for this week’s TRIBUNE: ‘Easier With Practice’ [7/10]; ‘Monsters’ [8/10]

Easier With Practice
—–Kyle Patrick Alvarez
—–Director: Gareth Edwards
A particularly strong week for talent-spotting, with a brace of new releases from writer-directors whose debut features quickly have established them as names to watch. Coincidentally, both Easier With Practice‘s Kyle Patrick Alvarez and Monsters‘ Gareth Edwards picked up gongs at the Edinburgh Film Festival – the former landing the Best New International Feature prize in 2009, the latter the New Directors Award twelve months later.
   Miami-born Alvarez, now 27, loosely adapted ‘What Are You Wearing?’ an autobiographical article by Davy Rothbart which recounted the author’s experiences with telephone sex – and one notably intense relationship in particular. In the film, Rothbart becomes Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty), a 28-year-old writer who – accompanied by his brother Sean (Kel O’Neill) – drives a battered station-wagon around the US reading from his (unpublished) novel in a string of shadowy, underpopulated bookstores.
   During yet another motel stopover, the scruffily handsome but perpetually luckless-in-love Davy (“relationships… they don’t work out so well for me”) answers the phone to what’s apparently a wrong number – only to end up chatting at length to the female voice at the end of the line. This casual ‘acquaintance’ steadily deepens into something more serious – until, as Davy puts it, his unseen interlocutor becomes “the closest thing to a girlfriend I’ve ever had.”
   The structure of Easier With Practice, much of which – especially after the brothers’ road-trip ends just before the halfway point of the running-time – consists of extended scenes in which  we simply observe Davy talking on the phone, puts a considerable burden on the slight shoulders of its leading man. Fortunately Geraghty (who recently co-starred with Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker) proves more than up to the task: indeed, he’s something of a revelation here, bringing an engaging, boyish vulnerability to a character who might easily have come across as seedy, dweeby or desperate.
   Shot in crisply limpid digital-video by cinematographer David Rush Morrison, the film is an unfussy evocation of American backwaters – the nation’s borderless vastness emphasising the isolation of sensitive souls like Davy – as well as an examination of how technology can be both an aid and a bar to communication and intimacy.
   Indeed, though it’s part of a phone-sex lineage that encompasses books such as Nicholson Baker’s VOX and films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Spike Lee’s Girl 6 (Alvarez’s script could easily be adapted for the stage or radio), there are obvious wider applications in these days of internet chatrooms and social networking. Surprising final-act developments, meanwhile, are executed with sufficient tact and conviction to avoid feeling excessively gimmicky.
   Executed in the beguilingly, low-fi style familiar from numerous US “indie” productions treading this tricky line between humour and melancholia, Easier With Practice – complete with a nicely-integrated, guitar-twangling soundtrack – is a wry, witty and accomplished example of the genre, maintaining a pleasing consistency of tone throughout. And if the – slightly bland – title can be applied to film-making, Alvarez’s future development will be well worth following.
   On the basis of Monsters, however, Nuneaton’s Gareth Edwards is already pretty close to the finished article (though as with Alvarez, it’s slightly unfortunate that he couldn’t have come up with a slightly catchier title for his sci-fi romance.) Buzzed as the big breakout “find” of Edinburgh this June, Monsters has just picked up a slew of nominations for the upcoming British Independent Film Awards: the multi-talented Edwards wrote and directed, and also served as his own cinematographer, production-designer and special-effects wizard (his background is mainly in the latter field.)
   In some ways, 35-year-old Edwards is to 2010 what South Africa’s Neill Blomkamp was to 2009 – and Monsters‘ advertising campaign draws very heavily on the imagery created for Blomkamp’s unexpected box-office smash District 9. It does indeed have quite a lot in common with that minor-masterpiece – including a high-concept back-story involving the inadvertent arrival of aliens on planet Earth several years back, forcing the natives to make room for their uninvited new neighbours.
   Instead of South Africa, the action unfolds in dusty Mexico, a northern swathe of which has been colonised by the aliens: ginormous squiddy amphibians, accidentally deposited when a space-probe crash-landed. In order to get back home to the States, newspaper photographer Andrew (Guy Pearce lookalike Scoot McNairy, star of 2007 Edinburgh breakout In Search of a Midnight Kiss) and his boss’s daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) must trek through the zona infectada.
   “Very difficult journey, very risky, very dangerous,” the bickering non-couple are duly warned. And the most hazardous element may not even be the tentacled beasties, rather the gung-ho US military whose pyrotechnic “defensive” actions, we gradually realise, are responsible for many more deaths than the marauding (but evidently non-aggressive) ‘visitors.’
   “Who are the monsters?” asks a plaintive graffiti in Spanish – a sentence untranslated by the subtitles, but whose import is unmistakeable. The metaphors and real-world parallels of Monsters are actually rather more complex and troubling than those in the straightforwardly apartheid-referencing District 9. But while Edwards’ grasp of storytelling perhaps isn’t as irresistibly high-octane vigorous or surprising as Blomkamp’s (no prizes for guessing that our protagonists start off feuding and end up embracing) he’s nevertheless crafted, on what was evidently a minimal budget, a notably good-looking, thought-provoking tale whose subtle, rather beautiful and (in retrospect) disarmingly poignant structure only becomes apparent in the final moments. Expect Monsters to take very high rank in Tribune‘s Top Ten of the year – to be unveiled in our bumper Christmas issue.

Neil Young
23rd November, 2010
(written for the 2nd December edition of Tribune magazine)

EASIER WITH PRACTICE : [7/10] : USA 2009 : Kyle Patrick ALVAREZ : 100m 
seen 23rd June 2009 at Filmhouse cinema, Edinburgh (complimentary ticket) — Edinburgh International Film Festival : {20/28}
original report

MONSTERS : [8/10] : UK 2010 : Gareth EDWARDS : 94m
seen 25th November at Filmhouse cinema, Edinburgh (press show) — Edinburgh International Film Festival : {22/28}
original report