Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Two 

Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day Two 

The Future
Director/Time: Miranda July, 91 min.
Cast: Hamish Linklater, Miranda July, David Warshofsky
Headline: Pet-adoption freaks out hapless L.A. bohemian couple
Indie type: The International Tweexcore Underground
Report: In Miranda July’s second feature The Future, she casts herself as a dance teacher who has difficulty dancing when she’s alone, because whenever she starts to move her head she gets distracted by all the fine details of the room around her, and whenever she starts to move her body, so many new possibilities open up that she freezes. That’s a fair description of July’s filmmaking too, which is so preoccupied with the minuscule, almost to the point of being trifling. But while I didn’t much care for the exasperatingly twee Me And You And Everyone We Know (aside from a few scattered scenes and performances), I find myself in the awkward position of being so in love with The Future that I want to spirit it away and hide it in a box, lest anyone sneer at or make fun of it. Because I’ll be honest: on the surface, there’s a lot here to mock. July stars opposite Hamish Linklater (a favorite of mine from the underrated sitcom The New Adventures Of Old Christine, and not incidentally a July lookalike), who plays her equally immobile boyfriend. When the couple agrees to adopt a sickly cat with a wounded paw, they start to worry that even this small amount of responsibility will stand in the way of all the awesome things they’re currently not doing. And so they decide to make the most of the month that kitty’s convalescing at the shelter, by living life to the fullest. They quit their jobs, disconnect the internet, and pledge to remain open to whatever signals the universe throws at them.

I never would’ve expected to watch a movie about such absolute ninnies without yelling at the screen for them to grow the hell up. (And I certainly wouldn’t have expected to be delighted and moved while watching a movie narrated by a squeaky-voiced, wounded cat). But July and Linklater turn their ineptitude into a funny running joke, which becomes surprisingly affecting in the second half, after July decides to change her life by having an affair with a wealthy suburbanite; while for his part, Linklater decides to freeze time. (Trust me, it makes sense in context.) The Future is full of amusing and lovely little vignettes that are just a degree removed from being too cute—whether July’s following a little girl’s plan to sleep in a hole in the ground to its logical endpoint, or she’s showing her character being stalked by her favorite comfy shirt. The Future is elliptical, but never shaggy. July is reassuringly focused throughout, as she mediates on movement—the seduction of it and the fear of it—while getting the audience to like and care about a pair of do-nothings who preserve broken things. There’s even a creeping level of tension in the movie as July and Linklater decide what to when it’s their relationship that’s busted. Do they toss it out? Or just tape up the frayed wires and get a few more years out of it?
Grade: A-

The Ledge
Director/Time: Matthew Chapman, 101 min.
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard
Headline: Did he jump or was he pushed?
Indie type: Chamber thriller
Report: A man stands on a high ledge, waiting to jump. A cop who’s just gotten some very bad news tries to talk him down. So far, so hackneyed. But then the ledge-man (Charlie Hunnam) tells the cop (Terrence Howard) that if he doesn’t jump exactly at noon, someone will die. And then he starts explaining why, via a little story about a love affair gone wrong and the perils of crossing the devoutly religious. The Ledge is a sometimes fascinating, often aggravating suspenser that works best when it’s doubling as an inquiry into faith. Hunnam plays a cocksure, God-hating hotel manager who tries to seduce his pious neighbor/employee Liv Tyler, in part to spite her even-holier husband Patrick Wilson. But the more he gets to know the couple, and the more he reveals about his own troubled past, the clearer it becomes that they’re all hanging by a thread when it comes to what they do and don’t believe. Meanwhile, Howard’s trying to coax relevant info out of Hunnam while dealing with the news that his own wife has been unfaithful, and that his children aren’t actually his children. The Ledge would’ve worked splendidly as a taut neo-noir, with stained heroes and villains discovering how their flaws reflect each other, but writer-director Matthew Chapman treats this material more as straight drama, and his cast isn’t always up to that task. (I’d forgotten what a terrible, terrible actress Liv Tyler is.) Still, the hook is sharp and the ending powerful, and given that all Chapman really means to do is consider the various ways that divine providence screws us, he deserves credit for doing so while telling a story that few viewers will bail on early. After all, when there’s a guy on a ledge, who wouldn’t stick around and gawk?
Grade: B-

Bellflower
Director/Time: Evan Glodell, 103 min.
Cast: Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson
Headline: L.A. dirtballs fall in and out of love
Indie type: Jackass meets Bottle Rocket
Report: The two leads of the very strange indie romance Bellflower are amateur inventors, who’ve tricked out their car with a whiskey dispenser and who spend their copious spare time—since they don’t seem to have jobs—designing and testing homemade flamethrowers, so that they’ll be ready when the Mad Max apocalypse comes. Bellflower writer-director-star Evan Glodell has much the same crackpot can-do spirit. The film looks like it was shot through a dirty windshield, the focus is fuzzy around the edges, and the sound design is choppy and amateurish. But given how burnished and luminescent the movie also is, I’d lay odds that any “mistakes” are purely intentional, built to suit Bellflower’s skewed story of Glodell’s character’s whirlwind romance with a woman he met in a bar, at a cricket-eating contest. Their first date is a weeklong road trip to Texas to eat in the dirtiest diner in the country, which spills over into further weeks of drug-and-alcohol-fueled debauchery with all their friends. Then comes the heartbreak. And the flamethrowers. If all this were played as a quirky cartoon, Bellflower would be rough going, but Glodell plays it more like a lost, grubby ‘70s exploitation flick, populated by characters from a more realistic twentysomething slice-of-life piece. I’m not sure that any of it has a strong raison d’être, but it’s enjoyably badass, with a plot that’s like one long, drunken dare. The over-the-top, disjointed climax—seen largely from the perspective of a character with brain damage—will likely shoo away anyone who’s not on-board with the film after the first hour, but I admired the bravura of it. As with The Future and a few other movies playing at Sundance this year (including Submarine and Gregg Araki’s Kaboom), Bellflower traffics in cinematic sensation, which is something I appreciate after seeing so many movies that are purely script-driven (a la The Ledge). And I do think that Glodell is making a personal statement of sorts with all of his muscle cars and vicious bar fights. His heroes are preparing for the end of the world, but not some apocalypses come more localized.
Grade: B+

The Nine Muses
Director/Time: John Akomfrah, 92 min.
Cast: Trevor Mathison, David Lawson, John Akomfrah
Headline: We are also England
Indie type: Allusive essay-doc
Report: Using Greek myth and epic poetry as an organizing principle, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses pays homage to the generation of immigrants who moved to the UK from former British colonies after WWII. Akomfrah combines archival footage of aliens finding places to work in a very foreign land with poetry readings (some from English, Scottish and Irish poets, some from Homer), dreamy music (some pop, some classical), and new photos and film of heavy-jacketed Everymen wandering through the icy north. The closest cinematic analogue to The Nine Muses would be Terence Davies’ Liverpool memoir-doc Of Time And The City, though Akomfrah’s film is less freeform and more ambitious. The effect he’s striving for—a mash-up humming with metaphor—comes across right away, and because it doesn’t vary, some viewers may feel that Akomfrah exhausts his idea after about half an hour. And they won’t be entirely wrong. But it’s such a powerful idea, conveyed with a lyricism that makes the film easy to watch. And there is an arc here, as the documentary footage shows people becoming more and more assimilated, as they have children in the UK and see their dreams shift from an eventual homecoming to lifting their new families out of industrial squalor.
Grade: B  

Notes, thoughts, things overheard…

We had our first mini-controversy in Park City today, as I and about 100 other critics were shut out of the boardroom thriller Margin Call, even though we’d lined up in plenty of time and even though only about 30 people from our line were allowed into a theater that holds 150. Apparently, because this was the first-ever screening of the movie, the industry folks—who typically haunt the public screenings—showed up in droves, and got first priority. And because of that fiasco this morning, I didn’t even try to queue up for the religious cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene after The Future, because taking into account travel time, I would’ve arrived right as the movie was starting, which this year probably won’t be good enough. I’m hopeful that I won’t keep getting turned away as the festival progresses, but fair warning: circumstances may dictate that I cover less and that I miss some of the bigger titles. If so, I’ll try to make it up by writing longer, as I did today with The Future (after my planned 6-movie day dwindled to 4). Anyway, as I wrote in yesterday’s intro, good movies go a long way to cover for a crappy external experience. I’ll take a Margin Call-style snafu every day if I get to see something as memorable as The Future in return.

Tomorrow: Paul Giamatti teaches wrestling and a monk reclaims his punk-rock roots.


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