As I continue to catch up on the remaining 12 reviews from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I must begin with a warning: these may get a little short. Length aside, I still intend to delight you with my hyperbole, rattle you with some biting commentary and hopefully get you excited about some of the great films that I was able to see this year – films that may or may not ever make it to a theater near you. In this edition of ‘Neil’s Lazy Sundance Capsule Reviews,’ we take a look at a Hollywood insider comedy, a neo-noir detective story and a wild ride through the mind of Britain’s most famous (and dangerous) prisoners of all-time.
From director Jonas Pate and writer Thomas Moffett, Shrink follows the story of Henry Carter (Kevin Spacey), a Los Angeles psychiatrist with an A-list clientele, including an aging actress (Sapphron Burrows), an insecure young writer (Mark Webber) and a comically neurotic, obsessive-compulsive power agent (Dallas Roberts). Having just lost his wife to a suicide, Henry finds it difficult to treat his patients as his own belief in humanity begins to erode. That is, until he takes on the pro-bono case of a troubled teenage girl from a bad part of town. In treating this new patient, Henry begins to question whether or not his current state of mind is right for the treatment of patients. If he himself cannot come to terms with his troubled situation, how can he possibly “fix” others?
In this often punchy yet tragic story, Moffett and Pate have brought in a host of classic Hollywood archetypes. Or rather, a host of Hollywood stereotypes — the neurotic agent, a sex-addicted star (via a great cameo from Robin Williams) and a tortured screenwriter — and bounced them off each other with the use of a little happenstance. While the dialog is clever and some of the performances are very solid, the story seems to be too neat and tidy to be credible in the end. Among the strong performances is that of Kevin Spacey, who once again exhibits masterful control over his character. The audience is given an intimate look into the troubled mind of Henry — which works, even though it is dashed together with a few too many music video-esque scenes of melodrama. The performance from Dallas Roberts is also notable, as he channels a germaphobe version of Entourage’s Ari Gold. And just like Jeremy Piven, Roberts is able to craft a performance that gives his character a level of likability, despite the fact that he’s mostly an insufferable ass. Overall the film’s dialog is cleverly written, but the story is poorly paced and the characters teeter on the line between authentic and implausible. Not a bad film by any means, just one that gets in its own way and fails to ever show ambition beyond being a formulaic Hollywood insider dramedy.
The Missing Person
As an admirer of noir and some of the more recent modern noir films — including, but not limited to Rian Johnson’s brilliant effort Brick — I was intrigued off the bat by writer/director Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person. I was also turned on to the idea by the film’s leading man, Michael Shannon, who has long been one of my favorite “that guys.” In Missing Person, Shannon stars as John Rosow, a cynical (and mostly inebriated) private detective who is hired by a powerful law firm to tale a mysterious middle-aged man and a young Mexican boy across the country. Once he tails them all the way to Santa Monica, he is given a new objective: he must now bring the man back to New York, a city filled with bad memories for Rosow. The good news is that he is being paid a cool half million dollars for his services. Of course, as Rosow continues further down the rabbit hole — one filled with an interesting assortment of characters including a Catholic cabbie, an uptight L.A. cop, meddling FBI agents and a few sexy, dangerous dames — he begins to unravel a twisted tale that helps him see himself in a different light in the end.
Following along with the classic noir structure, Missing Person succeeds on the shoulders of Michael Shannon, whose gruff, witty and flawed Rosow is perfectly executed. And though it suffers mightily from pacing issues, the film also delivers some fun with some intentionally odd, campy dialog. Unfortunately, I would be hard pressed to find an accessibility in this film as its dry, sardonic and often passive nature could be a turnoff to anyone who goes into it looking for some straightforward piece of mainstream filmmaking. No, this is a film for the crime drama cinephile — who will easily connect this character with those of Elliott Gould and find refuge in its numerous Serpico references. To others it may come off as a drab, sometimes confusing film that mixes classic noir elements with modern events. To say the least, it may be a bit to ambitious (and too slow) to be accessible to Joe the moviegoer. But if you’re in it for a love of noir, its actually a refreshingly classic and well-crafted piece of work — one that shows the continued promise of its young director.
“Sometimes independent movies get too weird for me.” This is a statement that I’ve heard far too often, mostly born of ignorance toward the world of independently financed cinema. The truth is that indie films are often given the opportunity to be a little more experimental or ambitious than anything made within the studio system — and for some of us, that is a good thing. Take for example writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s violent, twisted film Bronson, based on the true story of Britain’s most famous and violent prisoner Charlie Bronson. Sentenced to 7-years in prison in 1974 for robbing a post office, Bronson found quickly that he was most at home in the correctional system of Her Majesty. In his new found “hotel room,” Charlie could practice his art, painting the walls red with his vicious taste for violence. After being sent to a mental institution where he is drugged heavily, Bronson still manages to hold on to his defiant and perversely violent nature. And though he’s ultimately released, he quickly finds himself right back in prison, the only place he really feels at home. There he is placed in an art program where once again he finds an outlet for his art — the art of fighting.
While I’m not all too familiar with Refn’s Pusher trilogy, I will admit to being impressed by his work on Bronson. Here he allows us the opportunity to walk around inside the wild, mangled psyche of an infinitely interesting and eccentric character. In a very Kubrickian way, Refn fills his film with an aesthetic that conforms with the eccentricities of his main character. There is plenty of twisted imagery and pounding musical moments — thanks to a killer soundtrack from Wagner and the Pet Shop Boys. He also achieves a very distinct visual tone for the film, mixing dark reds with some wildly vibrant stage moments in which Bronson provides narration for his story. Anchoring it all is the performance of Tom Hardy, seen most recently in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, as Charlie Bronson. Hardy goes all out, delivering an electrifying performance that fits perfectly into this violent, theatrical story. In the end we are rooting for — and terrified by — a character addicted to fame, addicted to being the horrifyingly violent hero of his own story. Put simply, its weird but intensely entertaining all at the same time. If you’ve got a taste for violence or a love of hyper-stylized, brutal films, this one is for you.