Reviewed by Dustin Putman
(Release Date: November 12, 2013) When 21-year-old Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough) narrowly survives a tragic plane crash and suffers severe burns on her body, it is a wake-up call for her to move beyond her Christian Evangelical upbringing in small-town Montana and start experiencing what the rest of the world has to offer. Shocking her parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) and church congregation when she publicly denounces God in front of them, Lamb takes her cushy insurance payout from the accident and heads for the hedonistic neon of Las Vegas. Checking into the penthouse suite at The Palms, Lamb quickly realizes the extent with which she has been sheltered all her life and looks to check off a bucket list of sins while she's there. When she befriends bartender William (Russell Brand) and underappreciated lounge singer Loray (Octavia Spencer), they quickly take her under their wing, paving the way for a long, eventful night of exploration and self-discovery for all involved.
The directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (2007's "Juno"), "Paradise" is an eminently compelling slice-of-life made all the more enjoyable by Julianne Hough's (2013's "Safe Haven") irresistible turn as the sympathetic, multi-shaded Lamb. Hough's screen presence is never less than radiant, and here she delivers yet another standout performance, one both quirkily droll for its fish-out-of-water element and also quite poignant as her protagonist grows and changes throughout. Lamb's belief system is shaken at the startthe accident does not make her thankful to God, but resentful of why a greater power would punish herbut this is not an anti-faith movie as much as it is a tender character study about a young woman learning to break apart from her family and teachings in order to stand on her own for the first time and think for herself. Thus, Lamb's parents, while very religious-minded, are treated with respect and compassion as they try to hang onto the daughter they've raised while preparing themselves to also let her go.
Not to be confused with the 1982 oasis love story starring Phoebe Cates or the 1991 romantic drama with Melanie Griffith and Don Johnsonreally, why not have kept the original title, "Lamb of God?""Paradise" is thoughtfully written by Diablo Cody, nicely compact and without a moment to waste in its 86 minutes. All the same, the film does not skimp on the people on the screen, with not only Hough, but also an alluringly low-key Russell Brand (2012's "Rock of Ages") and the always-welcome Octavia Spencer (2013's "Fruitvale Station") given affecting personal arcs. Even Kathleen Rose Perkins (2005's "The Island"), portraying a stripper who makes an indelible mark on Lamb's decisions late in the picture, is memorable, doing much more than anticipated with a sharply drawn supporting character. The timeline of "Paradise" is a little hinkythe bulk of the narrative takes place over a single night that seems to go on for about three daysbut this storytelling contrivance is but a tiny hiccup in a picture that creates a strong, textured sense of place while weaving a tale that, whether it is based on Cody's own experiences or not, feels somehow movingly personal.
The glittering lights and buzzing nightlife of Las Vegas energizes the 1080p digital transfer of "Paradise." As clean and fresh as one might expect from a 2013 production, the image nicely pops off the screen with enveloping detail in every frame. Though very minor in the grand scheme of things, there were two noticeable but fleeting pitfalls: in a couple of the establishing shots of Vegas, the hot, propulsive colors created a slight moiré effect. In another scene set at a bar, a shot of Octavia Spencer chatting at a booth looked washed out, as if the source material had be sitting in the sun too long. This is the only instance of this, so it really jumped out when it occurred. The rest of "Paradise," however, dazzles for what must have been a relatively tight budget. The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Audio Master doesn't create the sort of fireworks of, say, a $150-million action picture, but for a character-centric drama it is surprisingly robust. Dialogue is crisp and clear, while music is full of body, filling the sound field. Watching the movie, it is as if Sin City has relocated to your screening area for 86 minutes.
Audio Commentary with writer-director Diablo Cody; Behind the Scenes with Diablo Cody (4:45, HD), Russell Brand (2:34, HD), Julianne Hough (2:40, HD) and Octavia Spencer (5:01, HD); Theatrical Trailer (2:23, HD)
"Paradise" was barely released in theaters and deserved far more attention than it received. A sensitive film that is both very funny and also quite touching as it delves insightfully into some decidedly existential topics, it warrants being discovered now that it is available on Blu-ray. The audio and video are close to top-notch and the special features include some standard but informative EPK interviews and an engaging commentary track from Diablo Cody. Highly recommended.
|© 2013 by Dustin Putman