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Sundance 2012: Ninth and Finally Final Report

Posted on Sunday February 19, 2012, 17:13 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Sundance 2012: Ninth and Finally Final Report

It's only taken three weeks, but here's the final batch of mini-reviews, bunched together with the random theme of comedy, which to varying and sometimes harrowing ends, is what most of these films were. Two Days In New York was the last one I saw; the latest from Julie Delpy – who is pretty prolific this days, following last year's Le Skylab in a mere matter of months – it is another rude, noisy farce drawing heavily on elements on her own life. A sequel of sorts to 2007's Two Days In Paris, it sees Delpy returning as Marion, having split from Jack (Adam Goldberg) and now working as a conceptual artist in New York with her African-American partner Mingus (Chris Rock). Marion is expecting a visit from her family – her eccentric father, sluttish sister and idiot boyfriend – and Delpy's bold choice of co-star suggests that this is going to be a schmaltzy race-clash parable. To her credit, though, she doesn't really go there. Instead, she has way more fun with tacky French stereotypes, painting her father – played by her real father, Albert – as a randy widower obsessed with cheese and sausages, and her almost always nude or underdressed sister Rose (the gorgeous Alexia Landeau) as an earth-goddess-slash-siren to her uptight neighbours.

I liked the detail and the energy that Delpy puts into all this, but, like Le Skylab, it too often tips into chaos to be truly memorable. Having said that, there is one awesome scene very near the end, in which Marion finds out who the anonymous benefactor is who has successfully bid for her latest pretentious artwork (a contract for her soul). I won't spoil the surprise (which you can guess from the Imdb credits), but as cameos go, it's right up there with you-know-who in Zombieland.

Goats, by Christopher Neil, was a much more traditional Sundance comedy, being a rites-of-passage movie that reminded me at various times of Thumbsucker, Squid And The Whale and Rocket Science, all of which launched to various degrees of indie success in Park City. Relative newcomer Graham Phillips stars as Ellis, a teenage boy who is being sent to prep school by his estranged father. Ellis faces the news with a mixture of anticipation and regret; anticipation because life with his New Age hippy mother (Vera Farmiga) is dragging him down, regret because the family's bearded retainer, known only as “Goat Man” (David Duchovny), has a regular supply of high-quality homegrown weed of a kind he will now surely find impossible to come by.

As a feature debut goes, Goats is solid and entertaining enough, but I didn't really find the source material – Mark Poirier's novel of the same name – to be all that substantial. Duchovny, nude and bearded, is certainly a sight to behold, but this kind of casting is actually a distraction in Sundance, a place where, over the years, we've been asked to believe in the likes of Kevin Costner as a carpenter in The Company Men, Jennifer Aniston as a supermarket cashier in The Good Girl and Tobey Maguire, of all people, as an obstetrician in The Details.

Credibility lies as the base of Craig Zobel's Compliance, which isn't strictly a comedy since it is based on a true-life crime, although there is definitely an undertow of black humour running all the way through it. Whether you choose to see it is up to you; this was the only truly controversial movie of the festival, with a very small section of the audience turning on the filmmakers at its premiere, accusing them of glorifying the felony it recreates. I don't think the film is sexist in that way, but I do think it is a slightly disingenuous piece of work. For it to work, Compliance needs the viewer to engage with its – very deliberate – pace and tension, which I can only compare to Borat in terms of setting up a situation that is almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch.

It helps that there are a few recognisable faces here. It starts at a backwater burger bar, where the boss, Sandra (Ann Dowd) gets a call from the police. It seems the ditzy but otherwise harmless employee Becky (the perfectly named Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer, but the police are too busy to come, and so Sandra must do the awkward detective work that follows. Just from the set-up, you can tell something's off. Becky is accused of stealing from a customer's purse at the till she is manning, and even if that were likely, it would be easy to check via CCTV, which the burger bar certainly has. But Sandra doesn't check. Instead, with a strangely sentimental and motherly tone, she goes along with the voice on the end of the telephone, far beyond the point where it ceases to be a prank and well into the zone where the caller's requests lead to molestation and rape. I liked Compliance up to that very point. It's certainly well done, and it's hard to deny the film's power, but although the very aim is to disturb, I felt it was just a little too hard on its smalltown victims; this is not the kind of trap that the more worldly of us would so easily fall into.

Wrong would be a good alternative title for Compliance, although it's not a particularly great title for Quentin Dupieux's follow-up to the surreal, wonderful Rubber. Nothing is especially “wrong” here; in fact, it's actually a nice, sweet film, driven by a wonderful performance by Jack Plotnick. Plotnick – who has a familiar face and lot of credits but, as far as I can, no breakout roles until now – is just great as Dolph Springer, a suburban travel agent (at least, I think that's what he does) who wakes one morning to find that his dog has disappeared. Since nothing else in his life is going to plan – he has been fired from his job, where it rains indoors, and his gardener has stole his identity in order to bed a local pizza waitress – Dolph hires a private detective to find the missing mutt.

Where Rubber was a one-note joke that only really worked if you wanted to see a serial killer movie about a rubber tyre (I did), Wrong is much more character-based, with digressions and mini-sketches that drive the story to its feelgood happy ending. Dupieux's approach is hard to quantify; on one level it certainly mines the same seams of absurdity that runs through the scripts of Charlie Kaufman (in particular his masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York). But it also has a dreamlike air that Kaufman's stories don't have; like the films of David Lynch, both Wrong and Rubber frequently drift into pure, lyrical surrealism that works more often than it doesn't. I still find myself laughing at William Fichtner's Master Chang, the disfigured self-help guru who is implicated in the kidnapping of Dolph's dog and who speaks – for reasons we'll never understand – with a slight oriental burr.

Equally, I still have next to no idea what happened in Don Coscarelli's John Dies At The End (pictured). Did John die at the end? I don't know, since the film is partly about a strange new drug – called Soy Sauce – that enables users to exist in the past, present and future simultaneously. Some reviews out of Sundance panned it, but this is a film to be seen with a drunken midnight audience not in a roomful of sober critics. As an indication, it plays like a meth-driven Bill And Ted movie, with Chase Williamson as David Wong and Rob Mayes as his best friend John, a pair of ghostbusters who get roped into solving supernatural occurrences in their local area. Or are they? Coscarelli's supremely hallucinogenic horror-comedy changes tack so many times it's hard to get a handle on it.

The bad reviews all seem to make reference to Jason Pargin's novel of the same name, which I haven't read. But I didn't mind the film's at times mind-blowing incomprehensibility, since Williamson and Mayes make such likeable leads and the twists and turns come at an astonishingly reckless rate. A lot of comparisons have been made to Coscarelli's 2002 opus Bubba Ho-Tep, but it reminded me more of 1979's Phantasm, a film I have seen plenty of times but always have to watch again, just to check that it really is about a funeral home that crushes dead bodies into slave dwarves and sends them off to mine for minerals in a parallel world (it is). If it were a better film, by which I mean slicker, John Dies At The End would be terrible, since its loose ends and psychotic episodes are what keeps it so tantalisingly incomplete and fresh. And although the ending itself perhaps is a little disappointing after all the madness, it still wraps up like nothing I've ever seen before, a truly dizzying WTF cult movie that never tries to apologise and, best of all, definitely never explains.

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