Sundance Recap: Days 6 through 8

It’s a little surprising that as the Sundance Film Festival has started to wind down for some people, the movies have just gotten better and better, and we’re thrilled we’ve found a lot of nice surprises amongst the movies that were barely on our radar a week ago.

The best film we’ve seen in the last couple days is Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate, based on the true life story of Mark O’Brien, a San Francisco poet who had been stricken by polio for most of his life, forcing him to be hooked up to a respirator. In Lewin’s film, he’s played by John Hawkes, and at the age of 39, he’s still a virgin and decides to do something about it by hiring a sex therapist, played by Helen Hunt. Yeah, it doesn’t sound like the most enticing premise for a movie, but Hawkes really sells this character, delivering O’Brien’s witty quips in a way that you quickly forget that you’re watching a man who is almost entirely immobile. (Best reference is probably Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside.) The film essentially cuts between Mark’s sessions with the sex therapist–there’s a LOT of Helen Hunt nudity, for those “Mad About You” fans frustrated by the stringent TV censors–with Mark taking to his Catholic priest played by William H. Macy, who becomes his uniikely confidante as Mark tries to come to terms with what he’s doing. The film is deeply heartwarming and also quite romantic with many funny moments, particularly Macy’s reactions to the stories he’s being told by Mark, as well as some funny bits with his caretaker, played by Moon Bloodgood, glammed down in glasses and a ponytail. By the time it gets to the ending, you’re likely to be close to tears, because it’s that kind of movie, and though the film’s buyer Fox Searchlight may have a hard time getting people into theaters to see it, those who do will certainly tell everyone they know about it.

One of the nicest surprises at this year’s Sundance has to be Michael Mohan’s Save the Date, a comedy vehicle for Mean Girls star Lizzy Caplan as an artist going through man troubles as her musician boyfriend (Geoffrey Arend) proposes to her, she freaks out and dumps him, just in time for Mark Webber to swoop in and make his move, only to experience similar commitment issues. All this is happening as her sister Becky, played by Alison Brie, prepares for her wedding day to Lizzy’s former boyfriend’s bandmate. Got all that? It’s actually not that complicated but it does deal with a lot of complex matters when it comes to affairs of the heart and relationships, both with family and lovers. Caplan is terrific in a role that may have gone to Kat Dennings or Zooey Deschanel, and it’s also great seeing the likes of Geoffrey Arend, normally a character actor in small roles, being given a role with a bit more meat. Brie continually proves herself able to play different types of roles, this one being the more uptight of two very different sisters dealing with a lot of issues on their plate, while Mark Webber continually improves as an actor with each role. I’ve never seen Mohan’s previous film One Too Many Mornings, but like with Josh Radnor and his movie Liberal Arts, I’m really curious to see if Mohan’s previous movie had the same quality of storytelling and writing, because this one is terrific.

James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer may be the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker’s best dramatic work as it features an absolutely stunning performance by Andrea Riseborough as Collette McVeigh, a single mother from Northern Ireland who gets caught in the struggle between the British government and the IRA when an MI5 agent (Clive Owen). It’s a slow and quiet film that often has long stretches without any dialogue but Riseborough is just riveting to watch, and by the time it gets to the third act, you’re fully on board, having been pulled into this world and making it hard to deny how effective it is as a film. (check out our interview with James Marsh here.)

Possibly the biggest mistake we made with Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s The Words is going into it thinking it was a thriller. The fairly high concept premise has Bradley Cooper playing struggling New York writer Rory Jansen, similar to his character in Limitless, but that’s really the only thing it has in common with Cooper’s 2011 hit. While honeymooning in Paris, he finds a manuscript that he coopts as his own work, and it makes him rich and famous until he encounters the real author of the work. TRON: Legacy writers Klugman and Sternthal have written a terrific screenplay, a layered story that moves at a slow place as it tells Rory’s story then changes direction quite drastically. It’s surprising in the sense that it’s more of a prestige drama than the simple premise might make it seem. Jeremy Irons’ performance is unforgettable, playing the “old man” who confronts Rory with the knowledge of what he had done. As we hear his story, told in flashback with Ben Barnes playing the younger version, we get a strong idea of how Irons elevates the whole thing. Then there’s Dennis Quaid, who begins as the narrator telling Rory’s story, but over the course of the movie, it becomes more about him. The results are a deeply-layered story ala Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, which leaves you with a lot of thoughts about what’s real and what’s fiction. We’ll have some interviews with the directors and cast very soon.

The quirky Safety Not Guaranteed stars Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) as Darius, an intern at a Seattle newspaper assigned to go along with reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson from “New Girl”) to investigate a classified ad by a man looking for a time traveling partner. They travel to Ocean View to look into this guy, played by Mark Duplass, though Jeff has ulterior motives, and while Darius gets closer to gain the guy’s trust, a bond forms between them. Written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow, it’s a sweet and quirky movie, very typical of some of what we see at Sundance, but it’s really about showing off how talented Plaza is, while Duplass and Johnson are both as funny as always. In fact, there’s not a lot we have to say about it, except that it boasts one of the coolest endings we’ve seen at a Sundance movie this year.

The found footage anthology V/H/S features some of the hottest indie horror filmmakers from the last few years, including Ti West (House of the Devil), David Bruckner (The Signal), Adam Wingard (You’re Next and Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), all giving the overused horror format a go. It opens with a group of “Jackass”-like montage of a group of guys causing trouble, then follows them into a house where they’re looking for a VHS tape that can make them lots of money. They find lots of tapes in the house, abandoned except for the body of an old man, and they start watching one horrifying tape after another, including everything from demons, to killers in the woods and alien births. It’s pretty disturbing how many of the guys who get their hands on cameras use them for perverted antics, but the format is used in inventive ways like one segment with a guy wearing “spy camera glasses” and Joe Swanberg’s segment which is all done using Skype. Almost all of them go over the top with the gore, which is not something we’ve really seen done using the format, maybe since it’s hard to do effective gore effects, but the most impressive segment is the closing one by YouTube filmmakers Radio Silence, which really ups the ante in terms of the scale of what can be done with a limited budget. Overall, it’s a fun experiment with each segment only working so well due to their brevity.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the movie everyone’s been raving about on Twitter for the past week before it was picked up by Fox Searchlight, so imagine my surprise when I just wasn’t as blown away by it as others have been. The directorial debut by Benh Zeitln is set in a flooded post-Katrina like Southern area called “The Bathtub” where a young black girl named Hush Puppy and her father live in a trash-strewn junkyard filled with wild animals. There isn’t much of a plot to this obvious Katrina allegory, showing how the “have nots” live in this destitute area separated from the rest of society by a river that’s constantly threatening to flood them (and it eventually does). The film looks great, particularly the production design in creating these environments, and there’s a blend of fantasy and realism that creates a unique voices. Both those things also reminded us of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, neither which I liked much, so it was hard to get into it, especially with the lazy overuse of first person narrative from the young protagonist. It ultimately doesn’t earn its big teary ending, and frankly, we have no idea how Fox Searchlight is going to market this movie to find an audience.

The documentary Room 237 deals with a movie that’s an all-time favorite when it comes to horror, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, a film so dense with imagery that it’s allowed a number of people on the internet to create their own theories and conspiracies on what the movie is really about. At first, it’s kind of fun watching the people interviewed talk about various gaffes and blunders in the film’s logic. When you get into some of the conspiracies that the movie’s about the Holocaust or genocide of the Native Americans or even Kubrick admitting he directed the footage supposedly filmed on the moon, it’s kind of interesting but then you realize this is mostly a bunch of crackpots who are ruining Kubrick’s film with all their asinine assessments. The format of faceless voices talking over clips from Kubrick’s films eventually wears out its welcome, and the truth is that if you watch any movie enough times, you can probably find gaffes and errors and connections that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the movie.

The biggest problem with Christopher Neill’s directorial debut Goats is that it isn’t really a comedy even though it’s filled with comic characters who are obviously trying to make it more funny and failing. This is especially the case with David Duchovny’s “Goat Man,” a laidback pot-smoking vagrant who plays mentor to teenager Ellis Whitman (newcomer Graham Phillips), the kind of character Jeff Bridges excels at, but Duchovny barely gets by with. Even worse is Vera Farmiga as his New Age hippy mother who is constantly looking for a new form of therapy treatment, but frankly, it’s the worst thing we’ve seen from her. Graham Phillips does decently as the lead and Neill does the best he can from the material–it’s adapted from a book–but the humor is so dry and so much of it feels like stuff we’ve seen in other indie coming-of-age stories that his skills as a director get lost in the convoluted story. Things like the co-ed who Ellis keeps bumping into add little to the movie and could have easily been dropped.

Then there’s Michael Walker’s Price Check, starring Sundance darling Parker Posey as Susan Felders, the world’s worst boss, an enthusiastic cheerleader one moment and a shrieking shrew the next. It’s Eric Mabius’ Pete Cozy who has to contend with this terrible boss as she promotes him, confides in him and then takes the relationship much further. I was really hoping to like this, but had so many problems with the casting of Mabius as the lead being the primary one, since he just doesn’t have the personality or chops to hold his own in what is essentially “The Parker Posey Show.” Even Posey’s act starts to wear a bit thin after 40 minutes or so, and it’s very hard to believe that this woman could possibly be any sort of executive one can take seriously. Essentailly, Walker tries to create something like “The Office” and some of the humor works but we never really care much about Mabius’ character and the world of supermarket pricing is pretty boring, so

We only have about four more movies to go but we have a bunch of interviews and reviews to post in the next week or so, and we’ll also have our customary “Best of the Fest” up sometime next week.

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