DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: January 2015

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Four

The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The influential 1971 experiment wherein a groups of students volunteered for a psychological study about behavior, were divided into groups, prisoners and guards, and placed into a mock prison has been studied, discussed at length and even made into two different dramatic films. But even knowing how this story plays out the film is a tense, engaging, provocative and highly relevant political statement without even a whiff of preachiness. But most important it's an example of superb crafty filmmaking. Alvarez channels the cold precision of David Fincher procedurals and a dash of his dry sense of humour. Even if you know where the story is going Alvarez ratchets up the film to sky high levels of tension.

Unexpected (dir. Kris Swanberg)

The highs and lows of pregnancy told through dual stories of a 30-year old teacher (Cobie Smulders) and a 17-year old student (Gail Bean) both of whom received news of their pregnancies unexpectedly. As the nine months go by Smulders and Bean's characters bond over their insecurities and fear and for Smulders in particular the dual journey becomes an extended mentorship of the young student outside the classroom. We're all familiar with movie pregnancies and Swanberg's treatment is refreshingly organic and honest avoiding familiar comic ground already treaded by broader films such as Knocked Up. Unfortunately, the honest and decent approach means a palpable lack of conflict threatens to soften the picture to the point of understated boredom, but the respect for the inherent drama and power of the miracle of life carries us through. 

Listen to Me Marlon (dir. Stevan Riley)

The enigmatic life, career and personality of the famed method actor gets the full biography treatment but told with a mesmerizing  poetic and languid visual and aural aesthetic. The story of Brando's life is well known, his education in acting from Stella Adler in New York, his early triumphs on stage and screen, his lulls in the 60's, his introduction to Tahiti and his new family in the South Pacific, the triumph of his civil rights causes and the tragedy of the deaths in his family. Riley admirably lays down connective tissues between all of these aspects of his life and career to his enigmatic personality traits. As told through Brando's own self recordings the form even connects to his ruminating self styled performance in Apocalypse Now. The effect is hypnotic, lyrical and ethereal, the best kind of treatment for such an interesting man.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Three

Dope (dir. Rick Famuyiwa)

Bursting with joyous cinematic energy, colour, pop music, pop culture we can't help compare Dope to the energy and verve of the first films of Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Dope finds us cheering for three n'er do well high school geeks trying to make it through a south central LA high school. In particular Malcolm (Shameik Moore) who continually fights against gang culture, racism, and in general low expectations from his teachers. But Malcolm wants to go to Harvard. How is he going to do it? Of course it's dope. Famuyiwa drags us through roller coaster ride through LA in the same way Tarantino directed us in Pulp Fiction. Like these other filmmakers Famuyiwa takes pleasure in his cinematic diversions - each individual scene, through comic tone, editing and the gorgeous cinematography are crafted with the attention of their own little films. This is the work of great cinema.

Slow West (dir. John Maclean)

Despite being lightyears removed from the American frontier the allure of the venerable American genre attracts all filmmakers for all nationalities. Maclean's British/Kiwi Western uses the simple yet effective concept of a young man traversing the land looking to reunite with the lost love. As a lovesick Scot right off the boat, Kodi Smit-McPhee's meek naïveté to the environment is matched by the grizzled pessimism of his guide played by Michael Fassbender (doing his best as the John Wayne lone gunman archetype). Idiosyncratic characters and humour differentiate the film the classical form, but part of the thrill of the genre are the expected conventions. The whole unfortunately is not greater than the sum of its part, resulting in an admirable but not memorable entry of the genre.

Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Baumbach's roll of success continues. Once again matching up with her muse Greta Gerwig both as a star and cowriter Mistress America continues the examination of New York twenty/thirty something urbanites struggling to find self-satisfaction in the New York City hipster scene. If anything Gerwig is a another version of Adam Driver's character is When We Were Young, a scenester-extraordinaire with impressively eclectic tastes but a smokescreen to her deep rooted anxieties. We see Gerwig through the eyes of Lola Kirke her younger soon-to-be step sister and frightened Columbia student. Just like the idolization Ben Stiller gave Driver, Kirke sees Gerwig as the epitome of success and confidence. Gradually Gerwig's veneer dissolves over an entrepreneurial restaurant venture which goes sour. Comic dialogue flies fast and furious in the tradition of 30's screwball comedies. The throwback synth score and 80's rock, like Frances Ha, brings us back to career comedies of the 80's. Mistress America is not necessarily more accessible or conventional than Baumbach's previous two picture but more impressively neatly fitted into his cinematic voice at this stage of his career. 


Sunday 25 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Two

Glassland (dir. Gerard Barrett)

Unfortunately in terms of audience expectation Irishman Gerard Barrett's Glassland suffers from a somewhat misleading logline, "In a desperate attempt to reunite with his broken family, our young taxi driver becomes entangled in the criminal underworld." The criminal element is a minor part of this film which only rears its head in the final moments. At best Glassland carries on the tradition of British kitchen sink films, albeit Ireland here, but still a vivid depiction of characters struggling to make ends meets amid the demoralizing plague of alcoholism. In this case it's Toni Collette as the alcoholic mother of Jack Reynor's character, himself a humble cab driver so desperate to clean up his mother and, as the logline asserts, reunite his family. A slow pace without much proactivity from its hero there's that sense of us waiting for something to happen. We separately want Reynor to delve into this underworld proclaimed by the logline, but the sympathetic portrayal of the doomed mother and the heroic son engage us. Barrett thankfully lifts us out of the squalor with a strong dose of optimism even at the film's bleakest moments. There's also a minor discovey of a potential star in newbie Jack Reynor.

James White (dir. Josh Mond)

It's the Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon show for this intense mother-son pic. As the title character it's a major showcase for Abbott, a supporting actor, always interesting thanks in large part to his glossy but deeply penetrating eyes. He carries this picture and then some as a miscreant on a downward trajectory of self destruction. Ironically its the illness of his mother which brings him out of oblivion and might just get him on the straight and narrow. Director Josh Mond, in first five minutes or so never leaves Abbott's face in full frame closeup. Thankfully he relaxes to a more traditional visual approach but this opening signals the risky adventurousness of his story and point of view. 

Sundance 2015 - Day One

It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)

The economic simplicity of John Carpenter's horror classics seem to be the raisin d'être of this picture. The scenario is identified accurately in the title. Imagine an entity/monster/ghost/zombie following you forever, never stopping until you're dead. Mitchell combines the deadly unstoppable force of Michael Myers, Yul Brynner's robot gunslinger from Westworld and hell, why not, The Terminator to arrive at a monster as terrifying as all of them. As much as Mitchell wants to freak you out he wants to bring us all back to the nostalgia of the 80's when these films were in vogue. Mitchell's previous film Myth of the American Sleepover was an honest melancholy teen throwback picture and It Follows admirably finds the same kind of gentle honesty, helped in part by his marvellous company of actors used in both films as well as a delicious electronic Carpenter-esque score.

Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir. Nikole Beckwith)

Imagine the most nightmarish scenario, the kidnapping of your child and then pile on another nightmare, the return of that child years later only to find her not accepting your own love as a parent. This is the starting and ending point for Beckwirth's psychological brain teaser. Based on a play Beckwith constrains the story to mostly a mother/daughter journey anchored by a raucous tete a tete of actors Saorise Ronan and Cynthia Nixon. Unfortunately the experience is more frustrating than intriguing. We understand and sympathize with the dilemma of the mother and father not being able to connect with their daughter but a ludicrous turn of the story in the second half pushes dramatic irony passed the point of plausibility. That said the film might intrigue those caught up by the caustic mother/son conflict in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Ten Thousand Saints (dir. Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

It would be impossible to describe the complex plotting and relationships of the half dozen characters in this delirious 80's set coming of age/ family dramedy. Springer-Berman/Pulcini's picture charts the journey of an anxious teenager (Asa Butterfield) born with a pot smoking deadbeat dad (Ethan Hawke) from his humble Vermont childhood home to a life on the road in a hardcore punk band with all sorts of teen pregnancy, drugs, death and abandonment part of the mix. The filmmakers elegantly move between comedy and melodrama but there's just too much going on to keep us focused and thus engaged.