Reporting from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival
by Paul Fischer
Exclusive: From Park City, UT
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While mainstream Hollywood dishes up its usual doses of January mediocrity, Park City, Utah, comes alive with tumultuous sounds of deals, cell phones and BlackBerries and one hopes, a treasure trove of cinematic delights from the vast quagmire of Independent cinema. Over the next week or so, deals will be struck—or not, and maybe, somewhere amidst the snow, will rise the next undiscovered classic poised to win a plethora of awards at year’s end. Having covered Sundance for over a decade, one never knows what to expect, apart from interminable chaos, which still remains the order of the day here. Overcrowded buses, icy roads, mandatory queues of movie lovers, movers and shakers and wannabes, clambering to see whatever film they can get into. Journalists, like myself, balance movies with interviews and this festival, for this reporter, is as crazy as ever. But the good news is, so far, so good, at least in so much as the quality of films goes, but let’s face it, it’s day one, and lurking on the horizon may well be another Hounddog, that cinematic atrocity from last year that nobody has heard of since.
Sundance got off to an optimistic start with the exquisite Yellow Handkerchief, from Indian director Udayan Prasad. William Hurt, in what must be his most subtle and beautifully nuanced performance to date, stars as a recent prison inmate with a tormented past, who joins two youths on a road trip through Louisiana, a journey of self discovery for all three. Kristen Stewart, a remarkable actress getting a lot of attention, plays a young woman running away from a life of perpetual disappointments, while Maria Bello [here at Sundance with a total of three films] delivers another superb performance as Hurt’s ex-wife. Yellow Handkerchief, produced by veteran Oscar winner Arthur Cohn, is one of those rare films one takes pleasure in discovering and savouring. It is an unexpected masterpiece, a film of lyricism and quiet dignity, of richly defined characters and cinematic geography that defines these people. And William Hurt has never been better in a film that defines the independent nature of cinema. Here is a film that deserves to be seen for its dramatic power and truthfulness, rare qualities in today’s movies. It was a perfect first film to see here.
The Guitar marks the directorial debut of actress Amy Redford, and what a fine debut this. One might initially think of this as a maudlin tale, but how it changes into something that is completely unexpected. Saffron Burrows stars as a young woman diagnosed with a severe cancer that will leave her speechless and gasping for air. Melody Wilder (Saffron Burrows) is diagnosed with a terminal illness fired from her thankless job and abandoned by her boyfriend. With nothing left to lose, given two months to live, she spends her entire life’s savings renting an empty palatial loft in the Village. Thinking she’ll never have to pay the piper, she lives off her credit cards, fills the loft with the fanciest products, sensually and sexually engages both the parcel-delivery man (Isaach de Bankole) and a pizza delivery girl (Paz de la Huerta) and teaches herself to play the electric guitar she’s craved since childhood. The Guitar is an unexpected, sexy, life affirming, truly wonderful work, featuring a career-defining performance by the fearless and stunning Saffron Burrows. This is a film that has much to offer but witnessing the evolution of an actress in a short space of time, truly makes this cinematic journey all the more rewarding. As her character evolves and embraces life when life appears to be so short, so does the actress who plays her. But The Guitar is a film about living life and fulfilling one’s dreams no matter how bizarre. Burrows’ Wilder is an exquisitely created character who begins her new life naked as a baby learning to literally live life again. There is little doubt that the film will be sold within days, for this is a seductive, mesmerizing crowd pleaser, that is poignant, hilarious and ferociously erotic. Redford directs with flair and assuredness and has a great future behind the camera. As for Burrows, though she has been on the scene for years, a star is well and truly re-born.
One of the more curious films to screen at Sundance is the TV adaptation of the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. To begin with, this is a US TV network film that airs on the ABC Network later next month, so why Sundance chose this telemovie to screen here is anyone’s guess. Having said that, watching this nicely handled adaptation of the classic play, one is reminded of how great and underappreciated some of America’s great actresses are. Essentially, what we see here is an old fashioned, somewhat dated work, which contains old-fashioned ideas on race and dreams. It is a beautiful play but whether or not it remains relevant to a contemporary, cynical audience is unclear. While thematically the play seems out of date, it is nevertheless a work imbued with a sense of simplistic optimism, and perhaps given the state of the world, that is not such a bad thing. The story revolves around a black family, which, after moving to Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, struggles to deal with poverty, racism, and inner conflict as they strive for a better life. There’s headstrong and bitter Walter Lee Younger [Sean Combs] who hopes to use some insurance money left by his late father to the family matriarch, to invest in a liquor store. Meanwhile, idealistic college student Beneatha [[Sanaa Lathan] yearns for her own sense of identity. This is the third adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry play, the first of course being the classic 1961 version that cemented the stardom of Sidney Poitier. Bill Duke made a 3-hour TV version in the early ’80s limiting it to the one set as per the stage. Theatre director Kenny Leon, who helmed the Broadway revival, tackles this newest version and his inexperience as a filmmaker comes through at times, though at least there is a degree of cinematic depth. But the piece is still very theatrical, but what it has are three riveting performances. Phylicia Rashad gives a powerhouse performance as the family matriarch, who is likely to score an Emmy nod, and Sanaa Lathan is a revelation as Beneatha, while the exquisite Audra McDonald is stunning as the sometimes-tragic wife of Walter. The film’s flaw is the casting of Combs, who is clearly out of his element, lacking the training to master degrees of subtlety in performance. It’s Combs’ failure to go deep into his character that often mars a well-intentioned work. But the women are consistently sublime and when they work their magic, only then does the film truly come alive. What was needed for Walter was an actor, and Combs is not that, at least not yet. How the film will fare when it airs next month is anybody’s guess, but Sundance may not be the right showcase for screening this film.
Documentaries are always worth seeing at Sundance, and two that I caught up with are both irresistible. Young @ Heart is being released by Fox Searchlight in April. And if they market it well, it could prove a major hit if reaction thus far is anything to go by. The film, fluidly directed by Stephen Walker, is a documentary on a chorus of senior citizens from Massachusetts who cover songs by Jimi Hendrix, Coldplay, Sonic Youth, and other unexpected musicians. Full of vivid humour on the part of its array of colourful characters, this sublime film is not only funny but also deeply human as it teaches us that age is no barrier to fulfilling one’s dreams. The film is laced with sprightly comedy and deeply human pathos and tragedy as these characters warm to us at every turn. The musical moments are exquisite, yet this is not a silly, campy film but an inspiring, beautiful comment on aging that is far from depressing. It’s a fabulously human film that is also sheer entertainment at its core.
Very different is The Black List, a documentary containing a series of fascinating interviews by journalist Elvis Mitchell, yet, cleverly, he never imposes himself on the audience. In fact, Mitchell is never seen as director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders cleverly allows their subjects to talk about their work and experiences. This is a film about contemporary Black culture and how the diverse likes of Colin Powell, Toni Morrison Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sean Combs, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Chris Rock and others from the worlds of politics, law, art and sports, had an impact on African-American society and beyond. This is a fascinating, quite brilliant study, well executed and consistently engaging. HBO announced that it has bought the film, but no air date has been announced, so watch out for this engaging and thought provoking work.
While my next day will be spent chatting to the likes of Kristen Stewart, William Hurt, Stanley Tucci and Tilda Swinton, there will be time to see the Tucci-directed Blind Date and a few others. Stay tuned for more from chilly Park City.
Second day was a lot of walking, waiting and doing interviews. Watch out for the latest from Tilda Swinton, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer and a rare interview with William Hurt. But here are my thoughts on two films from this second frenetic day.
Watching Stanley Tucci’s Blind Date is like watching a master-class of acting in its purest form. Tucci’s first stint behind the camera in some eight years, his remake of the Dutch award-winner by the late Theo Van Gogh is hauntingly hypnotic. Tucci and the formidable Patricia Clarkson star as a married couple that has suffered a tragedy. Now the only way they can now relate to one another is by meeting as different characters through a series of personal ads. A study of the games we play to mask our fears and sorrow, Blind Date is a tough sell, commercially, but still is an extraordinary achievement. Two characters and one set, yet as a film maker, Tucci pulls the audience in with his cinematic simplicity by taking away layer upon layer of two fragile characters trying to immerse themselves in their own world to shield from pain. Using three cameras to shoot, Tucci’s film is a character study and his lenses reveal an extraordinary amount, yet as actors, Tucci and Clarkson are astonishing in revealing little of themselves. It’s a fascinating work, punctuated with moments of high comedy, but ultimately it’s a tragedy about grief and tormented relationships. Both actors deliver masterful, powerful and unforgettable performances, in this heartbreaking work that is a major triumph for both Tucci the actor and director.
Sundance is generally a festival in which it’s tough to find interesting genre films, and Transsiberian is a refreshing change of pace, and a film that is very likely to be sold. In simple terms, this nifty, taut thriller revolves around a Trans-Siberian train journey from China to Moscow, which becomes a thrilling chase of deception and murder when an American couple encounters a mysterious pair of fellow travelers. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play a couple hoping this overseas trip will resolve some of their marital issues, but get more than they bargained for when they meet an attractive couple that turns out to be drug dealers. Ben Kingsley gives another powerful performance as corrupt Russian cop, but Mortimer turns out to be the real star here, giving a wonderful performance as a woman with a shady past who confronts her worst nightmare. Director Brad Anderson has crafted a wonderful Hitchcockian entertainment that is visually full of depth as he allows his characters to be pit against trains and the harsh snowy terrain of Eastern Europe. He cleverly builds up the suspense without resorting to typical studio denouements. Stylishly executed and tightly cut together, Transsiberian is a frenetic, exhilarating thriller.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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