Sundance 2014: Kristen Stewart as a Guantanamo guard? I didn't buy it

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Image Credit: Beth Dubber

On Entourage, Vincent Chase would do his dumb-whore popcorn movies (like Aqua-Man) and feel humiliated, but the truth is that he rarely looked more hapless than when he was making one of his “integrity” projects — like his Pablo Escobar biopic, or the I’m-just-Vinnie-from-the-block indie Queens Boulevard, which wound up getting showcased at Sundance. If Entourage wasn’t about Vincent Chase but was about Kristen Stewart instead, her Escobar-meets-Queens Boulevard wince-worthy integrity dud might be Camp X-Ray, in which Stewart plays a guard at Guantanamo Bay who winds up uncovering the big lie of American anti-terrorist policy by making friends with one of the prison camp’s detainees. Has he been unjustly imprisoned? Maybe, but as the film sees it, the real injustice is that he’s been locked up with no end in sight, and he’s nice.

The haters of Kristen Stewart are everywhere, perpetually pouring out of the woodwork to declare their unholy catechism of derision (“She’s always the same!” “I’m sick and tired of her high-school-girl petulance!” “Did you see her on that awards show? She acts like she’s too good for stardom!”). But even though I get where the bashers are coming from, you would never count me among them. Ever since I watched Stewart in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, the incandescent ’80s nostalgia movie that premiered at Sundance four years ago, I have seen what she can do in the right role, working with a director who knows how to harness her snarky brainy moodiness. I thought she had a genuine sensuality in the Twilight films, and she always made the role of Bella feel urgent. But in Camp X-Ray, I never believed — not for a moment — that she was someone in the military. She has no toughness, no moxie, no callouses on her hide. The Stewart mannerisms (the pretty-girl scowl, the flared nostrils) really make their presence known this time, because even though she’s working hard to play them down, trying to give an almost minimalist performance, all of that substitutes for what she should have been doing: acting in a way that breaks new ground for her, with, perhaps, a greater sense of physicality. Her character, Amy Cole, has been thrown in with a bunch of macho military brutes, and the reason she doesn’t fit in with them isn’t that she’s just about the only woman. It’s that they really seem like soldiers, and she seems like…Kristen Stewart trapped in Guantanamo Bay.

When it comes to giving you a journalistic sense of what the prison at Gitmo really looks like, and what goes on there on a day-to-day basis, Camp X-Ray is reasonably well-staged. But it’s also a flatly made movie. Amy starts talking to one of the prisoners, a Muslim from Germany named Ali (Payman Maadi), who calls her “Blondie,” and as soon as we hear that derisive/affectionate nickname, we know what kind of movie it’s going to be. The two are going to talk. And become friends. And realize that under the skin, they’re just alike. Oh, and that therefore U.S. policy is unjust. Don’t get the wrong idea from my sarcasm: I believe that the prison at Guantanamo is a travesty, that it years ago outlived any national-security purpose it might ever have had, and that the way those detainees have been locked up without due process, and subjected to “enhanced” methods of interrogation and punishment, is a national disgrace. But Camp X-Ray is not the kind of movie that effectively carries that message. Much as I’ll defend Kristen Stewart as an actress, she is pouty and moody and self-involved, and those simply aren’t the things you want to call on to signify moral outrage.

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A cult film that tries too hard to be a cult film is a contradiction in terms, not to mention an annoyance. True cult films are organic; they get discovered. But a comedy like Frank, in which Michael Fassbender plays a saintly-kook man-child of an indie-rock lead singer who wears a big, round papier-machĂ© head that he never takes off, is working, in every scene, to get you to love how acerbically adorable it is. The trouble with Frank as a movie is that the spirit of quirky self-consciousness is all that’s driving the scenes; most of them just dribble on. The director, the Dublin-born Lenny Abrahamson, has basically conceived the film as Napoleon Dynamite meets The Commitments, with this crazy-cute character at the center of it. He’s literally a head case, like Booji Boy from Devo as redesigned by Julie Taymor to look like a freaked-out Astro-Boy with his eyes popped wide open in deadpan shock. Meanwhile, Frank’s bandmates, who include Domhnall Gleeson (from About Time) as the nominal sweet-geek hero and Maggie Gyllenhaal as some sort of raging feminist bohemian, kvetch and cuddle and fight and try to make an album together, even though the only thing they can really agree on is that Frank is some sort of genius. At the end of the movie, Fassbender, singing in a voice that sounds like Jim Morrison on Klonopin, stands in a rehearsal space along with the band and performs a song called “I Love You All,” and I have to say: It is haunting. It made me wish that there were more songs like that in the movie — that the stunted, masked Frank had been given more of an outlet for his feelings, so that we could connect to him. As it is, he’s a cult-film mascot who never really becomes a character.

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