23 January 2006

Sundance: Day Four

  • Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, USA): 71

    On paper, I'm sure this would look laughably schematic: idealistic middle-school history teacher and girls' basketball coach by day, crumbling basehead by night. Fleck, cowriter-editor Anna Boden and (especially) Ryan "never a false note" Gosling sell it, though, with invaluable assists from preternaturally assured newcomer Shareeka Epps and potential Best Supporting Actor Skandie champ Anthony Mackie. (You guys sure She Hate Me sucks that hard?) Only a few forgivable rookie mistakes hold it back from near-greatness (otherwise known as my increasingly rare B+): too-pointed cross-cutting between teacher and student, occasionally jerky rhythms, a climactic encounter that goes just a wee bit over the top. But just the incredulous look on Gosling's face when he catches one of his charges blatantly cheating ("What're you doing?"), or the way he leans out his car window and tosses off an obligatory, halfhearted "Bitch!" when Epps calls him an asshole and walks away, are enough to make such niggling flaws seem all but irrelevant.

  • Stephanie Daley (Hilary Brougher, USA): 44

    [WARNING: There are some spoilers here. I got exasperated. It's not really that kind of movie, but proceed at your own risk.]

    Sorry, but this one is laughably schematic, both on paper and onscreen. How many parallels can we draw between accused baby-killer Stephanie and the chilly forensic psychologist appointed by the prosecutor's office to examine her? Would two dozen be enough, or will viewers still not get the hint? It's not too terribly contrived if the psychologist is both pregnant and still reeling from a recent stillbirth, is it? How about if we posit that she refused to name the infant and chucked its ashes out the window of a moving car? Or, oh, you know what we could do? We could have both women cut their hands! I think McKee would call that an image system -- it greatly increases the complexity of an aesthetic emotion. And let's save the grueling bathroom-stall birth sequence for the very end, in order to make it seem as exploitative and Jodie-Foster-crying-on-the-pool-table as possible. Matter of fact, let's obliterate any trace of the inventive, idiosyncratic Hilary Brougher who made The Sticky Fingers of Time and fashion something that would look entirely credible with Jonathan Kaplan's name attached to it. That'd be good.

  • Flannel Pajamas (Jeff Lipsky, USA): 48

    About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Esquire arguing that American movies could use a lot more incidental nudity -- that verisimilitude, should that be your goal, demands an acknowledgment that in real life people frequently don't have clothes on, even if they're not having sex or taking a shower at that particular moment. Shortly after its publication, I received a lengthy voicemail message from Jeff Lipsky*, thanking me profusely for speaking truth to power and whatnot. I don't even know how he got my number, frankly. After seeing Flannel Pajamas, though, I can see why he felt he'd found a kindred spirit: This is one of the most admirably frank depictions of a romantic relationship I've ever seen in an English-language film. (I never imagined I'd hear an actress as wholesome-looking as Julianne Nicholson say the words "I'm dripping.") Trouble is, I never remotely bought these two people as a couple, partly because I find Justin Kirk unaccountably irritating -- he was a large part of the reason I couldn't get through Mike Nichols' Angels in America -- but mostly because their personalities screamed "train wreck" right from scene one. Which you could argue is precisely the point, given the film's dispiriting narrative arc (think 5 x 2 in normal chronological order, with many more scenes)...but their initial infatuation still needs to be credible, and instead it comes off merely as a writer's fabrication (which is also a massive problem in the Ozon, but never mind). In other words, intent good, execution not so much. But I'm grateful to Kirk and Nicholson for their candor. Sets a good example.

    * (who's better known as a distribution exec than as a filmmaker; he'd pilloried me in the past for dissing various Lot 47 releases, notably Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and L.I.E. -- reputedly going so far as to claim that my negative review of the latter could only mean that I was sexually molested as a child [!])
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