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Movies Blog

Sundance 2014: Day 10 Reviews

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2014-01-26 - Scott Renshaw and Victor Morton wrap up Sundance 2014 reviews with a pair of sequels, African albinos and one killer performance set entirely in a car.

The Raid 2: Berandal ***1/2
I don’t care that it’s two-and-a-half hours. I don’t care that it’s spectacularly, unapologetically, borderline-insanely violent. I don’t care that it’s over-plotted to a degree that might require a few helpful diagrams. I understand how any and all of those things might be a deal-breaker for any given viewer. But Gareth Evans simply choreographs action as well as any other filmmaker currently alive on the planet, and it’s impossible not to recognize when you’re in the hands of an absolute master. This time around, he sticks the hero of the last film, Rama (Iko Uwais), undercover in a Jakarta crime syndicate in an attempt to find out who the crooked cops are that are protecting their rackets. There’s a whole mess of business going on—sticking Rama in prison for two years to prove his bona fides; conflict between one crime boss and his ambitious son; a staged murder designed to ignite war between rival crime families—and it’s hard not to engage in a little toe-tapping while Evans sets all his dominoes in place. But once he starts knocking them down—with kicks, claw hammers, baseball bats, fry-top surfaces, broken bottles, etc.—it’s a dizzying experience. The one-building setting of the original The Raid may have offered a streamlined “get out alive” narrative, but this time around we get a chance to see that not only can Evans craft remarkable punch-and-crunch hand-to-hand combat, he can also construct one humdinger of a car chase. Those martial-arts donnybrooks, though: Let’s just say that the spiritual son of the Shaw Brothers and Quentin Tarantino scales glorious heights of over-the-top punishment. Your too-much-ness mileage may certainly vary; there are those who respond to a guy getting his limbs snapped with queasiness, and those who respond with a burst of giddy laughter. To the latter, I can only say: Welcome aboard. (SR)

God’s Pocket *1/2
If I could be convinced that this was intentionally a comedy, or a parody of a certain sort of contemporary noir ... I'd probably still dislike it, albeit for different reasons. But at least that movie would be explicable. The problem is that it’s too convincing for too long as a slum-neighborhood crime film—think Mystic River or The Departed for the Boston cognates of this Philadelphia story. And the results on the screen bear too close a resemblance to “tonal control getting away from the director” to embrace comedy. Certainly the audience I saw it with was laughing at certain events—a double slaying comes first to mind—that, if they were intended by director John Slattery to be funny, would be a serious lapse in taste. God’s Pocket starts with a funeral in the titular 1970s Irish urban neighborhood, then flashes back three days to the back-story. Things are just a little “too”: Richard Jenkins a bit too drunk as a Herb Caen-type newspaper columnist; the guy who wants to tell the cops what happens is too stuttering; Christina Hendricks just a little too buxom. By the time we get Philip Seymour Hoffman flying through the street, intercut with his wife’s adultery and the 25th partial snatch from REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” and people knowing things they cannot possibly know, the movie really has become laughable—and not in a good way. (VM)

White Bird in a Blizzard *1/2
Well, my hunch from reading Laura Kasischke’s novel was correct: Gregg Araki couldn’t possibly have been a worse choice for adapting this material. On the page, it’s a simple psychological mystery: A teenager named Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) faces the mystery of why her enigmatic mother (Eva Green) simply disappears one day, seemingly having abandoned her and her father (Christopher Meloni) without a word. The story is a period piece, set in the late 1980s, which isn’t merely an affectation; it’s crucial to the character dynamics that Kat’s mother married disappointingly at a time (in the late ’60s) when she reasonably might have felt that she didn’t have many better options. And the root of the story—Kat trying to understand how her mother increasingly comes to see her daughter as a reminder of the vitality that vanishes from an ever-more-invisible middle-aged woman—gets at something true about the prickly nature of mother/daughter relationships. But while Woodley is solid enough as Kat, Araki can’t resist giving this story a high-drama sheen—and that includes directing Green to the kind of eyebrows-arched, maternal freak-out performance that should have Faye Dunaway feeling slightly better about the restraint she showed in Mommie Dearest. That’s saying nothing of the perhaps-predictable but nevertheless insanely misguided choices Araki makes in tweaking the source material, from ditching a crucial subplot about how Kat’s grandmother similarly abandoned Kat’s mother, to a couple of major shifts in the Big Revelations. I weep to think what a filmmaker without Araki’s looka-me impulses might have done with it. (SR)

Locke ***1/2
You have to “buy into” a gimmick movie, pretty much a priori. In Locke, it’s that the camera, for all practical purposes, never leaves a car where Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving and taking the phone calls that will upend his life. Hardy is the only person you see, though you hear the other end of his speaker-phone conversations; it’s pure “canned theater” that could also work rather well as a radio play. Because he’s driving straight through, Hardy also is limited in his movement. Everything therefore depends on his face and voice—and Hardy is magnificent, delivering an early performance-of-the-year candidate. He juggles various personae in his various calls—husband confessing adultery to his wife; father whose son is eager to watch the big game with him; a man whose barely-known and barely-sane paramour is calling about her birth pangs; a boss trying to walk a borderline-drunk subordinate through that job. In a very good non-native’s Welsh accent, Hardy almost never raises his voice, but communicates anger by being short and abrupt. His voice keeps (barely) its social face, while has actual face gets more burnished and flustered by the moment. And it changes with various people as their level of knowledge changes. Hardy plays a rising Everyman of humble origins whose sense of probity and rightness is everything to him, even over a one-night stand with a woman giving birth to his child but whom he will not tell he loves (“I barely know you”). The only contrivance is that Hardy sometimes talks aloud to his father, though some folk are wont to do this on lonely late-night car journeys. The metaphors and parallelisms among the stories get a little heavy, and you really so have to enjoy watching Hardy, as he’s the whole show. But he puts on a show. (VM)

The Trip to Italy **1/2
Yes yes, ha ha, bravo and cleverly done Messrs. Coogan and Brydon. Right off the bat, you get the self-referential jokes out of the way, about how “we’re not going to do any impersonations, because we talked about that,” and about the futility of all sequels except for Godfather Part II, which gets plenty of love here. But the problem with The Trip to Italy isn’t that it’s a sequel; it’s that it’s just not funny enough often enough. Anyone who saw the original The Trip knows that it was basically an excuse to get thinly-fictionalized versions of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on the road together—the first time for a series of magazine articles about fine-dining English restaurants, this time Italian restaurants—and let them riff. And riff they do, getting even more comedic mileage out of their dueling Michael Caine impressions and the Bond series. But as hilarious as some of those bits are, this mix of Food Network travel show and improvisation—Whose Line-Cook Is It Anyway?—spends even more time than the original film on the superfluous sub-plots about Brydon and Coogan’s respective family lives and careers, plus a few musings on aging and death. Brydon engages in an extra-marital dalliance and auditions for a Michael Mann film, Coogan tries to establish more of a connection with his teenage son, and the extent to which any of those things matter at all is made clear by the arbitrary point at which the film simply stops dead. Just strip away the background nonsense and let these guys sit at a table for 90 minutes, one-upping each other and doing silly voices in the comedic version of My Dinner With Andre. We’re not asking for Godfather Part II, fellas. Just make us laugh. (SR)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ***
If writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s film had nothing else going for it—and it does—it would still boast what is likely the single most glorious single shot of Sundance 2014. A young Iranian man named Arash (Arash Marandi) has become fascinated with a mysterious, unnamed woman (Sheila Vand), unaware that she is in fact an honest-to-fangs vampire. In her apartment, she stands to the right of the frame, a disco ball spinning sparkles of light as the music pounds and Arash moves slowly towards her. Will she kiss him? Will she kill him? The arc of that single shot is masterful, and Amirpour finds plenty of other arresting images—like our vampire heroine riding a skateboard down a dark street, her headscarf trailing behind like a billowing cape—on the way to an effective allegory for a patriarchal society confronted with a powerful female force. The only thing really missing here is a tighter, more controlled script, one that wrangles all its various threads—drug abuse and organized crime, modernism vs. conservatism in contemporary Iran—into something genuinely powerful, or gives even slightly more clarity to the interior lives of both Arash and the vampire. But it’s hard to complain too much about something this visually striking in its black-and-white compositions, and one that concludes with a young man making a choice between the past and the future in another amazingly crafted single shot. Amirpour is the real deal. (SR)

White Shadow ***
I wanted to like it—surely the first ever feature film about Tanzanian albinos and witch doctors—much more than I eventually could. White Shadow starts out like a great film does, with an arresting image that is about something more than itself: white-arm shapes against a cloudy sky backdrop, with two voices we later learn are albino children. Alabaster-skinned and reddish-blond-haired but otherwise African-featured, albinos are considered untouchable freaks in the Tanzanian countryside, but their body parts and blood are considered magical. An early attack on the village where hero Alias lives with his mother and albino father is spine-tingling in its use of darkness—it’s late night in an African village after all—chaotic framing, the occasional random flash of torches and piercing screams. Eventually Alias finds his way to a city, under an uncle who uses him in a Fagin/Artful Dodger sense. An albino orphanage, and further hunts for parts as his uncle gets in trouble, all lie in the future. When White Shadow is “on,” it works great—a tender scene of a “cell-phone conversation” in a junkyard is something DeSica would have been proud of. But the style, or failures thereof, gets in the way; too much of the film is simply poorly blocked, awkwardly shot and just not clear, and the man who made Bicycle Thief would not have been proud of that. It just overdoses on its own chaos, and the story really does ramble, though a little more familiarity (or familiarization) with Tanzanian culture and society would have helped, I think. I’m pretty sure, for example, that a late mob attack is by modernizing Christians against the traditional animists who threaten Alias and others. But it’s not made terribly clear, and this prevents that scene from attaining the heights of the hospital rampage in Werckmeister Harmonies, which it dramatically and structurally resembles. The last scenes, though—involving a moment of moral decision, and then a cloud like the first—really do stick the landing. (VM)

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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