Sword of Trust (2019)

After news of director Lynn Shelton’s death broke last Saturday, like probably many cinephiles I watched a couple of her films the next day, revisiting Laggies and then her final film, made last year and which only trickled out onto UK streaming services at some point, presumably earlier this year. It’s a shaggy story but the easy charm of its leads and their interactions mean there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have made a perfectly good cinematic release, which events have conspired to prevent. Technically, it’s not her last feature film directorial credit (that would be comedy special Marc Maron: End Times Fun), but it’s the last one that marks her own work and distinctive voice, and features a fairly large acting role for her in the first five minutes of the film as the estranged partner of the protagonist.

This film further proves director Lynn Shelton’s adeptness with actors, eliciting some really fine character work via improvisational methods (so I gather), all within a loosely comedic framework. The themes of the film could’ve gone properly dark but it largely avoids that: the idea is that Jillian Bell’s character Cynthia inherits a sword from her recently deceased grandfather that he believed “proves” the South won the Civil War, whereupon she and pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) discover that there’s money to be made from this absurd notion. “What is this, Antiques Roadshow for racists?” Mel asks when shown a YouTube clip by his shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) of an online vendor offering top dollar for items that “prove” their topsy-turvy thesis, and indeed there’s a running commentary about fake news and conspiracy theories throughout the film thanks to Nathaniel. The film never quite gets dragged down into the dark holes it skirts around, and ends up being a pretty low-stakes movie about small-scale grifters toying with ideas they all realise they shouldn’t really be getting involved with (it’s such a shaggy dog story that the involvement of guns towards the end of the film feels like a bit of a mis-step to me). Still, there’s such a lot of good character-led acting happening here, in such an easy unforced way, that it really makes you feel Shelton’s loss all the more; she had such a way with actors that for all the plot’s contortions, this film just feels like hanging out for an hour or two.

Sword of Trust film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Mike O’Brien; Cinematographer Jason Oldak; Starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Dan Bakkedahl; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Sky Movies streaming), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Afternoon Delight (2013)

This is an odd film, and there are things about it I really like, but ultimately it just comes across as somewhat introspective and petit bourgeois. It’s about suburban ennui, specifically that felt by middle-class mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). She’s married to the slightly boring Jeff (Josh Radnor, the most annoying character on How I Met Your Mother), and does her best to work through her issues with her offbeat psychiatrist Lenore (Jane Lynch, with quite the most distracting glasses seen in recent cinema). The plot stretches credulity somewhat in orchestrating her becoming friends with a stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), but once that initial meeting is out of the way, it starts to promise something rather radical in exploring the overlap between McKenna’s sex work and Rachel’s frustrated desires, although it feels to me like it doesn’t quite deliver on that. There’s some melodrama, but the film remains closely focused on Rachel breaking out of what ultimately feels like a mid-life crisis. Still, Hahn does well with the central role, and there’s some excellent supporting work (notably Michaela Watkins as a hyperorganised busybody in Rachel’s Jewish women’s group).

Afternoon Delight film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jill Soloway; Cinematographer Jim Frohna; Starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Michaela Watkins; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 30 October 2015.

In a World… (2013)

So I’m hardly likely to be the only person watching this film who was not previously familiar with the world of trailer voiceover artists. You know, the ones who canonically start their spiel with stuff along the lines of “In a world of sadness, their love was the only thing that held things together” or whatever — you know the drill, just think deep booming voice. What writer/director/star Lake Bell has done is take this world and question its cosy assumptions, most notably about gender (when was the last trailer you saw voiced by a woman). This is the real world of the film, and it provides the backbone for what is it turns out a rather wonderful, affectionate comedy.

The credits sequence, which mimics the blurry VHS aesthetic, does a quick overview of the voiceover world, moving swiftly from the very real, revered and late Don LaFontaine (the man who coined the title phrase) to his successors, the characters who provide the background to this film: Sam Soto (Fred Melamed) and the young upstart whom Sam is grooming as his heir, Gustav Warner. It’s a cosy old boys’ network where jobs are traded amongst a very small and very male coterie of voice talent. This is where Soto’s daughter Carol comes in (the director Lake Bell), who is working initially as a voice coach but who wants to do what her dad does. He doesn’t support her, doesn’t think she can succeed, and is anyway desperately vain, having just moved his much younger girlfriend in, displacing Carol, who goes to stay on her sister Dani’s couch.

In many ways it’s a family drama, not only because the central characters are all part of the same family, but because the voiceover world is such an insular one. Dani (Michaela Watkins) are her husband Moe (Rob Corddry) are having marital problems, while Carol likes shy studio engineer Louis (Demetri Martin), though allows herself to be seduced by the supremely confident Gustav. He is only interested in her as a conquest, and quickly becomes agitated when he learns she is a rival. It’s this angle that is the most interesting, for you get the sense that having a woman rival is incomprehensible to these men, who are so certain that it cannot happen in their profession. Thus does voiceover artist surprisingly become one of the last remaining battlegrounds for women’s equality.

None of this would matter much, though, if it weren’t for the likeable performances by all the principal characters, especially Lake Bell as the struggling voice coach who wants more than her profession allows (we see her helping Eva Longoria master a cockney accent at the start, and she has an obsession with recording exotic accents at her sister’s hotel to aid her work). In the recording studio, Martin has a floppy-haired neurotic charm, ably assisted by the deadpan Tig Notaro and the ever-watchable Nick Offerman (without his Ron Swanson moustache, but still as straight-talking as ever).

For all that it doesn’t pull punches about the inherent sexism in the industry — and there are some pretty upfront admissions of such — it doesn’t hurt that no one in the film is really nasty, though Gustav is certainly self-involved to a disturbing degree. As a father, Sam is basically decent, and writer/director Bell isn’t interested in punishing or hurting her characters, even the ones who act badly. Carol may sleep with Gustav, but it’s not presented as something that defines or degrades either of them, though it’s equally clear they shouldn’t be together. It’s a comic world, after all, where everything sort of works out in the end.

In a World… is more than just being about an unusual facet of the film industry, though that gives it some extra interest. No, what it does really well is that brand of likeable character-driven comedy which has a positive message without getting preachy, and in which its characters all find themselves without hurting each other. And for that, I really like it.

Director/Writer Lake Bell; Cinematographer Seamus Tierney; Starring Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 14 September 2013.