Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day One

Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day One

So we’re back on the ground in Park City, myself and Nathan Rabin, getting ready for a solid week of politically charged documentaries and intimate dramedies—some of them either starring or directed by people you might’ve heard of. As always, Nathan will be surveying the Sundance scene (starting tomorrow) in between seeing movies, while I will be your intrepid screener, taking in as many moving images I can cram into a single day. Expect over 30 capsule reviews in this space, many of them covering movies that you may be seeing and talking about later this year—or even next year, during awards season. Take notes; there may be a quiz.

Because the press screenings don’t begin until tomorrow, I'll begin this recap with the only movie to which I was able to score a ticket. To that I’m adding one movie I screened prior to the festival, three movies that either myself or Scott Tobias (who is not here) saw in Toronto last fall, and a handful of festival-bound short films I’ve also seen. (Don’t skip past the shorts; they’re exceptional. I doubt I’ll see more than a few features here this week as good as these shorts.)

Restrepo
Director: Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington (93 min.)
Documentary
Headline: War does things to a man
Indie type: You are there.
Report: The Iraq War may be the most documented prolonged military conflict in history (contending closely with WWII), but there haven't been as many books, movies and documentaries about the fight in Afghanistan, largely because the terrain there is more forbidding and the situation at the front more volatile. For Restrepo, journalists Sebastian Junger and filmmaker Tim Hetherington embedded with an Army unit in the treacherous Korengal Valley off and on for a year, drawing fire right along with them, and even documenting the moment when they discover one of their comrades has been killed. I’ve never seen combat footage like Junger and Hetherington get in Restrepo; it’s raw, relentless, and made all the more unsettling by the fact that the soldiers can’t see who’s shooting at them. They’re pinned down in the mountains—at an outpost they’ve named Restrepo after one of the first casualties of their deployment—surrounded by Taliban who either shoot at them from long range or hire locals to do it for them, which makes telling the friendlies apart from the enemy exceedingly difficult. Restrepo jumps back-and-forth between the battle scenes, the scenes of the unit trying to enjoy their rare downtime, and interviews with the men months after their tour was over. (The interviews shot so close that you can count every pimple on these young men’s faces.) It’s an unsentimental but admiring look at a soldier’s life, shot in one of the deadliest theaters of combat that’s ever existed. Don’t expect more than a token consideration of the Afghani point-of-view; though Junger and Hetherington make it clear that the Americans are pissing people off in the region as much as they’re winning hearts and minds, they also sympathize with the frustration of soldiers who see their best friends die and get no thanks in return. Restrepo can be tedious at times and nerve-wracking at others, but then why shouldn’t it be? That’s exactly what Junger and Hetherington saw on the frontlines, and that’s what they show to us, with very little filter. Grade: A-

My Perestroika
Director: Robin Hessman (87 min.)
Documentary
Headline: Five Moscow adults share personal stories about living through the fall of communism
Indie type: Do look back.
Report: In 1985, while Sting was singing smug ballads about whether the Russians loved their children, actual Russian children were watching Mikhail Gorbachev on TV for the first time, and wondering if that strange middle-aged man talking about openness in an unscripted, halting voice would be shot before he finished a sentence. Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika offers a series of intimate interviews with five people who were teenage classmates when the Glasnost era began (and were young adults trying to start their lives when the political upheavals of the early ‘90s transformed the country), and has them describe what it was like to grow up indoctrinated with a rigid ideology, and then to see that ideology crumble before their eyes. Hessman supplements the interviews with home movies and Soviet-era newsreels, and gives a revealing glimpse behind the Iron Curtain, where people lived lives not too far removed from our own—with school and jobs and families and dating and teenage rebellion—albeit with regular rounds of enforced public service. (“Communist Clean-Up Day” was a particular favorite.) The adults in My Perestroika talk about how they grew up fearing Ronald Reagan, and how liberating it was when, post-Gorbachev, punks and hippies were allowed to roam the streets openly. But they also talk about how nervous they got when the TV stopped reporting all the trumped-up happy news about farm productivity, and say they can’t understand how someone who grew up a patriotic Soviet could wake up one day in a new capitalist society and immediately start selling $100 shirts in an upscale shopping mall. They also lament—as all parents do, the world over—that in their day, kids stayed busy with useful tasks, while today they kill time watching South Park on the internet and scarfing Pizza Hut. (In its portrait of a Russia where people work and consume, My Perestroika also counteracts the current perception of the country as economically depressed and overrun with criminals.) My Perestroika is fairly foursquare as documentary filmmaking goes; it’s neither snazzy stylistically nor doggedly verité. It’s closest kin in the genre is Michael Apted’s “Up” films, which are similarly focused on how people change over time. The difference is that My Perestroika is also about how a country changes, and what parents—including a husband-and-wife team of history teachers—tell their children about what life used to be like, even as the powers-that-be are back to pressuring them to stay positive. Hessman has an interesting story on her hands, with an unexpected theme that she outlines in the movie’s press notes: “In Russia, it’s the past that’s unpredictable.” Grade: B+

Toronto leftovers…

Enter The Void
Director/Country/Time:
Gaspar Noé/ France/ 155 min.
Cast: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy
Program: Vanguard
Headline: “Dying is the ultimate trip”
Scott’s Take: If you’ve seen Noé’s Irreversible and you’re not jaded beyond all human comprehension, you’ll remember the sick feeling of that long opening descent in “Le Rectum,” as a swirling camera follows two men down, down, down into a pit of depravity. It’s physically one of the toughest sequences I’ve ever had to sit through, and the Cannes audience at its notorious premiere screening started filing out en masse. With that in mind, who could have guessed that the “Le Rectum” sequence would be mere prelude to Noé’s follow-up feature, an acid-soaked phantasmagoria that employs the same first-person, tilt-a-whirl camera technique for a full 155 minutes? As a formal achievement, Enter The Void goes further out on a limb than anything I’ve seen at this festival, and even Noé-haters (and they are legion) have to admire the go-for-broke audacity of such a relentless assault on the senses. Yet while the film is disorienting and intense—and at our screening, was explicitly not recommended to epileptics—it’s also hypnotic and immersive, a trance-like experience that feeds the shimmering neons of Tokyo at night into a hallucinogenic headtrip. (No distributor has stepped up for a whole host of reasons, but I could see the drug-addled midnight audiences of today embracing it in the same way cult audiences of yesteryear embraced El Topo or Liquid Sky.) Sadly, Noé’s technical wizardry far outpaces his oft-inane scenario, which concerns a fucked-up drug dealer (Nathaniel Brown) who tries to reconnect with his equally fucked-up sister (Paz de la Huerta), but his stupidity gets in the way. Noé cribs from sources as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tibetan Book Of The Dead to lend significance to the lives of young people cast adrift, but they’re fundamentally unworthy of it. (Important note: I’m not writing off the film as a vacuous stylistic exercise just yet, however. It’s really hard to process on a single viewing.) There’s no question that many people will be (and have been) repulsed by Enter The Void, but I pray that Noé converts (or the adventurous in general) will have a chance to experience the film on the largest possible screen. It’s the ne plus ultra of arthouse spectacle. Grade: B+

Get Low
Director/Country/Time:
Aaron Schneider/USA/100 min.
Cast: Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black
Program: Gala
Headline: Folksy folks do the bidding of mysterious old coot
Noel’s Take: So long as there are movies being made about stoic cranks with stubborn streaks, Robert Duvall will be able to find work. In director Aaron Schneider's debut feature Get Low, Duvall plays a 30s-era hermit who leaves his cabin in the woods and rides into town to ask for help planning his funeral—which he wants to hold while he's still alive. The movie's tone is as gentle and homespun as a bluegrass lullaby. It's meant to be funny and heartwarming and wise, and it is, for the most part, if in an over-familiar way. Get Low has the look and tone of a Hallmark Original, but quieter, and the story develops fitfully, largely because the screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell has to hold back Duvall’s big secret reason for throwing his "funeral party" until the end. When the big moment arrives though, it’s appropriately riveting. And Get Low is also helped along by two memorable supporting performances: one from Lucas Black, who brings his usual twangy authenticity to the role of a young family man encountering the reality behind a local legend; and the other from Bill Murray as a mortician who sees this free-spending backwoodsman as the golden ticket he's long been waiting for. With Duvall, you know what you're in for: a lot of guttural grunts and wistful, wrinkled stares. But Murray's a wild card, and when his faux-sincere huckster vibe rubs up against Black's idealism and Duvall's plainspokenness, Get Low gets better. Grade: B

A Prophet
Director/Country/Time:
Jacques Audiard, France, 149 min.
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bensharif
Program:
Special Presentations
Headline:
France presents Oz
Scott’s Take: The latest from Audiard, the French genre stylist responsible for Read My Lips and the Fingers remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped, was the consensus critical favorite at Cannes and picked up the Grand Prize (second place, basically) in competition. For the first third of the movie, at least, I could certainly see why: The hero, a 19-year-old Muslim (played brilliantly by newcomer Tahar Rahim) entering prison with a moderate sentence, quickly discovers that he won’t be allowed to keep his head down and serve his time in peace. As a Corsican kingpin works his considerable leverage on the new inmate, Audiard slowly and masterfully tightens the noose, making it clear that Rahim has no control over his terrible destiny—at least in the short term. I doubt I will witness a better scene this year than the one where Rahim is forced to act in shocking violation of his conscience. However, as riveting as the film remains from beginning to end, I think it’s been overpraised a little, mainly because while this sort of gritty prison drama may be uncommon in France, it’s something we do often and well in America. The trajectory of Rahim’s life in the slammer follows a predictable three-act arc, and while A Prophet is riveting at every turn, I found myself spending much of the second half waiting for all the requisite pieces to fall into place. That doesn’t take away from Audiard’s achievement, but the film ultimately goes through the genre paces well rather than reinvents them. If this was the best Cannes had to offer in ’09, maybe it was an off year after all.
Noel's Take: I think what distinguishes A Prophet is Audiard's attention to detail: the way the machines in the prison laundry work; the daily baguettes each prisoner receives; the reaction of Rahim when he takes his first plane ride and sees his first ocean, and so on. This is a well-told pulp story, packed with memorable characters and incidents, and while it may be a little familiar, I think there's always a place (for me anyway) for a crime saga that deals smartly with the reality of large- and small-scale lawbreaking as opposed to the broader, generic version. A Prophet is like a Gallic Goodfellas, and I found it thoroughly absorbing, exciting, even poetic. My idea of a full evening's entertainment. Scott's Grade: B+; Noel's Grade: A-

Festival Notes…

I also had the opportunity to watch a few items from the shorts programs:

“Runaway,” by animator Cordell Barker (best known for “The Cat Came Back”) is about a train full of partying passengers who have to give up the clothes on their back and all their possessions to fuel the locomotive. Funny, satirical and packed with visual gags (not to mention the music of Benoît Charest), it’s ten minutes well-spent. 

In “Rains,” by David Coquard-Dassault, transportation also plays a significant role, but Coquard-Dassault’s cartoon is far more moody than funny. Drawn with minimal lines in shades of charcoal gray, “Rains” offers a series of still vignettes of people pinned in by a downpour, in trains, buses, cars and their own apartments. The melancholy orchestral score by Christophe Heral and the way Coquard-Dassault inserts flickers of light into the haze works together to make something truly special: an animated tone-poem. I doubt I’ll see anything lovelier all week.

Bruce Alcock’s “Vive La Rose” is another evocative animated experiment, combining stop-motion, watercolors, and an old Newfoundland folk ballad into an elegy for a lifestyle and a love affair. Alcock expertly toys with frames within frames; the centerpiece of the short has images from a fisherman’s life playing on a sheet of paper in the drawer of a desk in a seaside cabin, while in the other compartment of the drawer solid objects come and go, until the whole screen is consumed by flowers and dirt. 

Lastly, Jamie Travis’ live-action short “The Armoire”—the third and last piece of his “Saddest Children In The World” trilogy—is a curious, beautiful 20-minute film about a young choirboy who goes through a rough time when he becomes the last person to see his best friend alive. When his therapist asks him to talk about the last time they say each other, the boy goes off on reveries about how he keeps imagining men naked, and how he and his friend liked to close themselves up in an old armoire. Is the story all a metaphor for a gay child coming to grips with his sexuality? Or is it just an excuse for Travis to photograph ice cream melting slowly down fingers, and people moving backwards through their homes? Whatever’s going on here, it’s distinctive and unforgettable. I’m eager to see what Travis can do at feature length.

Tomorrow: A How I Met Your Mother star makes his directorial debut.

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