Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Five

Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Five

The Killer Inside Me
Director: Michael Winterbottom (108 min.)
Cast: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Simon Baker, Elias Koteas
Headline: Deputy sheriff loves to needle
Indie type: Neo-noir (smothered in gravy, Texas-style)
Report: Casey Affleck has become a specialist at a particular character type: the soft-spoken gentleman whose dark and/or unsteady side works against his boyish good looks. In director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran’s adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, Affleck plays a small-town Texas lawman who believes in politeness and neighborliness, and loves how adherence to those values helps people keep their secrets. As it happens, Affleck has some wicked secrets himself: he likes to play the rube just to get under people’s skin, he gets aroused by beating women, and if he sees an opportunity to kill a person, he takes it. Affleck’s the perfect actor for this role, even though he’s a little too mush-mouthed to do the voiceover narration required of a noir. But I’m not convinced that Winterbottom's the right person to direct. Winterbottom’s a good director in general, but he lacks a personal style, which means that The Killer Inside Me often reverts to the look and feel of films influenced by Thompson: Blood Simple, Chinatown, Twin Peaks, and the like. The lack of a strong vision also means that the movie’s graphic violence becomes ugly almost to the point of being gratuitous; and Winterbottom fails to enliven the endless scenes of men in hats muttering threats and insinuations. The substance of Thompson's work survives—in particular the sticky psychological and genealogical origins of Affleck’s psychosis, and his fear of being looked at as an outsider in his hometown—but too often the movie feels like a bumpy, circular road through the novel’s plot points, without enough time spent taking in the scenery. Grade: B-

The Runaways
Director: Floria Sigismondi (105 min.)
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Scout Taylor-Compton, Alia Shawkat, Tatum O'Neal
Headline: Los Angeles teens form a rock band, tour the world, have too much fun
Indie type: Rock biopic
Report: I’ll say this for The Runaways: it wasn’t what I was expecting. First time writer-director Floria Sigismondi takes Cherie Curie’s biography about the dangerous sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle she engaged in as a teenage member of the all-girl band The Runaways and turns it into impressionistic, wildly erratic art-piece, where the conventional biopic conflicts play out between scenes of ‘70s decadence that rival Boogie Nights. Some of it's very exciting: any scene where the gals storm the stage and rock their asses off is thrilling to watch, as is any scene where they party hard while loud glam-rock and proto-punk blares. And as The Runaways’ guru/manager/rip-off-artist Kim Fowley, Michael Shannon give another in his recent string of knockout performances, capturing Fowley’s cruel taunts and colorfully profane expressions. But don’t come to expecting to learn much about The Runaways; the movie provides scant details about the band’s brief rise to fame, and it shortchanges any character who’s not Cherie Curie or Joan Jett. (Fuck you, Lita Ford.) It also glosses over Fowley’s alleged abusiveness, showing him as a wacky hard-ass, not the criminal he was reported to be. The real drag on The Runaways though is that any scene that doesn’t involve rock ‘n’ roll or Kim Fowley drags on interminably. (Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart are fine as Curie and Jett, but neither actress is well-served by Sigismondi’s “now do it slower and quieter” direction.) Kudos to the filmmaker for trying to skirt biopic clichés whenever possible and make something more personal, but the result is a mess. About half the movie feels like it’s composed of outtakes. Grade: B-

Cyrus
Director: Jay & Mark Duplass (92 min.)
Cast: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh
Headline: Overgrown man-child discovers that his new girlfriend’s son is a younger version of himself
Indie type: Semi-improvised slacker comedy
Report: I don’t know what it is with the Duplass brothers; I keep rooting for them, but they keep letting me down. Both The Puffy Chair and Baghead start off with such promise—with strong characters, a good germ of a plot, and a few terrific scenes—but then they peter out long before the end. Their third feature Cyrus is much the same, only with name stars in the leading roles instead of the Duplasses and their friends. John C. Reilly plays an irresponsible, depressed loser whose life starts to look up when he meets sweet, sexy Marisa Tomei. The only problem is that Tomei lives with her son, Jonah Hill, who has no job, doesn’t go to school, and who talks to people with earnest tones and an almost imperceptible sarcastic smirk. Reilly and Hill battle for Tomei’s heart, through a series of passive-aggressive moves and counter-moves that plays a lot like Step Brothers, but without the jokes. I liked a lot of the character-defining detail in Cyrus—like when Reilly tries to choose between the big box of condoms or the small box before his big date with Tomei—and I like the idea of a naturalistic comedy about what happens when people prop up their weak friends and relatives for far too long. (The relationship between Tomei and Hill mirrors the one between Reilly and his ex-wife Catherine Keener, which raises the question of whether Tomei only falls in love with Reilly because he’s just like her son.) But once again with the Duplasses, there’s just not enough of anything: not enough funny lines, not enough variation of mood, not enough plot. They’re like those talented college students who keep turning in first drafts, settling for a passing grade instead of working until they get it right. Grade: C
Full disclosure: Because I wasn’t digging the movie and because I had another screening to get to, I ducked out of Cyrus shortly before the ending. So consider the above grade/review to be tentative, pending some future viewing of the last 10 minutes.

Lucky
Director: Jeffrey Blitz (87 min.)
Documentary
Headline: Yeah, the lottery’s okay.
Indie type: “Familiar cultural phenomenon” doc
Report: Of all the lottery winners that documentarian Jeffrey Blitz interviews for his new movie Lucky, the one I most identified with is mathematician Bob Uomini, who says that he played the lottery for years—even though he knew better than anyone that the odds were against him—because he liked to fantasize about what he’d do if he won. I went through about a year where I played the lottery casually but consistently—10 bucks worth of scratch-offs a week plus the occasional Quick Pick or PowerBall—and whenever the jackpot grew, I’d start planning out my future as though I was bound to win. It was fun; no doubt. Now though I pretty much hate the lottery—at least those that are managed by the government—and I confess that my anti-lottery bias may have colored my opinion of Lucky. Blintz takes note of the money wasted on the lottery every year, and he shows that a couple of his subjects are a little worse for wear after winning their millions, but for the most part Lucky steers clear of criticism. Instead Blintz presents one interview after another, shot on ugly-looking video, with recent lottery winners who’ve bought lots of awesome stuff and done meaningful charity work since they received their oversized novelty checks. But even beyong Lucky being doggedly uncritical; its interviews aren’t assembled into anything like a narrative or a thematic through-line. The main entertainment value of the film (and it’s no small value, granted) comes from the inherent voyeurism of watching rich folks spend their money. The power of millions of dollars to change lives leads to some undeniably moving moments. I just wish the whole movie didn’t feel so much like a commercial. Grade: C+

Smash His Camera
Director: Leon Gast
Documentary
Headline: Renowned paparazzo looks back
Indie type: Well-researched bio-doc
Report: Most paparazzi are fly-by-night operators, looking for a quick buck, but veteran pap Ron Galella has spent the last 50 years amassing an archive of candid celebrity photos as impressive as any magazine or newspapers’. In fact, if a publication is looking for an unfamiliar picture of, say, Robert Redford in the '70s, they contact Galella, who has millions of original images in his basement. (He's got three boxes of Tony Danza alone.) Leon Gast's documentary Smash His Camera surveys the photographer’s career, from his groundbreaking court fights with Jackie O, to his hot pursuit of Liz Taylor and Dick Burton in Rome, his jaw-busting altercation with Marlon Brando in the ‘70s, and his current life as an adorable old pro that celebs don't mind posing for. The movie also deals with the legal, ethical and aesthetic issues of Gallela's business: whether he has a right to take pictures of anyone at anytime, and whether his work has any intrinsic value beyond its subject matter. Gast is a skilled documentarian (an Academy Award winner for his When We Were Kings, in fact), and aside from some overly jaunty, ever-present soundtrack music, Smash His Camera assembles Galella’s anecdotes in ways that are entertaining to watch and well-supported visually. But the movie really makes the transition from good to near-great towards the end, with a sequence that shows a young woman walking through a gallery of Galella’s work, unable to identify his subjects. The Galella collection is impressive in its breadth; if someone’s looking for a Galella photo of Angelina Jolie, for example, they’ll find shots ranging from her as a little girl to her on the red carpet last week. But what does that matter, if in a generation from now no one cares about Angelina Jolie anymore? When that happens, will Galella’s collection still be seen as an invaluable store of late 20th century art, or the work of a celeb-obsessed hoarder? Grade: A-

Filed Under: Film

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