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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 8 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-24 - Zombie Aubrey Plaza, a profile of an arms dealer and a great Norewegian psychological thriller are among today's Sundance capsules from Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton.

Love is Strange **1/2
At the center is a beautifully nuanced relationship between two partners of 39 years, Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina), who finally get a chance to tie the knot legally just as financial troubles put strain on their ability to be together. Yet co-writer/director Ira Sachs’ drama also features a veritable arsenal of unfired Chekhovian guns. The plot divides Ben and George for much of the film, as George loses his job teaching music at a private Catholic school and they’re no longer able to afford their apartment, forcing Ben to go live with his nephew (Darren Burrows) and his family while George crashes on the couch with younger, hipper friends. And there are some nicely observed moments in both of those scenarios—George resignedly dealing with being an older man out of place among party people, and Ben finding himself always underfoot as family tensions emerge. But as delightful as it is watching the old-married-couple dynamic when Ben and George are together, Love is Strange makes little of what it does to them to be apart. Then there are the dozen different potential subplots tossed out by Sachs—George’s still-active Catholicism; intimations that Ben’s nephew may be cheating on his wife (Marisa Tomei); trouble involving the teenage son of Ben’s nephew—that just dangle unresolved. What remains is a collection of interesting bits that stubbornly refuse to show they belong together as obviously as George and Ben do. (SR)

Viktoria *
Viktoria contains an extreme close-up of an erect nipple, which suddenly starts cascading jets of milk like hot water from the shower head. Cut to the mother crying as her baby daughter—who was born without a bellybutton—betrays no interest in feeding. Later the mother and her now-adult daughter are in a field, standing staring wordlessly at one another when it starts raining milk. I think this symbolizes mother-daughter broken-bond issues, but I could be wrong. Viktoria also contains multiple naked women, the president of Bulgaria declaring the navel-less girl the Socialist Child of the Decade for leaving behind capitalist belly-buttons, scenes of commie-kitsch May Day parades and an out-of-scale thumb pushing a man aside as he walks through a field. It nevertheless manages to be the most boring movie I have seen or expect to see at Sundance; I hate The Voices more, but it is definitely not boring. It’s far too long and clumsily paced, with director Maya Vitkova belonging to the “I shall hold every shot twice as long as it needs to and with one-tenth the dialog, because I am zee artiste” school of film-making, like Tarkovsky without his genius for pacing and rhythm. Despite subject matter that at least sounds like it could at least deliver the WTFs, or alternatively a Forman/Szabo-style Commie Comedy, Viktoria is completely po-faced and portentous. (VM)

Life After Beth **
Jeff Baena’s zombie comedy keeps creeping up to the edge of genuinely satirical ideas, only to have them flop to the ground half-finished. It’s the tale of Zach (Dane DeHaan), a young man mourning the tragic death of his girlfriend, Beth (Aubrey Plaza), after she’s bitten by a snake while hiking alone. Or maybe she’s not dead after all: There’s a big hole where she was buried, and Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) are being awfully secretive. Eventually all zombie-pocalypse hell breaks loose, leading to some funny moments involving the mass confusion that results when the undead return with no awareness that they’ve been gone. And Plaza’s simply terrific, shedding her wry-and-dry, ironic screen persona to play Beth’s freaky mood swings—from horny girlfriend to smooth-jazz-sedated weirdo to hungry creature chained to a stove—with hilarious gusto. There’s just not a lot of—I’m sorry—bite to Baena’s variation on a now-familiar premise, which could have found great material in the “be careful what you wish for” element of wanting those we’ve lost to be back among us. Yes, it’s got a few laughs. It’s simply missing a point. (SR)

Blind ***1/2
Often, movies with unreliable voice-over narrators anchor the audience by keeping the images objective, emphasizing the gap between what we hear and what we see. Blind is the first movie I can think of where the unreliable narrator—here a newly-blind Norwegian woman named Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) who passes her time writing—is also in control of the images. Eskil Vogt reveals this mind-frying premise to us fairly early on, both visually (details of the images we see change as Ingrid self-edits her work aloud) and in the voiceover itself (“it’s not important what’s real, as long as I can visualize it,” Ingrid says). She’s writing a romance involving two neighbors, and giving them traits based on what she (thinks she) knows of them. But later, there’s a further twist as Ingrid writes in her real-life husband as a romantic rival. While it’s not hard to get the thematic gist—projection and its role in fiction and in fact, and the way sexual frustration and other biography find their way onto the “page”—Blind requires real concentration to follow moment to moment; like Memento, this is not a movie to take a popcorn break on. But Vogt gives you at least a fair chance to keep up, and never resorts to mere obscurantism, helped by some truly dazzling editing and set decoration. The film is also well-textured in its portrayal of how a blind person does simple things like decide what color dress to wear, or clean up after a dropped bowl has stained the floor. It’s like a poor man’s Rear Window with the themes made a little more explicit than Hitchcock did. But that’s still fast company. (VM)

Nick Offerman: American Ham **1/2
The most revolutionary standup comedy—Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Louis C.K., George Carlin—has always been a way to sneak a manifesto past you by making you laugh at it. It’s a single person with a microphone exploring how ridiculous the world is, compared to how it could be if we’d all stop focusing on such useless shit. But there’s also a razor-thin line between “sage” and “self-satisfied,” and Nick Offerman crosses over that line on multiple occasions in this show recorded at New York’s Town Hall in March 2013, directed by Offerman’s Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. He subtitles it onstage as “10 Tips for a Prosperous Life,” and he proceeds to lay them out for his audience—find a hobby, experience love, consume intoxicants, etc.—seasoned with musical interludes. And some of the stuff is plenty funny in a gleefully crude way, like the “Rainbow Song” he explains was a present for wife Megan Mulally’s 50th birthday. But it’s also hard to get past the fact that he’s kinda serious about the idea that “if everybody just lived the way I live, everything would be amazing.” You can feel his tone crossing over to smugly superior—whether it’s his feelings about the online world or about religion—in bits that feel more designed to get a round of “we’re with you, buddy” applause at the end than a laugh. And I hate to break it to Mr. Offerman, but “why can’t we just be decent to one another” isn’t exactly a revolutionary way to skewer doctrinal religiosity, not when Bill & Ted voiced it more succinctly. The laugh-out-loud material here generally comes when Offerman’s having fun at his own expense; the nastier and more pointedly sacrilegious he gets about his philosophy, the less appealing he becomes. (SR)

The Notorious Mr. Bout ***
If I thought I could get away with it, I’d simply recycle my review of Whitey after having changed the proper nouns. Both films are absorbing journalism and well-crafted films, and Bout is spikier and livelier visually, with the advantage of a simpler real-life case. But at the end of the day, I will never be morally exorcised by guilty scoundrels saying “the government made me do it” or “governments do it too,” nor by a documentary that’s fundamentally a procedural or character study thinking this a way to make some kind of bid for greatness. The first words from the titular subject (as voiced by an actor) are “this is my first visit to America,” and while it’s a funny line in context, it’s also apropos as the film shows—via hours of home videos made by Bout himself—that he often acted like a stereotypical tourist while shipping arms and other “cargo” around Africa. As presented in the film, Bout is a not-uninteresting personality, the kind of larger-than-life tycoon that working-class men who have made good often become. There’s even a scene of his being toasted and regaled at his 30th birthday that reminds one of the parallel scene in Citizen Kane. And the film is better-made than others of this sort tend to be, especially in the use of animation and cutouts to illustrate voiceovers from the trial. But it winds up being more a Bout apologia than was strictly necessary, and that knowledge comes infallibly from the facts it elides. Yes, Bout was arms transporter more than seller, and a transporter of more than arms. And yes, he was jailed for a shipment that didn’t happen. But the film rushes through, in classic “kthxbai” evasion fashion, that he was shipping to areas under U.N. arms embargo, which might’ve caused a scrupulous person to—I dunno—check the cargo more carefully. And while the film explicitly tries to humanize its subject, the fact that the impact of his arms shipments is not humanized—i.e., they’re mentioned abstractly, but we don’t see actual images of raped Congolese women—really tells you everything you need to know about this… What did I call Whitey again? Oh yes: This defense brief. (VM)

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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