Movie Review: Double Feature Special
Who out there has not used an ATM machine? Who out there has used one of the free-standing ATM kiosks scattered in parking lots across the country? Take these two questions and put them in the hands of screenwriter Chris Sparling (he gave us Ryan Reynolds in “Buried’) and first time feature director David Brooks and we’ve got ourselves an exciting premise for a film - a thriller of a film - with phenomenal possibilities. And for much of the film, Brooks meets those possibilities with edge of your seat excitement before leaving us with the biggest unanswered question of the day - WHY?
David, Corey and Eve all work in various financial departments of a stock brokerage company. David and Corey are actual brokers and Eve does something “in finance.” Meeting up at the company Christmas party, it’s been somewhat of a bittersweet day for them all. David has long had a crush on Eve but has too afraid to talk to her and he has now learned, today is her last day at the company. Adding insult to injury, David just lost one man’s entire 401K in a bad investment, enraging the customer to the point of him slamming the phone and terminating the call with David. Corey, David’s friend and a condescending obnoxious character, always seems to be scamming for something and lacks any sincerity or concern for others unless it benefits him. And Eve, while very pretty, seems somewhat secretive and distant.
As Eve leaves the party, David makes his one and only last ditch effort to get a date from Eve. And while he doesn’t exactly get a date with her, she does accept his offer of a ride home in the frigid night air. Of course, Corey, more than inebriated from the party, is also demanding that David give him a ride home, which David begrudgingly does. Irritating both David and Eve, Corey continues to make demands. He wants food. Pizza. He has no money. He wants to borrow money. He refuses to go home until he gets his pizza. Having no cash himself - and the pizza place doesn’t take credit cards - David compromises and takes Corey to an ATM at 2AM.
Off the beaten track and out in the middle of an empty parking lot, the ATM is one of the freestanding glass kiosks. Surely there must be an ATM in a more “inhabited” area, but Corey insists that this is the closest one of the pizza place. Pulling into the parking lot, one notes the temperature is 5 below 0, which makes perfect sense when David parks the car at least 3 rows back and away from the ATM. (No, it doesn’t, but he does.) Oblivious to the area around them, Corey trots from the car to the ATM kiosk leaving David and Eve in the car.
Seeming to take forever, David now runs halfway across the parking lot to see what’s taking so long. Corey is dallying, claiming his ATM card doesn’t work. (Is he just cheap? Or does the card really not work, but then how did he get into the kiosk?) Herself now getting skittish and cold, Eve quickly joins the boys. And then it happens.
As the group gets ready to leave, standing in the parking lot just staring at them, covered from head to toe in a parka is an unidentifiable man. What does he want? Who is he? He’s just standing there. As palpable fear sets in, the group sees a man walking his dog at the far side of the parking lot. Banging on the glass and yelling, they hope to get his attention. All they do is bring unwanted attention to him as the hooded stranger runs over to him and kills him.
David, Corey and Eve are prisoners. But why?
As the clock ticks towards daylight and temperatures outside continue to drop, the murderer taunts them. He attacks the kiosk. He cuts off the heat. He sabotages their car. With mounting tension, allegiances within the ATM are forged, only to fall apart. Suspicion and blame reign supreme. Panic sets in. Fear brings the trio together only to have suspicion tear them apart. Interestingly, they are freezing to death, yet none of them hug and hold each other for warmth which is the first rule when in freezing temps. The suspicion is that great.
But always omnipresent is the elephant in the room - WHY? Why is the ATM under attack? Is it the ATM? Is it one of the three inside? Why kill the man walking his dog? Or a security guard who subsequently appears? Does the murderer have a specific target or is he just an indiscriminate killer? Don't we all worry and look over our shoulders in the middle of the night? Aren't we all suspicious of people out at 2AM going to the ATM in a deserted parking lot (of course never stopping to think that we are also one of those scarey individuals who is out there noticing the other people)? And why go to that ATM? And why park THAT far away from the kiosk? And who is the tall serial killer in the parka? The mind reels with questions as panic fills the audience just watching this horror unfold.
Sadly, I am disappointed with the acting from all three of the principals - Josh Peck, Brian Geraghty and Alice Eve as Corey, David and Emily, respectively. I expected more, particularly from Peck who wowwed me in “The Wackness.” None ever really resonates with the audience. They never establish an emotional connection and as a result, I don’t care if they live or die. The tit-for-tat between Peck and Geraghty in the opening office setting is engaging and entertaining while establishing essential questions that come into play later on, but that quickly dissipates to annoyance when they all get in the car and Peck's Corey takes on more of a suspicious nature of "what is he up to". Alice Eve surprised me by her lack of realism and connection. She is no stranger to the big screen, although this is a completely different type of role for her and one in which she is on screen for 80% of the film along with the boys. Geraghty brought a great element of innocence and naivete as David, but it went nowhere other than to stress an idea of randomness for the acts that were happening. The real “star of this film is the ATM itself.
As we already know from “Buried”, Chris Sparling is masterful at creating and extracting tension within confining situations. Preying on the conscious and subconscious, he uses the mind to its greatest advantage while confining the focus of emotion to a limited scope of time and space. And he does so again with ATM. Key is the dialogue within the film and a concept of randomness and the “chain of events of life” as opined by the character of Emily. However, this only opens up a bigger can of worms as to the WHY behind the events of ATM and sets the mind reeling with possible answers. Adding to Sparling’s work is that of director David Brooks.
Using claustrophobic spatial relations to its utmost benefit, Brooks catapults the story into something relatable and personal to each of us. We can see ourselves in this situation. Building the set ATM with breakaway walls to facilitate lighting and filming, Brooks shoots chronologically, thus enabling him to complete seal the kiosk when our killer begins to flood our victims out. Lighting is built into the set and is natural, stark and fluorescent, mimicking the reality of ATMs in the world . It is beyond effective in setting the tone and tension.
I am ecstatic with the sleek, steel cold, icy palette of the ATM and the slickness of the lensing. Cinematographer Bengt Jan Jonsson is a man to watch as his framing of the camera within the confining space is brilliantly executed, although I would like to have seen it even closer with greater use of close-ups to create more intensity and ratchet the fear. Totally unfamiliar with DP Jonsson before ATM, he definitely caught my attention with his stunning visual display - particularly given that 95% of the film is shot at night.
And stay for the credits!!!! The end titles are meticulously designed and extremely integral and telling in the story as a whole.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
Out of the box, I must caution you that the humor of DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is not for everyone. Whit Stillman, the writer/director behind not only DAMSELS but such films as “The Last Days of Disco” and “Barcelona”, has a very very dark, flat and stilted view of funny which either one gets or one doesn’t. There's no in-between. Personally, I find DAMSELS IN DISTRESS to be darkly and disturbingly hysterical.
A throw back to quieter, gentler and more mannered times, with architectural grandeur of the Greek Revivalist period, Seven Oaks College his is the type of campus that dots the East Coast, appearing to be lifted right out of the Main Line area of Philadelphia or some of the smaller facilities in Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia; hoity toity places with old money. With the “Roman” system of fraternities and sororities firmly in place, the school has something for everyone, starting with Violet, Rose and Heather. The self-appointed grand dames of Seven Oaks, it is their mission to remove the drunken hijinks of the “Romans”, rescue depressed and suicidal students by plying them with coffee, doughnuts and dancing through “Youth Outreach” at their self-created “Suicide Prevention Center”, show the world that a better smelling world through soap will eliminate depression and, of course, start an international dance craze that will enhance “the life of everyone and every couple.” (Oh heck! I know this is why I went to college!)
With a new semester underway, the girls focus on a new target for salvation - a poor wayward looking girl named Lily. Taking her under their wing, as the team shepherds Lily in the ways of Seven Oaks, the audience gets its own education. Little by little we learn more than we may ever want to now about the girls and their little projects. Who are they? Why do they behave the way they do? And of course at the root of all problems - and suicides - are boys. When Priss, a real suicide salvation project lands in their laps, things really start to heat up, particularly when she seems to have eyes for Violet’s boyfriend Frank.
What makes DAMSELS stand out are the performances. Greta Gerwig has never been better. As Violet, she commands the screen and sets the tone for the humor. Thanks to smartly crafted dialogue (although often factually incorrect which just makes the film and her performance even more delicious), with deadpan sincerity and a look of pure innocense, one never knows whether she is truly an altruistic innocent or a wolf in sheep's clothing - which is part of the fun. Gerwig is masterful.
Adam Brody adds a nice male compliment to the frame as Charlie Walker, a “businessman” the girls meet in the Oak Bar when he suspiciously sends drinks to Lily and Alice. Brody adds a great lightness of spirit that serves as a great balance to the film's overall tone and that of Gerwig. His performance is a great compliment to Gerwig's. Carrie MacLemore's Heather is just laugh-out-loud funny while Analeigh Tipton's Lily is a great foil for Gerwig's Violet. Tipton helps maintain a balance with reality and prevents the film from getting lost within itself.
Written and directed by Stillman, the ambient setting of the film is perfect for the humor and the story at hand. Curiously, the story itself has no real end. It's as if it just "is", floating in the universe. But it works. Even the dance numbers (yes, there are dance numbers) "work" and it's because of Stillman's sensibilities and vision. Another director could never insert these themes and scenes and have them be accepted.
As stated, dialogue is smartly crafted witty and tight. Little plot lines of soap, and the smell of soap, dance crazes, etc., harken back to the 50's and a time when those were important things to the people attending schools like Seven Oaks. It all just made me appreciate the humor of DAMSELS even more.
Problematic, however, is that characters just "disappear". After an entire build-up of Priss, and her stealing Frank, she just disappears. Similarly, Jermaine Crawford's Jimbo who rushes to the Suicide Center seeking help for his friend Priss. So key to the story, he too, just disappears from the plot. (FYI, Crawford adds an interesting dynamic to the mix which I would have liked to see more of.) Likewise for Billy Magnussen’s studious frat boy, Thor. But I know - the film is DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, not men in distress (although the men clearly are distressed).
Director of Photography, Doug Emmett, keeps the visual palette is soft and appealing throughout the film, reminiscent of a gentler and more genteel time and era. Interesting is the enhanced vibrancy of color in the dance craze number at the very end which just screams for attention and pops. Production Designer Elizabeth Jones and Costume Designer Ciera Wells similarly follow suit, transporting us to a softer, gentler time, juxtapositioned against the sharp wit and darkness of the dialogue. Brilliantly played out.
These damsels are certainly not in distress when it comes to DAMSELS IN DISTRESS.