Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance 2014: Day 4 reviews

Posted By on January 20, 2014, 8:32 AM

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A 12-years-in-the-making coming-of-age story, an old-fashioned musical and a documentary on the high cost of college are among Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton's Sundance film reviews. ---

Boyhood ***
Is it fair to ask, “What would we make of the identical story if it had been made conventionally, with two or three different actors playing the lead roles at different ages?” Of course, that’s not what Richard Linklater did; he shot the film in small increments over the course of 12 years, following Mason (Ellar Coltrane)—the child of a struggling single mother (Patricia Arquette) and a sometimes flaky, occasionally absentee father (Ethan Hawke)—from first grade through his high school graduation. And indeed, it is a remarkable experience watching Coltrane—as well as Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, as Mason’s older sister Samantha—grow up over the course of a single 164-minute film, particularly because there was no way of knowing that Coltrane would grow up into a teenager with this much on-screen confidence and charisma. Yet this is also a fundamentally episodic tale of this family’s struggles, and those episodes range from gently insightful moments about the arc of growing up, to made-for-Lifetime overwrought melodrama with hurling of dishes and screaming of threats. As hard as it is to imagine a better way to track, for example, a boy’s steps in sexual awareness from lingerie catalogues to Internet porn to his own first relationships, it’s equally hard to rationalize away some of the terrible scenes involving Mason’s first alcoholic stepfather. Like so many of Linklater’s loose-limbed comedies over the years, when it’s on, Boyhood is really on—smart, clear-eyed and laugh-out-loud funny in a way that never feels like someone’s stopping to deliver a zinger. That’s doesn’t erase the stuff that’s hard to explain away as anything but clumsy, no matter how ambitious the project in which it resides. Recognizing that this kind of crazy idea might never be attempted again isn’t the same as wondering if still couldn’t have been done better. (SR)

The Skeleton Twins ***
It feels like the kind of quirky character comedy destined simultaneously to be over-praised at Sundance—it’s a feel-good crowd-pleaser with some Little Miss Sunshine DNA in its focus on dysfunctional family rapprochement—and to be over-bashed afterward. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play Milo & Maggie Dean, 10-years-estranged siblings reunited after Milo attempts suicide, and Maggie offers to take him in back in their upstate New York hometown, where she’s now married (to Luke Wilson). They’re both messed up by their family history, in ways that certainly feel familiar, and the general arc of the narrative—from tentative re-connection to gleeful recapturing of old times to betrayal—could be plotted by anyone who reads the logline. But both of the leads are surprisingly strong, Hader toning down the Stefon-isms to play a depressive gay man, and Wiig finding the core of non-existent self-esteem that fuels Maggie’s acting out. And no, their SNL chemistry doesn’t hurt when they’re both getting goofy on laughing gas in the dentist’s office where Maggie works, or delivering the standard-issue but nonetheless infectious oldies karaoke duet (here, Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”). Everything revolves around the dynamic of people trying to understand that their best shot at surviving is figuring out how to forgive one another, and love one another. Even when the other stuff is formulaic, that connection keeps The Skeleton Twins strong. (SR)

Cold in July *
Cold in July, for this Texas-set film, would be more believable than anything that happens in it. Yes, plausibility isn’t everything, but when you start out with as much psychological acuity and apparent seriousness as Jim Mickle’s Cold in July, you can’t turn into Death Wish; I call this “Fatal Attraction Disorder”. In the opening scene, Texas family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) shoots a burglar in his home. It turns out the intruder was unarmed, and though no charges are brought or even seriously considered, Dane is traumatized and becomes increasingly paranoid, especially since the father of the dead burglar has just been released from the State Penitentiary. As a taut story of shell-shock and personality disintegration, this was working. But you can feel the script go “click” at a scene involving a train that (at the time at least) is so “huh?” that you begin questioning every plot point. Then private detective Don Johnson shows up, camping it up like the pro-wrestling version of a Texan, and the film alternates between a distasteful vigilante story with extra depravity-wallows, and distastefully discordant Slim Pickens clowning by everybody involved. Absurdities abound—why stake out the video store all day, for example. But the deal-killer for me was (I'll speak vaguely to minimize spoiler-itude): Given what we learn about halfway through the film, who was the burglar then? And even if you provided an answer, the opening scene still would be a case study of what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Predictable Tree. How could the Dixie Mafia have known the burglary would end that way? And this isn’t a minor detail; it’s the very first scene and precipitates everything that follows. (VM)

Difret *1/2
Well, I can now cross Ethiopia off the list of “countries I've never seen a movie from”—though the fact I’m leading with that irrelevant-to-everyone-else data point should tell you how much worthwhile I found here. Practically from its first gesture—a title card reading “Addis Ababa, the capital city”—Difret had my hackles up in resistance; if a movie title card has ever felt the need to further identify Paris or Washington, I’ll watch that movie and eat my shoe. This is not an innocent gesture. It indicates that this legal “thriller”—about a 14-year-old girl accused of murder for shooting a man trying to bride-kidnap her—is intended for the consumption of first-world audiences for whom such a capital identification might be necessary (so maybe I shouldn't cross “Ethiopia” off that list yet). Other such audience-identification details give the game away: the way the girl’s lawyers dress in pant suits and wear makeup and jewelry (unlike the village women); horrifically on-the-nose dialogue such as “we are poor peasant farmers, as you can see” (yes, we could) and “You cannot leave; you must stay for lunch. It is rude. It is our culture;” the cutting patterns and dialogue direction surrounding every exchange between the state prosecutor and the feminist-group lawyers; and the rigid adherence to legal-case genre patterns. There’s even a scene where The Man pulls the group’s funding and threatens its very existence if they keep this up. It’s a first-world feminist equivalent to Kipling’s moralistic cluck-cluck stories about the White (Wo)Man’s Burden to civilize those backward savages. (VM)

Ivory Tower **1/2
Why the hell does college cost so much, and is a college degree really worth the tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt with which so many Americans are saddled by the time they graduate? Those are terrific questions—and to the extend that Andrew Rossi actually addresses them, this documentary proves tremendously informative. He touches on a surprising intersection of factors, from obvious ones like the dip in government funding of Pell grants and public universities, to a boom in building impressive new facilities in a race to appeal to students on a purely superficial level (all while the institutions take on their own massive loan debt). But Rossi’s attention keeps wandering to other topics that feel disconnected from his main thesis. A student uprising at New York’s traditionally-free Cooper Union over proposed tuition offers plenty of drama, but what does it really have to do with those central questions? Online courses are introduced as a possible democratizing option, only to have student results and talking heads inform us that the traditional university model is a much better one. As much as Rossi’s film clearly laments the idea that institutions of higher learning are behaving like ruthless corporations, he never really addresses the consumers—the students and their parents—whose fascination with the latest shiny new building and climbing wall in the student rec center is driving the marketplace. We hear plenty of comments about how education is a right, and how much those at the bottom of American society have benefitted from access to higher education, but Ivory Tower just keeps throwing information at you. Is the answer the kind of unconventional alternatives we see to traditional schooling? Or is it more public funding of traditional higher education? And do education consumers making bad choices bear any of the blame for this crisis? This student has his hand up in the back row with a lot of questions, and I’m not sure the teacher has any answers. (SR)

God Help the Girl ***
I walked in just this side of ignorant of Belle and Sebastian, and wary due to a severe case of twee tolerance. But I was won over immediately as Stuart Murdoch’s film started out with a song to the camera with complicated and heartfelt lyrics that rarely match the bouncy tone of the music. God Help the Girl is that rarest today of the classic-era genres: the fantastical musical (as opposed to, say, biopics with music, or dramas in music settings). And as an example of that genre, it is wonderful, the illegitimate child of Richard Lester and Jacques Demy. From the former, Murdoch took the self-aware elements of his Beatles musicals and the manic cutting rhythms during set pieces; there’s even an obvious callback to the famous chase in A Hard Day’s Night. And from the latter, he took the strategy of using the idiom of the candy-colored musical to hide distasteful or depressing subject matter (here, a woman in recovery and withdrawal; also a conspicuous lack of talent and/or management skills by various band members). A depression-prompted drugs-and-alcohol bender becomes a musical romp through such lyrics as “she gets her hallucinogens/from a hooligan.” A Demyesque life-goes-on ending is also a rare acknowledgement that following a musical dream might not be the best thing to do. The film also feels somewhat God-haunted, and not just because of the title. In response to the anomie, one band member mentions going back to churc,h and another has a laying-on of the hands. But God Help the Girl is less wonderful as drama. Murdoch obviously can write music and direct a musical set piece like a video; he even does some fun things with various sorts of film stock. But his pacing is off for a feature-length film, and he never really successfully integrates his two main story strands—the “we'll form a band” fantasy and Eve’s recovery. As a result, the film feels overlong and rambling. Still, a small price to pay for a kind of film that we just don’t see any more. (VM)

This May Be the Last Time **
Sterlin Harjo crosses the line between “just personal enough to be compelling” and “too personal to matter to other viewers” in this frustrating documentary. His central subject is fairly fascinating: the hymns of the native peoples of Oklahoma, including the Seminoles and Harjo’s own Muskogee Creek nation, which are in the native languages but clearly connected in their origins to similar African-American, Appalachian and even Scottish spirituals. The combination of ethnography and oral history effectively tracks the common thread back to missionaries in the American Southeast before the Trail of Tears diaspora, while simultaneously serving as a record for powerful songs that are rarely heard and even less rarely taught to the next generation. But Harjo also mixes in a big chunk of narrative about his grandfather, Pete Harjo, whose car was found crashed off a bridge in 1962 and the subsequent frustrating search for his body. How clear a connection does Sterlin draw between that family anecdote and these important musical artifacts of his culture? One that’s tenuous enough that it becomes instantly distracting every time he drifts away insert shots of newspaper headlines and faded photographs. (SR)

Sepideh **
In the teeming category “Iranian Films about Women’s Status,” Offside and The Day I Became a Woman don’t need to look over their shoulders. This doc-fiction hybrid—about a teenage girl who writes to Albert Einstein and wants to be an astronomer and astronaut, inspired an Iranian-American female astronaut—features people playing themselves but in what plays and acts like a scripted story. Typical for this sort of production, some of the acting—Sepideh’s mother, for example—is a bit awkward, making the dialogue sound rather declamatory, even apart from how much of that dialogue is too on-the-nose. There are also multiple subplots: daughter-marriage issues; the mother is also a widow whose male in-laws don’t take care of her as they should; a contest that promises free college tuition; barren land threatening the family’s income. But these threads are solved way too simply. The relationship with the male astronomy teacher doesn't really work, and his demented mother is a flat-out mistake. There is some good stuff, including a rare combination of both parental acknowledgement that a teen knows things mom doesn’t, and that teen hot-headedness blinds them to things mom really does know better. Sepideh is a decent actress as herself; the way she cries when she gets an unexpected phone call are both tears of joy and misery at the same instant. And I was genuinely absorbed, as a procedural, in the astronomical findings about an ancient temple Sepideh made. The airy-fairy talk about the stars that sounds like a Linda Ronstadt duet? Not so much. This is less of a back-handed compliment than it sounds, but I really would recommend Sepideh for girls between the ages of maybe 7 and 12, where—if they are old enough to read subtitles—they could enjoy the empowerment story and won’t be as bothered as I was over the dramatic unsubtleties. Indeed, they may prefer them. (VM)

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