Live from the Sundance Film Festival: Sunday, Jan. 22

January 23, 2012

I started my first day at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival mostly thankful to actually be in Park City in time for my first screening of the day.

Then I saw that first movie – “That’s What She Said” – and thought, well, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad to be late.

As it was, I felt lucky to be in Park City at all. I flew out of New York on Saturday morning, in a snowstorm, concerned about a day of travel that had me changing planes in Atlanta (thunderstorms) and flying to Salt Lake City (rain, wind and snow in the forecast).

But, while weather caused delays in Atlanta, it wouldn’t have mattered if my plane to Salt Lake had been on time – because when I got to the desk for the shuttle van to Park City, I was told that the roads to Park City were closed because blizzards were in the process of dropping two feet of snow on the roads through the canyons, making them impassable.

So, after hanging around the airport until after 10 – and being assured that no vans would be leaving for Park City that night (not true, as it turned out), I found myself a hotel room near the airport, then got up at 6 to try again. And, in the sunlight of Sunday morning, the roads were not only open but the van made the trip to Park City in about 45 minutes. I was able to dump my luggage at the condo I’m sharing, head to festival headquarters to collect my press credential and be in line for a 9:30 a.m. press screening of “That’s What She Said.”

Apparently, the smell of death on this film had long since permeated the festival (which started on Thursday) because, for this Sunday morning press screening, the theater was two-thirds empty – an anomaly at any press screening, to put it mildly. It got emptier in a hurry once the movie started; I clocked walk-outs starting at the 10-minute mark, which was the point at which I mentally decided, “Uh-oh.”

I hung in, however, for all but the closing credits, based on the conviction that you can learn as much from a terrible movie as from a good one. And this was a terrible movie from top to bottom, from the writing by actress Kellie Overbey and the direction by actress Carrie Preston to the over-acting by a cast that mostly consisted of Anne Heche, Alia Shawkat and Marcia DeBonis. I tend to blame the actresses less than the director, who could have toned it all down. But then, she thought this was a movie worth making.

It’s essentially a play disguised as a movie, in which two female friends – Heche and DeBonis – meet so Heche can help DeBonis get ready for a hot date. Shawkat is a distraught young woman to whom DeBonis’ overly empathetic character develops an attachment. It’s a movie full of women; the only male character whose face we actually see is a geriatric man who becomes embroiled in a blunt-force slapstick scene in a bathroom involving a large, runaway vibrator.

Mostly, I kept wondering: Is this really what women think is funny? Jokes about dildos, yeast infections and female masturbation? Personally, I love vulgar humor, when it’s funny (a la “Bridesmaids” or even “Bad Teacher”). But vulgarity alone doesn’t provoke laughter, just sighs of frustration.

So – what did we learn? Mostly that, if you can get a cast of recognizable faces, someone will give you a half-million dollars to make a movie – no matter how horrible.

Or even if you can’t find familiar faces. Case in point: “The Comedy,” one of the films in the dramatic competition. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to grab the selection committee by its collective shoulders, shake it hard and say, “Are you intentionally programming pointless, aimless films that seem like parodies of stereotypical ‘Sundance’ movies?”

The program notes actually say, “Audience members are forced to question …whether they should be laughing with it, at it, or not at all.” I chose to stop trying to get on director Rick Alverson’s tedious wavelength and watching his tubby, random hero and bailed after 40 minutes.

Rodrigo Cortes’ “Red Lights” had the makings of an intriguing paranormal mystery-thriller but Cortes, who wrote and directed the chilling “Buried,” couldn’t crack the third-act problem. His film deals with Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy, as academic debunkers of paranormal hoaxes who may have met their match in a famous blind psychic played by Robert De Niro. But the longer it went on, the less satisfying it became, leading to a finale that felt deflated, rather than explosive.

The day’s one bright spot was “The First Time,” a romantic teen comedy with a deft, light touch by writer-director Jonathan Kasdan, son of Lawrence and brother of Jake. It stars engaging newcomers Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien as a pair of teens from different high schools who meet at a party. Despite her having a boyfriend and him having a girl on whom he has a massive crush, they discover potential soul mates in each other. But they’re also insecure enough to distrust the speed of their connection.

Kasdan’s script is smart and witty without turning these teens into underage stand-up comics. You root for them to get together and exult in moments when they connect. It’s a sweet little charmer, an audience-pleaser that grabs the viewer without pandering to him.

So, onward and upward. My netbook, for some reason, refuses to latch on to the wifi signal at my condo, so it looks like I’ll be setting up shop most mornings about 7 this week in the lobby of the Headquarters Marriott. Stop by and say hi if you’re an early bird.

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