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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 3 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-18 - Great documentaries about Internet addiction and Mitt Romney, plus Somali pirates and "abortion romantic comedy" in today's Sundance capsules from Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton.

Mitt ***1/2
If you want a film exposing Mitt Romney’s secret plans to establish The Handmaid’s Tale, or an explanation of how the country screwed itself by picking that Kenyan socialist Muslim, Mitt is not a film for you. It’s much more a behind-the-scenes process film not terribly different from The War Room or Primary, showing what candidates say—especially about themselves—when they don’t have to worry about affecting the 24-7 news cycle. That genre of film really is a-ideological, and I suspect I’d also enjoy a similar film about the recent unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Dennis Kucinich or Joe Biden or Al Gore, assuming the film-makers could avoid ideological hectoring or ideological fluffing, depending. And Romney really does come across as a good man—prayerful, passionate and personable, if innately pessimistic and self-aware. On the latter, he talks through his “Mormon flip-flopper” image woes, and states quite plainly that not only is he rich, he knows—to invert a line about the Bushes—that he did not hit a triple, but was born on third base. Mitt mostly confines itself to two unsuccessful campaigns—the 2008 GOP primary and the 2012 general election—capturing the stages-of-grief progression as numbers come in through the day, and the path to victory gets narrower. And while director Greg Whiteley really sticks the final shot, the best moment actually belongs to son Josh Romney, when he answers a question from Whiteley twice: once as he would to a journalist, and once as the truth. (VM)

Last Days in Vietnam **
I wanted to like this film more than I could because it does recount an under-told part of the Vietnam War: the efforts in 1975 to evacuate from the all-conquering North Vietnamese invasion as many South Vietnamese as possible, especially those who had worked with the departing U.S. military. It deals to a significant degree with what’s best about America, as well as highlighting unfortunate contemporary cognates in Iraq and Afghanistan refugees as U.S. military forces leave those two countries. There are some genuinely great and moving stories recounted, if not exactly unknown ones to military-history buffs—most outstandingly the Chinook at sea with super-8 footage. Various skullduggeries are used by Vietnamese and/or Americans (best line from Richard Armitage: “It’s a lot easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission”) to get into the embassy, knowing that Marine guards were never going to shoot at people clamoring to get to safety from Communism. But this is fundamentally an aesthetically undistinguished television show, not a movie. There’s no character development, merely anecdotal retrospective by talking heads, particularly tight shoulder-depth close-ups. The last 20 minutes or so really overeggs the pudding with closed-captioning for the thinking-impaired. At one point, a talking head says, “Those days were like Vietnam as a whole. Promises were made, promises were broken. People were hurt but in the midst of all, some people were able to do heroic things,” (you don’t say?) as the score swells and mugshots of the film’s interviewees come up on screen “as they were then.” The only thing missing from an “it was the ’60s, man” montage is the Buffalo Springfield music cue. (VM)

The Case Against 8 ***
There’s no way to avoid the reality that this is a documentary about a court decision that had a profound effect on real people. But it may actually be most compelling as a procedural study of how that decision came to be. Ryan White and Ben Cotner explore the legal challenges to California’s 2008 anti-gay-marriage voter initiative Proposition 8, profiling the plaintiffs—couples Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo—as well as the legal team led by the unlike pairing of Bush v. Gore opponents David Boies and Ted Olson. The filmmakers do spend time on the four plaintiffs’ emotional journey over the four-year process, so that the law doesn’t become an abstract concept. Then there’s the process of preparing for the case and tearing down the objections of the opponents, and the film becomes a terrific crash course in legal strategy, coaching witnesses and crafting winnable arguments. Sure, White and Cotner lay on the stirring music a bit thick during scenes that essentially involve participants reading from the court transcripts, and it’s hard for the subsequent appeals to match the drama of the initial federal court decision. But for anyone who thinks only an “activist judiciary” could make the kind of decisions that have opened up marriage rights in America, here’s incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. (SR)

Love Child ****
If, like me, you were skeptical about Her, Love Child is like a cautionary tale from Her-land, where all human relations have been so cyberized that even something as (you’d think) simple as “feed your baby” become just more virtuality fodder. The case that shocked South Korea—the world’s most plugged-in country as a result of deliberate government planning—concerned a mother and father charged with starving their 3-month-old to death because they couldn’t be bothered to feed her as they spent all their time playing the role-playing game “Prius.” And there are more twists than that—not as shocking as that one (how could they be?), but one is like seeing the “Generation Wired” equivalent of the Twinkie Defense unfold. It’s TV, but well-done TV; the framing of talking heads is loose, the stock footage well-chosen for the ideas Love Child is pushing about the level of Korean Internet penetration creating a nation of “addicts.” The filmmakers are able to use footage from Prius that is far more apropos than you’d ever dare guess, while the accused parents are basically never seen, so they become like avatars themselves. And the history of that word and its role in traditional Korean society makes for unexpected food for thought. The last shot is a bit on the nose, but it represents the reaction I had been having throughout. The only criticism I’d make is that there were some places I wanted more from a film that’s lean and short—more interrogation of “diminished capacity” defenses, both under Korean law and Anglo-American common law; more about video games as public contests in South Korea; more about the side effects of new legislation the case prompted. At times, Love Child feels as if it’s only skimming the surface. But what a surface. (VM)

The Sleepwalker **
I suppose it’s no small thing that, for 90 minutes, I was confident that director/co-writer Mona Fastvold’s psychological drama would ultimately to build to something provocative and challenging; there were even images of Martha Marcy May Marlene playing around in my head. And then the thing ends, and it’s hard not to feel like a sucker. The set-up places four characters at a massive home in Massachusetts: Kaia (Gitte Witt), who grew up in the house with her architect father; Andrew (Christopher Abbott), Kaia’s live-in boyfriend; Christine (Stephanie Ellis), Kaia’s troubled half-sister; and Ira (co-writer Brady Corbet), Christine’s fiancé. Dark echoes of the past hover over the interactions: Andrew has a history of violence; Kaia sports physical scars from childhood; and Christine is the titular sleepwalker, which seems to be the least of her issues. Fastvold crafts some truly arresting images and tension-building sequences, including making use of a near-duplication of an early driving POV shot to unsettling effect. The style on display is undeniable; the substance to which it’s being applied is utter crap. Fastvold and Corbet are playing with ideas of deeply-repressed trauma and cycles of violence, yet they have nothing at all interesting to say about those ideas beyond the creepy implications that exist in everyone’s head. The result is something that wears the clothing of a psychological horror film, but wraps it around characters who would have been sent back for a dozen more revisions in any halfway-decent screenwriting class. (SR)

Fishing Without Nets ***
Yes, yes, it’s another movie about Somali pirates, the third one I’ve seen in around nine months. And yet there’s still something fresh in director Cutter Hodierne’s adaptation, even if it slips into some obvious ironies. The focus here is on Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a young Somali fisherman with a wife and a young son who hesitantly takes up a friend’s offer to join a band of pirates capture a French oil tanker. The story wrestles with a handful of sub-plots—including Abi sending his wife and son out of the country with smugglers, and Abdi’s attempts to be the “good cop” with one of the French hostages (Reda Kateb)—to the point where it often feels that Hodierne, in attempting to expand his award-winning short to feature length, has bitten off more khat than he can chew. But there’s still great material here about the pirates’ operation as a business endeavor, and the nasty clashes that emerge between those who are able to see things strictly as a transaction to be negotiated, and those whose anger at their life of deprivation boils over in the direction of the hostages (and one another). A few terrifically crafted set pieces by Hodierne build the sense that this is a world in which, whatever words are mouthed about it being “just business,” there’s no way to avoid getting dirty. (SR)

Blue Ruin ***
Though I don’t consider it especially resonant—I had a hard time remembering details as I write six hours later—I enjoyed Blue Ruin perfectly fine while it was unspooling. It’s a taut, twisty, bloody revenge thriller that starts with a bum living in his car on the Delaware shore and ends with a bloodbath in Hatfield and McCoy country (in more ways than one). The layers of past events get gradually peeled away and revealed like an onion until we get to the precipitating events 20 years ago. Macon Blair is an interesting choice for the lead, especially after he ditches his unshaven-wildman-on-the-beach look. Clean shaven though, he's dorky and more than a little touched, looking a little like Mr. Bean. This is not a man born to be an avenging angel, and the scenes of him being taught to shoot a gun is comedy so dry you can drop your mobile phone in it. Yet he feels he has to do that, and then he really does have to. There’s a little too much ”scary” music early on, and the film works best when it’s an essentially silent film about the mechanics and procedures of going on a killing spree and getting an arrow out of your thigh. In this way, Blue Ruin most resembles Blood Simple, with a little more humor and a little less camera virtuosity. But there are also some timeline holes—could someone shot in the manner shown recover so quickly and comprehensively, for example. And what’s really unforgivable here are the two examples of what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Talking Killer. The fact that the one competent criminal in the film explicitly warns against committing it doesn’t matter; a cliché wearing a lampshade is still a cliché. (VM)

Obvious Child ***
The keywords “abortion romantic comedy” will have you half-way towards figuring out whether there’s even a remote shot that this could be up your alley; the rest depends on just how in tune you are with Jenny Slate’s caustic comedic sensibility. In writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s film, Slate plays a struggling would-be stand-up comedian named Donna Stern, whose life goes from the suckiness of getting dumped and losing her day job to the existential terror of an unplanned pregnancy after a drunken one-night-stand with a clean-cut business student (Jake Lacy). On one level, it’s just an indie-pic variation on all those 1980s sit-coms where stand-up comedians played out stories based on their stage persona, but Slate proves to be a terrific actor, nailing some difficult scenes beyond all the tart one-liners. And oh, those one-liners, from Donna referring to standing outside her ex’s apartment as “engaging in a little light stalking,” to what may become a go-to line for responding to any awkwardly outrageous utterance (“…And then she said that”). It’s funny and messy and at times genuinely sweet, which makes it a shame that it’s sometimes an uncomfortable collision between slight rom-com charms and a bit of self-congratulation about how matter-of-factly it treats abortion. Sure, it’s an intriguing change-of-pace from mainstream unplanned-pregnancy tales scared to death of confronting this option, but it ain’t easy to navigate the treacherous terrain between female-empowerment raunch and overly earnest position paper. (SR)

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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