The texture of Sundance lies in its diversity. While not as independent as before with the likes of Amazon, IFC and Netflix permeating the ranks, the voices still ring true although maintaining the mystery takes a little more intention.
The Death Of Stalin The basis of the end of Stalin here finds its tone in the aspect of a comic book which gives the characters a heightened sense of style. Of course the aspect that the film is in English with English speaking actors is the first adjustment. Once that suspension is accepted, the farcical nature of the power struggles take on an almost sardonic tone. Steve Buscemi chews the scenery unlike recent memory with bald cap in full view. The language, which is again not period specific, turns the manipulation into a sarcastic ballad. Jeffrey Tambor uses his comedic relay to good foil as the Deputy Secretary. Michael Palin plays a subtly sharp member of the cabinet. Olga Kurylenko is underused as a piano player whose note causes a sense of unfolding in the ranks. However it is Simon Russell Beale as Berria, the largest manipulator of the bunch that gives the film a sense of groundedness and drama while furthering the comedy. Weirdly it is his misplaced or lack of compassion that makes his comeuppance work with a sense of the tragic and gives the film’s resolution its soul.
Wildlife Carey Mulligan has always been luminous but considering her penchant for period movies always can seen sometimes muted in her performances as a form of underplaying. Here it is brimming at the surface giving her performance a sense of both vivaciousness and dread. Her highs and downfall are beautifully tragic and poignant. The film, set in 1950s Montana but shot in Oklahoma, is directed by actor Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”, “There Will Be Blood”) and co-written by Dano and Zoe Kazan. That mixture truly makes both sides pop. Jake Gyllenhaal (also a producer), more rarely seen, gives the film completely to Mulligan, even though his trademark intensive nature comes to bear in some scenes. However this is Mulligan’s movie and one of her best to date (even considering “Mudbound”). Central to the story is the POV of Gyllenhaal & Mulligan’s son Joe (played by the exceptional Ed Oxenbould) as he watches the disintegration of an American family. The greatest aspect is that all the character’s actions seem organic if flawed…the feelings simple but complex.
Piercing As part of the Midnight selection, the twist or necessity of the concept is usually key. The concept of a serial killer in his mind, methodical and precise, predicates the idea of what is going on within this character’s head but there is something a bit more seductive going on here. Christopher Abbott plays killer Reed with the restrictive element of an obsessive compulsive ruled by voices. The reality is that you can’t tell if what is actually going on is real or in his head. Is the story a projection of what he wants to happen or simply an extension of that. As Jackie, Mia Wasikowska shows an innate darkness combined with a playfulness that keys to one of her first grown up roles. Like Elle Fanning in “Neon Demon”, the proof is in the layers and shows that an evolution is happening. The basis is a novel written by Ryu Murakami has certain fetishistic trappings for sure but the ideal is that these two adults may in fact want to do what they are doing and enjoy what is happening to them. Director Nicolas Pesce it seems sees this film in certain ways it like a Grindhouse movie though the edges are very slick and even the construct of the city is mired in artificiality. However the scene that sells it employs the 70s ballad “Bluer Than Blue” which more than speaks to the characters’ abject state of being.
Studio 54 While there have been movies made on the aspect of Studio 54. hearing it from one of the creators in Ian Schrager who along with Steve Rubell masterminded this “lightning in a bottle” club that still entrances NY to this day gives it much more credence. The music and certain club photos are unmistakeable but it is the rise and fall from power and the motivations, many of them are asked about head on of Shrager as well as of one of the silent partners that make this an interesting watch for fans of NY lore. The power structure and even the thinking, including the drug use and skimming, which is never fully admitted to on camera, hangs there in the ether. It was a time of excess where the idea of what 54 was seemingly got away from its creators. But in certain moments, despite anything behind the scenes, good or bad, there was a sense of euphoria. The small vintage interviews really define it…one being Rubell’s glee in hanging with two of the drag queens downstairs as well as an “Off The Wall” era Michael Jackson speaking candidly about being able to lose himself on the dance floor at 54. There was a genuine happiness and ease with Jackson in that moment which, considering his life, is a wonder to behold.
The Happy Prince Rupert Everett seemingly disappeared in many way from the screen after his late 90s surge including his films with Madonna and Julia Roberts. The immediate perception is that he sequestered away in Europe starring in theater but the effervescence in all he did is something missing from today’s character work…a balance of the comedic and the real. With “The Happy Prince” about the latter years of Oscar Wilde who was shamed because of his homosexual affairs and cast out of certain constructs of society because of his dalliance with a male royal, Everett, writing and directing as well, examines a man with a gentleness of heart who tried to deny the status quo. Everett’s Wilde is not a cautionary tale but merely a tale about someone with great talent wanting to live the life the way he wanted to without apologies. Again, the texture could be interpreted in that this is the way Wilde saw his life versus those he loved. Everett presents Wilde, warts and all, from singing on top of tables to his final moments telling stories painting ideas that only Wilde could. “The Happy Prince” is not a masterpiece but knows its subject through and through and tells his story with a generous amount of heart balanced with a layer of pain.
By Tim Wassberg
The aspect of horror and how spectacle fits into the undeniable formula is the thought process that Rob Zombie can always skew but play with. With the new structure of the studios, it is harder and harder to make the film you want. It either has to be huge, undeniably indie or have an angel investor. Or you can do the crowdfunding approach. It worked for Zach Braff…and it definitely takes you back to your roots but it begs the question: what do the investors get in return? Usually with a lot of these approaches, there is a ton of gimmicks in playing to the crowd. You got to have a hook. What “31” has to its strength is a blessing of characters (more on the villain side) that keep it moving. The problem is that the backing superstructure is pretty weak. Now granted, most of the people seeing this film are not going to be looking at that. The one thing that Zombie can definitely do is set a scene. The ending of “Devil’s Rejects” optimizing the song “Freebird” is over the top and exhilarating on many levels. Here, both the beginning and ending have bookends that really set tone, both with music and editing. Zombie’s use of freeze frame is an art and always harkens his films back to the Grindhouse circuit. After the screening, he did make reference to growing up in carnivals among the carnies so that notion of a gypsy existence very much rings true here. Sheri Moon Zombie gets the female vigilante role and busts it out, going for gold. You know she feels safe to do whatever is necessary and she goes for it. The dialogue is what it is since it is working towards an end game. It is more for the theatricality of it then anything else. The revelation of the movie is Richard Brake who plays Doomhead. You’ve seen him in a ton of films and music videos as well as “Game Of Thrones”. He is the movie. His character has little motivation but his sheer presence, intelligence and physicality simply pummels off the screen. This character is doing a job, albeit a violent one, but he loves it. Every time he is on screen, nothing else can dominate it. You can build a new horror franchise off this character. No masks. Pure and simple. The weak spot is the meaning per se of the game itself. Malcolm McDowell, a longtime favorite of Zombie’s, takes on a maniacal role but the chemistry on it is not quite right. He gambles with two older ladies on the results of the game but their inclusion seems neither motivated or essential. The sequences essentially take you out of the movie. The other villain including a murderous midget dressed up like Hitler, two maniacal brothers with chainsaws and a girl/boy team that is all about beauty and the beast by way of a maniacal mix of “The Munsters” and the nihilists from ” The Big Lebowski” is interesting but despite an inkling doesn’t make a story connection. There is a small one with “beauty” but it is never really optimized. Again, the movie doesn’t necessarily need to be that deep. On one side you have a powerful villain presence and some good style but on the other side a fairly weak backbone in terms of concept. But the element of it balances a bit and ending is still pretty bad ass.
By Tim Wassberg
When you look at the structure of teen angst and rebellion, it is always interesting to look at the progression of both Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny. I saw Natasha at one of the first parties I attended at Sundance in a private house around 1997 partying with Eddie Furlong. Chloe I originally ran into when she had that infamous run of publicity with Vincent Gallo and “The Brown Bunny”. What these two girls have always known how to do is take risks though neither has truly broken out into mainstream fame. Sevigny has had more success due to the HBO fuel of “Big Love”.
In the new movie “Antibirth” which premieredin Sundance’s Midnight section, there is a possibility for sure but the hand of director Danny Perez is truly not steady enough to balance the tone and make it both horrifying and riveting. How it begins definitely has potential. These two bad ass chicks who are self destructive in their own personal kind of way almost have the necessity of “Thelma & Louise” for a new misshapen generation. The chemistry is palpable. These girls could do some damage if they really wanted to. The background of a desolate wasteland (obviously the tax rebate heaven Michigan in the winter) specifically help situations. Actually too much profanity and incessant drug use (specifically by Lyonne) dull the situation. It would have been better if she went harder (and did less…say heroin). It would become a signal of almost nihilism and a point of no return.
However as soon as the film passes its 1/3 point, it has shifted to become focused on Lyonne who is trying but not controlled enough. Sevigny is better but she disappears literally for most of the movie. The revelation as Lyonne becomes pregnant and starts to transition into the movie’s twist could even feel more isolating if it was shot better and honestly, stayed with a less fantastical. It takes on an almost carnie tone. “Antibirth” has a possibility of hard core sci fi that could have truly transcended optimizing the right score. The last five minutes starts to show that and a wider narrative idea but it is squandered, as though the director thought “this is cool” but wandered too much. It’s too bad because his leading ladies were undeniably up for the challenge, just not used to the point they should have. Their car banter is a small glimpse into what might have been.
By Tim Wassberg