Movie Review
Sundance 2006: The Wrap-Up

with It’s Only Talk, porn-turned-artsy director Ryuchi Hiroki continues to straddle between compassion for and perverse infatuation with mentally unstable women. Formally, it’s more adept than his previous features (I’ve only seen Vibrator and The Lover, out of a hefty 20-year catalogue yet to score stateside distribution), with a newfound penchant for long takes–often from canted angles, subverting the master-shot tradition—and fewer sprightly song montages. Hiroki supplies a strong first half, with thirty-something Yuko (Vibrator star Shinobu Terajima) floundering through hordes of emasculated men; a footsy-playing, middle-aged perv is ironically her only shot at symbiosis, and mostly just because he’s the only one who’s aroused and not intimidated by her spunky regressiveness. Still, he loses his way as Yuko attains stability in the form of a sympathetic cousin, the film turning into an examination of One Fucked-up Woman (cf. Benoit Jacquot) rather than the tangled circus of Men Who Love Her (cf. nobody else).

I’ve shied away from Wim Wenders’ recent output, and if Don’t Come Knocking is any indication, I should keep it up. There’s a wide gap between “lost his edge” and “went completely nuts,” and Knocking falls squarely in the latter category. Overindulgence abounds in the form of glossy Vegas visuals that don’t illuminate glitziness so much as perpetuate it, and performances from different planets ranging in register from Pissy to Brooding. Characters’ flaws are out in the open but somehow unaccounted for by the script, reiterating ad nauseum without penance. It’s the story of a man trying to regain past glory who has lost respect for the craft that won it; telling, maybe?

Don’t Come Knocking

Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s Princesas is another entry in the Girls Gone Despondent series also attended by Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu and Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya-4-Ever. Aranoa initially examines prostitution as just another commodity, replete with monopolization and supply-demand flux, and it’s compelling stuff. But while his designation of whore-consumer sex as Obligatory and gf-bf sex as Tender may be accurate, it’s also incredibly simplistic. Why would a lifetime of soulless fucking generate hypersensitivity? Impassivity seems more likely. Thus, when the film observes lead hooker Caye falling into her “nature,” it’s as if she’s being forced into that nature against her will, which feels like unethical bullying, filmmaking-wise, and also not too credible. (The BJ-in-the-bathroom scene is an especially cruel bout of low-class tears vs. high-class smiles.) A tangent exploring Caye’s misunderstood relationship with a bedfellow is reminiscent of that one Boondocks episode where the kids try to convince oblivious Grandpa that he’s dating a hooker, only this time “tragic” instead of funny.

I walked out of Jocelyn Saab’s Kiss Me Not on the Eyes not because I hated it, but because I was trying so hard to either a) hate it or b) love it that when neither happened—this is Neutral Cinema—I sat there an insensate blob of mush, obviously incapable of giving it a fair shake. I’ve no idea what it was about a few days after, and I sat through well over half. A dancer? Or something…

Apart from the realization that, six years after the release of Almost Famous, I still sorta resemble Patrick Fugit (the eyes?), I can’t say Goran Dukic’s Wristcutters did much besides keep me awake. Dukic’s decidedly Serbian sense of humor, composed of sub-Beckettian musings baked in macabre whimsy, does little to leaven a decidedly purgatorial mood, and the predilection for arbitrary quirk lacks a great excuse like Miranda July’s “I’m an installation artist, bitch.”

So Yong Kim’s In Between Days is the Dramatic Competition’s only stab at bona-fide minimalism, as its award for “Independent Vision” (read: artiness) implies. Dismissed by clueless audience members as “angst-y,” Kim’s strength actually lies in eliding angst, as embodied by the Tarr-meets-intimate-DV opening shot of protag Aimie crunching her heels in heedless torpor through the snow. Equally clueless was the introduction of programmer Caroline Libresco, promising a “new America of many cultures,” (“brand new,” Mike scoffed) when Kim emphatically captures Koreans only. She even goes so far as to have Aimie lie to her dad, in a typical epistolary landscape shot, that she’s made friends with “white, black, and Japanese kids,” none of whom we ever see. If anything, Aimie is too conflicted between traditional morality and teenage whim to maintain any friendships, the film growing starker and less suggestive as she loses interest in her social niche, not to mention academe. But Kim skews even this downward spiral with tacit revelation, cementing herself as one to watch.

In Between Days

Tony Krawitz shoots—or rather, instructs DP Greig Fraser to shoot—Jewboy in a style as claustrophobic as Kim’s, albeit far less taciturn. Here, Drama takes precedence from the get-go, with titular Yuri (Ewen Leslie) stridently renouncing the rabbinical order, for reasons unknown until sexual frustration beckons—and this is where the aesthetic intimacy, all half-glimpsed figures obscured by chaotic movement, gets interesting. The fiery ambivalence of Yuri’s sexual encounters momentarily elevates Jewboy above mere this-vs.-that treatise, limning a transient libidinous high not too far from toking up.

Laurie Collyer has the rare distinction of having landed a spot in Sundance’s Documentary and Dramatic Competitions—1999’s Nuyorican Dream in the former, and this year’s Sherrybaby in the latter. Haven’t seen Dream, but Sherrybaby teems with vibrant characters, fiercely plausible action and the tough objectivity of a great journalist. In the title role, Maggie Gyllenhaal turns in career-best work as a recovering addict whose baby-doll smile baffles as much as it charms. Sherry is that girl we so often encounter in life and so rarely in cinema: the maturing girl whose very concept of maturity is incomplete, a mutant conflation of childish hubris and maternal duty with no in-between. In a scene rife with potential for Solondzian satire, Sherry sings in inept American Idol splendor for her family, to gales of transparent affection. But through Collyer’s lens, we’re asked neither to scowl nor weep, but merely to observe the perpetuation of lies, and wonder if it’s better to simply encourage a woman with no other options.

As soon as the opening credits of Somebodies rolled, in Comic Sans MS, the grade-school handout font that haunts with its evocations of half-done Taxonomy puzzles, I knew I’d do well to forget about mining for grace in writer-director-star Hadjii’s rough-hewn black collegiate ethos. The performances are the stuff of amateur stand-up, and the humor is half-sketched—when it does hit, e.g. the manic girlfriend’s Monster’s Ball fetish, it’s played neither for human depth nor inhuman opacity, lying lifeless onscreen. But instead of deriding the selection committee, I’ll move onto the next (and last) mediocre Dramatic Competition entry.

Admittedly, I saw Joey Lauren Adams’ Come Early Morning at a bad time, because it’s a watered-down Sherrybaby through and through, lionizing its struggling fuck-up rather than examining her vulnerabilities. Ashley Judd’s promiscuous alcoholic, Lucy, is too neatly wowed by Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), aka the Perfect Man. Though Adams’ script suggests one-step-at-a-time self-improvement, Cal is still the product of wish-fulfillment. His and Lucy’s barstool match-up is described in identical musical tastes, ostensibly “raw” but as mechanized as a algorithm. And not to un-burn bras and expect meatloaf-on-command, but goddamn are Adams’ views on gender equality dated.

Come Early Morning

Ramin Bahrani cited Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” as major inspiration for Man Push Cart, and the film plays like the existentialist’s take on Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold, observing the perilous tedium of a street-vendor’s life and, rather than despairing, taking the job at face-value. The Man in question is the fluke hit of the neighborhood, a ex-Pakistani pop star and regular at swanky parties, who prefers the simplicity of sustenance, and would be perfectly able to manage were it not for random misfortune—e.g. he loses a kitty not to irresponsibility but ignorance, feeding it milk instead of water. This is one of the best-looking DV features I’ve seen. The drab skin tones and too-fluid movement are there, but so is a visual detail strong enough to give each traffic light in the Manhattan evening its own tone. Bahrani’s camerawork also has an Assayas-like, you-are-there swerving quality, and for the most part this is engaging, understated stuff, though he’s not quite up to par as an observer. A late confrontation between vendor and patron rings didactic, with the latter a blasé asshole Making Things Unnecessarily Hard. Fortunately, surmounting one challenge after another gives our hero pleasure, true to Camusian values.

Saw Half Nelson and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints again. Stayed for the Q&As; this time, and I’m inspired to hear that Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden constructed an entire film around Broken Social Scene’s pre-S/T oeuvre without even letting the collective know in advance. And BSS loved a rough cut, permitting rights and spawning indie rock-cinema harmony on the level of Andrew Bujalski and Bishop Allen. Meanwhile, Dito Montiel embellished the hell out of his youth, and covered each scene until it “felt real.” Sometimes genius just happens.

Half Nelson

A new tradition instated last year, Sundance plays its award-winning films the night they’re announced, withholding the title from screening attendees until minutes before the film begins. I deliberately abstained from seeing any Documentary Competition titles this year in preparation for the Grand Prize Winner screening, fearing otherwise I’d surprise myself with something I’d already seen. Well, so much for another three hours in the wait-list line: I grew tired of God Grew Tired of Us after some 25 minutes, just in time to wait-list another walk-out. An essential retread of the fine 2003 doc Lost Boys of Sudan, God plumbs the lost boys’ lives for Auschwitz-level horror and March of the Penguins-level cuteness, confusing checkbook-pushing with compassion. Where the earlier film found deep ambivalence in the discrepancies between Sudanese Luddite ways and U.S. assimilation, director Christopher Quinn goes for ethnographic gruel of the UNICEF variety. And much as I try to resist pinning the “made for over-privileged white Americans” tag (me myself being one of those), it’s hard when you have Brad Pitt signed on as an exec producer and Nicole Kidman narrating oodles of pity in her most sonorous Aussie diction. For a less affected, more gonzo variety of insight into this picture, here’s a probing, intellectual dissection of its merits performed by yours truly and fellow Stylus correspondent L. Michael Foote:

killmichaelbay (11:54:28 PM): as adverse as i am to humanitarian pity for sudanese boys, their work ethic certainly trumps mine
ocathywhitaker (11:54:52 PM) : well
ocathywhitaker (11:54:56 PM) : they lack social lives
killmichaelbay (11:55:06 PM) : yeah, or AIM
ocathywhitaker (11:55:11 PM) : exactly!

Speaking of Foote, now is probably a good time for me to scamoose and segue into his coverage of the fest. Having met the guy at Sundance—my personal first encounter with Stylus in the corporeal realm, and an anxious but ultimately happy one—I can safely pass on reviewing duties for some of the films I’m too fatigued to write about, as well as some I didn’t have time to catch. Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way was my last, and sadly, Danny McBride’s Bust-Ass persona we know and love from All the Real Girls doesn’t hold its own feature-length. I’m fanboy enough to check out any new work by the burgeoning North Carolina posse of poetic inarticulation, but not enough to have endured another hour of this—yes, I walked out, again. On a lighter note, here are the five best of 34 features I fully endured:

01. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
02. Half Nelson
03. Wild Tigers I Have Known
04. The Science of Sleep
05. Sherrybaby

With my fest-going resources increasingly precarious and blind hope prevailing, until next year, and onto Foote…


A festival of pleasant experiences, Sundance 2006 fell short of true brilliance or ingenuity. Nonetheless, most of the films succeeded in creating empathy for a diverse palette of characters. Even when employing shaky techniques, genuine feeling characterized many movies this year. As I attended the festival with my conservative father (I remain unsure as to his motivations for gracing Sundance with his presence), this honest emotion reduced some of the liberal-agenda griping. For this, I am thankful. Unfortunately, I cannot wax further regarding the overarching impressions of the festival. Here are some thoughts regarding the films that the good Sky Hirschkron (a delightful companion during a few screenings this past week) hasn’t covered above.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Tackling the methods of the MPAA, This Film Is Not Yet Rated goes behind the scenes of the controversial movie ratings system. Although the apparent bias of the MPAA provides ample material, Kirby Dick’s documentary proves incoherent and haphazard. Hilariously editing together a montage of NC-17 and R rated clips makes a strong case; less satisfactory points include literally stalking the members of the MPAA in order to dig up gossip. The documentary also adopts a rather limited stance in emptily frothing over the Puritanical evils of all things conservative while ignoring ground-breaking yet financially motivated decisions like Kate Winslet’s PG-13 boob. Not only ignoring many relevant contradictions within the MPAA, the documentary also wastes time congratulating itself for being progressive: The repressed tangent of a lesbian private inspector bears zero relevance to the subject at hand. This Film serves as an impressive collection of raunchy scenes but lacks any insightful analysis regarding our society’s suppression of challenging material.

A collection of seven short films on the subject of pornography, Destricted speaks with a diverse and inconsistent voice. With a humorously lengthy shot of a growing penis and a speedy barrage of pornography’s greatest hits, a few films rise above the ruckus. However, one must also slog through the atmospheric weightiness of Gaspar Noe’s misery. Although the bizarre eroticism of many films was interesting (especially an ode to the sexual practices of folksy Eastern-Europeans), Larry Clark’s raw and decidedly un-sexy short made the strongest impression. A deconstruction of porn acting exceeding anything in Boogie Nights, the camera matter-of-factly observes horny men interviewing the porn stars of their dreams, and the unattractive interactions reach a culmination in an actual sex scene of disgusting proportions (the camera even tacitly edits out an unfortunately messy anal encounter!). The other filmmaker’s interpretations of desire may be amusing, but Clark’s systematic confrontation of the filmed fantasy-fuck jars the libido like none other.

Anders Thomas Jensen begins Adam’s Apples with a premise perfectly suiting its dry Scandinavian sense of humor. The smugness of virtue forces the audience to side with the twisted perspective of an honest Neo-Nazi facing the merciless decency of the universe. By mocking goodness, sympathizing with evil, and coolly rationalizing perversity, longtime Dogme staple Jensen effectively turns morality on its head. Traditional perception flies out the window, and God becomes a preachy bugger intent upon pat Sunday-school lessons. The finely tuned performance of Mads Mikkelsen, portraying a preacher blind to sin, gloriously captures the windy justifications of the righteous. Disappointingly, the cowardly life-affirming developments of the second act abandon the path toward darkness. The unrelenting optimism tormenting the protagonist throughout the film, rather than being overcome, sucks this black comedy into a gooey embrace of unfulfilled promise.

The controversy depicted in Peter Richardson’s Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon encapsulates the growing distance between red-state and blue-state perspectives. A town leader, after building a fortune on the logging industry, created a scholarship enabling every high-school graduate to attend college. After political disagreements between this estate and the school board, the funds were withdrawn. As subsequent tensions rise in an angry community, the viewpoints of both sides are honestly examined. To the film’s credit, the complexity of a nation-splitting debate is accurately reflected; audiences will, inevitably, probably side with their own political affiliation. Despite the admirable objectivity (aside from the last few minutes and, honestly, how justified can conservatives be?), the documentary never shies away from the difficult questions of Philomath. The enmity between warring factions never seemed more tangible; their passion and anger scorches the screen with righteous furor. Ultimately, this fine documentary empathizes with the honesty of humanity beyond political differences. Even though the townspeople of Philomath do not reach compromise, the integrity of each position illustrates the necessity of mutual understanding. To close, another top five:

01. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints [the consensus Stylus favorite!]
02. Clear Cut
03. Half Nelson
04. In Between Days
05. Old Joy

By: Sky Hirschkron and Learned Foote
Published on: 2006-02-10
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