Strange, sweet and a little sci-fi. That is how this next selection of Sundance 2009 selections role. As we continue to roll through the end of my coverage of Sundance’s 2009 frame, we take a look at a wildly experimental and odd little film, a sweet romantic comedy telling us a familiar story in an unfamiliar way and a Japanese sci-fi movie that finds some deeper meaning.
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle
Nothing that I screened at Sundance this year was more strange and oddly charming as The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle. It follows the story of Dory (Marshall Allman), a 20-something computer programming in the midst of a crisis of faith who is forced to find new work after being laid off from his job — mostly thanks to a wild outburst toward an annoying cubicle-mate. With job prospects low, Dory turns to scrubbing toilets with a brown-collar band of janitorial misfits as a means to an end. Unbeknownst to any of them, they are made the subjects of a bizarre experiment involving a deliciously, but dangerous cookie additive. The cookies are injected with a special chemical that gives them an “oven fresh” warmth as they are eaten. They also cause the male janitors to experience intense hallucinations, mood swings and quasi-pregnancies that produce small, immaculately conceived neon blue fish that are birthed through their, er, asses.
As you can imagine, no matter its faults — and for most moviegoers there may be a few — the one sure thing about writer/director David Russo’s first feature film is that you’ve probably never seen anything like it. Like a wild acid trip, Little Dizzle is wildly imaginative in both concept and delivery. Combining highly existential dialog with some intense digital imagery, it handily delivers a story filled with interwoven themes about faith and corporate greed. It also delivers one of the most interesting sex scenes I’ve seen on screen in a while — courtesy of some unique camera work and the performances of Lost’s Tania Raymonde and Tygh Runyan. And speaking of performances, that of Vince Vieluf — who plays the O.C., the leader of the janitorial misfits — is the driving force of much of the film’s comedy. Together with Allman, his performance brings the story full-circle in a relatively coherent manner. And even though the story is filled with innovative animation and often dizzying visual effects, its story is still easily understood. As one character explains, “just because you don’t get it, doesn’t mean its a bad idea.” In this case we do get it, and we can see quite clearly that its a good idea, no matter how wild it gets.
Peter and Vandy
For those of you who have been following my Sundance coverage all week, this next story might sound familiar. Peter and Vandy is a pretty straightforward relationship story told in a non-traditional way. Bouncing back and forth between different moments of their relationship, it tells of the highs and lows between Peter (Jason Ritter) and his beloved Vandy (Jess Weixler). Juxtaposing their sweet, romantic beginning with the oft-intense bickering that erodes their connection, this film provides its audience the opportunity to explore moments in the couple’s relationships that can be seen in a different context when taken in out of order. And much like another Sundance film — Mark Webb’s 500 Days of Summer — the audience is easily engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the film’s two leads as we try to discover what went so right and what went so wrong.
And much like 500 Days, this film is anchored by two very strong central performances. Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler exhibit a pitch-perfect chemistry on screen, giving a welcomed authenticity to their relationship’s good and bad moments. The dialog, adapted from an acclaimed play by the film’s own writer/director Jay DiPietro, is also quite clever and full of wit. The problem that we run into with Peter and Vandy is that unlike 500 Days, it isn’t structurally sound. This film’s non-linear structure struggles with keeping its audience aware of the context of each scene. And though it does tie itself up in the end, I spent much of the film’s first two acts actively checking my brain in failed attempts to figure where I was in the couple’s timeline. For those who enjoy a story told in a very, sometimes damagingly offbeat way, Peter and Vandy is just as charming and well-acted as 500 Days of Summer. But if you’re like me and you sometimes like to have your hand held, sometimes like your romantic comedies with a straightforward simplicity, then it can make for a frustrating experience. Either way, both films are worth seeing — as they are both very sweet and unique.
The Clone Returns Home
One of the pleasant surprises about this year’s Sundance lineup was the subtle infusion of science fiction — real science fiction, not that fake science fantasy crap that Hollywood continues to shove down our throats — into the dramatic competitions. Right alongside Sophie Barthes’ smart exposition about the human soul in Cold Souls and Duncan Jones’ space clone thriller Moon is Japanese-born director Kanji Nakajima’s wildly imaginative tale The Clone Returns Home. A work of deeply philosophical science fiction, Clone follows the story of Kohei, a young astronaut who agrees to participate in an experimental cloning program before he embarks on his mission into space. The goal of the program is to be able to regenerate his body and reanimate him should he die. And when he is killed during one of his space missions, scientists are able to successfully regenerate his clone. The only problem is that something has gone wrong in the restoration of the clone’s memory, causing him to regress back to Kohei’s youth and the accidental death of his twin brother. Freaked out by what is happening around him, the clone flees the lab where he’s been created and heads for his childhood home. Along the way he finds his own lifeless body near a river bed in a space suit and mistakes it for his brother. All the while, the scientists work to bring to life another Kohei incarnation, hoping to figure out why the clone’s memories were defective.
It gets out there — in a wildly imaginative and existential way — but Kanji Nakajima’s film also touches brilliantly upon life and death, exploring the nature of identity, the life cycle of one’s soul and the ethical responsibilities of science (without being preachy in any way). It is also delivered with a very clean visual style, combining stunning set pieces with several stunning, long panning shots to engage the audience in a world that is somewhere between the near future and a transcendental meta-reality. Nakajima also expertly uses both and evocative score and brilliantly placed silences to accentuate the film’s most dramatic moments. The only problem to be had with the film is that it runs a little long — probably about 15 minutes or so north of tolerable. Its slow developing story does become a bit tedious at some point, leaving the late night audience that I shared a theater with somewhat disenfranchised from the otherwise innovative story. And though slow, it is also a very ambitious work, one that touches on the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of cloning. I don’t see it splashing big among mainstream crowds, but for any lover of science fiction or aspiring filmmaker, The Clone Returns Home is a very interesting and unique experience — one that can be appreciated for its brave exploration of the human soul and ample execution of a very high concept story.