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John Lopez

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Sundance Diary - Day Two - Touchy Feely, Austenland and The Future

Posted: 01/21/2013 10:38 am

The movie gods smiled on us coastal transplants Saturday as a clear, sun-kissed day kept the temperatures a respectable shiver away from abominable. It actually made it bearable to catch up with friends outside while you waited to get into a film. And really, that's the signature phenomena Sundance offers Hollywood, the chance to network. Sure, "lunch" is the iconic social glue of a Socially Darwinian town, but in the email age actually catching up with someone face to face, looking away from your Kindle/iPad to walk and talk somewhere, is pretty hard. So hard, in fact, you have to fly 1000 miles to do it. But of course you need to grist for the conversational mill and that's what Sundance provides -- instant gossip. Even those not busy wheeling and dealing can flaunt what movies' they've seen/failed to see, and what celebrities/power players they saw/pretended to see doing bizarre, otherworldly things, like riding an elevator, or waiting in the aisles for a seat to open up.

But at the heart of it all: movies, some of which I actually managed to see. Right off the plane, I rushed to Touchy Feely, Sundance darling Lynne Shelton's follow up to Your Sister's Sister, which stirred buzz at 2012's festival. Unfortunately, those high expectations may be dashed by the film's super subdued energy. It's a movie about small crises, and stilted emotions. Rosemarie DeWitt plays a masseuse who suddenly develops a fear of skin, which is pretty much just a displaced reaction to her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy) asking her to move in. Meanwhile, her anal-retentive dentist brother (Josh Pais) has his failing practice revived when he develops the mysterious ability to heal temporomandibular joint disorder -- a plot twist which necessitated Wikipedia surfing on my part. Also, Ellen Page is there as DeWitt's sister, mostly to give that wounded puppy look more recognizably employed in the service of Diablo Cody's witticisms or Christopher Nolan's mind-blowing. First, the good: Josh Pais's brother is the surprise of the movie. He's the kind of wet-blanket character so often used as a throwaway joke in most mainstream movies. Here, Shelton pushes us past his bland, timid personality; and Pais' performance engaged me so much that by the end I wanted his story to continue. DeWitt's lead character, while ostensibly "the fun one," actually lost my interest. The problem may be that her life seems well-balanced, so her crisis felt more like a mole-hill than a mountain. She isn't the same knotty mass of neuroses, hesitation and vulnerability as her brother, and thus less engaging. That said, the film has moments of insight, humor and engagement. And the after party thrown by Chase Sapphire was fun, too, if only because I saw Josh Radnor and Michael Cera looking lost while searching for lamb chops.

Jerusha Hess' Austenland proved to be less-satisfying spiritually, though I admit I laughed here and there, which did more to raise my heart rate than Touchy Feely. I am so obviously not the target audience for this, Hess' marriage to Napoleon Dynamite's father notwithstanding. Basically, Keri Russell plays a girl, all too recognizable to male English majors everywhere, so obsessed with Jane Austen that she blows her savings on a trip to a deranged theme-park/country manor where you act out a Jane Austen romance. But wait, will real romance result from this overt and obvious charade! Gee, I wonder. I was willing to give the conceit a chance -- it seemed like the premise could produce disarming yet literate humor. Instead it's just silly and a little sloppy: basically Legally Blonde with accents. Which is not to say it couldn't be wildly commercially successful, and I admit I laughed here and there. Then I cried imagining this in musical form.

But my find of the day was Il Futuro by rising Chilean director Alicia Scherson. She adapted the film from Roberto Bolaño's novel Una Novelita Lumpen, imperfectly translated as a A Little Novel About the Proletarian Dispossessed. Chilean starlet Manuela Martelli plays Bianca, a recently orphaned 19-year-old who must take charge of her younger brother after they lose their parents in a car crash. However, her brother, yearning for a physique his lithe frame will never achieve, drops out of school and brings back two muscle-bound buddies who take up residence in their apartment. Indifferent and lazy thugs that they are, they convince Bianca to sleep with a blind ex-Mr. Universe who lives in a nearby mansion, brought to life with marmoric grandeur by Rutger Hauer. Disclaimer: this is an art film, the kind where the nudity must be wedded to estrangement, elliptical dialogue and smoking. But I enjoyed it immensely. Bolaño, since having The Savage Detectives and 2666 posthumously translated into English, has become the icon of choice for the intellectual set -- the jaded Latin American poet-philosopher lost in the new Europe. He's the kind of writer who talks about life in terms of metaphysics and post-capitalist discontent. That's not to denigrate him -- his novels are intoxicating capsules of pure mood, and his genius is to dance around the least nameable feelings of existence with complex, startlingly concrete and hypnotic metaphors. Suffice to say, I doubted such a feeling could be translated cinematically but Scherson has captured Bolaño's spirit. She's well supported in this coup by Martelli's cool, effortless sensuality, and especially by Hauer. The movie really takes off when he comes on screen, emerging from the shadowed corners of his neo-classical mansion, a blind chunk of corroded-marble-made-flesh. Clad in only a silk robe, Hauer looks like something Michelangelo might carve after taking a graduate course in post-structuralism. Now, this might scare some viewers off: but I promise, he talks almost solely about his career as a muscleman and star of Italian Hercules films. But as he waxes postcoitally philosophic about life and what remains in old age, his dialogue is also entirely poetic. The movie is pure mood and Hauer is pure presence. The perfect film to watch as you light a cigarette, pour a tall glass of garnacha and watch the sun set over the imminent ruins of Western Civilization.

 
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