Another beautiful long weekend closed the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Not much snow in Park City: lousy for skiers, great for filmgoers. The festival lineup was quite strong, with several movies we regretted missing, but you can’t see ‘em all. Here’s a quick take on the fifteen I did catch, in order of viewing, using a five-star rating system.
THE ATOMIC STATES OF AMERICA**** An unflinching look at nuclear energy which leads us to a grim but inescapable conclusion: we still haven’t figured out how to make it safe. The film is based on Kelly McMasters’s WELCOME TO SHIRLEY, a memoir of growing up near the secretive Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York’s Long Island, which has been leaking toxic waste into the water supply for decades. At first McMasters, who is featured, is perplexed at the abnormal “cancer clusters” that seem to claim specific neighborhoods, way out of proportion to actuarial expectations. The answer is evident when she plots them on a map: the water is polluted. We visit dangerous nuclear power stations and find similar stories. But class-action suits and angry protests are no match for the heavily moneyed electric-power industry or the shameful abdication of oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where Washington’s revolving-door climate allows the foxes to guard the henhouse. Furthermore, most nuclear plants are so old that their owners will be unable to guarantee against disaster, and after honing in on four potential sites (and actually starting work at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain) the U.S. has so far been unable to achieve long-term storage of its highly toxic spent nuclear fuel. Calamities at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima get the headlines, but the life-threatening dangers of “clean” nuclear power are much more common and insidious. I thought we had wised up somewhat, but the NRC has just approved two new mammoth reactors near Augusta, Georgia, the first license since 1978 – a year before the TMI meltdown.
FOR ELLEN** The immensely talented Paul Dano falls into this role as a would-be rock musician who abandoned his family for the road, and is now having to fight with his ex-wife for shared custody of his daughter Ellen. Dano is absolutely convincing as a burned-out guy who traded the rest of the world for the rock life; it’s almost painful to spend time with a man for whom the bottom fell out long ago. Writer/director So Yong Kim has a beautiful realistic touch, and she’s aided by great supporting turns from Jon Heder and Jena Malone. But it’s hard to get past her preference for long (in duration, not distance) shots which do not break even when the speaker is off camera; we get the annoying sense that we’re staring with our jaws slack. Also, though Dano gives it his best shot, his character doesn’t have much of a story arc, even when some monumental things should be happening. I’m not insisting on happy endings, only growth and change somewhere. I think the true malefactor here is the screenplay.
HELLO I MUST BE GOING**** A newly divorced, horribly dejected woman is forced to move back in with her parents at age 35. (Like most movie “wallflowers,” she’s actually very cute.) Almost against her will, she backs into a romance with a 19-year-old boy. This can’t possibly last, but the puppylike adoration and torrid sex reawaken her interest in life, help her re-develop a spine, and invite her to embrace her independence. Melanie Lynskey and Christopher Abbott are terrific as the central couple, alongside skillful, nuanced performances from John Rubenstein and Blythe Danner as her parents. Though they’re all realistic, fully-formed characters, this is also a gut-busting comedy with some of the loudest shrieks of laughter I’ve ever heard at Sundance, one in particular coming from both Sarah Koskoff’s screenplay and Todd Louiso’s directorial technique.
WRONG***** Remember the sensation caused at Cannes in 2010 by a film about a killer tire? The director’s name is Quentin Dupieux, and this is his second feature. I found it exhilarating, but the next viewer might hate it just as strongly, because it’s surreal: like a nice meaty episode of TWIN PEAKS, it doesn’t make empirical sense. Something’s off; starting with the creepy pre-title sequence, it’s just wrong. A man gets up one morning to find his dog missing, and he spends the rest of the picture searching for the animal. From an earnest existential deconstruction of a pizza-delivery service to an office where rain is always coming down in torrents, indoors, this film is funny-strange as well as funny-ha-ha. It’s, yes, David Lynch, only more impish – you can almost hear the director giggling with delight at his latest bizarre idea. Jack Plotnik does bravura work as the put-upon antihero, and William Fitchner is hilarious as a deadpan “Master Chang.” Adding to the general oddity is that Dupieux uses a largely French crew but shoots (and cuts, both personally) in English, for the widest possible audience. If you can hang on to this bucking bronco, it does manage to find some resolution by the end. But only after one thrilling goofball ride.
PAYBACK*** Most films aim for your gut, but a few aim for your brain, like the magnificent PROTAGONIST by Jessica Yu, which we saw here about five years ago. This one is built around a book of essays by Margaret Atwood, comparing the various meanings of debt, revenge, restitution – payback. The author reads from her book as we travel around the globe to see: two Albanian clans who are feuding based on ages-old traditions – the wronged party may kill any member of the offending family who strays off its estate; migrant workers in Florida, who live a life of subsistence until they finally decide whether to continue suffering or resist; the victims, both human and otherwise, of the horrific BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and a convicted murderer, who has acclimated into the institutional life but still craves above all a chance at redemption. Debt, in our increasingly interconnected world, is far more profound than an IOU or two. To say this film is thought-provoking is a wild understatement.
THE LAW IN THESE PARTS**** (World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary) At first, we watch the stage being built. This is going to be an Errol Morris-like into-camera series of talking heads. But wait, that’s a green screen behind the speaker’s desk. Also, the stage will be hiked just a bit, so the interviewee can view his interrogator as a judge might survey his courtroom. And then it all becomes plain, for the judges begin to appear. Not just any judges: these are the Israeli legal minds who created the system of justice still administered in the territories their country occupied after the 1967 Six-Day War. The wizened old men are earnest and straightforward, but they cannot escape the moral dilemma of a democratic country which nonetheless restricts the rights of Palestinians under the laws which they wrote and adjudicated. These contradictions are Israel’s open secret, laid bare by the courage and meticulous research of the filmmakers, who intersperse the legal arguments with footage of their effect on real people. A superb use of the power of cinema to illuminate a potentially mind-numbing topic.
WE’RE NOT BROKE**** The premise is simple: if the US could collect the taxes that it’s fairly owed, our financial picture would be much different. Produced before the recent Occupy movement took hold, this film stokes the same populist anger. It digs deep into the tax loopholes that allow multinational US corporations to shelter profits earned overseas from the taxman (for example, a small building in the Cayman Islands – essentially a mail drop – is the perfectly legal “international headquarters” for dozens of companies), explores the lobbying industry which earns millions keeping things this way, and warns of a rising sense of discontent that may swirl into, yes, class warfare. Some of this stuff is predictable, but the visceral detail and visual power are enough to make you mad. Preceding this film was a 12-minute short called THE DEBUTANTE HUNTERS, about a group of attractive South Carolina high-school girls, the epitome of “debs,” who enjoy hunting game. They bond with their parents and friends doing this, and they all consume what they kill. The dichotomy between these supposed Pretty Little Missies’ physical appearance and their skill with guns and bows makes a nice quick piece, and the Sundance audience was charmed. But when director Maria White stepped to the mike for a q&a, two audience members registered their disappointment. “I didn’t sign up for this,” one said, “I’m a vegetarian, I don’t agree with hunting meat.” (Throughout the rest of the q&a, she rudely talked to her seatmate and did not hear another word that was said.) Another woman objected on similar grounds; she too had bought a ticket for the corporation-bashing film, not this hunting thing. The rest of the crowd was quite supportive, and I know most others were just as happy as Linda and I were when THE DEBUTANTE HUNTERS won the festival’s inaugural Short Film Audience Award; I hope the rude woman choked on it. You can overdo the political correctness even at tree-hugging ol’ Sundance.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED***** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Derek Connolly) One of the real gems of the fest. A team from a magazine decide to investigate a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel. “Bring your own weapon. Safety not guaranteed.” They come upon a crazed paranoiac who gradually makes more and more sense to the female intern assigned to the project – but then again, the guy might just be crazy after all. It’s a bizarre romcom, a bent screwball plot with crackerjack dialogue and very hip no-budget production; the director, writer and dp had a wonderful time at the q&a talking about the one and only visual effects shot they could afford. You cannot see the next step coming, partly because it keeps morphing: the ending we saw was not the one the festival programmers did, but in the meantime the filmmakers had a change of heart. By the way, the classified ad at the core of this story is real, and the man who placed it has a cameo. I must also mention BEAR, the tremendous Australian short which preceded the feature. Within its 11 minutes are two of the loudest screams-turning-to-laughter moments ever. Horror and humor have always been next-door neighbors. Try your best to see it, with an audience if possible.
THE SURROGATE**** (Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting) From the time he was 6, polio confined Mark O’Brien to an iron lung for all but a few hours each day. Yet he gained a fine education and became a well-known writer and poet, all while flat on his back, using a stick in his mouth to compose his work on a keyboard. This movie isn’t about all that, though; it’s already been shown in the Oscar-winning documentary BREATHING LESSONS. This is about O’Brien’s determination, at age 38, to lose his virginity. First, this devout Catholic needs permission from his priest, then he must find and hire a sex surrogate, who will use her body on his behalf. As the ensemble’s special prize indicates, this film is spectacularly acted, by John Hawkes as O’Brien, a wiseass who is still touchingly earnest; Helen Hunt as his tender sexual prescription; William H. Macy as O’Brien’s new priest, who is hilarious facing moral issues that he never expected of clear Catholic dogma; and Moon Bloodgood as a nursing assistant who has some choice scenes with an inquisitive motel manager. Many of us are cheering Hawkes’s development from “what’s-his-face” into a recognizable leading man, although he’s forced to play this role almost completely sideways. This film was snapped up by Fox Searchlight, and I hope it finds a wide audience, but I’m concerned that the amount of nudity – you see every inch of Ms. Hunt, but it’s all in service to the story – may dampen its commercial potential. Longtime Hawkes fans will recognize Rusty Schwimmer as a hated caregiver in early scenes; she was his almost-romantic-interest in THE PERFECT STORM. This movie was retitled THE SESSIONS for commercial release.
BESTIAIRE**** Definitely an acquired taste, but I acquired it. This is a film about the relationship between humans and animals, or, rather, between civilization and the wild. There is no music, only location sound, hardly any spoken words. Each setup is locked down – no pans, tilts, booms or dollys, no camera movement whatsoever – but composed as a great still photographer would; every single shot is gorgeous. What does move are the subjects, in long, languid takes that encourage us to relax and look past what we see physically, like a soft, repetitive New Age melody does. Five student artists concentrate on the same stuffed deer. We go outside in winter; cattle and horses lope and frisk in a corral, often coming forward to an evidently unmanned camera to stare at us. Other animals are in cages and corridors indoors, and for a few moments we’re afraid we’re at a slaughterhouse, something we’d rather not see in such intimate, unblinking detail. But soon we notice zebras and monkeys, and the hands and faces of humans who are evidently taking care of them. Some full-grown lions slam at their cage walls with a ferocity we didn’t know they possessed. We enter a taxidermist’s shop and watch the creation of a duck for display. The combined effect is a little disturbing; we feel an ominous frisson, even as the film is trying to persuade us to let go. Finally, in the last third, the shivers pass as BESTIAIRE reveals its secret, which I’ll leave for you to discover. The ultra-slow pace will annoy some filmgoers, if not most, but Denis Cote’s hypnotic use of pure, formal cinema to say something ineffable stayed with me long after the lights went up.
THE HOUSE I LIVE IN**** (Grand Jury Prize: Documentary) From the moment Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1972, it has been a spectacular failure, and every passing year makes the tragedy even worse. In service to this “war,” we have arrested 45 million Americans, the overwhelming majority of them for nonviolent crimes, and wasted billions doing it. Draconian Rockefeller-era drug laws, such as the infamous “three strikes and you’re out,” only now being reconsidered, gave sentencing judges no leeway, and thousands are doing time measured in decades for the mere possession of marijuana – in fact, drug sentences have almost solely turned the U.S. into the world’s leading jailer. Yet illegal drugs are cheaper, more potent, and easier to get than ever before. Eugene Jarecki’s powerful documentary puts faces on these issues: law enforcement, drug dealers, convicts, and the prison lobby (why do we keep so many people in jail? Because you can make money that way). Jarecki ladles the issue with memories of a black family to whom he was close growing up, and how drug abuse tore it apart; this is his only misstep, because while the family’s experience is indeed sorrowful, it comes across as needless narcissism on the director’s part and saps valuable screen time from the larger, more immediate issues, which are made human-sized by others. This movie shoves it in your face: unless we wake up, our pathetic, self-perpetuating War on Drugs will continue to consume our people and treasure, and render the drug trade ever stronger.
VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN** (World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic) Sometimes I don’t agree with the Sundance jury. This is the life of Violeta Parra, a Chilean folk singer and visual artist whose work railed against oppression and injustice, who rose from abject poverty to international acclaim (think Edith Piaf) to an uneasy status as a national hero. The filmmaking is beautiful and effective (it resists pat biographical form by skipping around), and Francisca Gavilan throws herself body and soul into the title role, but Violeta’s barely – and only partly – contained rage pins her to one monotonous note. We yearn for something more than a half-smile from Ms. Gavilan, and her travails become tedious after a while. What saved the film for me were the songs. With or without subtitles, Violeta’s melodies are glorious; I enjoyed every single one. Though I can’t recommend this film, it does encourage the viewer to become more familiar with Violeta Parra’s music, and that’s definitely an achievement.
PUTIN’S KISS*** (World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary) Masha Drokova is a Russian teenager enamored with Nashi, the nationalistic youth organization, and is so patriotic (and comely) that she quickly rises into positions as organizer, spokeswoman, and teen TV personality. The state lays out the red carpet for her, complete with university scholarship and lovely apartment. She has bought into the system so exuberantly that she famously plants a kiss on Vladimir Putin’s cheek at a public appearance. But some of her friends, including liberal blogger Oleg Kashin, see a darker side to Nashi: its rigid dogma, nighttime rallies, book burnings and suspected thuggery remind him more of a group of fascists. (Though Nashi is never officially fingered, Kashin himself suffers a savage beating, presumably for stating these ideas in public.) Gradually, the perky cheerleader begins to doubt her own views of Russian “democracy.” Masha’s journey is the core of this film, which is so intimate that we frequently feel we’re hearing something we shouldn’t. (She seems to have a crush on a Nashi leader, who is cold and distant to her; could this be a catalyst?) The opening sequence, at a Nashi “summer camp” for indoctrination, looks as wholesome as can be at first, but as Americans we have problems with the organization before Masha does: in a sense, we’re waiting for her to come around. A look at post-USSR Russia which is so interesting because it’s so resolutely human-sized.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN***** (World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary, World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit) The star of the festival for me. In 1970, a singer-songwriter who went by the single name Rodriguez released an album on A&M/Sussex called COLD FACT. It died. No airplay, no sales, nothing. The next year he tried again with COMING FROM REALITY. Same story, and Rodriguez slipped into oblivion — I had never heard of him before seeing this film, and I paid attention back then – except for one place. Somebody had brought over a bootleg copy on a visit to South Africa, and soon it was being traded around so much that a distributor began to import Lps. Strictly by word of mouth, Rodriguez became the musical voice of a generation straining against the yoke of apartheid; one interviewee says you could tell a lot about a person by his record collection, but everybody owned ABBEY ROAD, BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER, and COLD FACT. (The government added fuel to the fire by forcing the distributor to cut scratches on COLD FACT’s opening track, “Sugar Man,” rendering the song unplayable, because of perceived drug references.) The mysterious Rodriguez offered no biographical information, made no other recordings, and, after an Australian tour in 1981, was never heard from again. But in the meantime, South Africa utterly changed with his songs as nationwide themes of freedom and justice, frequently played in public by brave cover bands. He became a legend, complete with the attendant fables: he blew his brains out onstage, self-immolated at the end of a concert, etc. The filmmakers, ardent fans, decided to investigate and find out how Rodriguez really died. From here on I can say no more, except that if this were a novel, you’d probably dismiss the plot as implausible. Few movies have touched me as deeply and joyously as this one did. It fully earns its award for “celebration of the artistic spirit.” I bought Rodriguez’s two albums, which meant so much to South Africa, while standing in line waiting for the following film, and they’re both wonderful. Do not miss this one.
CHASING ICE***** (Excellence In Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary) National Geographic photographer James Balog’s cover story on glaciers – one of the most popular ever run in the magazine – inspired him to find a way to literally photograph climate change. For his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), Balog’s team places thirty cameras in three continents around the Arctic ice shelf and sets them for periodic exposures. It isn’t easy, and in fact a hardware design failure in Balog’s first effort reduces him to tears when the team comes back to check the ruined equipment. Another try meets with success, and even Balog is astonished by what he sees. Ice melts off naturally every summer, then returns with cold weather. But the EIS photos prove that today there is no regeneration: the ice shelf is melting out of existence. The EIS crew camp and wait for days to witness the largest glacial “calving” ever recorded: the chunk that falls into the sea is the size of lower Manhattan Island. To Balog’s horror, it doesn’t take years to see the ice pack receding, only months. Some global warming skeptics claim this is a natural geological phenomenon, and for them Balog shows a startling chart. Ice core samples that measure the quality of trapped air can give us readings as far back as 800,000 years. These samples show that though the earth does indeed go through long warming and cooling periods, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Arctic atmosphere has shot off the charts in the last century, and the pace is accelerating. There are two real wonderments in this film: the dangerous physical effort required by EIS (the obsessed Balog himself has had several knee operations, but continues to rappel like a 20-year-old), and the majestic sights caught by director Jeff Orlowski’s unseen film crew, which is of course undergoing the same trials to get these astonishing shots. The jaw-dropping glory of this gorgeous but forbidding land is disappearing, a rebuke to the foolish talking heads which are seen (and in Rush Limbaugh’s case, heard) in two quick wraparound segments. At least in the Arctic, climate change is real, mankind is almost certainly responsible, and the pace is quickening. This muscular film provides the visual proof.
WISH I’D SEEN: ABOUT FACE, AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*, GYPSY DAVY, MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT (though I did see the exhibition in person at MoMA), ME AT THE ZOO, ROBOT & FRANK (Linda saw it; she thought it was wonderful), SLEEPWALK WITH ME, THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, WEST OF MEMPHIS, THE WORDS
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