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Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Seven

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Winter’s Bone
Director: Debra Granik (100 min.)
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt
Headline: Ozark teen hunts down her meth-cooking pop
Indie type: Rural genre exercise
Report: Half mountain noir, half mythological odyssey, Winter’s Bone is my favorite kind of detective story: the kind with no detective, per se. (That the movie takes place in a part of the world I know fairly well is just a bonus; suffice to say, Winter’s Bone is in my wheelhouse.) Jennifer Lawrence plays a 17-year-old high school dropout taking care of her mentally ill mother and her two younger siblings, and trying to make the most of whatever she can grow or kill on her family’s tree-covered property. Then the sheriff knocks on her door one day and warns Lawrence that her absent father is due in court, and that he’s put up the house and land as bond. Not willing to trust her family’s fate to the state (which she’s been raised to distrust) or her scattered relations (who are almost all crooks), Lawrence starts trudging up and down the mountain and knocking on doors, trying to figure out where her dad has gone. But the kinds of questions she’s asking make the local drug lords nervous, and soon Lawrence learns—along with the audience—just how brutal her blood cousins can be. Winter’s Bone is beautifully shot and acted—especially by John Hawkes, playing Lawrence’s temperamental uncle, and Dale Dickey, playing a shrewish moll—and while writer-director Debra Granik’s goes for an unforced, naturalistic feel, the Daniel Woodrell novel that she and co-writer Anne Rosellini are adapting doesn’t lack for incident or variety. Lawrence follows her quest from her immediate vicinity to the suburban house of her father’s ex-girlfriend in Arkansas and a cattle auction where she knows the big boss will be. Winter’s Bone never missteps as a crime movie or as a regional film; it has the feel of one of those small genre films of the ‘70s and ‘80s that came and went without much fuss, only to rediscovered by movie buffs decades later. My advice? Discover this one now. Grade: A

Cane Toads: The Conquest
Director: Mark Lewis (90 min.)
Headline: A poisonous amphibian continues its march across Australia, unabated
Indie type: Droll enviro-doc
Report: Mark Lewis’ 1988 documentary Cane Toads: An Unnatural History is a prime example of how a smart filmmaker can play with the form and entertain audiences while still imparting valuable information. Lewis’ new Cane Toads: The Conquest is essentially a remake/update of the earlier film. (It’s like the enviro-doc version of Michael Apted’s “Up” series. (And yes I know that’s the second time during this festival that I’ve compared a doc to Apted. Sometimes shoes fit more than one foot.)) The Conquest is slicker than its predecessor, and in 3-D, but otherwise it’s right in line with An Unnatural History. Lewis tells the story of how cane toads were introduced to Australia in order to save the sugar crops from cane beetles, and how instead the toads pushed past the sugar fields and began taking over whole regions of the country, such that walking across the grass at night has become like walking across a moving carpet of toads. Between the historical/ecological data, Lewis throws in anecdotes from the locals about their attempts to stave off and/or embrace the cane toad—complete with dramatic re-enactments of their dramatic toad encounters. Frankly, the 3-D effects added nothing to Cane Toads: The Conquest aside from a few giggles, and I can’t argue that the movie is a must-see for people already familiar the first film. But it’s very entertaining, and Lewis' bemused contemplation of how people try in vain to control nature is a shtick that never gets old. Grade: B+


The Perfect Host
Director: Nick Tomnay (94 min.)
Cast: David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Helen Reddy, Nathaniel Parker, Meghan Perry
Headline: A fugitive thief stumbles into the lair of a lunatic
Indie type: Small-scale thriller
Report: One summer I got hooked on the movie Deathtrap and watched it about a dozen times on HBO, enjoying all the twists and turns of its plot about two men with secrets, each trying to kill the other. Writer-director Nick Tomnay’s debut feature The Perfect Host isn’t as good as Deathtrap, but I enjoyed it for much the same reasons: it makes good use of a limited set and characters, and it keeps introducing new surprises. Clayne Crawford plays a bank robber who’s looking for a place to lay low, and cons his way into the home of dapper aesthete David Hyde Pierce. But Pierce, as it turns out, is more than a little nuts, and before long it’s impossible to say who’s really in control of the situation. Tomnay introduces flashbacks to fill in the blanks of Crawford’s story, and he introduces a left-field twist about Pierce in the last 15 minutes that brings the various threads of the movie together in a fairly ridiculous way. But it’s a fun kind of ridiculous, and Pierce plays his wacked-out dinner party host with such gusto that it almost doesn’t matter if all the characters are cartoons. Grade: C+

Louis C.K.: Hilarious
Director: Louis C.K. (84 min.)
Cast: Louis C.K.
Headline: Everything’s amazing etc.
Indie type: Concert film
Report: Like George Carlin before him, stand-up comic Louis C.K. has evolved from being a very funny observational comedian with a focus on language to being a hysterically funny comedian who rages against the vanity of humanity. “We’re like fat 8th graders, all of us,” C.K. says in his concert film Louis C.K.: Hilarious, during a segment that amounts to a 20-minute expansion on his well-traveled 2008 Conan O’Brien appearance. In addition to the familiar slaps at people who bitch about cel phone service and air travel, C.K. rips on how we’ve become so inarticuate that we use words like “amazing” and “hilarious” and “total bullshit” to describe relatively ordinary phenomenon. (He also contends that people who make the jerk-off motion with their hands should have to continue to completion.) On either side of C.K.’s bilious rants at others, he offers a look at how he’s living now: as a divorced father of two with a three-year-old who gets irrationally irritable and a dumpy body that makes him unappealing to any future mate. (He describe his wings/ice cream/masturbation ritual as leaving him covered in “three different kinds of shame-glaze.”) Typical of C.K., Hilarious is sharp and funny, and flows well, though I can’t say that there’s enough unique about it that warrants it being a feature-length movie and not just another cable special. So, bearing C.K.’s warning about excess superlatives in mind, I’ll grade Hilarious accordingly. Grade: B+


Festival notes…

I also went to an African shorts program today, and saw the following:

-Wanuri Kahiu’s “Pumzi,” a science-fiction story set in the wake of the Water Wars of the near future. The dialogue is stiff and the premise familiar, but Kahiu’s visualization of a world with nothing growing outside is quite striking—especially the notion that in the future we’ll be recycling urine and sweat, and using water as currency. The overt homages to THX 1138 and Silent Running were appreciated as well.

-Jenna Bass’ “The Tunnel,” about a little girl using stories to help explain (and escape) what happened to her father during Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland Massacres of the early ‘80s. The specificity of the short is remarkable, given that it’s only 25 minutes long, but the real selling point of “The Tunnel” is the imagination Bass puts into the storytelling from both a structural and visual perspective. The story itself is nested in an oddly organic way, with one flashback leading to another, and Bass even inserts a few lovely animated sequences. It’s a strong piece.

-Dyana Gaye’s “Saint Louis Blues,” a full-blown musical about an eclectic group of travelers sharing rides in Senegal. The look of the film is a little murky, but Gaye packs about a half-dozen songs into 50 minutes, and tells a story that begins and ends ambiguously, in the bustle of a city full of people with similar stories.


I wish I could make more time for shorts programs at festivals. I nearly always see some astonishing talent.

And that's it for Sundance '10 in terms of screenings. I'll have one more post over the weekend wrapping everything up and announcing the award winners.