'Crude'
'Crude'
Credit: Sundance

Sundance Reviews: 'Crude' and 'Dirt! The Movie'

Why bother going to Sundance if you can't dedicate time to documentaries about oil and soil?

A quick story: I was waiting in the crowd for a screening of "Dirt! The Movie." The movie was already a minute or two late when a gregarious man ran up front and said something along the lines of "Hey, do you guys mind if we hold up the screening a bit for those people who weren't lucky enough to be on time?" Several people yelled "No problem." But I had another screening immediately afterwards and I only had a 10 minute window to get there, so I said, "Ummm... Yeah, I'd have a problem." There were a couple boos, but the gregarious guy said, "Hey man, no worries! I was just asking." He threw me a ski cap for the movie and came over and quickly said, "Hey man, I'm Jeff. Didn't mean to put you on the spot like that," shook my hand and gave me his card.

It was only later that I looked at the card and saw that Jeff was Jeff "The Dude" Dowd. In light of other events from the week, I just want to mention that Jeff was very nice to me, that I made it to my next screening, which stunk. So it goes.

I saw "Dirt! The Movie" as part of a double-bill with "Crude." Both are in the documentary competition, but really I just liked the idea of seeing an oil movie and a soil movie consecutively. Even moreso than seeing yet another movie starring Lou Taylor Pucci, pairings like that are why folks should come to Sundance.

How were the actual movies? After the bump...

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Julianne Nicholson (and a blurry Will Arnett) in 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men'
Julianne Nicholson (and a blurry Will Arnett) in 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men'
Credit: Sundance

Sundance Review: 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men'

John Krasinki's feature debut turns David Foster Wallace's book into a series of acting exercises

One of the challenges of Sundance is letting buzz steer you to good films and away from bad ones, but you have to take everything with a grain of salt, since you never know where those raves or pans are coming from. If everybody's saying one thing, sometimes you can trust it (count me out for the appropriately titled "Manure"), but sometimes you want to be cautious.

Take, for example. John Krasinski's adaptation of David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." I'd been hearing bad things about the project since before I left Los Angeles and the word was no better on the ground in Utah.

Having actually seen the movie, I feel like the negative words were blown out of proportion. At 72 minutes, "Brief Interviews" is hardly worth getting worked up about, which doesn't sound kind, but it isn't an insult either. 

It's an exercise. It's a training ground for Krasinski to develop his voice as a writer and director. It a series of character-driven monologues for an assortment of very fine actors. It's a filmed reading of what would probably work fairly well as a piece of Off Broadway counterprogramming to "The Vagina Monologues." But it isn't a movie.

[More thoughts after the bump...]

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Tim Roth of 'Lie to Me'
Tim Roth of 'Lie to Me'
Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FOX

TV Review: 'Lie to Me'

Tim Roth plus close-ended stories plus an 'American Idol' lead-in means a likely hit for FOX

 

When it comes to TV procedurals, squinting is the new investigation.

CBS delivered the fall's lone freshman network hit thanks to the apparent draw of Simon Baker squinting on "The Mentalist." Baker's Patrick Jane isn't a trained officer of the law and he doesn't necessarily know all that much about forensics, but whenever he's at a crime scene, he can usually pick up on things everybody else missed just be looking really intently.

TV's newest squinting sleuth is Dr. Cal Lightman on FOX's "Lie to Me." Played by Tim Roth, Dr. Lightman is the world's leading deception expert. Lightman and his team of experts assist law enforcement and government agencies by sitting down with possible prevaricators and squinting. Tell the truth and the Lord will set you free. Tell a lie and these guys will get you locked up.

[Review after the bump...]

Roth's Lightman is the anchor, but the "Lie to Me" pilot also introduces us to psychologist Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams). The two have a dynamic that will remind viewers of the relationship between the Baker and Robin Tunney characters on "The Mentalist." So he's the genius with the questionable social skills, while she's the cool-headed one with a little common sense and sooner or later 'shippers online will want them to wind up in bed together. Thus far, they're only joined by two other investigators, compulsive truthteller Eli (Brendan Hines) and new recruit Ria (Monica Raymund). My instinct is that this is too small a universe for a network series, but CBS' "Eleventh Hour" has done OK with an even smaller regular cast.

As Dr. House has taught us many times, everybody lies, so "Lie to Me" seems to have an easy template for a long-running series. 

Using somewhat broad performances from the guest actors, plus pictures of famous alleged liars, "Lie to Me" offers a how-to manual on reading the signals of deceit. After one episode, I feel comfortable misusing phrases like "gestural emblem," "distancing language" and "shame expressions" and as long as the people I know use these signals as deliberately as the show's actors do, I'll never be lied to again. 

The jargon is good and I expect the footage of lying celebrities will be popular with viewers, but mostly audiences should be reassured that "Lie to Me" is a fairly straight-forward procedural. Like nearly everything on CBS, if you miss an episode, it probably won't matter because the "Lie to Me" doesn't even appear to have the degree of mythology of a show like "The Mentalist" with Red John.

The show is pretty much all about Roth, who instantly takes his place among TV's most compelling leading men. He's brash and funny and, best of all, he's actually speaking with a British accent. Since there's no reason why the character has to be American, the producers just let him be British, which is a credo I'd love to see spread. Because Roth is so good, I'm even willing to go along with a subplot involving Dr. Lightman and his daughter, which is the sort of padding that usually feels superfluous on shows like this.

Nothing in the supporting cast feels as strong, though I never had any problems with Williams on "The Practice," so I assume she'll be capable. Hines and Raymund are less proven commodities and the pilot doesn't give them much to do.

"Lie to Me" is a show that's more about quality than commerce. Airing after "American Idol," it may not be loved, but it won't offend anybody. Directed by "Flightplan" helmer Robert Schwentke, the pilot is handsome and processional and just a bit forgettable. Even looking back on my notes, I don't remember the exact resolution of either of the episode's mysteries. Then again, I almost never remember whether or not the patient has lupus on "House." FOX is gunning for that reliable "House" audience with "Lie to Me," leaving the riskier and artier stuff for Fridays.

 

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Jon Foster and Amber Heard of 'The Informers'
Jon Foster and Amber Heard of 'The Informers'
Credit: Senator Entertainment

Sundance Review: 'The Informers'

Star-studded Bret Easton Ellis adaptation falls flat

There is a difference between making a film about nihilism and making a film that's about nothing. That distinction gets lost in Gregor Jordan's dismal adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' short story collection "The Informers."

"The Informers" is an uninteresting collision of unlikeable characters doing unpleasant things to each other. And don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those "I need a character to root for in order to enjoy a movie" critics, but it's almost impossible to imagine any viewer taking any sort of interest -- encouraging or pure schadenfreude -- in the debauchery and excess of this group of attractive white Los Angelenos.

The version of "The Informers" playing at Sundance is bad, but it also feels gutted, like whole scenes and character details got left out. Ellis' prose is extreme, but little in this movie goes as far as the author usually likes to. This leads me to believe that after the movie tanks in April, an Unrated Directors Cut DVD will hit the shelves. I'd be happy to revisit the film in that cut.

[More thoughts after the bump.]

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Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart of 'Adventureland'
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart of 'Adventureland'
Credit: Miramax

Sundance Review: Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in 'Adventureland'

Greg Mottola's follow-up to 'Superbad' is a smaller, more character-driven comedy

"Adventureland," Greg Mottola's follow-up to the smash hit "Superbad," is the sort of film that seems simultaneously slavishly derivative of countless other coming-of-age stories, but also admirably personal and specific.

I know. That confuses me as well. 

But should it be confusing? We've all had oddball summer jobs, jobs that weren't what we planned for or what we were most qualified for, jobs that still opened the door for experiences we never would have had otherwise. It's universal stuff. 

If my own summer job stories would take place at a summer camp or a pizza place and your summer job stories took place in a law firm or at a landscaping company, I'd bet we'd have some overlapping story elements. Greg Mottola's story just happens to take place at a rundown amusement park and you could either say that his movie is "familiar" or "universal," but you'd probably be saying the same things.

More thoughts after the bump...

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Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison
Credit: Sundance

Sundance Review: 'When You're Strange'

Tom DiCillo has nothing new to say about The Doors

I need an explanation for this: Tom DiCillo tracks down a wealth of never-before-seen footage of The Doors. He decides that he's going to build a documentary largely around that footage, eschewing traditional talking-heads documentary naval gazing. 

It's an admirable enough goal, to let the mystique of The Doors either rise or fall on their actual performances and on unguarded moments from their 1966-to-1971 run.

Then DiCillo goes and undermines his film's strengths in the most excruciating way possible, over-stuffing the film with a voiceover he both wrote and narrates. The voiceover is a mixture of oft-repeated factoids about the band, unsubstantiated and unsourced speculation, remedial (and again unsubstantiated) psychoanalysis of Jim Morrison and period details that never get any deeper than "The '60s Were a Tumultuous Time..." platitudes. 

The resulting film, "When You're Strange," is one of my biggest Sundance disappointments so far.

[More after the bump...]

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoey Deschanel of '500 Days of Summer'
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoey Deschanel of '500 Days of Summer'
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Sundance Review: '500 Days of Summer'

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoey Deschanel shine in this unconventional romantic comedy

Fox Searchlight's "500 Days of Summer," building buzz out-of-competition at Sundance before a summer release, is a twisty, knowing, bittersweetly biting romantic-comedy done-right, which is already a difficult enough chore.

Not content, though, at just being one of the better rom-coms in recent memory, "500 Days of Summer" aspires to a more durable goal. It wants to be its generation's "Say Anything" or "When Harry Met Sally" or "The Graduate." It wants to be the kind of movie that defines the way contemporary relationships work, that codifies the way men and women interact so thoroughly that every guy in the audience nods and goes, "Damn, that's just the way love goes."

It comes very close to achieving that goal.

If "500 Days of Summer" has a failing, it's making its genre deconstructing intentions too evident, trying too hard to both show its influences and deconstruct them. But Sundance movies are supposed to be ambitious, eh?

Review after the bump...

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Doug Pray
Doug Pray
Credit: Sundance

Sundance Review: 'Art & Copy'

Doug Pray's exploration of advertising's brightest minds goes beyond just commercials

It's unclear if advertising today is better than ever before, but we're certainly in the Golden Age of celebrating the Ad Man. Presumably this is the fruit of the loins of AMC's "Mad Men," perhaps TV's finest show. TNT's upcoming "Trust Me" isn't on that level, but friends in the biz have told me it gives a very realistic portrait of the advertising world.

Entering the fray from the documentary side of things is Doug Pray's "Art & Copy,"  a look at the actual ad men and women who created some of the most memorable and successful campaigns of the past 50 years.

TV's fictional Don Draper may offer more drama and tension, but the Real World Don Drapers in Pray's film are every bit as persuasive and engaging.

[Review after the bump...]

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Toni Collette of 'The United States of Tara
Toni Collette of 'The United States of Tara
Credit: Nigel Parry/ Showtime

TV Review: 'The United States of Tara'

Showtime's new comedy features an award-worthy performance from Toni Collette at its center

For a woman who won an Oscar and created a blockbuster with her first movie, Diablo Cody produces wildly divergent reactions depending upon who you talk to.

Strike that. 

Perhaps *as* a woman who won an Oscar and created a blockbuster with her first movie, Diablo Cody produces wildly divergent reactions depending upon who you talk to.

Sure, her characters don't talk "the way people talk," opting for a pop culture infused, convolutedly patois all their own. It's not like Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet write the way people talk. 

Sure, she probably relished the publicity of the "Juno" more than we deem respectable, as if Tarantino or James Cameron were models of restraint when they were coronated by Hollywood.

Sure, we all got a wee bit tired of Cody's stripper-turned-blogger-turned-screenwriter story. The media beats stories to death, whether it's Tarantino's video clerk-to-auteur journey or Martin Scorsese getting his Oscar. It's what we do.

My point? Cody got raised up and torn down before it was possible to accurately gauge whether or not she was really positioned for longevity, largely by fanboys who were just a tiny bit jealous.

Showtime's "The United States of Tara" premieres on Sunday (Jan. 18) night and the pockets of online hostility toward the show are already laughable. 

Far from a perfect show bursting fully grown from Cody and executive producer Steve Spielberg's head, "Tara" is rough around the edges and sometimes annoying inconsistent in tone and delivery. But it's interesting, original and is built around a lead performance from Toni Collette that will doubtlessly be remembered come Emmy and Golden Globe season.

[More thoughts after the bump.]

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Paul Giamatti in 'Cold Souls'
Paul Giamatti in 'Cold Souls'
Credit: Sundance

Sundance Review: Paul Giamatti in 'Cold Souls'

Paul Giamatti puts his soul on ice in this Kaufman-esque competition feature

Charlie Kaufman had nothing to do with the Sundance Drama Competition entry "Cold Souls," but his name is likely to come up in nearly every review of the speculative existential thriller.

Think "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" meets "Being John Malkovich" (now "Being Paul Giamatti") and you'd have at least some idea of what to expect out of writer-director Sophie Barthes' feature debut.

While Barthes' high concept premise is a trippy conversation starter, the movie's actual execution is a little bit lax at times. True to its title, the movie has a bit of soul, plus brooding aplenty, but not nearly enough heart.

More thoughts after the bump...

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