haunting Jeff is "the one who got away," leading him to a life of shallow womanizing that's continued into his thirties, a time when many of his contemporaries are settling down. At 22, Arnau still has his whole life ahead of him but won't for long if he doesn't get out there and overcome his fears. If not, he's risking a future as filled with regret as theirs is now. Kenneth's situation is a bit more involved, likely because the details of it are constantly changing, becoming a mystery to everyone but himself. His personal history remains a question mark even past the point the final credits have rolled, despite a finish that's anything but ambiguous.

There's a scene late in the third act where someone from Kenneth's past is tracked down and questioned that's so brutally honest it's almost difficult to watch without cringing. This person says nothing that's overtly malicious, speaking the truth as succinctly and sympathetically as possible, but just hearing it is so hard you're glad he's not there to witness it. It's the the most painful of rejections, cutting right to the bone. If he's making his entire story up, we get why, but if he's being honest about everything, then there's even more to talk about. It also can't be a coincidence the filmmakers chose the year 2001 as his destination point, given all its potential implications. That Kenneth or Darius don't acknowledge this will probably be looked at as some kind of sardonic commentary on self-absorbed young people and maybe that's true but this movie perfectly captures the confusion of your twenties and thirties when you first start seeing things through the rearview mirror, realizing mistakes you made then just might be impossible to undo now. All that's left is what's ahead, and suddenly it's sneaking up on you really fast.

Aubrey Plaza is one of those comedic actresses with a rabid cult of supportive fans who probably want nothing more than for her to carry a truly great movie as its lead. And now she has. My doubts about whether she could do it only stemmed from the uniqueness of the dry, sarcastic, eye-rolling screen persona she's perfected on Parks and Recreation each week. It's great in short bursts but I wasn't so sure it would translate as easily to the big screen without some major adjustments made. What a huge surprise it is then that she gives a performance so sympathetic and sincere, not to mention completely unironic. Yet, she can still call on that trademark dry wit when she needs to, like during her first wacky encounter with Kenneth in the supermarket that's strangely reminiscent of April's interactions with her overgrown kid of a husband Andy on Parks and Rec. Or maybe more accurately, due to the dangerous nature of this mission, Andy's goofy alter ego, FBI agent Burt Macklin, who would probably find this whole thing pretty cool.

Though his name is ubiquitous amongst film buffs alongside his brother Jay as a writer/director, this is the first time we've really gotten a read on Mark Duplass' full range of skills as an actor. And he's staggering, delivering a subtly brilliant turn that doesn't take the easy way out in making this guy either endearing or a lovable doofus. You never pity Kenneth and at points Duplass plays it as if he could legitimately be crazy, or worse yet, really dangerous. And in yet another great role for a TV star, New Girl's Jake Johnson plays sleazy jerk Jeff as, well, a sleazy jerk, at least to start out. But as the story of him trying to win back his ex progresses his arc becomes the most emotional and important, with his performance following suit. Late in the film he has a moment (you'll know it when it arrives) that's not only heartbreaking, but a master class in acting, telling us all we need to know with a single pained expression. Though she is billed in the credits, Kristen Bell's brief appearance still feels shocking, but also integral to what's arguably the film's most pivotal scene. Also integral is the score by Guster's Ryan Milller and his original song contribution, "Big Machine," as both fit the picture's tone like a glove.

This is the feature debut of director Colin Trevorrow, who recently made headlines as one of the filmmakers in heavy talks to helm the upcoming Star Wars sequel. Other than a couple of passing references, his only qualification is that he directed a perfect movie his first time out of the gate. From where I sit, that's about as good a qualification as any. This is distinctly human drama with heart before it's sci-fi, but the great thing is that if you chose to view it as either or neither you can't be wrong. By the end, one definitively wins out, and it's earned. Despite seemingly modest ambitions and a tiny budget under a million, this feels much bigger than most movies twice its cost. And it'll probably resonate deepest for those who never felt like they fit in. Outcasts, rebels, oddballs, weirdos. Call them whatever you want, just as long as it isn't "quirky." These characters are anything but. They suffer real pain, regret and rejection and while there are lots of laughs, Safety Not Guaranteed is also unbearably sad in its honesty, going places you never expected it could.