Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Five 

Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Five 

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Director/Time: Sean Durkin, 101 min.
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy
Headline: You can take the girl out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of the girl
Indie type: Nerve-jangler
Report: About halfway through writer-director Sean Durkin’s terrifying drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, the possibly crazy Elizabeth Olson asks her uptight sister Sarah Paulson if she’s ever had trouble telling the difference between a dream and a memory. Paulson says no, but anyone who has ever had that trouble—and I count myself as one—will likely be extra-shaken by Martha Marcy May Marlene. When Olsen asks this, she’s just a few days removed from escaping a cult: a group of back-to-nature, share-and-share-alike, free-love types who live together on a Catskills farm led by the guitar-playing, cooly persuasive John Hawkes. Now Olsen’s living with her sister and her new husband in their swank lakeside vacation home in Connecticut. But at night she hears knocking sounds on the roof, which reminds here of the stones she and her fellow cultists used to throw at big houses, to see if anyone was home before they snuck in and burgled the places. Are her old cult-mates coming to take her back? Or—just maybe—is she completely misremembering what happened to her on the farm?

That uncertainty about what’s real and what’s all in Olsen’s mind makes Martha Marcy May Marlene a little hard to follow in its back half, as Durkin flows freely between flashbacks to the compound and scenes at the lake-house, with little to indicate clearly where we are at any given moment. But again, maybe it’s because the movie plays on so many of my personal fears—including being in a remote house with big windows when intruders arrive—that I found even the confusion of Martha Marcy May Marlene to be effective, not sloppy. It helps that Olsen and Paulson give such a strong performances, playing sisters who’ve never really gotten along and who have decades of painful memories between them. What makes Olsen’s cult experience so unnerving is that in many ways she’s a better fit there than she is in Paulson’s upper-class dream-world. She’s a true misfit, not sure of where to go or what to do. And then there are those damned windows, which Dukin keeps sticking into the back of shots, as a reminder that Olsen’s past could come back to consume her—and that part of her maybe wishes that it would.
Grade: A-

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Director/Time: Constance Marks, 85 min.
Documentary
Headline: It’s surprisingly easy being red
Indie type: Inspiring bio-doc
Report: I wrote last year about how much Jim Henson meant to me when I was a kid, but I’ve got nothing on Kevin Clash, a puppeteer who almost literally followed in Henson’s footsteps, from building his own puppets in his parent’s house as a kid to launching his career on a local TV kiddie show when he was a teenager. (And in the DC/Baltimore area, no less… same as Henson.) Clash eventually graduated to Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster, and then—thanks to the mentoring of Muppet builder-Kermit Love—was invited to work on Sesame Street. There, Clash took over the floundering character Elmo, reimagining the little monster as an exuberant toddler who loves everybody. Constance Marks’ documentary Being Elmo isn’t exactly hard-hitting, daring or revelatory. Marks relies heavily on interviews with admirers, and footage of Clash at work (including some remarkable film from his first trip to New York to meet Love), and though Marks tries to make an obstacle out of Clash’s guilt over not spending more time with his daughter, for the most part Being Elmo is an uplifting story about a talented, dedicated guy who was well-supported at home and professionally, and who tries to repay his good fortune by sharing his knowledge with other young puppeteers (as well as by sharing Elmo with children all over the world). But just because a movie is uncomplicated doesn’t make it bad. There’s still something deeply moving about the idea of someone joining a community that shares his artistic ideals, and working to extend the tradition. Marks is smart to locate the heart of the movie in Clash’s devotion to Henson, and to end with a shot of him rehearsing with his colleagues and asking for another run, encouraging them with the meaningful words, “Let’s keep it going.” I’d like to say that was the moment that Being Elmo reduced me to tears, but honestly, I was a wreck long before then.
Grade: B+

Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times
Director/Time: Andrew Rossi, 88 min.
Documentary
Headline: What’s black and white and increasingly read on-line these days?
Indie type: Fly on the wall doc
Report: Opening with the first flowering of the Wikileaks story and ending with the story of the Tribune bankruptcy, Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One takes a look at how The New York Times is weathering what’s become a revolution in the way people produce and consume the news. Rossi focuses mainly on the Times’ recently created Media section, which is tasked with covering what some might tag as the paper’s own imminent demise. Page One features some fascinating you-are-there footage as Times editors and reporters debate the newsworthiness of the iPad, or NBC’s stage-managed “the Iraq war is over” report. But Rossi also includes superfluous details about Times columnists David Carr and Brian Stelter, and is so focused on the “page one” of the title that he misses a significant part of the story: how a massive, hidebound organization like the Times is integrating a medium as fast-moving as the internet into their daily operation. In the editorial meetings, do they discuss what goes up on the web right away versus what gets held for the print edition? Does the web content go through the same layers of fact-checking and sourcing as, say, Carr’s big article on the Tribune troubles did? Don’t get me wrong: I appreciated Page One’s fair-minded assessment of the Times’ strengths and weaknesses, and its advocacy for original reporting over mere link-aggregation and commentary. But this movie feels like it should be the first part of a series. I eagerly await Page Two.
Grade: B

Vampire
Director/Time: Iwai Shunji, 120 min.
Cast: Kevin Zegers, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rachel Leigh Cook
Headline: Do you have anything from the vampire’s point of view?
Indie type: Art-horror
Report: In the opening 15 minutes of Iwai Shunji’s Vampire, meek high school teacher Kevin Zegers picks up a suicidal girl (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes) that he met in a chatroom, then takes her to an empty warehouse, where he drains her blood and drinks it. It’s not a terrible scene. Sure, the dialogue is flat and the sound design odd, but since the audience has a good idea what’s coming, it’s easy to appreciate the pathos of a woman making her last few choices in life. Vampire starts to slip away though in the scenes of blood-letting and drinking, which Shunji makes look blandly pretty, not visceral. Immediately after that, he introduces Zegers’ mother, an Alzheimer's patient whom Zegers keeps trapped in her room by tethering her to balloons. Then he brings in a cop, who comes to check on Zegers’ mom and ends up inviting the teacher on a fishing trip, where he boasts (with dull irony) about what a good judge of character he is. Right about then, I started thinking about how much I wished I was watching George Romero’s brilliant Martin (also about a mentally ill young man who thinks he’s a vampire) or Shunji’s lovely 2001 teen romance All About Lily Chou-Chou. Instead, by the time Shunji started shooting the fishing trip by setting his camera on its side—and once I realized that this was an example of the “unconventional framing” that the festival catalog praised—I bailed, after 30 minutes. Because unlike the characters in this film, I do value my life.
Grade: w/o

The Troll Hunter
Director/Time: André Ovredal, 103 min.
Cast: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Hans Morten Hansen
Headline: Really… don’t feed the trolls
Indie type: “Found footage” monster movie
Report: I recognize why indie filmmakers would be drawn to using the Blair Witch/Cloverfield-style “hey we just found these tapes” style for a horror movie. The format itself covers a lot of sins: mediocre production values, weak exposition, cheap special effects, et cetera. Plus, when it works, the caught-on-the-fly style makes the fantastical look more real, and thus more shocking. André Ovredal’s Norwegian creature feature The Troll Hunter works about half the time. The movie follows a group of student filmmakers as they head into the wilderness, where they encounter gruff, eccentric hunter Otto Jespersen, who’s on a covert mission to control the country’s troll population. When the trolls attack, they come lumbering out of the woods or mountain caves, towering over the humans, who have to blast the beasts with light to get them to explode. The trolls are the best part of The Troll Hunter; they’re funny, and creepy, and it’s clever the way our heroes try to bait them by putting three billy goats on top of a bridge, or by playing gospel music (to fool the trolls into believe that they have the blood of Christian men). But you know what’s not so good in The Troll Hunter? The hunting. A good hour-plus of this movie is dedicated to shorts shots of the Norwegian landscape as seen from a moving vehicle, and while the countryside is beautiful, the cinematography isn’t. (Because, y’know, again… “found footage.”) Almost lost in all the shakycam shots of trees is a funny performance by Jespersen, playing a man who takes his responsibilities seriously but still wishes he had reinforcements. He’s a star who deserves a real movie, not just the occasional line between yet another scene of young people driving.
Grade: C+


Tomorrow: Hobo-ma-bo.