18 January 2012

Viewing Journal: Week of Sundance

Wasn't planning to go this year, but it turns out that my next-door neighbor (in Oxnard! not even L.A.) is in the film business, and is also the mother of the kid who played the lead role in Fido, which now that I look that film up again I see that her son was arrested last October for breaking into a Verizon store, which I guess will give us something to talk about on the 12-hour drive to Utah. (I'm flying back.) Anyway. She's giving me a free place to stay, so I'm heading out for a long weekend to see Antonio Campos' Simon Killer plus whatever else I can get into without a press badge. Should be spending a whole lot of time standing in rush lines, so I'll try to kill some of it by writing up drive-bys on my phone. Nothing this week 'til then, probably; I like to take a pre-fest breather.

  • The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield): 61. More than just schadenfreude—watching billionaires struggle to make payments after their source of imaginary money has disappeared simply magnifies the average American's financial self-delusion to unimaginable proportions, thereby allowing us to perceive that we're not blameless. A far more trenchant and illuminating view of the lending crisis than was a self-righteous screed like Inside Job; can't help but feel, though, that Greenfield often throws her subjects under the bus to serve her emerging thesis. No question that there's often a staggering lack of self-awareness in the Siegel household, but the degree to which Jackie and David metamorphose from nouveau-riche cartoons to recognizable human beings as their fortunes fall suggests a lot of early deck-stacking via selective editing. I'm still genuinely upset about the lizard, though.

  • Simon Killer (Antonio Campos): 47. Confirms Campos as a world-class filmmaker, this time with an emphasis on jarring rhythm rather than creeping stasis; multiple cuts took my breath away, especially during the generally excellent "first act" (for lack of a better designation), featuring Simon alone. Once women are introduced, however, the film makes a hugely disappointing nosedive into indie cliché, subdivision Ineffectual Masculinity As Steadily Mounting Horror Show. For a while, I thought Campos might have coincidentally made the same arresting gambit that Petzold does in Beats Being Dead, and was prepared to bemoan his unlucky timing...but no, it's just that one damn movie again, lightly sprinkled with the same flashback-ambiguity that I considered a minor weak point in Afterschool. Corbet's performance in the title role may be the sticking point for many; I was underwhelmed, but again, that's largely because I've seen this character way too many times now. Apart from the student-abroad aspect, there's just nothing distinctive here. It very much feels, I'm immensely sorry to say, like a typical "dark" Sundance movie. Chalk it up to sophomore slump; I'm still excited for the next one.

  • Celeste & Jesse Forever (Lee Toland Krieger): W/O. Painfully unfunny sitcom-style portrait of a dysfunctional breakup, with only one joke/observation: they can't stop being best friends long enough to get over each other. Having endured that precise situation (for about a year), I can confidently say this film gets nothing about it right. Samberg in particular seems utterly lost trying to be ordinary.

  • Compliance (Craig Zobel): 53. Amazingly, disturbingly persuasive on a moment-to-moment basis—I'd read extensively about the real-life event(s), hence knew everything that was coming, but seeing it play out in something not too far removed from real time still packed a Milgramesque wallop. Even before the insanity begins, Zobel excels at capturing the mundane details of e.g. fast-food management, abetted (if that's le mot juste—some clearly think so) by a phenomenal cast of pitch-perfect barely-knowns, especially Ann Dowd as the heartbreakingly gullible store manager. The decision to eventually make "Officer Daniels" more than a voice on the phone, however, was horribly misguided, and suggests, along with the damp squib of an ending, that Zobel never really worked out what the point of dramatizing this story was. I understand the impulse to avoid the appearance of a "twist" (which was Zobel's response when questioned after the screening), but there were plenty of ways to achieve that without compromising the restrictive POV; giving the audience more information than the ChickWich employees undermines any ostensible purpose this movie could claim to have. Score is problematic, too, goosing the viewer in ways that are entirely counterproductive (and strengthening the charge of the very pissed-off woman at the back of the Library who kept shouting "Violence against women is not entertainment!"). Just incredibly muddled, really. I feel roughly equal parts admiration and repulsion. But seriously: Ann Dowd. She wipes the mat with Margo Martindale, and I don't say that lightly.

  • For Ellen (So Yong Kim): 36. Hammers the same doleful note for an hour and a half, to truly numbing effect. Imagine a more depressive version of Clean, minus the drug abuse (just general irresponsibility), with Paul Dano at his most recessive in lieu of Maggie Cheung and a kid who's so determinedly anti-precocious that her blank monosyllables come across just as phony as "The human head weighs eight pounds!" or whatever. Lengthy interlude with Jon Heder as Dano's dork of an attorney had me hoping the film might just abandon its child-custody plot and go somewhere wholly unexpected, but false alarm. This particular strain of low-key indie is really starting to calcify; even the "spontaneous" ending feels pre-programmed, as formulaic in its way as having everyone onscreen applaud on our behalf as boy and girl finally kiss.

  • Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs): 49. Writing about Weekend, I expressed my desire to see a gay romance in which homosexuality was taken for granted; now I see that I should have added "and neither one is a drug addict." Sachs does a fine job of fictionalizing what by all accounts is an intensely autobiographical story—nothing like giving your alter ego a different national origin to create some productive distance—but he skimps badly on the dude who broke his heart, allowing him to remain a beautiful cipher with a crack pipe (and confirming yet again that all addicts are tedious in exactly the same way). It's significant, and dispiriting, that we learn a great deal about Erik's filmmaking career—which implausibly has one of his docs opening commercially at the Quad within weeks of its Rotterdam premiere; weird that Sachs would muff a detail like that—but nothing whatsoever about Paul's apparently high-pressure job...or anything about Paul, really, apart from his habit and his cocksmanship. Given that the movie covers nine years of their relationship, that's remarkably ungenerous, even allowing for the fact that we're seeing everything through Erik's eyes. Appealing performance by Thure Lindhardt, who's like a cuddlier Rutger Hauer, and lovely use of natural light streaming through windows are the main attractions here.

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin): 62. As singular as advertised, fashioning a mythological community out of flotsam and jetsam both physical and cultural. Because I walked in cold, the first 20-25 minutes were thrillingly disorienting; the thought seemed bizarre when it occurred to me, but reading reviews I see I'm not the only one who felt he was watching a more fundamentally faithful adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are than was Jonze's. Consequently, the moment when it became clear that The Bathtub = The Ninth Ward was a bit of a letdown. The more the movie veered into blatant allegory, the more I found myself retreating to distant admiration, and later episodes—the escape from the government refugee camp; the floating brothel—feel comparatively underimagined, mere pit stops en route to that stunning final shot. But visions this unique and arresting don't come along nearly often enough for me to get too bogged down in dramaturgical nitpicking. Beasts isn't wholly successful, but I can't imagine there's a film here this year that's so unmistakably mandatory viewing.

  • Young & Wild (Marialy Rivas): 62. Marveled throughout at the visually inventive and scarily accurate integration of social media, only learning afterward that the film was in fact adapted from an anonymously-written Chilean blog. Its rallying cry for the libido and distaste for fundamentalism skew too simplistic even for me, and narrative aspects are predictably weak (based on real life or not, the beatific cancer victim only exists to provide gravity for the ending), but lead actress Alicia Luz Rodríguez infuses Daniela with a watchful stillness that beautifully complements Rivas' hypertextual portrait of the adolescent female mind at work. As far as the latter is concerned, it's possible that I'll look back in a few years and find that I was overly impressed by the attention to detail—a tiny italicized "Sailor Moon is writing" during IM chat, as we stare at the intended recipient staring at her computer—but movies have so far whiffed that aspect of modern life so badly that right now it's bracing just to see it done right. The com-box on Daniela's blog alone is potentially worth the price of admission.

  • Corpo celeste (Alice Rohrwacher): 41. Really, NYFF? (Makes sense for recent Fortnight.) A little girl who gets her first period on the day she's to be confirmed? Visual correlation between a crucifix that falls off a truck into the sea and a bunch of newborn kittens tossed into a reservoir before our sensitive protag's horrified eyes? Doggedly sticking to a single character's POV except for a brief stretch when that becomes inconvenient? Béla Tarr blowing-trash follow-shot? (I asked Rohrwacher politely about this in the Q&A, leaning hard on the word "homage"; she claims she only saw Sátántangó afterwards.) The freakin' symbolic mid-film haircut?!? Well-intentioned and not completely without merit—the lead actress nicely underplays Marta's burgeoning sense of self, and the bit where she fondles Jesus on the cross in a way that could be reverential, sexual or both is a keeper—but this is ND/NF material all the way, mildly promising at best.

  • V/H/S (Adam Wingard/David Bruckner/Ti West/Glenn McQuaid/Joe Swanberg/Radio Silence): 52. The usual mixed bag, exacerbated in this case by the fact that three of the six filmmakers came up with the same basic shocking twist. By far the best of the lot is Bruckner's "Amateur Night," which tosses one deeply unnerving element into a cacophony of frathouse badinage; it's as if, say, those little girls from The Shining suddenly turned up in the middle of Swingers, and were somehow perceived as perfectly normal. (Great ending, too, especially if it was inspired by the viral video I think it was.) Swanberg's segment boasts a strong gimmick (Skype) and an interesting dynamic between its two leads, but suffers from its ultimate similarity to West's segment, in which Swanberg stars. (Was there no conversation about this?) McQuaid squanders the film's sole idea that's actually intrinsic to the VHS format; Radio Silence look as if they could construct one hell of a haunted-house carnival ride; Wingard's dopey wraparound piece has no purpose save to impose a structure where none is needed. Apart from the last, though, every short is at least a little creepy, so I can't imagine horror aficionados being too disappointed.

  • Pursuit of Loneliness (Laurence Thrush): 71. Off-putting title doesn't do justice to this gorgeously shot black-and-white reverie, which somehow embodies the paradox of a scripted Wiseman doc. (Specifically, Hospital, which Thrush confirmed as a major influence when I asked him during the Q&A.) It's an unsparing portrait of what it means to die alone, yet it's utterly devoid of pathos, focusing almost exclusively on the banal routines of various caregivers and functionaries—each of whom comes across as a warm, caring, perfectly lovely individual even as she (it's mostly women) maintains the necessary diffidence required for a job that confronts mortality on a daily basis. If not for the consistently stunning compositions, you could often swear you were watching a documentary, so skilled are the film's non-actors at recreating aspects of their profession; there's a unstudied nonchalance to every interaction that's far more plangent—to me, at least—than conventional grieving would have been. Not entirely sure about the occasional flashbacks, which do tug a little more traditionally at the heartstrings (though I loved the Jehovah's Witness visit and its strategic use of the door's peephole, which pays off big later on), and the coda, which shifts to another patient, is a tad ad infinitum for my taste. But this was still the most accomplished, and by far the most unexpectedly terrific (I actively tried to dump my ticket, fearing a dreary downer) film that I caught at this year's fest, and Thrush, whose previous feature (Left Handed) I haven't seen, could potentially be a major talent. A nice note to head home on.


    Anonymous said...

    I really want to see "Compliance." I remember discussing that situation at length many moons ago on an internet forum. It's such a weird story that opens up a whole pandora's box re: menial jobs and their whole "the customer is always right" mentality. I then semi-forgot about it until this movie popped up.

    Zack said...

    Saw COMPLIANCE today, and I have this to ask you: Dude, how are you always right?

    Anthony said...

    Saw COMPLIANCE today, and I have this to ask you: Dude, how are you always right?