Movies · Reviews

Skip Those Dueling “True” Biopics, and See the Beautifully Honest Still Life In Theaters Instead

By  · Published on January 18th, 2015

Tribeca Film

There was a time when the only place to see new movies was in theaters – I know, it sounds like science fiction, but it’s true – but the brave new world we find ourselves in has made it possible to experience brand new releases in a myriad of ways. One of the increasingly more common methods of mainlining cinema these days is via VOD, and while some smaller films manage limited theatrical releases a growing number are premiering on demand.

This week’s small releases include four dramas of varying content and effect. Still Life follows a man whose job it is to find friends for the recently departed. Little Accidents examines the weight of guilt on several characters in a small, tragedy-prone town. The Phoenix Project finds four scientists on the verge of conquering death. And finally, Three Night Stand asks us to identify with a poor guy stuck between Meaghan Rath and Emmanuelle Chriqui.

Still Life

John May (Eddie Marsan) works for the South London Council examining the lives of people who’ve died and left no friends or family behind. He sifts through their belongings hoping to find a link to a companion or relative of the deceased – someone to attend the funeral, someone to pass property on to – but more often than not the quest is fruitless leaving John the sole attendee at these final ceremonies. He lives his own life in carefully structured solitude, but when his most recent case becomes his last due to budget cutbacks he finds himself taking small, calculated steps towards the unfamiliar.

Writer/director Uberto Pasolini’s film is a sweet and simple character piece that benefits greatly from a rare leading role turn by Marsan. He’s a unique physical presence, a factor usually responsible for relegating him to supporting player, but here it works to inform John’s own insular life as well as his drive to help these other solitary souls. Joanne Froggatt also does finely crafted work here as a possible inspiration in John’s life. Meeting her combined with the promise of imminent unemployment lead to small changes in John’s life – different foods, behavioral changes – and Marsan convinces us of just how monumental they are to a man like John, and he often does so in silence.

The third act pulls something of a magic trick that ultimately works even though it probably shouldn’t. It goes somewhere predictable, but it bounces back with a final shot – that again, should not work at all – that absolutely wrecked me. Credit goes to Pasolini, but the entirety of it would fall flat without the emotional groundwork of Marsan’s delivery and presence throughout. Still Life is a simple, small movie, but it has something big to say about the need for human contact.

Still Life is currently in limited theatrical release.

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Little Accidents

Ampify

A small, West Virginia town, still reeling from a recent mining disaster that took the lives of several miners, suffers another tragedy when a teenage boy goes missing. The teen is the son of a mine boss (Josh Lucas) who some blame for the disaster, and the only one who knows the truth about his disappearance is the less affluent and popular Owen (Jacob Lofland). Amos (Boyd Holbrook), the mining disaster’s only survivor, carries the dual weight of guilt and bodily damage, and moving between them all is the boss’ wife (Elizabeth Banks) who discovers her own growing ennui at a rich life in the face of so much loss.

Writer/director Sara Colangelo crafts a finely wrought atmosphere of class distinctions, peer pressure and oppressive guilt. Lofland (last seen in Mud alongside Tye Sheridan) is tremendous here as the film’s heart and soul. His is the only character truly undeserving of the guilt he’s carrying, but he’s also the one most pained by it. Lofland more than holds his own against far more experienced actors and becomes the character who holds our attention the strongest.

Holbrook is equally good, but like the rest of the adult threads his character arc never really comes to fruition. Instead we’re given a peek into these people’s pains without the narrative benefit of even the hint of closure. It’s not a matter of wanting easy solutions or fixes – we’re just shown a portion of their lives, and then the film ends. It’s an odd choice as the story hints at more connection and resolution, for better or worse, but nothing ever comes of it outside of Owen’s story. Still, Little Accidents is a promising feature highlighted by affecting performances and a strong sense of place.

Little Accidents is currently in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

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The Phoenix Project

FilmBuff

A pair of scientist friends, along with two fellow eggheads recruited via want ads, hole up in a house together intent on bringing an earth-shattering experiment to fruition. They’re attempting to construct a device capable of bringing dead things back to life. Their testing begins with insects and rodents before moving up the food chain, but as they move toward the inevitable their individual motivations threaten to derail the entire project.

Writer/director Tyler Pavey’s feature is very much inspired by Shane Carruth’s Primer with its minimalist, dialogue heavy slice of science fiction, but while it succeeds in its character dynamic the narrative appeal is somewhat lacking. There’s little in the way of pop to the science they’re exploring as the film eschews traditional Frankenstein tropes in favor of a very slow build towards very little. Instead the power comes in the character interactions as the men, both friends and strangers, learn truths about each other’s reason for being there and, in some cases, reasons for leaving.

The film’s other big problem is Pavey’s decision to open in medias res with three of the men carrying a clearly deceased fourth in frantic slow motion. It’s unnecessary and hurtful to the final film as it tells us too much too early and makes a fateful decision in the third act far less dramatic. The reveal doesn’t kill the film, but the little we’re left with after the scene returns is less satisfying than it otherwise might have been. The Phoenix Project is dry sci-fi, but it remains an engaging enough watch.

The Phoenix Project is currently in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

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Three Night Stand

Freestyle Releasing

Carl (Sam Huntington) and Sue (Meaghan Rath) haven’t been married for very long, but a certain staleness has already begun creeping into their relationship. Determined to liven things up again, he plans a weekend getaway to a romantic winter lodge, but he makes a small error in judgement somewhere along the way. The lodge was a frequent locale for weekend romps with an ex girlfriend named Robyn (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and when they arrive he’s surprised to discover she’s the new owner. Romantic complications arise when Sue discovers the past relationship and begins to question the present.

Writer/director Pat Kiely’s film is somewhat deceptive at first, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Things start more comedic than dramatic and seems at first to have aims no higher than a comedy of errors – the lodge’s other guests are surface-level twisted and exist for nothing more than uncomfortable laughs – but as the relationships come to light we see a more serious undercurrent in Carl and Sue’s relationship. This isn’t a “Baxter” tale where we’re meant to want and approve of Carl dropping a bland Sue in favor of his true love. This is a couple in distress, and their pain isn’t on display simply for out entertainment.

Rath in particular leaves you feeling for her character even as poor decisions multiply and outcomes turn unfortunate. She also delivers some of the laughs, but the majority of them come courtesy of Huntington’s timing and experience. He and Chriqui put their past comedic work to good use here and have convincing fun along the way. Three Night Stand is wobbly at times as it seems uncertain if it wants to aim for the funny bone or heart, but it repeatedly lands on its feet.

Three Night Stand is currently in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.