Indie Snapshot: Struck By Lightning

by Ethan Alter January 11, 2013 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Struck By Lightning</i>

Glee's resident nice kid gets darker in the indie comedy Struck By Lightning. Also, our takes on Quartet, Fairhaven and The Baytown Outlaws.

Struck By Lightning
With Glee on the wane, the show's breakout star, Chris Colfer, expands his horizons by writing himself his own indie star vehicle, albeit one that mostly sticks to what he knows. So once again, we're back in the small-town high school milieu, specifically the loser quadrant, which is occupied in this case by Colfer's overachieving alter ego Carson Phillips. Unlike the irrepressible Kurt Hummel, though, Carson is actually kind of a jerk -- he's rude to his classmates (including a Glee-like cheerleader played by Modern Family's Sarah Hyland), mouths off to authority figures (including his screwed-up mother, played by Allison Janney) and has little patience for the general stupidity he sees around him in his sparsely populated Midwestern burg. But Carson wasn't just born this way; there's a reason for the kid's aggressive-aggressive behavior. See, he's so eager to escape this dead-end town that if he just sits back and accepts life as it is, he's terrified that he'll wind up trapped there. Instead, he's got to constantly challenge the status quo and try to better himself, all in the hopes of being accepted to a great college in a big city (like his top choice, Northwestern University) and leaving his home in the rear view. That's why his schedule is packed with extracurricular activities, from the student council to the school newspaper, where he rubs shoulders with some of the most unmotivated individuals this side of Garfield the cat. As a last-ditch effort to goose his Northwestern application, he launches a literary magazine and solicits contributions from the student body... through blackmail.

Much like the movie it was obviously inspired by, the 2004 high school satire Saved! (whose director, Brian Dannelly, is behind the camera here as well), Struck By Lightning possesses a jarring mixture of tones, with moments of dark comedy sitting somewhat uneasily alongside scenes of quiet domestic drama. Carson's home life, for example, doesn't quite square with the high school material, in large part because Janney does such effective work as a middle-aged woman who can barely hide the disappointment at what her life has become from her own son. It's the one fully-realized performance in a movie that's otherwise populated by too many caricatures, from the closeted cool kid (Carter Jenkins), to the guidance-free guidance counselor (Angela Kinsey), to the weirdo (Rebel Wilson). As for Colfer himself, he's perfectly adequate in the role he wrote for himself, though never 100 percent convincing when portraying Carson's Machiavellian side. He displays stronger chops as a screenwriter, at least in the mother/son scenes, which have an emotional punch the rest of the movie lacks. Colfer seems to have conceived of Struck by Lightning as a wake-up call to his generation, one that encourages them to put their iPods, iPads and iPhones down and really care about something. But the movie's final act plunge into preachiness and false sentiment will likely send them right back to those hand-held devices.

Here's a fun way to pass the time during Dustin Hoffman's diverting, but oh-so-slight directorial debut: try and total up the combined age of all the acting veterans onscreen -- including Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins. I got up to 295 (370 with Hoffman factored in) and that was leaving out such distinguished, aged supporting players as Michael Gambon and Gwyneth Jones. So yes, Quartet is a movie made by and for its target demographic in the same way that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was earlier this year. That movie, at least, benefitted from being set against the lush backdrop of India. Reflecting its origins as a stage play by Oscar-winning scribe Ronald Harwood (who also wrote the script), this one takes place almost entirely in one location -- a retirement home in the English countryside for elderly musicians. It's here that ex-opera singers Reginald (Courtenay), Wilfred (Connolly) and Cecily (Collins) spend their days lecturing to visiting students, trading music-world war stories with fellow artists and, in Wilfred's case anyway, getting up to no small amount of mischief. But then drama enters in the form of Jean (Smith), the fourth member of their celebrated quartet... and, more importantly, Reginald's ex-lover. Although the duo's reunion is far from sweet, they manage to declare a d├ętente that lasts until it's suggested that the quartet reunites for a one-night only performance at the home's annual public showcase, a prospect that Jean looks forward to with all the enthusiasm of a convict approaching the gallows.

A consummate actor's actor, it makes sense that Hoffman picked this performance piece as his late-life move into feature filmmaking. His directing style is unshowy and actor-centric, without being claustrophobic. Based on this movie, Hoffman could easily embark on a second career as an episodic TV director -- hook him up with the Downton Abbey crew and he'll hit the ground running. Julian Fellowes's period soap would also furnish him with far more dramatic storylines than the ones Harwood has penned here. While it can be a relief to watch a movie that doesn't feel compelled to drown itself in plot, Quartet is ultimately too thinly conceived, lacking a compelling dramatic throughline. The chief appeal is watching pros like Smith -- whose character isn't a carbon copy of her Downton Abbey persona, but certainly within the same family -- and Connelly seize the advantage of being center stage instead of serving as utility back-up players. (Classical music aficionados will obviously drink up the movie's soundtrack as well, which is packed with tunes from such maestros as Bach, Verdi and Gilbert and Sullivan.) Even if you're a die-hard Maggie Smith fans, you're best bet is to bypass Quartet in theaters and wait for its inevitable appearance as part of a PBS pledge drive.

For his feature filmmaking debut, New York theater veteran Tom O'Brien appropriates some of the techniques honed by the mumblecore movement (among them naturalistic, improvised-sounding dialogue, real-world locations and a focus on the strained relationships of white people) and applies them to his own small town drama, being sure to call upon famous friends like co-writer Chris Messina, Sarah Paulson and Rich Sommer to give the movie a better shot at distribution. Like so many of the mumblecore features it appears inspired by, however, Fairhaven feels so insular and cut-off, it's difficult for a wider audience to relate to. The fact that most of the characters are profoundly uninteresting doesn't help matters. O'Brien himself stars as Jon, a former high-school football star who ended up back in the titular Massachusetts fishing town after his pigskin career short-circuited. Since returning, he's made his living doing odd jobs while trying to launch a career as a writer and, equally important, sorting out his love life. One day, his old pal and fellow Fairhaven refugee Dave (Messina) makes his not-so-triumphant homecoming as well, stirring up latent feelings of hostility and envy amongst the duo, as well as their wider circle of friends, most notably Dave's ex-paramour Kate (Sarah Paulson). Although this extended reunion may be fraught with tension for the characters onscreen, it's mostly snooze-inducing for those of us in the audience watching it, as the various revelations and confessions are telegraphed long before they happen. To its credit, Fairhaven does boast lots of picturesque New England scenery, but it's rarely a good sign when a movie's backdrops are more dramatic than its central narrative.

The Baytown Outlaws
A calculated effort to recreate the inexplicable cult success of The Boondock Saints by giving that Boston-based crime movie an injection of Southern-fried grindhouse cheese, Barry Battles's low-budget road picture follows a band of three good ol' boy brothers who accept an assignment from mystery woman (Eva Longoria) to rescue her mentally challenged godson from her A-hole ex (Billy Bob Thornton). What starts as a seemingly simple snatch-and-grab operation quickly balloons into a Road Warrior-style chase picture with everyone from a motorcycle gang of warrior women straight out of a Russ Meyer movie to a Native American posse hitting the highway in pursuit of our (anti) heroes. This probably sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is; in execution, The Baytown Outlaws goes about its mayhem with an off-putting sense of smug self-satisfaction, as if it assumes its cult classic status is already assured. Raiding the filmographies of everyone from George Miller to Quentin Tarantino to Rob Zombie, Battle demonstrates that he sure watches a lot of exploitation movies, but that's different from making your own distinct and enjoyable work of art trash.

As an on-the-ground documentary depiction of the January 2011 Egyptian rebellion that overthrew the country's longtime leader, Hosni Mubarak, Uprising provides a dramatic account of what occurred during the roughly two-week long battle, fleshed out by news reports and commentary from various scholars and diplomats familiar with the region. But given how quickly the situation in Egypt has changed in the ensuing two years -- with the flush of victory having been replaced by the uncertainty over the current direction of the country -- the film also already feels somewhat dated, the optimism expressed by the talking heads not borne out by what we've seen happen since. Still, director Fredrik Stanton does do an effective job assembling the narrative of the uprising from its beginnings on January 25 up through Mubarak's resignation on February 11. So if you somehow missed these world-shaking events the first time around, Uprising will get you up to speed. Just know that further reading is in store afterwards, as the story's ending isn't as upbeat as the film would have you believe.

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