Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Sundance 2012 Roundup 

The Surrogate *****
This film is based on the autobiographical writings of journalist, poet and polio victim Mark O'Brien. At age 38, O’Brien decided it was time to lose his virginity, but recognizing that this was going to be a challenge for a man largely unable to move his body and housebound in an iron lung for most of each day, he elected to engage a sexual surrogate.

This is a brave, bold film that goes head-on with a tough subject and makes it work. The Surrogate does this largely by dint of a fantastic cast all firing on all cylinders, particularly John Hawkes (as O’Brien), Helen Hunt (Cheryl Cohen Greene, the surrogate), Bill Macy (O’Brien’s confessor) and Moon Bloodgood (Vera, his nurse). Filmgoers who saw Hawkes’ riveting performance as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone (2011) will be blown away by the contrast to his portrayal of Mark O’Brien and will be left asking themselves, “Is there nothing John Hawkes cannot do?” Answer: probably not.

The Impostor *****
Oh, what a ride. Cross Man on Wire (2008) with Unknown White Male (2005) and you might have some sense of what this documentary is about. This is a plot beyond simple summary, but let’s give it a go: a young teen boy disappeared in Texas only to turn up several years later in Linares, Spain. Only that can’t be possible, right? The Imposter is largely narrated by the imposter himself, as well as by the family that swore he was their missing son and brother. Why would a family insist this young person was their son, when so many warning signs seemed present from the outset? Why did the US government patriate him to the US? Why did the FBI go along? What motives are involved?

Twists and turns abound and you’re not likely to ever know where it’s all going next. Fascinating.

The Ambassador ****1/2
Speaking of unusual documentaries, The Ambassador is right up there. Danish investigative journalist Mads Brügger learned that African nations sell diplomatic status (for a pretty penny). So he bought himself the post of Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic. The CAR is, incidentally, a country without a functional government. What it DOES have is a lot of diamonds. Tragicomedy ensues as Brügger struts about sporting riding boots and a cigarette holder, wheeling and dealing with shady characters from all over the world, and trying to do what any other white man would do in the CAR: build a bogus match factory, acquire a pair of pygmy sidekicks, buy some blood diamonds…and get out alive. It must be seen to be believed.

Your Sister's Sister ****1/2
The simplest plot summary of Your Sister’s Sister would be to say that this is a story of what happens to a guy (mumblecore master Mark Duplass) when his best friend (Emily Blunt, escapee from Hollywood) accidentally throws him together with her sister (the always fierce Rosemarie Dewitt). Naturally, there is some rivalry as well as some attraction.

There are plenty of other relevant details one might share, but I think this is a film best seen with zero expectations because it’s not going to go where you expect it to go. In fact, writer/director Lynne Shelton seems to be specializing in just that kind of film. Her last Sundance effort was Humpday (2009), a gloriously edgy, loose comedy. She returned this year with a film that not only maintained the best parts of what the Seattle scene’s process (building films through structured improvisation) frequently delivers, but Your Sister’s Sister adds a significantly greater sense of maturity and groundedness. The result feels loose and free without actually feeling improvised. You would be forgiven for thinking there was a script.

Safety Not Guaranteed ****
A number of years ago, an advertisement appeared in a survivalist magazine which read, “Wanted: someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid when we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Using this actual event as a jumping off point, screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow tell the story of jerky journalist Jeff Schwensen (Jake M. Johnson) and his emo intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) who set off to find Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), author of the ad, and determine just precisely how nuts he is.

Once found, Kenneth may or may not be sane, but he certainly appears determined to return to his past and right a (very romantic) wrong. Darius follows along gamely trying to determine what’s really going on until she, like the audience, begins to hope against hope that somehow Kenneth can achieve some form of satisfaction regardless of whether or not he can actually achieve time travel.

This slightly comic, but largely straight role is quite a departure for Duplass and it’s his commitment to it that ultimately holds this film together. Despite the rickety nature of the script, the hard work of Duplass and the natural charisma of Plaza (with a tremendous assist from the production team) ultimately had Sundance audiences cheering at the film’s finale. I’ve rarely heard such unbridled enthusiasm.

The Invisible War ****
A simple and straightforward documentary can sometimes pack quite a wallop. The Invisible War reveals an awful truth in the starkest terms: the US military, US military justice system and the US courts treat rape by one’s fellow soldier as a form of friendly fire. Worse, because the military is comprised of men and women who are taught to value violence, the culture tolerates not simply the horror of forcible penetration, but breaking the victims’ bodies into pieces while being raped. Inevitably, as in cultures that tolerate rape, it is the victims who are blamed; often with the outrageous charge of adultery if their assailant was married!

Fortunately, despite its painful subject matter, the film is entirely watchable. It spares us lengthy re-enactments and focuses on the testimony of the victims, combined with data (all extracted from government reports) that make manifest the scale of the problem that needs to be addressed. Even more fortunately, the filmmakers, both in the end credits and via Twitter and their website are working to allow interested viewers to actively support the victims our country has so terribly betrayed. Thank God.

Queen of Versailles ****
The shortest review of this film would be “OMG!” And it would be an appropriate one. Lauren Greenfield began to document timeshare mogul David Siegel and his trophy wife Jackie’s process of commissioning and building the largest home in the United States of America, both modeled and named after Versailles.

What follows is the most strange and alienating Greek tragedy I have ever witnessed. You see Siegel’s parents were Vegas gambling losers and Siegel made his fortune (most recently in Las Vegas!) selling timeshares, effectively a variant on a sub-prime mortgage, to folks much like his parents. When the market crashed, partway into the making of the movie, so did the Siegels’ fortune.

From there on out, their lives and household fall apart much in the way the rest of America did. It’s the American national economic tragedy writ small in the sense that it’s about what happens to one family and simultaneously writ large because of the incredible scale of that family’s spending habits.

The Atomic States of America ****
You really don’t want to know what this film has to tell you, but you really do need to hear and learn what it has to say: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now totally controlled by the nuclear energy industry. And America’s nuclear plants are aging. And, much like Fukushima, they are built in the wrong places. P.S. – they leak hazardous waste nearly every year. P.P.S. – they’re 30-40 years old. YIKES.

The good news here is that people have taken action, lives have been (and still can be) improved, and there’s more we can do. See it and learn about what you might want to do.

Robot & Frank ****
You’ve never seen this film before. That’s because it takes place in the very near future.

In the near future, if your parent needs a home healthcare aid, you can buy them a robot. And that’s precisely what Hunter (James Marsden) does for his father, Frank (Frank Langella), whose memory is fading fast.

Predictably, Frank doesn’t want a home healthcare aid robot. He wants his independence. But he begins to discover that his robot (voiced by Peter Saarsgard) has a very unexpected set of values and that he might use that to find a kind of freedom he had not anticipated. Funny, sad, improbable, and also totally captivating.

Under African Skies ****
Twenty-five years later, Paul Simon finally confronts the ghosts of his masterwork album Graceland, which he broke the UN cultural embargo on South Africa to make. The movie offers the opportunity to hear several sides of the story; to meet the musicians then and now; and to witness Simon’s first real attempt to make peace with Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid, and a key member of the ANC. A must for Simon fans, and still very interesting for those who are not particularly, but are interested in the intersection of art, culture, music and politics.

Love Free or Die ****
If you don’t already know and love the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, this is your chance. If you do, here’s a great opportunity to spend more time with him. For me, they had me at “Gene Robinson.”

Young & Wild ***1/2
In Chile, a young teen in an evangelical family authored a blog called (in translation) youngandwild.blogspot.com (jovenyalocada) which broadcast to the world her intense and myriad sexual activities of which her family was unaware. Director Marialy Rivas decided to turn the story of that blog into a movie. Amazingly, it works far better than you might have imagined.

The film is extremely explicit (it would never get anything less than an NC-17), heartfelt, and formally inventive. Rivas’ techniques for visualizing Internet interactions and emotional states are original and constantly engaging. Despite its graphic sexuality, this is really an existential story of love: how both religious believers and non-believers struggle to make meaning within the same mysterious universe where both the feeling of love and those people we love are prey to disappearing at any minute.

Sleepwalk With Me ***1/2
Comedian and off-Broadway hitmaker Mike Birbiglia has translated his first one-man show into a charming ensemble comedy. For those who don’t already know, Birbiglia suffers from a disorder that leaves him vulnerable to extremely dangerous episodes of sleepwalking, especially when his life gets stressful. Naturally, his rise to success as a standup comedian, paired with his stop/start progress towards engagement and potential marriage creates a lot of stress.

(FYI, for those who have already seen the stage show: it’s a little odd the first time you hear the protagonist called Matt Panamiglio, not Mike Birbiglia. Birbiglia shared in the Q&A that he felt it was better to change the names of the characters because once fleshed out by other actors, e.g., Carol Kane as his mother, the characters clearly evolved rather far from the actual people in his life.)

The House I Live In ***
Binding together both personal (from Eugene Jarecki’s own life) and historical strands, The House I Live In helps us to understand how and why so many Americans have been jailed during the War on Drugs without any lessening of the ills our aggressive system of drug prosecution was meant to address.

Jarecki starts out with the story of his childhood housekeeper and the effect of drugs and the drug war on her family. Then he expands out to follow the young offenders who receive startling sentences due to mandatory minimums, a judge who is forced to impose draconian penalties, and a prison guard who ends up as the custodian of a warehouse of lost souls. Along the way, he finds some great talking heads, including a Lincoln biographer who emerges as the voice of justice, to help us to better understand the origins of the drug war and where it went awry.

Eugene Jarecki has a wonderful mind and is a very compelling filmmaker. Why We Fight (2005) was an extraordinary example of what he can do. I expected to give this film five stars (or at least four), but I found that The House I Live In really did not bind all of its various theses together until the last 20 minutes (at which point, I found it extremely powerful). With a careful edit, abbreviating some stories and deepening others, I think it could pack a real wallop.

Slavery By Another Name **
This is a story that must be told: not until 1942 did slavery truly end in the United States. Hard to believe for some, but the historical evidence is available for those who want to know. Unfortunately, the important information contained in this film (based on a book of the same title) clarifying what actually transpired for African Americans post-Emancipation is clouded by hokey re-enactments and a repetitive narrative style. Edited down to its core, this documentary might be useful in schools; most adults, however, will grow impatient. I sincerely hope someone else eventually tells this story more effectively. Americans need to know. In the meantime, a far better film on a related unwritten history of US slavery is Traces of the Trade (2008).

We're Not Broke **
This documentary focuses on the tax shelters and havens which enable US-headquartered multinationals to avoid paying any significant US taxes. This is a shame indeed. Unfortunately, this earnest film is not particularly insightful about the issue and suggests no real path to solution. It wants to be a call to action, but I fear it’s simply preaching to the choir.

My Best Day *
A rickety endeavor from start to finish, My Best Day is one of those films where the ingredients thrown into the mix (a small town lesbian community, separated half-sisters, refrigerator repair, a nerdy younger brother, a Latino police officer, and a father who came out late in life) simply refuse to gel into a meaningful narrative. Better luck next time.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?