WISH YOU WERE HERE
I’m a big fan of the Blue Tongue Films produced THE SQUARE and ANIMAL KINGDOM, so when Quint told me our first film up at SUNDANCE was going to be the new film by this group, my anticipation level for opening night was slightly elevated, to say the least.
I didn’t know much about the story going in other than it was a mystery surrounding four people who vacationed with each other in southeast Asia, and only three of them returned home to Australia. I’d advise you to go into the movie in the same manner, and I’ll do my best to dance around story spoilers below, which is always challenging when talking about a movie that at its core is trying to keep secrets from you until the right moments.
The intriguing way director Kieran Darcy-Smith and editor Jason Ballantine approached this concept is a solid, and for the most part successful, attempt at building dread through incremental doses. The film flashes back and forth from current time, where we’re watching a family falling apart, to giving us the smallest glimpses as to what might have occurred during their time in Cambodia, before the incident that caused their friend (Antony Starr) to go missing.
This structure works fairly well during the first part of the film while it’s establishing the extent of how far these four characters (comprised of a young married couple played by Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price, their free spirit sister played by the adorable Teresa Palmer, and her dashing entrepreneur boyfriend played by Antony Starr) pushed their partying in Cambodia, in contrast to how mundane and normal their lives are as a family back at home in Sydney. The structure pays off again in the end when they’re revealing the final puzzle pieces and pulling back the veil of why things have become so incredibly stressed for Joel Edgerton’s character to the point of him having panic attacks for reasons unknown to everyone including the audience. Sadly, the back and forth causes a bit of drag in the middle as the flashbacks to Cambodia start showing us things that we’re literally just discussed by the characters in the current timeline, making everything slow down to a drag and feel very rinse and repeat. There was a very apt close up in the middle of the movie of a hamster in a wheel, which was summing up how I was feeling watching the film at that point. Perhaps this was the very deliberate intention of the storytellers, to make us feel as trapped by this cycle of stress and memory as the characters were, but it made for some rough going as far as moving the story along went. Honestly, if the filmmakers had stuck to the compelling drama unfolding in the second act, and not felt so beholden to the flashback mechanic, I think it would have made for a much stronger film.
The saving grace for the redundant middle act are the knock out performances by Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price. The dynamic between the married couple was engaging and never felt false, even if the development of their plight did become somewhat mired down in trying to keep a mystery from us that felt continually less interesting to me than the corrosive encounters occurring between this family. It’s definitely one of Edgerton’s best performances. You believe every moment of his slow destruction, and there is a moment in the film when he’s feeling the physical pressure of all the secrets he’s keeping that even had me feeling a pressure on my chest. Price is equally compelling as she was able to build a character that was making some incredibly poor choices in how she was dealing with the secrets they brought back from Cambodia, and her personal heart ache, while also making me feel deep pity for her situation at every turn.
The cinematography by Jules O’loughlin was skilled and subtle. The look of the film felt gritty and real while not being too overly stylistic, and was one of the high points of the experience for me watching WISH YOU WERE HERE. Overall this is a solid character study wrapped in a multi compartmentlized mystery package. The film-making on display in the movie is of a high standard in every aspect, and the performances connected for me in just the right ways. Even with the slow down, it’s very much worth sticking with the movie for the final emotional punches. It was a smooth start to Sundance, and I’m excited to see what Blue Tongue Films and this director does next.
WEST OF MEMPHIS
While standing in line waiting to be let into the screening, I was eavesdropping on two 40 something couples standing less than a few feet away from me (it was hard not to eavesdrop because they were speaking loudly and boastfully); they were lamenting the fact that they were probably the only conservatives in line, or possibly at the entire Sundance festival. Then one of them mentioned that he didn’t know much about this case other than four child killers were let out of prison because Eddie Vedder asked for them to be released (because that’s how the legal system works, I suppose). I thought to myself that these are the exact kind of people that need to see this documentary and dig a little deeper into the subject than a sensational headline or what they might have heard on the radio. I took notice of where they sat once we were inside the theater, because they were threatening to leave if it got too graphic or “liberal”. I wanted to see if they made it all the way through to the conclusion. So, when the lights came up, I immediately looked to their area and saw three of the four still seated, with tears in their eyes. Three out of four isn’t bad.
I’ve been following the Paradise Lost documentaries since 2003, so a lot of the first section of WEST OF MEMPHIS wasn’t particularly new to me, although the style of the doc was visually interesting enough to keep me locked in. It was personally frightening to see how the recap of the original trial actually had me doubting the three accused all over again. My rational brain knew they were innocent after seeing everything I had seen in the previous Paradise Lost docs, but it goes to show how deviously convincing the web of lies the original prosecutor wove was that it could even start to make me feel irrationally uneasy about the whole thing. They had “eye witnesses” testifying that the West Memphis Three admitted to devil worship and killing the three children, they had a confession from one of them, they had a hand written diary from Damien Echols waxing poetic about demonic sacrifice, they had a murder weapon found behind Jason Baldwin’s house. It was a complete farce that is later torn apart piece by piece in the doc, but a very compelling farce none the less.
Then once it pushes past the recap of what happened during the original trial, it starts to flow into new areas of evidence that was discovered thanks to the courage and dedication of Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson spending a lot of their own personal time (an asset worth more than money I’m sure to the busy couple) and resources making sure to hire the best forensic people in the country to check and double check the evidence, and uncover jaw dropping incompetence by the original medical examiner in the case. I don’t want to ruin the moment, but when they go into the segment about river turtles causing a lot of the post-mortem injuries, I was floored. My mouth was hanging open the entire time they were illustrating how it was CLEARLY animal caused wounds and not some kind of cult activity. Once you eliminate that one thread of cult practices, the whole tapestry of corruption and laziness on the part of the prosecution unravels with phenomenal speed.
I encourage everyone to watch the documentary and spread the word about what it contains, and discover who they strongly believe is the real killer of these children. After seeing all the new evidence and interviews, I’m convinced a known child killer is roaming free, and that must not stand.
All I can say is thank God for the original Paradise Lost documentary and Joe Berlinger who made it. Also, good on Peter Jackson for having a strong aversion to bullies, and to his partner Fran Walsh for being a true life guardian angel. Most of all, everyone that was involved in supporting the WM3 with letters and donations after seeing the original docs should be very proud of themselves. All I can hope is that the same kind of attention can continue to be shown for other cases of false imprisonment.
TIM AND ERIC’S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE
The only exposure to Tim and Eric’s comedy I’ve had has been the few episodes of Awesome Show, Great Job my friend Bo has shown me over the last few years on Cartoon Network, so I don’t know that I can call myself a hardcore Tim and Eric fan. I’m a fan of absurdest humor and these guys have mastered the genre, but for whatever reason, I never had a craving to see every episode of their TV series.
After watching BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, I might have to reassess that attitude. It had me rolling from minute one, and even though I was watching it at midnight, fueled only by a few restless hours of sleep the night before, it kept me howling all the way to the completely ridiculous end.
It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you’re from the Adult Swim generation, then this movie is a love letter to you.
THE FIRST TIME
I’m a proud fan of CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, a movie that THE FIRST TIME has been compared to quite a lot the last few days. I can’t say that I disagree with that comparison, but as fun as CAN’T HARDLY WAIT is, there is still a cartoon like quality to the characters and humor in that movie that isn’t really there in the more sincere THE FIRST TIME.
I’d almost compare it more to a modern day MY GIRL than your typical teenage romantic sex romp. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very funny sex comedy style gags that come into play in this film, it doesn’t pull any punches in that area, but it does not feel like they’re going for the gross out gags for a cheap laugh in this movie. Everything that happens puts you square in the middle of the awkwardness and horror that falling in love for the first time, and losing your virginity can come bundled with. That said, it’s done with a focus on being grounded in a dramatic reality that isn’t trying to only pick the low hanging fruit of bodily fluids and booze.
Director/writer Jon Kasden gives his female lead Britt Robertson such a fresh and unexpected way of speaking and responding to situations that you can’t help but fall for her along with the heart sick romantic that Dylan O’Brien plays. When he tells her in the movie that he’s never met anyone like her, the character has most definitely earned that description. It’s a smart and funny film that I think anyone of any age can relate to either because they’re currently going through it, or still have some battle scars from that time in their lives, and can now have a good laugh about it all.
It also struck me that if the next Spider-Man movie doesn’t live up to expectations, and they need to reboot it again quickly (Spectacular Spider-Man?) that as a major Spider-Man fan, I would not object one bit to giving that duty over to Jon Kasden and Dylan O’Brien.