Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 4

Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 4

The First Time
Director/Time: Jonathan Kasdan, 98 min.
Cast: Britt Robertson, Dylan O’Brien, Craig Roberts
Headline: High school kids fall in love over the course of one weekend
Indie type: Teen romance
Report: Many of the movies I see at Sundance are torn between wanting to be bold and unconventional and wanting to entertain audiences by giving them dialogue and characters that feel familiar. It can be frustrating to see, over and over, these movies that presume to tell a story with the flavor of real life, but which can’t shake off the Hollywood artificiality. For the first half hour, my attitude toward Jonathan Kasdan’s initially Hollywood-ish The First Time was, “Tsk. What a pity.” Because I could tell what Kasdan was shooting for. The movie opens with two high school kids played by Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien meeting in an alley outside of a party, and getting to know each other over the course of a 15-minute conversation: O’Brien’s a nice-looking, smart kid who pines for a platonic female friend; Robertson’s an artsy alterna-chick with a rocker boyfriend. Over the course of the next 72 hours, the two keep meeting and talking, and falling for each other. Kasdan’s trying to make a teen romance where the characters are multi-dimensional, and have an attraction based on conversation, just as in real life. The problem is that the actors look and act like professional young thespians, not ordinary kids. Even their dialogue is a studied kind of casual.

But The First Time snuck up on me, and ultimately knocked me for a loop. Partly that’s because the kids in this movie are going through what the movie itself is going through, torn between putting on a front and being real. And even if Kasdan never intended that kind of meta comment (and I doubt he did), The First Time still gets better as it goes along, especially once it gets past the awkward getting-to-know-you phase and reveals more of who Robertson and O’Brien actually are. It all culminates in the titular scene, which is one of the funniest, tensest and most honest sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie—teenpic or otherwise. Do I wish Robertson’s boyfriend weren’t such an obvious dope, or that O’Brien didn’t have a hulking African-American pal who only speaks when he has something wise to impart? Sure. But there’s still some real truth here, lurking behind the Hollywood version of truth. The highest praise that I can give to this movie is that in the first fifteen minutes, I was rolling my eyes at these kids, and by the end, I was eager to re-watch that opening scene, to get to know them all over again.
Grade: A-

Arbitrage
Director/Time: Nicholas Jarecki, 103 min.
Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling
Headline: Billionaire scrambles to keep business/personal life afloat
Indie type: White-collar white-knuckler
Report: Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage stars Richard Gere as a famed venture capitalist who runs into trouble when his attempt to sell his company—combined with an untimely auto accident—threatens to reveal the financial and personal improprieties that he’s tried to keep from his wife Susan Sarandon and from their grown daughter, who works for Gere. The arrogance of the powerful—and how they make deals based on perception, not reality—is laid bare hre, in a narrative that unfolds over a few days and neatly makes all of Jarecki’s points about corrupt institutions. The main issue with Arbitrage though isn’t that it’s contrived; it’s that Jarecki is so conventional in his approach to this material. The plot suggests a kind of “last act of Goodfellas” mode, as all the hero’s spinning plates begin to wobble simultaneously. Instead, Jarecki is thoroughly square, building the film on mano-a-mano confrontations and conversations that advance the story and themes, but do little to shade in this world or to jangle the nerves. To be fair, with the cast he has, Jarecki doesn’t need to make his own authorial presence known that much. Between Gere matching wits with a police detective played by Tim Roth and him having to explain himself to the steely Sarandon, Arbitrage is never dull. And as these characters jostle with each other, making demands and swapping lies, Jarecki does get across something meaningful about how for a certain type of person, everything in life is a negotiation.
Grade: B

Excision
Director/Time: Richard Bates Jr., 81 min.
Cast: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, John Waters
Headline: High school weirdo experiments with sex, surgery
Indie type: Black comic horror
Report: The ending to Richard Bates Jr.’s offbeat teen horror picture Excision is predictable and inevitable: the gory, appalling, Vault Of Horror eight-pager that the entire film is building to. What makes Excision such an original is what precedes the payoff. AnnaLynne McCord (in a gutsy performance, at once monstrous and sympathetic) plays a pimply, gawky high school senior who has sexy dreams about mutilation and spends her spare time researching ways she can help her sister, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. The bulk of Excision is a crackpot domestic comedy, as McCord tussles with her uptight mother, and makes plans to lose her virginity to the most popular boy in school. But there are elements of grotesquerie throughout: McCord gets her first lover to go down on her while she’s having her period, and she drinks ipecac so that she can vomit on a classmate she hates and get out of going to cotillion class to spite Mom. (Plus any movie with a cameo appearance by John Waters as a concerned priest is clearly declaring an outsider sensibility.) The obvious point of comparison for Excision is Carrie, except that this Carrie is on the offensive, looking to soak her classmates in blood rather than the other way around. This is one of the damnedest “adolescent misfit” movies you’ll ever see—for those who can stomach the splatter, that is.
Grade: B+

The House I Live In 
Director/Time: Eugene Jarecki, 110 min.
Documentary
Headline: The main casualty in the American drug war? America itself.
Indie type: “The whole system is out of order!”
Report: The drug war gets a thorough going-over in Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, a documentary that considers the issue both from a historical perspective and in the now, via vignettes shot around the country with dealers, convicts, cops, jailers and grieving mothers. Jarecki’s grab-bag approach is too diffuse at times, and his first-person narration—prompted by his experiences with an elderly African-American who once worked for Jarecki’s family while her own child was being destroyed by drugs—provides a personal spin that to a degree takes away from the doc’s objective “these are the facts” mode. (Also, Jarecki relies almost exclusively on old political speeches for the pro-drug-war point-of-view, as opposed to new interviews.) But for the most part The House I Live In connects anecdotes to hard data, making a compelling case that the drug war has never been about drugs, but about controlling the underclass. And for those with a less conspiratorial bent, Jarecki shows how the drug war has become a self-sustaining business, where the government seizes money from dealers and uses it to buy more prison beds, necessitating more arrests. Much of the information in the movie will be familiar to anyone with any passing knowledge of the subject, but Jarecki’s comprehensiveness and passion sell this story, scoop or no.
Grade: B+

An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty
Director/Time: Terence Nance, 95 min.
Cast: Terence Nance, Namik Minter, Chanelle Pearson
Headline: Heartbroken man tries to understand his feelings
Indie type: Playful essay-film
Report: So effusive that it’s hard to separate its signal from its noise, Terence Nance’s experimental feature An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty is both stunning and stymieing. The film opens with a man the narrator refers to as “You” (played by Nance) feeling bummed because a woman he likes has canceled a date, and then Oversimplification expands outward, to consider the larger context for this melancholy, taking into account the protagonist’s job status, his sleeping habits, his past romances, and other esoteric factors. Nance describes “You” through multiple second-person voices, lengthy quotes from relevant books, and animated interludes in different styles, shifting from one to the other frequently and fluidly. I doubt I’ll see a more visually inventive film at this fest—or this year, that matter—but I do wish that Oversimplification were easier to connect to. The barrage of disparate images and the wall-to-wall, frequently poetic narration makes the movie so personal and allusive that it recedes from the viewer from moment to moment.  (The “You” business is curiously alienating too, since it distances us from Nance, making him something of a void at the center of his own story.) Still, I loved that this movie was so alive, and wish more Sundance films had this kind of daring.
Grade: B

Notes, thoughts, things overheard…

  • If nothing else, we need more movies like The First Time so that all the Best Coast and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart songs have a place to go.
  • The whims of festival-ing: Yesterday I teased I’d be covering Me @ The Zoo and Lay The Favorite, but ended up seeing neither, and doing the two Jarecki films instead. Nathan will have coverage of those two films in his column.

Tomorrow: The most controversial film of the fest so far, plus Paul Simon revisits Graceland.

Filed Under: Film

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