Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance 2009: More Quick Hits

Arlen Faber: I'm not sure whether I'm more upset at writer/director John Hindman for squandering a good idea or a great cast. His Dramatic Competition film is about a grumpy, reclusive author (Jeff Daniels) who wrote one of those hollow self-help sensations like The Secret 20 years ago. The phenomenon never faded, however, because the book was purportedly transcribed from the author's conversations with God.

If you accepted that last statement without an ounce of skepticism, you'd fit in nicely amongst the ensemble of characters who encounter this jackass yet fail ask him any interesting questions about his life or book. This is the kind of movie in which no one ever says the things that they obviously should – not for lack of motivation, but because if they did, the movie would be only five minutes long. Any viewer of mild intelligence will deduce Arlen's shocking revelation at the outset, but must listen to 90 minutes of greeting cards before the big unveiling.

The Greatest: A substandard mainstream screenplay hiding in a very well-made and well-acted indie film, this drama grows farther from the truth as it progresses. It opens with a rather touching depiction of teenagers in love, but then one of those teenagers dies a tragic death. The deceased didn't know his new girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) very well, and his family never met her, but he did manage to get her pregnant on the night of his death. With nowhere else to go, she moves into the boy's family's house, and into a storm of emotional turmoil.

Grief manifests itself in vastly different forms. Susan Sarandon's mother has become obsessed with discovering all the details of his son's death. Did he suffer? What was he saying when he died? Pierce Brosnan's father went the opposite direction to an equally unhealthy extreme, wishing to avoid discussion of his son at all costs. And his younger brother (Johnny Simmons) masks his feelings with animosity toward his brother, the family's favorite child.

While writer/director Shana Feste's dialogue tends toward the obvious, the interaction between these clashing characters is fascinating. Less fascinating is the third act, which sets out to neatly resolve every hang-up and loose-end. The truth, which the film approaches in its first half, is that death leaves unanswered questions, and that that’s okay. Too bad The Greatest takes the easy way out. (Jeremy Mathews)

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