It was warmer in Park City this year than it had been in New York when we left, and stayed relatively balmy until the very last minute, when my worst nightmare came true: a heavy snowstorm just as we had to drive down into Salt Lake to catch the redeye home. There were lane-obscuring snowdrifts on the interstate all the way back — S-curves, runaway truck lanes and all – and our pilot said it was the first time in his career he’d ever seen the SLC airport shut down. (The intensity of the storm was evidently a surprise to everybody.) The delays finally worked themselves out; better late than never, after all, and I’m here to type this, so everything’s jake.
Inside, at the movies, it was a little sunnier than usual. You can’t really judge the tenor of a festival when you see less than a tenth of what’s offered, but in the flicks we happened to catch, there was more laughter than normal. Our friend and host Peter Schloesser has a rating system to describe the bleak, dysfunctional, angst-ridden population of a stereotypical Sundance film: the Dead Kitten Index. This year, by luck or design, most of the stuff we saw scored zero on the DKI. Here’s my quick take on the sixteen films I caught, in order of screening, using a five-star (not kitty!) scale:
CONCUSSION** An errant baseball bonks a well-to-do middle-aged suburban lesbian in the head and knocks an unexpected kind of sense into her. It inflames her repressed libido – lying fallow due to the ennui of a life relationship that’s gone nowhere for too long – and as she fixes up a small apartment in New York City, she gradually descends into a heated double life as a call girl for women. This film is raw, downbeat, frankly sexual, superbly acted, particularly by Robin Weigert in the lead; she reminded me favorably of Vera Farmiga. But the ponderous, unrelenting sense of depression makes it feel much longer than it is, and soon you’re simply gasping for air. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to admire, harder to like.
TOY’S HOUSE**** Three suburban teens, recoiling from their stifling parents, determine to build a house in the woods – not a tree house, a real house – and live off the land in freedom and independence. This is essentially a farce, but not terribly broad: it has tons of heart to go along with the knee-slapping humor. The heroic trio are all new to me, but Moises Arias steals every shot he’s in as “Biaggio,” the single strangest kid you’ve ever seen. One set of parents is sweetly but dimly overbearing (“You’re wearing the blue shirt today? Why not the one with the pocket?”), and young Joe Toy’s widowed dad has been reduced to nothing more than a fountain of withering sarcasm (Nick Offerman crushes this role), so the boys aren’t really oppressed and the stakes are kept low. You won’t learn much about parenting (or child-being); all it is, is a great time. This film was, perhaps unwisely, blandly retitled THE KINGS OF SUMMER for commercial release.
SHOPPING* Dead kittens galore. Working-class family in 1981 New Zealand, check. Violently abusive drunk father, check. Vicious yobbo shoplifting gang, check. More frickin expletives than at a frickin expletive frickin convention, check. The one ray of sunshine is the tender relationship between two brothers who provide each other their only real comfort, but just watch what happens to them. There’s no doubting the earnest professionalism of all concerned, but to say this wasn’t for me would be the understatement of the 2013 fest.
VIRTUALLY HEROES** The first “Roger Corman movie” to screen at Sundance is a cute idea that went awry. Corman owned the war footage from eleven 80s-era Vietnam movies, so he challenged director G. J. Echternkamp to cut them together into something that might make (1) money and (2) some semblance of sense. This cinematic hodgepodge is reimagined, after a reparative 21st-century shoot, as a video game whose protagonists are self-aware. Brilliant: every time they’re killed, the game has to start over, so Echternkamp gets to use the same footage again! The newly-shot actors, including Robert Baker and Brent Chase as videographically-intense GIs, are up for it, and these talented farceurs observe the Golden Rule: take everything perfectly seriously. But there are video people, and then there are cinema people. We flickfolk have a low tolerance for restarting the story every ten minutes. Once we get it, the repetitive conceit goes on far, far, far, far, far too long. This film would have killed at 15, maybe 20 minutes. It runs 1:24. Nuff said. But there was CATNIP, a convulsively funny short – at least we thought so, and at 9pm MST on our first full day there! – which preceded the screening. I invite you to check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3scQ0wq5zLE
GOOGLE AND THE WORLD BRAIN**** Pubbing versus grubbing. A searing doc on the Google Books project, which is a stated effort to digitize the world’s printed knowledge, to fashion an Alexandrian Library in the cloud. This film (named after a science-fictional H. G. Wells artifice, and the author is duly impersonated) comes down on the side of physical libraries, which most of us who like books also revere. The problem isn’t the fact of digitizing – everybody agrees that would be worthwhile in theory – but that one company, however well-intentioned, would be the ultimate gatekeeper and inevitable monetizer. Then there’s the copyright issue, which Google tried to sidestep at first and which is still being battled in court. The film is careful to make the oft-ignored point that authors and publishers do not have identical interests (that’s why there are literary agents, dawg); ask anybody whose “orphaned” book has fallen out of print. Google would not talk to the filmmakers about Google Books, only search, so its opponents get to pile on somewhat, and that’s not fair, but neither is the matchup between a corporate behemoth and a bunch of librarians. The best thing Google Books has achieved thus far is to coax some great institutions (like Harvard) into setting up their own cooperative digitizing projects, which would be freely available to all – but they don’t have the money or the tech to do it as fast or as well. If you think books are important, don’t miss this.
C.O.G.*** We had high hopes for this one, because to my knowledge it’s the first time David Sedaris has permitted a film adaptation of his work. And it starts well, with Jonathan Groff as the Sedaris stand-in on a bus ride from hell, set to a creatively percussive score. An East Coast effete intellectual, he’s decided to find himself by going off the grid and working with the illegals on an Oregon apple farm. But the only person this naïve gringo can relate to turns out to be the wrong kind of friend, and he escapes into the arms of a benevolent evangelical sect, where he becomes a Child Of God under the tutelage of a splendid Denis O’Hare. We expected to bathe in Sedarian irony and got only a tiny bit – and what was left was a very personal journey that didn’t have all that much to say about anybody else’s condition. I haven’t read the Sedaris piece which inspired this film, but now I don’t need to.
THE LIFEGUARD*** You know how they tried their best to muss up Anne Hathaway for LES MIZ and she still came out looking like a Revlon model? Same thing here with Kristen Bell, the title-role hottie from FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. She gets fed up with her unfulfilling job on a New York newspaper, moves back to her Connecticut hometown, where she was class valedictorian, and assumes her old job as the lifeguard at a local pool. She has a built-in posse of thirtysomething buds who never left town, and soon her behavior begins to revert to the sophomoric, capped by an impulsive, torrid affair with a teenager. Bell does a pretty good job of deglamorizing herself and is really working hard here; she gets great support from Mamie Gummer and especially FREAKS & GEEKS’ Martin Starr. But that face (and that body; lifeguards wear swimsuits!) just defies our willing suspension of disbelief. There’s a nifty moment in the very last shot, made just for you.
jOBS**** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) As they say in Hollywood, let’s cut to the chase. Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs: does it work? I have to say yes, it does. I don’t know what kind of hoops they jumped through to get this out so fast, but I believe Aaron Sorkin is still writing his adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s masterful bio, so that’ll be a while getting to us. Matt Whitely’s script shrewdly begins with Jobs’s 2001 introduction of the iPod, and that’s as far forward as we go; the rest of the picture is one giant flashback, leaving the iPhone, iPad and pancreatic cancer all to Sorkin. Jobs is shown to be both a visionary and a bully. On his very first business deal, while still at Atari, he lies to his subcontractor, Steve Wozniak, cheating him out of most of the surreptitiously negotiated take. He screams at subordinates, chases out his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend, literally cries when he doesn’t get his way. Yet he has an ineffable, astonishing ability to lead the culture rather than responding to it. At first glance (the iPod debut), Kutcher is obviously made up heavily and we roll our eyes. But when we flash back to Jobs’s younger days, the actor settles in so squarely that in two or three shots, when the lighting and angle are just right, you cannot see Ashton Kutcher any more. Then, as he walks, he leans forward and slouches slightly, his hands in an Indian prayer position, and in silhouette it is Jobs. There is plenty of beautiful support, because this story is studded with meaty parts: Matthew Modine as John Sculley, Dermot Mulroney as Mike Markkula, and especially Josh Gad as Woz in a standout turn. Props to director Joshua Michael Stern and a large, energetic cast. The film was originally scheduled to begin its commercial run on April 19th, exactly 37 years after Apple’s creation; it was later postponed to August 16th.
IN A WORLD…***** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) My favorite film this year. It’s a comedy about the guys who voice movie trailers: you know, “In a world where up is down…” The switcheroo is that the biggest voice has a daughter who also went into the family business. There’s a plum job coming up, an action franchise so blockbustery that it isn’t just a trilogy, it’s a quadrilogy. For AMAZON GAMES, they’re even planning to bring back the “in a world…” trope made famous by real-life announcer Don LaFontaine, the king of trailers, who passed away in 2008 but is now a deity to these folks. Whoever gets this gig will take his mantle. First of all, it’s a splendid bit of writing by director Lake Bell, who also plays the cutiepie daughter. Second, you get this great menagerie of talent: the rock-solid Fred Melamed (whose face you know, if not the name) takes a semi-lead, and there’s Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry and a host of others (hey, here’s Nick Offerman again!). Third, it’s actually a love letter to the movies, or at least that mildly salacious side of the business that retains the P. T. Barnum DNA. And fourth, you will be crying with either laughter or recognition, maybe both, by the time Tears For Fears takes us out for the end credits. This one’s for movie fans, and also for people fans. My highest recommendation.
DON JON’S ADDICTION*** Another writer-director-actor makes his first feature. This one’s from Sundance darling Joseph Gordon-Levitt, here playing Jon Martello, a bulked-up New Jersey gym rat who tells us in a voiceover that he likes his place, his ride, his pals, his chicks – and, um, furiously watching his porn clips, which he actually prefers over genuine sex. Aside from that addiction, his life is as satisfyingly compartmentalized as anyone else’s (he’s even overly fastidious about cleanliness) but then wouldn’t ya know it, the chick of his dreams shows up. It’s Scarlett Johansson, in a gum-smacking caricature of a Jersey princess whose specialty is the erotic tease. Gordon-Leavitt is a solid director who has thought things through: for example, he shows Jon’s typical day by repeating a series of shots – making-the-bed seen from above, an incident of road rage, up the church steps, slow pan of the family (Tony Danza rocks as his father) at Mass, confession, absolution, walking down the hall at the gym, mouthing novenas while pumping – and then altering them slightly as his neurotic dependence on routine is gradually challenged. It’s definitely naughty – the guy is a porn addict, after all – but there’s real redemption involved, made possible as Julianne Moore enters the picture. This film has some problems, but it’s quite the promising debut. It was bought for wide release by Relativity Media, but they’ll have to cut some of the porn-clip stuff I saw (licensed by Gordon-Levitt, not lensed, as he assured a lady at the Q&A). The title was shortened to DON JON for commercial release.
MUSCLE SHOALS***** (World Premiere) One of the most joyful documentaries I’ve ever seen – my very favorite since last year’s SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN. It’s the story of the great pop music that was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, largely because of one man, Rick Hall, who co-founded FAME Studios in the Fifties and began to make records that set the world on fire. Among the artists to blow through town were Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, most of them using FAME’s in-house rhythm section – who were all white. Then, later, these session players – the “Swampers,” as they were called – split from their imperious boss to form their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, and attracted artists as varied as Jimmy Cliff and the Rolling Stones. Time heals all wounds, the guys have made up, and both studios are still going great guns today, as musicians from around the world continue to appreciate the luxury of employing first-class facilities in the blessed middle of nowhere. The courageous color-blindness of the Muscle Shoals gang – a bit of bigotry only reared its head when that long-haired hippie Duane Allman showed up much later, but then he started playing – remains an inspiration; this is a wonderful, uplifting story, a tremendous crowd-pleaser which received the second standing ovation I’ve ever seen at Sundance. (The first was WHALE RIDER back in 2003.) Hall and the Swampers (to whom Lynyrd Skynyrd devote an entire verse of “Sweet Home Alabama”) all attended the premiere, and when they took the stage afterward, that was my third Sundance standing O.
TWO MOTHERS*** In a small seaside village in New South Wales, two girls, childhood friends, have grown up and raised families side by side. But one woman loses her husband, and a promising position in Sydney takes the other man away for weeks at a time. In the interim, the two mothers each fall in love with the other’s son. As Jackie Gleason used to say, homina homina homina. Of course, both strapping lads are soap-opera-gorgeous, and the mothers are played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, so they’ve got that going for them. But it’s a, shall we say, unusual mutual relationship at the heart of this adaptation of Doris Lessing’s novel. Every member of the quartet knows it’s wrong somehow, and makes several attempts to shake it off, including, for the boys, nothing less than marriage and children. But it all simply strains credulity: stop it! If I had a cushy familial home on a promontory overlooking the majestic Shelly Beach and was married to Robin Wright, you couldn’t pry me toward Sydney with a bloody backhoe, mate. Also, the boys grow up in an efficiently-presented early sequence that quickly spans a decade, but the women don’t age a whit. The audience at my screening blurted out several bits of unintended laughter, but maybe the subject matter made them nervous. It’s all very pretty, I just didn’t believe it for an instant. However, Sundance is making me so cosmopolitan that I actually recognized two Aussie actors from 2010’s searing ANIMAL KINGDOM: James Frecheville, one of the sons, had the lead; and Ben Mendelsohn as his father, the guy who leaves Robin Wright behind, scared the hell out of us as the most dangerous member of Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver’s posse. This film was retitled ADORE for U.S. release.
JISEUL** (World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic) In winter 1948, some 120 Korean villagers huddled together in a cave to escape soldiers who were under shoot-to-kill orders (everyone else was assumed to be a Communist). This is a dramatization of their story, the human face of the Jeju Massacre. Director/screenwriter Muel O lays humor and absurdity alongside scenes of such brutality that they are at times difficult to watch. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning. Yet the film is ruined by careening among so many indistinguishable characters – it’s basically just armed people versus unarmed ones – that it becomes hard to follow. Adding to the disorientation is the worst job of subtitling that I’ve ever seen: riddled with typos and grammatical errors, the translation was obviously done in Korea by someone whose command of English is excellent but not fluent. Whenever nobody’s talking, this piece improves dramatically. Sometimes I’m surprised by the Sundance jury’s choices, but then I tell myself that their role is to encourage new talent, while the audience simply wants to be entertained. On the next two films, a relative rarity occurred: both parties agreed.
BLOOD BROTHER***** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary, Audience Award: U.S. Documentary) Director Steve Hoover’s lifelong best friend, Rocky Braat, became frustrated with life in America. A middling student without a close-knit family, he decided to get as far away as possible. He traveled to India, where he found that family – at an AIDS orphanage for abandoned women and HIV-infected children. When Rocky’s visa expires and he comes back to Pittsburgh, Hoover decides to document his pal’s new life and joins him on his next trip. The resulting film is at once amazingly personal and universally vital. Rocky’s not after money, power, or notoriety. He is just in love with these kids, and they with “Rocky Anna,” or “Big Brother Rocky.” He’s fearless around potentially dangerous bodily fluids (more so than Hoover’s small film crew) and skeptical locals outside the compound, including a woman he becomes interested in; can he persuade her parents that he’s worthy of her hand? He’s a teacher, a handyman, and an inspiration – a shining example of selflessness that will move anyone who sees a future for the human race. My one beef is that Hoover and Rocky share voiceovers: their voices sound similar, so sometimes you’re not sure which one is talking until you can suss out the context. But in total, this is a wonderful look at an exemplary man that could only have been made by his closest friend.
FRUITVALE***** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic) Oscar Grant is a young Bay Area black man. For most of this film, we follow him around on New Year’s Eve 2008 and put together the pieces of his life. He’s an ex-con who dotes on his little daughter, lies to her mother, loses a job because he’s chronically late. All this, but you can still sense an innate decency, even when Oscar’s talking to his friends in a street language you can barely decipher. (It reminded me of Jamaican “patwa,” equally unintelligible to these ears.) They’re all going to go into town for the countdown, and Oscar’s long-suffering mother (THE HELP‘s Octavia Spencer) convinces him not to drive in, but to take BART instead. What happens at the Fruitvale station in Oakland shocks the entire nation, and it’s dramatized here by first-time director Ryan Coogler, with a bravura performance by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar. At first you think this thing is just aimless, but you’re wrong: every single facet slams together in the last couple of reels. We were mesmerized and scandalized (the always dependable Kevin Durand bestows his patented Evil Hulk persona), and it hurts even more because it actually happened. This is a drama, yes, but even if the dice are somewhat loaded by the director (P.S.: they are), it still refuses to let you off the moral hook by saying, “It’s only a movie.” Wow. This film was retitled FRUITVALE STATION for commercial release, probably for the better: nobody outside Oakland would recognize the word.
DIRTY WARS**** (Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary) I’ve admired Jeremy Scahill’s work ever since he literally wrote the book on the lawless Iraq-war mercenaries known as Blackwater, most of whom have been sent back to their Rambo-watching Barcaloungers. Now this veteran war correspondent investigates the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This elite unit doesn’t even exist, wink wink. It will never have to testify before Congress. But it does America’s dirty work, and can take extreme action at its own discretion. We watch as the journalist cobbles the story together (a little too melodramatically) with push-pins on his office wall in Brooklyn. But then he does what most armchair generals never will: he heads out to the battleground. This is what separates Scahill from the chattering horde, and Richard Rowley’s crew is right there alongside. Bit by bit, piece by piece, Scahill establishes that the USA is rattling warlike sabers – including targeted assassinations – in countries against which we are not at war. One such sortie is probably what took out Osama bin Laden, but, incredibly, you’re not immune even if you’re a U.S. citizen. Recommended for those Americans who still think John Wayne actually represents their country.
WISH I’D SEEN: AUSTENLAND, CITIZEN KOCH, COMPUTER CHESS, EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, SOUND CITY, TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM, THE WAY WAY BACK, WE STEAL SECRETS
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