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Two From Sundance 2008: “August,” “Sleepwalking”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Josh Hartnett in “August,” 57th & Irving Prod., Periscope Entertainment, 2008]


Directed by Austin Chick

We never learn how Land Shark, the dot-com at the heart of “August,” is supposed to make money. Characters tell us that the brand “speaks for itself. Nobody does what [they] do,” but what exactly that might be is left to the imagination. Given the fact that the company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, it’s possible we don’t know what Land Shark does because its employees remain foggy on the matter as well.

The Land Shark name is a reference to an old sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” in which Chevy Chase, dressed in cheap shark costume, would get women to let him into their apartment by mumbling a bunch of innocent gibberish (“Plumber, ma’am…,” Candygram…”) until they’d peek their head out to see who it was. The scenario mirrors the way that Land Shark goes about its business under the stewardship of Tom Sterling (Josh Hartnett), who can talk his way into any deal, assuming the other party is stupid enough to open the door and let him in.

“August” opens with a well-edited montage that establishes those heady days of the early aughts when our biggest concern was whether Tom and Nicole would tough things out together. Cut to five months later, and things don’t look as bright as they once did at Land Shark. While he lavishly spends money his company doesn’t have to keep up appearances, Tom and his tech-savvy brother Joshua (Adam Scott) must figure out how to keep the company afloat long enough for their business model to work. The brothers figure that might take three years. At the rate they’re burning through capital, they won’t last another three months.

Austin Chick’s drama is about the lengths people will go to cling to illusions they love: Tom, in a surprisingly strong performance from Hartnett, fully understands the depths of his problems, but he’s too intent on projecting the image of success he’s hyped to a nation of investors to let on. Tom’s public persona is contrasted with the one seen in scenes with his family, with a mostly wasted Rip Torn playing Hartnett’s dad, and his ex-girlfriend, played by Naomie Harris. Though these sequences would seem crucial to fully understand Hartnett’s character, the script by Howard A. Rodman is shakiest here. Where the world of power lunches and high finance is a mysterious and alluring one, the world of Tom’s home life is a clichéd one of uncomfortable family dinners and old loves lost.

Still, Hartnett skillfully anchors this mostly impressive drama, which captures its pre-9/11 New York City milieu with wit and nuance. Chick makes subtly pointed references to the horror that looms just on the horizon with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them background shots of the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers, and deploys a number of clever visual metaphors, the best of which may be the game of pinball Tom and Joshua often play in their local bar. They initially think they’re like the flippers, keeping this ball up in the air while everything around them keeps trying to knock it down. By the close of “August,” they’ve begun to realize they’re more like the ball — buffeted about by forces they can’t control.


Directed by William Maher

What an appropriate title for a movie that seems to be working solely from a checklist of Sundance movie tropes. There’s a precocious child, wise beyond her years, yearning for escape from her crummy small town life, and a dysfunctional family road trip, and a serially depressed young man who is confronting his past and coming of age, and bad parents galore. It’s not too late to make an inventive movie using all of these ideas, but it is too late for “Sleepwalking,” whose sole creative contribution to the Sundance movie canon is to deploy this motley crew of motifs as a means of justifying and even celebrating murder and a host of other crimes.

Nick Stahl stars as James, a quiet young man who is sleepwalking through life. We know this because he tells us straight out near the finale that “I feel like I was in a dream. Sleepwalking. But you helped me. You woke me up.” It’s an uncharacteristically blunt statement from a character who has spent the previous 95 minutes completely shielding us from his feelings until we eventually stop wondering or caring whether he has any at all.

Currently, James’ biggest problem stems from his sister Jolene (Charlize Theron, in another of her “dirty and disheveled equals important” roles), who’s run off and left him in charge of her 11-year-old daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb). Tara is another character we are supposed to care about and don’t; mostly because Maher and screenwriter Zac Stanford seem to think her crummy mother excuses her whiny attitude, poor behavior, and her willingness to turn her poor uncle James into a fugitive from the law. In short order, Tara gets James fired from his job, then convinces him to free her from a foster home and set out on an ill-advised road trip that could get James in a mess of hot water. James insists to anyone who’ll listen that Tara’s “a good kid,” totally oblivious to the fact that this sour apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

For the first two-thirds of the movie James seems shy, depressed and quiet without any good reason. In the final third, we discover the source of his problems: his overbearing ranch hand father, played by Dennis Hopper as if Frank Booth had given up the city life and the huffing to decamp for Wyoming to start a horse farm. At first, it’s kind of a gas to see Hopper let loose on such a primordially malevolent character — he, at least, is willing to call Tara on her poor behavior — but then he quickly becomes a cartoonishly overbearing tyrant, bellowing in his terrified grandaughter’s face about how his mares are going to get colic.

Let’s give credit where credit’s due: The final act, which finally breaks free of the Sundance stereotype shackles, is so gosh-darn wonky you’ll never see it coming. But it’s also so gosh-darn wonky that it’s more than a little ridiculous, and maybe even a bit unintentionally funny (even the capital crimes involved in the climax are handled so poorly they’re worth a chuckle or two). By the time James wakes from his stupor, it’s too late to roust us from ours, or the movie from its own, for that matter.

[Additional photo: “Sleepwalking,” Overture Films, 2007]

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