Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day One

Noel Murray @ Sundance '11: Day One

When I attended my first Sundance Film Festival in 2008, I found the whole experience pretty miserable. It was bitterly cold, I got lost on the shuttle buses, I couldn’t find anywhere decent to eat, and the fold-out couch I was sleeping on was broken—none of which would’ve mattered if the movies had been any good. Alas, aside from the documentary Anvil: The Story Of Anvil and the drama Frozen River, most of the films I saw at Sundance in 2008 were mediocre star-driven indies, one-note issue docs, and dreary efforts at art.

In the years since though, I’ve begun to enjoy starting off my entertainment year with a week in Park City. Now that I’ve gotten the lay of the land, the between-movie experience has become more comfortable. But more importantly, the last two years at Sundance have been phenomenal in terms of what’s been shown.

I can’t say that I was wildly enthusiastic about all these titles, but it certainly wasn’t a waste of my time to see Passing Strange, Humpday, Bronson, Moon, Big Fan, Precious, The Cove, The Girlfriend Experience, Good Hair, Adventureland, An Education, We Live In Public, The Maid and Afghan Star in 2009, or Winter’s Bone, Exit Through The Gift Shop, Please Give, Catfish, Smash His Camera, A Prophet, Four Lions, The Tillman Story, Restrepo, Animal Kingdom, Louis C.K.: Hilarious, Splice, Buried, The Extra Man, Blue Valentine, The Kids Are All Right, The Company Men, Get Low, The Killer Inside Me, I Am Love, The Runaways, Cyrus, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work or Waiting For Superman in 2010. (Or it wouldn’t have been a waste of my time, in the case of the ones I didn’t catch up with until after the fest.) Almost all were movies that people praised and/or debated, and more than a few of them ended up making my best-of-the-year lists.

As for the 2011 slate, who knows? What’s daunting about Sundance each year is that because the programmers favor fledgling filmmakers, and because the schedule is filled with movies having their world premieres, it’s difficult to know what’s a must-see until a day or two into the fest, when the buzz starts building. 

Both Nathan and I will be filing daily reports as usual, trying not to overlap too much (though there are a few movies that we’ll both want to see). And though the titles and the directors may be largely unknown, I encourage film fans to pay at least some heed. A movie you’ve never heard of could turn out be one of 2011’s best. 

The critics’ screenings start in earnest tomorrow—I’m currently planning to see six movies on Friday—so for Day One, I’ve only got reviews of a few movies I watched via screener DVD, and a couple I saw at the Toronto film festival. Check back at this same time tomorrow for more.

*****

Troubadours
Director/Time: Morgan Neville, 91 min.
Documentary
Headline: California singer-songwriters see fire, rain
Indie type: Rock doc (cut with heavy dose of “yeah, man, the sixties”)
Report: Morgan Neville’s documentary Troubadours opens with the rowdy sounds of the late ‘60s rock revolution, which quickly fade to the more plaintive music of  James Taylor and Carole King, from a recent reunion gig at LA’s famous nightclub The Troubadour. For some rock fans and cultural critics, that transition from hard to soft in the early ‘70s was a travesty—a betrayal of the ideals of an activist generation. Troubadours has a different take. Drawing on new interviews and rare footage—including film of a young King working at the Brill Building, and Taylor debuting “Fire And Rain” at the Newport Folk Festival—Neville traces the roots of the singer-songwriter movement and the California soft-rock scene to Tin Pan Alley and the hootenannies, granting it more historical legitimacy. Neville pads out the film with a few too many generational signifiers: shots of Vietnam protestors and twirling flower children, interviewees who boast of shaking up a rigidly stratified society, et cetera. But Troubadours effectively gets across the excitement in Laurel Canyon as the decade rolled over, and as King and Taylor were joined in the hills by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, while elsewhere songwriters and performers as wide-ranging as Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, Elton John and Steve Martin found their own places in the new musical order. Troubadours is unlikely to convince any skeptics. The musicians Neville interviews don’t make the case for themselves based on the music so much as on the enthusiastic reaction of their fans and peers. (Briefly, Roger Mcguinn talks about the cultural meaning of country music at the time, and what a radical act it was for some of the acts back then to play country to crowds full of hippies, but the thought never goes very far.) Still, fans of the era will appreciate the photos and home movies, the attention paid to the contributions of the ubiquitous sidemen known as “The Section,” the acknowledgment of the significance of a good Robert Hilburn review, and the beautiful notion that one person with one instrument could write one great song and become a star overnight.
Grade: B

Uncle Kent
Director/Time: Joe Swanberg, 72 min.
Cast: Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger, Josephine Decker, Joe Swanberg, Kev
Headline: Cartoonist/penis-puppeteer has okay week with girl he met on Chatroulette
Indie type: People doin’ stuff
Report: Micro-budget auteur Joe Swanberg seemed to be on the verge of a real breakthrough a couple of years ago with Nights And Weekends, a corrosive romantic drama (co-created with Greta Gerwig) that converted all the inarticulate conversations and explicit sex of his earlier movies into a sharp critique of passive-aggressive relationships. But since then, Swanberg has retreated back to his old ways of stringing together mostly improvised, mildly amusing scenes in which not much happens. In Uncle Kent, for example, Swanberg and his collaborator Kent Osborne (an animator who’s worked on Adventure Time among other shows) follow Osborne for a few days as he smokes pot, draws some pictures, goes to parties, shoots some video, and tries to get to know a possibly bisexual woman he met on the internet. The week progresses much the way it would in real life, with fleeting moments of humor alternating with boredom and awkwardness, but Swanberg and Osborne don’t seem to be aiming for realism as an aesthetic ideal so much as avoiding any responsibility for shaping this material. As always though, Swanberg’s methods do yield some remarkable results at times, especially when the subject turns to sex. In the middle of Uncle Kent, Osborne and his on-line pal Jennifer Prediger pick up the bi-curious Josephine Decker on Craigslist, and Osborne tries to figure out his place in the slow-developing sexual scenario. It’s a funny, suspenseful sequence, but it doesn’t flow easily from the idle nothingness that comes before or the contrived confrontation and lengthy day-in-the-life that comes after. (Though the final scene of Osborne and his fickle cat is quietly moving and on-point.) There’s a real movie nestled in here, tied to the 40-year-old Osborne’s envy of his friends’ and family’s relationships and children, but Swanberg doesn’t coax it far enough to the surface.
Grade: B-

Mad Bastards
Director/Time: Brendan Fletcher, 96 min.
Cast: Dean Daley-Jones, Greg Tait, Lucas Yeeda
Headline: Three generations of tough-guy Aborigines consider what it means to be a man
Indie type: Aussie family docu-drama
Report: Proceeding from the thinnest of premises—a ne’er-do-well travels across Australia to meet his son, and is stymied by a local lawman—writer-director Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards is more concerned with piling on the local color than with developing much a story. Luckily for Fletcher, he has some vivid local color, especially in the rich, folky soundtrack by The Pigram Brothers, the movie’s co-producers. And he has three striking leads, each carrying his own measure of pride and regret into their quiet stand-offs. But for every exciting, docu-realistic scene of at-risk youth catching and killing alligators in their rehabilitation camp, Mad Bastards features a scene where characters sit around campfires or in the backs of cars and don’t say much. The milieu of Mad Bastards is memorable, and Fletcher illustrates the ways that people who make bad choices in life are often more embarrassed than defiant; if only he’d found a way to work these people and these places into a real narrative rather than a sketchy evocation of a world, he’d have really had something here. Instead, Mad Bastards starts with real conviction and energy and then wanders off into the wilderness.
Grade: B-

Attenberg
Director/Time: Athina Rachel Tsangari, 95 min.
Cast: Ariana Labed, Evangelia Randou
Headline: To live like the hu-man… to love like the hu-man
Indie type: Eccentric Euro-art
Report: Here’s another oddball Greek drama (like Dogtooth) in which the characters behave like alien beings, having conversations and exhibiting behavior that’s not just eccentric but downright freaky. Attenberg has its own explanation for why its heroine is so bizarre. Ariana Labed plays an aloof 23-year-old who’s lived her whole life in a sterile apartment complex in a factory town, raised by an intellectual father who engages her in rhyming games and marathon viewings of Richard Attenborough nature documentaries. The only other person she hangs out with is a girl roughly the same age, Evangelia Randou, who tries to teach her how to kiss and attract men (when she’s not joining Labed in impromptu impressions of animal strutting). But with her father dying of cancer, Labed has to learn how to be a normal person, which involves learning what separates us from animals, or from the dirt in the ground for that matter. Director Athina Rachel Tsangari models Attenberg’s style on a Suicide song: all spare, riffy, and intermittently eruptive. But Tsangari’s no Alan Vega. Attenberg is memorable and even stunning at times, but the material’s a little too thin for Tsangari’s weird-for-weird’s-sake moves.
Grade: B

Submarine
Director/Time: Richard Ayoade, 94 min.
Cast: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine
Headline: A Welsh Rushmore
Indie type: Quirky coming-of-age comedy
Noel’s Take: One of the great ironies of adolescence is that at a time in their lives when our emotions are at their most intense, we’re surrounded by folks who regard any overt expression of feelings as an occasion for mockery. That’s a fact of life that British comedian Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut Submarine understands well. Set in the early ‘80s in a small seaside town, Submarine (based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne) stars Craig Roberts as a smart, sensitive teenage kid who studies his peers, trying to figure out the best way to pass unnoticed through school while still getting what he wants. At the start of the movie, what he most wants is Yasmin Paige, an aloof, pretty girl whom he wins by demonstrating that he can be cruel to a fellow classmate. The two of them then spend their days smooching, teasing and pranking, but though Roberts often tries to impress Paige with what he knows and how he feels, she shuts him down with a smirk—until one day out of the blue, she finally confides in him. Meanwhile, Roberts tries to figure out how to save his parents’ marriage, which is being threatened by Dad’s ennui and a creepy self-help guru who has the hots for Mom. Submarine is funny and stylish, and shot in a way that gives the recent past an archaic glow, as though lit by candlelight and the setting sun. My one complaint about the movie—and it’s a pretty major one—is that it frequently ranges too far into indie-quirk, like a lot of similarly Wes Anderson-influenced films. (Paddy Considine’s performance as the self-help guru is especially over-the-top.) But again like Anderson, Ayoade conveys the painful awkwardness beneath the stylization. And in a way, it’s appropriate to make a movie about immature emotions that uses its own poses to keep real feelings at bay.
Grade: B+

Tomorrow: Dramas about financial collapse, escaping a cult, and the pre-apocalypse, plus the latest feature film by Miranda July.

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