It’s fun to gorge on movies once a year. Not healthy, but fun. I saw the following twelve films in two days and change (Linda called it quits earlier on night #2 – the jet lag from NYC can be brutal in comfy dark theaters – so she only saw 11). Four a day is probably ideal. Unlike the New York Film Festival, where there’s only one at a time, Sundance makes you pick and choose off a grid of competing screenings. Fortunately, we stay with some good friends who live in Park City and do volunteer work for the fest, so by the time we get there, they’ve already seen 20-30 flicks and can give us a little guidance. Even they can’t see everything, and not everything screens over the last long weekend while we’re there.
In general, we found this fest, our seventh Sundance, a little thinner than usual. There’s a new director (longtime Sundance director Geoff Gilmore is now at the Tribeca Festival), the big studios have pretty much shuttered their indie departments, and you don’t get the feeding frenzy that you did when the Weinsteins ruled the world. The quality seems to have suffered a tiny bit as well, if that’s not our imaginations working, or the luck of the draw. There was no incredible breakout, at least not for us. Still, it’s great to watch movies before you‘ve been told whether they’re any good or not (however, I’m still going to tell you, heh heh); when the lights go down, you really don’t know what to expect, and that’s a terrific feeling. For the second straight year, I didn’t see a single film I would call bad. (And they’ve definitely been there, O my children, trust me on this.) It’s also instructive to watch them gradually get released over the ensuing year or two and observe how the marketers try to find an audience. Usually clumsily, in my experience. Then too, you love it when an indie gets recognition: two we saw last year, PRECIOUS and AN EDUCATION, were just nominated for Best Picture. I didn’t care for PRECIOUS as much as the world seems to and was astonished when it raked in just south of $50 million, but then, Oprah is a very influential person.
While I can still remember details, here’s my instant take, using a five-star system, in the order in which I saw them:
HOWL**** (Festival Opening Dramatic Film) An inventive, hallucinatory explication of Allen Ginsberg’s masterwork (itself inspired by Walt Whitman, though acolytes didn’t want to hear about that back then) in four interlocking pieces. 1) A young, b&w Ginsberg (beautifully played by James Franco) reads, no, performs the poem to a Fifties audience: it’s unclear whether this is meant to represent the famous Six Gallery reading where HOWL was introduced, but it doesn’t matter; 2) presumably later, on color stock, he grants an interview to an unseen inquisitor; 3) HOWL’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, goes on trial for obscenity; and 4) wonderful pieces of animation illustrate Ginsberg’s more powerful flights of poetic fancy, sometimes literally. These four elements trade out, rebound against each other, and sometimes collide. Franco is very good here. Quite a ride, but you have to like HOWL the poem, or at least learn to like it in these 90 minutes; it arguably ushered in the counterculture.
TWELVE*** (Festival Closing Dramatic Film) Bored, privileged Upper East Side high-schoolers celebrate spring break. There’s a new drug called Twelve which is instantly addictive (an invention of novelist Nick McDonnell), the very hottest guy has dropped out of school and now makes his living retailing pot despite the lame lie he gives his toothsome childhood sweetheart, his cousin is gunned down in a drug deal gone bad (the cousin was strung out on Twelve), and a buncha gorgeous young people party, party, party. This film was made by certified coot Joel Schumacher, but it’s not for my homies. When star Chace Crawford entered the theater to siddown, the camera flashes defined the generations: we didn’t know who the hell he was – maybe a teen vampire? The young, anonymous (to us), beautiful cast does a wonderful job: Schumacher brought no less than eleven of them to the stage for the Q&A afterward. As the director told us, this is a cautionary tale about bad parenting. Afterward, we two, who actually live near where this movie is set, ruminated that the climactic scene could never have gotten started in real life: the cops would have been there LONG before anything significant happened because the MUSIC WAS TOO GODDAM LOUD!
LUCKY** Documentaries frequently provide the biggest positive surprises at Sundance. This one follows five or six families who have each won huge amounts of money in a lottery. We learn that sudden great wealth doesn’t really change you all that much. If you were a spendthrift before, you’ll become a super-spendthrift. If you’re devoted to your family, then you’ll use your money to help them, even if they’re still in Southeast Asia. But some parts are wistful, like the middle-class family whose jackpot inexorably estranged them from longtime friends, until they finally had to move to an affluent community where neighbors wouldn’t question their means. There’s a mathematician who explains how he hit the numbers, calculating the odds in a comical way, but even he – a very sweet guy – lost his wife over all this hullabaloo. A minor piece which ended just as we were wondering when it would.
FREEDOM RIDERS***** The single best thing I saw. A docu about 1961’s courageous students, clergy, and many more, using contemporary interviews with as many Freedom Riders as the filmmakers could find, and archival footage that’s never been seen before. The first wave of twelve brave people got on two buses in DC and planned to ride through the Deep South to New Orleans, testing the Jim Crow laws everywhere they stopped. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was set afire, and in Montgomery, the other riders were beaten to a pulp before JFK and RFK – who just wanted the Riders to go away – were finally forced to act. A second wave of students from Nashville continued the trek; by this time the Alabama National Guard had finally been called in. But when they got to Mississippi, Gov. Ross Barnett made sure his citizens kept their mitts off. He simply arrested the Riders “peaceably” and sent the kids to the notorious Parchman penitentiary for hard time. What Barnett didn’t expect was that a third wave of 400 other kids, from all over the country, would converge on Jackson, MS, to be arrested and sent to prison. Before long, there were no more WHITE ONLY waiting rooms in any bus stations in America, and the civil rights movement was solidly established. Admirers of Martin Luther King may be disturbed to find that he seemed to lack the courage displayed by the bright-eyed students. (All this happened before he was “Martin Luther King”!) This film was produced by WGBH Boston and will be shown on public TV next year, the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
RESTREPO***** (Festival Opening Documentary, Documentary Jury Prize) In 2008, while people back home were thinking about anything but Afghanistan, a platoon was deployed for 15 months into the Korengal Valley, home of the Taliban and the most dangerous posting in the country – maybe in the world. Here, fire is exchanged several times a day, every single day. Sebastian Junger (THE PERFECT STORM) and Tim Hetherington imbed with these guys for 10 months. They eat what the soldiers eat, sleep where they sleep, do everything except carry weapons; they carry cameras instead. What you get is THE HURT LOCKER with real bullets. This is what it’s like to be in a grittily tough forward position: this is the real thing. The film is nonpolitical: you’ll see whatever armed combat happens to bring to your eyes and mind. At the Q&A afterward, Junger said he might be finished with war correspondence: from inside a Humvee, he shot an IED explosion that could easily have killed him if it had happened a half second later. Interleaved interviews with surviving soldiers four months after their hitch clearly show PTSD setting in, and you might even taste it just a little from the comfort of your chair. Any civilian who plans on sending uniformed kids off to fight ought to be forced to watch this film first.
JACK GOES BOATING*** For his first feature, Philip Seymour Hoffman directs a play which he nurtured downtown at the nonprofit LAByrinth Theater Company. (I didn’t see it there.) It’s a throwback to the quiet “little people” dramas of the Fifties, like MARTY. Hoffman plays a mousy limo driver who listens to reggae music to keep his spirits up. He meets a girl (Amy Ryan) who awkwardly inspires him to better himself to please her. Meanwhile, his dear friends (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega) are struggling to keep their marriage from falling apart. You laugh, cringe, even cry, for all of them. Hoffman seems to be adept at ratcheting very fine-lined theatrical performances up or down for the screen. Though this is a nice little play, “opened up,” I await something even more urgently cinematic from Mr. Hoffman. Yet I’ll never forget Ryan’s comically innocent sexual fantasy, traveling through “superspace.”
THE COMPANY MEN*** When you first see Ben Affleck’s character strutting on the golf course, you want to smack this tiresome yuppie down. Don’t bother: his employer is about to do it for you. This drama by TV’s John Wells shows us downsizing, white-collar-style, and it’s no less painful just because these people are advantaged. A Boston-based conglomerate headed by Craig T. Nelson has to make its quarterly numbers, so heads must roll. Once it was a modest shipbuilding concern co-founded by Nelson and Tommy Lee Jones (the film’s voice of reason, like Hal Holbrook in WALL STREET – only in a dramatic masterstroke, he’s boinking the HR department’s chief executioner!), but now “we work for the shareholders,” and shipbuilding – which has become a tiny asterisk on the corporation’s balance sheet – is more cheaply done, er, offshore. There is a stellar cast: Chris Cooper, Rosemary DeWitt, Maria Bello, and a very nice turn by Kevin Costner as the blue-collar relative who wonders what paper-pushers contribute to society. Remarkably, you feel for Affleck’s slow descent from the upper middle class, as well as older guys who are cast off after giving loyal decades to the firm. But there’s only so much empathy available for even former big shots and their conspicuous consumption.
CYRUS**** The Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, made BAGHEAD and some other interesting indies, but they were way off my radar scope. With this film, I officially take notice: they’re my new Coens, and as with Joel and Ethan, I’ll gladly see whatever they choose to shoot from now on. This is a lovable-loser romantic comedy, but with a barrel of Tabasco. The third character is Marisa Tomei’s 21-year-old son (Jonah Hill), who not only gets in the way of John C. Reilly’s ardor, he could even be certifiably psychotic – and all this emerges from Hill’s hilarious/frightening thousand-yard stare. Hill steals every scene that isn’t battened down, but before he even gets going, there’s half an hour of typical grossout comedy. The Duplasses are not afraid to take dangerous right angles, and by the end, it isn’t even a comedy any more. This one’s not for everybody, but it sure was for me. P.S. Ridley and Tony Scott exec-produced.
ANIMAL KINGDOM**** (World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize) A very well-done sojourn with the Melbourne mob, a bunch of vicious little yobbos who make the Goodfellas look like Etonians. When her heroin habit finally kills “J”’s mother, he’s taken in by her estranged mother, the matriarch of a veritable roughneck brigade. J’s uncles are very bad boys, led by creepy Uncle Pope, who’s running from some very bad cops. Guy Pearce is a detective trying to drive a wedge into the family to shut it down. This is director/screenwriter David Michod’s first feature, and his prodigious talent shines through; you’re completely under his control through carefully paced scenes of almost unbearable suspense. There’s enough scenery for everyone to chew, but the standout performer is Jacki Weaver as the Machiavellian mum. Her preternatural calmness, as in a beautiful scene where she quietly manhandles a rogue cop with nothing but her voice, is as chilling as anything done by her sons. Revenge eventually emerges as the key plot point, and you’ll be talking about exactly how it was achieved for a long time. A sensational debut for Michod.
WASTE LAND**** (World Cinema Documentary Audience Award) Vik Muniz is probably Brazil’s most successful fine artist. He photographs portraits made of found materials, like the series depicting poor Caribbean children by using the sugar their parents tend on plantations. For his latest project, he wants to visit the world’s largest landfill, Rio’s Jardim Gramacho, and use items retrieved by the self-described “pickers” who crawl through mountains of trash for recyclable material. First he must befriend a few potential models – who will also help create the actual artwork in his studio – and then try to bring the result to market, in order to donate the proceeds to the pickers and their professional association, founded by a visionary young man who believes they deserve respect. We get to know several pickers, we see the unending stream of waste which cannot fail to represent our own gluttony, and we discover the inherent dignity in honest work which most people would prefer not to think about, and in the uplifting ability of art to say what words cannot.
WINTER’S BONE** (Dramatic Jury Prize) A stereotypical “Sundance film.” It’s winter in the bleak Missouri Ozarks. The sky, the ground, people’s faces, everything seems to be dull grey. Teenager Rhee Jessup is the de facto head of her household, because mom is near-catatonic, pop skipped bail after putting the house and land up for bond, and her young sister and brother aren’t old enough to fend for themselves. If Rhee can’t produce her father to stand trial, she loses everything. She goes from house to house – very slowly – and shakes up the secretive community until it feels it has to strike back. This is a moody little piece, but the mood never changes. We saw director Debra Granik’s DOWN TO THE BONE at Sundance a few years ago (that was our first good look at Vera Farmiga) and felt just as depressed. John Hawkes, a fine actor, has a featured role and does well, but if I never see another meth-cooking hillbilly again, it’ll be too soon. Sometimes this kind of movie works for me (FROZEN RIVER). This one didn’t.
happythankyoumoreplease*** (Dramatic Audience Award) A New York City romcom. Not quite as bright as last year’s 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, but still very amusing in spots. Ya gotta have a gimmick these days, and here it’s a cute little boy stranded on the subway whom our star (director/writer Josh Radnor) cannot get rid of, not even when he meets and woos the most gorgeous waitress/cabaret singer who ever lifted a Stoli. His best friend has severe self-image problems, but if she’d just pay attention to the earnest, sweet-faced lawyer who worships her (played deadpan by ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s Tony Hale in a very affecting performance), that might help. A third couple is wrestling with a possible move to California and a secret which she’s afraid to tell him – can you guess? It frequently feels familiar, but I think that’s part of the audience’s attraction to this kind of movie. As its award shows, the Sundance audience thought it was just swell.
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