Noel Murray @ Sundance ’09: Day Two
- Day Eight wraps up an exceptionally good Sundance with a late-breaking entry to round out the Top Five list
- Documentaries on Pussy Riot, FAME Studios and Sound City highlight an all-music Day Seven at Sundance
- Day Six at Sundance tackles the Beltway Sniper killings and a second go-around for Michael Cera and Sebastían Silva
- Day Five at Sundance is all about the perplexing, overwhelming, heart-stoppingly beautiful Upstream Color
- Before Midnight, a Terrence Malick homage and Lake Bell's directorial debut top a great Day Four at Sundance
Director: Duncan Jones (97 min.)
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
Headline: Man on moonbase makes alarming discoveries about the nature of his work
Indie type: Mumbly genre riff
Report: I knew I was going to be on this movie’s side after its first 10 minutes, most of which consist of Sam Rockwell going about his business as the lone human at a power company’s lunar outpost. Rockwell cracks jokes and swears and has a love-hate relationship with his omnipresent computer-robot GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey, and given rudimentary emotions via series of never-not-funny smiley/frowny/nervous faces). Moon looks like a budget-priced 2001, and on the surface it appears to have that clean, white, sterile look familiar to any outer-space think-piece made after 1968. But Rockwell’s presence gives the movie a funky humanity, and I credit the set designers introducing some subtle smudges and clutter to the moonbase, reflecting the presence of a man nearing the end of a three-year contract. Half an hour into Moon, Rockwell gets into an accident while on an exterior mission, and the movie takes a major turn that I’m not sure if I should reveal. (I’ll wait and see if other critics are spoiling it; I think it’s probably better not to know, even though it’s hard to talk about the movie without discussing its big twist.) After the twist, I expected the action to ramp up a little more, and if Jones (who, by the way, is the son of David Bowie) and screenwriter Nathan Parker had included a gripping suspense sequence or two, Moon might’ve reached that next level, and been more than merely good. But it is very good, mixing low-key humor and poignant soul-searching, all against a futuristic backdrop that’s familiar but never hackneyed. It reminded me a lot of what I like best about Lost: that sense of remoteness and mystery, and the idea that if we could just find the right secret panel or knock down the tower that's blocking our transmissions, we'd finally learn the truth, and be satisfied. But alas, truth and satisfaction rarely go hand-in-hand.
Director: Lynn Shelton (92 min.)
Cast: Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore
Headline: Two old friends challenge each other to engage in gay porn
Indie type: The wild-college-chum-visits-and-reminds-the-square-suburbanite-how-cool-he-used-to-be genre
Report: When I read the plot description for Humpday in the Sundance program guide, I pictured it as a more subversive version of Zack & Miri. It’s really not that big a deal for a guy and a gal who’ve been friends for over a decade to let their casual intimacy with each other slide into sex, even with the artificial imposition of the camera. But it’s something else entirely for two dudes to do it. (Two straight dudes, anyway.) So I was surprised, and initially a little disappointed, to find that Humpday was really just a comic version of Old Joy, wherein one man’s attempts to prove to his old friend that he’s still the same free spirit gradually evolves from staying up too late drinking to making ridiculous promises. Frankly, the ground in Humpday has been fairly well-trod (see also: Sex Lies & Videotape and Chuck & Buck, among others), but that doesn’t make the movie any less true—or funny. Unlike a lot of these kind of naturalistic, trying-to-capture-the-fleeting-magic-of-a-rambling-conversation indies, Humpday is extremely well-acted, and given a coat of polish that makes it slightly less edgy, but infinitely more entertaining. (It’s like a mumblecore project reimagined by Judd Apatow.) As for the amateur porn shoot that the whole movie builds to, it starts as a joke, then becomes a dare, and then becomes a kind of last-ditch effort for these two guys to prove to themselves and to each other that they’re not going to become a stereotype. The story plays out in a way that’s fairly predictable—this is the kind of movie where when a wife makes a special effort to cook pork chops, you know there’s going to be a scene of her sitting by herself staring angrily at an untouched plate—but the rhythm of the performances is such that the characters seem genuinely surprised by what happens, and I for one shared their delight and anxiety. It may not be subversive, but Humpday is utterly winning.
Rudo Y Cursi
Director: Carlos Cuaron (103 min.)
Cast: Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Guillermo Fracella
Headline: Rural Mexican brothers become soccer sensations, remain screw-ups
Indie type: Comic neorealism
Report: Bernal and Luna give focused, funny performances here as small town rubes who stumble into success. Bernal’s the sweetheart who’d rather be a famous singer than a supernatural goal-scorer, and Luna’s the hothead who wills himself to superiority on the football field, then blows all his money on games of chance. Curaon—making his debut as a feature director—has something significant to say about the role of pure chance in lifting people out of poverty in a corrupt society, and though the style of Rudo Y Cursi isn’t as immediately arresting as what his brother Alfonso brought to Carlos’ script for Y Tu Mama Tambien, the new film uses a similar voice-over narration to add a note of poetry to the proceedings. (And Carlos does give the movie a lived-in, almost verité look, contrasting dusty villages and suburban McMansions.) The problem is that after Rudo Y Cursi sets its heroes on their unexpected path to glory, it rarely wavers in tone or story. Every few minutes Cuaron returns to Bernal deluding himself about his music career, or Luna at the track, or the two brothers bickering, and on and on, over and over. It’s a very shout-y movie too, and the combination of a repetitive plot and a shrill tone work against Rudo Y Cursi in the long run. In the first 20 minutes, I thought I was seeing the best film of the festival; an hour after that, I was anxious to leave.
Directors: Benoît Delépine & Gustave de Kervern
Cast: Yolande Moreau, Bouli Lanners
Headline: Two hulking trans-gendered slobs try to strike a blow against capitalism
Indie type: Blackly comic anarchism, lightened with Gallic whimsy
Report: Louise is an illiterate, thuggish man who became a woman in order to get a job a toy factory. Michel is a self-deluded gun nut who started taking male hormones as a girl in order to improve her chances at the shot-put. When Louise’s factory closes down, he/she hires Michel to assassinate the boss of the company. Only two problems: 1.) Michel is too meek to murder, so she/he hires terminally ill patients to do the work; and 2.) In an age of globalization, no one can figure out who the boss actually is. Louise-Michel is absurdist in extremis, and when Delépine and de Kervern come up with a clever idea—like Louise’s supervisor carrying around a portable keyhole so he can get his voyeurist kicks anywhere, or Michel getting lost in a maze of mobile homes—the movie compares well to the grand comic surrealism of Roy Andersson. But Louise-Michel doesn’t have the discipline or vision of something like Songs From The Second Floor, and it’s often more assaultive and offensive than funny. Bonus points for ambition, but this movie is too much of a muddle.
The Glass House
Director: Hamid Rahmanian (92 min.)
Headline: Abused Iranian women bond at a progressive safe house
Indie type: Things are tough all over
Report: There’s a touch of Frederick Wiseman to this fly-on-the-wall doc about Iranian families in crisis, though Rahmanian edits more freely, includes direct interviews, and doesn't really have a strong framework. Many of the women we meet in The Glass House are compelling characters: the would-be rapper (in a state that forbids women from singing on record), the legally sanctioned mistress, and more than any the founder of the house, a wealthy psychoanalyst who buzzes in from London every six weeks to remind these women what they’re capable of. I’ve always been fascinated by life in Iran—which is far more complex than our statesmen allow—so I appreciated seeing these women defy convention by taking creative writing courses and borrowing computers. But at the same time, because I’m intrigued by Iran, I feel like I’ve seen too many documentaries and feature films like this to appreciate The Glass House on its own merits.
Grade: Incomplete… I left after 45 minutes so I could squeeze in dinner. A few more powerhouse scenes and I would’ve been about at a “B.” As it stands, I’m leaning “B-“
-Much ado is being made about the approaching 25th anniversary of Sundance, both among the organizers—who would like us to remember all the art-house favorites the festival has introduced over the years—and among some of the press, who’ve taken this occasion to question whether Sundance and the whole indie-film movement has much of a future. That’s a question I’ll be exploring some in this space over the next week, but after a day like today—with the thoughtful Moon, the entertaining and truthful Humpday, and even the ambitious-but-off-putting Louise-Michel—I certainly see cause for hope. I won’t claim that I’ve seen anything groundbreaking so far, but these films are, in my opinion, a little more daring and more openly engaging than a lot of recent fest fare. We’re off to a good start.
-By the way, the weather’s gorgeous this year. Cold, but sunny—and the lows have been higher than any of the highs last year. In the afternoons, I’m even able to walk around with my coat unzipped and my hat and gloves pocketed. It’s been a treat.