By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Dispatch: It’s a Wrap

Another Sundance Film Festival has wrapped, and I have to say, it was a helluva good year to be in Park City. The logistical nightmare of the P&I line the first five or so days of the fest was a serious pain in the ass, but overall I’d have to say this year’s Sundance programming was one of the strongest I’ve seen.

Maybe I just got lucky and cherry-picked the better films purely by chance, but overall consensus among my fairly broad circle of P&I friends and colleagues was that it was a very strong year indeed, so I don’t think I’m just being a cheap date when I say I came away from the fest feeling very positive about what I saw there. I did talk to a couple of notable contrarians who felt it wasn’t that great a year at Park City, but then again, these particular folks never seem to think there are any good films at Sundance, so I tend to take their opinions with a sizable heaping of the proverbial salt. That said, here’s a wrap-up of the last few films I caught at the fest but haven’t yet written about.

The Off Hours is what we call a “deliberately paced” film, about a waitress who works the night shift at a run-down diner. And I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s just that if I were recommending this movie to a friend, it would be with the caveat that this is one of those films that — kind of like life in general — you have to be willing to stick it out with through the slow bits. And if you do stick around, it’s not the kind of film that ever has the grand emotionally manipulative payoff moment set to soaring violin strings.

The Off Hours is quiet, and complicated in the drawing of the relationships, but not emotionally manipulative in the least. We’re simply observing these unhappy people in this sad little diner on these particular days of their lives; Tolstoy would have loved this bunch.

Francine (Amy Seimetz) has been working the night shift at the diner off and on for 12 years — far too long now to pretend she’s just doing it until something better comes her way. Nothing better will ever come her way so long as she stays in the rut she’s in, but she hasn’t the courage to even see that there might be something better out there for her. So instead, she writes another chapter in lher long history of acting out sexually, tumbling into bed (or dirty bar or diner bathrooms) with any fellow who shows an interest. It’s not the safest way to get a litte love, but when you don’t love yourself you’ll take what you can get, and that seems to be the relentless beat that underscores Francine’s sexuality; you can almost hear the little voice in her head that whispers, “You don’t deserve better than this.”

Writer-director Megan Griffiths seamlessly weaves the complexity and depth of her characters into and around Francine’s story, from Corey (Scoot McNairy), the foster brother with whom she shares and apartment and a tumultuous, complicated relationship to Ty, Corey’s friend who provides comfort in the form of regular sex, if not stability or commitment. Jelena (Gergana Mellin), the other waitress at the diner, is so wonderfully complex herself that I could have watched an entire movie just about her and her own revolving-door relationships with the diner’s male patrons. And Seattle actor Tony Doupe, excellent here, brings honesty and weight to Stu, Francine’s boss/one-time lover, a talented, depressed sad-sack of an artist whose alcoholism and bad decisions have destroyed his marriage to Danielle (Lynn Shelton, also terrific in a small role) and his relationship with his teenage daughter.

The most morally complicated relationship in The Off Hours begins when Oliver (Ross Partridge), a former banker who turned truck driver when he got laid off, begins making the diner a regular stop on his route and befriends Francine. Oliver’s married with a pair of cute kids and seems to have a solid relationship with his wife (Humpday’s Alycia Delmore), and an affair with Francine is the last thing either of them needs. Somehow, though, each of them brings something that the other needs that, in the end, allows them to find their path.

The press notes indicate that Griffiths developed this project over a seven-year period, and the time spent developing these characters into real people shows. The pacing of the film, I expect, is an intentional reflection of the way life slows down when you’re working the night shift; if you’ve ever been on a late-night road trip, or stayed up all night with a sick kid in the emergency room, or worked the night shift yourself, you’ll appreciate how well Griffiths captures that sense of time’s feet being stuck in quicksand, of minutes lulling away into endless hours.

The Off Hours is a very well done indie film, but in a Sundance crowded with solid films didn’t seem to quite pull attention from other buzz films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Like Crazy and Pariah. It’s an artful entry, though, in the genre of what I would call the “later in life coming of age tale” ala The Lie and even The Future, which seemed to be a thread of a theme throughout this year’s Sundance. If you missed it, it’s worth another look, and I hope it gets renewed life at some other fests, maybe SXSW or Seattle.

Speaking of Like Crazy, I was all set to write about that film at Sundance, but it sold quickly so I moved it to the bottom of my list in order to focus on those films that hadn’t yet sold that could maybe use the attention. But I would like to note here that I enjoyed Like Crazy way more than I thought I was going to when it started.

There’s nothing particularly spectacular or original about the storyline, which involves the relationship between Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), a British student attending college in LA. The pair fall head-over-sweet-little-heels in love, Anna overstays her student visa (This is apparently a very bad idea that the US takes Very. Seriously. Who knew?), and this causes the pair to be separated when she’s not allowed to return to the US after a brief visit home.

Now, to be honest, I had my moments of impatience with this story and the characters, particularly with Jacob, who for all that he says he loves Anna, won’t just pick up and relocate his fledgling furniture design business to London so he can be with her. It’s not like people in the U.K. don’t need custom-designed furniture as much as those in L.A., nor is it a situation where he’s been established in business in LA for 20 years — he opens his business right as the whole kerfuffle over Anna’s visa happens. But I suppose if he’d just up and relocated, we wouldn’t have much of a story here, would we?

So Anna and Jacob yearn for each other, and over the next few years start and stop and start and stop their relationship across the miles, waiting for Anna’s visa situation to be resolved — or for Jacob to get his priorities in order and go to her. It’s a sweet enough story, and a big improvement in my book over writer/director Drake Doremus’s previous film, Douchebag, but it is largely buoyed by very strong performances and some fantastic chemistry between the two leads. This is one case where the casting plays a huge role in how well the film plays to an audience — Yelchin and Jones are simply charming, their performances soulful and sweet and longing, and you can’t help but want things to work out for them. Like Crazy sold early in the fest to Paramount, so depending how they play the release, you should end up being able to see this one.

One of my favorite films of Sundance 2011, Perfect Sense, was thankfully picked up by IFC toward the end of the fest, so with any luck you’ll be able to see it as well. This lovely, artfully conceived and designed film is an apocalyptic fable about what happens when everyone on the planet loses their senses, one at a time. The first to go is smell, then taste, and so on … each loss of a sense is preceded by a specific, profound and overwhelming emotional reaction.

At the center of the tale is a love story between Ewan MacGregor’s chef and Eva Green’s epidemiologist, who represent a microcosm of interpersonal relationships at the eye of the pandemic storm. Danish writer Kim Fupz Aakeson (who also wrote the screenplays for En Soap and A Somewhat Gentle Man) and director David Mackenzie have woven together an thoughtful tale that’s at once intimate and universal in its thematic elements. It’s simply lovely.

One other narrative that deserves a mention here is Submarine, which along with Aza Jacob’s excellent Terri was the coming-of-age insulin to the diabetic coma caused by the overly precious Homework. Submarine was described to me as “if Harold and Maude met in high school,” and that’s pretty much spot-on. You know from the opening shots of the film that you are in excellent hands as director Richard Ayoade guides you through his beautifully rendered tale about Oliver (Craig Roberts) and his relationship with the darkish, complicated Jordana (Yasmin Page). This one was picked up by the Weinsteins at Toronto, so with any luck you’ll get to see it sometime in the coming year or so (the Weinsteins also picked up Dirty Girl at Toronto, and the pair of films would make a great little coming-of-age double feature).

On the docs side of things, I wanted to mention a couple films that I hadn’t gotten around to writing about. Life in a Day seemed like an artsy-cute project with very dicey potential for actually being good: The idea was to have people around the world shoot footage of their lives on one day, July 24, 2010, and submit it through YouTube. Over 4,500 hours of footage had to be culled through, and the end result actually feels as though director Kevin Macdonald has successfully curated a cinematic time capsule that captures what it was like to be alive in 2010. Macdonald managed to find the narrative threads buried in the stories to tie it all together, and the end result is surprisingly touching and emotional. It’s still more gimmicky “project” than “film” for me, but it’s certainly a gimmick worth watching and connecting to. I liked it way more than I expected to, and maybe its imagery will resonate for you as well.

On the other hand, I was less than enamored of Miss Representation, for all that I liked what a lot of the subjects had to say. Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom doesn’t seem like she really knows what she’s trying to say with this doc. Is it about media and girls’ body image? Women in politics? Gender relations? There’s just too many bits and pieces here that tend by the end to feel like Newsom flung a bunch of stories at the screen, hoping to see what would stick, and while there’s a lot that’s relevant in the bits and pieces there’s just no cohesive line to follow.

Also, Newsom weaves herself into the story at the beginning and the end and narrates a lot rather than just letting her subjects tell their stories, so the whole thing feels more contrived than organic in how it comes together. I admittedly have a thing against docs in which the director becomes the subject, unless it’s for a very good reason (see: Exit Through the Gift Shop or even Winnebago Man). Here, it’s not necessary and becomes annoying.

Further, the film completely lacks any perspective from the other side; there’s lots of footage of half-naked, writing models and dancers and actresses, but not a single interview from any of them discussing why they feel the need to objectify themselves or if they even see it as a problem. I wanted this to be a much better film. There’s enough good footage in interviews here that it could probably be cut into a stronger end result, but that’s unlikely at this point to happen. I did like Rachel Maddow’s interview, though, so thanks for that bit.

What do David Mamet, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a Jupiter colonization organization and short wave radio broadcasts have in common? Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, perhaps the most intriuging doc I saw at Sundance, follows Justin Duerr, a young artist who becomes entranced by the mysterious “Toynbee Tiles,” messages embedded in asphault in cities in the US and South American, as he attempts to get to the bottom of the Toynbee tiles, a journey that will take him into a dizzying black hole of conspiracy theory and misdirection.

Resurrect Dead won filmmaker Jon Foy the Best Director prize in the US Documentary competition at Sundance. It’s a trippy little doc that kept me engaged in its story even at the end of the fest, when I was starting to feel wiped out.

That’s it for Sundance 2011, folks. A solid year of excellent programming, which means, among other things, that our expectations for John Cooper and the programming team have been upped significantly. Not to put too much pressure on the programming team, which did a crackerjack job this year, but if you folks could just keep raising the bar from here, that would be great.

See you in Park City next year!

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“We now have a situation where audiences very often prefer commercial trash to Bergman’s Persona or Bresson’s L’Argent. Professionals find themselves shrugging, and predicting that serious, significant works will have no success with the general public. What is the explanation? Decline of taste or impoverishment of repertoire? Neither and both. It is simply that cinema now exists, and is evolving, under new conditions. That total, enthralling impression which once overwhelmed the audiences of the 1930s was explained by the universal delight of those who were witnessing and rejoicing over the birth of a new art form, which furthermore had recently acquired sound. By the very fact of its existence this new art, which displayed a new kind of wholeness, a new kind of image, and revealed hitherto unexplored areas of reality, could not but astound its audiences and turn them into passionate enthusiasts.

Less than twenty years now separate us from the twenty-first century. In the course of its existence, through its peaks and troughs, cinema has travelled a long and tortuous path. The relationship that has grown up between artistic films and the commercial cinema is not an easy one, and the gulf between the two becomes wider every day. Nonetheless, films are being made all the time that are undoubtedly landmarks in the history of cinema. Audiences have become more discerning in their attitude to films. Cinema as such long ago ceased to amaze them as a new and original phenomenon; and at the same time it is expected to answer a far wider range of individual needs. Audiences have developed their likes and dislikes. That means that the filmmaker in turn has an audience that is constant, his own circle. Divergence of taste on the part of audiences can be extreme, and this is in no way regrettable or alarming; the fact that people have their own aesthetic criteria indicates a growth of self-awareness.

Directors are going deeper into the areas which concern them. There are faithful audiences and favorite directors, so that there is no question of thinking in terms of unqualified success with the public—that is, if one is talking about cinema not as commercial entertainment but as art. Indeed, mass popularity suggests what is known as mass culture, and not art.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky, “Sculpting In Time”

“People seem to be watching [fewer] movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. It’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. He’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.”
~ Homemakers‘ Colin Healey On Indie Distribution