Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Two

Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Two

happythankyoumoreplease
Director: Josh Radnor (98 min.)
Cast: Malin Akerman, Josh Radnor, Kate Mara, Zoe Kazan, Pablo Schreiber, Tony Hale
Headline: It’s Complicated: Junior Edition
Indie type: Hipsters in love
Report: It’s going to be tough for How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor to avoid two comparisons in particular as he schleps around his directorial debut happythankyoumoreplease. First off, he’s following in the footsteps of Zach Braff, another man-child sitcom actor who had a successful launch of a debut film at Sundance. Secondly, he’s made a movie about twentysomethings fumbling for romance in New York City, which is a lot like the premise of HIMYM. But happythankyou has a different vibe than Garden State or Mother; it’s more like a late ‘80s/early ‘90s Woody Allen film, after Allen stopped keeping his comedy and his drama separate. Radnor casts himself as a slovenly, promiscuous writer who assumes accidental custody of a foster child he finds in the subway. Meanwhile, he's trying to convince skeptical cabaret singer Kate Mara to take a chance on him, while his friends Zoe Kazan and Pablo Schreiber bicker over Schreiber’s plan to move to L.A. and Radnor's best friend (and Alopecia sufferer) Malin Akerman ducks the advances of her sweet co-worker Tony Hale. Radnor has a knack with actors (Akerman for one has never been better) and his dialogue is snappy without drifting too far to the sitcom-y. I appreciate also that the movie isn't overly quirky. Despite the baldness and the adorable orphan, Radnor seems to be striving for something that feels true, not cute. The downside to his approach is that happythankyou often lacks drive; it’s like a collection of life lessons and unduly angsty characters in search of something interesting to do. (And all set to a mellow, indistinct indie-rock soundtrack that makes everything more soporific.) If anyone who wasn’t on TV 22 Mondays a year pitched a movie this vague and uneventful, he'd be quickly shown the door. But I’m glad Radnor got his shot. Maybe it’s because I’m one of the few people who likes Radnor’s Ted Mosby character on HIMYM, but I felt warmly towards happythankyou almost from the start, and I felt like Radnor rewarded my loyalty with some nice moments, such as Hale’s last-ditch pitch for himself to Akerman, and a smartly filmed pregnancy announcement that focuses mainly on the back of Kazan’s head and blocks Schreiber’s face until his reaction. Of course, in between those moments, Radnor throws in an eye-roll-worthy scene where Mara tells his character (speaking metaphorically) that he’s just a short story writer and she’s looking for a novelist. But hey, it’s the kid’s first movie. Some bad judgment is to be expected. Grade: B

Hesher
Director: Spencer Susser (100 min.)
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Devin Brochu
Headline: A creature of pure id helps a boy get over the death of his mother
Indie type: Burnouts are funny
Report: When a beloved wife and mother is killed in a car accident, the husband and son she left behind find someone to help them deal with their feelings: a scraggly-haired metalhead who just shows up in their lives one day, like a living manifestation of all their grief, rage, and sublimated desire to fuck shit up. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the guest (named “Hesher”), while Rainn Wilson and Devin Brochu play the mourners. Brochu is also tormented by a middle-school bully, and nurses a crush on a supermarket clerk played by Natalie Portman. For the first half hour, Hesher feels like something special, mainly due to the performance of Gordon-Levitt and the quirks of the character he’s playing. He’s like some perverted E.T., helping a lost little boy by blowing up his archenemy’s car, and handing out sex advice along the lines of, “People have been pokin’ at vaginas for hundreds of years. More, probably.” But Hesher’s anarchic approach to life becomes less funny in the back of the movie (largely due to overuse), and Hesher’s more nuanced, at times insightful study of loss all but disappears as the movie becomes increasingly silly and Hesher-centric. (When Hesher offers a grandma a hit from his bong, I pretty much threw in the towel.) I suspect some people are really going to go for Hesher though. It has a mood and a comic sensibility that will strike some folks exactly right. Myself, I found it scattershot and undisciplined. Grade: C

Bran Nue Dae
Director: Rachel Perkins (88 min.)
Cast: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush, Ernie Dingo
Headline: An eclectic group of Australians discover different ways to disappear into the mystic
Indie type: Outsider musical
Report: Based on a popular Aboriginal stage musical, Bran Nue Dae is about a teenage Christian’s struggle to stay morally pure in the Outback (and briefly in Perth) in the late ‘60s, when wild music and loose women abounded. Director Rachel Perkins aims for broad comedy in the familiar Australian style—think Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom—and she often overshoots. But the period details—open-air movie theaters, a rigid Catholic school run by the dictatorial Geoffrey Rush, shanty pubs—are vivid enough to counteract the cartoonishness, and Ernie Dingo gives a delightfully full performance as an opportunistic drunk with a store of native mojo. Perkins isn’t exactly a natural for musicals; her numbers are choppily shot, with no real flow to the performances. Still, the songs are catchy (and cheerfully vulgar at times) and the story is enjoyable, especially when the hero meets the boozy Dingo and hits the road with a pair of oversensitive hippies. The movie builds goodwill slowly and doggedly, and then pays it all off with a farcical finale that sends a rousing message: We’re all Aborigines! Who knew? Grade: B

His & Hers
Director: Ken Wardrop (80 min.)
Documentary
Headline: Women, from birth to death
Indie type: High concept art-doc
Report: This lovingly photographed, at-times-heartbreaking Irish documentary is sublime in its simplicity. Filmmaker Ken Wardrop interviews a number of women, from post-toddler to pre-grave, and shows them puttering about their houses and talking about the men in their lives: their daddies, their boyfriends, their husbands, their sons, and their grandsons. The interviews are short and organized by age, from youngest to oldest, so that His & Hers can be processed as the story of one woman, as she matures and goes through the stages of life that nearly every woman goes through. There’s only two real problems with His & Hers. First off, the über-story doesn’t really track; the interviewees seem more different than alike, such that it’s tough to connect what one is saying about her life to what another says. Second off, the structure of the film is, by its nature, repetitive. One woman follows the next, every few minutes, and goes through many of the same motions as her predecessors. (Wardrop likes to see them making beds, or ironing, or using the phone, or arranging teddy bears.) Still, His & Hers is far more artfully shot than most modern docs, and the way Wardrop connects up patterns of behavior resembles one of Chris Ware’s multi-tiered comic strip rendered in the more straightforward medium of cinema. Plus, it remains consistently fascinating to study the faces of these women and the homes they’ve made for themselves, and to hear them share stories that are funny, mundane, or profoundly sad. I can’t call the movie a one-of-a-kind—Krzysztof Kieslowski made a similar documentary, and some structuralist experimental filmmakers have used similar techniques—but it is remarkably assured about what it wants to do, and it achieves the emotional sweep that Wardrop is going for. Grade: B+

Festival Notes…

-No one wants to hear critics bitching about how cold and snowy it is in Park City, but man, it is seriously cold and snowy. I felt less like a wimp when my friend Scott Renshaw (a Salt Lake City critic), tweeted: “Hey, snow: We get the point. Sincerely, Sundance 2010 attendees.” If the natives think it’s a little too much, then it may in fact be so.

-Speaking of “serious,” the general impression after the first day-and-a-half of the fest is that the movies are a little more somber. There’s been a lot of talk about Sundance getting back to its roots, and thus far, those “roots” seem to involve movies that are boldly aspirational. The kind of movies that if they were people, and you tried to crack a sarcastic joke around them, they’d just look at you blankly, with a undertone of hurt in their eyes. 

Tomorrow: Ben Affleck gets fired, Catherine Keener redecorates, and Adrien Brody creates a monster.

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