Monday, February 14, 2011

Sundance 2011 Roundup 

This year I’ve decided to do something a little different with my Sundance roundup. I’ve listed the films by day, and in the order in which we saw them. I thought this might give non-festivalgoers a sense of what our annual 4-day, 16+ film blowout experience is like.

Thursday, January 27th
Resurrect Dead ****

Have you ever been walking down the street in the city and seen a strange tile in the road, most often in a crosswalk, that reads something like, “Toynbee Idea in Kubrick’s 2001. Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter”? I have. Many times. And I’ve always wondered what the heck they were.

Filmmaker John Foy has created a captivating and scrappy documentary that solves the mystery. He followed three “Toynbee tile” enthusiasts for 5 years until they uncovered the secrets of the tiles’ creation, including why no one has ever seen one being placed into the tarmac!

Beyond its literal detective storyline, however, Resurrect Dead brings other, more subtle joys as Foy contrasts the personalities of the hunter and the hunted. His lead detective, Justin Duerr, turns out to bear many striking resemblances to the person he seeks. But rather than bang you over the head with the resonances, Foy is content to let the patterns emerge without stating them plainly, leaving attentive audiences to draw their own connections and conclusions.

The Lie ****
When chief Sundancer John Cooper introduced this film, he noted that director Joshua Leonard has quite literally been raised at the festival. Debuting in The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Josh has returned to the festival in many other films, notably in one of the most wonderful high notes of the “mumblecore” genre, Humpday (2009).

A young couple with an infant is struggling with what their lives are becoming. Clover (Jess Weixler) is an activist and community organizer who has gone to law school and now finds herself confronted with a plum job “working for the man”; and not just any man, a large pharmaceutical company who her youthful compatriots view as the problem, not the solution. Her husband Lonnie has sacrificed his rock ‘n roll dreams for a stultifying job editing bad commercials. In the midst of this existential crisis, a pressurized Lonnie tells a whopper of a lie to his screaming boss and thereby launches their safe making-ends-meet existence into a slow motion crash. That process occupies the majority of the film and it is drawn with extreme empathy and liberally salted with humor that is both au courant and extremely Chekhovian.

The Lie shows just how much the actor turned director has learned over the years. In addition to the technical details – beautiful crisp images, great sound design, tight editing - Leonard’s performance as an actor feels effortless and as a director he pulls strong performances from his entire cast; most notably a stunningly lucid performance from Weixler, quite possibly the best of her career to date. [Disclaimer: The director is a friend and I have a financial stake in this film.]

Gun Hill Road **1/2
Gun Hill Road tells pieces of a story that we’ve heard before, but we’ve never quite seen them assembled in this way. Enrique (Esai Morales) returns from prison to discover his only son is in the process of transitioning. Protected by his mother (a very grounded Judy Reyes), Michael/Vanessa has had the space to begin to find himself and a community. But Enrique is an O.G. and, despite the fact that his friends seem to accept Michael’s evolution, Papi understandably cannot get his head around the new configuration of his family.

What makes Gun Hill Road fly when it flies is the attention to the details of Michael’s transformation. What stalls it out is the attempts to give Enrique a justifiable backstory to motivate his homophobia. Nonetheless, this is a valiant first effort, lovingly and sensitively directed, and worthwhile viewing for anyone who is interested in the subject matter.

Another Earth ****1/2
There’s a remarkable Sundance story to be told about this film and its mate, Sound of My Voice. Brit Marling (remember that name) and two Georgetown University friends moved in together in LA. Marling co-wrote both screenplays, working with one director all day and the other at night. The product? Two very interesting, challenging, philosophical films.

In Another Earth Rhonda is bound for a full ride in MIT’s astrophysics program. After a night of partying, she heads home and hears on the radio that an astonishing discovery has been made. A planet that looks exactly like Earth has been revealed due to an axis shift of the sun. (It’s been mirroring our orbit and thus been invisible to us.) She leans out the window to see this surreal sight in the night sky and causes a disastrous car accident.
Another Earth charts Rhonda’s reentry into society after imprisonment and her subsequent unintentional embroilment with her surviving victim John Burroughs, a Yale professor and composer (the fine William Mapother) who lost his pregnant wife and child in the accident. Filled with twists and turns both in the lives of Rhonda and John, and in the unveiling of a small portion of the mysteries of Earth 2, Another Earth is a compelling exploration of the roles of sorrow, chance and forgiveness in our lives.

Friday, January 28th
The Future ***

If you enjoyed Miranda July’s Me You and Everyone We Know (2005), you will definitely enjoy The Future. Like its predecessor, The Future is a fragile, ethereal film full of moments of extraordinary poetry. Also like MYAEWK, it’s full of twee humor and odd sex.

There’s not much point in describing a Miranda July film. The plots are not literal and the logic is sui generis, but here we go: a young couple is about to adopt an injured cat (who narrates the film). They are concerned that the cat will dramatically change their lives and therefore they decide to abandon their current lives in order to explore as many possible options for their futures as they can before they have to take delivery of the adopted cat. Along the way, he stops time and carries on a conversation with the moon. She has an affair with a man she probably should never know. At the end, they have to decide what future they wish to have. Odd, right? Right. Yet, for some, this will probably be the most beautiful film they have ever seen.

Sound of My Voice *****
Peter and Lorna are following driving directions to a nondescript suburban house. Upon arrival they are stripped, made to shower and change into hospital gowns, and then transported blindfolded to another location and into the presence of Maggie (the superb Brit Marling once again.)

Maggie has a remarkable claim as to her origin and what she is teaching her acolytes reeks of EST. Her story is so very hard to believe, but her manner is so compelling. At some points you are sure you know the truth…and then not so sure. It will keep you guessing right up to the last frame.

This deceptively simple, well written, directed and performed tale has a hold on my imagination. I cannot stop thinking about it.

The Details ***
The Details is a gonzo black comedy that begins with an obsession with destructive raccoons and ends with murder. In between lies a plot of mayhem. Tobey McGuire stars with an underutilized Elizabeth Banks (will she ever get the script she deserves?) and a magnificent Laura Linney. Linney’s performance as a sex-crazed, cat-lady-next-door is simply not to be believed, even after it’s been seen. The rest of the film is pretty standard indie black comedy at this point and not at all special, but Linney is the price of admission. She simultaneously steals this film and any film screening in the same multiplex. Sheer genius. Somebody introduce her to Christopher Guest, pronto!

The Bengali Detective *1/2
The Bengali Detective is a documentary that sounded so very promising in the description, but which unfortunately fell flat in the viewing. In seeking to find someone whose own story and profession would branch out in ways that would help illuminate the story of a city, Philip Cox discovered Rajesh Ji, the titular character. Mr. Ji has a small detective agency which primarily investigates and shuts down the distribution of fake consumer goods. He also takes on the business of any PI in any city; the odd adultery, etc. More interestingly, he attempts to solve murders where the police are dragging their heels. What would seem to be the final ingredient in the mix (it’s not, but I’m saving you an exhaustive list of what is covered in the film) is the fact that Mr. Ji is also enamored of Bollywood and enters his detective force into a local TV dance competition. All of this sounds like the recipe for something fun, funny, and extraordinary. This is why it has already been optioned to be remade as fiction. The reality presented in the documentary itself is much less satisfactory and the film simply doesn’t gel.

Flypaper **1/2
*Sigh*. What to say about this one? This was the first spec script from the duo that went on to write The Hangover. It became clear during the post-screening Q&A that this script was more intended to show their writing chops than it was ever intended to be produced and it shows. Flypaper is nearly 8 movie genres mashed up. It’s a bank heist, a pseudo-Coen Brothers character comedy (including Tim Blake Nelson in one of his wacky hick roles), a romance, a whodunit a la Clue, and on and on.

Saturday, January 29th
Hot Coffee *****

Docs like Hot Coffee are part of why I go to Sundance. Made by a first timer attorney-turned-filmmaker, Hot Coffee will open your mind on a topic you only thought you understood: so-called “frivolous lawsuits.” Starting with the infamous McDonald’s coffee lawsuit in Texas, the movie explores how corporations have systematically removed your access to the courts. It’s enraging, remarkable and enlightening. See this movie! (HBO bought it.)

Win Win ****
Another well-made, character-driven feature from Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), starring Paul Giamatti and the wonderful Amy Ryan. The accidental result of a desperate deception leaves a lawyer/high school wresting coach in loco parentis for a troubled teen. A terrific cast makes this well-worn tale new again.

Old Cats *
We did not enjoy this film. The dramatic climax of the film involves an elderly woman walking down 8 flights of stairs. ‘Nuff said.

Like Crazy **** 1/2
A bittersweet romance about the emotional scar many of us earn in our first significant relationship. Jacob, an American, and Anna, who is British, meet at college in LA and fall madly (and quite believably) in love. Visa problems thrust them into a long-distance relationship. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are so committed and affecting that one wishes someone would give them a chance to star in Romeo & Juliet together.

Drake Doremus impressed with his Sundance debut Douchebag last year. Whilst being a vastly more commercial effort, Like Crazy manages to live up to the directorial promise he showed without selling out. It’s a heartbreaking film (in a good way) and I predict that some will put it on their list of all time great indie romances. It clearly ran away with the jury’s heart, earning it this year’s Grand Jury prize for US drama.

Sunday, January 30th
Being Elmo ***1/2

A very sweet bio-doc about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo. Thoroughly heart warming.

Kinyarwanda ***
The “first dramatic feature film conceived and produced by Rwandans”, Kinyarwanda educates us about the complexities of the genocide in Rwanda in a completely non-exploitative fashion. While not ultimately a great film, Kinyarwanda is still a very good film on several levels. An extremely worthy effort that should be seen by anyone who wants to begin to understand the pros and cons of being homo sapiens.

Buck ****1/2
The inspiration for The Horse Whisperer, Buck Brannaman travels the country most of the year teaching people how to engage with their horses in a completely new – and vastly more humane - way. Watching Brannaman with horses is indeed something to see. And he quite literally (and quietly) radiates good, solid American values of the kind that make myths. Spending time with Brannaman and listening to his gentle philosophy, born of years of private pain, is, if you let it truly sink in, inspiring. His demeanor is that of Atticus Finch, only looking out for the horses, not the people. His words are those of a Khalil Gibran of the American West. Watch, listen with your heart, and learn.

Project Nim ****
Another tale of people and animals, only this time without the redemption. In the 1970s (of course…) a bunch of feckless, self indulgent academics decided it was a good idea to try to raise a chimpanzee as a member of a family in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. Their alleged goal was to see if they could teach it enough sign language for an interspecies breakthrough. The result? Individual agendas clash, the convenience of the humans quickly supersedes any sense of moral obligation, and we are left with what is simultaneously a sad comedy of errors and a classic example of man’s inhumanity to animals. As a study in human fallibility, Project Nim is fascinating. As for the original wrongheaded experiment? Madness.
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