A Few Random Glimpses of Sundance 2012

In no way do these summarize the entire festival, but at least it’s a little glimpse into my experience.

Sort of.

*Sniff, sniff* Farewell Sundance…

Well, all good things have to come to an end.  It’s at this moment that I bid adieu to you, Sundance.

As always, you had your ebbs and flows.  The first weekend was completely insane, almost Vegas-like in it’s franticness.  Streets are filled to the brim wearing fashions all over the board, most are definitely not suitable for 10 degree weather.  For the few people who want to watch a movie, the wait list lines can be up to four hours long.  The manufactured-solely-for-Sundance clubs hit capacity at 9pm, forcing everyone else, even if they’re on the list, to get frostbite waiting behind the asshole bouncers.  More liquor flows than an AA meeting who just found out that the world is ending tomorrow.  Oh, and yeah, there’s Paris Hilton.  Stupid Paris Hilton, why the HELL do you come up there?  You have no business there.  God, I hate you.  You epitomize the bits that I hate about the opening weekend of Sundance.

But after the first weekend when all the people who just came up to party go home, Sundance becomes… almost pleasant and cozy.  Tuesday-Thursday are a movie-goers paradise.  Wait lists and are simple and easy.  The box office has no line.  It’s like MY festival, and this is my absolutely favorite time.  I see on average four movies a day, and it’s bliss.  You can practically feel the ease in the air.

Then the final weekend is another party.  Nothing compared to the first weekend, but more of a party that’s a mix of locals who make it up only for the second weekend (because a lot of that “LA riffraff” is gone), and the filmmakers who are celebrating the culmination of their weeklong “dream.”  It’s got a different vibe than the first weekend.  It’s more fun, more non-posery, and quite awesome.

Regardless, Sundance for me is more about the movies than the parties.  I know, I love the parties too.  I celebrate my fair share, but dammit if I’m not a movie nerd at my core.  This week is my weeklong heaven to just immerse myself in an amazing films, and a hell of a lot of crazy midnight flicks.  MY kind of flicks.  And this year there was a lot of good to be had.  To all the filmmakers, I salute you, my friends.  Keep your independent shit, independent.  It’s what makes the festival amazing.

Thank you Sundance.  Thank you filmmakers.  That wraps up my 18th straight Sundance, and I look forward to my 19th.

Until next year, my friend.

Sundance 2012 Review: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End

My brain is constantly full of bizarre things that are pretty much impossible to describe.  At any given moment, it’s like a mass gathering of indescribable insanity.  But you know, I enjoy it.  It helps me write crazy shit and I’m never bored.  This is exactly why I had a freakin’ blast with John Dies at the End.  This movie is like my brain — chock full of indescribable insanity that is almost impossible to describe.  Easy to understand?  No.  Conventional?  No.  Specific to any one genre?  No.  Entertaining as all hell?  Oh, dear lord YES.

Let me try to sum up the premise.  Well, there’s this guy John, and his friend Dave.  One night, Dave gets a frantic call from John and discovers that John has taken this strange new drug called, “Soy Sauce.”  It’s like the ULTIMATE hallucinogenic.  Only, um, it’s not really a hallucinogenic.  It let’s you see and hear things that you weren’t supposed to… things that maybe are from another dimension?  Things from hell?  Things that are around us, but our normal eyes wouldn’t let us see?  Well, figuring out what’s really happening is part of the enjoyment of the movie.  It’s a MAJOR trip.  And to be honest, when you find out what is happening, it’s more confusing than when you had no clue.  Yes, this is that kind of movie.  But guess what, I didn’t even care.  I went along for the ride.  But yeah, back to to John and Dave…  So he takes this drug and all of a sudden he’s seems to be able to travel through time?  Or more like can be in numerous different times all at once?  It’s up to Dave to figure this all out.  Hmm, it’s hard to explain.  Let me get to the bratwurst telephone.  Oh wait, maybe I should back up to the packaged frozen meat monster.  But, I really should talk about the hell moths first.  Okay, whoa…  remember what I said about indescribable insanity?  That’s what I’m running into here.  Let’s just say it’s a story about a few friends who take a crazy drug and discover that they’re the only ones that can save the world.  Yeah, that’ll have to work for now.

This movie is like a mad scientist who adds a few other mad scientists’ brains to his, in order to make an ultimate mad scientist brain totem pole.  Because honestly there’s way too much insanity for one mad scientist brain.  There is more imagination on display in this movie than any one movie I’ve seen in ages.  Besides that fantastic packaged frozen meat monster (yes, he summons numerous packages of various frozen meats in order to create himself a body, complete with a turkey for a head), there is a girl that turns into snakes, a door handle that turns into a penis (so that, ha, the men won’t touch the handle), and a Vegas-style psychic that can banish demons by talking to them through a cell phone.  Oh, and the best part?  All of these things I just described are within the first 10 minutes!  I’m NOT kidding.  This movie is one of the most insane visual trips you will EVER see, and for those that appreciate imagination over all else, this is definitely for you.

For a little bit of comfort, there are some familiar faces that will keep you warm and cozy, like Paul Giamatti and Clancy Brown.  In addition, the two leads, Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are two guys you definitely want to follow, and win.  But the “comfort” stops there, and that’s exactly how you want it.  The director Don Coscarelli (a horror icon of mine, btw, director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep) knows exactly how to play with your brain.  And for me, one of my favorite things is that he doesn’t always rely on CGI for all his effects.  There are a decent amount, yes.  But there are also a lot of practical effects work that are just fantastic.  These old school touches mixed with the new school forms are the perfect thing to create an off-balance feeling of “what the hell am I going to see next?

If you’re reading this, and you’re going, “I have no idea what this movie is about, or what even happens in it“, then that’s perfect.  That’s what I want.  It’s best to go into this movie knowing NOTHING.  You want that off-kilter feeling of truly not knowing where this baby is heading.  Because as things are revealed, I’m serious when I say you almost won’t believe it.  It’s that insane… and awesome.  Right down to the final scene, which made me immediately want the sequel, John Dies at the End… Again.

So if you like movies that are like one long all-you-can-eat buffet of psychedelic mushrooms, then like me, you will LOVE this.  But if The Notebook is more your kind of movie viewing “adventure”, then stay away.  This movie will literally blow your brain, Scanners style.

Sundance 2012 Review: The Comedy

The Comedy

The Comedy is, in a way, a perfect example of what Joe Public probably thinks of when they think of a Sundance movie.  It’s definitely a director’s vision, whether it makes any sense to actually put his vision on film or not.  It’s pretentious as all hell.  It’s an insanely low-concept character study with almost no driving story to speak of.  It has some shocking scenes sprinkled in, seemingly in order to cry out, “Hey look, I’m SO indie!  This would NEVER be in a mainstream movie, right?”  And lastly it’s really, really, really slow.  Yep, as I write this, I definitely think this is a non-Sundance viewer’s idea of a Sundance movie.  Only here, they’re dead on.

The Comedy should actually be called, “Let’s Follow Around a Complete Asshole for 90 Minutes as he Hangs Out With His Asshole Friends, Says Asshole Things, and Just Meanders Through Life as an Asshole.”  But now, come to think of it, that title might be a little too long.  But that’s basically what this movie is.  It’s the story of a 35 year old man who was born with tons of money, an entitled point of view, and no goals in life.  He splits his sad existence between living on a boat in the middle of the river and just being a dick in any way possible.  One thing he enjoys doing is pretending that he’s an employee at various places and fooling people into thinking he works there.  Why?  I’m sure the pretentious answer is that he’s “questioning his place in the world and testing all avenues to see if any place brings any comfort and enjoyment to him” or something like that.  My answer would be, “just because.”  And that’s what this entire movie felt like to me.  It’s just one, long, “just because.”  Nothing really has a point.  There’s no normal story here.  There’s not really any conflict.  There are zero likable characters.  There aren’t any of those pesky things that, you know, make a movie entertaining.  Instead it’s filled with bits that are supposed to “test the audiences boundaries.”  I love to have my boundaries tested in every way shape and form, and that’s why I was so let down by the film.  I gotta tell you, I wanted this movie to work.  I did.  I really did.  But it just didn’t.

There are a few good bits I should point out.  A few of his “being an asshole” bits are actually kind of funny.  The church scene and the cab scene worked for me.  You laugh even though they’re being complete pricks.  It’s this kind of perfect uncomfortable conflict that the director was probably shooting for, and I wanted more of.  But those few bits didn’t make up for the countless times that it fell flat.  Most of the time there was no point, no meaning, and worst of all, wasn’t funny even in a “being an asshole” way.  I feel like there was an opportunity to really play with this theme, but this wasn’t it.  Also, one other thing I liked was Tim Heidecker.  As much as I really hated the character, Tim did a really great acting job.  Usually known for his insane comedy, he played sad and dramatic really well.  I have to hand it to him and definitely tip my hat to the guy.  Regardless of the surrounding film, as an actor, he went up a whole bunch of notches with me.  To borrow from the name of his TV show, “Awesome job, Tim.  Great Job!”

The main problem I had with the film was it’s complete lack of purpose for existing.  Look, I get it.  It’s a character study on a wealthy prick and how he questions and fills his life.  The final scene really hits home about how he just really never grew up and is essentially still just a child.  Nobody can accuse me of not “getting it.”  I get it just fine.  It’s just, why, do I have to get it?  Why is this something that anyone would want to see?  I know there is an audience for everything, and I can’t fault people for what they enjoy, but for me, this movie just fell flat.

The most telling moment for me was at at the 75 minute mark when I checked the time on my phone.  It wasn’t until after that reflexive moment that I realized, that was the first time the entire festival I’d checked my phone.  That’s not a good thing.  I never check the time during a movie.  But it showed that I was as invested as I wanted to be.  In the end, it seemed like one of the longest 90 minute movies I’ve ever watched.  Oh well Sundance, can’t win ’em all.

Sundance 2012 Review: Excision

Excision

Every year at Sundance, there’s one movie that makes you go, “What the F*!# was that???”  This year is no exception… Excision is definitely that movie.  And shocker, I thought it was great.  Although, holy hell should the phrase, “NOT FOR EVERYONE” be used in every discussion about this warped, twisted, confusing, entertaining, and wholly original flick.  This baby has cult classic written all over it.

A friend of mine labeled this movie as “entertaining but unreleasable.”  Well, he may be right by typical standards, but never forget about us twisted souls that enjoy a messed up, “unreleasable” movie.  It’s for that reason that I think it is releasable, just in different markets from the multiplex.  The multiplex would have to issue record refunds if the general audience had access to this baby, but the art house crowd will eat it up.  Excision isn’t an easy movie to describe, but I’ll try to give it the ole heave ho.  If I was forced to label it succinctly I’d say, imagine if 80’s David Cronenberg directed Pretty in Pink… but instead of pink, make it red.  Blood red.  Good lord is there a lot of blood in this movie.  But it’s not the gore that makes it disturbing, it’s the protagonist we follow.

Saying Pauline is a weird girl is like saying the surface of the sun is a little warm.  Pauline is messed up… and she’s our eyes and ears of this world.  She does everything she can to look unappealing.  She says anything on her mind to whoever will listen, including asking her sex ed teacher if you can get an STD from having sex with a dead body (and she’s not joking in her enquiry.)  She dreams of being a surgeon, sometimes even practicing on the occasional dead animal.  Oh, and she has an insane obsession with blood… dreaming about it, toying with it, even tasting it.  When we enter her dreams, we enter a stylistic dreamland filled with some of the most twisted sex+gore related sequences you could imagine.  These are messed up for sure.  But it’s her real-life blood-related curiosities that make for some of the most cringe-inducing scenes.  One scene in particular literally had our audience groan louder than anything I’ve heard in a while.  I won’t ruin it for you, but wow.

Now, what makes this movie interesting to me is the fact that it seems to follow the John Hughes style of following around the outcast in a high school full of jocks and popular girls.  She has a horrific relationship with her overly religious mother.  Her father is nothing but a waste of space.  Nothing around her seems to fit with her.  In movies of this type, she’s the one we root for against the rest of the garbage around her.  But as an audience, we’re uncomfortable “rooting” for her because while one second you’re right alongside her in her opinion, the next scene she’s getting off in her dreams hopping on top of a beheaded body and grinding on it.  You’re pulled each and every direction, but that’s what so damn awesome.  You just feel “off” every step of the way, and honestly have no idea what you’re thinking, let alone what Pauline is.

Now, to go into the rest of the details of this movie would be a travesty, but just know that it has cult classic written all over it.  It’s a story of a high school outcast, her thoughts, the people she meets, dealing with her family, and trying to discover herself in the process. But it’s all seen through the eyes of what could almost be described as a sociopath.  And hell, of course it has cult classic written all over it when Traci Lords is cast as the overly religious mother; Ray Wise is a strange, overly republican principal; Marlee Matlin, yes, Marlee Matlin, is a counselor at the school; Malcolm McDowell as a math teacher; and freaking John Waters as a PRIEST.  All I’d have to say is John Waters is a priest and I think you know exactly the type of material you’re dealing with here.  But throw all of that in, and top it off with a final 5 minutes that will have audiences talking, and you’ve got yourself some twisted gold.

At the Q&A, the director stated that John Waters himself told him that, “this is a really weird movie.”  Now trust me people, if John Waters says that, you should know what you’re getting yourself mixed up in.  But for those of us who hear those words and can’t wipe the smile off our faces, this movie is right down your alley.

Enjoy it, kids.  I can’t wait until more people see this and we can all talk about the last 5 minutes… let alone the journey we took to get there.

Sundance 2012 Review: The First Time

The First Time

Most people remember the first time they fell in love.  You’re young.  You’re kind of an idiot.  You don’t really know exactly what you’re feeling, but strangely you both like and hate it at the same time.  Awkwardness abounds, but it’s exciting.  All these feelings and emotions are on display in the movie The First Time.  It’s a charming little ditty that won’t wow you with anything exceptional, but takes you along for a gentle and adorable little ride.  It’s like an early crush on the “sweet” girl…  cozy and fun for a while, her smile makes you warm inside, but eventually you move on to that more twisted, dangerous girl with the tattoo.  The First Time is kind of like that sweet girl.  So as long as you aren’t into the dangerous types (like me, I admit), you’ll enjoy this sweet girl of a film.

Many times at Sundance the term “independent movie” equals “very talky movie.”  The First Time is no different.  This film is very talky.  There is a lot of dialogue on display here, helped in part by the actors who always seem to nervously pack a few extra sentences into time spans usually allotted for less.  The opening scene is basically 10+ minutes of just the two leads escaping from a party and meeting in an alley.  It’s dialogue heavy and went on a little long for me, but I see what the director was doing.  He wanted to show in its entirely how two random strangers can build a quick connection.  It’s cute, if at times a little contrived.  After these two are able to find this initial connection, the rest of the movie is dedicated to following their connection over the course of a weekend, and it goes from there.

I’ll admit it started a little slow for me.  The extremely lengthy opening scene aided in that.  But it starts to build on you.  Following these two well cast actors as they both discover the “first time” they truly connect with someone of the opposite sex is pretty damn adorable.  And a lot of that is due to the casting of two people that actually have a fantastic chemistry together.  In a romantic comedy, chemistry is top of the list in importance for me.  And here, these two just have it.  With that chemistry, we as an audience will travel with them regardless of scenario because since we can see that they actually work together well, we are vested in pulling for them.  The roadblocks and contrivances (yes there are a few) thrown in to break them up doesn’t matter to us because at the core, we’re all softies and want to see two people that should be together, be together.  And it’s all because of chemistry.  Kudos to the casting team and the director for nailing that so perfectly.

Some of the external bits or characters didn’t quite fit with me.  Some just felt there superficially.  Others just felt tacked on to try and make the film feel more “well rounded”, but in the end I didn’t really care.  It’s about the couple.  It’s pleasant to follow them and made me think back to my own high school experiences, and the pitter patter we all felt when we liked someone.  It’s a nice feeling.

Even a hardened horror guy like myself found myself grinning in the end, so regardless of minor quibbles, I guess that’s what this kind of movie is about.  We all love the scary tattooed bad girl (or boy), but let’s be honest, we need to crush on a sweet girl every once in a while.  The First Time is that sweet girl.  Go ahead and take her for a sweet spin.

Sundance 2012 Review: Indie Game: The Movie

Indie Game

To quote the Transformers, something that definitely helped craft my childhood, as well as that of the programmers in the film, Indie Game: The Movie is definitely more than meets the eye. At first look this is a glimpse into the world of independent programmers that most people don’t even know exists. But as you watch you begin to realize that the overall themes stretch far further than this simple premise. This is a story about any kind of entrepreneurial person that decides to follow their creative dreams and dedicate their life to following their passion. And as someone that fits that bill, this movie spoke to me on a very personal level. It’s perfect that Sundance, a showcase of independent filmmaking and proving ground for this kind of human being, chose it for its premiere.

Everything about this movie epitomizes independent. From the subjects in the film trying desperately to complete something extraordinary all by themselves, outside the “system”… to the filmmakers themselves, who used the crowd sourcing site Kickstarter as a way to actually get this movie made. Watching it from both points of view, you get a kind of postmodern look at true independence on two different levels. It’s the kind of thing that validates anyone who has gone through these trenches.

The movie itself follows a number of different independent programmers, but really hones in on three personal stories. One is the story of two, some might call them, “outcasts” who are trying to get their game Super Meat Boy released through the massive Microsoft XBox Marketplace. Another is the story of someone who literally puts his personal life stories into the game he’s making, and gets annoyed when people don’t see the deeper meaning he’s trying to portray. And the third is the gut-wrenching journey of a man who was throned a superstar with a bonafide hit on his hands far before the game was even finished. Now over four years later, he still hasn’t finished nor released it, due to his obsessive qualities and life changing trials. All three stories have more heart and soul than most Hollywood movies. We feel their trials. We experience every bump in the road. We are literally dragged through the mire time and time and time again. But we see these guys push through it all, and in the end, that’s what is so uplifting about this film. It shows people at their absolute most depressed and beaten down, but continue to courageously push through because it’s their passion. It’s seriously emotional stuff and one that I honestly feel most people could relate to in their own lives.

Indie Game: The Movie may not get as many older viewers because they could care less about gaming, but I’m here to spread the word. This movie at its core isn’t about gaming at all. It’s about struggle, following your dreams no matter how difficult, and staying true to yourself through it all. It’s really a powerful movie that comes out of what, at first, you think is a benign subject. But trust me, as you finish the film you realize there is nothing benign about these games at all. These games are essentially these people’s hearts poured out onto a screen. Truly fascinating and gripping. I highly recommend this film.