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What I Saw At Sundance (Day 4)

by Erik Childress

On Saturday I saw the story of a true American martyr, one of the most (unintentionally) funny endings in some time, more Australian festival disappointment and Jessica Alba & Kristen Stewart playing whores.

THE TILLMAN STORY
Every American soldier lost in the current Iraq conflict deserves to have their story told. So when former Arizona Cardinals lineman, Pat Tillman, was treated to his own hero’s tale upon the news of his death in 2004, it was easy to sense the discourse over all the fuss. Especially in the wake of what we learning about the capture and rescue of Jessica Lynch at the time. Turns out Tillman’s story does have a greater cinematic hook than others, but it is one that will help honor the rest of the fallen whose names we don’t know and to demonize a chain of command that was more interested in using the Tillman name than easing a family’s pain. While not based directly on Jon Krakauer’s recent book, “Where Men Win Glory”, The Tillman Story does a masterful job of piecing together the details of how this one guy became almost a necessary sacrifice in the U.S.’s involvement in the Middle East. In a puzzle that traces Pat’s decision to leave millions of NFL dollars in the wake of serving his country to what really transpired out there in the desert and the fire alarms it set off all the way up the White House. This is not conspiracy by conjecture and speculation but piecing together the facts through interviews with not just the family but members of Tillman’s unit who were there alongside him on that fateful day. A Hollywood film could (and should) be made and could even be done as a miniseries with each interviewee of “”’s documentary sharing the point of view for each chapter. Home videos and behind-the-scenes footage of NFL interviews to the funeral proceedings add a necessary personal touch that inflicts the outrage of the final scenes where the higher-ups all deserve to be punched in the throat for their convenient Alzheimer’s account of the cover-up that occurred under their watch. This is one of the more probing indictments of the post-9/11 government and is not inspired by liberal red state hatred but by a family who had a true American taken away from them way too soon. And for what?


SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS
Back in Chicago, some colleagues and myself discuss the occasional occurrence of a director “messing the bed” to put it into kid-friendly terms. Normally this comes in the middle of a storied career and they usually hit a creative pothole either through failed experimentation or outright laziness. Play at home, it’s fun. I don’t know if I will be able to qualify an actor making his directorial debut, but Mark Ruffalo’s Sympathy For Delicious is as lazy and failed as any of the big boys. Written by and starring “” (in another potential game of actors writing themselves a desperate starring role), he plays DJ Delicious, a club scratcher who is now wheelchair bound and living on the streets of Los Angeles. Ruffalo plays the local priest involved in programs feeding the homeless and shares a bond with the man who is too proud to enter an assisted living facility. Things take a turn though when Delicious gets involved with a punk band headlined by a fan of his work (Juliette Lewis) and the lead singer played by Orlando Bloom as if he’s doubling up on his own accent. Oh yeah, and Delicious discovers he has the literal power to heal the sick. It all sounds ridiculous – and, believe me, it heads down that road – but the initial premise of transferring the racket of faith healing into a Heal-a-palooza rock tour has some promise to it. Thornton’s script though takes the most obvious possible approach to it however and it zips straight into the most obvious of its hypocrises and settles into just another tale of rags-to-fame gone bad. Sympathy For Delicious doesn’t just go from bad to worse with each passing scene but dives wheelchair first into downright laughable waters during its final ten minutes. The hands-on approach by Benny Hinn to the afflicted is like a Swedish massage compared to the laugh-out-loud redemption in store for one of the film’s secondary characters. Maybe Ruffalo was doing a homage to Steve Martin with this bit of performance artistry. First in making people reconsider the merits of one of his more underrated efforts, Leap of Faith, and then a full-blown tribute to his character’s healing scene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I don’t think Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove could have saved the ending. It’s possible this is even funnier too, but certainly not as catastrophic.


ANIMAL KINGDOM
David Michod's debut Australian feature is like a combination of At Close Range and every possible third act of a mobster film when the heat is closing in and the criminals must clean up the loose ends. Only that third act goes on for the length of the film and the two main characters at odds with one another appear about as bored as we are. When Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) goes to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) he is introduced to a part of his family he never knew; a group of armed robbers all with their various speeds of living. His uncle Baz (Joel Edgerton) is the de facto leader - cool, calm and seemingly interested in rearing this kid into becoming a man. But when the other uncle, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives, things start going straight to hell. For the family and the movie. As the more interesting and dynamic characters begin to quickly disappear, we're left to rely on "J" and Pope to fuel the drama and suspense. And that's hard to do in the way that Frecheville and Mendelsohn play them. Frecheville appears in every scene like he keeps missing the "action" signal. Completely one-note in performance and even less so in the writing, "J" never seems to have a clue of the danger surrounding him and that helps diminish Weaver's Lady Macbeth-like grandma from a true deceptive puppet master into a smiling giant who could step on this ant with little effort. Mendelsohn is going for the quiet killer type, putting on the same expression of almost retarded confusion in every scene as if we're supposed to be shocked each time he manifests some attempt at a snuff-out. Guy Pearce thankfully shows up as the lead detective on the case, but even an old pro like him can't breathe life into scenes shared with Frecheville who gives new meaning to the term, "blank slate." Animal Kingdom joins a long line of Australian crime thrillers on the festival circuit (The Square being a recent exception) that are either too manic or too low-key for their own good. Of course, low-key would have been an adrenaline boost for this.


WELCOME TO THE RILEYS
You can read the full review here.







THE KILLER INSIDE ME
If there was ever two things that just didn't go together it is Jim Thompson and Michael Winterbottom. Thompson was the pulp fiction novelist responsible for such works as The Getaway, The Grifters and After Dark My Sweet. Winterbottom is known more for his more demure British films such as Jude and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Both artists have varying approaches to their depiction of occasionally deviant sexuality and one can see that element attracting Winterbottom to Thompson's novel about a philandering Texas sheriff caught up in blackmail, murder and more than a few sexual kinks.


Casey Affleck is Thompson's anti-hero, Tom Ford, who in 1957 is tasked to run a prostitute (Jessica Alba) out of town to prevent a public scandal involving the son of a local oil man (Ned Beatty). Ford has his own issues with the rich guy and manifests a plot that allows him to do some drilling of his own while doublecrossing anyone associated with the scheme. Things don't go quite as planned and as bodies pile up, the D.A. (Simon Baker) begins snooping around and Tom must do what he can to keep the trail from leading to him and his fiance (Kate Hudson). Tom is a pretty deranged soul from the get-go and not in a fun way. Once you establish the character was a pedophile in his youth, redemption is pretty much a fool's game. Youth is a problem in the casting of Affleck too who is just too fresh-faced to ever be believable as a man with so many demons. (Stacy Keach played Tom Ford in a 1976 version of the story.) As good as he was as Robert Ford, Tom Ford needs someone in-between the babyfaced and the brutish. Perhaps Affleck's appearance makes the savage beatings of women in the film all the more shocking, but you could have cast Zac Efron or Stone Cold Steve Austin and the effect would have been the same. This graphic element of the film is likely to draw the most attention from those who revile against it. But that is just a couple of unappetizing scenes in an otherwise painfully dull picture with no grasp on the tightening noose against Tom nor the development of the portrait of a seriously disturbed serial killer. It's way too ugly to be over-the-top pulp and too monotonous to make anything but the occasional turns of violence stand out.



link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2939
originally posted: 02/02/10 03:47:27
last updated: 02/02/10 04:03:45
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