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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 5 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-21 - Documentaries about Roger Ebert and a college football scandal, plus a dreamlike profile of young Abraham Lincoln, all in today's Sundance reviews by Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton.

Life Itself ***
I went in a little suspicious that it might merely be a pander to film critics and buffs. And while people who watch movies and/or read Sundance blogs pretty much would have to be pre-sold on “Roger Ebert documentary,” Steve James made a film with enough elements of broader interest to be recommended on other grounds and for other folk. Don’t get me wrong: Life Itself is very much about movies, criticism, Gene Siskel and all the surrounding issues and anecdotes already well-known to the likes of myself; I blogged years ago about how Amadeus and Ebert’s review of it were the events that pushed me into this field. But there’s more here on a couple of subjects than I expected—dying and alcoholism—that can personally matter to non-film-folk. Ebert died with the full knowledge of the public, if with fewer pictures than before because of his damaged face. Life Itself shows us these images unblinkingly and how the burdens of the body don’t generally (but do sometimes) get to Ebert and wife Chaz. With an assist from James in voiceover, she describes last days that could be anybody’s, and how they were affected by Siskel’s dying months, which he kept private and away from Ebert, leaving the latter hurt and determined not to do that. As for booze, in the typical Ebert profile it's usually a sentence or two at most. Here, we get a lot more about it, about how central to his early adulthood—especially as tied to the culture of newspapering—were drinking and related activities and how deep the spiral went. While Life Itself breaks no new aesthetic ground, neither did Hoop Dreams, a James film Ebert helped succeed. It’s a clean and efficiently told account of a well-led life, itself. (VM)

The Better Angels ***1/2
It’s instantly clear that A.J. Edwards owes a lot to his mentor Terrence Malick, who produced this debut feature—and for this Malick semi-agnostic, anyway, he nails the best of that lyrical style while giving it his own imprint. He also gambles on making his protagonist an iconic figure: the young Abraham Lincoln (Braydon Denney), in a story that explores the years his family spent in Indiana circa 1817—where his father (Jason Clarke) had to deal with the death of Abe’s mother (Brit Marling)—as narrated in retrospect by an older cousin of Abe’s who lived with the Lincolns. Many of the Malick visual trademarks are here in bulk—gliding cameras following characters walking through the grass; awestruck skyward shots through the treetops; even a little bit of twirling (yes, around a maypole, but still). Yet the use of black-and-white cinematography serves as a signal that this is a somewhat starker variation on the late-period Malick films that can sometimes feel diffuse in their meditative languor. This is an earthier experience, one that provides a vivid sense of the people who lived in this time and place, both in their hard work and in their play. And it does so while capturing the key roles played by all the adult figures in Lincoln’s life—not just his birth parents, but his stepmother (Diane Kruger) and first teacher (Wes Bentley) as well. Is it likely to prove maddening to those looking for conventional narrative? Hell yeah? But it’s also a tone piece that effectively captures the world—and the people—who shaped a boy’s character to become a great man. (SR)

Happy Christmas ***
I don’t know what W.C. Fields would have thought of Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, but it certainly illustrates the misanthropic comedian’s adage that you never share the screen with kids or animals. Three-year-old Jude Swanberg, the auteur’s real-life son, steals the show as his dad’s onscreen son; he’s the ideal age for kids to be cute and play-act without being able to have Cute Kid Actor Syndrome. And it’s actually an important role, not just the cinematic equivalent of showing pictures of your kid. Happy Christmas is about maturation, specifically what it looks like in a Generation-Y hipster idiom—how family members change and don’t, grow up and don’t, reconcile and don’t—plus the changes and compromises that children force on (mostly) women. So getting the right child performance as the family’s center is crucial. This is also an artistic maturation for Swanberg, whose direction is sure-footed with none of the blocking and acting awkwardness—or ugly video look—that marred his own early baby steps in the medium; I also have to admit to stifling giggles when he cuddles up to on-screen wife Melanie Lynskey and the screen fades to black. But the acting and casting are all ideal—Swanberg and Lynskey as a Chicago married couple, Anna Kendrick as his irresponsible sister who’s trying not to be, Lena Dunham as herbest friend and wisecrack confidante, and Mark Webber as Kendrick’s potential new beau/dealer. You can still see the improv-method’s “seams,” but at least here it’s interesting talk, the basement-bar three-hander on motherhood between Lynskey, Kendrick and Dunham being particularly fine. And rather than let the cameras run, there are jump cuts in these lengthy conversations, which produces the same sense of time—one of those all-day conversations—without the interminable wheel-spinning. (VM)

Jamie Marks is Dead *1/2
Christopher Barzak’s novel One for Sorrow was a messy contraption of teen emo and supernatural thriller; Carter Smith’s adaptation manages to make it even messier. It’s the tale of a teen named Adam (Cameron Monaghan) who finds that the titular loner classmate (Noah Silver)—whose body was recently found in the woods—has returned as a melancholy ghost. Smith strips away plenty of extraneous material to focus on what becomes sort of a weird triangle between Adam, Jamie and Gracie (Morgan Saylor), the girl who found Jamie’s body. But most of the odd flourishes that worked on the page come off as forced and goofy on the screen, and Smith makes the huge mistake of amping up a subplot involving another tormented spirit, strictly for the purpose of creating a theoretically scary set piece involving brandished knives and tearing down doors. He also never effectively folds the material about Adam’s unhappy home life, including a brother who hates him and a mother (Liv Tyler) recently paralyzed in an auto accident. What should have been a mournful exploration of the way the living can envy the dead while the dead envy the living instead just collapses into something that’s half-baked both as a ghost story and as a love story. (SR)

The Babadook ****
A first-time feature director outdoes Stanley Kubrick. Yes, really. Jennifer Kent’s horror tale is a possession story centered on a black-magic book, but it shares many basic elements with The Shining, primarily in the structural shift from Film About a Screwed-Up Kid to Film About a Screwed-Up Adult, set in a home haunted with memories of past death(s). And The Babadook succeeds where The Shining doesn’t in managing the transition from the first Film About X to the second. Jack Nicholson turned on an unbelievable dime, while both Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman (as a widowed mother and her 6-year-old son) are spectacular. The former plays a burdened, concerned mom for whom the burdens get too heavy, while the latter enacts and enlarges that moment in every misbehaving kid’s eyes when he realizes that “Mom is REALLY angry this time.” Kent’s direction is not just the flashy opening set-piece nightmare but also controlling the slow burn—like The Exorcist, this film does get really over-the-top by the end—and her use of spacing, framing and not-showing. That can be as simple as having mother and son share a bed, but clinging to its opposite edges, and as complex as the angle that produces the illusion of mother-and-son walking away from a helpful neighbor while they walk straight. The Babadook is a technical marvel, from production design conjuring a starkly-decorated and -lit home that looks like a haunted house-in-waiting, to MVP-quality sound editing and mixing crucial for a horror film with relatively little blood. As for the babadook itself: As is true in the best horror films, it’s convincing both literally as itself (a child’s book that conjurs up a shadow monster who plays on your fears, and you can’t make disappear) and as a stylized metaphor for what the film is actually about (tevrs; look up rot13.com if you want the subtext spoiled). (VM)

Happy Valley **1/2
Amir Bar-Lev is a superb journalist whose documentary films—My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story and now this one—I like less the more I think about them, and the more he tries to Commit Sociology. At least when he fails, he’s failing at a level most documentarians aren’t even aiming for. If you walk into Happy Valley thinking Jerry Sandusky is Ben’s ice-cream-making partner, this might seem like a great movie. While there are no revelations here, the known facts—about the scandal involving child sexual abuse by the former Penn State University assistant football coach—are laid out crisply and logically. All significant sides of the dispute over the abuse and what legendary coach Joe Paterno knew and did get a fair say, and unexpected moments of ordinary people’s behavior provide texture and a portrait of a community; my favorite scene was the protestor standing beside the Paterno statue with a sign, ruining tourists’ attempts to get a photo. But to what end, to anybody who already knows those basic facts? Every possible takeaway is either arrant nonsense or undermined by material elsewhere in the film. The student riots, the hissing at the prayer, etc. all seem to portray what the NCAA calls a failed culture that was too focused on “winning first” or “hero worship.” But the connection with Sandusky is a problem; was there really was more of those things in State College than in football programs in Norman, Austin, Tallahassee, South Bend or heck the entire Southeastern Conference? Then what to make of Matt Sandusky, who claimed his adoptive father abused him, but only did so at the end of the trial, about the least defensible time? And when Bar-Lev asks him whether Sandusky’s wife knew what was going on, he merely quotes her denial. From him, that’s not a good enough answer. And all in a film that seems to point fingers at the entire community for not wanting to see. Perhaps the entire point though is that all of this is nonsense—that Paterno, the school, the NCAA, the community, the alumni are all looking for scapegoats, unsatisfactorily. If that be the case (and it's not implausible), why make this film at all? (VM)

Laggies **1/2
Maybe Andrea Siegel’s script—as directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday)—isn’t actually a wacky Hollywood high-concept romantic comedy; it just wants so badly to be one that it might as well have given up the pretense and gone for it. Because there’s a basic concept here—a 28-year-old woman named Megan (Kiera Knightley) who freaks out after a marriage proposal from the guy she’s been with since high school (Mark Webber) and winds up hiding out with a high-school student named Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) whom she befriends—that’s screaming out for farcical quarter-life crisis treatment. The attraction-repulsion dynamic of adulthood is solid enough material, but it’s hard to get a handle on what exactly Megan’s problem is. She already seems to be feeling the disconnect from her trio of high-school besties, and her plan to hide out for a week seems predicated on wanting to break away from the same social circle she’s had since 2003—maybe because she needs to move on, maybe because everyone else is moving on to the kind of life she’s not ready for. But the plot can’t find its bearings once Megan starts hanging out with Annika, missing opportunities for funny set pieces while not probing any more deeply into her character than the Milennial confusion that has fueled a dozen better indie comedies. Not surprisingly, the energy level gets bumped up several hundred percent once Sam Rockwell enters the story as Annika’s divorced dad, creating the obligatory romantic dilemma for Megan. It’s just a shame that there’s not more fun or insight as this movie tries to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. (SR)

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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