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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 9 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-25 - Romantic fantasy, a "comfort food" baseball story and an infomercial masquerading as a documentary are among today's batch of Sundance reviews from Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton.

The One I Love ***
Every once in a while—fortunately, every once in a long while—I’m forced to wonder if I simply blinked at the wrong moment in a movie, because something simply isn’t making the kind of sense it should clearly be making. Such a moment happened rounding the third-act bend in this fantastical romantic comedy from director Charlie McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader, which begins with a killer premise: Unhappily married couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) take the advice of their therapist (Ted Danson) to get away together to an isolated retreat house. But the guest house on the property has a unique quality: Whenever each one of them enters, he or she finds what seems to be their partner, except the version of their partner that’s just a bit more ideal. It’s no small praise to say that for a while it evoked thoughts of Groundhog Day, finding new and interesting ways to explore the concept at regular intervals, and poke at the idea of how committed people really are to accepting the warts-and-all version of their significant others. Then there’s a shift—and without venturing into spoiler territory, the motivations for everyone involved started to become genuinely hard to follow. That confusion certainly affects the kicker of a final shot, which—ambiguous though it may be—also feels like a real tonal miscalculation given the bouncy dynamic of so much that precedes it. Is it edgy? Or is it a disappointing home-stretch for an otherwise winning film? Or, dammit, was I just blinking at the exact wrong moment? (SR)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball **1/2
This film will fit snugly on the shelf alongside the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis and the one on Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s (There is one, isn’t there? Well, there should be.) Anyway, Battered Bastards of tells a familiar sports-underdog story combined with a 1970s vibe: the five year run of the Portland Mavericks, minor-league baseball’s last club not affiliated with a major-league farm system. That lack of affiliation made them MLB’s enemies but made them freer to be …well, mavericks: Playing a balls-out style, getting players thought unworthy, a happy-go-lucky attitude, embrace by the city. It’s like an episode of your favorite sitcom: You can figure out quickly exactly where it’s going, it’ll look and feel exactly like it did like week, but you still enjoy this week’s riff off the familiar subject. And since you kinda know you really shouldn’t like it that much, Battered Bastards is the documentary equivalent of comfort food. More seriously, I can’t say I’m too keen about a film being directed by the grandchildren of its principal subject (owner Bing Russell), and extensively using as a talking head their uncle (film star Kurt Russell, who at least did play for the Mavericks, but still). It’s a familiar tale of Americana of the era, but the comparisons to Slap Shot or Bull Durham are too obvious to avoid and not flattering. Also, there’s not enough actual footage of what sound like great anecdotes—the dog, Jogarza, the brooms, the “Ball Four” pitcher, ballboy Todd Field getting thrown out of a game—though they’re still entertaining when told by talking heads. I wondered if this story might've worked better as a fiction film. And sure enough, within the hour after leaving the theater, I had learned of this. (VM)

Low Down **1/2
There are few things in movies right now as sublime as watching Elle Fanning watch other things. And she gets plenty to look at in writer/director Jeff Preiss’s adaptation of the memoir by Amy Jo Albany—Fanning plays her as a teenager—dealing with her life in 1970s Hollywood in the less-than-stellar care of her drug-addicted father, gifted jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes) and occasionally with her grandmother (Glenn Close). Like the memoir itself, the film plays out more as a series of episodes than a narrative arc, with Amy Jo often left to fend for herself or learn facts of life by observing the dissolute lives of other tenants in the flophouse where they live. And it’s at its best when Fanning is acting with her magnificently expressive face, which can shift from curiosity and wonder to horror in a second—which is exactly what’s called for when a 13-year-old accidentally observes some rather surreal sex-capades. But aside from the expected roller-coaster progression from “things are going all right” to “dad’s using again,” there’s no emotional momentum to the film. As heartbreaking as it may be when Amy Jo makes a desperate attempt to reach out to the mother who abandoned her—hoping at least one of her parents might be someone she can count on—Preiss stubbornly refuses to allow for a focus on what did connect Amy Joe and Joe. He, too, is merely watching, and eventually it feels like there’s just nothing more to see here. (SR)

Ida ***
At a certain point—impossible to define in the abstract—restraint simply becomes withholding. Don’t get me wrong: Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is a lovely film, even though it uses the hoary structure of the “opposites” buddy road-trip movie. But it enlivens the device both through novelty (the mismatched pair is a novitiate nun in early-’60s Poland who’s just learned she’s Jewish, and her aunt, a judge for the Communist regime) and through a commitment to character over allegory. These are people with a shared past that each has good reason to keep in the past, yet the current life of each is a rebuke of sorts to the other. Shot in black-and-white and the old, squarish aspect ratio, Ida looks like a film Poland of its setting. There’s an exhilarating, but still odd, framing strategy used throughout—one I’m told is not especially a directorial trademark—of showing faces or other dramatic points of interest unconventionally close to the bottom or the side edges of the frame, with a huge amount of dramatically dead space above or around the characters. It’s so unconventional that you can’t not notice it; at times, the subtitles have to become supertitles that run across the top of the frame instead of the bottom. But why? Emphasis on environment? Of man as under God? As space for upward-seeking transcendence? Really, any answer is as good and not-excludable as any other, which is part of my only real reservation about Ida: It’s a little too psychologically opaque for its own good, which makes the end (which I won’t spoil) a bit of a head-scratcher. Not in terms of what happens, which is obvious, but why it happens. (VM)

To Kill a Man ***
If you’ve ever wondered what Cape Fear have looked like without the Grand Guignol stylings of DeNiro and Scorsese, here you go—another tale about a weak, emasculated-in-traditional-terms man (Jorge, played by Daniel Candia) being pushed and taunted by a criminal who is threatening his family over a jail sentence for an earlier crime. We get sparks of anger from Jorge’s wife, directed at the authorities who (sensibly) can only issue a restraining order on the criminal. And then the criminal escalates with hanging around, rock throws, a sexual assault on the daughter. But unlike Cape Fear, the Chilean To Kill A Man is an emotionally sedate, almost frozen film, with little dialogue, though the story is stark and simple enough that it never bores or spins its wheels. Director Alejandro Fernandez Almendras is a superb framer of images, using long takes and precise camera movements to let actions play out in real time; the three major crimes are all spectacular single-shot set-pieces that Michael Haneke would be proud of. In the kidnapping scene, the entire stage centers on a tiny apartment in a corner of the frame, where the only light flicker while down below … let’s just say “car alarm” and think of the horn in “Chinatown” as a comparable tension ratchet-upper. But like with Ida, the end left me a little unsatisfied, in part because the performances of their respective lead actors were so interiorized that I had a hard time making emotional sense of life-defining decisions. Oh, you can think through what it obviously must mean after the fact, but it’s not terribly dramatically compelling on the screen as it happens, and you’re kinda left wanting more. (VM)

Marmato ***
Sturdy, committed you-are-there documentary filmmaking can yield great material if you’re willing to get out of the way and let the story and its surrounding world unfold. Mark Greico winds up with a compelling story as he spends five years in the titular Colombian town—a community built on a mountain that has been a gold mine for 500 years, and continues to be one of the largest remaining ore deposits in the world. But the conflict emerges when the Colombian government decides to sell mineral rights to corporate interests, resulting in a potentially radical shift to the way the mining operations have been run for centuries. Greico follows a few specific characters—a miner trying to raise his family as the paradigm in Marmato changes; a self-made entrepreneur who owns his own mine—over the course of a period when the promise of a wonderful new world by the mountain’s new owners collides with a reality of lost jobs and threats of government action against the workers who illegally continue working shut-down mines. Not surprisingly, the corporate overlords and government collaborators don’t come out looking terribly good, and Greico doesn’t do a particularly effective job of clarifying the legal and/or ethical issues surrounding what the plan for an open-pit mine would do to the local economy, for better or worse. But he does a wonderful job of capturing this unique place, with its latticework of ropes and pulleys overhead, and unsteady homes built on a mountain that shudders with dynamite explosions on a regular basis. And it’s hard to resist moments as splendidly absurd as a hearts-and-minds effort by the mining corporation to win over the townspeople by giving away logo-stamped backpacks and pencils to all the schoolchildren. The core issues at play may never get a more thorough exploration than “simple folk vs. multinational conglomerate intrusion,” but I’ll say this: I won’t soon forget the images in my head of Marmato, Colombia. (SR)

Alive Inside *1/2
It doesn’t matter what the virtue of passing out customized iPods to nursing-home patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s may be, though the lack of dissenting voices makes me not trust the film as journalism, either: This is fundamentally an infomercial, not a movie. In fact, Alive Inside follows all the standard beats of those half-hour late-night “programs”: introduction of the product; testimonials; talking heads claiming that The Man is trying to keep our product off the market; before-and-after comparisons showing what wonders iPods with period music did; and a closing title card with the web address for you too to click on and learn about our great product. The only thing missing is Dionne Warwick cooing over the accuracy rate of the psychics’ predictions. Actually, that’s a little incomplete (though not false); there’s more to Alive Inside than that, but that material isn't a heck of a lot better. In another misguided bid for “heft” by a documentary, this one gives us material on the coming explosion of nursing-home patients, and thus dementia, from the aging populations in the U.S. and similar countries, plus some comparative analysis of the place of elderly as sources of wisdom rather than disposable bothers in a society that worships youth, and the notion that geographic mobility means the elders no longer live with their families. But the change in projected population distribution from pyramid with the youngest at the bottom to an upside-down pyramid is wholly the result of two factors: people living longer as health-care improves, and declining fertility. And what exactly does much of it have to do with elderly care, particularly when the product being hawked in Alive Inside doesn’t (at least on the basis of this movie) actually reverse brain decline; it simply livens people up and puts them temporarily back in touch with their memories. It goes without saying that this is a good thing and so in some sense, this is an infomercial for the Lord’s work. But “music makes people happy” is not exactly a thundering insight. (VM)

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