Posted: 01/20/2004


Sundance Film Festival 2004

by Paul Fischer

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Sundance is here again, displaying its perpetual array of eclectic films, the good, the bad, and the inspired. Once you get past the plethora of cell phones, publicists who cancel interviews or simply don’t call to confirm the simplest of requests, the buses that plague us and the growing press corps, Sundance is one of the coolest festivals of the season. After all, as we are constantly reminded as we drift aimlessly from one screening to the next, it’s all about the movies and primarily the art of independent cinema. Sundance is about finding that unique cinematic voice, and occasionally that voice can be heard loud and clear.

Foregoing the usual opening night extravaganza, I was invited to advance screenings of two terrific films that were to be screened later on. The joy about Sundance is that true sense of discovery, where you see something that stands out for all the right reasons. Such a film is Easy, an exquisite romantic comedy/drama, by a talented first-timer Jane Weinstock, who has written and directed a smart, sexy and irresistible film.

The exquisite Marguerite Moreau plays Jamie, a sharp-witted, sexy young woman, and a self-described “jerk magnet.” She makes a living as a namer—she gives products their identity. But she’s very confused about her own. When she finds herself in a love triangle with two seemingly decent men, she struggles to make the right choice between an eloquent poet and an Irish TV talk show host. Easy is a film about love, sex, family and identity, struggling to come to terms with all. Bitingly funny, the film’s humour is derived from reality and a true sense of character. Despite it being directed and produced by women, Easy is no contrived chick flick, but an honest, genuinely sexy comment on relationships distinguished by a star-turning performance by the irresistible Moreau, once known as the teen lead of the Mighty Ducks films. Moreau is the heart and soul of this sublimely entertaining and exquisite charmer.

Not quite as charming but as hypnotic, is the chilling Open Water, a compelling story about two scuba divers who are accidentally stranded in shark-infested waters. Without enhanced effects and no CGI shots, Open Water begins somewhat ordinarily, as a couple tries to enjoy a well-earned vacation off the Bahamas. The skill of director Chris Kentis, is to build up suspense, slowly and with a subtle tension that helps to create a chilling and mesmerising film. Lessons can be learned from this film, as to make a successful horror film, and by delving into characters, and treating the genre with uncanny realism, you end up with a unique and totally fascinating film, that is risk-taking and awe-inspiring. Newcomers Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis hold their own in a sea of sharks, delivering remarkable performances as the film proceeds. A tough sell given its ending, but a compelling must see.

I had serious misgivings about the HBO drama Iron Jawed Angels, but they were rapidly quashed within the first five minutes. The film chronicles the rise of the suffragette movement and the tale of Alice Paul [Hilary Swank] and her unwavering determination to change the U.S constitution enabling all women to have the right to vote, hampered under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Directed with a visual flair and style by Katier von Garnier, Iron Jawed Angels depicts this historical series of events, with a surprising modernity. Visually stunning and cinematically breathtaking, Hilary Swank finally gets a screen role that justifies her Boys Don’t Cry Oscar. But she is well supported by a luminous Frances O’Connor as the irreverent Lucy Burns and the glorious Julia Ormond as the ultimate symbol for the Suffragette movement. The film’s standing ovation was justified, as the film is powerful, insightful, and even cheekily funny, in this depiction of an extraordinary struggle. Outside of the U.S, Iron Jawed Angels deserves a theatrical release, for it is truly a magnificent work.

It is not surprising that The Butterfly Effect is receiving mixed responses from critics and audiences alike. Nor is it unusual that attention on the film is focussed on star Ashton Kutcher’s private life. And yes, here at Sundance, he did attend the premiere screening with Demi, and the audience stood up as she entered. Put all that aside, and as far-fetched and silly as the film appears, it does remain a unique and original film, with Kutcher delivering a surprisingly strong and mature performance. He plays a tortured character whose diaries of a tough childhood enable him to go back in time and change key events that alter alternative futures. Entertaining and surprisingly compelling, Butterfly Effect displays the talents of its directors Eric Bress J. Mackye Gruber.

The documentary Until the Violence Stops can only be described as trite, subjective and a general failure. Adopting the credo that men are abusers and so many women are victims, the film talks about the impact of The Vagina Monologues, and political V-Day that spread from that series of performances. Rather insipidly directed, the film is the antithesis of Iron Jawed Angels, making it quite clear that this is anti-male, and nothing more than a political diatribe that offers next to no insight into its sexual politics. For those interested, the innocuous Lifetime cable channel will air this next month. One can’t imagine it being of interest to an international audience.

The Best Thief in the World is one of the weaker entries from the dramatic competition, and a film unlikely to find much of an audience. Looking every bit a low budget film, Mary Louise Parker is fine as a mother of two trying to cope with a stroke-ridden husband and a boy who masks his loneliness by breaking into other neighbours’ apartments. All of this is interceded with two young boys rapping foul-mouthed lyrics in the form of some kind of Greek chorus. A generally bland and poorly constructed piece, it is a film full of promise, but one that fails to sustain any true sense of narrative cohesion of character, not to mention a plodding pace.
Equally problematic in competition is Chrystal, yet another Billy Bob Thornton-led tale of redemption. Almost a sequel to last year’s Levity, Thornton again plays a lost soul returning from prison in search of, you guessed it, redemption. A film that is scattered and fragmented, it has moments of brilliance, including all scenes featuring Harry Dean Stanton and a rather unusual fight sequence. The music, much of which was borrowed from classic southern folk, is sublimely resonant, but the film lacks focus and merely indistinguishable from other Indie films that deal with the exact themes.

Refreshing and human is Garden State, the first feature from Scrubs star Zach Graff, who also wrote the script and is the film’s star. Taking the romantic comedy and completely subverting it, Graff is wonderfully beguiling as Andrew Largeman, deeply insular, who returns home after 8 years to his mother’s funeral. There, he slowly tries reconnecting with old friends, and discovers friendship and love with the beautiful Sam [Natalie Portman] who has emotional problems of her own. Graff’s film takes an unsentimental approach to exploring humanity and our attempts at reaching out and within, yet it’s never morose. At times infectiously hilarious, sweet and genuine, Graff is a major talent, both in front of and behind the cameras. Natalie Portman is also magnificent in this truly wonderful and stunning film.
Napoleon Dynamite is another first-time featured and a hilarious look at conformity, or lack thereof. Featuring a comically bravura performance by newcomer Jon Heder inn the title role, Napoleon is a school, kid trying to fit in but doesn’t seem to care if he does or not. He speaks his mind, doesn’t mix with the popular kids and takes an orthodox view of himself and those around him. Made for about $400,000, Napoleon Dynamite represents the essence of independent cinema: Low on money, pure of heart. Reminding one of the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, this is a frenetic, no holds barred comic gem that is energetic, unique and totally fresh. What a perfect way to end the second day of this year’s Sundance.

This year, I decided to just spend the opening weekend here in Park City, so for now, dear readers, here are my final thoughts, with a couple of interesting new films and an acquisition announcement.

Despite the near-impossibility of getting a seat, I did manage to get into The Clearing, presented at Sundance as a work in progress, though from what I gathered, it was close to 100 % complete. A stunning directorial debut by Pieter Jan Brugge, The Clearing tells of wealthy businessman Wayne [Robert Redford], inexplicably kidnapped by a man from his past, Arnold Mack [Willem Dafoe], whom he doesn’t recall. As the two stumble into the wilderness, Wayne’s reserved wife Eileen [Helen Mirren] begins to dig deep into an emotional psyche in the possibility of her husband’s death. Breaking the rules of this classic American style of cinema, The Clearing is a film about rage, class, social values and survival. It is a deeply emotional piece that builds to its unexpected crescendo with a degree of subtlety and intelligence rarely seen in American movies. This is also a finely sculpted acting piece, in which Redford in particular gives a performance of eloquent depth and precision, beautifully done. Mirren is magnificent as his stoic wife, while Dafoe gives a balanced, nuanced performance as the kidnapper. Beautifully crafted and superbly shot, The Clearing is a mesmerizing and enthralling film, perfect to the nth degree.

Book of Love is an example of how adultery can be treated in an original and unpredictable fashion. Australians Frances O’Connor and Simon Baker give luminous performances as a seemingly perfect all-American couple until the day they dangerously befriend a charismatic teenager who works at the local ice cream parlour. Their relationship ultimately has a shattering effect on the couple’s marriage, posing the question: Are relationships as perfectly idyllic as they appear on the surface? Featuring top-notch performances by this talented duo, Book of Love is a sharply observed piece on the ordinariness of our lives, impacted by sudden outside forces. It’s beautifully directed by Alan Brown and quietly unpredictable.

Thus ends my screenings at Sundance. I was pleased to hear that Lions Gate bought the chilling Open Water, the first major acquisition announcement made at Sundance. Tomorrow on my final day, I’ll be chatting with the two stars of that eerie film, plus chatting with Redford and Dafoe, Zach Graff on Garden State and Aussie Simon Baker. Not a bad way to end Sundance 2004, defined yet again, by a gallery of diverse films.

Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.

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