WORST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)
It’s no great feat to spot influences and even individual scenes that appear and reappear in film after film, but it’s rare to see a movie’s entire plot transposed into another. Yet Bart Freundlich’s indie drama lifts its entire B-story, of an English professor and inveterate gambler (Michael Shannon) whose personal connection to a key player could save or end his life, from The Gambler (and its 2014 remake). The primary narrative is no less moldy: a high school basketball sensation, desperately trying to figure out his future and be a better player/man. Yes, there is a down-to-the-wire big game. Yes, there is a pregnancy scare. Yes, there is a one-on-one with his small, petty father. Freundlich gets at the occasional moment of truth (like the feeling, as you become an adult, that you may not know your parents at all), and Shannon manages to put together a fully formed character – you get how he’d draw people in, and would abuse that closeness. But it’s the kind of movie that clearly doesn’t know how far ahead of it we all are.
The only thing worse than a prototypical “Sundance movie” – full of familiar faces, strained quirk, comings-of-age, and precious little flourishes – is one that clearly got the pass from Sundance, and ends up occupying your time elsewhere. Such is the case with this story of a rudderless piano player (Johnny Simmons, from Scott Pilgrim) who falls for an older woman (Amy Landecker) as his long-term relationship is falling to pieces. Scene after scene plays like masturbatory fantasy, though the script has an oddly retro worldview where a sexually aggressive woman is either terrifying or comical; it’s tempting to say writers Robert Schwartzman and Benjamin Font don’t write women well, but the truth is they don’t write anyone particularly well. Landecker does the best she can with her reheated Mrs. Robinson role, but even she can’t rescue it. Schwartzman, making his directorial debut, is the brother of Jason and Talia Shire (who both make brief, effective appearances); he’s thus the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, and the cousin of Sofia and Roman. What can I tell you? Not everyone can go into the family business.
A sharp, funny comedy can prove a real relief from the heavy subject matter of typical festival-going. But a failed one is more depressing than the saddest indie drama.
This Netflix production from writer/director/co-star Ricky Gervias has a promising set-up, a handful of big laughs, and some workable Abbott & Costello-inspired chemistry from Gervias and Eric Bana (well cast as a grizzled, hard-drinking journalist of questionable ethics). But Gervias’s script is a lumpy mess, filled with clumsy exposition and turns that are either frustratingly inexplicable or irritatingly predictable. And his direction does it no favors; the pacing is deathly, clomping from scene to scene with no comic grace, and what little momentum he generates is killed by the plinky, push-button score. Fitfully funny, but neither tightly constructed nor cynical enough to fulfill its satirical promise.
If you’re wondering whether Seven and 8mm screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker had a hilarious animated satire in him, the unfortunate news is no, he doesn’t; the targets are stale, the jokes are half-baked, and the gross-out bits are downright desperate. That said, the killer voice-over cast – including Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt, Hannibal Buress, Kate Micucci, and Riki Lindhome – manages to work up some laughs, mostly through the force of their own personalities, and the visual illustrations of conversational detours are often inventive and playful. But such momentary pleasures can’t overcome the creakiness of this glib, stillborn script.
GOOD ACTORS, MEDIOCRE MOVIES
Some actors are so good, offering up such credibility and power in their performances, that they can make a subpar movie great. These films don’t quite get there, but certainly not for lack of trying.
Anna Gunn deserves all the good things, so there are worse ideas than putting her in the Michael Douglas role of a gender-swapped Wall Street, complete with a “Greed is good” speech (she also, for good measure, gets a riff on De Niro’s blueberry muffin bit from Casino). And the notion of a film by women about women in this boy’s club is intriguing – and timely, right down to the questions of likability and ambition’s variable importance from one gender to another. But the sleekness of the production, the skill of the performers, and the sociological interest are all but toppled by the clunky exposition, cliché-ridden dialogue, muddy motivations, and frightfully short subtext of its middling screenplay. It’s a movie you want to embrace, but the words fumbling out of its actors’ mouths undercut those intentions at every turn.
“It’s not a remake of Driving Miss Daisy,” insisted Daisy director Bruce Bereford in this introduction to his new drama, and he’s right; Daisy was a far smoother and convincing picture than this one. This too-precious tale of a young woman (Britt Robertson) and the family cook (Eddie Murphy) who sees her through young adulthood is clipped badly by its fuzzy conflicts, twinkly score, comically predictable narrative, and endless, telling-not-showing narration. But Eddie Murphy, making his first film appearance in four years and his first dramatic appearance since Dreamgirls, is remarkable. His understated turn as a close-to-the-vest type who sees all and says little is graceful and convincing, and in the flashes where that seal breaks, he reminds us of the force and charisma he holds, often in reserve. It’s a wonderful performance; it’s a shame it’s wasted on such a second-hand film.
WE ARE FAMILY
Few festival tropes are as well-worn as the family-based drama, and that familiarity sinks one new drama, while another manages to work up some new life.
Youth In Oregon
In a Tribeca Talk early in the week, Joss Whedon noted his work is “not very Sundance-y, I don’t have a Sundance-y vibe, nobody’s gonna go on a road trip and have a reconciliation,” and somehow, the very next day, there I was at a tender family dramedy about road trips and reconciliations. Frank Langella stars as an angry old man, just 80, who decides he’s done with his miserable life and opts for assisted suicide; Christina Applegate leads the supporting cast, as his teary-eyed daughter. These two can elevate just about any material, but that maxim is put to the test by Andrew Eisen’s script, which loads up the buffet plate with not only assisted suicide but alcoholism, impotence, an estranged gay son, and even sexting. It’s less a drama than a checklist of familial melodrama tropes, in which everybody fights and yells and cries and embraces, and you’ve seen it all before, and better than this.
The Family Fang
Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman put across an easy, lived-in chemistry in this adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s novel, as a pair of siblings still bearing the psychological scars of a childhood spent participating in guerilla, Improv Everywhere-style events set up by their performance artist parents. Now, years later, they’re finally starting to ask some questions about who these people really are – particularly when the old folks disappear in what must be another stunt. Right? Bateman’s second trip to the director’s chair is a tricky bit of business, full of tonal shifts that he mostly pulls off, and complex relationships that he manages to get inside. Some of it’s too tidy and the big speeches are often too written. But it’s a solid effort nonetheless, and Bateman exhibits a real gift for mood, structure, and directing actors.
The life crisis narrative, in which the regular guy is lost and finds his way, is nearly as overworked in indie circles. But these films found fresh angles and real insights.
Folk Hero & Funny Guy
Two old pals – one (Alex Karpovsky) a struggling stand-up, one (Wyatt Russell) a big-deal folk rocker – hit the road for some “intimate” club dates, looking for creative jolts and good times. Nothing that happens is all that surprising, particularly after they meet up with an attractive young singer (Meredith Hagner) and invite her along, but no worries; writer/director Jeff Grace’s comedy/drama is lifted by the likability and charisma of his leads and the gentleness of his charming screenplay. Karpovsky really gets this guy, his insecurities and the way his fix is just barely out of his reach, and Russell easily wears the crown of a guy who’s been king so long, he’s forgotten it’s there. And then Melanie Lynskey shows up, doing that thing where she makes every movie better. Grace overplays his hand occasionally (particularly regarding the stand-up act) and his montages become a bit of a crutch. But this is a delicate, easy-going charmer.
An office drone’s flat but stable existence is thrown into uproar by the unexpected appearance of a wild-eyed college buddy, who invites him to the title event, a kind of spiritual retreat… or something. Your enjoyment for writer/director Karl Mueller’s black comedy will vary wildly based on how much you’ll let a movie fuck with you – he tells the entire story through his protagonist’s eyes, and through the uncertainty of his experience. Mueller tilts between menace and satire, often when you least expect it, and ends up with something like a chaotic nightmare by the journey’s end. It’s nutty and intriguing, if occasionally exhausting; it’s neither easily summarized nor described, and perhaps that’s the best thing about it.
FAMILIAR BUT EFFECTIVE
Roger Ebert famously said, “A movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it,” and these two movies make that case convincingly – familiar stories, intelligently and honestly told.
Director Drake Doremus (Like Crazy, Breathe In) takes a hard left from the world of hyper-intimate romantic drama with this science fiction story, set in a vaguely, coldly futuristic world where emotions have been neutralized and “coupling” is illegal. Of course, those rules are made to be broken, as his protagonist (Nicolas Hoult) and a colleague (Kristen Stewart) find themselves infected with “the bug” – and disinterested in the cure. No prizes for spotting the influences here (Doremus has clearly put some wear and tear on his THX 1138 DVD) and the pacing in the early scenes ranges from deliberate to snoozy. But the patient world-building of those scenes is rewarded in due course, and the film ultimately finds its stride when it gets its leads together and zooms in on the intensity and desperation of their attraction, and how its forbidden nature renders it all the more potent. Turns out, this wasn’t so different from his other movies after all.
Popular comedian writes and directs a highly personal romantic comedy with a heavy dose of stylistic innovation and a pronounced strain of New York authenticity vs. Los Angeles vapidity – it shatters no earth to observe the Woody Allen influence in the feature filmmaking debut of Demetri Martin, who plays a sad-sack cartoonist escaping to L.A. to distract himself from a broken engagement and the death of his mother. But like Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, Dean is a film that takes the Allen template as the jumping-off point for a story and storyteller that ultimately settles on a style and charm of its own. There are a few predictable beats and underdeveloped characters along the way, but Martin is ultimately a sensitive and likable filmmaker and leading man, and he gets a big boost from the wonderful supporting turns by Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, and (especially) Kevin Kline.
THE WILD CARD
Darkly cynical British filmmaker Ben Wheatley adapts J.G. Ballard’s countercultural classic into a decidedly brutish and ugly yet undeniably compelling work of extreme cinema. And he’s got an ideal point-man in Tom Hiddleston, who can just as easily step into the sharp suit of the early passages as the blood-soaked garments of the later scenes, when all attempts at civility have gone out the window and his luxury apartment block’s class-separated tenants have surrendered to an orgy of violence, sex, theft, and general barbarism. Wheatley’s direction is crass, and he wields Ballard’s already crude metaphors with something less than subtlety, but there’s an abundance of electricity and bitterness in this spark plug of a picture. (Read more here.)
BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)
Six directors from six countries tell six stories bound by the single thematic requirement of love, though they all seek out something far more complicated than boy-meets-girl. The tones vary wildly, from quiet tension to doomed romanticism to menace to kindness to all-out raunch. But the openness and curiosity of the effort, the take-all-comers approach, means nothing feels particularly out of place – and the anything-goes vibe results in short films with refreshingly unexpected turns and daring dabs of style. There’s some variation in quality, but it’s minor; every director brings something valuable to this wide-canvas portrait.
BEST OF THE FEST
5. Elvis & Nixon
A dramatization of the fabled 1970 meeting between Michael Shannon’s Presley and Kevin Spacey’s President sounds less like a feature film than a 12:40 SNL sketch, which probably makes director Liza Johnson’s achievement all the more impressive: she takes a fundamentally flimsy and absurd notion and injects it with an unexpectedly potent dose of pathos, sympathy, and good clean fun. Shannon is a straight-up hoot as the King, taking it upon himself to serve his country as a “federal agent-at-large,” making up an undercover alias and making noise about this “matter of national security”; he gets at both the silliness of Presley’s phantasmagoria, and the loneliness at the root of it. Spacey shines in the smaller of the two roles, likewise indicating the vulnerability that peeks out when the mask of power is even momentarily jostled. Vibrantly shot and paced like screwball, it’s a retro treat. (Read more here.)
4. A Hologram For The King
In The Film Snob’s Dictionary, writers David Kamp and Lawrence Levi delineate the difference between film and movie thus: “Tom Waits will never, ever star in a MOVIE. Tom Hanks will never, ever star in a FILM.” And maybe they’re right, but Hanks gets awfully close in this adaptation of Dave Eggars novel from director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), which is delightfully, refreshingly odd. As a desperate sales rep attempting to land the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s IT account, Hanks puts on a good game face and a hearty laugh, while peeling back that mask to show the private panic of a man staring down what feels very much like impending failure. Tykwer gets into a snappy rhythm and conveys a sense of everyday surrealism, and is gleefully willing to go off on odd tangents and moody explorations. It’s all sort of indescribable, or maybe just inexplicable; it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but it offers rich rewards for those who can tune in to its peculiar energy. (Read more here.)
BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)
3. As I Open My Eyes
A young woman coming of age, torn between the expectations of her parents and the passions in her heart, isn’t exactly an untold story. What makes this telling unique, and gives it far higher stakes, is the story’s setting in Tunis, circa summer 2010 – where such a young woman has decidedly less of a say, and singing her protest songs about that time and place puts her in actual danger. Director Leyla Bouzid is keenly observant; she understands the scariness of exerting one’s independence, and mirrors that internal conflict with those of her protagonist’s band and the pressures that may tear them apart. Heartfelt, moving, and more than a little scary.
Deb Shoval co-writes and directs this sweet, tentative romance, in which an aimless small-town girl (Lola Kirke) on her way into the army falls for a married mother (Breeda Wool), prompting a struggle between how they feel and who they have to be. Shoval and her marvelous leads put across both the intensity of this attraction and the tension it causes; Shoval and cinematographer Gal Deren have a good eye for the tiny, dirt-on-the-ground details that lend the film an almost documentary authenticity. Some of that is betrayed in a middle stretch where you can start to feel the plot machinery grinding, and there are sideways moments here and there that don’t go anywhere. But it’s an authentic and emotional film, with first-rate turns by Wool and especially Kirke; hers is a wonderfully open, heart-on-her-sleeve turn, and the film plays in much the same spirit.
BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)
1. Always Shine
Actor/director Sophia Takal’s psychological thriller follows a pair of actor friends (Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald) on a weekend getaway in Big Sur, where their bristling resentments and jagged jealousies come to the surface with only the slightest shove. It’s scored and paced like a De Palma picture, but with a knowing layer of commentary and insight into what it is to be a woman, particularly in show business. Her characters are a study in contrast, one a shrugging wallflower, one brashly ambitious, and Takal savvily situates those approaches into simultaneous social situations, with fascinating results. She has a way of making the most banal situations and everyday interactions pulse with sinister undercurrents; it’s a dazzlingly confident film, spinning like a wind-up toy, yet slicing with insight on each go-round.