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Suicide, Cults, And Religious Persecution: A Week At Sundance 2011 (Part 2-of-2)
by Erik Childress

One of the prevailing themes of Sundance this year, as referenced in Part 1 of this feature, was suicide. To.get.her, The Ledge and Vampire all contained assisted or forced shedding of the mortal coil. You would have thought the characters had actually been made to sit down and watch their own movies. Hey, I'm sure they had their reasons. Not that we cared. But to get back on track, what greater cause is there for offing oneself than relationships? Breaking them apart or just being in one, they are enough to drive one to sadness or madness. It's a miracle most of the press corps survived the lot of these quirk-filled Debbie Downers. The half-empty card notwithstanding, it wasn't all beers and tears at the festival this year as even through the drama there was some hope and even a lot of laughs.

Let us kick things off in style with one of the true champions of Sundance quality. My first year at Sundance, this actor-turned-filmmaker made a remarkable debut with 2003's The Station Agent - a film I was actually shut out of in 2003 thanks to a slower-than-usual shuttle and a blogger who yelled at volunteers to get in and then proceeded to take three cigarette breaks during. Then came The Visitor - a film I missed at Toronto in '07 and then Sundance (and SXSW) in '08 due to scheduling difficulties. Both films were so good though I was determined not to miss Tom McCarthy's next one. Win Win is the story of a small-town lawyer/high school wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) who is struggling like many with the recent downtown in the economy. Business is bad and his team is even worse. When an opportunity arises to become caregiver and guardian to one of his clients (Burt Young), he finds a way to care without actually giving care while providing for his family at the same time. Things complicate when the client's grandson (Alex Shaffer) shows up, estranged from his druggie mother, and needs a place to stay. Oh, and he happens to also be a pretty darn good wrestler. McCarthy, as both director and screenwriter, clearly likes to explore middle-aged men at a professional and personal crossroads in their life. Yet he doesn't do it in the manner of an Arthur Miller tragedy. Even if things don't always work out in the end, these are not miserable people, just everyday ones making it day-to-day with help from the personal connections in their lives. The protagonists of The Station Agent and The Visitor were both loners who had to discover those connections, but Giamatti's Mike Flaherty has a caring wife (Amy Ryan), a partner (Jeffrey Tambor) in business and coaching as well as a younger, more successful brother (Bobby Cannavale) who still has a yearning for his not-so-glorious days as a wrestler himself. Perhaps the intended pun is Mike wrestling with his choices to look after his family's finances at the expense of others, but McCarthy never structures his work with grand metaphorical gestures. Nothing about his films feel forced or unnatural, though the performance by newcomer Shaffer is pretty rough at times. But everyone around him is just about on target, especially Cannavale who has pretty much cemented the case here that he needs to be in just about every film that can take advantage of his comic talent upfront. Giamatti is not going to draw the kind of Oscar consideration that Richard Jenkins did for The Visitor and there will be light debate over where this work ranks with McCarthy's other films, but it is certainly one of the two-or-three best films I saw at Sundance this year.

Speaking of the type of cast I want to see Bobby Cannavale in, we move on to My Idiot Brother. Paul Rudd plays a variation of his stoner cameo from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as Ned, who works on a pot farm with his girlfriend until he's arrested (for selling to a uniformed cop) and thrown out. Moving in with mom is not all it's cracked up to be so he begins spending time with each of his three sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a busybody journalist trying to land a scandal-laden interview. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is a lesbian whose exploration of bisexuality may throw a wrinkle into her current partnership. And Liv (Emily Mortimer) has settled into motherhood with hubby Steve Coogan who doesn't find her as desirable in the bedroom anymore. Sounds just like your average Sundance film, does it not? You are paying attention to the cast list though, right? This is a comedy through and through and one that takes the old premise of the outsider who comes into people's lives and fixes everything (even if that is not his intention) and elevates it with an A+ cast of comic aptitude. Jesse Peretz's last film was the ill-received and oft-delayed, The Ex, that featured its own collection of able-bodied comedic actors. Whatever problems that may have occurred with last-minute editing (and a late-game title change from Fast Track) are not readily on display here. A couple of the subplots do fall by the wayside with no resolution, notably Mortimer and Coogan's relationship, but the film is consistently funny enough to forgive what might be less forgivable with a standard Sundance drama. The work of the aforementioned provides more than enough laughs to make My Idiot Brother worth a look. Add to it appearances by Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Rashida Jones and T.J. Miller, all of whom get their moments and you have another well-earned "R"-rated comedy that you can happily place next to Rudd's ever-watchable efforts like Role Models and I Love You, Man.

The films of David MacKenzie, on the other hand, can be a bit more difficult to stomach for most people. His work has been unafraid to tackle sexuality in all its creepy forms to varying degrees of success, but there is an interesting progression leading up to his most recent Sundance effort. In Young Adam, a relationship succumbed at one point to food humiliation, caning and rape. In Mister Foe, a young man lovingly stalked his obsession from afar before becoming friends. Ashton Kutcher played a cougar hustler in Spread until he fell in love with a woman who was every bit the emotional huckster he was. Now, MacKenzie seems to have come full circle with Perfect Sense which stars Young Adam's Ewan McGregor as a chef who begins a relationship with emotionally-closed off scientist Eva Green. It helps when you feed a woman instead of throwing it at her. It doesn't help when you fall in love at the beginning of a global epidemic where people are beginning to lose their senses one-by-one. First goes smell, then taste. Could the others be next? It may sound like a heavy-handed metaphor for losing sight of what's important in life, but Perfect Sense achieves more in its brief scenes of panic than Blindness did in all of its re-edited two hours. Partially because the stakes are greater and there is some genuine horror in watching people affected by the virus seek out their last moments of experiences we take for granted every day. But also because McGregor and Green share some real chemistry (beyond the metaphors) within Kim Fupz Aakeson's script. MacKenzie's work is unapologetic about trying to get under your skin, but this is the most successful of the lot because maybe for the first time we are not just watching uncomfortable things happening, we are feeling them.

Sundance has been full of films over the years tracing the path of a relationship from its glorious beginnings to their bitter ends. Some of the best in that time have included the well-known (500) Days of Summer (2008) and Blue Valentine (2010) to little seen, but also solid efforts such as Flannel Pajamas (2006) and Peter & Vandy (2009). This year's entry, Like Crazy, also was one of the most celebrated, and for fine reason. Anton Yelchin plays Jacob, a teacher's assistant who is fortunate enough to have a pretty girl make the first move. That girl is Anna (Felicity Jones), who leaves a note on his car that leads to an eventual courtship. Things are great until young love gets the better of them and she foolishly decides to overstay her visa, getting her banned from the United States. What's a guy to do? Much like the little seen and very underappreciated Going the Distance from last year, Like Crazy raises the usual questions about the reality of a long distance relationship. Romance novels may believe the happy ending is the bold move to one side of the pond or the other, but there are bigger factors involved. Careers for one. Jealousies another. Even the modern technology of today cannot compare to touch or solve an uncertain professional future. And figuring those things out while apart can lead to resentment rather than yearning. Granted, the hill-of-beans problems of these two all results from a really stupid, avoidable decision and that may cause some resentment in the audience's part. Especially in the treatment of a third party wrinkle represented by Jennifer Lawrence, whom if you just know from Winter's Bone, is going to elicit reactions akin to Tex Avery's wolf. Hard to feel sorry for a dude who has to choose between a gorgeous American and a cute-as-a-button Brit. Like Crazy is not asking us for our sympathies though. Drake Doremus (who made last year's underwhelming but Sundance-title-appropriate, Douchebag) simply lays it out there for us to absorb and think about. Maybe you want them to live happily ever after. Maybe you don't. The two leads are very good together (and apart.) Jones is completely fetching and Yelchin has never felt this natural and real on screen before. Unlike (500) Days, Blue Valentine and Peter & Vandy, Like Crazy does not utilize the back-and-forth to the past to relay happier times. This film plays it straight and genuine and that alone is cause for celebration in relationship stories these days.

There WAS a relationship film this year at the festival though that tested the boundaries of time though. It was Miranda July's follow-up to her wonderful debut, Me & You & Everyone We Know (#7 on my 2007 Top 10 list). Whether you loved or hated the idiosyncratic conversations and loose connections between story strands of that film, you should know exactly what to expect in her latest film, The Future. And yet you may still be surprised. July and Hamish Linklater (from TV's The New Adventures of Old Christine) play a couple who decide to adopt a stray cat whom they found near death. While they are forced to wait 30 days until the vets release it into their care, they begin to reexamine their lives day-to-day as they realize they are growing older as well. In a way this is an expansion of the great conversation July had with John Hawkes in Me & You where they mapped out their entire future in one long walk. Waiting proves to be a killer for this pair though as July's Sophie cannot master the perfect dance moves to outclass fellow YouTubers and Linklater's Jason discovers the futility in being just one man trying to better the world around them. Sounds depressing, and it kind of is considering the implications of where they are headed. But it is all done with a unique sense of humor and the not the sort of self-aware irony that clouds the basic understanding of human beings. Considering the film is partially narrated by the very stray cat that awaits the happiness of a new home, it is quite a feat for July to achieve such real emotions without feeling like manipulation. When time is eventually broken, we see it not as a gimmick but an extension of those tough moments in our own life when we wish we possessed such power. Many viewers may decide to check out for good when July breaks into her "shirty dance", the most literal visualization of her performance art background. But those that stick with it may find themselves, like I, still thinking about it weeks later and eager to experience it again.

Then you have the film, Homework (later retitled to The Art of Getting By), which requires no heavy lifting and no need to take it home with you after you leave. It stars the now grown-up Freddie Highmore, so wonderful in Finding Neverland and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, now entering his philosophical, cynical teenage phase. He plays George, a high school senior who has managed to skirt by most of his academic career without doing any actual work. It's beneath him. He's the mold of a character that should actually be watching Miranda July's film to gather some fresh ideas about looking at mortality. Emma Roberts (who needs someone to pick better indie projects for her) plays cute classmate Sally whom he's had an eye on but never found the moment to make a move until he saves her from a campus smoking charge. Teachers (including Alicia Silverstone) and the principal (Blair Underwood) want him to express himself more. Both George & Sally have moms (Rita Wilson & Elisabeth Reaser) with questionable suitor radar. There's also a former student (Michael Angarano), now a successful artist, who befriends the both of them so someone can be a catalyst in getting them to realize they are made for each other. Gavin Wiesen's writing/directing debut is basically a collection of subplots for its lead character to look upon with smug insights while never having the stones to actually resolve any of them until a third act when we are long past the point of caring. This is festival 101 stuff with many of the usual fest actors, all of the young fest film angst and nothing to suggest it should be considered as anything but. Other than being able to put a lot of names on a poster, it is surprising that Fox Searchlight would embrace such a generic work when they have had such a better eye in the past with films like Garden State and the aforementioned (500) Days (which the studio brought to Sundance rather than picking up.) At least they still have Win Win cause Homework barely qualifies as a draw.

Another real pill in the adolescent department is the protagonist of Richard Ayoade's Submarine. Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) would seemingly be the perfect kind of hero for male festival goers. 15 years old, dresses in black, picked on in school and has a crush on the cute girl in class. Jordana (Yasmin Paige) is not a cheerleader or even the most desired gal around campus. She has a bit of a bully streak in her as well and in an interesting turn, Oliver actually tries playing in that world to garner her attention and learns a quick lesson in how it feels for a decent person to behave like a jerk. After bravely defending Jordana's honor, she does indeed take notice and a deep friendship (and more) begins, including the awkward handling of his personal virginity vow. This is when Submarine is all well and good, casually utilizing the same style found in all of Wes Anderson's work and makes for a pretty decent copy. The second half is a lot messier, particularly as Oliver becomes someone we would rather punch than cheer on. His behavior does not exactly change so much, but there's a different perspective on being a gigantic twat once you achieve the impossibility of getting the girl of your dreams. There was no sympathy lost here for Oliver's choices, all which felt false, while the film shifts the depressive relationship of his parents (Noah Taylor & Sally Hawkins) center stage. Paige is a real find and would much rather have seen her side of the tale than follow the Bud Cort-wannabe around his oh-so-tough life. We've seen it all before.

The female point of view is explored in Megan Griffith's The Off Hours. Actually, many points of view are explored as multiple character arcs converge around a roadside diner. The most prominent of which belongs to Francine (Amy Seimetz), a waitress who serves up all kinds of pie on-and-off the job. Her brief affair with the diner's owner, Stu (Tony Doupe), caused a riff in his marriage and relationship with his daughter. The booze didn't help either. Francine takes an interest in another married guy, a truck driver named Oliver (Ross Partridge) who uses the diner as his own brief respite from responsibilities. Back home there is a growing rift between her and her brother, Corey (Scoot McNairy), who treats her suspiciously like the boy on the playground constantly pushing around the girl he likes. Don't worry, he is actually her foster brother. There are not a lot of surprises in The Off Hours which freely moves from tale-to-tale while maintaining a rather consistently glum tone of characters trying to stay awake long enough in their lives to make a connection. The problem is we are the ones not entirely connecting with them. The best stuff in Griffith's script is the relationship between brother and sister, believable even without the siblings-with-benefits connection and because both Seimetz and McNairy have a natural rapport. It is a shame the film could not find more of a focus in them because the other subplots don't operate past the descriptions. The friendship with Stu we can tell right away is not going to go too far, which is what we hope and Oliver's on/off switch with the liquor does not ingratiate him for redemption. Seimetz has a really good screen presence though and between this and Monsters, McNairy is becoming a very interesting presence around the indie scene. The Off Hours might be worth seeing just to watch them, but as only about a third of the whole story, it is hard to completely recommend.

Another relationship in trouble is that of the marriage of Lonnie and Clover in The Lie. Former Blair Witch victim, Joshua Leonard directed, co-scripted and stars as Lonnie, an L.A. hipster who has settled down into a marriage with the lovely Clover (Jess Weixler) and their baby daughter. Lonnie sees a therapist trying to work out his issues of anxiety over the life he thought he was meant for, which included being in a bad with his trailer-bound buddy, Tank (Mark Webber). They were never very good to begin with and Lonnie now looks for excuses to stay away from the kind of editing gig that most film school hipsters would yearn for. One of those excuses turns out to be a doozy though. It is one you would even hesitate to repeat even if you were required to justify it in teaching a class in black comedy. Larry David would even wince at the thought, or at least say "too soon." The horrific nature of the lie and all its implications of maintaining and shielding his beloved from it is not the problem with the film. The problem is the story takes a decidedly middle-of-the-road approach to it. On one side is the potential for a really dark farce and the other are the bigger issues of Lonnie's existence, if they are that big to begin with. Throw a rock in a slush puddle at Sundance and you will hit five prints involving 30-ish men either figuring out or regretting where they are in life. The Lie does nothing to add to this mythos and even though Leonard and Weixler are very good in the breakdown scenes, what is being said is pretty much what one would expect in trying to desperately make amends. We never feel how Lonnie might personally be affected if his lie was an actual truth. And anyone not living by the same moral code of a George Costanza should have that moment. Leonard makes a concerted effort to almost not push the big lie into fall-down slapstick or Blake Edwards-like farce. But as someone who was a large part of the success of 2008 Sundance winner, Humpday, he could have seen how those same issues could be confronted through outrageous, left-of-center comedy. Unless the lie itself was just too daunting to wring laughs out of without feeling guilty.

As for things that you couldn't possibly make up, here come six words for you - Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. You gotta see a movie with that title, right? Taking more than a few cues from their Conehead brethren and some from the antagonists of Emmanuelle In Space, the aliens of Madeleine Olnek's film have arrived on Earth seeking connection. Not of the genitals, but of the heart. So that it may be broken. Their mission is tied to a belief that us Earthlings with our big feelings are what is causing a problem with their ozone layer. Played as a throwback to cheesy sci-fi movies of the '50s, Olnek's film does not even succeed on that level since it has no direct point-of-view to what, if anything, it is satirizing. Like the alien voices, everything about the film is monotone from the black-and-white stock to the brand of humor which cannot even live up to the Coneheads feature film, which was already 15 years old when it was released 18 years ago. It's insight into lesbian relationships would have been about as edgy as a dull knife chipping away at rocks during the first year of Sundance. Let alone now when the simple suggestion that the lifestyle is akin to alien xenophobia is a bit hard to get across when we are one year removed from a married-with-children feature that was just starting its run to a Best Picture nomination. None of the characters, from the aliens to the humans to the men-in-black pursuers dropped in from a Mumblecore feature, are as engaging or funny as the declining episodes of 3rd Rock From The Sun. Olnek's film may speak in broad strokes, but is light years removed from any meaningful commentary on same-or-opposite-sex relationships, science-fiction, or campy satire.

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originally posted: 03/11/11 05:03:42
last updated: 10/04/11 04:18:51
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