With so many films showing at Sundance this year, there was inevitably going to be the odd dud.
And so it was we finished off a somewhat underwhelming day of movies yesterday with an evening screening of Stephen Frears’ woeful Vegas comedy Lay The Favorite.
Despite a big-name cast (Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn…), this tale of a ditzy stripper making it big in the world of professional gambling proved as bland as a throwaway studio flick, full of laboured gags and annoying caricatures.
Thankfully, Day 5 picked up the pace a little. We kicked things off with Smashed, a drama about a young couple (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul) whose booze-fuelled relationship is threatened when she decides to get sober.
An engaging look at the after effects of alcoholism, its witty script (by writer/director James Ponsoldt) stops things getting too heavy and, though the film doesn’t exactly break any new ground, Winstead’s committed performance is a triumph.
Then it was a trip to Main Street (where guys with spades were furiously clearing the snow) to sit down with French director Quentin Dupieux. The Rubber auteur’s new film Wrong is a wacky, often hilarious ode to absurdism.
Dupieux didn’t disappoint, discussing his own “logic bible”, which stops the crazy getting too out of hand, while star William Fichtner revealed that it was his wife’s idea for him to sport a ponytail in the movie. (He’s one of few men who can actually pull it off.)
Save The Date kept the indie spirit alive with some well-observed humour and fizzy performances. Lizzy Caplan in particular shone as Sarah, a bookstore manager who dumps her rocker beau (Geoffrey Arend) when he gets too clingy.
The film’s blend of indiepop and twenty-something angst make it a perfect bedfellow for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (which, incidentally, also featured Mark Webber).
As the credits rolled on Save The Date, we scoffed a Snickers bar and legged it back to the press holding area to queue for the next film – zippy comedy drama Nobody Walks.
If The Artist celebrated silence, Walks celebrates sound, with Olivia Thirlby’s young filmmaker experimenting with audio recordings as she makes her first movie. Her presence in the household of an LA family, though, disrupts everybody’s love lives.
Churning with passion, Walks is a snappy drama that sounds amazing, and delivers some sucker-punch one-liners. Thirlby’s great as the enigmatic artist (rocking a trend-setting ‘do and high-waist jeans), though it’s a shame the film doesn’t strain for more depth.
There was just enough time to squeeze in Finding North – a commendable doc exposing America’s hunger epidemic (and featuring celebrity talking head Jeff Bridges) – before switching screens for one of the festival's first sales, Black Rock.
The Kate Bosworth horror endeavoured to end Day 5 with a scream, though we were mostly laughing in all the wrong places at the increasingly-ridiculous proceedings.
Directed by Katie Aselton from a Mark Duplass screenplay, the slasher-by-numbers premise has three women (including Bosworth) heading to a deserted island for a little bonding. The ensuing bloody mayhem is both predictable and OTT, with confused, unnecessary PTS undertones. Awesome title song, though.
Film of the day: The Surrogate
Today’s main event was dramedy The Surrogate, which premiered to an emotional standing ovation this morning.
Based on the life of the late poet Mark O’Brien (played here by John Hawkes) – a polio survivor mostly confined to life inside an iron lung – the film is less a worthy biopic and more a crowd-friendly relationship movie, as the 38-year-old virgin hires sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to help him pop his cherry.
Confidently helmed by writer/director Ben Lewin, the bittersweet story could have easily descended into mawkish, disability-movie-of-the-week territory, but the script’s successfully comic leanings keeps it (mostly) light and accessible.
It’s the performances that really stand out, though. Hawkes is a revelation in a physically and emotionally tough role, sidestepping any look-at-me overacting for a much more subtle – and sympathetic – approach. Hunt, meanwhile, bears all (literally) as the confident, straight-talking Cheryl. In fact, it’s no stretch to predict that, come 2013, these two will be a permanent fixture on the awards season’s Best Actor/Actress shortlists.