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Sundance 2014, Day Two: Incidents and accidents

Posted by Ty Burr  January 18, 2014 03:32 AM

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[Prototypical Sundance moment: Sitting in a Main Street café, I suddenly see a man in a bear suit walk by the window. Followed, 30 seconds later, by Jesse Eisenberg.]

Green Prince.jpgWatching a lot of movies in a limited amount of time creates interesting concordances, patterns, inner rhymes. I saw two movies about spies on Friday, one fictional, one non-, and -- as you might guess -- it was the documentary, "The Green Prince," that seemed too far-fetched to believe. Less expectedly, it was also the more hopeful of the two, but the other film, "A Most Wanted Man," is based on a John le Carre novel, so disenchantment is in its blood.

"The Green Prince" is the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the oldest son of a major Hamas leader and a mole for Israel's Shin Bet security agency. Right there are enough ironies and anxieties to fuel a Hollywood thriller or an ambitious Showtime series, but director Nadav Schirman tells an additional tale, that of the friendship between Yousef and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben-Itzhak. The latter looks like a fullback for a Russian football squad but reveals surprising depths. As time went on, Ben-Itzhak grew to respect his source's complex but essentially humanitarian motives, broke the rules for him, and ultimately (after being relieved of his duties) broke agency silence to protect Yousef's safety.

Schirman tries to gussy up this tale with as many cinematic tricks as he can, interweaving Hamas videos from the mid-2000s -- Mosab's bespectacled face popping into view next to the father he loved and betrayed -- with news footage and a few too many re-enactments than feel necessary or comfortable. He recreates many of the meetings from the point of view of imagined surveillance cameras or spotter planes, and audiences can spend so much time subconsciously trying to tell real from reel that they resist investing in the story.

Or they would if this story weren't so engrossing, or if Yousef and Ben-Itzhak weren't such compelling narrators of their own drama. Documentaries can overdo the talking-head sequences -- "Dinosaur 13," a tale of paleontology and injustice also playing at Sundance, practically drowns to death in them -- but "The Green Prince" has two talkers whose calm belief in the rightness of their actions energizes everything they say. The film ends up offering a small window of harmony between Palestinian and Israeli that, tellingly, could never take place on Israeli soil.

The le Carre, "A Most Wanted Man," is a chillier, more dyspeptic view of the spy game, set in Hamburg and featuring warring factions of German intelligence, shady Palestinian philanthropists, Chechen martyrs, and a CIA consultant played by Robin Wright with really bad hair. Oh, and Rachel McAdams as a left-wing lawyer, but who knows where she's from, since her accent is vaguely left of France and north of the Canary Islands. As Gunther Bachmann, head of an anti-terrorism unit that officially doesn't exist, Philip Seymour Hoffman does strange things with his voice too, but they're phlegmy and guttural and in keeping with the exhausted moralism of le Carre-land.

The director is Anton Corbijn, the superstar photographer turned director ("The American," "Control") who here makes his most commercial film to date. "A Most Wanted Man" is methodical and gripping for the first hour, and a pretty good suspense drama for the second; Corbijn has yet to learn how to vary, sustain, and build dramatic pacing over a film's long haul. Still, this is clearly European le Carre rather than Hollywood, with a greater interest in process, disappointment, and existential blondes. Corbijn loves the bone structure of an actress like Nina Hoss almost as much as he loves the post-modern architecture of Hamburg; both offer a tensely beautiful framework over which he can stretch le Carre's moves and countermoves. Among those, by the way, is one of Hoffman's moles, a young Arab man (Mehdi Dehbi) who turns out to be the son of the spymaster's quarry, and another of Sundance 2014's Green Princes.

More rhymes and concordances: On Thursday I saw "Whiplash," a drama about a naive musician challenged by a possibly unbalanced mentor. The last film I saw Friday was "Frank," about a naïve musician challenged by a possibly unbalanced mentor. Other than that, the two are radically different, with "Frank" an eccentric much of a muchness that keeps threatening to devolve into mere quirk before veering off into rougher, more inspired weirdness. Starring Michael Fassbender. In a big fake plaster head.

Frank.jpgDomhnall Gleeson -- Brendan's kid -- is the naïf, a no-talent songwriter who falls in with a misfit rock group with an unpronounceable name, a hostile lady theremin player (Maggie Gyllenhaal, terrifying), and a charismatically disturbed lead singer who never takes his big fake plaster head off and thus suggests Joy Division's Ian Curtis in a Mummenschanz touring production.

Writers Leonard Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan apparently based their damaged hero on an actual musician and they're most interested in celebrating a mentally ill artist without romanticizing him. I'm not sure they succeed in that -- Sundance audiences grabbed onto the paper "Frank" masks ushers handed out at the screening with hipster irony -- but they've made a movie that's a lot less cute and a lot more unsettling than it could have been. And at a time when Fassbender is regularly lionized as a Great Thespian, this is one of his odder, sweeter performances, all the more touching for its invisibility.

Rounding out the day's screenings: "Obvious Child," a small-scale Brooklyn/Manhattan-set comedy-drama which gives a welcome lead role to Jenny Slate, late of "SNL" and the Interweb's "Marcel the Shell". Directed and co-written by Gillian Robespierre, it's fairly slapdash and very likeable, a comic tale of woe about a pottymouthed stand-up comic (Slate) who gets dumped by her louse boyfriend, has a one-night stand with a good-hearted preppie (Jake Lacy), gets pregnant, and has an abortion.

What, what? Where pretty much every American movie in which a heroine gets knocked up -- including "Knocked Up" -- is terrified of mentioning the A word, let alone following through with it, "Obvious Child" plows ahead with sympathy, sisterhood (thanks to the great Gaby Hoffman as Slate's no-nonsense roommate), and, most shocking of all, cauterizing humor. Yes, maybe Lacy's character is too much of a dude ex machina, but any movie that casts Richard Kind and Polly Draper as the heroine's parents is doing something right, and Slate understands that when her character tells a shamelessly funny fart joke, that's just the way she cries.

[Another prototypical Sundance moment: Crowd on Main Street surrounding an attractive woman with sunglasses, everyone taking cellphone photos as she obligingly smiles. She's clearly someone famous. I ask a man firing off sequential shots who she is. "No idea," he says.]

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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