The first 24 hours of the Sundance Film Festival are now complete. The weather in Park City, Utah has been surprisingly pleasant (which I am sure will change drastically because of the sentence I just wrote). Regardless, as in years past, I’ll be providing a daily synopsis of all of the movies that I’ve seen at the festival.
This first installment includes the current talk of the festival so far, “Whiplash,” the surprise hit starring Miles Teller; Kristen Stewart’s Guantanamo Bay drama, “Camp X-Ray”; and Aaron Paul’s first film post-“Breaking Bad,” “Hellion.”
Sundance isn’t exactly known for showing, let’s say, their better films on the first night of the festival. I think this may be the reason that not many people saw “Whiplash” coming. Plus, the synopsis about a college student, Andrew (Miles Teller), trying out for his school’s jazz band doesn’t sound, on the surface, like something oozing with excitement. Boy, were those assumptions wrong. The key here is that his music professor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), isn’t the “tough love, but has a heart of gold” type of guy. For lack of a better term, he’s an asshole. He casually drops homophobic slurs while berating his students and he’s not afraid of physical abuse. As an audience, we hate this guy. But, we don’t doubt Fetcher’s talent and Fletcher doesn’t doubt Andrew’s talent -- even though these two despise each other. Which, for the viewer, creates an electric relationship to observe. (And one of the best drum solos I’ve ever seen on screen.)
Even though it doesn’t completely work, this was a good career choice for Kristen Stewart. And she’s fine as Amy Cole, a private stationed at Guantanamo Bay whose duty it is to keep the detainees – never “prisoners” – alive. There’s certainly an interesting message in this film concerning the ethics of Guantanamo Bay, but, as a movie, there’s a lot of mundane scenes of soldiers peering into cell windows. It’s a movie about people in a remote prison who we know aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, which limits where the story can really go. (Though, it does flirt with a borderline sexual assault at an off-duty party. This does not make the movie any better.) There’s a level of appreciation here that Stewart tried something completely different, but the movie itself doesn’t have any room to breathe.
Boy, it’s nice to watch Aaron Paul play someone who is not Jesse Pinkman. And it’s kind of obvious on-screen that Paul is himself relishing this opportunity. (Note: I spoke to Paul after the premiere for an interview that will also publish this weekend.) Paul plays Hollis, a widower alcoholic trying to raise his two young sons, the older of which, Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is a hellion and seems to find himself in trouble with the law on a regular basis. The film takes a really odd narrative choice in the final act, but that doesn’t overshadow the great performances by both Paul and newcomer Josh Wiggins.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.