EDITORS NOTE: Below are a series of snapshot reviews provided for indieWIRE by film critic Eric Kohn, offering first looks at the films being shown at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
“500 Days of Summer”
“500 Days of Summer” is one of those quirky Sundance comedies that will show up at the festival until the end of time: A playful relationship comedy with broad strokes of bittersweet commentary, a simplistic crowd-pleasing sensibility and name actors whose names are synonymous with festival indies that aren’t actually indie. Produced by Fox Searchlight, “500 Days” revolves around greeting card designer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his not-quite girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who develop a strong emtional and physical bond, but can’t quite figure out how to define their relationship. Tom falls for Summer’s cutesy looks and temperament, but Summer has a problem with long-term commitment. The movie jumps back and forth between the solemn aftermath of their affair and its halcyon days, but the complex structure can’t hide the highly conventional nature of the material. “Memento” this is not.
Although not consistently hilarious, it’s hard to deny the movie’s basic charm. Director Marc Webb uses a handful of jokey techniques to create a sense of levity throughout the story, and it’s these moments that work beyond everything else in the mostly cliche-ridden plot. A brilliant post-coital dance sequence (presumably taking place within Tom’s head), coupled with a split screen sequence in the final act, suggest the potential of a subtler film. Nevertheless, “500 Days” still manages to be smarter than the industry standard for this brand of whimsical fluff.
Nobody really expected Greg Mottola to screw this one up. The “Superbad” director makes a triumphant return to Park City (his debut, “Daytrippers,” played at Slamdance a decade ago) with one of the sharpest coming of age movies in years. No hyperbole there; despite the implications of his resume, Mottola is something of an antithesis to the Judd Apatow oeuvre, creating smart comedies where the humor emerges from the naturalism of his highly complex characters.
Set in 1987, “Adventureland” centers on a broke college graduate (Jesse Eisenberg) in need of a summer job to pay for grad school. Winding up at the eponymous theme park, he develops a fragile relationship with one of his troubled coworkers (Kristen Stewart). Conventional relationship issues eventually emerge, but Mottola refrains from overplaying the drama or hammering down on the formula. With a gentle, almost Altmaneque touch, Mottola guides a talented ensemble cast through his undeniably sharp script. The score by Yo La Tengo, coupled with a delicious soundtrack of classic eighties hits, provide a nifty supplement to this infectious romance. Mottola doesn’t simply enjoy teenage angst–he gets it (even the awkward makeout scenes are well-choreographed).
Stewart, now basking in the monumental success of “Twilight,” finally reaches her understated potential, while Eisenberg remains his predictably klutzy self. A supporting cast, including Bill Hader and the delightfully geeky Martin Starr, keep the side stories in check. It’s impossible to disregard the charm of “Adventureland,” despite its extreme overexposure. Now that Mottola has the limelight, he should get the chance to soak it in.
Palestinian filmmaker Cherian Dabis’s “Amreeka”–Arabic for “America”–uses the basic formula of the classic immigration story and more or less succeeds with it. Shot in the West Bank and Canada, the movie follows a middle-aged Palestinian woman named Muna (Nisreen Faour) and her disgruntled teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) whose plans to resettle in the United States don’t quite go according to plan. Crashing at the suburban home of her sister (Hiam Abbass) in Illinois, Muna winds up broke and takes a dead end job at White Castle, while Fadi deals with rampant anti-Arab racism at the local high school.
Set during the onslaught of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, “Amreeka” mainly works due to its mostly Middle Eastern cast (and “Arrested Development” star Alia Shawkat as Muna’s assimilated niece). The script falters when the situations grow too transparent. It’s especially painful to watch the underwritten roles of the racist teens, whose sentiments appear overly simplistic and lessen the dramatic effect. However, Dabis remains spot-on when focusing on Muna’s vain attempts to interact with other cultures (a provocative parallel between U.S. and Israeli border control stands out), and she avoids an unnecessarily tidy resolution. “Ameerka” ends with good cheer, but a strong dose of ambiguity hovers in the background. “We’re a minority here and a minority there,” Muna concludes, implying that some things will never fully change.
“Art & Copy”
In “Art & Copy,” veteran documentarian Doug Pray explores the world of advertisement as a purely creative endeavor. With a slew of talking heads responsible for a series of famous campaigns–from “got milk?” and “Just Do It” to “It’s Morning in America”–Pray crafts a warm, engaging portrait of the greatest artistic minds of the field from the past fifty-odd years. However, his one-sided focus causes the paradoxical nature of this widely exploited craft to take a backseat when it really belongs in the front row.
While one accomplished designer admits near the end that “brands can be dangerous,” there’s little in the movie to back up his sentiment. No corporate voices struggle to justify their monetization of art. Instead, much of the running time focuses on the superficial reasons behind certain successful ad campaigns, ignoring the eerie psychological and propagandistic implications behind it all. Meanwhile, in today’s media-saturated environment, Pray’s portrait seems oddly dated. Ronald Reagan’s successful ads worked wonders in the early 1980’s–but what of John McCain’s? Only Apple gets the 21st century spotlight, and it’s hard not to feel like the movie inadvertently becomes a promotional tool itself. Even with the occasional caveats, the central argument leaves something to be desired. The idea that creative people control the advertising business is unconventional, but it’s also unsatisfying.
Sterlin Harjo’s “Barking Water” is a quiet, affecting portrait of mortality. The movie revolves around middle aged Native American couple (well, former couple) Frankie and Irene (Richard Ray Whitman and Casey Camp-Horinek) as they travel across a golden American landscape while seeking to take Frankie back to his family before he dies.
Thoughtfully bittersweet, Harjo’s grown up drama benefits greatly from Frederick Schroeder’s lavish storybook-like cinematography. The script, while a little unpolished, remains thoroughly heartfelt right up to the understated finish. “Barking Water” isn’t a monumental accomplishment, although the ages and ethnicities of its leads lend some distinction to it. The rest of the appeal lies with the gentle sway of its solemn narrative momentum.
A tear-jerker with a point behind the gravitas, “Boy Interrupted” should be required viewing for anyone close to someone suffering from a mental illness. Both on camera and behind it, documentarian Dana Perry bravely surveys the circumstances leading up to her fifteen year old son Evan’s suicide in 2005. Perry and her husband — also a filmmaker — captured nearly every episode in Evan’s tumultous life on camera, allowing them to recreate the impact of his depression with a wealth of home video footage. Combining those scenes with input from nearly everyone in Evan’s life, including his devastatingly puzzed psychiatrist and his high school friends, Perry crafts a compelling portrait of emotional insecurity.
Evan’s eerie fascination with death from a radically young age gives way to premature teen rebellion, which suggests he grew up too fast. However, Perry’s study remains fairly inconclusive. Like the supremely unsettling “Dear Zachary: A Letter from a Father to His Son,” the movie serves the director and its audience at once. Unlike “Dear Zachary,” however, “Boy Interrupted” doesn’t contain any major plot twists in its construction, opting instead to simultaneously achieve two goals: It universalizes the drama while succeeding as a powerful manifestation of artistic catharsis.
“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”
An actor’s playground, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” demonstrates John Krasinski’s willingness to take a distinctly non-commercial route for his directorial debut. “The Office” star can’t quite energize the disjointed series of character sketches from the late David Foster Wallace’s original book, but there are enough engaging monologues peppered throughout the brief seventy-seven minutes to prevent the project from becoming entirely dismissable.
To help structure the story, Krasinski invented the character of solitary academic Sara (Julianne Nicholson), whose experience with her estranged boyfriend (Krasinski) leads her to conduct a series of candid interviews with various male subjects as she comes to grips with her romantic frustration. The fragmented narrative, which moves between these one-sided conversations and Sara’s personal life, never quite finds a coherent rhythm. Fortunately, the actors–including “Death Cab for Cutie” frontman Ben Gibbard and Will Arnette–get plenty of space to dominate the screen. Jon Brion’s chilled out score helps fix the uneasy transitions, but “Hideous Men” lacks consistent emotional resonance, and doesn’t exactly aim to please impatient audiences. Then again, neither did Wallace.
“The Clone Returns Home”
As contemplative science fiction goes, Kanji Nakajima’s “The Clone Returns Home” plays like a subpar “Solaris.” The Japanese writer-director undoubtedly demonstrates an eye for immersive visuals, but the overall package amounts to little more than a bore. This haunting story focuses on a young astronaut whose death in space leads researchers to attempt an experimental cloning procedure to resurrect him. However, not unlike “Multiplicity,” the cloned astronaut isn’t quite the same person as his original self. When a childhood memory leads him to wander aimlessly in the wilderness, scientists decide to perfect the experiment by creating a second clone. This one works out a little better, but appears to lack his soul. “The clone is a spirit connecting life and death,” ruminates one scientist, pointing out that the revived astronaut can’t distinguish between the ordinary and the fantastic — whatever that means.
While never tapping into the otherworldly engagement of classic science fiction literature, Nakajima certainly tries hard to do just that. Along with the ponderous pace, dreary photography and deadpan performances, “The Clone Returns Home” contains breathtaking outer space sequences and poetic views of hyper-realistic landscapes from an ambiguous future. But it’s not enough for Nakajima to establish that world; he needs to make it interesting. On that front, “The Clone” simply doesn’t compute.
Environmental documentaries suffer from the paradigm set forth by the success of “An Inconvenient Truth.” That means the genre is typically perceived as a haven for long-winded soapbox stands and dry moralizing under the guise of big screen entertainment. Louise Psihoyos’s riveting dolphin documentary “The Cove” offers the ideal alternative: It’s both an educational work of art and a classic espionage tale . Smoothly edited to the beat of an engrossing cinematic score, the movie focuses on the struggle of a few passionate activists attempting to save dolphins from capture under clandestine circumstances in a tiny cove in Taiji, Japan. Psihoyos uses this setting as a jumping-point for exploring the general problems plaguing Japan’s fishing industry, both for animals and humans alike.
When not touching on the broader issues — such as mercury poisoning that results from exported dolphin meat — Psihoyos lets his fascinating subjects tell the story, with particular emphasis on the expanding worldview of Richard O’Barry, the marine mammal specialist whose desire to ensure dolphin safety emerged when none other than Flipper died in his arms.O’Barry and his colleagues make daring rescue missions to the cove when faced by Japanese authorities that continually try to block their efforts. Psihoyos captures many of these sequences on camera, including the movie’s horrific climax, when a bloody dolphin massacre unfolds on several hidden cameras. The director manages to create an emotionally potent narrative without simplifying the altruism of his subjects. They certainly aren’t blind tree huggers. “It’s not about intelligence,” says one, rejecting the possibility of anthropromorphizing the creatures. “It’s about conciousness.”
“The Girlfriend Experience”
A period piece set in late 2008, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” sets a clever relationship drama amid recession-era woes. Starring porn actress Sasha Grey as Christine, a self-described “sophisticated escort” in New York City, the movie broadens the minimalist approach that the director first applied in “Bubble.” Soderberg creates an eerie atmosphere by esoterically cutting between Christine’s various clients and her unique relationship with her fast-talking metropolitan boyfriend.
A hustler for hard times, Christine puts on a tough facade when questioned about the validity of her profession by a local journalist (Marc Jacobson, who wrote a real magazine piece about escorts), but her fragility eventually starts bubbling to the surface.
Soderberg’s off-center technique, which involves excessively long takes, unusual framing stategies and the gorgeous photography supplied by his beloved RED camera, suits the need for the movie to work as a nuanced character study. Christine’s doomed power drive echoes the motives of Wall Street and other contemporary forms of avariciousness – which turns her intellectual dysfunction into a parable for modern times. “I should probably see a shrink,” one client tells her, “but it seems like more fun to see you.” As a dumping ground for American hedonism, Christine symbolizes the frailty of the last eight years, and leaves the future wide open. In other words, it’s the ideal inauguration day treat.
Chris Rock smoothly navigates the complex cultural forces behind African American hairstyles in “Good Hair,” a documentary directed by Jeff Stilson and co-written by the topical comedian. Rock opens the movie by declaring his need to explore the extensive relationship black women tend to form with their hair, so he can give his young daughters proper guidance. The movie, although obviously witty in tone, follows up on the underlying seriousness of Rock’s mission by broadly surveying the African American hair industry — which, as it turns out, mostly belongs to white people.
Based around the highly regarded Bronner Brothers Hair Show, “Good Hair” features a series of diverse talking heads, including a hilariously candid Al Sharpton, waxing poetic on the significance of hairstyles in their lives. The strongest sequence, however, ventures beyond American borders to the main source of the country’s hair source: India, a place where a few strands can amount to a worth greater than gold. Avoiding his conventional stand-up routine, Rock doesn’t spend the movie ranting about the paradoxes of the issue, choosing instead to step back and let facts speak for themselves. The final third mainly takes place at the aforementioned hair show, and it’s here that “Good Hair” veers into derivative reality competition territory. However, Rock manages to set forth a compelling thesis — that much of the distinctiveness of black hair stems from an unspoken desire to look white.
Every pity party has its limits, and “The Greatest” pushes most of them. Shana Feste’s cliche-ridden story centers around bereaved couple Allen (Pierce Brosnan) and Grace (Susan Sarandon), whose teenage son Bennett (Aaron Johnson, primarily seen in flashbacks) dies in a car accident with his new girlfriend, Rose (Carey Mulligan). Months later, Rose shows up at the family’s doorstep with a baby on board, which eventually leads to a series of infuriatingly bad scenes where Allen and Grace make peace with Rose as a part of their lives.
Despite numerous script problems, Brosnan turns in a subtle performance as a fast-thinking math professor in constant denial of his discontent, although Sarandon goes over the top in the moments that call for particularly violent emotional breakdowns. However, Feste actually displays an exceptional formalism in her first writer-director excursion — in the first half of the movie, that is — employing long takes and clever symbolism to mirror the family’s distinct unhappiness. The second half, however, plays like a rejected soap opera. As he tends to do in overly melodramatic stories of troubled marriages, Michael Shannon, as the driver responsible for Bennett’s death, steals the show.
“In The Loop”
The aesthetics of “The Office” meet those of “The West Wing” in the scathing political comedy “In the Loop,” a speedy close-up on the dysfunctional working relationships of Capital Hill. Taking advantage of a hugely talented cast of American and British performers, director Armando Iannucci focuses on a rambunctious group of fast-talking American and British government employees helplessly grappling with whether or not they want to launch a war. Standouts from the ensemble cast include James Gandolfini as a conflicted general and Simon Foster as a bumbling British Secretary of State whose miscalculated comments to the press continually complicate matters.
Iannucci’s shakycam, quasi-improvised style, widely popularized by the onslaught of digital cameras, creates a sense of naturalism while giving the actors freedom to play with their roles. The story occasionally grows too dense for even devout political honchos, but the finest scenes of “In the Loop” thrive on a certain amount of confusion. Ultimately, Iannucci seems less interested in satirizing the government than in showcasing the absurdities that truly exist. [Eric Kohn]
“I Love You Phillip Morris”
“I Love You Philip Morris” is the “Brokeback Mountain” of American movie comedies, but that alone doesn’t make it especially good. Taking cues from the true story of gay con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and his prison lover Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), co-directors Jon Requa and Glenn Ficara assemble a crass, tonally uneven romantic dramedy that undulates in quality with nearly every scene change. Steven’s early years as a married closet case play like deadpan satire of American conservatism; when the character winds up in jail for his fraudulent behavior, the script shifts to raunchy lowbrow jokes, as if hailing from the universe of the Farrelly brothers. Then, for a few brief moments, it’s a quiet tragedy–with elements of “The Shawshank Redemption” oddly turning up–and, finally, it pulls together the whole package for a mess of moods in the final minutes.
But the finale of “Phillip Morris” vastly improves on the earlier sections for precisely this reason. Both darkly comic and vaguely humorous, it finally hits a unique note–not to mention a familiar one: Requa and Ficarra, making their directorial debut, co-wrote the brilliantly downbeat holiday comedy “Bad Santa,” and elements of that movie’s gritty humor exist in certain parts of “Phillip Morris.” Unfortunately, Carrey seems miscast as the slick anti-hero, which deals a serious blow to the believability factor in several key scenes–particularly the ones requiring him to cuddle with McGregor. Their intimacy plays for simplistic jokes that lend an unrealistic quality to the relationship. The time has arrived where a project like this shouldn’t necessarily represent a bold move for contemporary movie stars–which is why they shouldn’t feel pressured to do it.
“Mary and Max”
Sundance’s opening night feature, the moody claymation character study “Mary and Max,” makes sense as the first movie screened at the festival because of its flaws. Australian animator Adam Elliot–whose Oscar-winning short “Harvey Krumpet” played at Sundance several years ago–creates a unique mixture of darkly playful and bittersweet vibes with his quixotic visual technique, but lacks the ability to make the whole thing jive together as a single package.
Less fluid than sequential, “Mary and Max” tells the story of a lonely young Australian girl (voiced Toni Collette) whose only friend is her unlikely pen pal, a vehemently anti-social New Yorker named Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, with a delightfully exaggerated Bronx whine). Individual scenes exploring the lives of these alienated personalities have an addictive quality, given Elliot’s spectacular knack for creating a fully formed universe by using the painstaking, centuries-old technique of movie magic yore. Perhaps because the filmmaker’s style has such remarkable individuality, the movie beats out other recent claymation ventures–including the Israeli feature “$9.99” and Henry Selick’s upcoming “Coraline”–for constructing an entire world with its own special brand of absurdity. At the same time, Elliot could benefit from a rigorous script doctor: While the simplicity of the narrative reflects an intentionally morose tone, it also hints at the filmmaker’s room to grow.
“The Missing Person”
Only the second 9/11 noir after “Able Danger,” Noah Buschel’s “The Missing Person” pays homage to classic detective stories without really adding to the formula. Although it’s nowhere near the same quality, “The Missing Person” begs comparison to Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” which upgraded Raymond Chandler’s disaffected private eye to a contemporary setting. Buschel, a New Yorker, was reading Chandler when the Twin Towers fell. The resulting movie reflects the precise combination of those two components. While thematically muddled and lethargically paced, “The Missing Person” holds plenty of appeal for anyone interested in experiments with tone.
Michael Shannon, intense as always, scowls and grunts his way through a familiar (yet satisfying) performance as a disgruntled New York private investigator hired to tail an anonymous man through the California desert. Drifting along a frustratingly vague plot, Shannon’s character can’t always sustain the lack of engaging forward motion. Still, the details of his subject–a World Trade Center survivor who decided to fake his death and leave his wife–provide a focal point for patient audiences.
Buschel’s script could have benefited from a cleaner storyline, but Shannon brings a seriousness to the role where other actors may have exaggerated it. Amy Ryan, as the detective’s enigmatic client, puts on an icy demanor that pales in comparison. However, she and Shannon’s restrained performances help maintain the movie’s consistently ominous tone, which certainly fits the subject matter.
Sam Rockwell gets a chance to showcase his broad performative range in the minimalist science fiction drama “Moon,” directed by Duncan Jones in the vein of the genre’s classic entries. Set in the near future, when Earth’s main source of energy comes from the moon, the story is refreshingly low key. Rockwell, essentially the only physical member of the cast, plays an astronaut about to finish up his solitary lunar duty and return to his wife on Earth.
Or is he? When the character accidentally discovers a live clone of himself near his base, it becomes increasingly clear that his terrestrial superiors have a shadier agenda behind their energy generation. Rockwell gets several scenes to interact with his double, smartly complicating the theatrical component of the movie by introducing low level special effects that directly service the plot. The exterior shots, exclusively made with CGI, work well enough as eerie props to supplement this dark story of corporate exploitation.
Rockwell’s only co-star is a computer called Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey in a detached performance that unavoidably evokes HAL from “2001”–but the acting achievement of the movie undoubtedly lies with Rockwell. Based around his diverse exclamations in multiple roles, “Moon” has a slow, steady pace that exclusively lies with the actor’s intense investment in the role(s). The pace is lethargic–perhaps more than it should be, given the confusing plot. But Jones nevertheless offers a welcome alternative to mainstream sci-fi. Nathan Parker’s visually-oriented script nails the genre’s original appeal: Before it wows you with special effects, it forces you to think.
“Peter and Vandy”
A pointlessly disjointed romantic comedy, Jay DePietro’s “Peter and Vandy” never gets as clever as the filmmaker clearly wishes it could be. DePietro’s script, based on his own play, investigates the ups and downs of young New York lovers Peter (Jason Ritter) and Vandy (Jess Weixler), whose reasons for staying together seem constantly out of focus. Although both actors put considerable effort into creating distinctive characters, any impact from these performances is lost due to the oddly nonlinear plot design: DePietro jumps back forth to different time periods in the relationship with little regard for coherence or narrative effect. At one moment, Peter and Vandy are happily embarking on their inaugural date; then, they’re squabbling about why things won’t work out.
Theoretically, this type of progression could develop a rhythm of its own, but DePietro’s dialogue has virtually no permanence. When a lengthy argument scene involves the semantics of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you know something isn’t working right. When the movie returns to the PB&J conundrum several scenes later, it becomes clear that there was nothing working in the first place.
“Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire” is a movie of many textures, each one illuminating the emotionally gripping narrative at its core. Lee Daniels directs with bold strokes that could go wrong at any moment, but generally serve to illuminate a troubled life and the justified desire to escape it. The story of a troubled Harlem teen named Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) impregnated by her absent father, “Push” progresses with a steadily engaging series of starts and stops in the frayed world of its talented star. While fending off her dysfunctional mother (Monique, in a stunningly psychotic turn), Precious gradually learns to surpass her aimless fantasies and come to grips with the troubles at hand. Using lavishly photographed sequences, Daniels contrasts Precious’s daily woes with the happier existence inside her head, but these moments gradually give way to the protagonist’s fulfillment of her actual goals.
Moved to an alternative school to meet her special needs, Precious learns from more caring adults (including Mariah Carey as a trenchant social worker) about her obvious potential to mature. A spunky character with an increasing ability to editorialize about her new environment (“they talk like TV channels I don’t watch,” she says of her newfound mentors), Precious makes the ideal heroine of modern times. “Push” does not function exclusively as a story of race, but as a universal depiction of real world struggle. The only question is whether distributors can push themselves to get it out there.
As the preeminent risk-taking journalist of our time, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof makes an ideal documentary subject. In “Reporter,” director Eric Metzger discovers that potential. Following the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe on his 2008 trip to Congo–where he was accompanied by a duo of younger journalists to broaden the reach of his coverage–Metzger wisely avoids turning the details of Kristof’s mission into a blind hagiography. Instead, he uses Kristof’s techniques to illustrate the profound motives of humanitarian aid.
With a series of gorgeous, frequently haunting sequences, Metzger captures the wide-ranging responses of struggling Africans presented with Kristof and his trusty notepad. Standout moments include the discovery of an impoverished woman in desperate need of medical attention, and a morally conflicting encounter with the country’s leading warlord, who creepily invites the team to dine with him. Without extensive cinematic manipulation, Metzger captures the full complexity of the inherent drama.
While in awe of Kristof’s work, Metzger doesn’t hesitate to question the methodology behind it. He emphatically grapples with Kristof’s “dismal illumination” of the worst stories in every country he visits. Overall, however, the filmmaker acknowledges Kristof’s success at packaging the world’s greatest catastrophes the only way his readers will pay attention–as thrilling adventure stories.
“Rudo y Cursi”
Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal create great onscreen chemistry in “Rudo y Cursi,” an otherwise dispiritingly predictable sports comedy about a pair of Mexican half-brothers competing against each other in major league football. Produced by the ubiquitous Three Amigos, the movie lacks the distinction generally associated with the Latin American cinema produced by the beloved trio. Director Carlos Cuaron could easily import this familiar sibling rivalry plot to mainstream American audiences, which might explain why Sony Pictures Classics saw enough potential to buy it before the festival. That said, scenes set in the brothers’ Mexican villa are nicely shot to highlight the brothers’ gritty upbringing, and the actors do their part to inject a sense of believability into the scenario. However, they can’t surmount the cliche ridden script, which contains obvious bits of cringe-worthy wisdom all budding screenwriters should avoid. One highlight: “The grand game of life has defeated the beautiful game of soccer.” There’s nothing grand or beautiful about that.
“World’s Greatest Dad”
A scene from Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad.” Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival. One of the oddest comedic star vehicles since Jim Carrey reached his outer limits in “The Cable Guy,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad” provides Robin Williams with his best role in years. Obscene in concept and execution, the movie functions as a highly subversive anti-morality tale disguised as a mainstream laughfest. Williams plays single father Lance, who teaches at the high school where his universally unliked son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) attends–until Kyle’s apparent suicide. In a moment of uncalculated fury, Williams’s character–a talented writer–composes a suicide note for his late offspring to make him look better. The ruse works, and Kyle becomes a posthumous hero for the scholastic community that originally rejected him. Goldthwait, building on the edgy turf he first explored with his previous Sundance entry, “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” excels at accomplishing his exceedingly naughty intentions.
Goldthwait’s script takes several plot twists to arrive at its central premise, and the journey there feels awfully derivative. But that’s the point: “World’s Greatest Dad” works wonderfully as a rich black comedy willing to reach into virtually unprecedented territory to both offend, enrage and finally entertain its theoretical audience. The only question is whether that audience exists. Either way, Williams does penance for his lesser studio comedies (“This isn’t ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,'” Goldthwait joked at the premiere) and it would benefit him to go this far again.
“The Yes Men Fix The World”
Fans of corporate satirists “The Yes Men” from their self-titled 2003 debut documentary will get a kick out of their sincerely amusing follow-up, “The Yes Men Fix the World.” Boosted by the promises of an Obama-led world, performance artists Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos continue their prankish routine of pretending to be representatives of global businesses and speaking the ugly truth of free market motives to anyone gullible enough to pay attention.
This time around, targets include Dow’s neglect of poor living conditions in Bhopal, Exxon Mobile’s poor management of its employees’ health conditions, and Haliburton. As always, the Yes Men get away with their gimmicks by letting others (ie, duped members of the media and real companies) invite them to speak. In the movie, the behind-the-scenes details round out their ambition. Although at times the movie feels somewhat formless, with a series of nonfiction sketches replacing the need for plot, the Yes Men retain an unmistakable charm by marrying their trickiness with strong convictions about improving the conditions of the globe. By operating under the guise of certain characters–rather than blatantly moralizing–they avoid the abrasiveness of Michael Moore and his ilk. The movie culminates with the duo’s effective (and very recent) distribution of a fake New York Times issue predicting a utopian future six months away (“Iraq War Ends,” declared one prominent headline). Unlike other globally situated documentaries, “The Yes Men Fix the World” has the guts to display some optimism about the future.
“Zion and His Brothers”
Israeli cinema continues to diversify, mainly by borrowing from the cinematic styles of other countries. With “Zion and His Brother,” director Eran Merav does a solid job of channeling neorealist traditions into a conventional sibling rivalry story. In the dirty outer regions of Haifa, Zion (Reuven Badalov) comes to blows with his older brother Meir (Ofer Hayun) over a variety of issues. The two live with their troubled mother (Ronit Elkabetz) in a cramped living space, which she dreams of abandoning for a larger pad in a new area. Her kids, meanwhile, only know the bored lifestyle of their day-to-day routine, and Merav wisely focuses on this aspect.
The filmmaker introduces a plot twist reminiscent of “Paranoid Park” when Zion gets into a tussle with one his neighbors near the train tracks, resulting in an apparent accident that leaves the other boy dead. As Zion grows increasingly paranoid–and his relationship with his brother becomes further estranged–Merav builds to a powerful and excitingly choreographed climax. The rest of the movie suffers from lacking similar intensity, but Merav, making his directorial debut, displays a knack for capturing subtle family drama. It should be interesting to see where that ability takes him next.