SUNDANCE 2012: PART II
<<click here for PART I>>
DAY FOUR: TURNING TIDE
I got up at 7 am on Sunday morning and made my way down Main Street to find something for breakfast. The snow-covered city was empty and beautiful, the cool air palpably thinner and crisper in my lungs than the heavy New York City ozone I'm used to breathing. I suppose everyone was still at home recovering from Saturday night's parties, so it felt like I had the town and the festival to myself. Park City became a lazy mountain town once again; its tininess now quiet and charming, no longer a source of overcrowding and chaos. I quickly grabbed a bacon egg and cheese sandwich from a deli, settled down on a bench and ate outside, a squat and deep cup of coffee warming my hands. It was like a memory wipe: I forgot everything and refocused on the movies.
That's What She Said
A feature film starring Anne Heche in the Chelsea Handler/Whitney Cummings school of "women behaving badly" comedy - you know, the "I was drinking vodka and then I wanted to have sex so I farted" school of comedy. This is another piece of the argument that Marcus Pinn should have gone to Sundance in my place: Alia Shawkat plays a sex addict who at one point gets caught masturbating in a public restroom. This is a film he's destined to see. I sorta don't want to say too much about this film because the parents of its executive producer are members of the film club at the JBFC I host and I went out of my way to see it because they mentioned their second degree connection. You can get a good flavor of it, I believe, from what I've already written and I feel like this is an instance where I should cool my naturally judgmental jets. That's the funny thing about movies: somebody makes them. Like with the Demme/Neil Young film, I genuinely don't know what the most professional move is here: praise it and I'll sound like a sycophant. Trash it and I'll piss somebody off whom it doesn't make sense to piss off. Is the most neutral thing I can say that starting off the day with a raucous comedy is always a good way to go at a festival? Also, I like Anne Heche. Of course, she's the perfect example of how a public persona can if mismanaged ruin your ability to have an audience divorce you from a character. I think she's perfectly cast in this film and it's not hard to understand why Hollywood Bigwigs were grooming her to be a star. Also, I don't think it would be controversial to say that the little dance she does in this film is not as charming as the dance Giulietta Masina does in Nights of Cabiria. You can't win them all.
Another "not as clever as it thinks it is" film from the director of Rubber (the film about a killer tire that wasn't nearly as clever as it needed to be.) Both films have some good ideas, but completely run out of new ones after about 20 minutes. Both films are defined by how pleased they seem with themselves even as they begin to repeat gags that were only mediocre to begin with and fail to develop beyond their initial under-grad level narrative provocations. After they run out of steam, they're left with nothing but an air of stillborn, tedious smugness (and boy, the last half an hour of both are tough to sit through - that's a real problem with their relatively short running times.) The plot of this one concerns a guy whose dog is kidnapped by William Fitchner as part of Fitchner's plan to get our hero to better appreciate and love his now-missing dog. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that. Meanwhile, our hero's hunky gardener steals his identity in order to sleep with a pizza place cashier. Wackiness ensues. The attraction of the film is the way in which it is adorned with continuous zaniness like an alarm clock that goes from reading "5:59" to "5:60" or inside an office building where it's always pouring down water from the fire prevention system's sprinklers. And those are some of the more inventive gags - in general, the film's tone is only a shade away from a Napoleon Dynamite-style "look at this dude's crazy haircut!" comic sensibility; it features "jokes" like a pet detective who wears an Indiana Jones-esque fedora and brown jacket as well as Fitchner's high-larious braided ponytail. A genuinely clever bit at the end about a machine that can access a dog turd's memories only serves to underline just how tired the film has become: a slight and silly gross-out gag jolts the film awake like a finger in an electrical socket and it just as quickly passes out again. Repeat the alarm clock gag. Repeat the jokes about the gardener/hero's mistaken identity. Fitchner's still got a funny haircut. Over. And over. Films that rely on weirdness and surprise to stay afloat are doomed without a constant barrage of new ideas and unpredictable jokes. Wrong is doomed. Over the course of Rubber and Wrong, writer/director Quentin Dupieux has generated about 27 and a half minutes of worthwhile material; whether or not that's enough to keep you interested depends on how forgiving and patient of a viewer you are.
This ranks right up there for the top spot in the annals of "movies that most disastrously fly off the rails in the last ten minutes." The recent Korean remake The Housemaid comes to mind. Disney's The Black Hole also goes utterly bananas, although I sorta like it in that case. At any rate, Rodrigo Cortes brings together a great cast including Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Elizabeth Olsen and an actually-giving-a-shit Robert DeNiro and pulls us along through a fairly compelling story that happens to be right up my alley: a team of scientists goes about debunking psychic phenomena and general E.S.P.-ish chicanery like spoon-bending, sťance table-floating and card-reading. I felt like I was being targeted specifically when Mr. Craig Roberts, Submarine's Oliver Tate himself, turns up in an amusing bit part. I've always been fond of the work of Dr. James Randi and his more famous acolytes Penn and Teller - it was delightful to watch a film take time to destroy idiocies like astrology and psychic surgery using Randi's philosophy pretty much verbatim as a guide. A lot of tension in the viewing experience for me came from wondering if the film would cop out and reveal DeNiro's Uri Gellar-esque antagonist to actually be magic - I loved how closely it hewed to the noble skepticism of Randi's work which seeks to save the sick and desperate from greedy con-men (and women) who would exploit their weakness...I feared it would just be another Hollywood story where magical shenanigans turn out to be real and "save" our cynical protagonist from a Godless lifetime of nonbelief, reason and rationality. The absolutely botched finale of the film includes incoherent twists, flash-forwards, false-flash-forwards, flashbacks and an incoherent explanation in the form of an epistolary voice-over addressed to a dead woman. It's ridiculous, hard to follow and needlessly lengthy. It turns a pretty good but unambitious film into an idiotically grandiose mess.
Lay the Favorite
Oh gosh... Stephen Frears, what are you doing? Look, I'm not a Stephen Frears apologist. I like The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Hit, even The Queen. But I can't defend Cheri or Mrs. Henderson Presents or Tamara Drewe. I don't even like some of the ones that are generally thought of as good like The Snapper and Dirty Pretty Things. So, I really shouldn't be defending an objectively problematic film like Lay the Favorite. But what can I say? I'm fascinated by an insider's view of gambling (for instance, I love that Anjelica Huston is a cut-off woman in The Grifters), I like Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones (yeah, you heard me suckas - I go all the way back to Splitting Heirs with that one), I enjoy the sleazy milieu of the film that chronicles a Florida stripper (the most famously sleazy type of stripper) on her journey to work as a cocktail waitress in Vegas (the most depressingly sleazy job in a place that has sleaziness constructed into its concept) and her further adventures working for a professional gambler (a pretty sleazy way to become a millionaire) and eventually her turns running a business overseeing on-line gambling out of the Caribbean (self-evident sleaziness) and booking-making in New York (criminal sleaziness) under the supervision of a bloated Vince Vaughn (Hollywood's most repulsively sleazy star.) I shouldn't like this movie, really I shouldn't. But it features a topless Lauren Prepon in an utterly thankless role as a gambling-addicted showgirl - sleaze! Did I mention that God Bless America's legendary Joel Michael Murray has a cameo as a sleazebag who pays our stripper hero to do handstands in her underwear? I did now! I guess what makes it a bad film is the light Hollywood comedic tone that underplays the general grossness of everything that's happening and tries fruitlessly to turn it into a charmingly goofy underdog story about a ditzy hot girl who everyone underestimates (plus, a Joshua Jackson romantic subplot.) I should hate it. Trust me, it's bad, ok? But I just can't bring myself to speak badly of a film that features a no-nonsense professional gambler played by Bruce Willis in Ed Hardy shirts and white socks pulled up to his knees nursing his beloved pet hamster back to health. Also, Vince Vaughn plays the role he was born to play: a disgusting blowhard degenerate who looks like an uncooked scrapple after you hit it with a hammer. I'm not saying I recommend this. That's not at all what I'm saying.
A short film that played before My Best Day, I guess paired up with the feature because they are both comedies about poor white trash. On the other hand, it was a kinda strange choice because of the sheer amount of child abuse featured in it, its pervasive, callow ugliness and glib sense of humor - a tough sell in any case and a really asymmetrical pairing with My Best Day's gentle, awkward sensitivity. Five minutes of toddler bullying, screeching and a-whippin' you gonna get it boy! Wowzers, I can't believe someone used death metal jokingly on their soundtrack, what pioneers.
My Best Day
Runner-up for the Most Sundance-y Film I Saw at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival: an outlandishly quirky coming-of-age comedy about poor people in a small town. Also: lesbians. An awkward pale, red-headed teenager (of course she's red-headed) finds out where her real father lives due to a coincidence at her refrigerator repair job (now, just let me tell you about the gaggle of eccentric weirdoes she works with!) She decides to go check in on him with her motorcycle-riding lesbian buddy and finds out that his life is more complicated than she could imagine. What with the white trash, tank-top guys hanging around, trailer parks, bacon and cigarettes, etc. Also, there's a gangly neighborhood boy who takes on a pack of raging bullies while romancing the adorable daughter of a convenience store owner. Look, I enjoyed the gangly boy's plan to catch a fly to put in his jar of instant iced tea so he can return it to the convenience store and have an excuse to chat with the little girl - I didn't hate this movie, I'm just surprised that anyone bothers to make ones like this anymore. Didn't the "ultra-low budget quirkfest" die an unmourned death sometime around the turn of the century? Kids dress up in wacky outfits like wrestling singlets and spout out over-written jokey dialog while we are treated to a slice of life in a delightfully unpleasant small town getting crushed under the weight of detritus and poverty. I guess film festivals are the only place you can see this sort of thing any longer - on a couple of levels, that's not exactly a bad thing.
DAY 5: SKYPE'D
I lost my morning by having to check in back at the JBFC to get the technical details hammered out for a skype event scheduled for later that evening. The concept was that our Director of Programming Brian Ackerman and Executive Director Steve Apkon would do a Q & A giving a live update from the festival after we screened the highlights of last year's Sundance short film program. With Steve and Brian now out of the picture, doing the event fell to me. I couldn't get an early start since I was communicating with the theater and working out everything for the event. Frustratingly, the press & industry screenings are scheduled so infrequently (and since everything fills up so quickly) that just getting set for the skype Q & A ended up swallowing essentially my whole morning.
My Brother the Devil
And the Winner for the Most Sundance-y Film I Saw at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival: an earnest coming-of-age drama about poor people in the projects. A charismatic young man from an impoverished background caught up in a life of crime. His book-smart younger brother who he is trying to keep out of that life. A best friend going straight (watch to find out if he's felled by senseless violence!) The redemptive power of art. Coming of age. Burgeoning homosexuality. An under-represented ethnic minority (Islam for a +1 "religion" bonus! And for a +2 "ethnicity under assault by bigots" bonus!) There is very little that divides a well-meaning, excellently acted, attractively photographed bit of earnest liberal poverty tourism like this from an afterschool special. It does feature a significant role for Said Taghmoui and genuinely no one loves Said Taghmoui more than me - he played the Iraqi soldier who quizzes Mark Walhberg about Michael Jackson's skin color in Three Kings and the man translating the old woman's song about famine in I Heart Huckabees - I wanted to cheer when I saw his name in the credits. I wrote a feature film with the idea that he would star in it. In this film, he's great as a gentle and sweet politically-minded photographer who helps save the hero from a life of crime and then awakens the square-jawed former hood's true sexuality. So please don't think my criticisms of this film count as a criticism of Said Taghmoui. That would be crazy. But this film is fine. It's sort of irritating how much it pushes a rainbow gang view of the world - there's even a fat white kid tagging along - and there's absolutely nothing new or original about its story which features stern, hard-working old-world parents who came to the West to make a better life for their kids in addition to slimy drug dealers who manipulate the younger brother with chummy praise and easy money. It's really well done on every technical level. A worthless script, though, is a worthless script regardless of how much authentic U.K. street slang is peppered thorough. Dat's the reals, fam.
Red Hook Bummer
This was a real botch job: if you read my Sundance preview, you know that the only film for which I was really excited was Spike Lee's newest. But gosh-darnit, the nature of the skype event and the long running time for Lee's film (130 minutes) conspired to prevent me from taking down the prime target of my ruthless Sundancery. Lee's film began at 4:30 - I had to arrive back at the condo and call in via skype at 5:00...then wait to do the Q & A from 6:15 to 6:45. The idea was to just show a few shorts (about 45 minutes worth) then have me do the live update. Here's the kicker: during the Q & A, a patron commandeered the micorphone and decided to tell me to stop doing the Q & A. In fact, this random dude off the street put it to an audience vote as to whether they wanted the Q & A to continue or go back to watching the shorts and have me do the Q & A after it was all over. Caught totally off-guard, I just agreed to go back to the shorts and continue the discussion when they were all finished. Our theater staff was (rightfully) outraged that a patron (who had apparently been obnoxious since the moment he arrived in the theater) was telling us how to run our own events. By waiting around and doing the Q & A at almost 8:00, I totally burned my chance to see any more movies before the final 9:30/10:00 P & I wave. This is why you can't be nice to people - the JBFC wasn't paying thousands of dollars to have me twiddle my thumbs all day and yet that's essentially what I ended up doing.
Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie
When I tell people that I really liked this film, they respond that I must be a fan of the show. I guess that's true - I do like the show whenever I watch some of it. But I don't think I've ever seen an entire episode from stop to start. I mean, obviously, there's no reason I wouldn't enjoy their parodic world of heavily edited green-screen grostesquery, a disturbing tour through a wasteland of corporate training videos, low rent local t.v. commercials, children's television music videos, public access crackpots and abrupt violence. The film follows that template, more or less, but grafts their deliria onto a more traditionally constructed and filmed story. It's not like Wayne's World, which abandoned any resemblance to its sketch comedy roots when it jumped to feature length, nor is it like The Meaning of Life which amounted to a series of Monty Python sketches very loosely linked together. I suppose its closest analog would be UHF, which spent a lot of time letting "Weird" Al Yankovic do exactly what he does, but spent even more time on a "regular" film. The plot: Tim & Eric waste a billion dollars on a 3 minute movie starring a Johnny Depp impersonator in a diamond-coated suit. Their corporate sponsors at Schlaaang (Robert Loggia and William Atherton) want to be paid back the billion bucks or else they'll murder our hapless heroes and everyone they love. To recoup the loss, Tim & Eric decide to buy a mall in middle America run by Will Ferrell and his feral son John C. Reilly. From there: homeless people vomiting, marathon Top Gun viewing sessions, Robert Wise as a shirm-spouting spiritual healer, a wolf-tempting pizza suit and Tim intentionally having his arm cut off as part of a night of club-going fun. My favorite bit was a song co-written and performed by Aimee Mann to symbolically explicate Tim & Eric's cross-country journey. On one level, this film might be the purest example of "great...if you like that sort of thing." I don't know though - really, I'm not a super-fan and this was almost certainly my favorite film of the festival. Of course, that says as much about the festival as it does about the quality of a movie featuring a used toilet paper shop and Will Forte as a raging jerk/sword enthusiast.
DAY 6: FINALLY DOWN TO BUSINESS
It was sometime on my sixth day in Park City that I realized a huge amount of my bad experience was my own fault, a mix of rookie mistakes and an unavoidable sloppiness due to my last-second assignment to cover the festival. When I finally hit my stride, it was almost time to go home. I also think that the festival suffered so much in comparison to my always-excellent trips to Toronto in September for their bigger, more expansive festival. For almost ten years, I've been heading up to Toronto with gentleman of leisure Paul Cooney and the ursinely noble John Cribbs to spend a week taking in more films than I can handle, eat great food and ingest a slate of games in opening week of NFL football that gives us match-ups on Thursday, Sunday and Monday (also, it is a time of the year when my beloved Philadelphia Eagles are most relevant and all of the football news isn't focused on the success of the goddamned New England Patriots and the goddamnier New Jersey Giants.) In addition to doing my favorite thing in the world (watching movies) I get to spend a week hanging out with two of my best friends and exploring a respectably interesting city that keeps turning up new and interesting facets even after a decade. Our exploits wandering the Queen city after the midnight screenings let out have ranged from the G to XX rated and, in terms of quality, from A+ to F--. It's not fair to compare my lonely Park City experience to an eagerly-anticipated annual ritual that essentially brings together everything I love most in the world: undistributable foreign films, otherworldly spicy matar paneer, NFL football, my friends, whiskey, women, crepes AND waffles. Sundance is its own entirely different experience and each day I enjoyed it incermentally more, felt more at ease navigating its machinations. A decade from now, I'll probably look back at this trip nostalgically, the way I do my first trip to TIFF when I stayed in a group room in a shitty hostel on my own dime, ran out of money a day before I was set to go back to NYC and had to sleep in my car one night while I waited for my paycheck to clear. Then and now I just needed to find my footing.
When I think about it, though, would it kill Park City to get some street vendors hawking juicy veggie dogs with dijon mustard and green olives? Just put one outside of the Holiday Cinemas where the P & I screenings are held. I'd eat there. Somebody'd eat there.
Another dry-as-hell weirdo comedy from Greece in the vein of Giorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth and ALPS. Don't get too excited, L is similar in tone but far worse in execution than those dual masterpieces. It's of the same family tree, but more like the quiet uncle: more sanguine and tiring, less fun to be around even if clearly arising from the same DNA. Maybe it's just that the subtitles for all three films are done in the same shaky white font. Nah, this film, about a guy who lives in his car and engages in some never fully explained job involving the timely transport of honey, definitely belongs to the same school of dry, slowly-unfolding surrealism as Lanthimos' superior work. I think that ultimately the main difference comes down to that, as they develop, Lanthimos' films become more and more terrifyingly grounded in a recognizable reality while L becomes sillier and more ontologically unthethered from realistic human behavior and situations. That is, Dogtooth and ALPS start out oblique - almost alien in their in narrative framework - and slowly reveal their rules and how those rules are a reaction to and function of the authentic-feeling world in which they exist. L devolves into a silly place where roving motorbike gangs espouse anti-car philosophies and the film's hero interacts with the ghost of a close friend killed by hunters when mistaken for a bear. The movie ends with Mr. L (just kidding, the title is never explained - again, unlike ALPS and Dogtooth, titles which take on complex meanings as their stories unfold) singing a tedious, repetitive, intentionally moronic five minute song about the power and beauty of the ocean. There are occasional things to like in this film and moments that play with the same dark, dry comedic self-assurance of Lanthimos' work, but overall L mainly serves to demonstrate how occasional darkly funny scenes, narrative obscurity and unflappable stylistic confidence are not what make Dogtooth and ALPS great - diligently aping those aspects isn't enough to produce a great movie. Lanthimos has a talent that can't be faked. If the makers of L (or you readers) object to me comparing the film endlessly to another filmmaker and not judging it in isolation on its own merits, don't blame me: L did it to itself. An inferior knock-off is an inferior knock-off.
Sleepwalk with Me
I sat next to the A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin at this screening and it took a lot of self-restraint to not tell him how ridiculously insane his fawning review of O.C. and Stiggs was. I like My Year of Flops, so I refrained. Difference of opinion, is all. He thought it was a brilliant and underappreciated gem, a wonderful representation of Robert Altman's countercultural sensibility and sly sense of humor. In my review, I conclusively proved it was the worst film ever made. Anyway, comedian Mike Birbiglia (or "Birbigs" as my co-worker and former "Birbigs" co-worker Gina Duncan calls him) had a successful One Man Show about his sleep disorder which causes him to destroy his living room while dreaming a jackal is chasing him or to dive out a hotel room window to escape a missile. When this show was gaining steam, I had every one of my ex-girlfriends who doesn't despise me (23% of them, I think) give me a call or send me an e-mail about the concept because I do similar things in my sleep: jump up and knock open windows because I am convinced a burglar is trying to break in, shatter the bedroom lights because I think the ceiling is covered in huge spiders, stuff like that. Also, the show is all about his unhappy past relationships. I assumed these ladies wanted me to learn something, probably that Birbigs was a jerk to his ex-girlfriends and should be ashamed of himself. The shared slumbering dementia was only a cover for these ladies. Presumably. That was my basic knowledge of Birbigs (that, and also that some folks call him "Birbigs") coming in to see Sleepwalk with Me. I didn't realize he's such a gentle, unassuming presence - I expected him to be exactly like me: a dashing cad with a Fernando Rey-esque beard who is also throat-slicingly neurotic. Birbigs is just an easy and likable guy with a strange sleep disorder. Along with co-writer/producer Ira Glass, he's made an easy and likable film about a guy with a strange sleep disorder. I should add (as I expected as much) that this is not just a film of the one-man show; this is a narrative feature where Birbiglia plays a character and there are scenes of his life, etc. It's a movie, is what I'm getting at. Sorta weirdly, the character isn't named Birbiglia but he addresses the camera directly throughout, no doubt using big chunks of his show. Strange, because I'm not sure what it's meant to accomplish, but it works. The film is pretty laid back - the thrust of it is that right as his stand-up comedy career is taking off, his agrees to marry his girlfriend (played by Lauren Ambrose) even though he doesn't really want to and isn't sure she wants to either. Overall, it's a series of vignettes about life on the road alternating with scenes of his home life (i.e. the raw material that gets worked over into his gentle observational relationship humor.) I enjoyed the film even if Mr. Birbigs isn't very much like me at all. I would, however, bet a huge amount of money that if I showed him O.C. and Stiggs he would hate it. He seems like a reasonable guy.
Gosh...this is going to be a recurring theme, but this is a film presenting a story I already knew everything about. It concerns a blonde-haired, blue-eyed 12 year-old boy from Texas who disappeared without a trace only to be found in Spain three and a half years later. The film fairly quickly gets to the twist: the "found" boy is a brown-haired, brown-eyed 23-year-old French man who for some reason loves spending his time in orphanages and youth centers. He concocts a ridiculous story about being kidnapped by high-ranking military officials, having chemicals injected into his eyes to change their color and being forced to speak nothing but Spanish which explains his accent (that's all in addition to, um...made-up violent daily sexual assaults.) The next ridiculous twist: the boy's family accepts this stubbly con man as their own. Take away the impact of the crazy twists and I had to spend my time chewing on the style and choices of the filmmakers. There are many problems I had with this film that I don't imagine most critics will voice. Actually, it can all be summed up as that it suffers from Man on Wire syndrome: it's full of off-puttingly slick reenactments and its interviews focus on a central figure who is easy to hate (but the film seems enamored of.) The titular impostor gets the bulk of the interview time and the story is told more or less from his perspective - part of the reason I don't hesitate to reveal the twists is that the jig is up the moment we're introduced to Frenchy Faker and he tells us all about the con from his point of view. He's an obnxious asshole with absolutely no self-awareness, but the film clearly prefers him to the boy's family, making the family the butt of several "stupid Texas yokel" jokes and then going out of its way with the slick "America's Most Wanted"-style reenactments to make the impostor's self-impressed yarn really rip. The dude craves the camera and the film happily indulges him, which is hard to take considering he had no qualms about bringing hope to the family of a missing child. I wanted to start throwing punches when the film casually assumed his 100% unsubstantiated perspective in regards to the family's involvement in their son's disappearance. If there's a case to be made that the boy's mom and brother murdered him, the film doesn't make it - well, it does offer up repulsive conjecture from an unrepentant, smug serial child impersonator and that's a kind of evidence, right? Even if there was real evidence of the family's involvement, having the soulless, self-satisfied impostor aggressively lay out the theory would be the least defensible method of doing so. That the sociopathic, Michael Jackson-obessed asshole's every word gets treated with breathlessly shot and edited "wow, isn't this stuff EXCITING" reenactments only makes the whole project more detestable. But like Man on Wire, it's slick and got a good hook, so I'm sure it will get picked up and reviewed like it's anything other than opportunistic tabloid vomit that allows its camera to be hogged by a world-class dipshit who's very impressed with his own story.
The "based on a true" story about a fast food manager who oversees the strip search and sexual humiliation of a young female cashier...based only on commands of a dude on the phone claiming to be a police officer. Turns out, he's just some guy. All the rape and nudity was done for a hoax. Watching this film, I knew a bit about the real-life case, so maybe my experience of this garbage being more tedious than watching a casserole bake is tempered by the fact that nothing surprised me and I knew everything that was coming. I'm not sure that's a defense of the film, though - that it doesn't have any cards in its hand other than narrative details of a shocking true crime fiasco. It's a very bland recounting and it stalls out about halfway through when there's no further escalation, just endlessly repeated scenes of the characters being told to do something outrageous by the fake cop and skeptically obeying. The film relies on an audience response of "these people can't possibly be that stupid!" but undermines itself by assuring us endlessly that "yes, they can and will be that stupid without variation." It's the rare film that if you've read about it, I honestly can't think of single thing upon which the film expands - it's actually probably less enriching and compelling than a written factual account. I also suppose that I should mention that I have less sympathy for everyone in the film because I'm very close with someone who was targeted by the infamous pranknet hoaxers; not the same villains featured in the film, but very similar jackasses. He got their standard hotel gag: call a random hotel room pretending to be the fire department of front desk and convince the person inside that their t.v. is malfunctioning, that its picture tube contains an unstable gas that will ignite and burn down the hotel in a matter of minutes unless it is released. The two ways offered to release the gas: take the porcelin lid of the toilet tank and smash in the t.v. or throw the set out the window. My friend saw through their crap in a matter of moments and replied "I just checked out the situation: now, my refrigerator's not running, but I do have Prince Albert in can - what's my next move?" Despite the frequent success of the hoaxers, there's zero inevitability that the mark will fall for the hoax - but Compliance presents the story like what's happening could happen anywhere to anyone. The problem is that it seems to have no perspective whatsoever on whether its characters are repulsively evil in their servile guillibility, generically stupid in their passivity or poignantly human in their mistakes. A pointed irony that intermixes those perspectives would be even more interesting. Instead, the overall tone is "hey, so this thing happened." It's not even "hey, this absolutely bananas thing happened repeatedly, can you believe it?!" It's only because it has such a gripping hook, that I really feel like I should emphasize: don't waste your time watching Compliance.
Safety Not Guaranteed
I just mention this film to harp one final time on the problems with the P & I screenings at the festival - there's just no way to walk directly out of a film (Compliance, which ended at 4:20 or so) and expect to go directly into another screenig (this Aubrey Plaza/Mark Duplass-starring movie had zero seats left well before it began at 4:30.) And when you can't make it into a movie, the screenings are so infrequent and the city so unfriendly to moving around within it, that there's nothing to do for hours - especially since you can't kill time in a film (go into the moderately interest-piquing Street Poet Comes of Age at 5:00 for 45 minutes) and risk getting locked out of what you intend see later (Chasing Ice at 6:30.) I really spent a lot of time at Sundance doing nothing. Actually, that's not true - as several people were quick to point out I was "reading a book!" Seriously. People kept expressing astonishment that I was reading an actual physical book. Most of them seemed like the kind of purists that collect vinyl but almost exclusively listen to their ipods. I don't want their solidarity.
What is there to say about a movie like this? It follows a photojournalist who became famous for his images of melting ice as a demonstration of global warming. It defies its well-meaning documentary niche by being frequently gorgeous to look at. That's exactly all there is to be said about this movie. Please, don't judge me for being glib - what else do you think I could say?
John Dies at the End
If Red Hook Summer was the film I was most excited to see, this was the one I was most confident I would love. Not a bad way to go out. And I did really like it with the qualification that it played like a really great t.v. pilot more than a classic stand alone feature film. The first ten minutes are truly brilliant, but then film settles into an amiable vibe and never really kicks in to high gear - it ends like a lot of good t.v. shows where it attempts something big and memorable at the climax, but is clearly limited both by its budget and concept. Plus its story suggests a wealth of further possibilities and it keeps adding new scenes, characters, settings, ideas and jokes even as the credits are rolling. It feels like it could on forever, but also never bubbles over from the low-boil it gets going fairly quickly. I've heard a lot of critics express (happy) confusion at the plot, but it seemed pretty straightforward to me: a strange drug our slacker heroes ingest unexpectedly allows them the ability to see interdimensionally - kinda like the plot of From Beyond, their pineal glands get stimulated. Seeing interdimensionally is a very flexible idea that allows for time travel, gross-out monsters, ghosts, portals to alternate realities, demonic possessions and the existence of nightmarish hellscapes. Seems pretty straightforward. I mean that: the rules of the "soy sauce" are that it allows the characters to become involved in whatever sci-fi and horror tropes they can possibly stumble into. (Again, this suggests a t.v. pilot - the rules are so expansive that there's no reason not to land John Cheese and David Wong in all manner of sci-fi/horror stories from the Lovecraftian to the Serling-esque.) I should mention that the film is funny; it's probably fair to call it a comedy, even if that implies a jokiness that it doesn't have. I want to write that, unlike most horror comedies (which is a generally wretched genre), it takes its story seriously, but that's not exactly right. It's a film about two young guys who don't take anything too seriously and react to their new powers with a blase calm - the film's tone matches its character accordingly. I suppose what makes it work is that director Don Coscarelli never looks down on the material and the main characters aren't intended to be audience surrogates announcing "hey, isn't this so cheesy and stupid like all horror movies? We're so much better than this." It's definitely more a case of the heroes being the type of guys who think they are cool as hell...and quickly realizing what cooler place would there to be than inside a tripped out horror sci-fi comedy where pulsating demon masses are polluting our collective consciousness? Paul Giamatti's in it and Executive Produced it - you can't say a bad word about someone helping this film get made. John Dies at the End: likable, funny, unpredictable. I think that meets the criteria for what Sundance wants, right?
DAY 7: HEADING OUT
I already gave my wise restropsective experience summation at the beginning of the Day 6 section, so let's not drag this out. I took a van back to the Salt Lake City airport and chatted with two friendly filmmakers coming off of great experiences at the festival. Facing other people, I couldn't bring myself to speak a bad word about my experiences at the festival. I'm genuinely not sure if I felt embarrassed to deride a job and a trip and an opportunity many folks would kill to have, or if I meant it; if I meant that I did have a good Sundance. It's funny, I always have a difficult time explaining to people that I love movies - you might have noticed I can be a bit critical. For me to like a movie, all it has to be is a movie. I just like watching them, thinking about them, writing about them, arguing about them. Just because I hate a movie, doesn't mean I didn't like watching it. I think my trip to Sundance functioned in the same kind of way: I was miserable there and very happy I went.
I write that as someone who hates flying so much he didn't for seven years and had a very turbulent flight back to NYC from Utah.
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