Wrapping Up The Best of Sundance 2012By Erik Childress
Posted 02/17/12 02:27:56
Another year is in the books for the Sundance Film Festival and more than most years the response appears to be very tepid to what was offered to film fans. Sure there were good films, but very few shot over into unanimous passion. Overheard at both press screenings and public premieres were moviegoers struggling to come up with titles that they were over the moon for. Even now in the post-mortem, there are maybe only a pair of potential awards contenders and minimal box office prospects. Those are for the movie gamers and the industry buyers though. The true test of measuring Sundance should always be in the quality. While I had already seen Lynn Shelton's pleasant Your Sister's Sister and Andrea Arnold's ambitious but aggressively unpleasant Wuthering Heights, I had enough time in six days to see 29 films. (Opening day only allowed two, so 27 in 5 days.) Of those 29, I ended up liking 12. Then I saw a 30th film when I got home. And that is where we begin.
This list was initially only 11, but over the course of the festival I began to change my perspective on this bloody little psychological dark comic thriller. Even as I felt the film's focus alternated a bit too much (and often), re-focusing what worked about Richard Bates Jr.'s debut was more than enough to make it stand apart. It is the story of Pauline (90210's AnnaLynne McCord), a scruffy-looking teenager with the kind of hidden body often found in horror films where an evil possession turns them into a sexpot. Dream on. Not that Pauline isn't interested in sex. She would certainly like to get it out of the way so she can concentrate her efforts on her passion for becoming a surgeon. Her general attitude around the house and school though run contrary to the devout religious discipline that her mother (Traci Lords) demands. This relationship appears at first just to be the standard obstacle for all rebellious teens, but ultimately develops into the true heart of Bates' story.
Referring to Excision as a horror film does nearly everyone a disservice. It may prepare more squeamish patrons for the bloody imagery of Pauline's frequent dreams, but like those dreams could very well rob audiences of a true gut punch of an ending. Nearly every ten minutes of the 80-minute feature contain graphically bright fantasies (or nightmares for us) of Pauline mounting corpses, performing surgery or giving birth to a doomed fetus that, no doubt, will serve as the lithmus point for making a break for the exit. It takes more to gross out this critic and even more to fully disturb me and these scenes felt more like a distraction of filler then adding to the reality-based scenes that have a sharp and well-acted tone to them. It is far more fitting to represent the film in the manner of Todd Solondz's Welcome To The Dollhouse than finding ways to prepare the audience for the worst which is what these dream sequences do, unnecessarily so considering the way Pauline's awakening is naturally enforced throughout the film. McCord is really very good here, as is Traci Lords as the domineering mother. Their power struggle brings about laughs, shock and even some genuine feeling. Throw in brief roles by Malcolm McDowell as a teacher, Ray Wise (whose closing shrug reminds us just how much we miss him on TV's Reaper) and John Waters (as a priest, no less) and you have a dark comedy that may not quite be Lucky McKee's masterful May but should earn fans along the lines of Ginger Snaps and Teeth.
I knew very little about Mike Birbiglia walking into this film. Truth be told, it took some rearranging of my schedule as a favor for the publicist to even catch it. And I'm glad I did. For years I have remarked that the art of stand-up comedy has been dying. With a few notable exceptions like Louis C.K., Chris Rock and a shameless plug for Chicago local, the George Carlin-esque Vince Carone, there are very few standouts. Birbiglia has taken the stage show rooted in his relationship phobias and turned it into a narrative feature. Think a roadshow version of High Fidelity where Birbiglia (as Matt) talks directly to the audience and introduces us to the eight-year relationship he has had with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), the college crush he more or less stalked until getting her to go out with him. She is finally getting the marriage bug and it's time to put up or shut up. Matt manages to delay the complication by hitting the road to do stand-up shows and finds himself working out his insecurities on the stage.
Birbiglia has a very matter-of-fact charm about him and gives the simplest of observations wonderfully sardonic weight. The relationship quirks have an air of familiarity to them but the manner in which they are worked into his literal and metaphorical chronic sleepwalking problem provides further sympathy for the commitment-phobe coming closer and closer to pulling the trigger on the next phase of his life. Sleepwalk With Me further succeeds as a portrait of life on the road for a struggling stand-up. While Funny People and the documentary Comedian showed various aspects of perfecting the craft, Birbiglia accentuates the long hours, bad food, roommates and travel that comes with starting out in the entertainment field. At only 76 minutes, Sleepwalk With Me has a few draggy moments in the middle act, but it doesn't take long to get back on board with Birbiglia and what he will have to say next.
In what would end up being my 30th film at the festival, Rodney Ascher's tribute to or dissection of Stanley Kubrick is the one film that peaked the most interest from people upon my return. Any average film fan might see their hackles rise whenever some self-confirmed film scholar start waxing rhapsodic about the inner meaning of an auteur's oeuvre. Believe me, it even drives critics nuts when a pretentious director (especially at a film festival) starts talking about their film's subtext when there is barely even a qualifying text at the forefront. At the same time, breaking down a film to the manner in which Quentin Tarantino dissects Top Gun or listening to conspiracy theorists try to convince you that they are more enlightened than you can be a lot of fun. Ascher's Room 237 is like a mixed concoction of all the fun and frustration one could possibly abide when delving into Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining.
What is the film really about? That is a question asked time and time again throughout this documentary that mixes voiceover with nothing but film footage to convey everything from walking to a theater to all the supposed evidence that proves each fan's theory; some more wackier than the next. The best of which is the examination that The Shining is a film based upon the worst sins of America's past continuingly resurfacing to haunt us. (Indian imagery is prominently featured throughout.) But at least three times I audibly yelled out "OH, C'MON!" as I wanted to smack some sense into a few of these nuts. Suggesting this was Kubrick's outing of his role in faking the moon landing is pretty fascinating, but trying to sell that a room key actually spells out "MOON ROOM" is lunacy. One guy wants to examine how The Shining is really about sexual repression. Great, as that is as valid a theory as any. But don't try to prove it by trying to suggest a desk filer gives Ullman a visual boner as he shakes Jack's hand. Such things turn Room 237 into its own kind of participatory horror film, but an undeniably fun and wholly interesting one at that. Hopefully Ascher or someone with his ambition will continue this trend by examining all the hidden tricks, gimmicks and stylings of other brain-twisting cinematic treats as they can provide genuine insight into the work of a director. Even if it's all just nonsense.
10. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED
Speaking of Funny People, Aubrey Plaza certainly can be one. Though outside of Apatow's film and her regular stint on TV's Park and Recreation she hasn't had much chance to break out of the sort of monotone matter-of-fact pessimist she has specialized in. That changes here as Darius who begins the film as a cynical, matter-of-fact pessimist but gets a chance to open up as an magazine intern investigating a want-ad for a guy seeking a partner in time travel. His name is Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) and he claims to have put together a machine that can do it in an attempt to prevent the death of the college sweetheart he was in love with. Darius' reporter boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson), sees the story as a goof and is really using the road trip as an excuse to look up his own high school girlfriend. As the only one who can get close to Kenneth, Darius comes to learn that his goofy experiment may be rooted more in sadness than any mental illness.
Of all the female-centric comedies at Sundance this year, this was certainly the funniest. Ari Graynor, a spirited comic actress who has been relegated to typecasted supporting roles in recent fare like What's Your Number, The Sitter (practically reprising the same role she had in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) and even at this year's Sundance, Celeste and Jesse Forever, finally gets a chance to shine as a lead. She co-stars with co-writer, Lauren Miller (as Lauren), as a pair of college foes thrust into living together when Lauren breaks up with her boyfriend and Graynor's Katie needs help paying the rent. Katie has already established herself as a phone sex operator, but Lauren's business expertise helps her branch out and allows the opportunity to explore her own adventurous side.
It surprises even me that there is little else to say about the film plot-wise, but there you have it. There is some business about keeping the new enterprise from Lauren's parents and the arising conflict of pursuing her dream job, but it is all just filler in-between the laughter and rapport of the two ladies who grow into an unexpectedly genuine friendship. Their moments of honesty are almost like pause breakers between bigger scenes, but to believe in even such brief heartfelt flashes in a story built upon faking everything else is rather quite special. As for the laughs, they are frequent and big, especially as the film breaks ground in what has to be the first to coin the term "cameo masturbators." (Don't look at the cast list on IMDB unless you want it spoiled.) Director Jamie Travis does not push the material to overtly provocative or shocking levels to make it stand apart. At only 84 minutes, it may not be as great as Bridesmaids or even as outrageous and sharp as Zack and Miri Make A Porno, but it certainly joins the ranks of pleasantly solid R-rated comic fare over the last few years.
The big money pickup of the festival (from Fox Searchlight) is also no doubt one of the few films liable to have any Oscar contention in 2012. Based on a true story, the great John Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a poet afflicted with polio from a very young age, who now 38 is looking to put his words into practice. Still a virgin, Mark would like to find a partner before, as he puts it, his expiration date arrives. After an unsuccessful proclamation to his pretty caretaker, Mark is offered a chance to write a magazine piece on sex surrogates. Not prostitutes who, according to Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), want your repeat business while surrogates set limits. Semantics, really. But one that works in Mark's favor as he hires Cheryl to show him the fine art of making love while looking for both permission and absolution through Father Brendan (William H. Macy).
Writer/director Ben Lewin (The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish) in his first feature since 1994's Paperback Romance, takes the safe route with the material. Never shying away from the nudity or the situations, but softening the language and the moral implications for those in the audience who, again, might be a bit off put at the thought of getting the Lord's thumbs up for paying for sex. Using a healthy dose of humor and some very winning performances, The Surrogate makes for a perfectly nice, if not challenging, film. Hawkes is almost certain to be in the Oscar conversation next year; his physical gauntness outshined by the spirit he projects. We see the inner child in his smile as he experiences the simple pleasures his body has never awarded him throughout his life and even early on when he says "I love you" there is instant heartbreak. Hunt's performance is appropriately tender in her scenes with Hawkes. Her roving accent notwithstanding, she is reduced outside of those moments to talking into a tape recorder questions and thoughts about Mark's upbringing which end the millisecond she hits stop. Cheryl's married life and conversion to Judaism are not helped by editing choices meant to combine timelines and by a bizarre appearance by Rhea Perlman, whose entrance practically demands a sitcom audience cue for guest star applause. Still, as a movie focused on the performances, The Surrogate is often a rather funny film that may convince one or two that a higher power doesn't really care what we do with our own body. That alone would make it a minor success. Hawkes and Macy help make it more so.
Continuing the sex-and-God theme featured to comic extent in Excision, here is a film that was called "sacriligious" at the festival. That must mean it touched the subject matter pretty well. Caught in the middle of the debate is Daniela (Alicia Rodriguez), a 17-year old Chilean teenager who enjoys experimenting with sex more than her evangelical upbringing would allow. She has documented her findings to an online blog and has an array of followers, many of them just horny teens of both sexes looking to share or seek a taste of what she might be offering if the mood arises. When she is kicked out of school for having sex in the bathroom, her devout mom gives her a final chance to shape up before sending her towards a life of even stricter religious fulfillment. Her new job at a TV station brings with it a whole new set of temptations though, but ultimately turns out to be an enlightened path to understanding the place of sex in her life and in this world.
That is where Young & Wild will surprise most audiences expecting just another nudity-filled romp where sex is as casual as opening a door. Director Marialy Rivas, adapting this from the real-life blogger, is not out to merely titilate us with the sight of young flesh and montages of partners from both sexes. Her film is more about the "young" of its title and how curiosity and experimentation is a stage of growing up. Daniela talks frankly to her bloggers and is an object of desire for the similarly horny teens who follow her, but she is not offered to the voyeurs in the audience as mere eye candy. This is a film that respects sex and the emotional consequences that follow once the heat wears off. It also is not purely a condemnation piece about religion even as it calmly exposes the hypocrisies of suppressing the natural order in order to, hilariously, let go of one's ego. Those so quick to call a smart, challenging film like this "sacriligrious" might do best to let go of those and actually give it a look.
A few years ago at Sundance, Rodrigo Cortes trapped us with Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for 90 minutes and we didn't want to escape. That film was Buried, a title so appropriate that it felt that is exactly what happened to it during its theatrical run. For his follow-up, writer/director Cortes has assembled a much bigger cast but doing even more to establish his own name as one to pay attention to in the world of horror. Red Lights opens with paranormal psychologists Tom Buckley and Margaret Matheson (Cillian Murphy & Sigourney Weaver) investigating the claim of mysterious noises and movements around a family house. What they are really there to do is debunk the story as they do every week in their university classes. At the same time, a psychic blast from Margaret's past is coming back to haunt her. He is Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro) who has come out of hiding after a public death of an opponent who challenged his so-called powers. Could he be the real deal?
Much is made in the first hour of the mental tug-of-war between Margaret and Simon and her dedication over the years to discredit him. It's a pleasant surprise from what we immediately expect out of Red Lights, which is just another story about skeptics being turned into believers. But Cortes doesn't just rely on cheap thrills or the standard narrative threads we have become used to. Instead he allows wonderfully written (and acted) discussions of the mind being conned through various techniques, not the least of which is the creeping doubt that can infect a true believer. At times it is like watching an extended version of South Park's Biggest Douche In The Universe episode (a total compliment in its own right.) The second hour of Red Lights caused more immediate dismissals than debate, but I was personally still very into it even after its somewhat disappointing Brainstorm-like turn of events halfway through. It's double twist of a climax (with one you may catch and one you may not) seemed to disappoint more people, but it only made me want to revisit it a second time. Not to see where I was fooled, but to see how Cortes' thought process began to unfold and how some of the film's odder scenes (like DeNiro's backroom confessional) fit once you have all the answers. This is the second horror subgenre that Cortes has injected fresh life into and no matter what side of the debate you come down on in Red Lights, you cannot deny that he is a talent worth anticipating.
Michael Mohan's Save the Date probably should not work as well as it does. Relationship dramedys about commitment-phobic white people in their 20s are a dime-a-dozen, particularly at Sundance. Though after already seeing a few bad ones at this year's fest, the positives within Save the Date are even more evident. Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) is about to make the next big step in her life by moving in with her boyfriend, Kevin (Geoffrey Arend). She is nervous enough as it is, but he is well ahead of schedule and publicly proposes to her. The rejection goes viral, but never treated as a joke. Kevin's bandmate, Andrew (Martin Starr), is engaged to Sarah's sister, Beth (Alison Brie) who is knee-deep in preparation and getting little help from her passive mate. Though neither of them are rooted in the usual female hysterics or generic male indifference we are accustomed to. Meanwhile, Sarah's not-so-secret admirer at the bookstore she owns (Mark Webber) leaps at the opening afforded to him. And you know what? He is not a jerk either.
That last point is one that is amusingly brought up time and again in Save the Date and it reminds us just how off the rails the film could have gone early and often. The characters' behavior may be frustrating at times, but it is sincere to actual human emotions. At no point throughout the screenplay by Mohan, Jeffrey Brown & Egan Reich do any of the fivesome react in a manner specifically designed to curveball the plot. Instead it is just the reverse. After so much emotional dishonesty inherent in films like Hello, I Must Be Going and Celeste & Jesse Forever, Save the Date had a welcome air of truth about it. Each of the actors bring legitimacy to roles that could have been simplistic whiny archetypes and it is a factor that filmmakers and writers should pay attention to if they actually want us to care about problems that might some menial in the grand scheme of life. Save the Date does and knows better that life is not complimented by a peppy sitcom score.
Mark Webber had a very good Sundance. Very few actors can say that they had three films premiering at the festival, let alone all of them be well received. But at a time when I had seen 24 new films already and only liked seven, Webber was a part of three of them. His greatest accomplishment though was not only in his only lead role of the trio, but also behind the camera and writer of this very special film. In a choice that might seem strange at first, Webber plays himself (or a version of), as the dad of a 2 year-old boy who lost his wife in an accident. He is nearly broke and doing his best to go on auditions with a child in tow, but has to take handouts from actor friends like Jason Ritter. During a playdate he meets a woman (Shannyn Sossamon) who should be the ultimate dream for a single dad. She's beautiful, single, has a kid herself and owns the coolest indoor children playland in the area. But dating brings with it is own natural set of emotional complexities and can be as much the undoing of someone in Mark's position as it can be their salvation.
To go along with the problems specified in Save the Date, Sundance has also seen its share of people dealing with loss and putting the pieces back together. That is just a mere symptom of Webber's film which is really a tale about fatherhood and one of the most telling I have seen in a long time. Sequences simply detailing the everyday ins and outs of waking up, making breakfast and planning a day around a child whose priorities have to outweigh your own life's plans are wonderfully straightforward and outline the mindset of a parent who could use a little me time themselves. Webber may have "celebrity" friends to rely on and leads to what some may consider a garish exuberance on Mark's part to namedrop his personal Hollywood connections (Michael Cera plays a more "dangerous" version of himself), but friends are friends and they really can be rock stars for a night when it's time for anyone who needs to just get away for a few hours. The scenes between Webber and Sossamon are good enough to have their own movie, but the heart lies in the often quiet scenes between Mark and little Isaac Love, who may not be aware he is acting but achieves that level of child performances too often missed by both kids and especially the filmmakers who are often too easily persuaded to hit the cute button. Isaac is a kid. Not a terror, but a package of individual joy that comes with the price of an elder being able to maintain it through their own problems. Not sure if The End of Love's Mark Webber got that callback from Paul Thomas Anderson, but the Mark Webber who made The End of Love deserves to be getting a few.
If sex and God was enough enough to stir the controversy loins at Sundance this year, Craig Zobel's film apparently fit the bill for people not keeping their eye on the ball of what it is really about. It begins at a small town fast food restaurant where manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is already facing the wrath of her franchise superiors for letting a whole stock of food spoil. Then she gets a phone call from a police officer telling her of a complaint received that one of her employees has stolen from a customer. The teenage Becky (Dreama Walker) denies any knowledge of the incident but is put into a back room while Sandra takes orders from the officer - over the phone - on how to get to the bottom of this. After a string of increasingly odd requests, it becomes very clear that the voice on the other end belongs to an elaborate prankster (Pat Healy) with less on his mind than law and order.
If Zobel's film has any flaw it might be in waiting too long to let the audience in on the joke. Then again, maybe that is part of the point. As intelligent as they allow themselves to believe, a movie audience should be well out in front of the curve and ready to shout back at Sandra like it was a horror film to stop her from doing the next stupid thing. Compliance in its own right is a horror film and a disturbing, if humor-laced, one at that. The helplessness of being entrapped by a disembodied voice dictating cruel humiliation must certainly feel like a horror scenario to Becky and the countless other people this was done to in real life. The reality of it all only further justifies Compliance's theories about the stupidity and ignorance of a great many people, particularly when it comes as a defense to losing one's job. Sandra's motivation of not making two big mistakes in one day allows us to roll with her early acquiescence of the situation. As further people are drawn into it we bear witness to those who want to do the right thing and those simply fearful of disobeying those in position of authority for fear of repercussions to their own being. Becky and her male co-worker are equally representative of the youth who are prone to rebellion, but either too helpless to make a difference or too scared to ruin their own future. Compliance can be read as countless paradigms about government, war, economics, law or whatever modicum of society that subconsciously tries to silence your opposition. Craig Zobel (also responsible for the terrific Great World of Sound and the fantastic Homestar Runner web series) fashions tough, challenging material in the guise of a dark comic thriller and those too willing to dismiss it or drum up unnecessary controversy are part of the problem and not the solution.
On the festival circuit, you have to be weary of the so-called Midnight circuit crowds. Sundance, South by Southwest and Toronto all have one programming all brands of genre titles geared towards the fanboy in all of us with a salivating gland for the odd, ridiculous and potentially kick-ass. Hype tends to be overly enthusiastic, even by fanboy standards. (I offer Attack the Block and this year's Sundance entry, V/H/S, as evidence.) Maybe you like or even love those films. I did not. And I was at the premiere screenings of each, so take my criticisms at face value and not as a reaction to the hype. Going into The Raid though, the hype was already sprayed all over the walls back at Toronto where I missed it. Let me tell you though that, for a change, the hype is all kinds of deserved.
All you need to know about the plot is that it involves a SWAT team in Jakarta tasked with taking out an elite drug lord who lives in the top floor of a slum building. The catch is that he just happens to rent out the rooms to some of the craziest, most ruthless criminals out there. And when they are found out, the freaks come out at daytime and the battle is on floor-by-floor. Further details add motivation for the film's hero played by Iko Uwais, but tend to slow things down in-between the action. Action that moves so fast, mind you, that any line of dialogue seems like a snail's pace. Every martial arts picture has such filler, but you won't remember much of it anyway because the fighting and carnage on display here is at a level we have not seen since District B13. You thought some of the kills in The Expendables were of ridiculous quality? Wait until you see the manner of dispatching throughout The Raid. This is one of those great movies to experience with an audience starved for the kind of action meant to elicit applause like the end of an opera number. The action is certainly stop-and-start throughout, but once it starts there is no way you want it to stop.
Documentaries are not always a priority during Sundance for me. Certain subject matter is intriguing enough to warrant a look, but usually the cream of the crop will rise to the next festival or into theaters without the discovery that I had just watched something that will be on HBO the next month. Too many discoveries get potentially overlooked and to think I was seeing the worst film I saw at the fest (The Pact) at the time that many were seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild. Getting back to HBO though, they had already aired three documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky detailing the plight of the West Memphis Three, accused of a brutal ritualistic murder of children. Their rightfully acclaimed Paradise Lost films had covered so much territory that it is a wonder why anyone would feel it necessary to add their own two cents on the subject. Well, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh offered more than just a couple of pennies to help further investigate the obvious shananigans involved in keeping these boys in jail and coupled with director Amy Berg (responsible for the excellent Deliver Us From Evil about injustice within the Catholic Church through the eyes of its victims and one accused priest) they have delivered a stand-alone treatment of this injustice that outshined any narrative at the festival this year.
Not that anyone should not check out Paradise Lost and its two follow-ups (Part Three "Purgatory" is currently up for Best Documentary at the Oscars and is considered the front-runner), but if you are pressed for time, West of Memphis serves as both a perfect summation of the events while bringing new devastating evidence to light. Whether it be ignorance or for political gain, those involved in preserving the guilty verdict give a new meaning to the miscarriage of justice. There are almost comical new revelations into what could have really caused those mutilations on the victims. Most incendiary though are the new discoveries about stepfather Terry Hobbs including his timeline the night of the murders and the loose tongue he has developed in recent months; loose enough to bring forward new witnesses that were added just a month before the Sundance premiere. Comparing it to another great mystery of our time Oliver Stone's masterful JFK, "the who and the why are just scenery for the public." This is a crime tale for certain, but it is the crimes after the fact that produce a larger view of a society so quick to rush to judgment in the wake of great tragedy. Families certainly have every right to their grieving and anger, but after seeing them sold a bill of goods and to watch them eventually backtrack to the point where they have to ask forgiveness is incredibly moving. Reaching that arc in the final scenes which lead to the compromised justice that hit the news last summer, West of Memphis is sure to touch you in some way. Whether it be anger, relief or a further injection of cynicism towards our elected officials, Amy Berg and her backers show what the best films, fictional or not, can make of our imperfect world and make us feel a part of it for better or worse.
FILMS PICKED UP THAT I DID NOT SEE
2 Days In New York (Magnolia), Arbitrage (Roadside), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight), Chasing Ice (National Geographic), The Comedy (Rough House Pictures), How To Survive A Plague (Sundance Selects), Indie Game: The Movie (HBO), Liberal Arts (IFC), Middle of Nowhere (Participant Media), The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia), Robot & Frank (Samuel Goldwyn), Searching For Sugar Man (Sony Classics), Shadow Dancer (ATO Pictures), Simon Killer (IFC), Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (Indomina), The Words (CBS Films)
FILMS I DID SEE THAT WERE NOT AS GOOD
Bachelorette, Simon Killer, Wrong
28 Hotel Rooms, Black Rock, Grabbers, John Dies At The End, Nobody Walks, V/H/S
Celeste and Jesse Forever, Hello I Must Be Going, Lay the Favorite, Red Hook Summer, Smashed, This Must Be The Place, Wish You Were Here
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