Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Four 

Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Four 

The Interrupters
Director/Time: Steve James, 162 min.
Documentary
Headline: An eye for an eye makes an entire community blind
Indie type: Verité doc
Report: For his most ambitious documentary since Hoop Dreams, Steve James spent a year following a group of Chicago activists who work under the banner of Cease Fire to reach at-risk kids and to “interrupt” violent conflicts before they escalate. Their advantage? Nearly all of the interrupters are ex-cons, and many are legends in the Chicago gangs. The Interrupters tracks a few cases that three of the interrupters are working: a teenage girl who’s never had a permanent home; two brothers who run with rival gangs; a high school that’s seen a rise in violence since re-zoning forced them to take in students from another neighborhood; and so on. James also lets the workers tell their own stories, explaining how they’re haunted by the people they used to be. And he includes lots of scenes of his subjects enjoying life in the suburbs with their families, to illustrate what’s possible when we break the cycle of violence.

The Interrupters runs almost three hours, and probably doesn’t need to. Even though a lot happens over the course of the year, James moves from one emotionally wrenching scene to another without ever finding much of a narrative—because the kinds of situations that the interrupters handle from day to day don’t vary much. Then again, that’s partly the point of the movie. The heroes of The Interrupters make a real difference, but they’re pushing against generations of violence, and doing so in a culture where people are often treated better at their funerals than they were when they were alive. All the speeches in front of TV cameras about being fed-up and demanding change do reach their intended targets, but at a certain point, in the heat of another test of their mettle, too many of the interrupters’ clients say, “I respect what you’re doing, but fuck that.”
Grade: B+

Homework
Director/Time: Gavin Wiesen, 84 min.
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Elizabeth Reaser, Rita Wilson, Blair Underwood
Headline: The most sensitive boy in New York makes a lady-friend
Indie type: Urbane adolescent loners in love
Report: If you’ve never seen an angsty high school romance before, you may well enjoy Homework. It’s set in a swanky Manhattan prep school, populated by good-looking rich kids who hang out in lovely parks, fine museums, and sweaty nightclubs—so the movie’s always nice to look at. It also sports a snappy alt-rock soundtrack, and a relatable premise that sees a dogged slacker failing to find the nerve to tell the girl he likes that he wants to be more than her friend. But one unifying factor of the best teen movies is that within minutes, an audience can pick up a sense of the whole history of the characters, while in Homework, no one seems to have had much of a life prior to the opening credits. The hero, Freddie Highmore, is a high school senior famous (or so we’re told) for disappointing his teachers by not turning in any work, and yet while his classmates appear to like and respect him, he doesn’t really have any friends at the start of the movie. And once Highmore meets cool party girl Emma Roberts and starts hanging out with her and her circle of friends, his Bartleby-like refusal to assert himself in any way makes him hard to root for. (If he doesn’t want anything for himself, then why should we want him to get anything?) Writer-director Gavin Wiesen throws in a strong—if ridiculous—plot point late in the film, as Highmore is required to complete a year’s worth of school assignments in three weeks in order to graduate. If Wiesen had started his movie there, and organized his story around Highmore’s homework marathon, he might’ve had something exceptional. Instead he tells a story that’s been told many times before, with characters developed just enough to function. Needs improvement.
Grade: C

Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure
Director/Time: Matthew Bate, 85 min.
Documentary
Headline: Overheard arguments are funny, sad
Indie type: “Yes, but is it art?” doc
Report: Kids, in the years before everybody had the internet, anyone interested in keeping up with underground phenomena relied on “zines” and “cassette tapes” and “mail order.” One of the biggest sub-popular trends of the late ‘80s and ‘90s was found audio, like outtakes of ranting celebrities, or prank calls, or in the case of the Shut Up Little Man series, neighbors having loud, drunken arguments. Matthew Bate’s documentary Shut Up Little Man! tells the whole story of the series: how two guys in their early 20s started putting snippets of their hollering neighbors on mixtapes that they sent to friends, and how those friends started demanding more of the arguments, until there was a thriving mail-order market and interest from movie producers; and how the subsequent squabbles over money and rights both ended friendships and raised some troubling ethical questions. Bate also tries to accomplish what so many other people SULM fans have failed to do: find out what the deal was with those crazy neighbors. Bate never solves the problem of how to make audiotapes cinematic—his choice to play some tapes under stock footage from old industrial films is both a visual cliché and kinda stupid—and while it’s admirable that Bate wants to raise the issue of whether the original tapes are exploitative, his decision to devote most of the last third of the film to the subject seems like a strained effort to bring gravitas to a relatively light subject. But he’s right that there is a lot more going on here than the story of a largely forgotten underground sensation. Bate invites a disparate bunch of SULM true-believers to explain their fascination, and many of them point to the same spirit of voyeurism that makes some YouTube videos go viral today: that sense that we’re getting an unfiltered look into how other people live their lives. Except that in the case of these tapes, part of their mystique was that no one could figure out the nature of the relationship between the two bickerers: a homosexual-hating bruiser and his bitchy gay roommate. So Bate tracks down a man who occasionally lived with the pair, and finds him living in a squalid one-room apartment in a hotel for the indigent and alcoholic. The interview with the last surviving man on the tapes ends the movie, and clarifies that what made Shut Up Little Man special wasn’t just the colorfully profane arguing, but that it was taking place between two guys from a skid-row sub-culture that’s just as insular and inaccessible in its way as the sub-culture of folks who pass around rare cassettes.
Grade: B+

The Cinema Hold-Up
Director/Time: Iria Gómez Concheiro, 124 min.
Cast: Gabino Rodriguez, Juan Pablo de Santiago, Angel Sosa
Headline: Nobody ever robs restaur… I mean, cinemas
Indie type: Welcome to the urban jungle
Report: In impoverished Mexico City, a group of teenagers with no prospects spend their days scrounging whatever they can from the local food vendors and drug dealers. Then one of them gets a bright idea: Why not rob the local multiplex? At best, they could come away with 100,000 pesos. At worst they walk away with a stack of preferred customer cards. The Cinema Hold-Up builds slowly, as writer-director Iria Gómez Concheiro spends well over an hour of her two-hour film establishing look, mood and circumstances. Then when the heist itself begins, Concheiro emphasizes the amount of time the anti-heroes spend waiting for signals from each other, so that they can proceed with their highly detailed plan. It’s a well-executed sequence, and the scenes of the heist’s aftermath contrast well with what came before, but the pacing of the movie’s first half isn’t really justified, given that Concheiro’s hip-hop-loving, graffiti-spraying criminal dreamers aren’t exactly the most original characters in the history of the genre. In a tighter movie, the sketchiness of the leads wouldn’t be as noticeable—and that excitingly staged cinema hold-up would pop even more.
Grade: B-

I Saw The Devil
Director/Time: Kim Jee-Woon, 141 min.
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik
Headline: So many serial killers
Indie type: Korean revenge
Report: Yesterday I wrote about how Paddy Considine’s brutal Tyrannosaur suffered from an excess of misery; then, after I posted that day’s reviews, I went out to a late show of a movie that suffers from excess of an entirely different kind. Kim Jee-Woon’s bloody thriller I Saw The Devil stars Lee Byung-hun as a secret agent whose girlfriend is butchered by serial killer Choi Min-sik. Lee tracks down Choi, tortures him, and then lets him go, so that Lee can do it all again, day after day, until Choi understands what it’s like to live a nightmare. Along the way though, Lee turns into more and more of a monster himself, while Choi’s panicked road trip keeps leading him to other serial killers who put his own crimes into a wider context. I Saw The Devil is frightening, disgusting and masterfully made, but while it may seem petty to criticize a movie for being too exciting, the succession of gory, bravura set-pieces does lose its novelty after a while. Prior to the screening, Kim said that he wanted the audience to focus on “the emotions” of the characters, but I’m not sure how much thought he and screenwriter Park Hoon-jung gave to those emotions when planning out this film. It seems more like they thought to themselves, “You know what would be sick?” and then proceeded accordingly.
Grade: B

Tomorrow: Ed Helms sells insurance and The New York Times tries to sell papers. Plus: vampires, trolls and scary religious cults.