So after I get home from the “Artist at the Table” event Wednesday night, I need to get a head start on the movie watching with a video link for William H. Macy’s feature film directorial debut, RUDDERLESS. Unfortunately, because of pain-in-the-a*s buffering issues, it takes me 3 hours to watch the film. In fact, James Faust comes in after more late night hobnobbing and, not seeing me, turns all the lights off in the house, leaving me to finish watching the film in the dark (by that point my will to survive had been sapped so I couldn’t muster any energy to say anything). At 4AM, I finished the film. Thus, it effectively became my morning screening. Sorry, DINOSAUR 13 or LOCKE – not gonna happen.
The feature film directorial debut of veteran and award-winning character actor William H. Macy, RUDDERLESS follows the painful struggle an ad exec (Billy Crudup) goes through to make it through each day and re-build his life after the tragic death of his son during a high school shooting. A descent into full-on alcoholism and refusal to engage with loved ones, or even accept the responsibility of anything but menial labor and living on a boat, is the comforting harbor that he settles in before discovering a cache of tapes and lyric notes for songs that his son had written.
Singing and playing one of the songs at a local bar begins to bring the grieving man back and then, after being prodded by a young and socially awkward musician (Anton Yelchin), he starts playing the songs with a band, invigorating both of them – until the news that the songs were his son’s and not his, as well as the details of his son’s death, threaten to tear everything apart again.
While the film doesn’t really tread any new ground, the material is deftly handled by Macy (who co-wrote the script) and is emotionally effective. Yelchin and Crudup play well off one another and Laurence Fishburne and Felicity Huffman are also on hand to provide strong support.
The other major hurdle the film manages to get over is the quality and listen-ability of the music. That aspect can sink a premise like this if the songs that everyone is supposed to respond to so emotionally and/or enthusiastically isn’t really all that great. In this case – for me – they worked and I could see them resonating with a lot of people. Much like the film itself.
Expected Sundance Reaction: This is the kind of film that by its very nature is in the wheelhouse for the Sundance audience. The question is whether it will go beyond being thought of as simply “good” to being a talked about title.
Expected Real World Reaction: “Comfortably dramatic,” it could have a nice little run in theaters before being a cable perennial.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE was easily one of the most buzzed-about films at last year’s New York Film Festival and is set to return to Film Society, along with a retrospective of his other work following this film fest victory lap at Sundance. The film focuses on a pair of ancient vampires – Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who is an underground musician living in Detroit, and his enigmatic and beatific lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) living in Tangier.
Eve joins Adam in Detroit not knowing he has contemplated killing himself (via a wooden bullet), so weary he has become over the state of the world and the state of humanity. The two enjoy each other’s company and their mutual observations on society and art, etc. until the unexpected and unwelcome arrival of Eve’s wild younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) threatens to throw their world into chaos.
The film is rich in knowing moments of reflection and commentary on the ebb and flow of life, and the arts, and what we regard as culture, as well as being delightfully playful regarding the vampire conventions (two words: blood popsicles) and namedropping of the vampires’ past contemporaries who took credit for their work like Shakespeare and Schubert. Hiddleston and Swinton are two actors that one could theoretically spend lifetimes watching in the theater, but the film itself is so wonderfully balanced and keenly observed that it satisfies both the vampire film expectations as well as being a pleasure on so many other levels. I can’t wait to watch it again.
Expected Sundance Reaction: This is a “reward” film for people to see, so they can relax and enjoy without the pressure or angst of judging one of the premieres.
Expected Real World Reaction: This is definitely made to order for the big cities and could get a slow burn audience build nationally before being a big hit on VOD.
For my next film, I make a last minute judgment call to skip LIAR’S DICE in favor of R100. I remember James Faust acting like it was an automatic that I was going to see the film, which of course put it in my head that it must then be the kind of film that I NEEDED to see. So, choice made I see Yahoo Movie’s Thelma Adams and as we settle in to watch the film, she reminds me that the director, Hitoshi Matsumoto, also directed BIG MAN JAPAN (2007).
That film was full of weird and influenced how I do film fest PR in a major way. Since I was not a fan of that film until the very last scene that played during the final credits, it taught me how important it was to “set the table” for someone before they watch a film to prepare them as best you can for what they will be watching. In fact, the same applies to how I review films. So, all of that being said…
Hitoshi Matsumoto’s R100 is about a mild-mannered salesman whose quiet and mundane life raising his young son by himself, while his wife is comatose, is shaken up at random moments by a series of black leather-clad dominatrix women who abuse and humiliate him. These women are part of a secret S&M club he has joined that specializes in surprising its clients/members in public – each one with a distinctively bizarre style or specialty (one dumps him into a fountain repeatedly, another smashes his sushi before he can eat it and another is remarkably adept at spitting, etc.) Each visit results in a moment of blissful zen for the salesman until the visits and methods cross a personal line and threaten his livelihood and his family. When he protests, the CEO of the S&M Club declares war on him and a battle for his survival ensues. Meanwhile, the film provides its own self-commentary as a censorship committee views the film and offers their own critiques and questions (“Why would a S&M Club have a CEO?”) about what is happening.
As the intensity and bizarre quality of the dominatrix visits escalate, R100 achieves a giddy absurd comedy that is truly unique. In addition, the breaks in the action where the censorship committee provide their analysis brings to mind Godard’s joyful tactic of pointing out the cinematic elephant in the room.
That being said, while the film’s own thought – that no one under the age of 100 will get meaning of what they are watching – is extreme, R100 will definitely not be for everyone. However, for that segment of the audience in Matsumoto’s wheelhouse, the film will be a lot of fun.
Expected Sundance Reaction: The reaction will likely be divided between actual walkouts and signing up for fan club membership, with little in between.
Expected Real World Reaction: I think this one pretty much defines “specialty title. So, if it appears at a theater near you – consider it special.
Afterwards, I make a quick trip over to Sundance HQ to see how many of the tickets I’ll be getting for the public screenings I requested. Unhappily, it turns out – I was one for four, which means I won’t be reviewing THE GUEST, THE VOICES and HITS. Oh well.. I also notice that my wife has texted a photo of our cats, effectively beginning her emotional terrorism of me as punishment for coming to Sundance without her. She is ruthless and I know this is simply an opening shot across the bow.
Peter Sattler’s directorial debut, CAMP X-RAY, seeks to put a face on Guantanamo Bay by exploring the relationship between a young female soldier on duty (Kristen Stewart) and one of the prisoners she is tasked with guarding (Payman Maadi). The soldier finds herself negotiating both the learning process of handling prisoners from a different culture and religion, as well as the gender politics of the armed forces that to not play into a woman’s favor. So, as the one prisoner pushes her to communicate and taunts her to move past her ignorance and prejudice toward him, she must decipher what she can trust versus her training and orders. At the same point, the prisoner, given hope at being seen and treated as a human being, may be pushed to an emotional breaking point at the thought it could all be taken away again.
While the film is an admirable effort to address a topic (Guantanamo Bay) that nearly everyone in this country would like to ignore or sweep under the rug, it really only succeeds in the broadest of strokes. The film is sure to disappoint anyone looking for a grittier, less compromising approach to the subject and it is also undercut by the casting of Kristen Stewart, who, regardless of anyone’s opinions about her as an actress, may possibly be the tiniest, least imposing soldier since Michael J. Fox in CASUALTIES OF WAR. However, there is also a huge segment of the movie-going public that don’t want anything more than a film that will deal with a subject like this by skimming lightly on the surface and tugging the heart and guilt strings with the emotional performance that Maadi provides. I think they’ll respond to this film and be moved by it.
Expected Sundance Reaction: I don’t see this one generating a lot of excitement among such a strong lineup this year.
Expected Real World Reaction: Again, I think the film actually could hit a sweetspot and find an audience in the multiplexes as well as on cable.
After coming back to the house and getting some writing in, I am off to see my first Midnight Movie of the fest with Film Comment’s Laura Kern. She scored me a ticket from the film’s publicist AND I‘m armed with Ruth Mutch’s Express Guest Pass – so it’s off to the legendary Egyptian to see THE BABADOOK. I get there and find Laura immediately and we are escorted to the front of a very long line of people because Laura has some kind of indestructible press pass for the super important (she’s an editor for Film Comment Magazine) and I don’t want to even know how much the pass I’ve got costs. Inside, we talk to Variety’s Scott Foundas and compare notes in what we’ve seen before he heads over to sit with the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis and Laura and I get ready for some Australian horror.
Jennifer Kent’s feature film writing/directing debut THE BABADOOK is an artful classic treatment of the haunted house/possession horror genre. The film follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother struggling to care for and handle her unruly seven year-old son, Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed in a car accident taking his mother to the hospital the day he was born, and both bear the intense psychic scars of that loss. However, Samuel’s tantrums and emotional outbursts increase after the mysterious appearance of a children’s book on his bookshelf about a boogeyman named Mister Babadook.
Soon after reading the book, Samuel becomes increasingly agitated and aggressive, claiming he needs to keep the monster from killing his mother, and Amelia increasingly becomes spooked by what seem to be threats against the pair from the Babadook. As the tension and dread mounts, and increasingly ostracized by everyone else in their lives, Amelia discovers the Babadook may intend to use her to bring harm to her own son.
The film could be looked at in many ways as an Australian companion piece to the very successful THE CONJURING, as it shares several themes and hits many of the same notes in pursuit of frightening its audience. While that alone would be very much to THE BABADOOK’s credit and easily enough to recommend it, Jennifer Kent has deftly added style to the proceedings while literally fleshing out a familiar yet distinctive children’s boogeyman character, lifting him from the page and tying his existence into the wounded emotional discord that exists between the mother and son. The result is a refreshing artful approach to horror that still scores high on the scare meter as well.
Expected Sundance Reaction: A scary movie, yet not a gory one. There is always an audience for that no matter where you are.
Expected Real World Reaction: This one could clean up as a Halloween programmer, regardless of the media platform.