Wednesday, February 02, 2005

2005 Sundance Festival: The Dramas & Comedies 

There’s a lot to say about Sundance this year because we did a longer trip than last year. In total, we saw 21 films from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday. It was a great trip and I’m so glad we did it again.

A number of folks have asked about all of the press about Sundance, celebrities and merchandise. The Hollywood folks mostly come the first week of the festival. The studio executives to buy films, the celebrities to promote their films, and the silly folks who are famous-for-being-famous to make a scene of some sort and thereby forestall the end of their fifteen minutes, even if only on Gawker.

K. and I purposely go for the second week of the festival in part to miss all of the nonsense. For a cinephile, going the second week of Sundance means no distractions. The festival is about seeing good films and given the crop of promising creations in the Sundance catalog, we planned several 5 film days and even one 6 film day!

Because there is so much to say about what we saw, I’m going to break up my Sundance experience into two posts. This week, I’ll talk about the dramas & comedies. Next week, I’ll discuss the documentaries. (By way of a teaser, I will mention that the documentaries were outstanding this year.)

The Best
The craftsmanship of Junebug is such that I was not surprised to learn that the screenwriter (Angus MacLachlan) is primarily a playwright. But that’s not to discount in any way the contributions of director Phil Morrison. Not only has he assembled a terrific ensemble cast, but he directs with a light hand and lets the actors deliver.

Madeleine, a Chicago gallery owner (the glorious Embeth Davidtz) specializing in outsider artists brings her new husband George (the underrated Alessandro Nivola) back to his hometown in North Carolina, primarily so she can pursue a local talent. This brings them into the orbit of his estranged family and neighbors, brought vividly to life by a remarkable team of performers that include character actress supreme Celia Weston as his mother, and Amy Adams in a potentially career defining role as Ashley, George’s pregnant sister-in-law.

Not surprisingly, when a big city art dealer comes to the rural south, worlds collide. But in this gentle and respectful film, they never collide in the ways that you might think. Small, but realistic surprises are around every corner of MacLachlan’s fine script. The cast fill their roles with nuances that pull the world, and the story, together into a coherent whole without filling in every blank.

It’s a small gem of a film and Amy Adams delivers one of those luminous performances that seem more like channeling than acting. The Sundance jury awarded her with a well deserved special acting honor.

The Squid and the Whale
What if Woody Allen had directed Hannah and Her Sisters in his early 30’s? Can you imagine what his career might look like now? After two early films that received some small notice, many New Yorker columns, and co-authoring The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson, Baumbach has finally delivered the film that many suspected he had in him. And it is a very good film indeed.

The Squid and the Whale is a deeply personal film about two young children’s experience of their parents’ divorce. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney brilliantly portray a pair of Park Slope academics that thrive on their intellectual firepower.

Daniels' performance as the self-absorbed novelist/professor past his prime is jaw dropping in its ability to disgust and frustrate, all the while somehow generating empathy. Linney does some of her best work as the mother whose unexpectedly and late blooming creates utter chaos in the family. And Jesse Eisenberg and young Owen Kline turn in picture perfect performances as the 16 and 12 year old brothers seeking ways of navigating the wreckage. Squid’s only imperfection is its final (and too novelistic) scene, which feels abrupt and not entirely satisfying. But given that 99% of the film is excellent, this seems like a quibble. Funny, touching and well done all around.

I look forward to seeing what Mr. Baumbach delivers in the future.

Although my festival sherpa Dan derided it as pretentious, I thoroughly enjoyed director/screenwriter Rian Johnson’s Brick. In a move that is quirky, risky, and entertaining, Johnson has lifted the film noir genre and transposed it to a Southern California high school.

Our hero in hard-nosed detective role is Brendan (Third Rock’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an antisocial type who eats lunch alone behind the school. And it is no wonder that he does. Everyone wants something from him. The vice principal wants him as a stool pigeon, the police (“the bulls” in Brendan’s wonderfully specific patois) want to make a bust, the drama queen wants him back as a lover, his most recent ex-girlfriend wants him to save her from her downward spiral into a junkie’s life, and the biggest drug dealer around (“The Pin”- short for kingpin) wants him as a partner.

Johnson effectively creates a completely new world for his audience. We’ve seen this genre, but never this way. He packs his script with a complicated back-story that unravels continuously through the course of the film, gradually clarifying everyone’s motivations as Brendan races the clock to solve a murder. True to genre, he gets caught in a complex web of intrigue where he must play the many conflicting sides off each other.

While the quality of the acting is somewhat varied, the taut script, terrific sound production and impressive direction all keep you wrapped up in the action right to the end. Brick signals the arrival of a young director to be watched.

Live-In Maid
I have to admit that it was hard not to be affected by what preceded this film. Argentinean director/screenwriter Jorge Gaggero was very touching as he introduced his film, trying not to weep for his repeatedly bankrupt and bereft country. Live-In Maid is his way of sharing his countries difficulties through some wonderful storytelling.

The film is a detailed portrayal of the relationship between Beba, a formerly wealthy woman desperate to deny her true financial condition and Dora, the family maid of more than thirty years whom she can no longer afford to pay. Both women are strong in different ways and the complexities of their long relationship make it hard for them to easily unwind from each other. Both actresses give tremendous performances and the film succeeds in not being a sob story, despite being a microcosm of, and a proxy for, the dire circumstances of Argentina.

Likely to be dismissed as “a small film” by many reviewers, Live-In Maid offers a lot for audiences who are able to still their minds and watch two masters of their craft do their work for us.

Worth Mentioning
Pretty Persuasion
Imagine if Lars von Trier had written Heathers with one eye turned back towards the 1950’s shocker classic, The Bad Seed. Pretty Persuasion is that film.

A thoroughly caustic and misanthropic endeavor that stars wunderkind Evan Rachel Wood and includes star turns by James Woods and Jane Krakowski, Pretty Persuasion tells the story of a private school girl’s attempt to become a famous at all costs. Scenes that read like Sarah Silverman punchlines blow the roof off of any sense of propriety, each one overflowing with an outrageous potpourri of sex, misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism and constant skewering of American mores.

This film is going to be one hard sell, I can tell you that. Beyond the script written in the language of blue, Evan Rachel Wood, a very young actress, plays a character who performs a sultry striptease, delivers tons of (partially off screen) oral sex on both sexes, and freely owns to indulging in what one might now politely call the ballet dancer’s specialty.

I found Pretty Persuasion to be funny and outrageous, although not entirely successful. The people behind me were offended beyond recovery.

Reefer Madness
Based on the mini-cult off-off Broadway musical, which in turn was based on the original 30’s film which decried the dangers of marijuana usage, Reefer Madness desperately wants to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Based on that comparison alone, the impossibility of any sort of plot summary should be immediately obvious.)

The film’s opening number (“Reefer Madness”) is dreadful and it all gets off to a rocky (no pun) start. It picks up speed, however, and is largely enjoyable fluff.

While the songs themselves are not memorable, some of the performances certainly are. Alan Cumming chews on the scenery in all the appropriate places. Young lover ingénues Kristen Bell and Christian Campbell deliver the goods consistently throughout. Amy Spanger as a bad girl repeatedly kicks ass, singing and dancing. Robert Torti as a sexy, Vegas-style Jesus is hysterical. SNL regular Ana Gasteyer as the drug dealer’s moll is also a standout.

(Note: Reefer Madness was produced by Showtime. Theatrical release is unclear.)

The Worst
A young woman goes in search of her missing sister in the border town of Tijuana. Very quickly, we enter a world of dream logic where scenes repeat with slightly different results. Hmmm. A world of dream logic. A border town. The movie that’s called Between. Could it be that our protagonist is…somehow not alive?

Although the buzz on Between was good, I have to say that this was one of the few out-and-out disappointments of the festival for me. The film is executed with workmanlike competence from a directorial standpoint (David Ocañas), but it feels like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as it might have been developed for the Lifetime Channel. Our comatose and dreaming protagonist (Poppy Montgomery as the “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” version of Naomi Watts) must choose between joining her gorgeous young husband who is already dead or returning to consciousness. Because this is the schmaltzy version of a tired trope, she goes off to Heaven as personified by a gorgeous suburban McMansion.

The Girl from Monday
Ah, Hal Hartley. From a New Yorker’s perspective, he practically created the quirky independent American film genre. Beginning the mid-80’s, Hartley has been writing, directing, producing and composing the music for his sizeable body of work, which includes such art house and cult favs as The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men and Henry Fool.

Unfortunately, The Girl from Monday is not a particularly good film. In fact, it’s really just a retelling of the mermaid fable. We find ourselves in the Earth of the future where the Orwellian world government is a media/military complex. The leader of the rebellion works in the government’s ad agency. He struggles to bring down the government, even as he comes up with some of the best ideas for keeping the people down through marketing. Suddenly, a beautiful woman from another world falls to our planet. On her world, individual identities are not differentiated and no one has a body. She has come in order to bring back a missing piece of her people. Someone who individuated to come to Earth and perhaps has forgotten who he is and how to return. Can you guess the rest of the plot from here? It’s the mermaid story, right? He can’t return to her (idyllic) world and she can’t stay in his (corrupt) world.

Watching The Girl from Monday, I couldn’t help but feel that the burden of doing it all is too much. Hartley desperately needs a collaborator. Someone to push him to develop certain themes more deeply. Someone to tell him to try a different angle. And someone to say no.

High School Record
This was the low point of the festival. Music video director Ben Wolfinsohn took a group of non-actors who are members of young LA bands and used improvisation to create a narrative.

The storyline is that two high schoolers are making a video record of the senior year of a group of students at an arts magnet school. While some scenes are genuinely funny and there is a lot of promise in the characters and some of the premises, the film is ultimately a desperately careless affair with some scenes finding a reason for existence and others falling terribly flat. When it was over, K. turned to a friend and said, “I want my two hours back.”

[NOTE: An apologies to the Yahoo Groups subscribers about getting this late. Technical difficulties.]

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