Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 2 

Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 2 

Simon Killer
Director/Time: Antonio Campos, 105 min.
Cast: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Michael Abiteboul
Headline: Tourist goes nutzoid
Indie type: Guy walks around (and makes bad choices)
Report: Antonio Campos’ debut feature Afterschool was one seriously upsetting film, telling the story of an alienated boarding school student with such intimate subjectivity that the audience didn’t realize until it was too late just how messed up this kid was. Campos’ Simon Killer takes a similar approach, subjectivity-wise. The hero, played by Brady Corbet, is a recent college grad who takes a trip to Paris to try and recover from a recent break-up, and as he mopes around the city, failing to meet people and even having trouble masturbating without some difficulty, it’s easy for the audience to identify with this fumbling sad sack. Then Simon befriends a local prostitute, and Campos gradually edges the rug out from under us.

I’ll be frank: there’s nothing all that novel about a movie that asks us to feel compassion for a protagonist who turns out to be batty. In fact, Campos did just that with Afterschool, and in a way that was more visually inventive than Simon Killer. (This movie leans heavy on the back-of-the-head follow-shot, which has become an indie cliché.) But that doesn’t mean the film is devoid of formal interest. Campos makes a big deal about how Simon majored in neuroscience, with an emphasis on the connection between the eye and brain, and Campos throws in the occasional strobe effect or piece of peripheral information to underscore the way Simon sees the world. But he does just as much with the sound design—as Simon seems to make use of loud noises to drive out the distractions in his head—and the characters also take frequent notice of how things smell or taste or feel. What’s most effective about Simon Killer is that like Martha Marcy May Marlene (whose director Sean Durkin co-produced this film), this movie is a sensual experience that asks us to question our senses. It takes the all-too-common feelings of loneliness and disorientation and show in disturbing detail how that can shade into madness.
Grade: B+

Celeste And Jesse Forever
Director/Time: Lee Toland Krieger, 89 min.
Cast: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Chris Messina, Ari Gaynor, Emma Roberts, Elijah Wood
Headline: Separated couple gets used to life apart
Indie type: Sitcom
Report: If nothing else, Celeste and Jesse Forever proves that Rashida Jones should be a movie star. As Celeste, a Type A personality whose best-friend is her slacker soon-to-be-ex-husband Jesse (played by Andy Samberg), Jones gives a performance comparable to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News: an at once sympathetic and critical take on on the kind of perfectionist who drives away the people she loves. The twist here is that once Jesse finds somebody else, he straightens up and becomes the man Celeste always wanted him to be, leaving her to drown her woes with wine and pot and bad dates, looking progressively worse from scene to scene. Jones is never less than engaging or committed, and in the final 20 minutes of the movie, as Celeste owns up to the mistakes she made, her sorrow is genuinely affecting. The problem is that the hour leading up to that moment is exceedingly dire, and while Celeste And Jesse marks Jones as ready to make the leap from TV to film, it also shows that she maybe shouldn’t be her own screenwriter. Celeste And Jesse’s script (which Jones co-wrote) is shapeless and witless, aiming for an offhandedness in the interactions that instead comes off as bland or contrived. In short: it’s just not funny. This is a movie I was eager to root for, since Jones is so charming and the idea of two friends discovering they weren’t meant to be partners is a poignant one. But it says something that in the movies I saw today, I sympathized more with the one about the mentally ill guy than the one about the sweet young couple.
Grade: C-

The Raid
Director/Time: Gareth Huw Evans, 100 min.
Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Donny Alamsyah
Headline: Cops. Crooks. Raid. What more do you want?
Indie type: Unapologetic badassery
Report: The first thing that stands out about Gareth Evans’ Indonesian martial arts throwback The Raid is the look of the film, which resembles the best of ‘80s cult action flicks: half John Carpenter, half John Woo. (The movie’s even grainy and underlit, just like in the good ol’ days, with a cheap-sounding synth soundtrack. And none of this is done ironically, thank the gods.) Iko Uwais plays a rookie cop who participates in a suicide mission—storming a dingy Jakarta apartment building controlled by a ganglord—to try and extract his brother. But the story is almost an afterthought in The Raid, which is first and foremost an orgy of violence: bullets, fists and blades all fly, captured by Evans via a constantly moving, frequently gravity-defying camera. The emphasis here is speed: the fight choreography here is blisteringly quick, designed to make the audience gasp, and then cheer. My only real beef with the film is that there’s no real variation in tone or plot from start to finish. Watch any given 15 minutes of The Raid and you’ve pretty much seen The Raid. But why the hell would you only watch 15 minutes?
Grade: B+

Red Lights
Director/Time: Rodrigo Cortés, 119 min.
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones
Headline: Debunkers of the supernatural confront man who may actually have special powers
Indie type: Paranormal mystery
Report: For about 20 minutes, Red Lights seems on-track to be one of the most entertaining mainstream horror movies in years, as writer-director Rodrigo Cortés introduces his two witty, fearless heroes—Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver, university professors who specialize in explaining to people why they’re not hearing ghosts and why their children aren’t channeling spirits from the beyond—as well as their blind, unusually gifted nemesis, Robert De Niro. Cortés puts together some genuinely scary scenes of things going bump in the night, then has Murphy and Weaver tell us what we really saw, all while they prepare to take on the man who could be the fraud of all frauds. But then the movie just sort of… peters out, as the fights between good and evil become less intellectual and more physical, and thus more common. A late-film sequence where a smarmy Toby Jones tests De Niro’s powers scientifically brings some kick, and Red Light livens up again for an ending that’s unexpected and bizarre. But whether “unexpected” is enough to justify the climactic oddity—or the tedious stretches that preceded it—is another matter. My initial reaction is “no,” but this may be a movie I need to live with for a day or two, if only to puzzle out exactly what Cortés means to say about faith versus self-determination.
Grade: C+

Searching For Sugar Man
Director/Time: Malik Bendjelloul, 85 min.
Documentary
Headline: Long-forgotten American singer-songwriter becomes hero in South Africa
Indie type: Pop culture excavation
Report: In our crate-digger culture, almost any old musician worth a damn has been rediscovered, yet only the most committed pop archivists know Rodriguez, a Detroit-based singer-songwriter whose music—a mix of Nick Drake, Stevie Wonder and Jose Feliciano—couldn’t get any airplay in the states in the ‘70s despite being fairly amazing. Through some weird serendipity though, Rodriguez’s 1970 album Cold Fact became a favorite among liberal whites in apartheid-ravaged South Africa. Those kids who grew up listening to Rodriguez (and went on to protest the government through song) didn’t find it strange that they didn’t know much about him, given that they were largely cut off culturally from the rest of the world. The fascinating, touching documentary Searching For Sugar Man tries to sort out the facts of Rodriguez’s life from the legends and rumors—which among his South African fans included the story that he’d committed suicide onstage. Because Searching For Sugar Man is largely a mystery story, with lots of twists, it’s best not to say much more about what South African musicologists found out after their years of detective work. Instead, I’ll praise the quality of director  Malik Bendjelloul’s storytelling, which is gripping from the opening shot almost to the last. (Once the bulk of Rodriguez’s story has been told, the movie does stall a little.) Bendjelloul also gets what’s most powerful about this story: how it speaks to the mythological qualities of pop music, especially as they pull profoundly against reality. The imagined Rodriguez gave comfort to a nation. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the real Rodriguez turns out to have been just as remarkable.
Grade: B+

Tomorrow: The director of Rubber brings his latest, and the West Memphis 3 get another documentary.