Live from the Sundance Film Festival: Sunday, Jan. 19

January 20, 2014


Of the five films I saw at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, three of them had gay themes or content.

That’s one way to protest Utah’s ongoing battle against marriage equality. Not that I think it was planned that way – but it’s still a nice bit of propaganda in a state that could use some.

The most intriguing of these was “The Skeleton Twins,” from director Craig Johnson. It starred Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as twin siblings Milo and Maggie, who haven’t spoken in 10 years. One day, just as Maggie is contemplating ending her life by swallowing a handful of pills, she gets a phone call: Milo has tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists on the opposite coast.

So Maggie flies to California and retrieves Milo, an unhappy gay man, to live with her and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) at their house in Nyack, NY. But that brings up other issues for Milo, including the affair he had with a teacher when he was underage. Maggie, meanwhile, has her own self-destructive tendencies, including sleeping with other men.

It’s a skillful balancing act of comedy and drama, with Hader and Wiig, so good for so long on “Saturday Night Live,” playing beautifully off each other with the kind of humor and simpatico that siblings – particularly twins – can have. The fact that they are dealing with a legacy of suicide (their father killed himself) and a distant mother (Joanna Gleason) only adds to the story’s complexity. Both Wiig and Hader handle the transitions from silly snark to tragic truth-telling with exceptional skill.

The other film on the topic was “Love Is Strange,” a film by Ira Sachs about the ripples caused by the marriage of two aging gay men, George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), who have been partners for almost 40 years.

Almost immediately, the Catholic prep school where George has been a music teacher for a dozen years fires him. Suddenly, George (who is jobless) and Ben (who is retired) find they can’t afford their apartment and are in desperate need of a place to stay until they can find a new one they can afford.

They’re forced to split up, with George moving in with their neighbors in Greenwich Village, while Ben goes to stay with his niece, nephew and their son in a loft in Brooklyn. They are refugees in their own city, their life upended by dogmatic homophobia. And they find that they can’t quite be themselves when living off the hospitality of others.

It’s a lovely, if diffuse, film, one that shows the trials that this separation presents, particularly because Ben finds himself feeling like an intruder in his nephew’s place. George, a lover of classical music, is staying with two young gay men – and finds that he has aged out of that particular mindset. Molina and Lithgow give touchingly real performances, find the creaks in their relationship as well as the affection.

The final film wasn’t really about gay subject matter as such: “Remembering the Artist: Robert de Niro, Sr.,” by Perri Peltz, tells the story of the actor’s father, a painter who achieved a measure of fame in the 1950s, but nowhere near the acclaim of contemporaries such as de Kooning, Rothko and Pollack. At one point, the younger De Niro reads from his father’s journals, agonizing over his own homosexuality, which eventually led to his separation from the actor’s mother and, 10 years later, divorce.

It’s an intriguing portrait of a painter who never compromised, never schmoozed, never kissed up to gallery owners or critics – and, as a result, never reached the level of acceptance and acclaim he felt he deserved. De Niro the younger proves to be a sensitive and articulate keeper of his father’s flame, talking about him with obvious warmth in the memories and knowledge about his painting.

I also saw Joe Berlinger’s exhaustive documentary, “Whitey: The United States of America V. James Bulger.” It’s a fascinating portrait of a criminal who kept South Boston in terror for 20 years, disappeared for 25, then was arrested three years ago and finally convicted last year of murder and racketeering. Berlinger’s film doesn’t glorify Bulger, but it also paints a dismal picture of the police work of an array of agencies in Boston in the 1970s and 80s. While it goes off on several tangents to examine individual crimes, it still manages to paint a portrait of a bloody, brutal world in which expediency on both sides of the law led to extensive bloodshed.

I actually arrived in Park City late Saturday afternoon, in time to see a screening Saturday night of John Slattery’s “God’s Pocket,” based on a Pete Dexter novel, before I saw Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man,” based on the John le Carre book, on Sunday afternoon. Both films featured wonderfully nuanced and muscular performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

“God’s Pocket” packs an urban punch, with its cast of scrambling half-ass criminals in a depressed neighborhood of Philadelphia. Hoffman plays the latest husband of a woman (Christina Hendricks) whose dirtball son is killed on the industrial job site where he’s been mouthing off. The official word is that it was an accident – but the mother is convinced there was something more.

With a cast that includes John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan, “God’s Pocket” tells a story of unintended consequences all around. At the center of the story is Hoffman, as a guy just trying to do the right thing while making a little extra on the side. Jenkins in particular shines as a newspaper columnist at once in love with his own legend and ashamed of it to the point that he’s a barely functioning alcoholic.

“A Most Wanted Man” does well by le Carre, though it seems doubtful that any of his books will ever produce a popular movie hit. They’re so complex, so riddled with human frailty and last-minute double-crosses that the average movie-goer – who simply wants an entertainment for which he can unplug his brain – can’t keep up with what’s going on, both in the story and under the surface. That was true of the excellent “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in 2012 and, unfortunately, it’s true here.

Not that this isn’t a whip-smart film; it is. Hoffman, wielding a subtle German accent, plays the leader of a German intelligence unit on the trail of a Muslim philanthropist. He’s convinced the guy is funneling money to terrorists.

But his investigation is set aside temporarily when a Chechen immigrant sneaks into Hamburg, where Hoffman is stationed. As he sets in motion a tricky plot to either foil a terrorist act or figure out who this Chechen might lead him to, he finds himself caught up in jurisdictional tussles with the police and American intelligence.

Hoffman has great support here, including Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe. It builds to a roaring finish that may be the greatest act of cinematic action interruptus I’ve seen in a while.

It’s late and there’s another five-movie day awaiting on Monday. More tomorrow.

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