Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 0

Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 0

For far too long, just about any public conversation about the Sundance Film Festival was primarily concerned with whether the fest had sold out. Had Sundance become all about swag lounges and viral marketing and extravagant multi-million dollar distribution deals handed out to mediocre middlebrow quirk-fests? Had the the premiere showcase for American independent film lost its “indie” cred?

Frankly, Sundance did go through a rough patch towards the end of the ‘90s indie boom, and I can’t pretend that my e-mail box right now isn’t teeming with invites to events sponsored by tech companies and clothing manufacturers and the like, most of which have nothing to do with movies. But I can’t be a cynic about Sundance. I can’t heave a sigh and roll my eyes and talk about how it’s not what it used to be. I’ve come to love this festival too much for that.

Yes, Sundance is a logistical nightmare at times, and bone-cold, and way too expensive, but for those of you sitting at home reading about the festival from afar, those kind of gripes are piddly. What do you care about how long a critic had to stand in line in the snow? What you’re interested in—I hope—is how good the movies are, and what you have to look forward to in the year ahead. And for the last few years, Sundance has been bringing the goods.

Before I start each festival, I like to look back at the previous year’s line-up to reflect on how good (or not-so-good) it was. In 2011, the Sundance schedule included The Future, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Bellflower, Take Shelter, Kaboom, Submarine, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, The Guard, The Interrupters, The Catechism Cataclysm, I Saw The Devil, Meek’s Cutoff, Hobo With A Shotgun, Senna, Win Win, Tyrannosaur, The Troll Hunter, Terri, Like Crazy, Another Earth and Margin Call. I didn’t see all those films here in Park City—nor did I like them all once I did see them—but they were all a significant part of the 2011 movie year, and part of a formidable festival overall.

This year features a new Brooklyn-set indie comedy from Spike Lee, new documentaries from Sundance regulars Kirby Dick, Eugene Jarecki, Stacey Peralta and Joe Berlinger, plus new movies from exciting young filmmakers Antonio (Afterschool) Campos, Craig (Great World Of Sound) Zobel and Quentin (Rubber) Dupieux, a feature film from cult comedians Tim & Eric, and a documentary about LCD Soundsystem’s last show. What I’m most excited about this year though are the large number of intriguing-sounding debut films, and that there are so few holdovers from last year’s Cannes and Toronto fests. (Though one TIFF film—the much-loved actioner The Raid—is one of my top “must-see”s here.) There are a lot of chances for real discoveries out there.

Both Nathan and I will be filing daily reports as usual, trying not to overlap too much (though there are always a few movies that we both want to see). And though the titles and the directors will be largely unknown on most days, I encourage film fans to pay at least some heed. A movie you’ve never heard of could turn out be one of 2012’s best. The critics’ screenings start tomorrow evening, but for Day Zero, I’ve got reviews of a couple of movies I watched via screener DVD, and one I saw at the Toronto film festival. I’d also point you to Scott Tobias’ review of Wuthering Heights, which he saw and loved in Toronto, but which I won’t be seeing at Sundance; and to Mike D’Angelo’s review of This Must Be The Place, which he liked at Cannes and which I will try to see. Check back at this same time tomorrow for more.

*****

About The Pink Sky
Director/Time: Keiichi Kobayashi, 113 min.
Cast: Ai Ikeda, Ena Koshino, Reiko Fujiwara, Tsubasa Tayakama, Hakusyu Togetsuan
Headline: Teen girl plays reporter to impress cute boy
Indie type: Coming-of-age, Japanese-style
Report: Proving that American independent filmmakers don’t have a monopoly on stylish films about quirky, free-spirited teens, writer-director Keeichi Kobayashi’s black-and-white teen comedy About The Pink Sky stars Ai Ikeda as an impulsive schoolgirl who works in a bowling alley and grades the stories in the newspaper based on how they make her feel. When Ikeda finds a wallet full of money and impulsively gives the cash to an older friend in need, she finds herself indebted to the wallet’s original owner: a rich, cute high school boy. He asks her to repay the debt by working with her friends to produce a cheerier newspaper. The plot of About The Pink Sky is a little programmatic; the movie doesn’t exactly follow an organic path to get to the point where Ikeda and her pals are traipsing around the city looking for scoops. Plus, the absence of any soundtrack—or color—limits the expressive quality on which these kinds of movies usually thrive. But Kobayashi gets vivid, largely natural-feeling performances from his young actors; he really seems to understand the wild mood swings of adolescents, who can be surly then giddy, and can ping-pong between fearlessness and painful embarrassment. There are too many scenes in About The Pink Sky that consists of little more than just kids hanging out, having conversations that blandly advance the story. But Ikeda has a winning presence, whether she’s earnestly photographing inanimate objects that look like faces or she’s pretending to be a shy housewife to fool the manager of a video-chat line into thinking she’s old enough to be an employee. Plus the film is gorgeous to look at, with softly textured black-and-white images that emphasize the characters while blurring the backgrounds, reflecting the self-centered worldview of a teen. It’s just too bad the script and tone of About The Pink Sky aren’t as engaging as its cast or its look.
Grade: B-

Madrid, 1987
Director/Time: David Trueba, 104 min.
Cast: José Sacristán, María Valverde, Ramon Fontserè
Headline: My nooner with André
Indie type: Chamber drama, sin pantalones
Report: When young journalism student María Valverde showed up at a cafe to interview powerful political columnist José Sacristán, she probably expected a little grizzled wisdom and, sure, some crude sexual advances. She did not expect to be accidentally locked in a bathroom with him for hours—both of them naked. Writer-director David Trueba’s Madrid, 1987 documents a specific time in Spanish history, when the both fascism and socialism slipped out of favor and the capitalists swooped in, simultaneously altering the value-system of the nation and clearing the path for new sexual and artistic freedoms. Trueba’s premise offers an expedient way in to an overview of the era. Sacristán is the erudite agitant who expects some gratitude (and compensation) for helping to change things for the next generation; Valverde is the timid kid discovering that she has some power of her own. Valverde doesn’t necessarily want to sleep with Sacristán, but she takes her clothes off anyway, assuming she can control any situation she may find herself in. But then Sacristán doffs his own duds and walks in on her while she’s in the shower, inadvertently closing a locked door behind him. Now they have a whole new set of concerns: How will they get out? Will there be a scandal if they’re found? What do they have in common that they can talk about to pass the time? And by the way, is fucking still an option? Trueba’s scenario is a little too neat and stage-y, doing exactly what it sets out to do and no more. But the dialogue is rich, the actors are game, and Trueba choreographs the movements of two unclothed people in a small space in a way that preserves both their dignity and the erotic possibilities. Plus, Trueba’s smart enough to give both his principals equal time. For the first half of the movie, Sacristán holds forth on how times have changed, and how everything interesting has already happened in Spain, which has transformed “from a grotesque tragedy to an American TV series.” In the second half, Valverde gets to tell Sacristán exactly how full of shit he is. In between, Trueba slips in some meta ruminating on what makes a movie a movie, perhaps to excuse that his own film is little more than a 100-minute conversation. But when the talk is this lively, there’s no need to be so defensive.
Grade: B

Your Sister’s Sister
Director/Time: Lynn Shelton, 90 min.
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass, Mike Birbiglia
Headline: The post-Humpday blues
Indie type: Bizarre love triangle
Report: Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to her hit indie comedy Humpday doesn’t have the strong hook of its predecessor. Humpday looked at young marriage, competitive male friendships and hipster self-identity through the prism of a story about two old friends daring each other to make a gay sex tape. Your Sister’s Sister is much wispier. Mark Duplass plays a sad sack whose friendship with his late brother’s ex-girlfriend Emily Blunt is threatened when he gets drunk and sleeps with Blunt’s sister Rosemarie DeWitt. There are further complications: DeWitt is a lesbian who just got out a long-term relationship; Duplass and Blunt have long-unacted-upon feelings for each other; and all three of them are stuck together in a house in the woods, on a remote Washington island. The location of Your Sister’s Sister is lovely, and the performances are top-notch, captured by Shelton in the same casually honest way that made Humpday such a delight. But the new movie isn’t as funny, perhaps because the situation is less unusual. Plus, Shelton imposes a third act plot-twist that feels like an afterthought. Your Sister’s Sister is enjoyable enough, thanks to its tone and its stars. But the characters seem a little old to be having “Do you like me? Check yes or no” kinds of relationships, and though Shelton and her cast excel at the in-the-moment material, they fail to flesh out the background of the characters enough to justify their immaturity.
Grade: B-

Tomorrow: A missing-person drama, a documentary about the legality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and whatever I can scare up in the tape library of the press office.