Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Three

Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Three

The Company Men
Director: John Wells (113 min.)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson
Headline: Downsizing suuuuuuucks.
Indie type: Classy star vehicle with a point to make
Report: The cast alone is reason enough to see The Company Men, the directorial debut of veteran TV producer John (ER) Wells. Ben Affleck stars as a corporate sales manager who loses his job after a merger and has to enter the netherworld of outplacement services, while clinging tenaciously to a life of privilege he can no longer afford. Chris Cooper plays a company lifer who sweats every round of downsizing, while Tommy Lee Jones plays a bigwig trying to fight for the soul of the business he helped start, Craig T. Nelson plays a boss more concerned with business news headlines than his employees, Maria Bello plays a ruthless HR rep, and Kevin Costner plays Affleck’s blue-collar, corporate-hating brother-in-law. Those actors—and the wonderfully moody Roger Deakins cinematography—effectively sell a Wells script that over-explains everything, and that treats the story like a set of bullet points about the perniciousness of stockholder-driven business decisions. Wells doesn’t let a single “the upper middle class have it tough too” or “our families are the real wealth” moment slip past him, so thank goodness he has a skilled cast on hand to flesh out something so schematic, and imbue it with real anxiety, real shame, real humility. The Wells isn’t entirely asleep at the switch either. As you might expect from a man known for detail-oriented TV dramas, The Company Men has an insider-y feel when it comes to how corporate layoffs work, and how it affects workers of differing ages and social backgrounds. The movie is very clever in the way it repeatedly emphasizes that Nelson and Jones’ business has plenty of money at its disposal; it just has a weakening position in the stock market. (When asked how they could raise the capital to stave off a takeover, Jones surveys Nelson’s office wall and hisses, “We could sell a fuckin’ Degas.”) The actual words in The Company Men are often too blunt, but the movie also gets its point across in subtler ways, as when Affleck walks into the outplacement office for the first time, surveys the shabby cubicles and fluorescent lighting, and realizes just how far he’s fallen. The decor tells the story. Grade: B

Please Give
Director: Nicole Holofcener (90 min.)
Cast: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele
Headline: “Neighbor” means something different in New York City
Indie type: Urbane dramedy
Report: I’m a huge fan of writer-director Nicole Holofcener, who has a rare gift for making small, relatable, everyday situations into gentle, funny comedy. In Please Give, Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play antique brokers waiting for their 91-year-old neighbor to die so they can buy her apartment and expand their own. In the meantime, they try to stay on cordial terms with the cantankerous old lady’s granddaughters: shy mammography tech Rebecca Hall and bronzed, bitchy spa worker Amanda Peet. The movie is short, and largely uneventful; people flirt, people bicker, people lie, people worry. Please Give is about self-image to a large degree; the characters are constantly studying their flawed skin or, in the case of Keener, acting philanthropic to a fault to cover a feeling that every other move she makes is harming someone else. Even Keener’s job is significant: she sells furniture that may be ugly or valuable... no one seems to be able to decide. Holofcener weaves together these threads subtly, with a skill that makes even nothing feel like something. (Though I enjoyed happythankyoumoreplease, Josh Radnor has a long way to go before he can make a movie about everyday life this grounded in a particular place and time, with such a sense of purpose.) Please Give is full of moments that don't make it into other movies, as when Keener and Platt stumble across their blotchy-skinned teenage daughter buying makeup and watch her with a kind of awe, or when they decide to treat her to a pair of $200 jeans. I can understand why some people might find it faintly distasteful to make a movie about guilty rich folks who give themselves permission to splurge. Me, I appreciate the honesty. With Holofcener, I always do. Grade: A-

Splice
Director: Vincenzo Natali (100 min.)
Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, David Hewlett
Headline: Scientists tamper in God’s domain. Oddly enough, it does not go well.
Indie type: The horror. The horror.
Report: It’s clear that Splice is aiming to be a different kind of mad scientist movie from the moment we meet the mads: Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, playing two media-savvy fashion victims who fiddle about with DNA and create new life forms that they dub “Sid & Nancy” or “Bonnie & Clyde” or “Fred & Ginger.” When they introduce human genes into their experiments, they end up with a creature that looks like a cross between a fetus and a kangaroo, and then they argue over whether they should nurture it or rush it straight to autopsy. In their private life, Brody and Polley are also in disagreement over whether they should have a kid, which is no coincidence, since Splice is often about the struggles of coupledom and parenting (when it’s not about gazing in horrified wonder at a leaping, croaking girl-thing). Writer-director Vincenzo Natali overstresses the main theme a bit, especially when the creature the scientists have dubbed “Dren” rapidly begins to blossom into womanhood, dredging up Mommy Issues from Polley’s childhood. The movie's comic timing and the horror timing are both a little off, perhaps because Natali’s as interested in the characters and the drama as he is in tickling the viewer. But his choice also means that Splice is the rare monster movie that doesn’t subject its audience to stretches of tedium between chases and gore effects. Splice stays engaging throughout, for a simple reason: it’s constantly evolving. Grade: B+

Boy
Director: Taika Waititi (87 min.)
Cast: Taika Waititi, James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu
Headline: Two young boys learn that they come by their immaturity honestly
Indie type: Quirky small-town coming-of-age
Report: I never saw Eagle Vs. Shark so I don’t have a point of comparison between Taika Waititi’s first film and his latest, but there’s definitely a tension in Boy between Waititi’s real, affecting coming-of-age reminiscences and the wall-to-wall whimsy that I understand was the dominant element on his debut film (as well as of Flight Of The Conchords, which Waititi has written and directed before). In Boy, Waititi himself plays an ex-con who returns home to help take care of his two sons: one (James Rolleston) a Michael Jackson-obsessed 11-year-old; the other (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) a budding artist who thinks he has superpowers. The movie is told from the perspective of Rolleston, who idolizes his father to such a degree that he can’t see him for the irresponsible arrested adolescent he is. The movie effectively conveys what it must’ve been like to grow up poor in a small seaside Maori village in the ‘80s: with a sense of hope built on unrealistic expectations that a hidden treasure or long-lost relative will change everything. But Waititi puts too much stock in the comic possibilities of naivete, which undercuts a lot of the emotional tug he’s going for. Boy works best as an intermittently striking succession of moments: Waititi’s homecoming gifts (a microwave, roller skates, sparklers, fresh milk), Rolleston waiting in Waititi’s muscle car while his dad hits the bar, the boys swapping apocryphal stories about their parents, and so on. It says something about Boy that it waits until the credits to deliver its most memorable and touching moment: a fantasy sequence where the cast of the movie does a version of MJ’s “Thriller” dance merged with the traditional Maori Haka. If only the whole movie had fused the native and the nutty so well. Grade: B

Catfish
Director: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman (94 min.)
Documentary
Headline: Is Facebook fraud art?
Indie type: The-story-as-it-unfolds doc
Report: From the “truth is stranger than fiction” file comes this documentary about three New York artists (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and Schulman’s brother Nev) who learn that the Michigan family they’ve been corresponding with may not be who they say they are. Catfish unfolds more or less as it happens, day-by-day and scene-by-scene—all linked together by Google Maps animation and YouTube clips and GPS instructions and IM exchanges and other reminders that we’re living in a world at once more connected and more disconnected than ever. My only real problem with Catfish is I don’t really trust that the action happened exactly as Joost and the Schulmans say. I don't entirely buy that they were making a movie about a virtual relationship when they suddenly stumbled on some discrepancies in their subjects’ story. (I'm betting they were suspicious long before anyone yelled, “Action!”) But that slight bit of fudging only bothers me inasmuch as it makes me wonder whether there's an element of conscious exploitation at work when the filmmakers make the decision to drive up unannounced and surprise their hoaxers. (Actually, the filmmakers raise that question of their moral responsibility themselves on-camera, though not until they’re a few miles from their destination.) Still, it’s hard to argue with the results of the way this movie is constructed; Catfish is absolutely riveting, and even nerve-wracking as Joost and the Schulmans get ever-closer to knocking on the door of their “friends.” What they find there is partly what you’d expect, but partly not, and it’s to the movie's credit that the hoaxees stick around long enough to learn more about the hoaxers. What emerges is a tense, more-than-a-little-disturbing study of the relationship between artists and their fans (and between virtual friendships and real relationships), not-so-neatly summed-up by the anecdote that provides the movie’s title. When we hear how catfish are employed to help keep cod fresh, the story initially sounds self-serving. But there's a question left open: In the dynamic of artist and fan, who’s really the catfish? Grade: A-

Festival notes…

-Splice wasn’t the most disturbing movie I saw today; that honor goes to “My Rabit Hoppy,” a three-minute short that preceded Boy. It starts as a home video of a little Australian boy showing off his pet bunny. Then the giant insects show up. I wish there was a video I could embed, because seriously… yaaah!

Tomorrow: Hilarious terrorists, soldiers in jeopardy, and Tilda Swinton.