There’s a sub-genre of Sundance movies in which familiar faces, often from television, get a chance to step out of their comfort zones and try on roles they’d never be offered by studios. The two big revelations this year — which probably shouldn’t have come as any surprise at all, given their bodies of work – were knockout dramatic performances by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in director Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins.”
The longtime “SNL” co-stars play estranged siblings reconnecting in the wake of Hader’s botched suicide attempt. He’s a gay, hard-drinking basket-case with a rapier wit that feels like his last line of defense. She’s chafing against her catalog-perfect life as a suburban housewife, married to a well-meaning doofus (Luke Wilson) but still sleeping with her scuba diving instructor (among others.) The screenplay crams in one or two too many dramatic revelations and dark family secrets, but Hader and Wiig slide into one of the most effortlessly convincing sibling dynamics I have ever seen in a movie.
It’s a stroke of casting genius, putting together two performers who spent so many years working side by side in a live television crucible. There’s an intangible sense of shared history, as like most brothers and sisters these two often seem to be speaking their own secret language of mysterious asides and private jokes. It also means they also know how to hurt each other the way nobody else quite can.
I’ve long been impressed with the depth that Hader and Wiig bring to their film work – remember the unexpected sadness of “Adventureland?” These two approach even the smallest parts with an eye for details that evoke lives lived beyond the confines of five-minute sketches. “The Skeleton Twins” announces to anybody who still hasn’t noticed yet that these players are more than ready for prime time.
The festival’s Cinderella story was “Land Ho!”, an endearingly unassuming comedy co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz that came out of nowhere to score a healthy summer distribution deal and the most affectionate word of mouth I heard on nearly every shuttle bus all week.
“This Is Martin Bonner’s” Paul Eenhoorn stars as a sad-eyed divorcee taking an impromptu road trip to Iceland with his ex-brother-in-law, a garrulous, life-of-the-party ocular surgeon from Kentucky. He’s played by Stephens’ cousin Earl Lynn Nelson, who just so happens to be a garrulous, life-of-the-party ocular surgeon from Kentucky.
Another entry in the “Old Folks Say The Darndest Things” genre, I suppose in some senses “Land Ho!” is just the indie version of “Last Vegas,” but there’s a real sweetness to the movie, and it never pushes too hard. Content to be an episodic ramble along some spectacular locations in good company, it’s easy to foresee this gentle film packing them in on the senior-centric arthouse circuit for months.
And finally, after a steady diet of earnest social issue dramas and depressing documentaries, sometimes you just want to kick back and enjoy some mindless carnage. Barely finished in time for its festival premiere, “The Raid 2” is a full-bore kinetic juggernaut that left even the stodgiest press and industry audience hooting and hollering throughout the second half of the screening I attended.
Beginning with an indigestible clump of muddled exposition regarding characters and events I can barely recall from the first picture, “The Raid 2” does not get off to a promising start. But that barely matters, as the remaining two hours of this 153-minute monster are a relentless barrage of outlandishly violent and outrageously executed set-pieces.
Sampling from “A Better Tomorrow,” “Infernal Affairs” and just about every other chop-socky gun-fu opus from the past couple decades, director Gareth Evans works like a DJ mixing mayhem instead of beats. (There’s a nearly twenty minute car chase in this film so logistically insane, I can’t imagine how nobody got killed just trying to film it.) The go-for-broke, more-is-more aesthetic becomes dizzying, and the film’s suspense comes not from the creaky storyline, but instead wondering how it’s going to top itself next.
I doubt “The Raid 2” will appearing in this form for its scheduled U.S. theatrical release next month. The MPAA will certainly have a few things to say about all the bone-snapping and teeth smashing. I suppose I also should complain about the dearth of characterization or the warmed over plot. But to borrow that old joke about sex without love being an empty experience, “as far as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”