I’m not a huge fan of film festival recaps, at least of writing them myself. I realize that they’re practical for critics viewing dozens of films in a short span of time, but someone put years of effort into making these motion pictures, so it’s the least I can do to write a full-fledged critique of their accomplishments, for better or worse. Fortunately, I was able to devote the time necessary to review most of the films I saw at Sundance 2014 in a formal fashion: Whiplash, The Guest, Blind, Calvary, The Skeleton Twins and Infinitely Polar Bear. Check those reviews out. Most of those movies are great.
What follows, however, are the outliers, the films that are either coming out so soon I’ll be able to devote more time outside of the festival system, or in one particular case struck me as so generic that I don’t feel it warrants much more than a quickie. Also included is a short film directed by a well-known actress who it would seem has a lot of potential. Let’s check them out.
Rose McGowan’s directorial debut is a short film set in the early 1960s, starring Tara Lynne Barr as a young girl whose eager-to-please attitude gets her in big trouble with the cute boy who works at the local gas station. Fun Fact: Dawn was co-written by Joshua John Miller, the formal child star of films like River’s Edge, Near Dark and Teen Witch.
For various reasons Rose McGowan has been painted as a sexpot throughout most of her acting career. As a first-time director, she’s chosen a film that tackles romance from a very different, matter of fact perspective. The plot is so simple that writing more than a single sentence would ruin it, and the themes are simple as well, tackling the conservative finger-wagging at pubescent teens as oppressive, but perhaps not so oppressive as a popular culture that encourages going with the flow at every turn.
There’s a confidence to McGowan’s filmmaking, visually and in terms of Dawn’s performances, that deserves to be nurtured, but as an individual short the film is perhaps a little too straightforward to make much of an impact, lacking as it does in dramatic reversals or humor. Dawn is exactly what it looks like from frame one. When she moves into features, as she told CraveOnline she intends to, I hope McGowan chooses material with a little more vitality and a few more surprises.
Jesse Eisenberg co-stars with Jesse Eisenberg in The Double, a far out film that Fred Topel loved but I didn’t really care for. Director Richard Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine adapted Fyodor Dostoyevksy’s novella about a meek office drone (Eisenberg) whose life is unraveled by the sudden appearance of a boisterous doppelganger (also Eisenberg) in his workplace.
Eisenberg is the highlight here, well cast as the living embodiment of the two extremes he plays so well – neurotic and nasty – and the film has no shortage of fascinating ideas, both thematic and directly plot-related. The duality of man, the fragile nature of identity, and the specific mechanics of The Double’s doppleganger mythology are intriguing, thoughtful and worth debating long after the movie is over.
But the movie is such a damned bore. Richard Ayoade clearly revels in crafting a world of Kafkaesque or at least Gilliamish detail and foreboding, but what should have been little details instead dominate the story, casting even the most humorous, romantic or suspenseful sequences in a somber light that robs them of tonal variety. It’s a slog from beginning to end, although Jesse Eisenberg tries his hardest to keep the proceedings both genuine and comic.
Like the more popular Sundance film Whiplash, Kat Candler’s Hellion began as a festival short, and has been upgraded to feature length for 2014. Unlike Whiplash, Candler’s film makes little impact. It’s a well-produced and finely acted picture, but it covers very familiar territory with little to distinguish itself from other, better movies in the same genre.
Joshua Wiggins stars as Jacob Wilson, a troubled, angry young teen vandalisms and truancy land him in juvie, a plot point that seems very important at the beginning of Hellion and then is dropped like a stone in favor of a routine family melodrama about his widowered, alcoholic father Hollis (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) and the frustrations that arise when child services take his youngest child, Wes (Deke Garner) away, but for some reason leave the real troublemaker at home with the parent whom they think is causing all the trouble.
Everyone gets very emotional in Hellion, although Wiggins in particular knows how to articulate his impotent rage through believable pubescent outbursts. Paul is a fine actor but despite his poofy beard he simply looks too young to play the father of a teenager. Really, it’s the plot that disappoints. Hellion can’t seem to decide if it’s a deadbeat dad story, a youth gone wild story, a Lifetime movie of the week or an underdog tale about dirt bike racing, another seemingly important subplot that simply goes nowhere. Candler films the whole thing well but what, exactly, we’re supposed to get out of Hellion by the time the credits roll is either an uninvolving mystery, or simply too generic to be worth the trouble of having watched it.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch directed a vampire movie, and it’s exactly what you’d expect: The Avengers’ Tom Hiddleston and Michael Clayton’s Tilda Swinton are ageless nosferatu who spend the whole movie listening to records, driving around Detroit and speculating about the nature of the universe, name-dropping famous historical figures they’ve met the over the centuries and eating bloodsicles.
It only sounds tedious: Hiddleston and Swinton are suitably hypnotic and dreamy to the point of being playfully typecast, and Jarmusch treats their relaxed liaisons as a reassuring, mature romance. The two vampire lovers are perhaps the apex cinematic depiction of a loving long-term relationship that has evolved beyond passion into something wholesome and friendly, with a mutual respect that should be the envy of real-life lovers everywhere. It’s endlessly refreshing to find two older (much older) protagonists who embody the spirit of living without reverting to whiny regret machines who think dabbling in immature hijinks is necessary to relocate lost happiness.
Meanwhile, Jarmusch seems to be having a ball revealing little details about his protagonists (Hiddleston has built his own personal mini power factory based on the ideas of his friend Nikola Tesla), poking gentle fun at their literary and musical enthusiasms, and putting them in awkward positions like making room for spontaneous visits from an annoying relative, played by Mia Wasikowska.
Jarmusch’s film loses a little steam towards the end, when something resembling a plot kicks in and ruins Hiddleston’s and Swinton’s fun, but Only Lovers Left Alive is practically drenched in laissez-faire coolness, ensuring that hip film students will embrace it for years to come. (And I mean that in a good way.) Hopefully the movie will be equally cherished by audiences seeking a reprieve from the seemingly never-ending supply of love stories that only bother to dramatize the beginning of a love affair, and not the lifetime of meaningful pleasures that flourish only after those seeds are planted.