Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 3

Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 3

Wrong
Director/Time: Quentin Dupieux, 94 min.
Cast: Jack Plotnick, Eric Judor, Alexia Dziena, Steve Little, Regan Burns, William Fichtner
Headline: Just another “Man loses dog, man looks for dog, man forced into existential realizations” story
Indie type: Work that quirk, McGirk
Report: Even those who didn’t like Quentin Dupieux’s aggressively meta “killer tire” movie Rubber—and I count myself among those who were only mildly amused by it—had to acknowledge that at least it was going for something, and that if Dupieux could channel that ambition and imagination in the future, he might well make a masterpiece. Wrong, however, is not that masterpiece. If anything, it’s a step backward from Rubber, which at least had a strong conceit, even if Dupieux ran out of things to do with that conceit fairly early. Wrong is more open and off-the-cuff (it was reportedly written, shot and edited in less than six months), and more episodic in nature, following unemployed schmoe Jack Plotnick as he goes looking for his lost dog through an absurdist Los Angeles. Wrong is in the mode of movies like Repo Man and Songs From The Second Floor: willfully strange and comic.

The problem is that it’s not all that weird, and not all that funny. Dupieux comes up with some fantastic images, such as an office where the sprinkler system runs constantly, drenching the laptops and documents and the used-to-it employees. And he trots in some memorable characters, such as Steve Little as a pet detective who hooks up Plotnick’s dogshit to a machine that records its memories, and William Fichtner as a scarred guru who delivers run-on sentences in a stilted Chinese-American accent. There’s even some real heart to the movie, as Dupieux explores how a life can be turned upside-down by the smallest of changes. There’s a lot going on in Wrong that shows intelligence, imagination and artistry. But I’m afraid it’s another “worthy effort”/“shows promise” kind of movie. I wouldn’t give up on Dupieux yet, but I’m also not yet ready to say that he’s arrived.
Grade: B-

Robot And Frank
Director/Time: Jack Schreier, 90 min.
Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Saarsgard
Headline: Frank Langella and his robot buddy… commitin’ crimes!
Indie type: Soft sci-fi
Report: Frank Langella is Frank: a semi-retired jewel thief with a failing memory and a messy home in a quaint small town in the not-too-distant future. And Robot is Robot: the technologically advanced butler/health-care-worker that Frank’s son buys for him so that he won’t have to spend ten hours every weekend driving up from the city to check on his pop. In classic buddy-movie fashion, Frank first resents Robot, then has a change of heart once he realizes that he can train Robot to help him pull a couple more big heists in his neighborhood. The main failing of Robot & Frank is that too much of it falls under the umbrella of the “classic buddy movie” (or classic other kinds of movies). It’s designed to be a crowdpleaser, which may explain why it’s so flat in style, and why it’s not all that rich in theme. It’s an old-school Sundance offering: more concerned with telling a story and moving an audience rather than challenging anyone. But there’s nothing wrong with that, really. Christopher Ford’s screenplay is sturdily crafted—with a couple of good twists down the stretch—and director Jake Schreier elicits warm performances from Langella and Susan Sarandon, and even from his robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). On the whole, Robot & Frank is fleet and sweet: a nice 90 minutes.
Grade: B

The Perception Of Moving Targets
Director/Time: Weston Currie, 81 min.
Cast: Brighid Thomas, Cherie Blackfeather, Erin Gwynn
Headline: I had the craziest dream last night…
Indie type: Art with a capital A
Report: As much as I enjoy experimental film, I’d be the first to admit that I lack the training and vocabulary to do justice to a film like Weston Currie’s feature-length The Perception Of Moving Targets, which is essentially four linked avant-garde shorts. In the first, a high school track star smokes pot with her friends, giggles a lot, and is haunted by the specter of death. In the second, a baby coos and strains to understand the strange things she sees. In the third, a bickering couple looks at trees and water. The fourth mixes old home video footage of an elderly couple, a portrait of a solemn-faced old man, and brief flashes of the previous chapters. In all these films there are rhyming images, and sounds that could be interpreted as ecstatic or pained, and a soundtrack that chops together old recordings, drone effects, and the dreamy music of Grouper. There are striking images and clever techniques throughout The Perception Of Moving Targets, and yet as a narrative guy first and foremost, I couldn’t help but wonder how some of these sequences would’ve played in the context of an actual story. That’s a dumb standard to apply here, I recognize. But while I found the overall dreaminess of Perception fairly enrapturing at times—almost like an afternoon nap, albeit a restless one—I’m not sure I got much more out of it beyond an allusive, elusive statement on how in the midst of life we are in death (et cetera).
Grade: B-

West Of Memphis
Director/Time: Amy Berg, 150 min.
Documentary 
Headline: Paradise regained?
Indie type: True crime doc
Report: It’s impossible to write about the Peter Jackson-produced West Memphis 3 documentary West Of Memphis without comparing it to the Berlinger/Sinofsky Paradise Lost films, so I’m not even going to try. In a nutshell, I’d say that director Amy Berg tells the story of three murdered kids (and the teens accused of ritually mutilating them) more cleanly than the Paradise Losts, but without the sense of character or place that made the first Berlinger/Sinofsky film in particular such a landmark documentary. Berg has the advantage of time and resources. Where Berlinger and Sinofsky had to make their way through the wilds of Arkansas, forging their own relationships and figuring out on the fly who was bending the truth, Berg has the story (and the testifiers to same) already in place, plus she has Jackson’s money and personal interest in the case to get her access to DNA experts, forensic pathologists and FBI profilers, all of whom establish very convincingly that the three men convicted for this crime were the victims a justice system more interested in expediency than truth. Like Paradise Lost 3, West Of Memphis goes hard after Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys, who was never grilled properly by the authorities about his past history of abuse, or his whereabouts on the day of the crime. Berg’s film doesn’t go that deeply into the sociology of the case, which means it misses how a bunch of smart legal minds could be so arrogant to railroad three teenagers and then dismiss all arguments in favor of their innocence. (As someone who’s lived his whole life in the south, I can tell you that this is just how men in leadership positions tend to orient themselves in my homeland. It’s not malicious; that sense of certainty is just ingrained. It’s a fundamentalist Christian thing.) On it’s own merits though, West Of Memphis is a well-assembled, well-argued doc that shows how our advocacy model of trial law can lead to the state spinning stories they know are probably untrue, and then using their authority to stand strong against any alternate theory, no matter how many millions of people believe it.
Grade: B

Notes, thoughts, things overheard…

I won’t be officially reviewing or grading Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War—about how the problem of rape in the military gets covered up—because one of my cousins is also one of Dick’s main creative collaborators. (Also, I had to leave early to get to another movie.) But the hour I saw was deep and powerful, capturing how women get trapped in the matrix of military justice and military hospitals, compounding the crimes against them. The Invisible War is a potent outrage-generator, and I hope that like the West Memphis 3 docs, it calls people to action.

Tomorrow: Stephen Frears directs Rebecca Hall and Bruce Willis, and a documentarian refuses to leave Chris Coker alone. 

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