Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sundance '08: Day Four

Illustration for article titled Sundance '08: Day Four

Screenings, 01-20-08

What Just Happened (dir. Barry Levinson)

Headline: Movie industry shallow, savage

Indie Type: Pricey star-laden comedy masquerading as festival fare

Soundtrack: Ironic action movie cues from the film-within-the-film

Report: Inside-Hollywood comedies have been around for as long as there's been a Hollywood, and the Barry Levinson-directed, Art Linson-penned What Just Happened doesn't exactly re-invent the wheel. Robert DeNiro plays a put-upon movie producer–not unlike Linson himself–who over the course of a week on the job has to deal with a star (a hilariously jerky Bruce Willis) who refuses to shave his beard, an ex-wife who may be sleeping with his best friend, and a director who's sabotaged their big Cannes-premiering action blockbuster by ending the film with a scene of a cute dog getting its head blown off. This is all fairly standard movies-about-movies material–and in the case of the ex-wife/jealousy stuff, a little too standard–but DeNiro is very funny as a guy trying to hold onto what little power he has, and Levinson does as good aging directors often do, letting scenes play on until he finds the right level of beautiful chaos. The biggest problem with What Just Happened is that not much actually does happen–at least not enough to fill two hours–but the movie contains a lot of funny lines, and it captures the business side of show business with an only slightly jaded eye.

Grade: B

The Broken (dir. Sean Ellis)

Headline: Londoners' "mirror selves" bust out, wreak havoc

Indie Type: Low-boil Brit-horror

Soundtrack: Ominous rumble and orchestral drone

Report: First the English stole our zombie movies and turned then into 28 Days Later, and now they're having a go at the "body snatcher" genre. But not quite as successfully. Sean Ellis–who previously wrote and directed Cashback, which I still haven't seen in either short or feature form–takes a slow-building, occasionally inert approach to the idea of people being replaced by their robotic doubles. He fills up the first two thirds of the movie with vulnerable-looking characters peering around corners and finding nothing, or staring into space looking alternately worried and suspicious. That first hour is peppered with the occasional horrifying image of people looking into mirrors and seeing their evil alternate-dimension selves, but not until the final third does Ellis really get the movie moving, right before stinging the audience with a final twist that's not quite as profound as it means to be, but is unsettling enough that I began to wonder if The Broken would play better the second time through, when all its scenes of nothingness would become more meaningful. It's a credit to Ellis' scare-skills that I'd be willing to take the ride again, just to experience the precipitous drops in a new context.

Grade: B-

Love Comes Lately (dir. Jan Schütte)

Headline: Septuagenarian writer with enlarged prostate courts series of GILFs

Indie Type: Obscure literary adaptation populated by recognizable character actors

Soundtrack: "Life's a goddamn carnival" strings

Report: I'll be honest: The only reason I saw this adaptation of a trio of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories is because I was shut out of American Teen, which screened in a 80-seat theater that filled up 35 minutes early, while Love Comes Lately screened in an 180-seat theater populated by roughly 30 critics–25 of which were just looking for something to see after being turned away from American Teen. And for about the first half-hour, this movie felt like an also-ran. The star, Otto Tausig, is a repellent nebbish who comes off like Woody Allen with 50% fewer neuroses and 80% less charisma, and the movie follows his self-absorbed writer character as he embarks on a lecture tour while using his downtime to retreat into a couple of his short stories. Early on, Love Comes Lately is a queasy combination of cute and sour, but gradually the Singer sensibility starts to take hold, and the question of when the writer's art ends and his life begins starts to become genuinely compelling. The movie suggests that art influences life as much as the opposite. It's also got a good grasp of its milieu: small colleges with thriving Jewish communities. The film is basically negligible, but it's so blatantly uncommercial–unless there's a huge audience for movies that feature Rhea Pearlman, Brian Doyle Murray, Elizabeth Peña, Barbara Hershey and Tovah Feldshuh–that I ultimately admired its plucky "literature first!" spirit.

Grade: B-

Good Dick (dir. Marianna Palka)

Headline: Frigid porn addict enters symbiotic relationship with clingy video store clerk

Indie Type: Salacious black comedy plus "clerk chat" plus TV actors looking for an quick, edgy project while on hiatus

Soundtrack: Moody twang

Report: If there's a uniform methodology to most of the features I've seen at Sundance, it has to do with writers and directors withholding their characters' backstories for as long as possible–sometimes until the final five minutes or so of their films. If the goal is to keep the audience glued to their seats, wondering how these unbelievable people became so impossibly quirky, well, mission accomplished…at least so far as Good Dick is concerned. I considered leaving this movie about a half-dozen times, but I had to learn why vid-store employee Jason Ritter was so smitten with frequent porn-renter Marianna Palka, and–more importantly–why she tolerated having him around. He's the kind of guy who ties a string to her foot, attached to a thank-you note in the other room; and she's the kind of gal who doesn't think it's strange when he insists on washing her hair before he'll let her wear some jewelry he wants to give to her. Meanwhile, Ritter's co-workers are the kinds of co-workers who sit around talking about whether or not they can locate a woman's clitoris. In other words, this movie is indie-quirk to the motherfucking core: Not a single line or gesture has anything to do with the world in which real people live, outside of some observations about Polish culture that clearly come from Palka's personal experience. Good Dick mostly proves that TV actors make good indie-film hires, because they'll go along with whatever ridiculous horseshit a novice filmmaker concocts.

Grade: D+

A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures (dir. Chris Waitt)

Headline: Lazy filmmaker interviews ex-girlfriends, pretends to learn lessons he obviously already knew

Indie Type: Navel-gazing first-person doc, sub-McElwee

Soundtrack: Insufferably jaunty acoustic indie-pop

Report: Back in 1999, I saw a movie I hated about as much as I've ever hated anything: 20 Dates, a blatantly phony "documentary" about a wannabe filmmaker who totes a camera along on several obviously staged dates in order to make the same point about filmed life versus real life that Ross McElwee has made with much more subtlety and artfulness a dozen times over. I don't know why I expected Chris Waitt's similar stunt-doc A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures to be any different, except that I had hoped Waitt would be likable and honest where 20 Dates' Myles Berkowitz was overbearing and manipulative. Alas, alack, no. The premise of Waitt's "documentary"–that he'll interview every woman who ever dumped him in order to find out what he needs to change about himself–might've been interesting had he taken the project seriously, and found out how his and his exes' lives have been altered over the years. But instead it's mainly an opportunity for him to create a character for himself: a wide-eyed, slow-talking, slobby slacker, who looks and acts like a cross between Kurt Cobain and Neil from The Young Ones. It's obvious why women wouldn't like that guy; but since some of the women in his life stayed with him for years, he clearly wasn't always as obtuse as he presents himself in this movie. So how can a person who doesn't exist learn anything at all instructive? In the end, I didn't hate this as much as 20 Dates, but I hated it more than anything I've seen all week–Good Dick inclusive. (Important note: The people at my critics' screening were laughing their asses off over this movie, so it could be that I'm just missing the boat here. But I really don't think so.)

Grade: D+

Festival Notes…

I'll be out late seeing movies tomorrow, and seeing an early one on Tuesday, so the next post–the final post–will be going up about 16 hours later than usual, but will be a little longer.