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Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 6

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Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Director/Time: Benh Zeitlin, 91 min.
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Headline: Before and after the deluge, Louisiana shack-dwellers scrape to survive
Indie type: Pre-apocalyptic
Report: It’s difficult to explain exactly what Beasts Of The Southern Wild is, though it’s undoubtedly something extraordinary: like a live-action Miyazaki film, with Days Of Heaven narration, set in a dirt-poor community at an unspecified time of crisis. The grade-school aged Quvenzhané Wallis plays “Hushpuppy,” who lives with her oft-absent father Dwight Henry in a water-bound region of Louisiana known as “The Bathtub.” The denizens of The Bathtub—a mix of black and white, old and young—work the land and the lake, and teach their kids about the coming icecap-melt that will flood their land and revive the giant hairy boar-type creatures which used to rule the Earth. Then one day the waters do rise rapidly, and Hushpuppy and her dad join the Bathtub survivors in trying to dodge the governmental authorities so they can continue to live (and die) in their own way.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild isn’t about the poor, or African-American life, or Katrina, or anything that specific. The movie takes place in an abstracted world, which resembles our own, only darker and wilder, and for the most part, co-writer/director Benh Zeitlin merely explores that world and shows how it hardens his heroine. Beasts isn’t wholly successful, either. In striving to create a new space that’s not quite real and not quite fantastical, Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar (who originated this project as a play) leave aside conventional character motivation and plot, allowing the story to drift from incident to incident, at times aimlessly. But at least they always have Hushpuppy on their side, explaining what she sees and what she’s learned. (Visiting a hospital for the first time, for example, Hushpuppy observes that there they plug their sick animals into the wall.) Beast Of The Southern Wild culminates in a thrilling finale, and a last shot that’s one of the damnedest things I’ve ever seen on a screen, affirming the movie’s notion that the most important task that we undertake is to leave our own mark, to be seen for generations to come. As far as Beasts Of The Southern Wild is concerned: mission accomplished.
Grade: A-

Director/Time: Craig Zobel, 90 min.
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
Headline: Prank-caller pushes fast-food place over the line
Indie type: Ripped from yesterday’s headlines
Report: If you remember the bizarre news story from a couple of years ago about a restaurant manager who locked in an employee in a back office and told her to strip because of a phone call from a man impersonating a policeman, then you may be the best and worst audience for Craig Zobel’s Compliance. “Best” because you’ll know that when the poor cashier played by Dreama Walker is coerced into doing naked jumping jacks in a stockroom (and later subjected to even worse humiliations) that all of this actually happened, and thus isn’t as implausible as it may seem. And “worst” because if you know where this story is going, then… well, you know where it’s going. Because Zobel very cautiously tries not to make an exploitation film (though he’s been accused of just that by some), the movie follows a very straight, matter-of-fact path from the moment Walker’s boss Ann Dowd tells her that a cop on the phone has accused her of stealing to the moment many awful hours later when Dowd realizes she’s been duped. Zobel has said that he was looking to fill in the gaps between the outrageous parts of this story, to understand how ordinary people could be so gullible. But though Pat Healy gives a wonderfully oily performance as the prankster, the even tone of Compliance makes much of it hard to buy, even though just about every major moment is from the police record. That said, the cast here is so terrific that they turn a movie that takes place almost entirely in one dingy room into rich theater, and Zobel wields the same feel for everyday interactions and power relationships that he showed in The Great World Of Sound. And Compliance has a hell of an epilogue too, showing a little of the aftermath of the event and how the characters continue to submit to authority, certain that if they’re polite and cooperative, everything will turn out okay.
Grade: B

For A Good Time, Call…
Director/Time: Jamie Travis, 87 min.
Cast: Ari Graynor, Lauren Anne Miller, Justin Long, Nia Vardalos
Headline: Two very different New Yorkers become best friends, thanks to phone sex
Indie type: Rom-com with a twist
Report: Two years ago, writing about a retrospective of Jamie Travis’ dryly witty, visually sparkling, achingly poignant short films, I wrote, “When Travis finally makes a feature, it’ll undoubtedly be one of the cinematic events of the year.” At the time, I could not have expected Travis’ feature debut to be a raunchy comedy about phone-sex operators—and if I’m being honest, it took me a while to get on the wavelength of For A Good Time, Call…, because it was so far removed from Travis’ shorts that I initially found it confounding. For A Good Time is more a vehicle for its stars, Ari Graynor (who also co-produced) and Lauren Anne Miller (who also co-wrote), playing old college enemies brought together as roommates by their shared gay best friend, Justin Long. The two ladies eye each other warily, but then the unemployed Miller begins helping Graynor with her phone-sex business, and they fall in love—in a chummy way, not a gay way. The notion of a love story that’s really about two women becoming friends is gimmicky, I’ll grant, but Graynor and Miller are so charming together, and the movie is so focused and funny—unlike the similarly schticky Celeste And Jesse Forever—that it won over this doubter. Is this the debut I would’ve picked for Travis? No, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of him in it. (It’s like having Todd Haynes direct Bridesmaids; the material is necessarily going to overwhelm the auteur.) But while it may not be much of a Travis film, it’s a heck of Graynor/Miller film.
Grade: B+

The Impostor
Director/Time: Bart Layton, 95 min.
Headline: French con man pretends to be missing Texan teen
Indie type: True crime doc
Report: In the mid-‘90s, a teenager named Nicolas Barclay disappeared after storming angrily out of his San Antonio home. Three years later, his family got a call from a Spanish juvenile center, where a man claiming to be Nicolas has been found. What follows in Bart Layton’s documentary The Impostor is one wild story, about a wily European who convinced the Barclays that he was their long-lost son, now speaking with a French accent for reasons he explained to them in a convoluted story about torture and reprogramming. Layton takes a just-the-facts approach to the narrative, letting the participants speak directly into the camera about what happened, supported by Errol Morris-style re-enactments. Because almost all of the movie consists of testimony and staging, there’s little to no room for the kind of immersion into this world that would help us understand how anyone could be duped by this impostor. But Layton controls the information so tightly that he’s able to spring a few surprises on the audience, including one towards the end designed to get us to understand how easy it is to buy into a well-told story, even when there’s no evidence to support it.
Grade: B+


Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms
Director/Time: Matt Ross, 82 min.
Cast: Chris Messina, Marin Ireland
Headline: One affair, twenty-eight locations
Indie type: Mosaic
Report: At the start of the bittersweet romance Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms, young married professional Marin Ireland meets handsome best-selling author Chris Messina in a hotel bar. They sleep together, and then keep meeting, every time they happen to be in the same town at the same time. Writer-director Matt Ross’ update of the old Same Time Next Year premise takes place over a shorter period, and with shorter scenes—roughly twenty-eight, in just over 80 minutes—but it deals with the same kinds of issues as that play, showing how even an adulterous relationship goes through changes, as outside troubles and compatibility issues intrude on what’s supposed to be a no-strings-attached, sex-only fling. I wish Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms had a longer arc, and more variety from “room” to “room,” but Ireland and Messina are remarkable, conveying the at-first-clumsy then later easy intimacy of two people learning about each other in bed. Because Ireland’s character is initially more reticent than Messina’s—understandably, given her marital status—they bond over little jokes and a few small personal details, in a way that feels far more real than the mumbliness and/or forced chattiness of most movie love stories. If only Ross had shown a little more ambition in sketching these two characters’ lives together and apart, this would be my film of the fest. But in its own small way, in documenting two people who want to be together but are too scared to commit, Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms is masterful.
Grade: B+

Notes, thoughts, things overheard…

  • It’s too bad that Compliance won’t screen around the country with mandatory post-film Q&As. The movie became the most controversial at this year’s Sundance when someone after the premiere started yelling that it was exploitative, and at my screening Monday night there were an unusually high number of people sticking around for a discussion which grew tense at times, but which was for the most part a civil conversation about the line between depicting horrific true events and turning them into “entertainment.”
  • I also watched the first 30 minutes of a Greek film called L on Tuesday morning. I left primarily because I wanted to see Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms, but also because what I saw of L wasn’t compelling me to stick around. It’s a deadpan absurdist comedy about people who live in their cars and the motorcycle gang which hates them, but what I saw of the film wasn’t funny, and didn’t have the “what the hell?” oddity of Dogtooth or Attenberg. Perhaps it gets better. If it gets distributed in the U.S. someday, I’ll check out the rest.

Tomorrow: A farewell to Sundance, scored by LCD Soundsystem and featuring two horror movies.