Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance 2014 Quick Reviews: Part I



A Most Wanted Man

The always-enjoyable Philip Seymour Hoffman is deliciously sour in "A Most Wanted Man,"  but unfortunately he's about the only intriguing part of this disappointingly lifeless adaptation of John Le Carre's spy thriller.

The story follows Seymour Hoffman's Gunther Bachmann, who heads up a covert anti-terrorist unit in Hamburg on the trail of a suspected terrorist who literally washes up on shore. Bachmann hopes the man can lead him upstream to bigger fish, but he's under pressure from his superiors to act fast before any bombs go off.

A stellar supporting cast -- including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl and Robin Wright -- are largely wasted as the plot tip toes forward in an attempt at slow-burn tension that ultimately fizzles. Le Carre's work has been proven to be fertile ground for low-fi psychological spy games on the big screen with 2011's excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But while A Most Wanted Man shares some of Tinker's DNA, the former plays like going to the senior prom with the quarterback's quiet, gangly, acne-faced little brother.

Grade: C+



Mitt

During the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was frequently described as stiff, distant, unsympathetic and any number of other robotic adjectives. In "Mitt," the documentary by "New York Doll" director Gregg Whiteley, viewers are promised another side of Mitt: the family man.

Whitely was granted extensive access to Romney and his family over the course of 6 years, and that access is apparent on the screen. We see the family praying together, eating dinner together, laughing together, and venting their frustrations together. What we don't see, however, is any substantive examination of the candidate's strategy, politics, or the general state of things during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

It's a shame, as there are interesting stories to be told from Romney's point of view, from his 2008 brawl with John McCain to his revolving door of challengers in 2012. The Romney candidacy is, in many ways, the perfect case study to demonstrated the fractured in-fighting of today's Republican party, but all of that context is left on the cutting floor of "Mitt" in favor of what amounts to a two-hour family photo album.

The film is interesting in that it does, as promised, show a different side of the "flipping Mormon." But that portrait will do little to satisfy audiences looking for intellectual profundity. It would appear that the cost of access, in this case, is a film with good intentions but where lost opportunities abound.

Grade: B-



Laggies

Director Lynn Shelton has become a Sundance regular with her films "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Touchy Feely," and "Your Sister's Sister" and she continues that success with this year's "Laggies," which sees Keira Knightley as a late-20s woman dealing with a quarter-life crises.

Megan (Knightley) is living with her high-school boyfriend and twirling a sign on the side of the road for her father's tax assistance agency after her chosen career as a marriage and family counselor didn't take. After stepping out of a friend's wedding she runs into a group of high school students including Annika (Kick Ass's Chloe Grace Moretz) who invite her to hang out for the night. Soon, Knightley finds herself seeking refuge from her life by hiding out in the guest room of Annika's house, where she meets single-dad Sam Rockwell, doing his typical witty, awesome, Sam Rockwell-esque thing.

The plot follows a familiar path but is saved from redundancy by its sincerity. The inevitable conflicts are not played for melodrama but instead unfold naturally, realistically and with a relatable heart that is both endearing and refreshing. Rockwell follows up last year's The Way Way Back with another stellar performance that grounds the movie and keeps the laughs flowing. The result is the rare dramedy that excels in its simplicity.

Grade: B+



Love Child

In 2010, a newborn girl died from starvation while her parents were away playing video games into the night at a nearby computer lounge. They were charged with involuntary manslaughter and a key element in the case was whether or not their internet addiction minimized their culpability in the death of their daughter.

That case is the center of "Love Child," a documentary that examines the online gaming culture of South Korea and the emerging cases of dangerously obsessive behavior that has resulted from the explosion of internet connectivity. The filmmakers interview police officers and attorneys involved in the case, as well as doctors and experts on the subject of internet addiction, in the attempt of painting a portrait of the couple in question, who clearly did not agree to be interviewed for the film.

That lack of access is the primary weakness of Love Child, which runs out of questions to ask early in its 75 minute running time. We hear about the challenges of internet addiction and the unique circumstances facing this couple -- who relied on the sale of game-earned virtual currency for their income -- from outsiders, leaving an emotional and contextual whole in the center of the film.

Grade: C+



"The Sleepwalker" is about a woman named Kaia who is renovating her childhood home with the help of her live-in boyfriend Andrew. One day, Kaia's somewhat-estranged sister Christine arrives unexpectedly, followed by Christine's boyfriend Ira.

I apologize for the straightforward synopsis but beyond what I have just described little about what transpires during "The Sleepwalker" makes sense to me. The characters behave in inexplicable ways, questioning and provoking each other, and much is teased out with little materializing by the end credits. We learn, through explicit and implicit means, that almost everyone in the film has passed through some form of sinister or traumatizing past, with the assumption being that some drastic turn of events is on the horizon. In the end some mysteries are revealed but its unclear why it matters, or why we care.

Other people may draw a completely different experience from "Sleepwalker's" ethereal mythos. As for me, I was lost.

Grade: C-

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Whiplash

I like Miles Teller. I liked him in The Spectacular Now, I liked him in the Footloose remake and I liked him in the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 21 And Over. But his performance in Whiplash is what I like most.

In Whiplash, Teller eschews his typical Gen-Y Vince Vaughn cool guy to play a drummer named Andrew so singularly-driven by his desire to be the best that he is misanthropic, abrasive and willing to undergo what can only be described as emotional torture at the hands of his director, a terrifyingly volatile and terrific J.K. Simmons. Insulted and occasionally assaulted, Andrew only hunkers down further to practice until his hands literally bleed.

It’s hard to explain exactly how he does it, but (the shockingly young) director Damien Chazelle portrays a series of jazz music performances with the same pulse-pounding tension of a Paul Greengrass film. In J.K. Simmons he creates a true villain, sneering and dangerous, and the cat and mouse between teacher and student escalates to a fever pitch typically reserved for thrillers where lives are at stake.

The movie is not seamless. Outside of the central duo the supporting characters serve mainly as placeholders. Paul Reiser as the father figure is never quite established as supportive or discouraging and a throwaway plot with a romantic interest is introduced in what could only be a design to illustrate just how myopic Andrew’s interests are.

But those critiques are minor, as Chazelle has crafted a film that is ambitious in its simplicity and utilizes sound to an at-times uncomfortably visceral level. Whiplash will leave you exhausted in the way that a runner feels after a sprint, pulsing with adrenaline and perspiring.

Grade: B+

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