Saturday, July 4, 2009

Kirt Gunn's LOVELY BY SURPRISE, after fests & very limited runs, arrives on DVD

The creative process is a subject that gets so little decent attention in cinema that -- when it does, and when it's done right -- attention must be paid. Regarding art and the artist, the recent Seraphine is probably as good an approximation as we'll see in my lifetime. Last month at the FSLC's festival of new Italian films, Lecture 21 tackled creativity via a brilliant teacher's class on Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony and has since taken its

place among the best films I've seen this year. But what about writers and writing? A couple of years back we got a nice romantic comedy-cum-fantasy in Stranger than Fiction, but its probing of the creative process was minimal. When characters come off the page and into "real" screen life, the result is more likely to wind up in the horror vault, with a fictional character taking over the brain and/or body of its progenitor in claptrap crap like Secret Window (which was perhaps the low point of a certain Mr. Depp's career).

It would be nice to report that the relatively new film LOVELY BY SURPRISE (made in 2007 and shown at a few festivals and individual theaters since) does for the writing process what Seraphine and Lecture 21 do for art, music and teaching. For some viewers, it may accomplish the job. While it fell short for me, I admire it's attempt and enjoyed it and its very game performers, off and on. Writer/director Kirt Gunn plops us into the life of his protagonist Marian (Carrie Preston, below, left) who is having trouble completing her novel and so turns to her ex-writing professor Jackson (Austin Pendleton below, right) for help. We also meet a distraught widower and father (Reg Rogers) and his equally distraught young daughter (Lena Lamer), both shown two photos below; several of the odd characters in Marian's novel (one of whom, played by Michael Chernus, is shown above and at bottom, with his "brother"); Jackson's estranged wife (Kate Burton); and the boss and co-workers of a used car lot -- among others.

The line between fictional and real characters is blurred and then blurred some more. By the finale, while you may be able to figure out who is who and what is what, you may also have lost interest because Mr. Gunn's approach is often so ham-fisted and literal that the movie grows all too twee -- and then nearly leaden. And yet... this writer/director does make you wonder and work: Why can these real characters see the fictional ones? And where does the author fit into a particular scene? You'll have to figure it out, and probably will. My biggest problem, I guess, is that I felt jerked around with such alarming regularity -- this moment works, that moment doesn't; works, misses, works, misses -- that after awhile, I felt like a light switch in the hands of a two-year old who had just discovered the on/off mechanism and refuses to let go.

In addition to the creative process, Lovely by Surprise deals with other worthwhile ideas: how damaged parents are sometimes taken care of by their young, the bounds of a productive teacher/student relationship, and why we sell people things they don't need (including perhaps the novel at the center of this film). Also in the cast are the likes of Richard Masur and Dallas Roberts, as well as Boyd Gaines and Glenn Fitzgerald, both of whom offer nice cameos. As I say, there are not that many movies that delve into creativity, so I'd recommend giving this one a try. I'll hazard a guess that within a half-hour you'll know whether or not it's for you.

Lovely by Surprise makes its DVD debut this coming Tuesday, July 7, and can be rented from Netflix or purchased via Amazon.

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