Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Four

Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Four

Four Lions
Director: Chris Morris (100 min.)
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar
Headline: A cel of hapless British terrorists argues over what they should explode
Indie type: Talky, taboo comedy
Report: If veteran British comedy writer/performer Chris Morris has passed along one guiding principle to the collective of bright comic minds he’s worked with over the past decade-plus, it’s this: Commit to the bit, even if you risk being unfunny. Morris’ feature directorial debut Four Lions is frequently funny—guffaw-worthy even—but if I tried to pitch this coal-black satire as a laugh riot, I’d be misleading you. (Although I’ll add that it might help if you live in the UK, and can pick up all the cultural references the movie drops; I missed about 30% of them at least.) And if I described the movie (as I sort-of-do above) as a wacky comedy about a bunch of British/Islamist terrorists, that would be pointing you in the wrong direction too. Like most Morris projects (The Day Today and Brass Eye being the prime examples), Four Lions weaves between the disarmingly outlandish and the alarmingly true-to-life. The movie’s terrorists are an eclectic bunch: a middle-class cynic with a wife and kid, a superstitious fundamentalist, an aging activist, a dim mischief-maker and a good-hearted go-along guy. Four Lions shows enough of these men that we get to like them a little—or at least to enjoy their company—and to hope that maybe they’re just incompetent enough to end the movie without blowing anything up. But alas, there’s that whole “commit to the bit” bugaboo again. As Four Lions moves to its big finish, Morris and his company of top-flight comic actors fuse farce with real worry, and not always seamlessly. (I for one never bought that the Moe of our group of Jihadist Stooges was as into the cause as he professed.) There’s a raggedness to Four Lions that makes it hard to recommend unreservedly. It’s no masterpiece. But more often than not, it is pretty brilliant. Grade: B+

Frozen
Director: Adam Green (93 min.)
Cast: Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers
Headline: Three skiers, one lift, one chilly night
Indie type: Constrained suspense
Report: How’s this for a gimmick? Three college students (two buddies and a girlfriend) take an impromptu ski trip and through a chain of unfortunate circumstances (largely caused by the kids’ own obstinacy and sense of privilege) wind up stuck on a ski lift, at a resort that’s going to be closed for the next five days. What resources can they draw on, to stay alive and/or get themselves rescued? That’s a great question for any thriller to ask—especially one that confines its action more or less to a single location. But the problem with Frozen is that we know the thing is 90 minutes long, and we know that our trio won’t be rescued right away, so a lot of the movie's “Hey, let’s give this a try!” set-pieces lack a necessary tension. The other problem? While the actors are game, their characters are pretty generic, which means that the long scenes of them sitting in the cold and talking about their lives are Downtown Dullsville. Frozen does take a few unexpected turns—the biggest one involving the arrival of hungry wolves—and Green does know how to construct a suspense sequence. He just needs to find a way to put those sequences into a movie that has its own organic life, and isn’t so… well, please consult the title. Grade: C+

Buried
Director: Rodrigo Cortés (94 min.)
Cast: Ryan Reynolds
Headline: One man, one coffin, two hours
Indie type: Constrained suspense
Report: No wait, how’s this for a gimmick? Buried opens with a contract truck driver (played by Ryan Reynolds) lying in a sand-covered coffin in an Iraq desert. In the box with him: a lighter, a cell phone and a few other goodies waiting to be discovered. For the next 90 minutes, we watch Reynolds make and field calls, in hopes of getting found—or of appeasing the natives who kidnapped and buried him in the first place. Outside of a couple of pictures and videos that appear on the phone, Reynolds’ face is the only one we see, and the coffin is pretty much the only set. Director Rodrigo Cortés makes good use of the limited space, although there are times when it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. As for Chris Sparling’s script, it’s cleverly constructed, filling in the details of Reynolds’ situation (and his life back home) in the midst of the action. There should be a little more to the backstory than there is—and more to the movie than a familiar critique of the management of the Iraq War—but Reynolds is terrific, and Cortés and Sparling overlay a preposterous premise with familiar modern complaints. Buried is as much about dropped calls, getting sent to voicemail, and being openly lied to by our institutions as it about being buried alive by terrorists. Grade: B

The Tillman Story
Director: Amir Bar-Lev (94 min.)
Documentary
Headline: Government lies; world keeps turning
Indie type: Exposé doc
Report: The title for this well-researched, deeply moving retelling of the Pat Tillman saga is fine as it is, since it does refer to the attempts to turn the “friendly fire” death of the former NFL star and Army ranger into pro-enlistment myth-making. But the original title was even better: I'm Pat _______ Tillman. That title alludes to Tillman’s reported last words: “I'm Pat fucking Tillman!,” shouted repeatedly from the hilltop toward his jacked-up, oblivious comrades, roughly 40 yards away. The old title also references the 3,000-word report the Tillman family received from the military, which had so many names and places redacted that it took years for the Tillmans to fill in the blanks and find out exactly how they’d been lied to. Mostly though, the old title (like the new one) speaks to the way people on both the left and the right (but mostly the right) have tried to project their beliefs onto a man who kept his own close to the vest. Amir Bar-Lev, following up his excellent documentary My Kid Could Paint That, uses a conventional documentary format of talking heads, file footage, scanned documents and insert shots, but he assembles it all skillfully, presenting the Tillman The Patriot narrative first and then going back to show a more complicated man, whose real reasons for abandoning his lucrative football career to enlist in the military have never been fully revealed. Along the way, Bar-Lev blasts the media for merely parroting what the authorities tell them, and effectively accuses a succession of investigative bodies of entering outright, obvious lies into the public record. Most of the material in this movie has been seen, heard or read before, but never with this level of useful illustration. I for one had never seen the rousing footage of Tillman’s younger brother speaking at Pat’s memorial service. After John McCain and other political/military leaders spoke about Pat being in “a better place,” the younger Tillman took the stage with a pint of ale, thanked everyone for coming, then said, “By the way, Pat’s not in a better place, he’s fuckin’ dead. He wasn’t religious.” In the propaganda-filled realms of politics, sports and the military, that kind of no-bullshit truth feels so, so good to hear. No wonder the Tillman family has spent much of the last ten years fighting to hear it from the people that matter. Grade: B+

I Am Love
Director: Luca Guadagnino (120 min.)
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Pippo Delbono, Alba Rohrwacher, Marisa Berenson
Headline: Change comes to the fabulously wealthy
Indie type: Florid melodrama
Report: Is there anything Tilda Swinton can't do? She can zip into a movie for a few scenes (as a bit player or villainess) and instantly kick that movie into a higher gear, or she can take the lead and bedevil audiences with her easy shifts between sympathetic warmth and shrill desperation. In the family drama I Am Love Swinton speaks fluent Italian, playing the fashionable Russian wife of the scion of a powerful Milanese family. Throughout I Am Love, Swinton does a lot of nodding and smiling as others are talking, as though waiting alertly for her cue. Then she meets a young chef with a passion for simplicity, and the two of them begin to communicate on an earthier level. I Am Love is profoundly sensual, relishing the elegance of old world estates, the textures of lovingly prepared food, and the blur of naked bodies writing against each other. But. The. Movie. Is. So. Damn. Declarative. The characters all talk as though reading from an Italian For Beginners textbook, simply stating who they are, where they’re going, and what they’ve heard about where their friends are going (and what they’ll all do when they arrive.) I Am Love is about the change that overcomes Swinton’s family after their patriarch dies, and about the dizzying, terrifying sense that anything is possible now. Writer-director Luca Guadagnino’s images alone get that feeling across. But his action is far too formal. Grade: B-

Animal Kingdom
Director: David Michôd (112 min.)
Cast: Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville
Headline: Aussie teen discovers his family’s mob ties the hard way
Indie type: Pulp crime
Report: Sort of like an Australian Goodfellas (but with less sweep and more low-rent grubbiness), Animal Kingdom tracks the entree of a teenage boy into a life of crime. The movie begins with the overdose of high schooler James Frecheville’s mother, followed closely by an invitation for Frecheville to stay with his grandmother, who lives in a flat full of thugs—some of whom the kid is related to, and all of whom take him under their collective, molting wing. (As Frecheville explains about the sudden change in his life, “Kids are just wherever they are and they do whatever they do.”) Two problems persist though: the cops are all over the family’s criminal operations, making it tough to maneuver; and when Frecheville’s most level-headed “uncle” gets assassinated by rogue cops, the gang is left in the care of crazy Uncle Pope, who’s dangerously single-minded and distrustful. First-time feature-director David Michôd borrows a little from other hip genre filmmakers, whether he’s including a kitschy Air Supply song on the soundtrack a la Tarantino or aestheticizing roughhousing a la Refn. Michôd also sandbags himself with a charisma-free hero, whose most dramatic act in the first two-thirds of the film is to scrape the burned bits off his toast. But Animal Kingdom is plotted well, with some good twists down the stretch, and it introduces two great characters: Frecheville’s grandma (played by Jacki Weaver), a sweet-faced lady with a well-honed sense of self-preservation; and Uncle Pope (played by Ben Mendelsohn), who tests the mettle of everyone in his circle by talking slow and staring dead-on, leaving them wondering whether he’s totally off the beam or more aware than anyone realizes. Grade: B+

Festival notes…

-I haven’t been writing much about Sundance dealmaking because there hasn’t been much to report. But I can tell you that you will get a chance to see Buried, which has been picked up for distribution by Lionsgate. (Please let the tagline be: “Ryan Reynolds is… Buried!”)

-There’s been some complaining among my fellow press folks about our venues for this year: three smallish screening rooms in a dinky four-screen multiplex. It’s nice that the screenings are all so close together, but because so few people can fit into one of those rooms, we pretty much have to line up a half-hour early to guarantee getting into anything. Which means we spend most of our day darting out of theaters and back into line, in an outdoor tent. Not much time to hang around the lobby and chat, or sit down and work. I’ve been doing okay with it so far, but to quote Better Off Ted: “It’s not Katrina, but it’s a problem.”

Tomorrow: From Jim Thompson to Joan Jett.


Filed Under: Film

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