All Is Bright [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (19th December 2013).
The Film

For some, the holiday season is a time of joy, full of cheery color, wonderful warmth, family, friends, and fun. For others, instead of merriment and mistletoe, they find little more than melancholy and feel an infinite SADness. The bipolarity makes sense of a sort. For the haves, the holidays represent togetherness; heartwarming and thankfully brief reunions with loved ones, all fine food and the present of, well, presence. But for those have-nots, the season serves only as a reminder of their horrible loneliness, and is a time where it’s quite easy to slip into a place of deeply depressing darkness. The best cinema set during Festivus and the rest of the season thus manages to embrace both the dark and the light. Even Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946), perhaps the ultimate staple of seasonal cinema, reflects the duality, and contrasts of view. Capra’s Christmas classic is more often remembered for it’s sense of sentimentality, but there’s an underlying cynicism basically lurking in plain sight, too. Despite its ultimately happy ending, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a dark film. One that, on a very basic level, is the tale of a man who has given up on life, and believes the world would be better if he just killed himself. The film's title is a double entendre, reflecting both the surface level sentiment and coded cynicism towards the American Dream.

The title of “All Is Bright” has a similar double meaning; although surrounded by holiday cheer, and the literal brightness of electrified Christmas decorations, recently released reprobate (Paul Giamatti) has a worldview as dark as can be. “Bright” is far more cynical, not nearly as classic, and is only tangentially related to Christmas, but it is sort of Capra-esque—at least sometimes. If, in other instances, almost the antithesis of what Capra was most well known for. "All" both rejoices in and rejects the buoyant playfulness of a screwball comedy; gleefully chips away at any sense of schmaltz or sentimentality, while cherishing it in a sense too. Before revealing its inevitable semi-sweet send off, “Bright” descends into darkness, and despair—a sinkhole of coal-black comedy from which nothing, not even a coherent narrative, can seemingly escape. The script is erratic, the direction uneven. It’s the performances that make “All Is Bright” worth seeing, if at all.

Released from prison just a few weeks shy of Christmas, parolee Dennis (Paul Giamatti) finds a few new surprises waiting for him on the outside. Dennis’ wife, Therese (Amy Landecker), has plans to divorce him, and won't let him see their daughter, Michi (Tatyana Richaud). Worse yet, Michi thinks her dad died, because that’s exactly what mommy told her. Dennis also learns that, when the divorce is finalized, Therese plans to marry the couple’s old friend Rene (Paul Rudd), a one time part-time criminal who proved such a poor thief he never did anything worth getting more than a slap on the wrist for. Now reformed, Rene runs trees to the south, over the Canadian-US border, where he sells them legitimately at an exorbitant cost. In a semi-drunken state Rene tells Dennis he'll turn $3,000 into $20,000 in three weeks by selling to over-eager New Yorkers. Dennis, broke, unemployable, and not wanting to return to a life of crime so soon after release—or at all—asks if he can tag along, and earn a fair share of the “easy money”. All Dennis wants for Christmas is to have enough money to get his little girl something (particularly, a piano) and not have to steal it.

Ostensibly, “All Is Bright” is a buddy comedy. It really isn't, but Anchor Bay—who distributed the film in theaters last September in a limited release and is now putting it on Blu-ray—is marketing it as one. Technically, because some of the film is quite, unconventionally, funny, calling it a comedy isn't false advertising, although it is misleading. Rudd plays Rene, a charismatic Canadian with a can-do spirit, in a way that makes him a perfect foil to Giamatti’s gruff, easily goaded Dennis. The duo bicker, banter, and blow smoke; and have absolutely no idea how to sell trees. Their scenes are often playfully at odds with the holiday surroundings; they fight, flounder amidst stiff competition and lackadaisical locals not feeling the Christmas spirit. The picture even lapses into Stooge-ian slapstick on occasion. But as the runtime wears on, “Bright” slowly becomes less of a bleak buddy comedy and more of a character-driven drama. At it’s core, the film wants to explore Dennis and his journey toward self acceptance, and a realization that he isn’t meant to be a part of his family; that Rene really might be a better fit—as husband and father—and provide a better future, for his wife and daughter than he ever could.

While in New York, and well on his way to this understanding, a depressed Dennis meets Olga (Sally Hawkins), a dentist’s maid, and an immigrant from the Eastern Bloc. Although they don’t hit it off romantically, the two do nurture a friendship, and Dennis frequently finds solace with Olga in the otherwise cold and unfriendly city, especially when relations with Rene become too strained as the men argue over the latter’s egregious “theft” of spouse and offspring. The film flip-flops back and forth between comedy and drama almost beat for beat. An admittedly funny scene in which Rene and Dennis scam a hipster, selling her a tree for well over the sane asking price by using eco-friendly buzz words, runs but up against a rather somber one where Olga offers kindness to a slowly defrosting Dennis as he shares stories about his daughter and her love of music. In a few lengthy stretches just stays with Olga, or Dennis, all alone; adrift in the stormy sea of the season.

“All” is an odd, and aimless film from time to time; the fault lies in the unfocused script (by Melissa James Gibson) and director Phil Morrison, who can’t quite decide what he wants the film to be; a comedy or a character study. Perhaps both? As a odd-ball buddy comedy with swift shifts into the darkly depressing, it succeeds if that was the muddled goal. But even then there’s more to the film than is needed. A late in the second act heist-movie twist leaves “All Is Bright” channeling Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa” (2003) even more than it (sometimes) already does—and has the pic ultimately succumbing to typical third act contrivance, when has two previously bumbling burglars run a near perfect con. And despite previously persistent, consistent cynicism, the end, although only semi-sweet, is slightly sappy. It's sort of a mess.

I’m curious what it was about “All Is Bright” that interested reclusive, selective director Morrison to peek out from relative obscurity after all this time. The film is only his second as a director, after making his feature debut with indie-darling and Academy Award nominee “Junebug” (2005) some eight years ago. Sure it’s got a good cast—Giamatti, Rudd, and Hawkins all do great work here—and maybe that was enough. Certainly, brilliant casting and solid performances, and a few moments of genuine genius, are the main reasons to give the film a look. All the same, Morrison’s much-awaited sophomore effort is a disappointment, which can't overcome a paper-thin premise that’s been protracted to an extreme, tottering tone, or the completely absurd and predictably trite avalanche of contrivance that is the entire third-act. “All Is Bright” is not an awful film, but it seems dangerously desultory, uncomfortably dark, and certainly isn't destined to become a new Christmas classic.

Video

In keeping with its mostly dark and depressing skew, “All Is Bright” is decidedly not, in a visual sense, a brilliantly vivid film brimming with bold, vibrant colors, evoking a sense of Christmas cheer. Much more subdued, the palette is at-times near monochromatic—with a heavy sepia tint. Shot on thick, chunky 35mm stock, “Bright” is an odd antique amongst the seeming ubiquity of clean, digital features populating the current cinematic landscape. It has grit, although grain is never obtrusive. Contrast is middling, with an occasionally murky black level, which proves problematic in some of the under-lit night scenes. Daylight, and well-lit, sequences burst with stylized backlighting; characters are often cast in a gauzy, glowing softness, surrounded by blooming whites. Through it all, texture clarity is strong, offering decent, and sometimes impressive, fine detail. Anchor Bay’s encode—via the AVC MPEG-4 compression codec—is problem free, with no noticeable banding or artifacts. The film’s intermittently intense grain structure remains intact from beginning to end, with only a handful of shots appearing noisy; and as you'd expect from a new release, the source is spotless with no specks or dirt. There’s some slight ringing here and there, a hint of aliasing in a shot or two, and the overall aesthetic results in repeatedly impenetrable darkness. But the Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps high definition transfer reflects the source, and intentions of the filmmakers—a sort of dour, depressing dreariness—and their film’s cynical, anti-happy holiday attitude shines brightly, bleakly to the runtime’s end.

Audio

Anchor Bay gifts “All Is Bright” with a lossless English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. If the stylized visuals of the film evoke a Quebec and New York that are not quite real—more closely resembling dark, nightmarish fantasy versions of them—then the opposite is true for the sound. The soundtrack has a sort of lived-in, true-to-life quality. Dialog reproduction is fantastic, to a fault, rendering every naturally muttered musing and overlapped exchange with appropriately garbled clarity. And the subtle, constantly buzzing of the Big Apple, where most of the film takes place, gives the track a greater atmosphere; a “fullness” that would be missing in this largely dialogue driven feature without it. Sirens wail in the distance; and whirring winds wind around, enveloping scenes. Texas-born bandleader Graham Reynolds supplies a jazzy score of reinterpreted seasonal tunes; whenever the score gets too repetitive—and it does—a few indie pop songs have been pilfered from some dusty catalog to pad montages.

A majority of the dialogue in “All Is Bright” is spoken in English, but some characters—a cop in the very first scene, Dennis’s parole officer in another, and even his daughter—freely move between English and local French, reflecting the peculiar qualities of the Québécois scenes. English subtitles default for some of the French dialogue, but not all of it. Rather than a fault in the authoring, I assume the untranslated lines reflect Dennis’ own feeble grasp of the French language. Each non-subtitled line has him asking a character to say again in English. optional English for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles are included.

Extras

Aside from two pre-menu bonus trailers—for “Jane Mansfield’s Car” (2.40:1 1080p; 2 minutes 31 seconds), and “Pawn Shop Chronicles” (1.78:1 1080p; 1 minute 54 seconds)—and a code to access an UltraViolet HD digital copy has also been included. Aside from that “All Is Bright” offers no extras.

Packaging

“All Is Bright” makes it’s Blu-ray bow in a less than luminous package via Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. No frilly wrapping, or extra goodies; just a simple, single layered BD-25 housed in Elite eco-case. The disc is locked to Region A.

Overall

The cast and their performances save “All Is Bright”, and keep it from being a total black mark on director Phil Morrison’s resume. His second feature-film is difficult and disappointing; at-times aimless and inconsistent. Does “Bright” want to be a cynical buddy comedy and heist film in the vain of “Bad Santa” (2003)? Or does it want to be more serious; a heartfelt character study? At times, it attempts to be both, which just muddles everything up. Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray has solid A/V but no extras. Rental material.

The Film: C+ Video: B+ Audio: B+ Extras: F Overall: C+

 


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