Live from Sundance 2013: Tuesday, Jan. 22

January 23, 2013

Well, the law of diminishing returns caught up with me on Tuesday at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival because, well, it’s the law.

So my last film of the day, “Ass Backwards,” sent me fleeing into the chilly night after 20 or so minutes (because, really, if they can’t make you laugh in the first 20 minutes, well, take a hint). Written by and starring the dreaded team of Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael, it’s about – well, really, who cares? Keep in mind that this is the same pair responsible for the awful “Bride Wars” and you get the picture.

The film, about two unself-aware losers who go home to compete in a beauty pageant they’d lost as children, is reminiscent of “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” – except, you know, without actually being either funny or smart. Wilson’s character has the affect of a female Jim Carrey from his early years – painfully clueless about her own cluelessness. Raphael, who looks like a less-talented clone of Christine Baranski, is – well, again, why bother? With luck, this film will never escape the festival circuit.

And my second-to-the-last film of the day was the impenetrable “Upstream Color,” by Shane Carruth, whose mind-bending “Primer” was a Sundance hit in 2004. This film, however, is not just hard to figure out – it’s nearly impossible. I wasn’t the only one who came out of it shaking his head and muttering, “What the hell was that?”

I wouldn’t even venture a guess. At first, it seemed to be about a guy discovering that, if he forces other people to ingest a grub-worm from the dirt of a certain plant, he gains a kind of hypnotic control over them. Then it was about a group of pigs in a pen. Then it was about some strange worm-like parasite that grows inside one woman who was forced to ingest the grub. Every time you try to assign meaning to something (Wait – are the people and the pigs sharing the same consciousness in different dimensions or realities?), Carruth pulls the rug out and you have to refigure where you are in the film’s world. Or you could simply save yourself the time and trouble and skip it.

I liked “Blue Caprice,” a film by Alexandre Moors about the Beltway sniper, although it is stark and probably not particularly commercial. Isaiah Washington played John Allen Muhammad, who trained his young protégé, Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond), and made him so psychologically dependent that he did Muhammad’s killing for him.

Moors doesn’t show the shootings, instead telling the story of Malvo meeting Muhammad in Antigua and being brought back to the U.S., where Muhammad tells people Malvo is his son. Muhammad is an angry man, whose children have been taken from him in a divorce. He’s angry at the system – and the larger society that lets it trample on people like him. He’s convinced that, by initiating a series of random killings – culminating in shooting a cop, then bombing the cop’s funeral – he can spread enough fear to trigger the collapse of contemporary civilization.

Moors lets Washington take center stage as the fiery, charismatic and deeply disturbed Muhammad. Richmond lets us see an impressionable teen slowly have the soul sucked out of him by a mentor who turns him into a killing machine. And Tim Blake Nelson provides some much-needed comic relief as an old Army pal of Muhammad’s, who helps them out.

The day started well, however, with “The East.” Starring Brit Marling and cowritten by Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, it’s a conventional but highly effective thriller about an undercover agent, working for a private security firm, assigned to infilitrate and bring down an eco-terrorist group called The East that is targeting large corporations.

Marling plays Sarah, the agent, who is savvier than her bland looks and born-again affect would suggest. She quickly works her way into the central circle of The East and the confidence of leader Alexander Skarsgard, then is forced to participate in a couple of their “jams” – as they refer to their operations. One involves crashing a party held by the head of a major pharmaceutical corporation, which makes an antibiotic that can have drastic side effects. At the party, they spike the champagne with the antibiotic, then watch as the execs eventually suffer the consequences.

But Sarah gradually comes to understand what her new playmates are talking about, whether it’s their “freegan” approach to dumpster diving (and institutionalized societal waste) or their assertions that corporate America needs to be held accountable for their misdeeds, in a way that the legal channels never seem to accomplish. Has she simply become a victim of Stockholm syndrome? Or has she truly seen a light that can’t be extinguished? A turning point: As the antibiotic caper is going down, she sneaks off to phone her boss (Patricia Clarkson), who tells her to do nothing to stop the “jam” because the pharmaceutical company “isn’t our client.”

Until now, I hadn’t been a particular fan of Marling’s but she was surprisingly good in this – and the script was lean and fast-moving. This one could crossover to a mainstream audience without much trouble.

One day to go: My schedule is in flux but I may actually squeeze in five more movies on Wednesday before I fly back to New York on Thursday.

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