Michael John Dunaway Lifestream

February 8, 2009

Sundance Narrative Features Roundup (for Paste Magazine)

Filed under: Uncategorized — michaeljohndunaway @ 7:32 pm

Unabridged version of the Paste article — published version here.

Sundance Narrative Film Roundup
By Michael Dunaway

2-theinformers_filmstill2_mickey-rourke-as-peter-photo-by-juan-angel-urruzolaThe Informers is a hot mess of a film. Once I tell you it’s based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel, you probably have a lot of strengths and weaknesses running through your mind, and they all end up being true. The film does a great job of capturing a mood that I suspect really did exist among the young idle rich in the eighties, a mood of languid decadence, casual sex and creeping alienation. And cocaine. Lots of cocaine. And hair gel. The script has some really clever moments. The actors are mostly adequate, with Mickey Rourke turning in yet another pitch-perfect performance and Kim Basinger once again doing well the quietly desperate aging beauty. But at its core the film has nothing, is about nothing, says nothing. And if even if nothingness is the point, that’s not enough.

aneducation_filmstill2_carey-mulligan-jennyandpeter-sarsgaard-david-lying-down_credit-kerry-brownAn Education is problematic in different ways. Nick Hornby wrote the script, so you’d expect the dialogue to be superb, and it is (although it’s a strange choice to adapt someone else’s book instead of one of his own – he’d “rather mess up other people’s stories,” as he quipped). And newcomer Carey Mulligan is spectacular in the leading role, so good that if I had seen the film earlier I would have made a point to see The Greatest, another Sundance selection starring Mulligan. In this one, though, she plays a schoolgirl who begins to spend time with an older man (Peter Skarsgard) who may or may not be all that he seems. It’s a nice touch that he wants to introduce her to all the music, literature, and food that everyone in the audience likely thinks she should, in fact, be introduced to, and if society doesn’t approve, then so much the better. So when the inevitable reversal happens, it hits hard. Yet the film remains strangely unsatisfying, as if it doesn’t know quite what it wants to say, much like The Informers. Perhaps the author of the original memoir is still trying to decide that herself.

immaculateconceptionoliittledizzle_filmstill1The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, on the other hand, is a pure unalloyed delight. The brainchild of writer/director David Russo, it’s the story of a data entry “professional” (Marshall Allman, of Prison Break fame) who loses his job and takes the only job he can – as a janitor in an office building. He and his fellow janitors end up eating experimental cookies left out by a marketing executive in the building (Natasha Lyonne) that get them – wait for it – pregnant. Yes, that kind of pregnant. Kind of. You’ll have to see the film for yourself to find out exactly what I mean. But in Russo’s hands, what could be either an acid-vision experimental arthouse film or a zany pseudo-subversive gender farce transcends both and becomes a truly remarkable film. It’s a moving exploration of gender, commitment, purpose, hope, and perhaps most of all of religion. When two characters of questionable (if any) religious belief share a prayer over a kitchen sink, it’s simultaneously the emotional heart of the film and a moment so earned that no one from atheist to believer could begrudge it. Allman is fantastic, as are Lost’s Tania Raymonde and especially Vince Vieluf. The musical selections are eclectic and inspired, and the direction is dazzling without being overly intrusive. Little Dizzle is a triumph, and exactly the kind of film Sundance was created to discover and promote. May it find distribution soon.

fiveminutesofheaven_filmstill5Five Minutes of Heaven is not a documentary, but is based on actual events. The film opens decades in the past, as a young rising leader of a loyalist group in Northern Ireland assassinates a Catholic fighter at home, right in front of the victim’s younger brother. Flash forward to the present, and the assassin (the always fantastic Liam Neeson) is somewhat of a celebrity, having spent his post-prison life teaching high-profile seminars on guilt and reconciliation around the world. He’s also got a TV show, and the now-grown younger brother has agreed to appear as a guest on the show, meeting him for the first time since that fateful night. As might be expected from that setup, the film plays heavily in themes of retribution and reconciliation, and clearly the two main characters are meant in some degree to be stand-ins for the two sides of the conflict that has caused so much pain and suffering in Ireland. It’s a tribute to the film that the playing out of those themes never seems mawkish or contrived. It’s not a film for everyone, but if you don’t mind your characters with a heavy dose of (unheard) internal dialogue and spiritual searching, it’s a powerful one.

500daysofsummer_filmstill1_joesephgordonlevit1500 Days of Summer is a film you’ll be hearing about ad nauseam, I suspect, throughout the Spring in anticipation of its June release. Its it-girl co-star Zooey Deschanel and Fox Searchlight distribution ensure that. This time, though, the buzz will be warranted. Look, I’m not even that big a fan of Zooey’s acting (I even resisted her “She and Him” album with M Ward last year before caving and realizing how fun it was). And I positively hated Third Rock from the Sun, so never had much love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt either. But this film is fantastic, a nearly perfect little summer romance (though not, as the prelude warns, us, a love story). Deschanel is enchanting in the role usually assigned to the male lead, the reluctant Romeo who doesn’t believe in love and wants to keep things unserious. Gordon-Levitt, though, is a real revelation here — he’s in every scene of the film, and he pulls off the earnest-nice-guy act convincingly and carries the whole movie. Director Marc Webb’s background as a music video director shows, not only in one surreal (and delightful) musical number, but in his use of color and his crisp editing style. See it opening weekend, and in the most crowded theater you can find; it’s a wonderful group experience.

My favorite narrative film: 500 Days of Summer, with The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle close behind.



  1. Brilliant reviews! Can’t wait to see The Informers, Michael. By the way, “nothingness” was indeed the point of the anthology, which was lambasted by the critics back then. Is it a case of a film being too faithful to the source code? Hmmm, I’m intrigued.

    Comment by matteo — February 8, 2009 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

  2. I can’t wait to see The Informers. I’ve heard Brad Renfro’s performance in it was amazing as well.

    Comment by Tyler — February 18, 2009 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  3. Loved reading these reviews. Very brief and insightful! Your review was spot on what I think I might have written for 500 Days of Summer, and I’m now determined to obsess over Carey Mulligan starting with An Education…! 🙂

    Comment by Tracey — September 30, 2009 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

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