Noel Murray @ Sundance ’09: Day Six

Noel Murray @ Sundance ’09: Day Six

 

 
 
Bronson
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn (92 min.)
Cast: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance
Headline: Most violent prisoner in the history of the British penal system makes kicking ass—and waiting to kick ass—into an art form
Indie type: Pensive, Kubrickian study of anti-social behavior
Report: Here’s what Bronson is all about: It’s about bald, mustachioed, sturdily built Tom Hardy (playing “Charlie Bronson,” a self-made legend) raging like a bull, beating the living crap out of guards, fellow prisoners, passersby—anybody. And then it’s about him sitting utterly still, frightening everyone around him with the potential for grievous bodily harm. In between all that, Hardy delivers an often hilarious running monologue, explaining his quest for a curious kind of stardom. But if you come to Bronson looking to be entertained in a conventional way, you'll be disappointed. There's a lot more lyrical studies of inertness than you might expect from a movie about a batty criminal. In fact, there were times during Bronson when I wasn’t sure what Refn (director of the awesome Pusher trilogy) was going for, and times when the movie seemed like little more than a derivative, extra-artsy version of A Clockwork Orange. For long stretches of Bronson, nothing much happens—and what does happen is, well, odd. (Our anti-hero is big on theatrical displays of brutality, occasionally involving body paint.) But by the end of the movie, I was starting to groove on the way Refn used the stillness and nothingness to keep the audience tense and anxious. There are two Bronsons on display here: the impossible thug that we don’t dare release into polite society, and the guy we enjoy watching do his terrible thing. He’s a walking, punching contradiction—and an unforgettable one at that.
Grade: B+
 
 
Adventureland
Director: Greg Mottola (106 min.)
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig
Headline: College graduate is forced to take summer job at amusement park and unexpectedly falls in love, in the mid-‘80s
Indie type: Stumbly post-adolescent romance, through nostalgic lens
Report: I’m glad that the success of Superbad has put Mottola back in the feature-making business again, because he’s a filmmaker with a rare eye for the texture of the everyday, and the casual interactions between friends and relatives. Adventureland understands what it’s like to work in a low-rent amusement park (or any beneath-you summer job, really), and find your otherwise rich interior life consumed by the petty bullshit (gossip, relationships, discovering clever ways to goof off) that go hand-in-hand with minimum-wage-slavery. I worked in an amusement park myself for three summers in the late ‘80s, so I can attest to Adventureland’s authenticity. But even though the movie is often very funny, Mottola doesn’t have much to offer in the way of a story. The romance between alt-rock-loving spiritual kin Eisenberg and Stewart keeps getting derailed for ludicrous (and predictable) reasons, and because Mottola doesn’t give his female characters the kind of wit and depth he gives his male characters, the movie's various love stories lack balance. Adventureland is a pleasant, low-key comedy populated by likable characters—especially the ever-sardonic Martin Starr—but given what Mottola’s capable of, it’s a mild disappointment.
Grade: B
 
 
The Informers
Director: Gregor Jordan (98 min.)
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Winona Ryder, Jon Foster, Amber Heard
Headline: Rich Los Angeles wastrels exploit each other, in the mid-‘80s
Indie type: Hip-lit adaptation
Report: The widespread hatred for this flashy adaptation of several loosely connected Bret Easton Ellis short stories is getting a little out-of-hand, though I certainly understand where the ire's coming from. The Informers dwells among the shallow, self-absorbed culture of L.A.’s idle rich, following serial philanderers, drug addicts, asshole rock stars and more nefarious exploiters as they rub up against (and run over) each other. These people just flat-out suck, and Jordan doesn’t do his movie any favors by presenting their lurid adventures at something close to face value. The Informers should be more aware of its own unsavory-ness, and even revel in it a more than it does. Instead, the movie is far too weighty. That said, as someone who read and re-read Less Than Zero in high school, I enjoyed The Informers more than I'd care to admit. And any movie that opens with a poolside party sequence set to Simple Minds’ “New Gold Dream” can’t be all bad.
Grade: C+
 
 
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
Director: John Krasinski (80 min.)
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, John Krasinski, Bobby Cannavale, Timothy Hutton, Dominic Cooper, Christopher Meloni, Ben Gibbard, Will Forte
Headline: Grad student examines the impact of feminism by recording the desires and fears of men
Indie type: Actors’ showcase
Report: For most of its running time, Krasinski’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s short story collection breaks down into a series of monologues, and as such it plays like an abstract theater exercise, hosted by some college coffeehouse. For about the first 40 minutes, I found the extended navel-gazing anecdotes about broken relationships really taxing, but by the end I started to admire what Krasinski was trying to do here, illustrating DFW’s complicated and often self-defeating analysis of why pretty much all male-female relationships are doomed to fail. It helps that Krasinski is aware enough of his movie’s limitations to keep it blessedly short. It also helps that he saves the most important monologue for himself, at the end, though by the time he was done with it, I was thinking to myself, “You can stop auditioning now, Mr. Krasinski. I'm pretty sure you got the part.”
Grade: B-
 
Passing Strange
Director: Spike Lee (135 min.)
Cast: De'Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Eisa Davis, Stew
Headline: Misfit middle-class African-American teenager travels to Europe to discover what he left back home
Indie type: Concert film
Report: Nathan pretty well covered the waterfront with his review of Passing Strange last night—penned while I was sleeping, the big sneak—so I’ll just talk about the emotion that seized me about halfway through our sparsely attended press screening and stayed with me all the way to the parking lot. That emotion was worry. As far as I’ve seen, Passing Strange has been getting good reviews, but there haven’t been very many reviews, and no one seems to be buzzing about the movie the way they are about the likes of Push and An Education. So I’m worried that Passing Strange is going to get lost in the Sundance shuffle, and that I’m going to be some kind of lone voice in the wilderness, advocating about how amazing Passing Strange is. Look, I can understand why the movie wouldn’t work for everyone. Stew and Heidi Rodenwald’s music is an unabashed blend of art-pop, fiery R&B and pure theater, and if you’re not inclined to enjoy all three of those elements, you may well be tearing your hair out by the end of the first hour. (I am inclined to enjoy this kind of music, and even I was tested by a few of the more aggressive pastiches.) I can also imagine that some folks might roll their eyes too at Stew’s constant wide-eyed references to “love” and “the real”—and if he’d been talking about them instead of singing, I might’ve felt as icked-out by it all as I was by the chatter about “love” in Paper Heart and “soul” in Cold Souls. But I love the way Stew undercuts his own coming-of-age story by commenting on it—sometimes sarcastically—from an older, wiser place. And I think one of the many ways that Spike Lee's presence enhances Passing Strange is the way Lee seeks out camera angles that often include the idle Stew on the edge of the frame, ruefully watching his younger self screw up. A lot of the power of Passing Strange is rooted in the idea that Stew wrote this musical in order to conjure up his past mistakes and to try and forgive himself for them (without entirely excusing himself), and Lee seems to express that in the way he assembles his footage. One of the other reasons I worry that people might shrug off Passing Strange is that they'll think it’s “just a concert film.” Lee recorded the final three shows of the Tony-winning Broadway production (plus one run-through), and though he moves the camera a lot and cuts frequently, Lee doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here. Still, he makes good use of close-ups, capturing the sweaty faces of a troupe of remarkable performers; and he knows just when to cut to the audience, to remind us that this isn’t just a document of a show, it’s a document of the final show. The actors are wrung-dry and weeping at the end, and the audience is whooping, trying to keep them on stage as long as possible, prolonging the farewell. I knew exactly how that crowd felt. And I hope the people inclined to like Passing Strange will be able to see this film, so they can feel it too.
Grade: A-
 
 
Festival notes... 
 
I actually attended one other screening today: a work-in-progress cut of Steven Soderbergh’s latest low-budget experiment The Girlfriend Experience. (According to Soderbergh, the movie cost $1.7 million, took 16 days to shoot, and features a cast of mostly non-pro actors, save for the leading lady, porn star Sasha Grey.) Even though we weren’t given any specific prohibition against doing so, I don’t feel right giving even one of my shortened “report”-style capsule reviews to a work in progress. I will say that the film is like a cross between Bubble and The Limey, combining flat representations of the everyday with a jumbled chronology. I don’t know that the time-jumping entirely works—though Soderbergh indicated he was tinkering with the structure, so perhaps it’ll be improved—yet I still found GFE far more interesting on a thematic level than anything Soderbergh’s done in years. (It’s dramatically unsatisfying, but that’s sort of the way it goes with Soderbergh when he’s making “one for himself.”) Though it’s ostensibly about a few days in the life of a high-priced escort, GFE  is also about the service industry in general, and the various ways people try to sell themselves to clients and loved ones. It’s also a pointed look at New York City opulence during a time when markets are crashing and everyone’s nervous. And it’s also a tricky political analogy, comparing the process of self-improvement via enhanced sexiness to government bailouts. Okay, maybe I’m reaching a bit with that last one; still, there’s definitely a lot going on here. I just wish Soderbergh could find a way to combine his intellectual/aesthetic interests with oh, I don’t know, storytelling. It’s unlikely the tinkering will make GFE any better from a narrative perspective, but it’s worth seeing regardless.
Tomorrow: Wrapping up!
Filed Under: Film

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