Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Three 

Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Three 

Win Win
Director/Time: Tom McCarthy, 106 min.
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer
Headline: Struggling lawyer/wrestling coach experiences reversal of fortune
Indie type: Middle-of-the-road, crowd-pleasing dramedy
Report: With his first two films The Station Agent and The Visitor, writer-director (and sometime actor) Tom McCarthy established that he knows how to deliver entertaining character pieces that have the set-up of a good literary novel and the follow-through of better-than-average TV. If that sounds like I’m damning McCarthy with faint praise, well, maybe I am. And I’ll keep on with the damning in regards to McCarthy’s third film Win Win, a wonderfully acted, fundamentally enjoyable sports drama that hits all its expected beats with admirable confidence, leaving audiences feeling like they’ve seen something substantial, even though they really haven’t. Paul Giamatti plays a small-town New Jersey attorney whose practice is in trouble, and who isn’t having much better luck with the winless high school wrestling team he coaches. Then an unexpected solution to both problems emerges: Giamatti decides to take on the well-paying guardianship of one of his elderly clients, and soon learns that said client has a troubled grandson, Alex Shaffer, who’s a championship-caliber wrestler. To finesse all this, Giamatti has to lie to the court, to his client, to the kid, and to his wife Amy Ryan; and all the while, he hears the clank of the faulty boiler in his office, threatening to blow at any time.

McCarthy doesn’t do anything exceptional with this story. Everything is terrible for our hero, then it starts to get better, then complications arise—all standard-issue, even with the subtle metaphor of a up-and-down wrestling match guiding the narrative. Plus, outside of Giamatti and Ryan, all the characters in Win Win are one-note friends, villains, et cetera. (Shaffer especially seems to go wherever the script demands, and never becomes a well-rounded character in and of himself, much like the blank version of Michael Oher in the movie The Blind Side.) And yet Win Win is hard to dislike, in part because McCarthy knows how to make his stories go down easy, and in even larger part because Giamatti and Ryan are so terrific as two decent, loving partners in over their heads. I’ve got an interview with TCM host Robert Osborne going up on this site sometime soon, and in it he confesses that what draws him to movies are the stars, or what he calls “the people.” Win Win is a pretty good movie, but Giamatti and Ryan are great “people.”
Grade: B

Happy Happy
Director/Time: Anne Sewitsky, 85 min.
Cast: Agnes Kittelsen, Henrik Rafaelsen, Maibritt Saerens
Headline: Spouse-swappers suffer sublimely
Indie type: Snowbound domestic melodrama
Report: In a cold, remote Norwegian town, two houses sit side-by-side. In one dwells a chipper junior high school teacher and her gruff husband, who frequently tells her how unattractive she is. In the other lives their new neighbors: an icy lawyer and the affable husband she recently cuckolded. That the teacher and the henpecked husband fall into bed together in Happy Happy is no surprise, but what happens next is somewhat surprising, as director Anne Sewitsky and writer Ragnhild Tronvoll consider whether all concerned can learn to live peacefully with this new arrangement, or whether they prefer to return to their previous state of unhappiness. Happy Happy is a little pat from a narrative perspective, but it unfolds in a fleet 85 minutes, with no wasted scenes and with strong performances from everyone. More importantly, Sewitsky and Tronvoll have some keen insights into the ways that settled couples wound each other, mostly out of habit. Throughout, Happy Happy contrasts the romantic angst of the adults with the interactions of their children: a blond-haired brat and the adopted African boy that he coerces into “playing slave.” The black boy plays along because there’s no one else to hang out with, but also because in the absence of any dissenting opinion of himself, he’s not sure whether their arrangement is proper or not. The relationship changes by the end of the film though, thanks to some more positive black images the boy finds on the internet. (This may be the first movie to use a Barack Obama speech as a turning-point for a character.) Until the end though, everyone in Happy Happy is governed by what they’ve been told about themselves for years: that they’re ugly, or devious, or mean, or low-class, or silly. It takes a fresh set of eyes to change what they all see in the mirror.
Grade: B+

Tyrannosaur
Director/Time: Paddy Considine, 91 min.
Cast: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan
Headline: Misery meets company
Indie type: Mega-bummer kitchen sink drama
Report: There are some genres and sub-genres I’m inclined to like even when the movies themselves aren’t so good. And then there’s the whole British/Irish/Scottish “extreme misery” genre, in which drunken louts wallop on their families for our amusement. That, I’m not so fond of. For his debut as a writer/director, Paddy Considine follows in the footsteps of his fellow thespians Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, making a movie so brutal and depressing that it practically dares the audience to watch. Peter Mullan stars as an angry widower who struggles to keep his emotions in check, but is so stressed out by the noise and stupidity he encounters every day that he frequently snaps, and takes his grudge against the world out on anybody or anything in range. (Case-in-point: Tyrannosaur opens with Mullan kicking and beating his beloved dog to death.) Then he meets Olivia Colman, a deeply compassionate Salvation Army shopgirl who finds her religious faith tested by the brutal humiliations and abuse heaped upon her by her husband Eddie Marsan. Both Mullan and Colman do stunning work here, accessing some of the rawest of raw emotions without ever becoming mere pathos-delivery devices. And I can’t deny that Tyrannosaur features multiple moment that are as riveting as anything I’ve seen on the screen (small or big) over the past couple of years. But those moments would’ve been even more powerful if the movie itself were less relentless. When a little neighbor boy of Mullan’s sees his favorite stuffed animal—the one his long-gone father gave to him—chewed up by a vicious pit bull belonging to his mom’s bullying boyfriend, that’s sad enough. But when that’s not even the worst tragedy the boy endures in the film… well, sure, life is pain and all but sheesh.
Grade: B-

Abraxas
Director/Time: Naoki Katô, 113 min.
Cast: Suneohair, Rie Tomosaka, Manami Honjo
Headline: If you meet the Buddha on the road, rock his face off
Indie type: Spiritual journey
Report: When a Buddhist monk (played by rock star Suneohair) freaks out during a speech at a local school and starts ranting about molting shrimp, his superior at the temple suggests that he may have some unresolved issues to work out from the formative years of his spirituality, and agrees to Suneohair’s request to pick up his guitar and play punk rock again, as he did before he altered his path. That’s the starting point for Abraxas, an unevenly paced, tonally scattered half-comedy that takes a promising premise in unpromising directions. Abraxas starts as a thoughtful meditation on whether it’s better to tune out the noise of life or to embrace it, and whether our constant state of change should be gradual or accelerated. But once our hero decides he wants to sing again, the movie turns into a series of awkward, unfunny comic scenes of the monk trying to figure out where and what to play, while his rural neighbors look at with pity and his wife seethes with embarrassment. Then the movie takes a turn for the dramatic, as a friend’s suicide sends Suneohair into a spiral of fear and shame. Abraxas provides a fascinating peek at contemporary Buddhism in Japan, and it builds to a moment of real drama, as Suneohair prepares to find solace in a screech again. But a film about punk rock shouldn’t be so sedate, or follow such a conventional underdog-makes-good structure. It should be a tad more… vital.
Grade: C+

Tomorrow: The latest Steve James documentary, and love stories from two very different cultures.