Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sundance 2013 Quick Reviews, Part I

The 2013 Sundance Film Festival is humming away up in the mountains of Park City, Utah. Here's a quick look at the movie's I've seen, in the order I saw them. More to come as the festival goes on.



Crystal Fairy

Michael Cera has two different films at Sundance this year, both set in Chile and both dealing with relationships between men and women. In Crystal Fairy, Cera is an American stranger-in-a-strange land and also completely unlikeable, petulantly fixated on a trip to the Chilean coast to drink the hallucinogenic juice of the San Pedro cactus. Along the way he crosses paths with the free-spirited Crystal Fairy, invites her along on the trip and then spends the rest of the film insulting her and annoying his friends.

Cera's three Chilean companions, the Silva Brothers, are the high point of the film, playing each of their roles with an earnest and heartwarming sincerity. But between Cera's obnoxious ramblings, Crystal Fairy's neo-hippie antics (including a good 10 minutes of intentionally unerotic and uncomfortable nudity) and the film's lackadaisical plot, the sporadic moments of great art and comedy get lost along with whatever "point" the filmmaker was trying to make.

Grade: B-




Newlyweeds

There's a lot of movies about drug addiction out there, and somehow Newlyweeds manages to rise above and fall beneath them all at the same time. The movie follows New York couple Nina and Lyle, the former a spiritualistic museum guide and the latter a repo man who likes to come home and lose himself in smoke after a long day's work.

Newlyweeds has some great moments, particularly those centered around Lyle's work – such as a pot-fueled dream sequence where he and his coworker are an 80s-noir crime-fighting duo and a later scene where they trick themselves into the home of a woman to retrieve her freezer. The ending is also an intriguing, artistic construction, but unfortunately the movie gets a little lost on the way as Lyle's drug use gets out of control and we spend altogether too much time watching him come back from a rut. We also never seem to learn much about Nina which makes her, like the audience, simply along for the ride.

Grade: B-



After Tiller

In 2009, late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller was assassinated while attending church services in Kansas. His death left four of his friends and former colleagues as the only practicing late-term abortionists in the country.

In After Tiller, directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson invite us into the lives and practices of these four doctors, as they struggle to provide a service they deem morally and ethically necessary as groups literally and figuratively gather outside to stop them. You could criticize the movie for being one-sided, but the quiet tone of the film is less about debate as it is about demonstration. Most people never see the inside of an abortion clinic, but the picket lines, banners and megaphones outside paint a picture of dark alleyways and rusty scalpels. By making this documentary, the audience is shown a staff of emotionally invested, caring people, who struggle with the ethical implications of what they do and worry about what a woman may resort to if denied the service that only they can provide.

There are no simple answers to the abortion debate, but by stripping away the yelling, screaming and high emotion that typically surrounds a discussion of the issue, Shane and Wilson are able to provide probing and insightful answers from some of the most hated people in America.

Grade: A-



Don Jon's Addiction

In his feature directorial debut, Sundance darling Joseph Gordon Levitt (who also wrote and stars in the film) adopts an array of sleeveless muscle tees, a Joizy accent and a slicked back crew cut as the womanizing and porn-addicted Jon.

The movie is full of things that would make my mother blush, but it's also filled with a surprising amount of heart and love for its array of loveable-while-unlikeable characters. JGL tells us the story of a man learning how to make connections in the real world but also paints one of the most clever juxtapositions I've ever seen of the way both men AND women objectify each other. JGL's Jon unrealistic expectations of women and romance, bred by his years of heavy pornography consumptions, is placed in contrast and reflection to his paramour's (played with all the gum-chewing, hair twirling patter of a Jersey Shore cast reject) obsessions with derivative romantic comedies (I won't spoil it, but this is demonstrated by a pair of winningly coy, self-referential cameos).

Also, for a first-time director, JGL masterfully cuts the film together, using computer sound cues and tones with expert precision and perfectly sinking his cuts with the beat and rhythm of the music and story. His characters slow-burn transformation is both seemless and natural and I have no doubt this film will be making its way to theaters very soon.

Grade: A

*Update: Don Jon's Addiction was acquired by Relativity Media Media on Monday, reported by indiewire



Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings, the beat generation biopic by director John Krokidas, is fun, profound, hypnotic and beautiful, yet suffers from a central conceit. The filmmaker assumes that the characters of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs are so well-known, so colossal, that there's no need to explain why the college shenanigans of a group of rambunctious writers is important. He assumes that the wandering, abstract plot structure is interesting simply because the characters being portrayed are of general interest, and I'm not sure that is, universally, the case. I've read Kerouac, I'm still not convinced what all the fuss is about.

BUT, before I begin to sound like some sanctimonious twit, whatever hangups I may have (shared or individual) with the structure, they are quickly overcome by the collection of phenomenal performances in this film. Daniel Radcliffe, the boy who lived, slips coolly into the skin of a fish-out-of-water disciple of older, more worldly men. Jack Huston is magnetic as Kerouac and Dane DeHaan (who broke out last year in the little seen but sensational Chronicle) simply sizzles as Lucien Carr, the brilliant but damaged mind who unites this ragtag of misfits and embroils them in scandal.

Grade: B+



Two Mothers

During the opening press conference of the 2013 Festival, director John Cooper said commented that one recurring theme in this year's selections was the idea of complex sexual relationships. Two Mothers, an Australian drama about lifelong friends who begin secret affairs with each other's adult sons, certainly fits into that category.

As the titular mothers, Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are charming and fragile as their pseudo-mid life crises throws them into the arms of the much-younger and much-inappropriate men they watched grow form infancy as surrogate family. Once the central, and arguably contrived, plot point is introduced, the remaining inevitable conflicts presents themselves organically with stripped-down tension and a discomfort level that causes the audience to squirm and giggle as though they were watching a bad Saw sequel. Only instead of torture porn, we have the high drama of love and romance, with its challenges and hangups as well as its heartbreaks and vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the entire narrative plays out with as much unsaid as said, as each character paws lightly at the concept of "There's nothing technically wrong with this...right?"

But obviously there is, and it's that relentless dissonance that gives this quiet indie its shiver, and its sting.

Grade: B+

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