By David Poland

Wrapping Up Sundance, Pt 1: The Not-Docs

The thing about Sundance is…

It’s not so much about Sundance.

Sundance is still easily the most important film festival in the world for American independents. It is pretty well run. They have pretty good taste. And even the swag shite that journalists love to mock as they try to figure out how to snag a pair of jeans that will make their ass look like J-Lo’s and their chests look like either Scarlett Johansson or Taylor Whomever is not nearly as rampant as it once was.

Documentaries live by a different standard than fictional narrative features. So put them aside for a moment… and…

There were no truly great films at Sundance this year. There was no Amour. No Rust & Bone. No After Lucia. No No, even… even though No was there.

Instead, it was like a really good casino buffet with lobster and caviar and filet mignon, etc, etc, etc… but never quite enough to have a full meal that completely satisfied.

As I spoke to filmmakers, it seemed that many were not only aware of this limitation, but engaging it quite intentionally. This was even more an issue with the docs, but there was a lot of conversation with the features about narrowed goals, not trying for complete perspective so much as an intense view of something very specific.

As I look through the list of 21 non-docs I saw at Sundance this year, I find myself lighting up about about this thing or that in all but one of the films… and I won’t be naming that film. And even that film, which really did not work, has charms that were clear to me, even if they could not sustain the experience for more than 15 seconds at a time when they came.

The Most Complete Film Experiences (in alphabetical order)

Afternoon Delight – I was really taken with this portrait of a woman on the verge. Kathryn Hahn is one of those actresses who spices up all kinds of TV and film, but rarely gets a platform to bring it all together. Here, she does. And what could have easily been a cartoon character, played by Juno Temple, is, for me, Juno’s most accomplished work. There are so many things that Jill Soloway could have written for this stripper with a heart of gold and a complete lack of self-judgement that would have been wrong or could have overly underlined the performance. I really like Josh Radnor’s work too, as a guy who really wants to be a jerk, but can’t quite get there, more comfortable being a decent, if distracted, guy. But it’s the layers and layers of troubles that the Kathryn Hahn character is having that make the movie really work. She is so aware and verbal and connected… yet unable to connect.

Blue Caprice – This is a slow ride to a story with which the audience is somewhat familiar, the long-range murders of motorists is the Northeast a few years ago. The film is not a straight, here-are-the-facts journey. It’s a character piece about a man who is both powerful and weak, strong and broken, definitive and unsure. With him, the young man he would come to call (and think of as) his son. Taking the step of understanding why someone chooses to kill people is a hard one to make when you are dealing with real people and not caricatures. And this film doesn’t let the audience off easily. It really lingered for me.

C.O.G. – Kyle Patrick Alvarez broke out with Easier With Practice a few years ago, but his new film – based on a David Sedaris short story that one does not need to know at all to connect with C.O.G. – is a solid step forward. The story is about a young gay man who leaves the lap of what would be luxury to virtually anyone else, to go experience real life. He and a female friend chose Oregon as the destination… apple country. There is a strong element of Wizard of Oz here, as he encounters characters, each of whom changes his perspective on life in a different way. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, the biggest turns by Denis O’Hare, Corey Stoll, and the delightfully still-kicking Dean Stockwell. Unlike the Oz trio, none of these guys are incomplete… or at least, aware of their incompletions. The Dorothy, as it were, is Jonathan Groff in one of his best movie roles. His character is grounded, even as he searches. There is a lot of basic human stuff in this film. It is funny, but not a comedy. Life-changing, but not a tragedy. I felt like I knew all of these characters… but learned more about each from having the experience.

Stoker – For me, the missed film of Sundance this year. A decade after his American breakthough, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Chan-wook Park is, simply, a master filmmaker. And Stoker, while small, turns every trick you will find in a thriller. The reason I don’t rank it as truly great is that… I don’t know. There is something missing. And I don’t know exactly what it is. Perhaps it is that the central mystery of the film is so key that it doesn’t find room for little surprises the keep sparking the movie along. And once we know the answer to the mystery, things are—while beautifully brought to life—fairly conventional. But great performances, beautiful gags, creppy f-ing ideas. I do kinda love this thing, perhaps even more on second or third view.

The NEXT Most Complete Film Experiences (in alphabetical order)

In A World – Lake Bell’s first feature, writing, directing, AND acting! Wow. As it turns out, I have a close relation who spent decades in the voiceover business, so I recognized a lot of truths, both emotional and functional in the film. I guess the limitation of the film is also the strength. In spite of some touching, heartfelt moments, the film is basically a coming-of-age-late comedy. Lots of laughs. Terrific performances. And Bell, who hired a lot of friends to work on the film, gave many of them a chance to play against the types they so often play. A very enjoyable film.

Kill Your Darlings – Really good performances. An interesting group of real-life characters. Rebellion by smart people is almost always compelling. But for me, what was missing was a “why?” Ultimately, it’s a coming of age film, but for me, watching Allen Ginsberg come of age wasn’t quite enough to thrill overall. In moments, yes. These characters have been around a bit, so there was fun, for instance, watching Jack Huston take on Jack Kerouac. David Cross was a standout as Louis Ginsberg, Allen’s father. And for me, the home-run hitter was Ben Foster as William Burroughs, who not only hit the notes just right, but made a nearly-unbelievable human as he has been portrayed in docs and the like into someone absolutely real, in the moment, and making clear choices. But in the end, the stakes just felt a little low to me.

Prince Avalanche – David Gordon Green does his best Samuel Beckett by way of a North Carolina bbq stand in this 2-man (with a few guest stars) romp in the burnt out woods of small town America. I had a really good time with these guys (Paul Rudd & Emile Hirsch) and was completely happy to spend the time with them. And Lance LeGault, as Truck Driver, will remain one of my favorite movie cameos for years.

S-VHS – I enjoyed the first of these organized compilations, VHS, but the team really stepped up this time to make things tighter, neater, and thus, more enjoyable this time out, though some of the crazy anything-could-happen “authentic” feel of the last one is gone. I’m fine with that. For me, the weakest of the segments was still fine. And it’s actually hard to choose a favorite. There’s a lot of diversity in the stories and no one really overstays their welcome. In the end, it’s not a truly great film because it is a compilation. But it’s a good ride.

The Spectacular Now – There’s a lot to fall for in this elegant little movie. This feels like the movie that would have gotten Shailene Woodley the job in The Dependents and then led to an Oscar win. But timing is everything (and Alexander Payne’s taste is proven great). Miles Teller does his Mini-Duplass best. And really strong work in small parental roles by Jennifer Jason Leigh and, especially, Kyle Chandler. I do wonder whether James Ponsoldt, directing another film in which alcohol is a character, held back from making it more of an issue… or was he just following the script from (500) Day of Summer writers Weber and Neustadter. Not sure. The movie is a win for everyone involved. (Have I mentioned Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred in Ponsoldt’s Smashed, and looking beautiful, but different yet again?)

Touchy Feely – Lynn Shelton’s least comic film has got a lot going on in one little family… perhaps a little too much. I can’t point to anything wrong here, really, while I can point to a lot of good stuff. Cast is great. Intimate interesting issues. Laughs. Drama. But it can’t quite get past the warning track (that’s near the home run fence, for those who don’t get sports metaphors).

The Way Way Back – This is a classic commercial coming-of-age movie that just plain works from top to bottom. And that’s why I don’t have it a step or two higher. Nothing wrong with it. It will be a big summer hit for Fox Searchlight. Collette is always great. Carrell is playing against type and habit. Alison Janney steals every moment from every other actor and then puts moments gently in her back pocket. And of course, Sam Rockwell’s Bill Murray is as unique as Bill Murray’s Bill Murray. The movie occasionally reminds us that it is current day, but it still feels very 1980s. Perhaps it is the water and bathing suits that strip away modern day… or maybe it’s just a lack of iPads and smartphones being used every second of the day. This is a young generation almost all of whose parents are divorced or divorcing. Sex is an option, but not a lightly considered one… at least amongst the kids. The movie it most put me in the mind of was 1979’s California Dreaming with Dennis Christopher as The Boy, Glynnis O’Connor as The Much Smarter Wiser Object of Lust, and Seynour Cassel as The Bill Murray, though it was that same release year in which Meatballs arrived and announced Bill Murray as potential movie material. Paramount released Meatballs mid-summer and AIP released California Dreaming in April. The rest is non-history for my movie. Anyway… Way Way is being released by a major player, not an AIPer, so expect more Meat, less Dreaming. Cult status along the lines of Adventureland with more box office juice.

The Incomplete, But Big Highlight Film Experiences (in alphabetical order)

A Teacher – Lindsay Burdge is a trip. As in the movie, she seems to have a lot going on behind her eyes – God knows what? – and her physicality shifts endlessly between relaxation, disconnection, and cat of a hot tin roof. I’m sure that you can come to understand what’s going on it there, but the challenge of the figuring is part of the charm and the powerfully sensual draw at this point in her career. Meanwhile, the writer/director Burdge collaborated with on this film, Hannah Fidell, is also pretty trippy. Where did she get the idea for this film about a teacher having an affair with a student? Looking at a young boy while she was working a restaurant job. What they came up with – with the support of a solid team in front of and behind the camera – is a very intimate, narrow, intense look at a moment in a woman’s life. It’s never clear how she got there or where she will go after the moment, but the experience felt as real as a friend you’ve known forever telling you about how she really f-ed up bigtime. The film doesn’t feel “mumblecore.” But it does leave you with the feeling like more must be coming.

Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes – Kaya Scodelario makes for a very strong center of this film about a lost young woman and the woman across the way with whom she gets involved. The other woman is Jessica Biel, who is giving a performance inside a performance with some skill. It’s one of those beautifully made films with a crazy-ass premise that makes you wonder whether you are wasting your time, until you find yourself drawn in to the world of the actors again and again.

Escape From Tomorrow – One of the rare hot-after-festival-opening titles, this is the Disney movie you may well have heard about. And in that notion – shooting a significant portion of the film in the Disney theme parks without getting permission – is kinda genius and the subversive nature of that choice is, indeed, inspiring. Unfortunately, the storytelling is all over the map. It is not, as some of the chucklehead media lawyers have presented it, a parody of Disney. Satire about the nature of becoming an adult, parenting, and family vacations is there, but it loses its way early and often. By the “third act” following a faux intermission, it melts into a pile of so-what. But you can’t really deny that there was something there. I am not the first to suggest that this would have been a lot more successful as a short. But it could have been fine as a full-length film. it just needed a couple more really good ideas.

Fruitvale – A completely solid first-time effort from a kid (20soemthing) who was brought under the Sundance wing, based on a real-life story about a terrible act of racial excess against a guy who was by no means a model citizen. Good. Just not a single thing about it that I found new or exceptional. Strong performances. Not as good as Manito, a decade ago.

In Fear – I didn’t love this one, but again, solid acting, reasonable directing, and a premise that could have been something more. But talking to the director, he pretty much went where he meant to be going.

Interior. Leather Bar. – Fascinating piece. It’s not really about recreating Cruising. It’s about the lines people have, for themselves and others. The most flawed part for me is the most overt part… the straight guy being freaked out by what’s surrounding him. But still, a lot of interesting material here and the feeling of that discomfort and the pushing of buttons really works well.

Sweetwater – I was surprised by this film. Basically, it is a glorious scenery-chewing contest between Ed Harris and Jason Issacs. For me, that is plenty enough to get me to watch a film. But it’s also got dome interesting direction and some real fun supporting performances. It is a bit of a deconstructed western, a bit feminist, and often right at the edge of (or over) the line of silly. Much more of a SXSW movie. I hope it lands there and gets more love than it got in Park City.

Upstream Color – Shane Carruth is back and breaking up is hard to do. The film is art. I’m good with art. But I would be happier if the audience was actually invited into the work just a little. I don’t feel confused by the work. I just felt, after a while, like we were working the same Mad Lib sentence over and over and over until the pleasure of all the artistry was gone.

We Are What We Are – A daring and beautiful piece of genre filmmaking. And then, when the time comes to take us someplace truly unexpected. the film throws out it entire set-up and demands that the audience rationalizes the stupid ending. I’m not saying that the big late twist isn’t a potentially great choice. I am just saying that here, it made me want to smack this very talented filmmaker in the back of the head. Usually it’s the ending that saves sloppy set-up. Here, it buried my excitement of what seemed to be a whole different, layered, complex, unanticipated third act. Turd in the bowl of what had been delicious punch.

(Part 2: The Docs to come)

One Response to “Wrapping Up Sundance, Pt 1: The Not-Docs”

  1. Keil S. says:

    Did you see Before Midnight? If so, what are your thoughts on it?

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima