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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 6 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-22 - A narcissistic author, a mob informant and a serial killer are among the anti-heroes in today's batch of Sundance reviews from Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton.

Listen Up Philip ***1/2
Alex Ross Perry’s caustic comedy certainly resembles a number of Woody Allen’s Portraits of the Artist as a Miserable, Narcissistic Sonofabitch. It’s also the best Woody Allen movie in at least 15 years. Perry digs into the head of Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a writer whose self-regard and treatment of everyone else around him isn’t quite justified by his output of one moderately well-regarded novel and another about to be released. Perry makes several risky choices throughout—from providing a lot of omniscient narration (by Eric Bogosian) to cutting away from Philip himself for long stretches and focusing on those whose lives are affected by his horribleness, including his girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), and aging, once-celebrated novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who becomes Philip’s de facto mentor. And virtually every one of them works. It’s a terrific portrait of the kind of bad behavior that a certain kind of artiste justifies as a sort of ruthless integrity, and how easy it can be for others to cut them near-infinite amounts of slack because genius has its own rules, etc. There’s a surprising level of emotional punch to watching Ashley recover from being in an emotionally abusive relationship, and watching the obliviousness with which Philip and Zimmerman evaluate others only in terms of whether or not they facilitate or somehow (at least in their own heads) obstruct their work. But mostly, it’s simply hilarious in a way that keeps catching you off guard; there’s no finer encapsulation of Schwartzman’s terrific performance as Philip than when, when a student asks him for a letter of recommendation, he responds with “here’s a piece of paper with some staples in it.” Perry hammers some similar points a touch too long, but otherwise it’s a perfectly pitched character study of the kind of man who can say with utter sincerity to his girlfriend, “I hope this will be good for us—but especially for me.” (SR)

The Voices [zero stars]
There is a scene here at a Chinese restaurant in which an Elvis imitator croons about how she “dlives me clazy.” As a measure of how transcendently offensive and rotten-souled this film is, if that song hadn’t been re-played over the closing credits, I’d’ve completely forgotten about it, so relatively minor it is in this catalogue of evil. It stars Ryan Reynolds in the latest Jekyll and Hyde story, only told from Hyde’s (increasingly shaky) POV as a pastel-decorated comedy. Scenes of a talking cat cussing in a Scots accent juxtapose themselves with bloody murders and dismemberments (including keeping the heads in the fridge). And did I mention that those heads talk to the killer like best girlfriends? The Voices also features straight and earnest scenes between Reynolds and therapist Jacki Weaver about his hearing voices and taking meds, and an unforgivably crass resolution of a back-story demon about Reynolds killing his mother that is completely nodoubtaboutit played for pathos. And then we get the coda, which—there’s no other way to say it—presents one of the Zodiac Killer’s fantasies as an amusing and cathartic lark worthy of an old-school crooner’s song-and-dance routine. Yes, it’s an unreliable narrator; Satrapi drops in an occasional shot of what Reynolds' apartment really looks like. But no, that doesn’t mean we aren’t subjected to the gore and the glitz all equally reliably. I don’t object to any of this material per se, but the juxtapositions and wild tone shifts are a ruinous failure of either nerve or taste. One of my all-time favorite films, Kind Hearts and Coronets, is also a comedy about a serial murderer—except it’s far drier and by filmmakers with the good sense (or censorship need) not to show Henry’s charred body or Lady Agatha splattered all over Berkeley Square. (VM)

Calvary ***
John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard had already shown his facility—like his brother Martin—with a kind of caustic comedy, so all credit to him for trying a drama this thematically ambitious. And if he doesn’t quite nail it, at least he’s got Brendan Gleeson to deliver another spectacular performance. Gleeson plays Father James, a parish priest in rural Ireland who, at the outset, is told by a man in the confession booth that he (the confessor) had been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest years earlier—and, in retaliation, would kill Father James in eight days’ time. The rest of the film becomes a countdown clock towards that threatened date with mortality, during which time we follow Father James on his encounters with various troubled parishoners, seemingly in an attempt to embody every one of the deadly sins while also providing a rogues’ gallery of possible suspects. Those encounters, unfortunately, are far too episodic, and offering merely a bunch of individual moments that could have been more tightly constructed to build towards something. All the heavy lifting is left to Gleeson, who’s simply superb as a different kind of priest than we’re used to seeing on screen—a man who came to his vocation late in life, after having been a husband and father, wrestling with a world that seems ever more contemptuous of the service he’s trying to give to the world. It’s not a crisis of faith we’re seeing, but the life of a good man saddened not by flawed, sinful humanity, but by people’s unwillingness to consider that he may be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Much of the climax is unfortunately misguided, symbolic in a way telegraphed not just by the structure but by the film’s title, yet it still provides an emotional punch by suggesting that bitterness and cynicism aren’t a response to hopelessness, but its root cause. (SR)

Whitey ***
One good thing about having to provide star ratings is that an accurate description of this film might not make it sound compelling to most people. Joe Berlinger basically got free access to Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger’s legal team and some of Bulger’s victims’ families who backed their legal theory of the case. That last clause is accurate, by the way, for reasons I can’t untangle without another 10,000 words. Suffice to say in praise of Whitey, though, that Berlinger does the best job imaginable of making this spider-web of conflicting motives as clear as it can ever be, and of laying out the conflicting motives related to immunity deals, mob codes, dealing with criminal informers, and innocent victims that yielded those strange bedfellows. Whitey (and Whitey) both argue that he wasn’t an informant (“I ain’t no doity rat,” you can hear Cagney saying), but rather he had bought off the Boston FBI, and the government was lying about that to protect other convictions and other immunity deals. And that at least some G-Men protected Bulger is undeniable after this film. There’s also one really unexpected mid-plot twist, of a kind you’d reject in a fiction film. However, even apart from the self-contradiction inherent in legal briefs, his lawyers are hardly disinterested parties, and you can see the coin of the journalistic realm in two brief audio clips of Bulger talking in his own voice. At the end of the day, though, the story isn’t terribly outrage-inducing. The West Memphis 3 were actually in jail when Paradise Lost was made, but no possible doubt exists that Bulger was a mass murderer. And only moralizers and children don’t understand that you cannot crack organized crime syndicates without some level of cooperation with—and therefore incentives for—very bad people. Some snakes got hurt by some other snakes? That’s not worth making a federal case over. (VM)

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter *1/2
I just don't get the point of this story about a Japanese woman who digs up a VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ Fargo buried in the sand. She decides (how?) that it’s another treasure map and—based on the notorious “all this happened” opening card—that she will find the money Steve Buscemi buried in the snow. The problem is that Kumiko is a completely uninteresting character, either in Japan or in the U.S. In the former, she’s catatonic to the point and afunctioning beyond sympathy—you just wanna do a Cher-in-Moonstruck “snap out of it” slap. In the latter, because she has almost no English, soon has no money and can barely conceive of the most amorphous of plans (“I go Fargo”), she can be no more than a blank wall for more Minnesota Nice Hick types to provide lame culture-clash comedy. One deputy takes a Japanese woman to a Chinese restaurant to get an interpreter: ho ho ho. And one assumes the ending has got to be a fantasy—but to what end for something that is, to that point, a non-fantasy? A better choice might've been to make Kumiko a Fargo obsessive who takes a trip and comes a cropper trying to deal with the real Minnesota. (VM)

Land Ho! **1/2
There are few films in any given Sundance Film Festival where I could say unreservedly, “Now that was a movie my parents would love.” That’s not in any way to diminish the charms in Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s amiable comedy about two men who used to be brothers-in-law—Colin (This is Martin Bonner’s Paul Eenhorn), widowed from the sister of Mitch’s (Earl Lynn Nelson) ex-wife—who head off together for a vacation to Iceland while both are facing major life changes. It’s a refreshing twist to see the “mismatched buddy” genre given such a light touch; the personality clashes between the boisterous Louisianan Mitch and the mild-mannered Australian Colin rarely degenerate into anything more profound than brief bouts of mutual frustration. And there’s a charmingly off-hand dynamic between the two that suggests the long history between them. Yet it’s also just a bit too shapeless and dependent on the idea that it would be kind of adorable to imagine one of the Coogan/Brydon Trip films once they’re retirees. The scenery is lovely, the performances are pleasant, and it’s the kind of movie it’s hard to imagine anyone walking out of. It’s nice. Yeah. It’s nice. (SR)

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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