Sundance 2012 – batch 2

With the mind of a poet trapped in a body made nearly useless by polio, Mark O’Brien fought to live a normal life, and his remarkable true story is told with candor and abundant clinical detail in The Surrogate. Part of that pursuit of a normal life was a quest, in his mid-thirties, to lose his virginity. But with an iron lung, getting really good on the guitar wasn’t exactly an option, hence his arrangement with a sex surrogate. As he moves past that relationship and on to others, the film examines the different forms love can take. Helen Hunt brings warmth to the surrogate character. William H. Macy is a hoot as a catholic priest giving surprisingly good advice. B

Real-life actor/dad Mark Webber shows some promise in his writing/directing debut, The End of Love, the tale of how a young father deals with tragedy. This melancholy effort has some nice moments but ultimately feels too much like a dad’s home movie of his kid. C

Aubrey Plaza is becoming a notable actress who can instinctively express her own brand of impatience or insecurity without uttering a line. Fortunately, Safety Not Guaranteed gives her the lead role she deserves, and gives all the players some fun oddball dialog and a uniquely twisted story. With a winning mixture of boy-next-door charm and out-to-lunch crazy, Mark Duplass plays the wierdo, or maybe the genius, who is recruiting a partner for his time travel project. And Aubrey Plaza’s character, initially a bored member of a team investigating this project, warms up nicely. Some of the secondary story lines aren’t as inspired as the main arc, but overall this is low-budget indie is a nice little joy ride.

After the screening, the Q/A revealed that the film was inspired by an actual ad in a 1997 issue of Backwoods Home Magazine, soliciting a time-travel partner, an ad that gained some internet notoriety. B+

David Duchovny channels Jeff Bridges as a combination goat whisperer / Moses of weed. That WTF concept is not as entertaining as it should have been, but neither he nor the goats are the central characters anyway. The wide-ranging GOATS is a story of a bright teen-age kid who is trying to grow up and looking for guidance, not from a mom addled by new-age nonsense, not from an up-tight dad who is mostly out of the picture, but from the goat man, at least initially. In this coming-of-age yarn, everyone has a bit of growing up to do, and they get there with some quirky fun but without the sort of drama that would have made this more compelling. C+

Parker Posey is a tornado of crazy-sexy-cruel as the new manager hired to shake things up and improve sales at a grocery store chain in Price Check. The improvements are not without collateral damage, especially to her second in command, Eric Mabius, who gets a confidence boost from his new mentor but also takes a hit to his private life. Parker Posey’s performance is dazzling, funny, and uninhibited, and kind of overwhelms the more subtle elements in the film, like lessons about honesty and ambition. And unfortunately the ending does not have the same punch as the rest of the movie.

Note from Q/A following the screening: When a woman acts like a man it’s not pretty. B-

Sundance 2012 – batch 1

As the largely improvised My Sister’s Sister unfurls a nicely paced sequence of plot surprises, perhaps the biggest revelation is filmmaker/actor Mark Duplass as a flawed but likable romantic lead. Not at all surprising is the easy on-screen charm of Emily Blunt as his counterpart, first as a friend and then perhaps as more. The third puzzle piece is Rosemarie DeWitt as her slightly twisted sister. Writer/director Lynn Shelton apparently used a process similar to the Duplass brothers’ projects, where the movie is really defined in the editing room, by fishing the best movie out of a sea of multiple improvised takes. From that process, the resulting story here explores themes of honesty and family with a pleasant mix of drama and comedy. B

Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg are known mainly for their TV work, but that’s likely to change with the release of Celeste and Jesse Forever, where they both show new range. This is especially true of Rashida Jones, as she not only sustains our interest throughout, but cowrote the screenplay for this inventive romantic comedy. Easy and sometimes hilarious interplay between the divorcing lead characters keeps us engaged, until things get tricky and the movie begins to explore its central theme of whether a man and woman can be just friends. In this regard the movie is a sort of reverse “When Harry Met Sally”.

In the Q/A folllowing the screening, Andy Samberg deflected praise for his newly-found dramatic acting chops by musing that “Daniel Day Lewis would have been the illest Jesse ever. Or Celeste.”

In a year that saw the passing of Steve Jobs, a lot of consideration has been given to the relationship between humans and the technology they have invented to improve their lives. The oddly delightful Robot and Frank examines that relationship, along with the very nature of human memory. You have to suspend disbelief a bit to accept the corny Robot that is brought in to care for the aging Frank, but it seems to be this movie’s deliberate way of staying out of the science fiction mainstream and making this buddy movie more about the humanity than the robotity. Frank Langella is enjoyable as a crotchety old softy, a character we’ve seen before, but not with such a wild combination of issues, and not with such a skillful and nuanced performance. B

After delivering the audience-award-winning “happythankyoumoreplease” at Sundance 2010, writer/director/actor Josh Radnor evidently went away to Woody Allen college, and came back with the literate, classically-influenced Liberal Arts. With subtle elements of Annie Hall and Manhattan, this tale of a guidance counselor revisiting his alma mater reflects wisely on what it means to teach, to be taught, and to grow up, across multiple generations, and suggests that in some ways it’s all downhill after college. And it does so with knowing reference to the variety of poetry, music, and literature that inform the process. Sundance 2011 standout Elizabeth Olsen continues to impress, here with a young Diane Keaton brand of precocious daffiness. A

I like to believe that the glacial pacing and indulgent editing affectations of Kid Thing are an artistic choice intended at subversive mischief, not a miscalculation of how aweseome it looks on screen, for example, to show a guy milking a goat, endlessly. It’s a shame that sort of thing was such a frequent distraction, because this uneven film had some genuinely original ideas, some twisted humor, and a young actress who was clearly capable of delivering more than the minmal script allowed. As it explored the impact of parental guidance by portraying a child without it, this awkwardly packaged fable about morality forgot to deliver a moral. C-