Zach Braff corrects his grammar before "Wish I Was Here."
Capsule review: ‘Hellion’
**1/2 (out of four)
Authenticity only goes so far if stock characters and situations can’t escape the ordinary. In writer-director Kat Candler’s Texas-set “Hellion,” very good performances can’t overcome ordinary plotting that ultimately stretches too far to distress. Aaron Paul plays the widowed father of 13-year-old troublemaker Jacob (promising newcomer Josh Wiggins) and 10-year-old Wes (Deke Garner), who naturally wants to join his big bro’s misfit crew. When a caseworker sees how much Hollis (Paul) has struggled to keep his household in order following his wife’s death, Wes is sent to live with his aunt (Juliette Lewis), despite Jacob’s very vocal objections. Candler does a nice job with certain details—the way some of Jacob’s friends talk big about girls despite being too scared to talk to them—and all of the relationships are believable. But believable isn’t the same as inspired, and “Hellion” resonates only because of the evergreen sadness that unhappy families often create unhappy kids. – Matt Pais, RedEye
Capsule review: ‘Memphis’
*1/2 (out of four)
Me: “Willis Earl Beal plays himself in the aimless "Memphis, " which omits many rich details of his life. What a disappointment. #sundance”
“Memphis” writer-director Tim Sutton: “@MattPais bummer you didn't like it. Not for everyone. And also it's not about Willis. But no worries.”
Me: “@vanriperarchive Thanks for writing. It is a guy named Willis Earl Beal played by Willis Earl Beal though, yes? #didntthinkiwasthatlost”
Sutton: “@MattPais it's about a character named Willis within a bigger landscape. Memphis.”
So we agree that “Memphis” is set in Memphis and that it’s about a guy named Willis. Maybe it’s because Willis Earl Beal is from Chicago, and in “Memphis” he’s named Willis Earl Beal but apparently isn’t playing himself, but I found it extremely strange and misguided for the film to utilize a non-narrative, documentary-esque approach while omitting any of the rich details from Beal’s life. Fine, it’s not about him despite the whole name thing. “Memphis” still strives for a feeling instead of a deep understanding of its characters, who hardly deserve to be called characters considering how little we get to know them amid repeated shots of trees (long overused by Terrence Malick) and Willis, who lacks the confidence to make a follow-up record, commenting on brief stardom and wandering around a lot. When the guy sings, the movie comes alive. Otherwise, I either missed something, or, for a film that sometimes feels either like a collection of deleted scenes or a thinly conceived bonus disc to an album, there’s not much there to begin with. P.S. Sutton offered me a ticket to give "Memphis" another chance. I appreciate the gesture, but I'll pass. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Capsule review: ‘God’s Pocket’
** (out of four)
There’s no denying the community flavor of “Mad Men” co-star John Slattery’s directorial debut. Adapted from Pete Dexter’s novel (Slattery also co-wrote the script), “God’s Pocket” takes place in the titular Philadelphia neighborhood, and it’s not used as a compliment among its people. The town’s got a chip on its shoulder and dirt under its fingernails. What happens there, however, is all over the place. Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does little to mourn his stepson (Caleb Landry Jones), but he obliges when his wife (Christina Hendricks) says she thinks her angel didn’t really die from a worksite accident and wants Mickey to uncover the truth. Viewers know what happened: The kid was an obnoxious racist, and a black man hits him over the head after having racial epithets spewed at him and a knife put to his throat. Rather than address the reality of an awful child like “World’s Greatest Dad,” Slattery lets the tone wander back and forth between dissatisfied drama and dark comedy—Richard Jenkins plays a local columnist proud to take advantage of his celebrity. It results in a foggy affair that chases its own tail. That may be appropriate for the setting, but an offbeat movie still needs to find a rhythm. – Matt Pais, RedEye
Capsule review: ‘A Most Wanted Man’
**1/2 (out of four)
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the overrated previous adaptation of a John Le Carre novel, spent so much time chasing vague facts that the spy operations had no clear sense of purpose (outside of the spies continually, annoyingly complaining about how hard and lonely their job is). Directed by Anton Corbijn (“Control,” “The American”) from another Le Carre work, “A Most Wanted Man” fixes that problem. This is still a hidden world of silent handoffs and the tracking of receipts to understand who’s moving what and why. But as grizzled vet Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads an anti-terror operation in Hamburg, Germany and assesses what to do about a suspected Chechen terrorist (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and his new lawyer (Rachel McAdams), “A Most Wanted Man” contains a strong sense of how hard/necessary it can be to watch and wait rather than act and arrest. Andrew Bovell’s uneven script fails to fully address Gunther’s view of his intelligence and potential romantic feelings surrounding McAdams’ character. Yet this engaging-if-familiar demonstration of the folly of too many cooks in the kitchen breaks down surveillance into a series of many small decisions. For everyone observing, patience is a virtue. - Matt Pais, RedEye
Captured not for the image (most stars aren't showing up) but the quiet.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks join John Slattery on stage.
John Slattery before his directorial debut "God's Pocket."
Capsule review: ‘Dinosaur 13’
1 out of 4 stars
In 1990, some paleontologists found the most complete set of Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils ever discovered. They were happy, of course. Then the FBI took control of the bones, and the researchers weren’t as happy. That’s “Dinosaur 13” in a nutshell—this documentary does nothing to identify the diggers’ expert techniques or what was learned from uncovering the dinosaur better known as Sue, a fixture at Chicago’s Field Museum for the past decade-plus. Director Todd Douglas Miller also makes no effort to talk to FBI officials or the man on whose land Sue was found and who also becomes a key part of the ownership debate. Surprises include the fact that dinosaur bones are old, and scores don’t get much more oppressive than a cello furiously trying to generate suspense as scientists put small bones into bags. The embarrassingly one-sided “Dinosaur 13” is the kind of movie you watch for five minutes at a museum and walk away. Ross Geller would love it. —Matt Pais, RedEye
Capsule review: ‘Whiplash’
3.5 out of 4 stars
J.K. Simmons makes a terrifying jazz drill sergeant as a conductor at the country’s top music conservatory. His teaching style thrives on crushing spirits, and it’s easy to imagine a sticker that says, “Humiliate to motivate” adorning his bumper. Teach really lays into Andrew (Miles Teller, excellent as always), a first-year student desperate to make it as a drummer and impress his taskmaster. Trying to become the star player for the school’s best band, his core pays the price—and so do his hands. While the storytelling sometimes wobbles and repeats itself, “Whiplash” bracingly asks, “What do we sacrifice to become great?” and “Do the ends justify the means if harsh coaching gets results?” In certain ways the film resembles “The Social Network” in exploring obsession, social discomfort and the collateral damage of innovation. Andrew could even make a Mark Zuckerberg-esque business card from one of the movie’s best lines: “Turn my pages, bitch.” —Matt Pais, RedEye
It's a PSH kind of day at
Sundance, anyone, Sundance?
Day One Press Conference, Sundance Film Festival begins.
John Cooper/Director Sundance Film Festival, Keri Putnam/Executive Director, Robert Redford, Sean Means/Film Critic
Truth in advertising. (In other words: obviously it's not an overnight flight.)