Live from the Sundance Film Festival: Wednesday, Jan. 25

January 27, 2012

I feel as though I carved a solid four days of films out of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, concluding with a final day that offered four films, the best of which was at once mysterious and compelling.

Written and directed by the team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, “The Words” has a variety of interesting things to say about the nature of creativity and art, and what the work says about the artist. But it offers them within an intensely human dilemma that keeps you as focused on the drama as on what the drama is about.

“The Words” begins with Dennis Quaid, as the author of a best-selling novel, giving a public reading from his book. In the story within the story, Bradley Cooper plays a man whose greatest dream is to be a writer – so he has devoted the last two years of his life to writing a novel. He believes his book will have enough success to justify the fact that he has not earned a living in those two years, relying on his father’s financial support. When his novel is rejected, he does take a job, in the mailroom at a literary agency.

On his honeymoon in Paris, he buys a weathered leather briefcase in which he later discovers a hidden manuscript. And not just any manuscript:This is a work of genuine literary genius. He is so envious of the anonymous author, so overcome by the notion that he’ll never write this well that he retypes the manuscript to feel what it’s like to write like this – then claims it as his own.

The book is released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, which he has longed for. But lies never disappear and this one eventually catches up with him.

Cooper is good here, playing the anguished and envious would-be artist who writes himself into a corner, as it were. But Jeremy Irons, as a stranger with a commanding presence, nearly steals the movie from him. It’s all bookended by Quaid, as the author with his eye on a student fan (Olivia Wilde) who may be interested in him romantically. But as the writer/directors remind us, the author is not the work – and Quaid’s character may not be the sensitive type, just a writer with the ability to write sensitive fiction.

I also liked Michael Walker’s “Price Check,” which offers Parker Posey a long-needed role infused with the alternately dark and kooky energy that is Posey’s specialty. Walker has written her an exceptional character as Susan, a pricing-and-marketing executive for a low-level grocery chain, who arrives to shake up a sleepy regional branch on Long Island. She sets her cap for Pete Cosy, a guy with a wife, kid and debts – but the most solid guy in the department.

Eric Mabius brings considerable deadpan skills to Pete’s encounters with Posey’s Susan, who sweeps into the office determined to take the company’s national marketing in a bold new direction to try to win back market share. Pete, who says early on that he just wants to “do the job, then go home and spend as much time with a my family as I can,” finds himself seduced into a promotion that promises to cure his financial ills – in exchange for taking over his life. Both he and his wife are easily co-opted by that massive raise he receives – but they experience a sudden dramatic shift in the shape of their lives, because Pete is always working.

Walker gets it exactly right: the fear of losing a job at a time when whole industries are laying people off, the recognition that you don’t really have a choice anymore when the boss asks you to work late – or do anything else.

It’s a delight to see Posey spouting Walker’s dialogue, a kind of passive-aggressive bad-boss-speak. Mabius keeps a straight face at Posey’s unpredictable, sometimes nerve-wracking performance.

I wanted to like Christopher Neil’s “Goats,” about Ellis (a very good Graham Phillips), a Tucson adolescent, who rebels against his new-agey trust-fund mother (Vera Farmiga). He applies to (and is accepted at) his father’s old East Coast prep school, though he and his father have been estranged for years, mostly through the maneuverings of his mother.

His best friend is a family chum known either as Goatman or Javier, long-haired and bearded (but David Duchovny underneath) family retainer, who cleans the pool, does the gardening, mentors Ellis and lives in the pool house (and, yes, keeps goats).

In this prep-school coming-of-age tale, the hero, a bright stoner whom neither parent seems to actually notice, learns that, in fact, most adults have feet of clay, in disappointing ways. It’s a time-honored genre, but “Goats” is neither funny nor deep enough to do it in a satisfying way. Duchovny offers better wisecracks on a weekly basis on “Californication” than he does in this film.

I also found “Mosquita y Mari” underwhelming, though it offered a pair of natural and watchable newcomers in the central roles. Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is the daughter of hard-working Hispanic immigrant parents living in a nice part of Huntington section of Los Angeles. She’s shy, a good girl who studies hard and isn’t interested in drinking or partying like some of her friends.

But she is entranced by the tough girl across the street: Mari (Venecia Troncoso), whose mother is struggling to pay the rent. Mari ends up partnered with Yolanda in geometry class because of a book shortage and, as Yolanda starts to tutor Mari, they develop a mutual girl crush, even as they become close friends.

But the story is muted – perhaps too muted – as these two young woman wrestle with issues of both sexuality and class. The young actresses have a natural style that shows us behavior, rather than performance. But the story itself seems underdone.

I might as well get in a word about “California Solo,” which had its debut Wednesday night as well (and which I saw before I got to Sundance). I’ve been a fan of Scottish actor Robert Carlyle for a number of years – and it’s been a while since he’s had a role as rich and revealing as he does in director Marshall Newy’s film.

He plays Lachlan MacAldonich, now a middle-aged farmworker in rural California outside of L.A., once the lead guitarist of a 90s’ band on the verge of big things, when it imploded with the death of its lead singer, Lachlan’s brother. Lachlan now happily works on the farm, records a podcast about dead rock stars and goes out for the occasional drink at the local bar.

But after being overserved one night, he is stopped, sobriety-tested and arrested. The DUI charge triggers a sudden interest from U.S. Immigration, which puts it together with a pot bust Lachlan suffered 20 years earlier, deeming him an undesirable alien. That triggers a desperate search by Lachlan for a way – any way – to keep himself from being deported, even if it means getting to know the daughter he hasn’t seen in 10 years.

Carlyle makes Lachlan a guy whose life starts to spiral out of his control, as he disappoints one person after another, himself most of all. It’s a quietly layered and affecting performance of wonderful richness.

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