Here’s a lightly edited report on the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, our fifth, that I wrote for my friends at the Four Word Film Review and discovered in their archives. Thought I’d bring it over here for the record. It’s sometimes embarrassing to read my contemporary gut-fired opinions from five years ago. I was particularly wrong about HAMLET 2, which was such a commercial bomb that it probably ended the era of eight-figure Sundance deals. I don’t care: I have a DVD and it’s still funny as hell.
General comments: (1) It’s getting more and more crowded every year. People with tickets in their hands were turned away at some of the smaller venues, and in at least one case, people with passes. (We buy Awards Weekend passes, which let us into anything we want on the final weekend, but not if we’re tardy, which we never were. You have to plan your viewing geographically. Park City is a small ski resort, but during the festival a tight turnaround can sometimes be challenging.) (2) It’s getting more and more commercial every year. There are more premieres out of competition, which seem to be sponsored by studios. Just because a film screens at Sundance doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an indie, unlike in the past. All you can count on is that it’s never before appeared at any other festival. (3) There were more smiles than usual. The stereotypical Sundance movie is a dysfunctional group of humans slogging their way through whatever vicissitudes that bastard Life has handed them. Most families in the movies I saw were sure as hell dysfunctional, but unusually frequent this year was the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE kind.
Here’s my early take, in the order in which I saw them:
THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH*** Loose adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel, close enough to attract his fans but hacked enough to piss them off. A friend/lover triangle in 1980s PA, with gangsters. Peter Sarsgaard masticates what little scenery there is, Nick Nolte provides his usual cragginess. Everything is perfectly professional but nothing soars like Chabon’s prose.
BLUE EYELIDS**** A quiet, engaging Mexican film about solitude and loneliness. A factory worker wins an all-expenses-paid vacation for two from her employer, but this wallflower (the latest example of a beautiful woman acting “plain,” more often conjured by Hollywood) has nobody to invite. She falls into a painfully awkward relationship with a similarly shy, awkward man. Do they want to be in love, or are they just striking out against their strangely mirrored lives of crushing ennui? Superb performances.
BALLAST** (Directing Award, U.S. Dramatic) I’m in the critical minority on this one: it won the juried dramatic Directing Award and one of our hosts ran into Michael Phillips (he frequently sits in with Richard Roeper), who effused about it. Variety raved, but I was still underimpressed. It’s a stark tale set in the Mississippi Delta which begins with a suicide(!), then follows a hardscrabble extended family as it tries to survive. The relationships reveal themselves only gradually. The director told us he wanted to depict the loneliness and depression of the Delta in winter, and he succeeded. I believe the jury honored him for directing a bunch of film neophytes (only one cast member had ever been in a movie before). But I found the pace glacial, and even the shining performance of newcomer Tarra Riggs couldn’t save it for me. This is a “festival film”; it has no commercial future whatsoever.
CHOKE**** Chuck (FIGHT CLUB) Palahniuk’s novel gets a jazzy, upbeat treatment from actor-turned-director/screenwriter Clark Gregg. The fabulous Sam Rockwell is a sexaholic, con man, and “historical interpreter” at a desultory Colonial theme park. His specialty is choking in tony restaurants so his carefully scouted wealthy marks can perform the Heimlich maneuver, and usually give him money out of horrified concern for his welfare. His institutionalized mother is sliding into dementia, his 12-step sex-addict group isn’t helping, and his tight-assed theme park supervisor (a riotous turn by the director) is constantly on his case. Rockwell is able to balance this script’s blend of dark, dark comedy and genuinely touching drama; he makes it look effortless. I think there’s too much sex in it for a wide audience’s taste, but I liked it very much.
DOWNLOADING NANCY* A vile little piece of pornography starring Maria Bello in the kind of performance they tend to call “courageous.” She’s so saddened and depressed that she regularly mutilates herself. One day she finds a guy on the Internet (Jason Patric, in another “brave” performance) who’s willing to play her games and even go farther. Rufus Sewell is her husband, who pays attention to her a little too late. Stay far away from this turkey unless you’re a masochist yourself.
UP THE YANGTZE***** As China completes the massive Three Gorges Dam, the rising Yangtze River is forcing the relocation of anywhere from 1 million to 4 million people. This remarkable documentary gives human faces to that cultural change. An illiterate farmer’s family lives from day to day in a crumbling riverside shack. His eldest daughter, who wants to continue her education, is forced instead to work on a luxury cruise ship that takes foreign tourists up the river for one last look. She’s treated well, and her family needs the money, but as we watch her gradual Westernization, we sense that something’s wrong, that more than just land is being flooded over. A beautiful job, aided by the gorgeous Chinese scenery.
CSNY DÉJÀ VU**** You sit down expecting a concert film, but it’s not that at all. This movie documents Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 2006 Freedom of Speech tour and, more importantly, the reaction to it. The boys do several of their hits (and make cheerful fun of their age and weight), but the bulk of the show is songs taken from Young’s incendiary LIVING WITH WAR album. The dice are definitely loaded in the band’s favor, but they do take pains to present another side too, most notably interviewing angry patrons in Atlanta who walked out of the show when CSNY struck up “Let’s Impeach the President.” What really grips you is how little has changed since these same musicians were protesting the war in Vietnam. Even the lyrics to Stills’ classic “For What It’s Worth” apply perfectly today; think about it. You hear a lot of music, but never an entire song: it’s a docu, not a music flick.
HAMLET 2***** My favorite film of the festival. An absolute beauty. It sold to Focus Features for a hefty $10 million. Also notable is that they told us it was a working cut slapped together just for the festival, but it looked plenty tight to me: it ran 1:32. It was added so late that it didn’t even make the advance catalog: we all found out about it when we got there. Steve Coogan is a failed actor turned high-school drama teacher who gets a great idea, expressed in the film’s title, but it’ll be a musical. I won’t say much more, except: 1) I predict that, unlike some recent Sundance darlings, this film will indeed find a wide audience, and if it does, Coogan finally becomes a US household name. 2) Since it’s a parody of the “inspirational teacher” genre, several of whose members are actually title-checked in the movie, this one, if successful, may do us the service of ending that little tributary, at least for now. 3) Within this film is the most hilarious musical number I have ever seen in a movie, and that includes “Springtime For Hitler.” I won’t give you the song title so as to avoid the Spoiler Police, but I guarantee it alone will make you laugh, and make you want to see this pants-wettingly funny flick.
TRIAGE*** Dr. James Orbinski, former president of Doctors Without Borders and a 1999 Nobel Prize recipient on behalf of the organization, travels back to Africa 15 years after he worked in incredibly dangerous conditions in Somalia and Rwanda, during civil war and genocide. The unspeakable things this man has seen defy description, but he’s trying to write a book about his experiences as he greets old friends and visits sites where horrors beyond belief were visited on human beings. Orbinski is personally reserved but inwardly angry as he tries to take the word “humanitarian” back from governments who have used it for their own purposes.
BOTTLE SHOCK**** A dramatization of events leading up to the Great Tasting of 1976, in which California wines competed against French vintages. We visit Bill Pullman’s Napa Valley winery, where he’s trying to craft the perfect Chardonnay with the help of his slacker son. A Paris wine-shop owner named Stephen Spurrier, played to snobby perfection by Alan Rickman, is setting up the tasting and has come to check out California. It’s kind of a Hollywood-type story, except most of it actually happened: not as hip as SIDEWAYS, but just as good a time for wine or Rickman lovers (the wordless scene in which he takes his first taste of guacamole is gorgeous). A promising subplot is casually tossed away in what I thought was a poor patch of screenwriting (or editing, to be fair), so there goes a star. Oddly, there were two movies in development about Spurrier’s event; this one did not have his cooperation, and rumor has it that he cares for neither his characterization nor Rickman’s realization of it.
HENRY POOLE IS HERE** Something to do with the healing power of faith or something. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) buys a suburban house but is strangely uninterested in the price or its upkeep; he exists on alcohol in the unfurnished place and shuns all human contact. But there’s a cute little girl next door, and a neighbor who thinks she sees the face of Jesus in a water stain on the side of the house. We gradually learn what’s wrong with Henry, the little girl, and the growing group of churchgoers who come to worship at the “shrine.” The story is preposterous. This is a quiet piece by Mark Pellington, who normally comes at you with thrillers like ARLINGTON ROAD, but it just didn’t get to me. Innocuous enough, but save your money.
THE KING OF PING PONG**** (World Dramatic Award) Oddball but strongly likable story of a rotund Swedish lad whose one talent is ping pong, which he “coaches” at the local community center. He lives with his younger brother and their mother, and goes through his sad-sack existence with a blank face that actually grows more and more amusing as the movie proceeds. On spring break from school (it’s still snowy as hell in Sweden), he goes ice fishing, learns how to drive, discovers a shocking fact about his family, and makes the acquaintance of a mousy little co-ed whose hobby is making pencil drawings of muscular, well-endowed men. I loved meeting the characters, getting a little taste of their culture, and wondering how the tremendous juggling act of the story could ever be resolved. Nice job.
TROUBLE THE WATER**** (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) Hurricane Katrina on home video. Two filmmakers went to New Orleans to document returning servicemen whose homes had been struck, and serendipitously met Kimberly and Scott Rivers. Kim had documented the coming storm and the havoc itself on a camcorder (you’ve never seen this footage before), including scenes of great bravery and squalid conditions in their Ninth Ward house. The filmmaking partners then followed Kim and Scott and their family and friends in the long aftermath, including a relocation to Memphis and, finally, back home again. But this is not a pity party: it’s a story of resilience, determination, and strength. Every once in a while, but not much, we cut to a TV screen showing Bush or Michael Brown’s grinning faces to remind us of the idiots who were in charge, but this is not a finger-pointing polemic either. Kim wants to be a rapper, and actually made one defiant record. She performed it to the camera, and when she was through, the Sundance audience broke out into applause. Not just for the song, but for this tough woman which the mightiest storm was unable to defeat.
FROZEN RIVER***** (U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) Christmas, rural upstate New York, near the Mohawk reservation. A mother struggles to raise her two sons; her husband has gambled away their savings and is gone. Chasing him, she encounters a Mohawk woman who forces her to drive an illegal alien smuggling run across the frozen St. Lawrence River. It turns out to be easy money. I will stop right there with the plot. This one has characters turning ways you won’t anticipate; brilliant performances by the two leads, Melissa Leo and Misty Upham; and a sense of place that is almost palpable. A grand achievement by writer/director Courtney Hunt, who developed this feature from a short she screened at Sundance a few years ago. I’m glad I didn’t see it, because it would have spoiled a delicious bit of tension at one point. This movie was produced for under $1MM.
THE WACKNESS**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) Here’s one I thought I would hate, and was I wrong. All I’d heard was that Mary-Kate Olsen plays tonsil hockey with Ben Kingsley (and she does, bucko!). But that’s only :00:30 out of 1:50. It’s New York, 1994, and we’re hangin’ with some homies for the summer after they’ve graduated high school. But before you can say, “I don’t want to hang with these people,” the story widens. College-bound Josh Peck earns money selling pot from a pushcart. Kingsley is his shrink – who takes his payment in dope. He’s a Sixties holdout, you see. It’s basically a buddy movie between these two people. BEN KINGSLEY IS HILARIOUS THROUGHOUT, WHETHER HE’S SPEAKING OR NOT. Has he ever done broad comedy before? I won’t go into all the adventures these guys have, only note that Famke Janssen manages to turn herself into somebody you wouldn’t want to be married to!
And, like the sheriff in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, “Then I woke up.”
Other Sundance Reports