13 Conversations about One Thing
Sundance 2002 Coverage
Five Days at Sundance 2002: a festival overview
23 Capsules: Sundance 2002 capsule reviews
Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank: an interview with lovable subjects of American Movie, both working in new films showing at Sundance 2002
Maybe it’s because I saw this on the heels of Storytelling and Better Luck Tomorrow, but, dang, it sure was nice to see a film where people had a conscience. Jill Sprecher’s second feature (her first was Clockwatchers) shows us a variety of characters whose lives interweave as the story unfolds. Alan Arkin is great as an insurance adjuster who fires an annoyingly cheerful employee. John Turturro puts in another amusing performance of the nebbish variety. Matthew McConaughey does solid turns as he flip flops from cocky attorney to the repentant purveyor of a hit-and-run. All in all this was an enjoyable story that deserves quick distribution.
Better Luck Tomorrow
The second feature by Justin Lin (he co-directed Shopping For Fangs), Better Luck Tomorrow is the story of four Asian friends in a Southern California high school who come from privileged backgrounds but gravitate towards crime and all of its accoutrements. On a superficial level, everything works. The acting, the cinematography, it’s all there. But on a narrative level it feels deficient. By the time the last act rolls into place, I thought of Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors. Allen puts a murder up-front in the story and then proceeds to spend most of his film flushing out the anguish and psychological torment that follow in its wake and, ultimately, comes to an apocryphal conclusion. Better Luck Tomorrow also shares a murder as its crux, but skips all the moral ambiguities and reflections on guilt that made Crimes And Misdemeanors great and cribs a similar amoral end-note. The result simply feels glib, leaving the body of work that precedes it gratuitous.
Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold’s documentary got its start when Helfand’s parents decided to put vinyl siding on their Long Island suburban home. Helfand has been personally affected by toxins before. Her previous documentary, a Healthy Baby Girl, played at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival and documented her close-call with cancer due to toxins her mother unwittingly exposed her to. Smelling another story, she and Gold set off on a search to uncover both the origins and effects of vinyl. Whether they are visiting giant petrochemical plants in Lake Charles, Louisiana or uncovering company crimes in Venice, Italy, they manage to present a very provocative case on an important issue with a very warm personal style that is also imbued with a great sense of humor. Daniel B. Gold was the recipient of the Excellence in Cinematography Award. (See also the interview with Helfland and Gold.)
Britney Baby – One More Time
This is the directorial feature debut of Ludi Boeken, a war correspondent who went on to produce films by Robert Altman and Sam Shepard. These lofty credentials belie a project that feels more like the concept of a stoned film major. The film is loosely based on the true story behind Robert Stephens, who stars as himself, the young winner of a local Britney Spears look-alike contest. Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the protagonists of the award-winning documentary American Movie, return to the screen here as “Dude Schmitz” and “Mike,” characters strongly based on their very distinct and real personalities. The narrative, such as it is, has Dude and Mike driving the Britney impersonator around as they try to hoodwink a news station into believing that they are on the road with the real Britney. The conceit is not without a low-budget charm, and fans of American Movie will relish the return of Mark and Mike. Otherwise, this is a hard sell to either mainstream audiences or would-be distributors. (See also the interview with Borchardt and Schank.)
Finn Taylor’s previous film, Dream With The Fishes, was a bit more adventurous and satisfying than this, his latest film. But though Cherish comes across as very polished, studio-friendly, and ready-to-digest, I was still seduced by its charm. The premise has a woman, falsely accused of a deadly hit-and-run, under home arrest via an electronic bracelet program. The thriller element moves at a leisurely rate, allowing our protagonist time to endear herself to our hearts as she deals with cabin fever and hits on her anal-retentive monitor, a guy who makes regularly scheduled visits to check on her bracelet. The retro soundtrack (Human League, Hall and Oats, etc.) gives the whole enterprise a nostalgic pop glow that works nicely.
The Dancer Upstairs
John Malkovich’s directorial debut is an interesting experiment that shows a real mastery of visual storytelling that is anchored by the charismatic presence of Javier Bardem. This political drama tells the story of an honest policeman (based on a real character) who tries to bring a terrorist guerilla leader to justice. Based on the book by Nicholas Shakespeare, Malkovich goes out of his way to avoid any real-world settings and, instead, creates a realm that is meant to be an amalgam of Latin America - with a guerilla movement that is loosely modeled on the terrorist organization from Peru, the Shining Path. Influenced by the political dramas of Costa Gavras, The Dancer Upstairs is uncompromising in many ways that should be applauded, but Malkovich’s gambit of having the actors speak English with strong Spanish accents results in many unintelligible moments and is ultimately distracting rather than effective. Fox Searchlight picked up this title, so people can judge the work for themselves in the near future. (See also the interview with Javier Bardem.)
Part of the Sundance Frontier category, this 70-minute long 35mm film by Bill Morrison is a visually stunning collection of found footage that captures the beauty of older, black and white, decaying film as it contorts, explodes, smears, and transmogrifies the original image into something altogether different. Sometimes the emulsion crackles to create pulsating flares that dance with the figures within the frame. Other times it seems to boil, stretch, and expand a face like a shimmering vision. And so on… The images are married to an original symphonic score by Michael Gordon (cofounder of Bang On A Can). It’s poetry in motion – and anyone who has ever marveled at the beauty of a film that accidentally burns in the projector’s gate will be able to identify the visual splendor of decay found herein. Bill Morrison has visited Boulder’s First Person Cinema in the past, and it would be nice to think he might return with this new work in the future. (See also the interview with Bill Morrison.)
This documentary by Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life And Death of Bob Flanagan) and Amy Ziering follows French philosopher Jacques Derrida through both academic and personal settings. The film juxtaposes some of its images with excerpts from Derrida’s writing and tries to capture its protagonist as well as cooperate with his many reflexive and deconstructive wishes. The result might be of interest to motivated thinkers and film theorists alike but, aside for the occasional gem or incisive observation by Derrida, the filmmakers engage in plodding navel gazing that fails to bring electricity to the philosopher’s chair.
This feature debut by music-video director Michel Gondry is a lark. Working from a script by Being John Malkovich scribe Charlie Kaufman, the film delivers zany humor mixed with an anything-goes mentality. Patricia Arquette stars as a woman so hairy that she lives in the wilderness until she decides it’s time to meet a man. At that point she goes to the city and gets together with an anal retentive scientist, played by Tim Robbins, who is teaching table manners to lab mice, but he then moves up to trying to domesticate a feral man (Rhys Ifans – looking like the guy who took a vow of silence in The Life of Brian). While not as smart as Being John Malkovich, which was a brilliant and incisive satire on fame and celebrity issues, Human Nature does manage to be just as fun.
The feature debut by Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo delivers a supernatural thriller that evokes the secret society themes behind many of David Cronenberg’s films. But this story of people endowed with preternatural luck, who can also rob others of their fortune, eschews visceral horror in favor of a visual polish that moves quickly and hop-frogs from one setup to another with élan (one great scene has blindfolded contestants seeing who is luckiest by running full tilt through a tree-crowded forest – the winner being the last person standing who didn’t smash into a tree trunk). Maybe it’s spiritual cousin is closer to Brian DePalma, which would explain why the incredible visuals sometime seem to outpace narrative elements of the story but, either way, it provides an exhilarating ride. Lion’s Gate had the good sense to pick up this hot property – so look for it at a theater near you within the year.
The feature debut of Alain Gomis recalls the 1966 classic by Ousmane Sembene, Black Girl. It is a serious film about a Senegalese immigrant to Paris who wrestles with issues of identity, race, and family. There is no tomfoolery or gimmicky cinema here, just straightforward and probing shots that never lose focus of one man’s inner struggle.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor with appeal. He has a good range and has many memorable roles (Magnolia, Happiness, The Talented Mister Ripley, etc). But, here, he seems to only slightly extend his mouth-breathing misanthropic role from the obscene voice caller from Happiness into that of a tortured husband who loses his wife to suicide and gets addicted to huffing gas. The performance is not without merit, but the role of this pathetic personage just travels one long flat line to its inevitable conclusion.
Noon Blue Apples
This film by Jay Lee piqued my interest on conspiracy theories, but what it made me want was a pure distillation, maybe a documentary, that culled the cream of the conspiracy crop into one big “whoa – trippy” package. Heck, a half-hour Leonard Nimoy “In Search of…” episode would have done the trick for me. But, no. Instead, I was stuck watching a poorly acted mess that had George Takei on standby as an omniscient voice-over that follows a girl as she slowly gets more and more paranoid thanks to her investigations into a variety of conspiracy theories that dovetail, conveniently, with her being shadowed by, well, shadowy figures.
One Hour Photo (
Robin Williams finally stops playing schmaltzy roles and takes on something a bit darker and more complex. Not evil, mind you, but rather psychologically muddled a la Norman Bates. Specifically, he plays the manager of a quick-drop photo store that is located in a generic Wal-Mart-ish chain. His obsession with one particular family goes into overdrive when he’s fired. Like Human Nature, this is another debut feature by a director of music videos, in this case Mark Romanek. With a nod to other creepy voyeurs (Peeping Tom) and obsessives (Fatal Attaction), One Hour Photo works on many levels and has things to say about family, service sector jobs, and loneliness. Mainly, it has a nice blend of humor and ominous and creepy thrills that make it a worthwhile watch. But it also seems, when all is said and done, a tad too… “simple.”
The winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Personal Velocity is a compilation of three stories that each have to do with a woman at an emotional crossroads of some sort. The film stars Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk (in that order). It is Rebecca Miller’s follow up to Angela and each story flushes out its characters with an attention to detail that seems more common in literature than in film (Miller got her BA in painting and literature). That said, there were no great payoffs and the decision to shoot on digital video made it a rather flat visual experience. As the film was picked up by United Artists, it will probably be transferred to 35mm and maybe that will add some warmth to the otherwise cold and hazy hue it had when projected at Sundance via high def projectors.
Chinese director Zhang Yang got some recognition in the U.S. for his previous feature, Shower. His new film, Quitting, is already getting some good reviews by the critics that come across it in the festival circuit, and it’s easy to see why. While the film is not for wide tastes it will certainly reward the discerning fan of international films. Quitting re-enacts the family life of Jia Hongsheng, the young male star of the new Chinese cinema, as he deals with drug addiction, depression, and possibly even schizophrenia. What makes this endeavor especially fascinating is that the characters are played by their real-life counterparts. Occasionally, the camera moves back to reveal the actors/subjects on a stage, thus removing the filmic illusion of the omniscient perspective. But, as testimony to the power of this film, this post-modern reminder doesn’t distract one whit from the performances on hand.
Katherine Lindberg’s feature debut takes place in a small Iowa farm town where sexual infidelities and other duplicitous acts bubble into violence. We begin with a woman waiting for her husband to come home from his affair with the town sheriff’s wife, and the tension simply mounts from there. While beautifully shot and well acted, the mix of American gothic and evoked Greek tragedy doesn’t quite work, is too easy to spot, and the story loses power as it moves toward its predictable end.
Run, Ronnie, Run
Troy Miller is the director of Jack Frost and The Announcement. If neither of those titles seem to give any evidence of a pedigree that would land someone in Sundance, this one sure won’t either - and its inclusion at the festival is a bit of a head-scratcher. Low brow humor has its place, but aside for some fun cameos (Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Jeff Goldblum, etc.) and three laughs (there’s one particularly funny sketch that plays on the “gay conspiracy”), this was dumber than watching a Porky’s sequel sober.
The Slaughter Rule
The directorial debut by twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith provides very mixed results. The drama revolves around the cold terrain of a rugged small town in Montana where a rambunctious teenager gets a second shot at playing football courtesy of cantankerous older man who seems to be wrestling with his own demons and is over-eager to coach some six-man games. The film overstays its welcome by a half-hour when the actors begin over-emoting precisely as the narrative runs out of steam and starts grating the nerves. It’s a bad combination that transforms a character drama with potential into a bad melodrama.
Soft for Digging
First time director J.T. Petty has done something remarkable – he shot a 16mm film for a reported $9,000 and had it accepted into the Sundance Frontier section, a niche for works considered experimental in some way or other. But the only “experimental” thing about Soft For Digging is the welcome use of a lingering camera that soaks up atmosphere mixed with a story that has very little dialogue. Otherwise this a nice, low-tech, conventional ghost story about an old man haunted by a vision of a murdered child. The first half has some wonderful images as the old man, wearing nothing but white long johns and an open red bathrobe, wanders into the woods looking for his lost cat, squeezing a squeaky toy along the way. Unfortunately, the concluding ten minutes feels forced and amateurish. For the most part, however, this low-budget film was both memorable and enjoyable. It was also the first film I’ve seen at Sundance that was not just shot on 16mm, but also projected on a 16mm projector (in the past, the festival required 16mm films to be blown up to 35mm), and it proved that an old 16mm projector, limited to mono sound and with hairs that get caught in the gate, still provides an image that is ten times warmer and richer than any of the digital video images being projected on the $350,000 high def projectors in use throughout Park City. (See also the interview with J.T. Petty.)
Soft Shell Man
Last year a great film played at Sundance called Maelstrom (a film that, with luck, will play Boulder on the next IFS schedule). Maelstrom had a distinct and polished look that was unforgettable thanks to the cinematography of André Turpin. This year, Turpin returns as the director to Un Crabe Dans La Tete, a film oddly (mis)translated as Soft Shell Man. The film concerns a 31-year-old man with a compulsive desire to please everyone. This French Canadian work provides an intriguing look into human relations by stringing together ephemeral pleasures that give way, for all the characters involved, to just as many disappointments.
The latest film by Todd Solondz feels like an extension of Happiness. Which is to say it’s a predictable litany of cruelty and gallows humor that is as entertaining as it is revolting. But it’s more than just that, it’s also fascinating to see Solondz continue to react to the world at large with what is starting to feel like an ongoing dialogue between him and his critics and audience. Storytelling is two stories. The first is about a half hour long and involves a black creative writing professor who has sexual relations with one of his students, someone who clearly stands in as a surrogate for Solondz. When she writes about what happened (“the truth”), she is roundly attacked by the rest of the students (the “inept critics” who don’t see “the truth”). But then, in the second narrative in Storytelling that is about an hour long, a failed actor and aspiring documentary filmmaker steps in as the Solondz surrogate. This time, the filmmaker does things that exploit the subject and expose the director to be an opportunist. (The use of Mike Schank, from American Movie, as the director’s cameraman introduces the possibility that Solondz viewed that film with contempt and used Schank as a visual cue to documentaries that have fun at their subjects expense. Solondz takes a similar jab at another film when he spoofs a scene from American Beauty.) Overall, yes, it’s bleak and depressing and Welcome to The Doll House remains Solondz’s most emotionally satisfying work to date. But this ongoing and predictably nasty stuff that has followed continues to be dynamic stuff, full of grist for the mill.
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s first feature was Conceiving Ada, starring Tilda Swinton in a cyber-tinted role. The cyber-Swinton connection has now been multiplied in Teknolust, with Swinton playing four roles, a biogeneticist, and three clones (or “self-replicating automatons”) that thrive on sperm injections they receive from the one automaton that goes out to collect it the old fashioned way. Shot on digital video with a narrative straight from something you might see on late night cable, Teknolust is light sci-fi puffery made even more unpalatable by its flat video sheen. I’d rather sit through a screening of a beat-up print of Liquid Sky, again, over this turkey. However, I should hasten to add that I might represent the minority. I viewed most of my films in small screening rooms put aside solely for the press and, of over 20 films screened in such rooms, this was the only one that got an ovation from the people in attendance. The press. What can I say? We’re a crazy bunch.