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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 7 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-23 - Another great documentary about Internet addiction in Asia and the discovery of a great new screen presence top today's Sundance discoveries by Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton.

I Origins **
Brit Marling and her occasional collaborator Mike Cahill—they worked together on the Sundance feature Another Earth—are fascinated with the intersection between spirit and reason, the places where our logical thinking collides with a yearning for something bigger than ourselves. And as such, by all rights they should be right in my wheelhouse. Yet there’s something clumsy and over-eager about the way they tell their stories, like grade-schoolers so excited to relate an anecdote to their parents after school that it makes no sense. Here, Cahill writes and directs the story of Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), whom we meet as a biochemistry grad student (Marling plays his lab assistant) obsessed with eyes, specifically how they might be used experimentally as the final kiss-off to creationist arguments. But a personal tragedy eventually leads him down another road, one that might force him to acknowledge Things Beyond. In theory, I Origins poses an intriguing idea: What if you could use the scientific method to provide evidence of things assumed to be outside the realm of science? But without venturing into spoiler territory, Cahill doesn’t actually play remotely fair in that territory. Mysterious and unexplainable things happen, and those things are merely folded into the greater narrative not as evidence in any scientific sense, but rather as the kind of anecdotes that leads people to believe in ghosts because of that thing that totally happened to my cousin. In short, it’s a speculative drama that isn’t prepared to see its thesis through to its conclusion, and the performance and dramatic elements on their own aren’t gripping enough to make up for that lack of meat on its bones. Cahill seems to want to believe, and wants us to believe, too, but that’s not remotely the same as submitting it to peer review. (SR)

Web Junkie ***1/2
It's irresistible to compare this film to Love Child: also from an East Asian tiger economy, also about Internet addiction, and with roughly same general takeaway. Indeed the mid-credits stinger on Web Junkie would make a perfect segue into the Korean film. But unlike Love Child’s reliance on stock footage and talking heads, this is an observational film of an institutional setting; you could imagine directors Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam studying at the feet of Frederick Wiseman. The institution in this case is the Teenage Mental Recovery Center outside Beijing, where parents send children with what China became the first country to dub “Internet addiction.” Like with many foreign films, interest also comes from similarities and differences with same subject matter in America. Web Junkie shows that the language and concepts of the recovery movement have both spread to China and glommed onto the subject of Internet use, as it has onto other subjects that other eras would have simply dubbed vices. But the difference is shocking and ever-present: This facility is basically a jail, with bars, guards, lineups, uniforms, time in the hole, escape attempts. The combination of the two—recovery ideology and authoritarian manner—clangs to our ears, but also keeps the film in a bubble constantly ready to burst. It also calls each of the two into question if—and this is the other difference from Love Child—at least some of the case studies we see wind up happily. Like with the best Wiseman, the set-piece scenes that “just happen”—the “Holy Momen”—are abundant here, particularly a families group session that … goes very badly. And it’s shocking to see a film made with some amount of official Chinese cooperation—the film-makers are foreigners—showing in a favorable light someone criticizing China’s one-child laws as one possible reasons for their Internet-addiction numbers, producing isolated only-children, and resulting “pal” efforts by parents that have undermined their authority. (VM)

All the Beautiful Things *1/2
How this thing slipped into the “documentary” category is beyond me—though, in fairness, it’s sui generis enough that I’m not entirely sure where it does belong, except maybe not in a film festival at all. Virtually everything we see here is staged, most of it involving a conversation in a New York City jazz club between old friends Barron Claiborne and John Harkrider (the film’s director). A lot of background material narrated by each of the men—Claiborne’s experiences growing up black in racist South Boston; Harkrider’s history with a father who physically abused his mother—shows up via illustrations, and the key events being recounted apparently actually happened. But this is almost entirely a performance of a reconciliation, as the story slowly unfolds of the incident that came between them for years, with an incredulous bartender listening in. And virtually everything that might have been subtext—how our respective life experiences can frame our reactions in a way that harms the people in our lives—eventually becomes text, in extended conversations about race and class and cycles of violence. Then there are the long stretches simply focused on the club band performing, and background chatter from other bar patrons, and both of our principal characters telling the story of what happened to them on 9/11 that led them toward putting aside their old wounds. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a documentary remotely like it, in part because it’s not really a documentary, in part because previous filmmakers—blessedly—haven’t decided that such a bizarre mish-mash of deeply personal material and unoriginal sociological observations adds up to a movie anyone else would want to see. (SR)

Cesar’s Last Fast **1/2
Eventually the hagiography just gets to be too thick and airy-fairy, and the spin becomes a little too easy to see through. But until then, Cesar's Last Fast—which weaves his history around the account of his 1989 fast over pesticide use—is an example of how to do the political-issue documentary right. It avoids the sins of “presentism” and whitewashing, and doesn’t engage in the double-sin of whitewashing a historical figure such as Cesar Chavez in a way specifically designed to make him more appealing to the political coalitions of today. For one example, Chavez, as a union organizer, knew that importing “illegals” (his term) from Mexico would undercut his efforts to unionize California’s farm workers. That’s in the movie—to my surprise, frankly. For another example, his movement was unabashedly Catholic, not only inheriting the church’s social teachings but also having priests, in clerical garb, often on the front lines. Cross and crucifix icons are everywhere in the film, and, most importantly, the titular event is presented as not a hunger strike but as an act of atonement and of self-purification. Some of Chavez’s warts also find their way into the film, like his dictatorial ways when it came time to run an actual working union, and the United Farm Workers’ decline and increasing desperation (though it’s never called that) in the 1980s. So for much of its length, this is not the liberal tongue-bath of the Sundance Documentary from Central Casting. Until it is. And the noble score reminds us. And the talking heads assure us. And preach to us. And preach. (VM)

Appropriate Behavior ***
One of the thrills of Sundance is discovering not just new and exciting filmmakers, but screen presences who jump out at as someone to watch for: Ellen Page in Hard Candy; Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone; Paul Eenhorn in last year’s This Is Martin Bonner. Not to put the pressure on, but Desiree Akhavan has It. She not only stars, but wrote and direct this semi-autobiographical comedy about Shirin, the daughter of Iranian immigrants and a bisexual struggling with her recent breakup with girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). While the “coming out in a conservative culture” alarms might be going off, Akhavan finds uniquely funny ways to explore the tension between her ethnicity and her sexual identity. It also may be even better as a terrific satire of Brooklyn hipster culture, with grade-schoolers in afterschool filmmaking programs, door-to-door drug delivery and “everyone with their Kickstarter.” And it works primarily because Akhavan is such a unique, engaging actor with the kind of self-deprecating comic presence that gives every scene an extra kick; it’s remarkable how subtly a scene in which she joins a swinger couple for a three-way transitions from awkwardly hilarious to genuinely sad just because of her facial expression. Appropriate Behavior is a bit less effective when Akhavan focuses in flashback sequences on the arc of Shirin’s relationship with Maxine, mostly involving Maxine’s growing frustration with Shirin’s unwillingness to come out to her parents. But the charms here come from watching a woman straddling cultural dividing lines of all kinds trying to figure out who she is on her own terms—even as it’s obvious to the audience that Akhavan is one hell of a talent. (SR)

Mr. Leos CaraX ***
The highest-compliment I can pay is that, although I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the French auteur (Holy Motors), it made me realize why that is so. It’s an achievement in a genre disposed to hagiography—the artist-bio DVD supplement—for that sort of film to be critically sharp enough to do this without exactly resorting to “negative” talking-head interviews. For example, Cannes Festival chief Gilles Jacob is a huge Carax pumper, but mentions that if you tried to make logical sense of his movies, “they fall apart in a minute.” Another talking head says that what’s unique about Carax is not that he uses so much quotation, pastiche and material from silent and early-sound films, but that he doesn’t distance himself from that or present it ironically; Carax believes in Juliette Binoche wringing her hands as men fight over her as fervently as DW Griffith when Lillian Gish did the same. All of which more or less summed up my skeptical reactions to some of Carax's work. Even better (if more conventionally), the talking heads here—and there are many, albeit shot with far more imagination than is typical, including the use of relevant Carax images as partial background—provided me with entrees into his work that I had only half-realized. The film goes through the timeline of Carax’s life eventually, albeit with far more chronological and other digressions than is typical—and again, that feels appropriate for a Carax DVD supplement. For him, it’s about the images and moments and feelings, not logic. Like Life Itself—which this does not otherwise resemble in any way—it manages to deliver for both the pre-disposed fan and the otherwise, something far too few documentaries do. (VM)

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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