Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Six

Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Six

Take Shelter
Director/Time: Jeff Nichols, 120 min.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Jessica Chastain, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker
Headline: Is there such a thing as being too prepared?
Indie type: Portentous domestic drama
Report: Writer-director Jeff Nichols re-teams with his Shotgun Stories star Michael Shannon for Take Shelter, a different kind of film. Nichols is still concerned with family legacies, and the ways that people in the small communities relate to each other, but Take Shelter is slower and smoother, deliberately developing a mood of creeping dread. Shannon plays a husband and father who works a good-paying manual labor job by day and then returns to a well-kept, decent-sized house at night. But then Shannon starts having a disturbing recurring dream, involving a massive, poisonous storm that prompts erratic behavior in humans and animals. Knowing that his own mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in her mid-30s, Shannon takes steps toward getting treated, just in case it turns out that he’s mentally ill. But he also starts building an elaborate extension to his home’s tornado shelter, and laying in supplies. All the while, he tries to keep his wife Jessica Chastain from discovering what’s going on, because if it all turns out to be nothing, he’ll have worried her for no reason. He’d rather handle his own business.

Take Shelter doesn’t need to tick along as slowly as it does, and it suffers a bit from what I call “domino syndrome,” in which a storyteller sets up plot-blocks solely for the purpose of knocking them down. (The moment Chastain gives thanks that Shannon’s employee health insurance will pay for their deaf daughter’s Cochlear implants, the clock begins ticking on how long it’ll be before Shannon gets fired.) Ultimately though, Nichols is less interested in the losses Shannon and Chastain suffer as he is in how they and everyone around them to react to Shannon’s mania. His friends and family want to knock some sense into him, while the pragmatic Chastain keeps adjusting her plans, trying to accommodate her husband within reason. But every time Shannon seems ready to turn everything around, he has another dream, and slips again. I won’t reveal the movie’s final assessment of whether Shannon is nuts or not, though I will say that even though I’m not wild about where Take Shelter ends up, I don’t think the ending is all that significant. Even the movie’s hero would likely acknowledge that it doesn’t matter whether his family will be wiped out by a Biblical-style apocalypse or by his mental illness. Either way, the very process of preparing for the worst constitutes a devastating storm in itself.
Grade: B+

Hobo With A Shotgun
Director/Time: Jason Eisener, 86 min.
Cast: Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Gregory Smith
Headline: When life gives you razor-blades, make a baseball bat covered in razor-blades
Indie type: Tongue-in-cheek exploitation homage
Report: In my teens and 20s, I spent more time than I’d care to calculate scrounging in video stores with my friends, looking for choice-sounding trash like Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid or Caged Fury for us to watch late at night while knocking back alcoholic beverages. More often than not, the movies were a letdown, with only a few juicy scenes and corny lines between long stretches of tedium. So while I’m usually skeptical of “faux bad” movies, I have to make an exception for Jason Eisener’s mega-trashy Hobo With A Shotgun, because it’s exactly the kind of movie I was hoping to find in the corner of the video store when I was 22. Rutger Hauer plays a drifter who shows up in a dirty town run by a sadistic millionaire who stages garish displays of violence for a paying audience. Pushed too far, Hauer picks up the title object in a pawn shop, and with a teenage hooker as his sidekick he proceeds to take on the town’s bad guys: from the low-level thugs and perverts to the boss’s Tom Cruise-esque douchebag sons (and then, ultimately, to the armored guards known only as “The Plague”). I’m still not convinced that Eisener couldn’t have taken this premise and made something just as awesome without the constant winks to the audience. But I can’t deny that Hobo With A Shotgun delivers the goods. It’s imaginatively perverse, with gore galore and plenty of quotable dialogue. More importantly: it’s never boring. That’s the key criterion for an exploitation picture in my book.
Grade: B

The Catechism Cataclysm
Director/Time: Todd Rohal, 78 min.
Cast: Steve Little, Robert Longstreet
Headline: A priest and a roadie walk into the woods
Indie type: Shaggy dog comedy
Report: Todd Rohal’s gleefully dopey comedy The Catechism Cataclysm opens with a bumbling priest (played by Steve Little) telling his congregation a funny story that has no real point and no scriptural application. The rest of the movie follows suit. Little (best-known for playing Kenny Powers’ dim-witted yes-man on Eastbound And Down) e-mails an old acquaintance (played by Robert Longstreet, a terrific actor whom I confess I’ve never really noticed before) and invites him to spend an afternoon canoeing. Little remembers Longstreet from high school as a great short story writer and musician, but since graduation Longstreet’s been working as a spotlight-operator on lame national tours, completely unaware that he’s been such an inspiration to a guy he barely knew. As they float down the river, Little reveals how endearingly ignorant he is about how the world works, while Longstreet enjoys having someone to tell stories to—even if Little complains that Longstreet’s stories don’t have proper endings. All is well, until the boys can’t find their exit point, and end up spending the night with two giggly Japanese girls who call themselves “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn” and the hulking, silent black man they call “Jim.” By morning, extreme freakiness has ensued. Unlike Rohal’s quirk-in-exremis debut film The Guatemalan Handshake, The Catechism Cataclysm is more naturalistic in its first hour, in the vein of Eastbound And Down and Pineapple Express (whose writer-producer-directors Jody Hill and David Gordon Green produced Cataclysm). Even when the movie takes a turn for the surreal, it remains rooted in the reactions of the slack-faced good guy Little and the gruff-but-lovable Longstreet. I can’t promise that everyone will find their company as enjoyable as I did, but those who do should get behind Rohal’s riffs on classic fiction and his stories-within-stories-with-no-clear-escape premise. It would be a stretch to ascribe a point to a movie about pointlessness, but if The Catechism Cataclysm does have something to say, it’s that it’s possible to enjoy a trip even if it’s not really going anywhere.
Grade: B+

Life In A Day
Director/Time: Kevin Macdonald, 90 min.
Documentary
Headline: YouTube: The Movie
Indie type: “Everything’s connected,” in doc form
Report: Last year, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Kevin Macdonald (in conjunction with The Sundance Institute) invited amateur filmmakers from around the world to document the same day, whether there was something special happening to them or not. Life In A Day compiles the thousands of hours of footage—submitted via YouTube—into 90 minutes of people sleeping, waking, eating, peeing, washing, crying, loving, dying and living. Sometimes the movie strings together short clips of similar activities around the world, showing what we have in common. Sometimes it shows the participants answering questions about their possessions and fears, showing how different we all are. And sometimes Life In A Day sticks with one of its subjects for longer than a brief shot or two, as when it follows a Korean who’s bicycling around the globe, or a Chicagoan who plans to ask his best female friend to be his girlfriend, or a recovering cancer patient and her rambunctious young son. Frankly, Life In A Day could’ve used more of those vignettes. The broader the movie gets, the more banal it is. But it also features moments of real emotional power and subtle dignity, which was the point of the whole endeavor in the first place. And if nothing else, Life In A Day serves as a good time-capsule, recording some of what life was like on Earth in 2010. It’d be great if someone could repeat the experiment every 10 years ago, to track what changes. My bet? The particulars would be very different, but the basics the same.
Grade: B

Senna
Director/Time: Asif Kapadia, 104 min.
Documentary
Headline: The life and death of an F1 champion
Indie type: Sports-doc
Report: Since I’ve never been much of a racing fan, I’d never heard of legendary Formula One driver Ayrton Senna prior to seeing Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. But ignorance (or even indifference) is no impediment when it comes to Senna, a solidly made sports-doc that uses only file footage (and a few voice-over interviews) to tell the story of how the spirited Brazilian took the circuit by storm in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before dying at age 34 from injuries sustained during a race. Chances are that gearheads will get more out of the movie’s many, many racing scenes, but anyone interested in how institutions resist change should be fascinated by the behind-the-scenes politicking and whisper campaigns that began when Senna’s more aggressive racing style put him in the winner’s circle ahead of more established, reserved European stars. From what I understand, F1 racing is the motorsport where driving skill matters most, and Senna documents how one of Brazil’s national heroes fought for the purity of the competition. Never mind the tweaks and cheats and back room deals, just put your foot on the gas and see who’s first to reach the checkered flag.
Grade: B

Tomorrow: My Sundance ends with an American president and an Irish cop.


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