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What I Saw At Sundance 2010 (Days 1-2)
by Erik Childress

Greetings from Sundance. It can be hard seeing 6-7 movies a day and trying to muster up time to write something about them. Let alone eat. But I am going to try and post updates which each film I see. Just keep checking back.

Thursday, Jan. 21

The opening night film doesn’t quite live up to the standards set the last couple of years with In Bruges and Mary and Max, two films you should immediately seek out instead of waiting for this one to hit theaters. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, creators of documentaries such as The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet take on another homosexual icon in beat poet, Allan Ginsberg. The narrative which began as a documentary becomes a threefold narrative involving the reading of his poem, the subsequent censorship trial over its publication and a singular person narrative where Ginsberg (as played by James Franco) is interviewed. It’s a mixture of styles that may have worked well if concentrated on one over another. Instead the subject matter struggles to find a distinct voice and will engage, first and foremost, poetry slammers over those hoping to understand and appreciate Ginsberg’s voice. The voiceover of the actual poem combined with animation to flesh it out for the audience may have worked as a short film utilizing the filmmakers’ own interpretation of it. Instead it continues to interrupt the segments of the trial, which is dry but enlivened by performances by David Strathairn (as the prosecutor), Jon Hamm (as the defense) and Jeff Daniels as an English professor doing his best to define what literature is and why Ginsberg’s work is obscene. The failed animated bits also interrupt what is a rather solid lead performance by James Franco, who with Milk, Pineapple Express and this is quietly leaving the thankless Spider-Man role behind and becoming the versatile actor we believed in when he first broke onto the scene. For the most part though, Howl is a deadly bore that almost needs the standard trial speeches to enliven our thought process. I, myself, not being a poetry major never studied Ginsberg or any of the Kerouac’s of his day and as an introduction to it all, Howl fails to spark the necessary interest to go back and try.

Friday, Jan. 22

Read full review here.

Ever hear the one about the guy who wants to have his arms removed? This is actually not a joke, but a premise for Habib Azar’s film. It’s a condition that is actually named in the film if you care to remember it. Body Integrity Identity Disorder. For whatever reason, the main character, John (Daniel London) decides to leave his wife and seek out a physician he heard would perform such a procedure. This is not some Boxing Helena-like sexual fetish either and is supposedly meant to be some bigger metaphor for leaving things behind and a lack of intimacy. It’s all too strange to wrap your head around and is not helped by the unappealing performance by London as the guy. The West Wing’s Janel Moloney plays the wife who becomes convinced he is having an affair and convinces us why he might rather lose a limb then stick with her. The film’s sole bright spot comes in the form of Zoe Lister-Jones who plays the secretary of the doctor in question. Part of the upcoming Breaking Upwards (which I named as a film to see at last year’s South by Southwest festival), Zoe has a tremendous screen presence and her no-B.S. reaction to the patient and her pathetically lustful boss is the only real honesty that springs forth from Armless.

Following so closely in the shadow of Up In The Air, another film about layoffs and corporate downsizing is the writer/directing debut of John Wells, creator of ER and many other hit shows. This one is from the point of view of the employees of a big corporation, starting with Ben Affleck’s “”, who is now faced with the loss of a six figure salary. Oh, poor baby. The problems with Wells’ tale begin upfront like this as we’re supposed to weep for a group of upper middle class white men getting crunched under the current economic recession. They didn’t cause it. They aren’t part of the Wall Street elite. And that’s a perspective that is lost on the film. The rooting interest in the characters portrayed by Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones as the boss trying to speak up against the downsizing are at odds over our sympathies. Particularly since we don’t have much of an idea over white these guys are in charge of. Are they really victims? Wells doesn’t play a subtle line either in turning Affleck into practically a montage parody of dwindling income. Every other scene he has to sell his car, then the kid loses his xBox, then the house is empty and getting one last longing look by its previous owners. Kevin Costner appears as Affleck’s brother-in-law, a blue collar carpenter in a pretty clichéd subplot regarding the suits not putting in the honest wage of the true working man. Only Chris Cooper’s performance generates the necessary subtext about giving your life over to be just another cog in the company wheel. The little seen In Good Company with Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace did a much better job at communicating this type of outrage. The ultimate message of The Company Men is that you may lose your job in this economy, but at least that will finally give you time to play with your kid.

Guys, we all know that women can be crazy. Ask the lead character in the Barnes Brothers film though about his experience with Margo though. Mike (Anslem Richardson) is on a work-release program after spending a few years in jail on a drug buy. Called over to the apartment of Margo (Ana Reeder) after locking herself out, Mike soon discovers that it’s not her place at all and he has actually helped her bust into her boyfriend’s whom she believe is having an affair. Realizing the predicament that could land him back in prison he gets the two of them out of there only to have her follow him around in an attempt to play detective and see what the boyfriend is really up to. The early scenes of Homewrecker are the most effective as Margo’s brand of crazy combined with Mike’s casual panic into the situation make for a nice light screwball repartee. Somewhere in the middle though, Margo really starts to become a pill and its hard to wonder how Mike doesn’t just clock her one. A visit to her elderly drug dealer (Mary Beth Peil, aka “Grams” from Dawson’s Creek) is a dead-flat scene that only opens up our frustrations. It all ends on a nice note, though the screwball elements never get quite screwy enough to make this a consistent laughfest. Anslem Richardson does nice restrained work as the film’s straight man and he has a very appealing leading man presence that would be nice to see in a more atypical romantic comedy. Hopefully Ana Reeder doesn’t get labeled with the crazy stick after this because, despite the way the character’s behavior is written, her work has a goofy sweetness to it. Of course, she was the one at the pool who let Josh Brolin’s guard down in No Country For Old Men. And we all know had that ended for him.

Zach Braff pulled it off beautifully with Garden State. Jason Segal got his shot in penning Forgetting Sarah Marshall for the big screen. Now Segal’s small-screen co-star, Josh Radnor, takes his turn as the TV sitcom star writing and directing his first feature. And the results, not to put it lightly, has set the bar this year at Sundance. For sheer awfulness. Another interlocking tale of young love and angst across New York City, Radnor leads the way as the “voice of our generation” writer who is late to his big publishing meeting when he sees a young black boy stranded on the subway. Failing on more than one occasion to turn him over to the proper authorities, he “adopts” the kid and uses him to hit on a perky waitress (Kate Mara). Connecting Radnor to other tales of love and woe are Malin Akerman as his best friend with alopecia – meaning she is bald and eyebrow-less. Being someone that looks like a hairless Malin Akerman means that no one seems to think she is unattractive. Not her slacker ex. Nor her co-worker (Tony Hale) who has the make the difficult arc of being creepy, stalking guy in the office with a camera to Johnny Romantic that must convince this gal to give him a chance. Then there is Radnor’s cousin (Zoe Kazan), an equal part bore and pill who’s biggest problem in life is whether or not to move to Los Angeles. Throughout the film we get about 87 montages, characters behaving like shallow idiots and not backing it up with the wit necessary to dare criticize Woody Allen. Always beware a festival title without capital letters and one that wears its hipness on its sleeve by commenting on the very criticisms the audience will likely have about the film they are watching. i.e. the white man’s guilt in adopting a black child and how the main character is just kinda sorta nothing. If you haven’t puked by the time we get the “you write short stories and I think I’m reading for the novel” speech, don’t worry, it’s made up for the inevitable surprise morning sickness scene. Unbearable in so many ways.

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originally posted: 01/23/10 12:22:07
last updated: 02/01/10 16:27:29
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