Monday, January 26, 2009

Sundance 2009 Roundup 

Overall, the quality of the films we saw at Sundance 2009 was quite good. While there were fewer lifechanging standouts than past years, there were fewer total stinkers and almost every film we saw was a worthwile investment of 90 minutes.

Feature Films
Humpday **** 1/2
You heard it here first: Humpday is the next Sundance comedy that is going to nail the zeitgeist in a big way. Two 30-something straight guys reunite after their lives have diverged and end up accidentally challenging each other to what is essentially a game of gay chicken. Verbal pyrotechics flare as they try to determine who's going to top whom, psychically and maybe even physically.

World's Greatest Dad ****
Bobcat Goldthwaite's junior directorial effort can be summarized as a cross between "Election" and "Pretty Persuasion" and it is a dark, transgressive, misanthropic comedy of the first order. I won't summarize the plot for fear of ruining any of its constant surprises. The film successfully keeps you off balance throughout with its combination of comedic and tragic shocks. But this is not Farrelly Brothers territory as Goldthwait's script has significant meaning woven intricately into it, although some viewers will be too freaked out to take those meanings on board. Unfortunately, as of the Saturday screening the film hadn't sold despite having Robin Williams in the title role.

The Greatest ****
The pre-title sequence of Shana Feste’s first effort as a writer/director features the best 10 minutes in film I’ve seen in a long time. Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon play the parents of a family coping with an untimely death and the enchanting Carey Mulligan (who clearly made a Sundance breakout this year) plays the teenage girl who forces the family to collectively confront their loss. Feste’s debut is remarkably assured: well scripted, well directed, and beautifully lensed. She’s one to watch.

An Education ****
A well made Brit-pic scripted by Nick Hornby and based on a memoir of a young woman's youthful awakening in 60's London. 2009 Sundance It Girl Carey Mulligan illuminates the screen whilst Peter Saarsgard charms her and her parents into foregoing her potential for an Oxford university education in return for a life of seeming glamour. It's a modern day fable in the tradition of Austen and exactly the sort of film you'd expect Emma Thompson to be in and lo, she is.

Lymelife ****
The Martini Brothers' autobiographical tale of the dissolution of a Long Island family treads the extremely familiar grounds of suburban dystopia blazed long ago by "American Beauty," "The Ice Storm" and countless other indies in the last decade. What distinguishes this effort and makes it a four star flick, however, are the performances of a stellar cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Cynthia Nixon, Rory Culkin, Kieran Culkin (who given his repeated excellence on film and stage should be more appreciated), Emma Roberts and Tim Hutton, all of whom are very good indeed. The only person who struggles a bit is Hutton, but this is the challenge with having more of a plot device to play than a fleshed out character.

Paper Heart *** 1/2
A quirky exploration of what it means to give in to love. Nerd queen Charlayne Yi and a young director friend have done what may turn out to be the post-millennial version of “When Harry Met Sally," only this time there are documentary interviews not only with couples, but also with singles. To make matters even more au courant, the documentary exploration is paired with a parallel “scripted reality” plotline regarding Michael Cera’s attempt to win Yi’s heart. It has its own totally peculiar (and probably entirely unrepeatable) alchemy that somehow works.

Adam ***
A young man with Asperger’s is suddenly cut adrift in the world by the loss of his parent and simultaneously finds his first romance at the time when he most sorely needs it. A terrific performance by Hugh Dancy in the title role makes this film worth seeing, and the rest of the cast also acquits itself quite nobly: Rose Byrne does a lovely job as Adam’s love interest; Amy Irving is always compelling in a role of any size and her role as the mother is smaller than I’d have liked. Peter Gallagher does what Peter Gallagher does best: gently nibble some scenery in a role that suits him well. It is clear director Max Mayer struggled a bit with the film’s ending and even while it’s not quite perfect, it’s good enough and doesn’t compromise the movie.

Arlen Faber ***
Arlen Faber wrote a book that changed the world called “Me & God” and his life has never been the same. A philosophical romantic comedy quite well played by Jeff Daniels (in what would once have been the Albert Brooks role) and Lauren Graham (in the Lauren Graham role). Extremely enjoyable all around, although the largely zingy soufflé of a script falls in the end.

Push ***
Recipient of multiple awards this year, “Push” is something of a glorious mess, not dissimilar in its strengths and weaknesses to Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991). “Push” tells the story of Precious, a teenage girl whose kitchen-sink full of dire circumstances includes poverty, pregnancy, obesity, and even incest. The film’s weaknesses lie in its structure (there is a fair bit of trite plotting and more than one false ending) and overly familiar characters, e.g., the saintly (albeit lesbian) teacher who saves the day. But there are remarkable performances here; most especially Mo’Nique whose rip-roaring performance as the Mother from Hell might do for her what the role of Gator did for Samuel L. Jackson. And newcomer Gabby Sidibe’s performance as Precious suggests she might have a long career ahead of her. (For the snarkiest of moviegoers, the most shocking thing in the movie will be Mariah Carey’s remarkably competent turn as a social worker.)

Mary & Max ** 1/2
This film’s style is greatly indebted to Hillaire Belloc, Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey and Tim Burton - all sources I enjoy. Yet I was quite conflicted about this stop motion animated pic about an unfortunate Australian girl and her adult American pen pal who has Asperger's syndrome. I enjoyed parts of it greatly, most especially Phillip Seymour Hoffman's voice acting, but nonetheless left the screening unmoved because the whole (five years in the making) enterprise seemed overwhelmed by a surfeit of twee.

Against the Current *
Joseph Fiennes mourns his wife and unborn child. So he decides to swim the Hudson River with two friends alongside in a boat before he commemorates his beloved’s death with his own. Veering between road movie, buddy comedy, and mumblecore, this is a total drear fest whose primary feature is that it refuses to sell out at the very end. There is also a superb cameo by Mary Tyler Moore, who just might be the patron saint of getting a handful of otherwise unproduceable indies funded.

Once More with Feeling *
Chazz Palminteri and Drea de Matteo star as father and daughter on the verge of breaking their respective marriage vows with the hope of injecting needed change into their lives. He is suddenly obsessed with karaoke as a proxy for the singing career he might have sacrificed in becoming a psychiatrist and she's consumed with the possibilities of recapturing her groove via lipo and the hunky cop who would like to collude with her in committing a serious moving violation. K. summed it best when she said, "I liked it better the first time when it was called 'Moonstruck'."

The Cove *****
A heartrending must-see that combines the best elements of “Mission Impossible” with Jacques Cousteau. A team of activists learns that the insane machismo of some powerful Japanese men is inspiring a small town to slaughter 26,000 dolphins a year. Their motivation? Apparently, largely because the West told them not to harm whales. Of course, there is also the fact that they can get $150,000 per dolphin caught for adventure parks. But that only accounts for a small number of the dolphins captured. The rest are herded into a secret cove and slaughtered en masse like a scene out of “Gladiator." (The mercury laden dolphin flesh having no real market is sold off as whale meat to an unsuspecting populace.) An A-Team of activists assembled high technology spy equipment and captured the horror on film in order to prove what is going on and to inspire us all to action. See it. Take action.

The September Issue ****
For many viewers this well-crafted doc will simply put proof to "The Devil Wears Prada." (And indeed, it is fascinating to see how well Streep nailed Wintour.) But the true value of this film lies more in its portrayal of the social issues universal to all human endeavors great and small. The struggle between creativity and pragmatism. The fact that those who display superiority complexes in one context (e.g.., the workplace) are inevitably prey to the inverse effect in another (e.g., their personal lives). And the need to create and find some form of existential meaning from our professional lives, no matter what it is we do for a living.

The Yes Men Fix the World***
The Yes Men punk corporations and government via brilliant hoaxes that demonstrate what those organizations should be doing if they had a moral compass. For instance, one Yes Man poses as a Dow Chemical spokesman and announces Dow will fund the eco cleanup and also pay reparations for (their Union Carbide subsidiary's) catastrophe they created in Bhopal. Piquant political fun for the Stewart/Colbert set.

Sergio ***
A great story and a good film, Sergio recounts the heartbreaking story of the fiendishly handsome, suave and charming UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. Killed shortly before he meant to remove himself from active nation-building in order to be with his lovely paramour, de Mello was a dashing figure targeted by al Qaeda for his role in freeing East Timor from Islamic Indonesia. Remarkably successful and abstracted recreations give an excellent sense of the dramatic and prolonged attempt to rescue him from the rubble of the UN compound in Baghdad.

We Live in Public ***
Call Josh Harris what you will: damaged sociopath, stupid idiot, vainglorious visionary, and/or full-blown narcissist. What Ondi Timoner’s “We Live in Public” (which won best doc) demonstrates clearly is that all of those labels apply equally well. Harris made himself a multimillionaire with his dotcoms and spent the money in strange experiments such as “Quiet” where he built a compound where everyone was filmed all the time doing everything people do and everyone was watching everyone else do those very things. Yet he also clearly predicted the power of the Internet in society and how we would collectively come to accept and willingly participate in the diminution of our privacy.

Big River Man *
Sherpa Dan and Chris liked this one. The rest of us DID NOT. It has so much promise. Martin Strel, the world's most successful long distance swimmer decides to swim the insanely dangerous Amazon. It sounds like a Herzog film, right? And, in many ways, it is. Strel goes nuts, along with some of his helpers. But in the end, too much goes unexplained (why does Strel connect his head to a car battery exactly?) and what we get is a maddening portrait of madness rather than a revealing one. Strel remains a cypher.
Hey Tony,

I am trying to locate Sushil's friend Harjot Gandhi. I was searching from him on Google and got a hit from your blog where Harjot recommended a book to Sushil who recommended it to you.

I am an old friend of his and wanted to know how he's doing and I lost track of him.

If you could, please pass my email onto him: leenachandi@yahoo.com.

He would know me by my maiden name, Sangha.

Thanks so much for your help!
No worries. I'll ping Sushil and point him and Harjot your way.
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