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Sundance trend: 'Stunt movies' without stuntmen

  • Blog Post by: Colin Covert
  • January 20, 2014 - 6:13 PM

Park City Utah

In a moviegoing ecosystem increasingly dominated by giant monsters and super mutants, how does a film on a more human scale find its niche?

An overview of the offerings at the Sundance film festival suggests the answer is finding a risky, go-for-broke story concept or a stunt casting coup so bizarre that the project is impossible to ignore. 

Saturday saw the premier of "The Skeleton Twins," a serious minded film starring Saturday Night Live alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as warring siblings. The pair contribute affecting and poignant dramatic performances as the long-estranged siblings, who still carry the childhood scars of their father's death by his own hand. There are laughs to be sure, but the movie's themes of abuse, infidelity and suicide are played straight. Wiig is compelling as an sexually compulsive woman who feels stifled in her marriage to a plain-vanilla regular Joe (Luke Wilson), and Hader reveals new depths as her witty but depressive gay brother. The character is light years from Stefon, the gay club kid Hader played on SNL.

Uber-handsome Michael Fassbender plays an oddball rock and roller in the comedy drama "Frank." Up until the finale, his features are concealed by his habitual disguise, a giant, blankly staring mascot head. Maggie Gyllanhaal plays a band member opposite him, her blasé interactions never suggesting that there's anything out of the ordinary in the situation.

Richard Linklater's Sundance world premiere "Boyhood" follows Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane, who plays their son, over a period of 12 years. Linklater filmed scenes of the nimble three-hour domestic epic years apart, with the actors growing and aging in real time. Filming began in Houston in 2002 and wrapped last October. The movie's triumph is that the unique approach feels perfectly naturalistic, never gimmicky.

Tom Hardy, recently seen as Batman's hulking nemesis Bane, is the star of "Locke." In fact he's the only actor seen onscreen throughout the film. He plays a man zipping down an English highway while juggling crucial car phone calls that jeopardize his career and marriage. Hardy is riveting in a sustained closeup performance, creating an engaging portrait of a flawed but admirably decent man trying to do the right thing in all but impossible circumstances.

Not offbeat enough? Then there's comedienne Aubrey Plaza as a teenager's girlfriend turned hissing, gore-spattered zombie in "Life After Beth," and heartthrob Ryan Reynolds in the eccentric fantasy "The Voices," playing a likable psycho commanded to do very bad things by his telepathic cat, Mr. Whiskers. Or Kristen Stewart playing it dead serious as a female Gitmo guard who bonds with a jihadist prisoner in "Camp X-Ray." Even documentaries can pack a walloping series of surprises: "The Overnighters" looks at the downside of north Dakota's oil boom through the perspective of a Lutheran pastor who allows homeless job seekers to sleep on the floor of his church. The film features jaw-dropping third-act revelations that compel viewers to completely rethink its characters' actions and motivations. 

The festival's 2014 motto, repeated in a short shown before every screening is "Sundance: Because We All seek Something More than the Same Old Story." It's doing a pretty good job of delivering on that promise.

© 2014 Star Tribune