Sundance Film Festival 2012: The Biggest Disappointment Thus Far, and a Mid-Festival Notebook Drop
With Monday marking the midway point of my stay in Park City, here's a notebook dump on a few films I haven't had a chance to write about at length.
Hello I Must Be Going
Thirty-something recent divorcee Amy (Melanie Lynskey) sequesters herself in her parents' Connecticut manse for a summer. There she's shat upon by her infantilizing mom (Blythe Danner), has a secret fling with the 19 year-old stepson of her father's colleague and bonds over Marx brothers movies with her workaholic dad (hence the title, taken from the song in Animal Crackers).
Lynskey is charming and real, sometimes heartbreakingly so, but she can't fully elevate a film stuck between two bad-news brands of cliche: arrested development indie (complete with jangle-rock soundtrack and "boundary-pushing" sexual coupling) and TV movie-style melodrama of personal discovery.
The Invisible War
Director Kirby Dick's expose of the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in the armed forces doesn't break any formal ground -- it was made for PBS' Independent Lens series, and it looks like it. But within a staid, conventional structure, Dick mounts a convincing polemic against the military's boys club bureaucracy, backed by devastating testimony from what seems like dozens of women -- and men -- whose careers and lives were irreparably damaged by rape, and the military's systematic indifference to their trauma.
The End of Love
The second directorial effort from actor Mark Webber (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is a fictionalized, and evidently largely improvised, take on Webber's experiences raising a young son as a single father. Webber plays "himself," as does his toddler son Isaac; the kid's performance would be astonishing, if there was any indication he understood that he was "acting." The organic, fascinating story of father and son is bogged down by a lot of narrative contrivance -- apparently inserted to give the relationship shape -- that scans as false, but the film occasionally drifts into truly dark, cringe-worthily true territory. Also: bonus realism points for the Young Hollywood house party built around a game of Balderdash!
Quentin Dupieux's follow-up to Rubber seeks to one-up the killer tire cult hit by setting its action -- concerning Dolph (Jack Plotnick), a mild-mannered man whose beloved dog is kidnapped by a self-styled spiritual guru -- in a patently unreal world, where clocks strike 7:60 after 7:59, palm trees can mysteriously transform into pine trees and the dead come back to life. But within this fertile setting, the characters are all lame caricatures and the humor anemic, all of it based on self-conscious oddness that is never truly surreal or absurd. The genius of Rubber was that its absurd conceit was played totally straight, as if tires turn serial killer all the time. Wrong takes the opposite approach, constantly drawing attention to its supposed strangeness and inscrutability, and thus deflating anything exciting about them. Witless and gutless, it's thus far the biggest disappointment of the festival.
The third feature from director So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain) is a naturalistic portrait of a Chicago rocker/fuck-up who arrives in a Midwestern small town to answer his long-estranged wife's request for a divorce, hoping to spend time with the daughter he's never met. Virtually a one-man-showcase for Paul Dano, it rises and falls on his performance, and at times it seems like he's doing an awful lot, working too hard for minimal returns. But the film has a 70s American New Wave air to it (Scarecrow came to mind while I was watching it, Five Easy Pieces after) that's hard to shake, and its final scenes take a turn that made me want to watch the film over again from the beginning as soon as it was finished.