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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 2 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-17 - Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton continue their festival coverage with vampires, hellions and K-Stew at Gitmo.

Only Lovers Left Alive ****
The opening shot of Jim Jarmusch’s film looks like a view of the star-filled sky—but as it spins, it becomes a vinyl record and this is a movie that turns out to be more about music than the cosmos. (The score is by Jozef van Wissem, and he’s the MVP.) The spinning motif continues through overhead shots of three vampires in full sensual bliss, drunk on the finest of blood. When Tilda Swinton, the former White Witch of Narnia, opens her eyes, it’s like seeing Max Schreck for the first time. The regal but odd-looking Swinton is perfect for a film that so intertwines a hazy trance-like dread and sensual pleasure that they become the same, and the best vampire movie I’ve seen since Herzog’s Nosferatu. Like that meditative 1979 West German film, Lovers is slow and barely scary in the traditional sense, being more about mood music, the auteur’s style and the burden of being a vampire. But unlike it, Lovers is filled with dry comedy—a scene involving the Detroit cops and a speeding car in Urban Blight Central, e.g.—and some much broader clowning (in this context anyway) when Mia Wasikowska enters the film as Swinton’s sister, and the two combine with Tom Hiddleston (Swinton’s lover) for an Addams Family Art Film vibe. But at the end of the day, it’s as serious as its ultimate subject: what it means to be an immortal in history. When a vampire uses an iPhone to a face chat with another vampire, that's a simple gag worthy of The Addams Family; but when the other vampire is a vinyl-records connoisseur who participates via a serious of tubes and analog devices surrounding a 1960s-ish TV? Then the subject is history’s accretions on beings for whom temporality should not exist. (VM)

The Overnighters **1/2
Every meaningful way of talking about Jesse Moss’s documentary springs from its big third-act reveal, so let it be known: SPOILERS ARE HERE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. The main narrative follows Rev. Jay Reinke, a Lutheran minister who courts controversy when he allows his church and its parking lot to serve as temporary housing for the men streaming into Williston, N.D. and surrounding communities to find work in the booming oil-shale fields. For most of the running time it’s a simple but effective profile of a man trying to embody what he feels are real Christian values, while the people of his town and even his own church flock give in to fear and suspicion of Those People Coming Here from Other Places—and one that doesn’t shy away from complexities like suggesting that Rev. Reinke is at times difficult to deal with, or even whether these men are better off for the service he’s trying to provide. But then, near the end, comes the bombshell: Rev. Reinke, married with children, is a closeted gay man, who has to reveal the truth when a former lover blackmails him. On the one hand, this information gives a uniquely compelling context to the drive with which he fights against fearful reactions to encourage more compassionate, non-judgmental spirituality; on the other hand, we’re forced to watch Reinke confess to his wife on camera in a scene that feels grossly unfair to the shattered woman, and leaves a terrible aftertaste. Absolutely everything Rev. Reinke does is reframed by that one piece of information. That certainly makes it richer. It also makes it, for one crucial moment, a lot meaner. (SR)

The Double ***1/2
Typically, I’d say that evoking Brazil is not a smart idea for any movie. And in this case, I’d be dead wrong. Richard Ayoade is clearly channeling Terry Gilliam in the look of his surreal world—retro-computer technology, claustrophobic cubicles and plenty of ducts—as well as the basic vibe of a society crushing individuals beneath impossible bureaucracy and even a protagonist obsessed with a seemingly unobtainable girl (Mia Wasikowska). But the freaky set-up—in which a milquetoast office drone named Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) gets a new co-worker named James Simon who looks exactly like him and is the confident, charismatic winner he’s never been—allows Ayoade to make the familiar milieu distinctly his own. In a sense, the movie is nothing more than a series of “bits”—awkward, humiliating situations in which Simon repeatedly finds himself, like having to pay the increased fee for his mother’s nursing home to what turns into a grasping, disembodied hand—but they’re generally darkly hilarious bits, perfectly framed by Ayoade in shots that provide slick visual punch lines. Everything takes a darker and vaguely supernatural tone as the film winds to its climax, in a way that feels a bit more grasping-for-profundity that the demented stream-of-consciousness material has earned. It’s fine enough as series of blackout sketches in its Brazil-ian fantasia. (SR)

Camp Xray **
Kristen Stewart’s “I am having a crisis of conscience face” is a thing to behold. Oh boy does she act herself into knots playing PFC Cole, an Army MP beginning a stint overseeing “detainees” at Guantanamo Bay whose resolve to be as tough as one of the guys is challenged when she starts chatting with Ali Amir (A Separation’s Peyman Maadi), who has spent eight years in the facility. Writer/director Peter Sattler’s screen credits have largely been as a graphic designer, which makes it something of a surprise that the story feels like a stage play translated to the screen, with little in the way of distinguishing visual flair. And that means its almost entirely dependent on the performances and interactions of Stewart and Maadi, and the latter certainly keeps up his end of the deal by conveying a fundamental humanity that has warped into the kind of madness that’s perhaps inevitable under these circumstances. But it’s also a stacked deck, in that Ali is so obviously a basically good guy that Sattler is never prepared to wrestle with whether what’s going on here is bad because it’s happening to innocent people, or whether it’s bad because it’s bad. Meanwhile, there’s Stewart trying so hard to make sure we see every emotion she’s experiencing in a way that can’t possibly be misunderstood. It’s like a version of A Few Good Men in which not only can we not handle the truth, we can’t handle being required to take a few minutes to figure out what the truth might be. (SR)

Memphis **1/2
Midway through, I metaphorically threw up my hands and resigned myself to the fact this film wasn’t trying to go anywhere discernible, structurally or narratively. Once I’d done that, though, I was more able to enjoy what it was, though anyone looking for a musical bio/docudrama about Memphis’ blues-soul sound—a not-unreasonable expectation based on bare description—should stay as far away from Memphis as … well, Utah is. It’s not so much “slow” as “random,” with almost no exposition in the usual sense—all texture and no structure. Very early on, the “hero” (Willis Earl Beal) is told by record-company executives that he needs to cut another album. And while he never does, he never exactly decides not to. Both the film and its protagonist just hang out and half-wander about. Yet, every so often, there’s a great image or moment that makes you indulge writer/director Tim Sutton’s longueurs—the first time we see a con man standing up; the Cadillac’s broken rear window; the dirt monologue; looking into a bathroom, and the shock where the bathtub should be. It’s also rare to see a film where religion is treated as a normal, even important, part of the texture of everyday life without becoming the actual subject matter (the scene about the meaning of “God-given talent” is already a festival highlight for me). In its rare combination of lush cinematography, random structure and documentary style, it plays like a Southern version of Killer of Sheep, or some of the films of David Gordon Green. Indeed, I can see it becoming a cult favorite among people more sympathetic to its eccentricities than I tend to be. (VM)

A Most Wanted Man ***
Director Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s terrific novel manages to fix nearly every minor gripe I had with it, yet still somehow manages to be less vital, while still intriguing. Set in contemporary Hamburg—a city on perpetual guilty high-alert as a result of being the place where Mohammad Atta coordinated the 9/11 attacks—it follows German intelligence operative Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he tries to use an immigration/civil-rights attorney (Rachel McAdams) and a banker (Willem Dafoe) to nail an escaped Chechen man suspected of terrorist ties. The fact that the suspect is probably innocent is made clear fairly early on, as the narrative turns him into a pawn in a story about competing philosophies of how best to prevent terrorist attacks: Gunther’s firm belief in courting human intelligence vs. the idea that you just play hardball and round up the usual suspects. At least that’s what it should be about, and the film effectively builds up Gunther’s role as a “handler” while cutting most of the distracting sub-plots involving who’s romantically attracted to whom. Yet as effective as Corbijn is at building low-key tension surrounding as simple an act as whether someone will sign a document or not, it still feels like we’re missing more of the petty turf wars and chest-puffing that become impediments to—as characters phrase it here, practically with a roll of the eyes—“making the world a safer place.” Every facet of the story on screen is expertly crafted; only the sense of the bigger picture falls ever so slightly short. (SR)

Hellion **
The story of a tween juvenile delinquent with an equally checkered father and a harmless outlet in two-wheel riding is probably unfairly hurt by easy, if not exactly inapt, comparisons to the Dardenne brothers’ Kid with a Bike, one of the best films of this decade. However, it’s certainly fairly hurt by an overly episodic story that continues more than it builds (and noway, nohow am I buying that final crime by the kid gang, the one with a gun). Also, Hellion is directed by Kat Candler in a high-register style—a jittery hand-held camera, often in closeup, and a very narrow focal depth—giving the film little breathing room. It’s the visual equivalent of shouting, combined with near-constant high-tension story events with characters shouting at, fighting with and confronting one another. Even at just over 90 minutes, the combination becomes exhausting. Which is a shame, because there is much to like here. For one thing, it’s so rare as to be gratifying both to see both the “helping professions” portrayed as Nanny State family destroyers, and family breakdown itself coming from internal sources, such as adultery and drunkenness (“both/and” being key here). In addition, the performances are spectacular at keeping a naturalism in the midst of the style and story—particularly that of Josh Wiggins as the teen whose goal in life is to avoid being sent to juvenile jail. Aaron Paul as his newly widowed father pulls off the tricky task of being credible both as a high-functioning drunk and a genuinely loving dad, after the fashion of rural southeast Texas. And, incredibly, I didn’t spot Juliette Lewis, providing—hold onto your Astros ball caps—the closest thing Hellion has to a stable counterpoint to all the manic-ness elsewhere. (VM)

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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