Director: Daniel Nettheim
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Frances O'Connor, Sam Neill
The Hunter is, simply put, an elegant piece of gritty storytelling. Centered on a complicated, tough-as-nails man who finds his humanity in unexpected ways, director Daniel Nettheim’s adaptation of author Julia Leigh’s novel slowly and efficiently peels the layers back from pay-for-hire mercenary Martin David’s (Willem Dafoe) chilly exterior. And with the always reliable Dafoe in the driver’s seat, and performing as subtly badass and commanding as ever, The Hunter conveys a refined maturity that’s magnetic.
Sent into the Tasmanian wilderness by a shady employer, Martin is tasked with locating the last known Tasmanian tiger in existence, a job made even tougher once he befriends the family that owns the home he’s shacking up in, comprised of a beautiful, tender widow (Frances O’Connor) and her two little kids. Usually a loner who’s all about his killing business, Martin reluctantly bonds with his housemates, and, in turn, distracts himself from work. Which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t end well.
As for the film itself, though, The Hunter skillfully builds its taut, character-driven narrative all the way into a perfectly tuned ending that’s slightly reminiscent of The Grey, only with more sustainable hope. Those able to appreciate nuanced drama and quiet thrills will be pleased.
Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
If this year’s SXSW Film Festival had one predominant theme, it’s certainly been that of gloomy fiction; seriously, even the majority of the lineup’s comedies had dark edges along with the laughs (or lack thereof). Thus, a film like documentarian Katie Dellamaggiore’s Brooklyn Castle is a welcome change-of-pace.
Though it touches on some no-joke issues, Dellamaggiore’s touching look at the NYC borough’s I.S. 318 junior high school chess team glides through its consistently entertaining 100 minutes with the buoyancy of 12-year-old kids just trying to have fun and enjoy life. Matters such as budget cuts and educational deficiencies are there, and given their proper stand-up-against-the-man attention, but Brooklyn Castle isn’t all about woes—it’s a celebration of how afterschool programs benefit today’s youth.
The heartwarming doc follows a group of I.S. 318 chess champions, showing how the love of kings and rooks bonds them, inspires helpfulness, and makes them both better students and sources of pride for their hard-working parents. There’s a sense of uncontrollable joy that comes from seeing teenage Rochelle, one of the film’s central youngsters, winning a full ride to a major university, or Pobo, a lovable extrovert with a heart of gold, consoling a defeated teammate. The kids, like Brooklyn Castle as a whole, are natural crowd-pleasers.
Director: Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos
Anyone who’s ever had even the smallest bit of interest in cults and/or group mentality should find an abundance of gold in the new documentary The Source, from gifted filmmakers Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos. For starters, the film takes an in-depth, all-access look at the The Source Family, a commune of spiritual and good-looking Los Angelinos who donned white robes and long hair from 1971 through 1975, all Jim Baker, a.k.a. “Father Yod,” a much older and self-appointed leader. Tracing the cult’s origins from a popular health food restaurant to a meager home that crammed in 140 members, The Source benefits from interviews with candid former participants, unprecedented amounts of the late Baker’s daily sermons, extensive photos, and unfiltered video footage.
The “source” of the film’s staggering amount of insider content: Isis, a featured one-time member whose “role,” in Baker’s eyes, was to document everything; meaning, Wille and Demopoulos were blessed with unbelievable visuals, such as a miraculous child birth that’s nearly fatal and Baker’s final breathing moments. There’s also the film’s haunting score, made up of all authentic recordings from The Source Family’s in-house rock band—think The Doors but much less polished. Thanks to the “Riders On The Storm”-like soundtrack, the revelatory The Score conjures a psychedelic immersion.
Director: Ya’Ke Smith
Stars: Irma P. Hall, Mikala Gibson, Jordan Cooper, Shelton Jolivette, Eugene Lee
When a film covers the difficult topic of sexual abuse, it’s never a good thing when audience members burst out in deafening laughter, especially more than once. But that’s the strange reaction that accompanied writer-director Ya’Ke Smith’s earnest yet problematic WOLF, an unflinching look at a teenage boy’s (the very on-point Jordan Cooper) struggles with adjusting to life after years of sexual mistreatment from the local, beloved bishop (Eugene Lee).
Our best guess: Those laughs were the result of WOLF’s spotty acting, an inconsistent level of performance that belies scenes otherwise played heart-attack seriously. For Smith’s part, the film hits a few glaringly off-base notes (how Cooper’s character finally incriminates the clergyman is a bit too random and ill-timed) and often delivers its message with blunt obviousness (the priest’s inner turmoil gets conveyed with on-the-nose symbolism).
At times, WOLF registers the kind of poignancy its makers no doubt intended for, namely whenever Cooper gets alone time on screen to work out the character’s psychosis. But Smith’s commendable objectives (i.e., sending viewers off with a final, safe God-heals-all moment) ultimately shortchange his own, largely confrontational narrative.
Director: Joko Anwar
Stars: Rio Dewanto, Hannah Al Rashid, Izziati Amara Isman, Aridh Tritama, Surya Saputra, Marsha Timothy, Sadha Triyudha, Jose Gamo
Watching Modus Anomali take a nose-dive into utter wackiness is a fascinating experience. Not one we’d ever recommend, mind you, but intriguing nonetheless. Because, for the opening 15 minutes of Filipino writer-director Joko Anwar’s, the mystery wastes little sinking its hook: A man (Rio Dewanto), unable to remember his identity, wakes up after being buried alive, stumbles into an isolated cabin in the woods, and watches a recording of a guy in a surgeon’s get-up filleting a pregnant woman’s belly. And, shortly after, the protagonist finds himself trapped inside a large wooden chest that’s getting set on fire.
Just as quickly as Modus Anomali catches one’s attention, however, it promptly abandons all excitement, settling into a nothing-ever-happens pace and trudging its way into one of the most overlong, bullshit-laden twist endings in recent memory. Shoddy acting aside (and, trust, there’s plenty of that on display), Anwar’s epic fail of a movie has plot-holes the size of beach balls, far too many stretches of its lead simply walking through the woods, and, again, a bait-and-switch conclusion that’s as ridiculous as it is tedious.
It’s a pity that, after seeing so many excellent films at SXSW 2012, our marathon of new films had to end with one as laughably bad as Modus Anomali. Oh, well—there’s always next year. See you then, Alamo Drafthouse wait staff!
Reviews by Matt Barone (@MBarone)