Review: What’s Up Lovely

Director: Gary King (New York Lately, Death of the Dead)
Writers: Jenn Dees, Gary King
Producers: Gary King, Sujata King, Jason Varner
Starring: Jenn Dees
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 69 min.

After awing festival audiences in 2008 and 2009 with his colorful, indie hit, New York Lately, writer/director Gary King has moved on to other more experimental pastures quickly becoming a director well known as someone who pushes personal boundaries and challenges the senses among several genres. With a musical currently in the works and a zany, zombie film hitting festivals this fall, King has made sure to never be tethered to any specific, proverbial leash. Horror, drama, action and musical films already under the belt (or soon to be), the latest picture making the rounds can only be described as dreamy surrealism. Taking cues from several influences in the history of cinema, What’s Up Lovely captures a visual and tonal element seldom seen in cinema today.

After being let go from her dreary, phone center job, Luci finds herself sleeplessly wandering New York City looking for some relief and self reflection. Whether just standing around or following random stranger while playing her own little mind games leads her into several unique and odd situations that slowly begin to give her clarity about herself and her situation. At times creepy, at times heart warming and other times simply joyous and raucous, the movie takes its time giving viewers a different perspective of the NYC street and a film that is not always coherent or straight forward. It’s a movie that gives the viewer morsels of a meal and in order that we do our own legwork for gathering the sustenance. Plot spoon feeding this is not.

The strengths of the film lie in mainly two places. One, the casting (and co-writing) of Jenn Dees in the lead role of Luci brings back the collaboration between star and director that worked so well in New York Lately. Dees seems to be the real deal in the acting community and expresses a true knowledge of the characters she’s playing; which isn’t all that easy of a task with Lovely. Luci’s narration inserted into the story is rather poetic but still relevant and gives glimpses into her mind that we might not otherwise have. But mostly it’s her versatile ability that shines through here. With so many different emotional scenarios encountered throughout the film, Dees keeps the character we soon come to understand and appreciate in tangent with what we expect of her, but also takes the leap into the surreal and artful and making it seem not only believable but also innately relatable.

Second, and the most obvious strength, is the gorgeous camerawork and cinematography on display here. Visual style is something King clearly likes to play around with; but here, it’s taken to a whole new level of diversity and the experimental. Film grain, frame rate compression, blurriness, black and white, extreme close-ups and other unusual tactics make for a viewer’s delight in what sort of becomes a dreamlike version of New York City. Yes, much of the film’s look is straight forward but many of the transitions are highly stylized and different scenarios or character situations can call for different visual tactics. It’s a medley of inspirational, experimental and traditional styles that make this viewing an interesting and unique journey.

Beyond just the editing and stylistic choices, there are some absolutely stellar composition on display here. The framing of subjects, set pieces and locales is artfully flawless. The use of negative space to its fullest or simply finding the right angle or distance for shooting a particular landmark is possibly the film’s chief strength and arguably my favorite part of the viewing experience here. A complete photographer’s portfolio could be put together simply by pulling stills from the myriad of establishing shots.

That being said, it’s certainly not a film for everyone to enjoy. The story itself, while fascinating from a psychological standpoint, could be a bit off-putting for those looking for a more straightforward adventure/narrative. Like an acid jazz quintet improvising its way through a 25 minute odyssey, a lot of What’s Up Lovely feels like a disjointed series of parts rather than a flowing piece of storytelling. These parts are of different meter and tempo and don’t always feel like they fit together into a melody all that well or comprise themselves into an overall song – at least not until the end.

Also like said jazz combo, we often go back to some of the same instruments. And while we’re in a different space now, the style is still the same and sometimes it can get a bit repetitive. So the film just may benefit from more than one viewing as this kind of “music” can often be an acquired taste that will take some dissecting and chewing on to truly understand the complexities.

After two viewings I can say that I truly enjoyed What’s Up Lovely and really, really appreciate all that’s going on here; both from a character point of view as well as stylistically and tonally. The film does suffer a little bit from the odd structure and repetitiveness of some of the tactics utilized, but at only 69 minutes it’s not exactly a difficult slog of a film. Rather one to simply sit back and take in as much as you can in preparation for a second viewing. Though the screener was nice, all of the colorful costuming and interesting sets should really sparkle on a big screen. I highly recommend the more adventurous out there – or those simply looking for a film that doesn’t talk down to them, but rather takes you for a ride – to plead with your local festival programming to seek this out and put What’s Up Lovely on display where it belongs: on the big screen.

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