Friday, January 17, 2014

Sundance 2014: Day 1 Reviews

Posted By on January 17, 2014, 6:51 AM

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Daily, throughout the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, City Weekly critic Scott Renshaw and veteran freelancer Victor Morton will be providing capsule reviews of festival films. ---

Whiplash ***
Or, Full Metal Jazzband. As your Private Joker, meet Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a drummer and first-year student at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory; as Sgt. Hartman, meet Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the ferociously demanding teacher who pushes Andrew to his limit, and then some. Writer/director Damien Chazelle plays with some interesting ideas straight out of the sports-movie playbook: Is the asshole coach who denigrates all the players the one who can get the best out of them? It’s fairly thin at exploring why Andrew is quite so eager to show Fletcher he’s got what it takes, and his character swing—from insecure guy who stares at the floor to cocky guy who treats his family and girlfriend as impediments to his future greatness—feels way too abrupt. But Simmons is pretty terrific tearing into Fletcher’s profane, epic tirades, and it’s not merely a scenery-chewing piece of work; is best moment may involve a single twitch of the shoulder. And Chazelle clearly has a deep love of the jazz music, cutting the performance footage with tangible energy. The seven-minute solo that draws the film to a climax works pretty well as our example of Andrew showing Fletcher his war face. (SR)

The Green Prince ***1/2
If you leave with five minutes to go, you’ll think you walked out on a 4-star, “run out and see it now!” best-of-the-fest contender. For almost all of its length, The Green Prince tells the retrospective account of how Mosab Hassan Yousef—whose father was one of the founders of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas—became an agent of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Among the film’s many virtues beyond the obvious spy-thriller elements, even if they’re somewhat diminished by the existence of contemporary interviews, is that it really depicts where this sort of Islamist terrorism comes from—and it’s more complex than the undoubted fact of the occupation. In fact, it could just as easily be titled Shame, a word highlighted several times in monologues and by the cutting rhythms surrounding its use. The Green Prince strongly resembles 2012's The Gatekeepers, another Israeli documentary about Shin Bet, but it’s better than The Gatekeepers, both because it tells a far more specific and focused story, and because there’s actually a reason for a nonfiction book (Yousef's Son of Hamas) to be made into a film with a considerable amount of talking-head footage—namely, that its real subject is the interplay between the two principal talking heads, Yousef and his Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben-Itzhak. Neither man can trust the other, but the relationship between a spy and his handler requires a delicate mix of trust and suspicion on both ends, and the two men are up-front about that. The power dynamic shifts at various times, and must for the now-less-powerful party to get what it wants. And their relationship goes into places that, unless you know the story going in—and even then—you wouldn’t expect. But those last five minutes … After the Yousef-Itzhak relationship has taken its last turn, the film hammers you over the head with The Moral of The Story, underlines it, circles it in red and then yells it at you, just to make sure YOU GET IT. I already had, thanks. (VM)

Lilting **
So very well-intentioned. So very zzzzzzzzz. Set in London, it follows the tentative relationship between Jun (Pei-Pei Cheng), a Chinese-Cambodian immigrant mourning the death of her only son, Kai (Andrew Leung); and Richard (Ben Whishaw), Kai’s lover, trying to look after her while hiding the nature of his relationship because Kai never came out to her. The focus eventually becomes Richard’s hiring of a young woman as a Mandarin translator to facilitate Jun’s tentative romance with another resident of the retirement home where she lives, and there’s plenty of senior adorableness surrounding their courtship and the awkwardness of having to have a third- (and often fourth-) party to their dates. Unfortunately, writer/director Hong Khaou really doesn’t have anywhere particularly interesting to go on the way towards the inevitable confrontation between Jun and Richard, and Khaou’s cinematic flourishes—a little freeze-frame here, a little voice-over while the on-screen characters don’t move their lips there—feel distracting rather than enriching. It’s a feel-good sorta story where all the feeling feels pretty superficial. (SR)

Dinosaur 13 **
A germ of a good movie is buried here, one about the expansion of the number of federal crimes, and the prosecutorial piling on of charges. The best scene involves an ex-journalist explaining how what most people would consider a single act—here, digging up a fossil bone and selling it—can constitute five federal crimes. But the actual Dinosaur 13 buries both that thread, and the interesting story of the world’s greatest dinosaur find, in a miasma of advocacy-doc preening about ownership of T-Rex “Sue,” mixed in with half-baked touching on other meaty topics (professional vs. scholarly archeology, say) and cinematic amateurishness. The full range of contemporary hackwork is on display—too much “talking head” footage (and too many different talking heads), often saying the exact same thing in succession, and in some cases as text on the screen too. Worst of all, we’re subjected to one of the most obnoxiously overbearing and loudly mixed scores since the Cretaceous Period. As an intellectual experience, it’s not much better—so relentlessly one-sided that I stopped trusting it when a juror’s talking-head clip claimed that a majority on the panel wanted to acquit everyone of all charges. Well, how did it happen that anybody got convicted of anything, justly or otherwise? I desperately began skimming a newspaper article on the screen right afterward, hoping to find an explanation, because obviously the film-makers weren’t going to provide one. What are the stakes here? Why did this dispute matter? I was reminded of The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary where a literal federal case and heaps of moralistic outrage are made about moving an art exhibit a few miles to a more spacious location. I understand South Dakotans’ wounded civic pride about a dinosaur from the Black Hills being displayed in a fancy Chicago museum rather than one of their own. But I don't think this is worth a movie. (VM)

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