The Sundance Film Festival 2006
by Paul Fischer
Exclusive: Paul Fischer checks out the first few days of Sundance 2006.
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The snow is falling a little heavier than usual but the white landscape masks a more intense and frenetic atmosphere. As one closes into Park City the cell phones can already be heard with mutterings of would be deal makers bemoaning which actor has yet to sign for the next movie. Nothing changes as one slogs through the snow checking in for my 11th Sundance, full of expectations at the hope of seeing an undiscovered morsel such as a Squid and the Whale. One can live in hope.
Opening night was a perfect Sundance with Nicole Holofcener’s wry and sublime comedy drama Friends with Money featuring sterling work from a first rate ensemble. Pic revolves around a quartet of friends each with a demon or two to exorcise, some more than most. The black sheep of the group is Jennifer Aniston as a pot smoking ex teacher working as a maid unlucky in love. Aniston is a revelation here displaying an emotional resonance we rarely see from her in her studio movies. Catherine Keener also shines as a screenwriter dealing with a difficult marriage. Holofcener has an astute ear for dialogue and directs her richly human script with a crisp no nonsense style focusing on character and the reality of our own human foibles. Dealing with marriage, relationships and friendship in Los Angeles, Friends with Money is exquisitely crafted and a joy to watch a formidable group of actors at the very top of their game. This is an absolute must when Sony Classics releases the film soon.
Lucky Number Slevin is one of those films that miraculously creeps up on you and entangles you in an unexpected brilliance. What begins as a series of graphic murders develops into a sly and darkly comic masterpiece enhanced by sublime work on the parts of Josh Hartnett at his best, Lucy Liu, Bruce Willis and a fabulous Ben Kingsley. Hartnett plays a down on his luck guy mistaken for a gambler whose debts land him in bed with two unique gangsters. But here is a film where nothing and nobody are what they seem as it weaves its way through several ingenious twists and turns. At times bloody and sexy, Slevin is a stunning comic thriller, a full throttle gem that is destined for commercial greatness. The Weinstein Co will release the film in the US in March. Here is another must see out of Sundance.
Also caught another fabulous film, the deliriously engaging Kinky Boots. Set in the north of London, Australia’s Joel Edgerton stars as a young man who inherits his late father’s shoe factory. On the verge of closure, a chance encounter with a vivacious drag queen changes both of their lives in the most unexpected way. A beautifully crafted film that is hilarious and equally touching, Miramax has a sure fire hit on its hand.
The last time Joel Edgerton came to Sundance was 10 years ago an up and comer hanging out with his friends. This time he has 3 films here and when I caught up with him shortly after seeing him in Kinky Boots he admits surprise to his renewed success helped by King Arthur. Joel told me that he and his brother have written a script together which is a thriller due to start shooting un Australia in July. Nice to see the Aussies do well.
As Sundance continues tomorrow I talk to Toni Collette about her latest films here and check out the likes of Sherrybaby.
It’s up and running as Sundance continues along its hectic course with some interviews and diverse screenings. While it is great to see some strong narrative films, it is also the documentaries that remain a strong line up and two in particular caught my eye. Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner remains a major highlight at this festival. Director Freida Lee Mock unobtrusively explores the evolution of Kushner as artist, son, political activist and gay man, and like a good play, the film is divided into four acts. Through Kushner, we see the added evolution of a country torn apart by war, inequality and a certain didactic politics. The end result is a magnificent film that so eloquently explores what it is like to be both Jewish and gay in 21st century America, both together and separately. The film is at times blisteringly hilarious as well as moving and ferociously intelligent. It’s an exquisite work by an Oscar winning filmmaker who lets her complex and fascinating subject tell his story in his own well observed way. Wrestling with Angels had its world premiere here at Sundance and is awaiting distribution.
HBO’s Thin is a chilling exploration of eating disorders in young women, focusing on the lives of patients at Florida’s Renfrew Centre, a 40 bed residential facility for the treatment of women with eating disorders. Directed with an understated eloquence by Lauren Greenfield making her feature debut, Thin raises some powerful issues on a tough subject in an age epitomized by media infatuations with body image. The women here range from 15-30 and some will recover, others not so easily. There are no happy endings or simplistic editorializing offered here, but the film also tells as much about treatment facilities as it does about this horrific disorder that plagues 1 out of every 7 woman in this country alone. This is a powerful and engrossing work, which HBO will air on US television in November.
It was time to catch up with Australian actress Toni Collette at Sundance with two films beginning with charmingly delightful Little Miss Sunshine. Rhis often uproarious comic gem tells of a family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant thus taking a cross-country trip in their VW bus. On the film Collette, who was last in Sundance 9 years ago with Clockwatchers, commented that “it was nice to see a family in a movie treated with honesty.” The actress says that the key to a good comedy is “just keeping it honest” who was last seen in the acclaimed In Her Shoes. Collette is also at Sundance for The Night Listener which she describes as being “very intense”. Robin Williams stars as a writer recounting his work on radio with Collette as his obsessive fan. “I’m also a blind character and I was wearing these special lenses.” More on my interview with Collette later.
In his second film at Sundance Joel Edgerton is paired opposite a luminous Robin Tunney in the sometimes haunting Open Window. The pair play a recently engaged and in love couple whose idyllic existence is shattered when Tunney is brutally raped in the couple’s home. The film focuses on how the relationship can survive following such a significant trauma. Featuring two fine performances by the two leads it falls apart with a comically absurd performance by an awful Cybill Shepherd who single handedly hinders an otherwise eloquent romantic drama. With some serious editing of her scenes the film has a better chance. It is also a pity that star Tunney wouldn’t do any online interviews for a film that clearly needs exposure.
Who would have thought that a documentary about crosswords and puzzles would turn out to be one of the Festival’s most exquisite crowd pleasers and the best film at Sundance that I at least have seen thus far. The film is Wordplay and trust me, this is one doc that will get theatrical release. Focusing in part on an annual crossword contest that takes place in Connecticut, the contest’s organizer since its inception is Will Shortz the Crossword Puzzle editor of the New York Times and National Public Radio’s ‘puzzle master’. This fresh and delightful film explores the art of crossword creation through a variety of characters from Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart who are ardent fans of the Ny Tines crosswords, through to the regular geniuses who enter this annual contest. The film beautifully delves into the mind of those who are ferocious intellectuals and the result is a wonderfully funny, exciting and moving piece. I’m not a crossword fan but Wordplay is a surefire winner.
Last up for today was the directorial debut of actress Joey Lauren Adams, with her eloquent and intelligent Come Early Morning, part of the festival’s dramatic competition. In what must be her finest performance to date, Ashley Judd plays a contractor in Arkansas who spends her off time drinking too much beer and sleeping with men she meets in her neighborhood bar. Refusing to ‘kiss a man when sober’ things change when she meets Cal and perhaps this time she can raise her emotional wall and find true love. Adams proves herself a true artist with her quietly melancholy portrait of southern small town USA. Hers is a script that is emotionally resonant and honest in its study of parental and human relationships. As her camera focuses on Judd we see a character full of emotional scars as Judd gives a remarkable and finely nuanced performance. A hauntingly rich and elegant work by Adams, her future as a director is assured with this beautiful and gentle human drama.
More of Sundance to come with a day of mostly interviews and the Sundance screenin of an Australian award winner.
Today was a day of interviews. First bumped into William H. Macy at a deli on Main St. He’s in town, briefly, for Thank You for Smoking in which he co-stars as an anti-smoking politician in the acerbic satire. Bill confirmed he’s about to make his directorial debut with a film he hopes to begin shooting in August. He has confirmed Halle Berry in the lead and possibly his wife Felicity Huffman. We both agreed it was about time he directed a feature.
Then ‘it was off to chat to his ‘Smoking co-star Aaron Eckhardt who has finally put The Core and Paycheck behind him to concentrate on films he believes in. He’s great in Smoking as a lobbyist for the smoking lobby and is currently practising his cooking for the Hollywood remake of Mostly Martha opposite Catherine Zeta Jones. “We will be shooting in New York Scott Hicks directing so I think it will be an intelligent take on the romantic genre.” Aaron says he hopes to go straight from Martha right into another movie but won’t confirm the project.
Next caught up with Guy Pearce in town for yet another festival screening of the acclaimed Aussie film The Proposition. Pearce had finished wrapping his new film about Andy Warhol. He confirmed he “a ton of research. In fact was there anything I didn’t read about the guy. ” Guy also has high marks for co-star Sienna Miller. “She’s amazing.” The actor plans on taking a break before deciding on his next film, but did confirmed it is likely to be Death Defying Acts for fellow Aussie Gillian Armstrong, to be shot in London. The film was to star recent Golden Globe winner Rachel Weisz who puled out after getting pregnant. The film will be recast in the next few months.
Next up was Josh Hartnett and the always luminous Lucy Liu talking about Lucky Number Slevin. Liu said she was still working with Universal on the long awaited Charlie Chan project, conceding that “it’s not resembling the movie we began with. We are still trying to get the script right.” Surprisingly despite a busy schedule she said she would not rule out another Charlie’s Angels script. “i’d love to work with those guys again as it was so much. But obviously that’s up to the powers that be.” As for Hartnett he’s excited about The Black Dahlia and says he loved working with De Palma “and playing a fedora wearing forties character.”
While The Proposition, the intense Australian Western drama, has been and gone in its native Australia, the film was still getting a lot of buzz for the film’s U.S premiere at Sundance. This vivid, powerful film is set in the outback of 1880s Australia, with yet another gunfight between the police and a gang of outlaws leaving carnage in its wake. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Their psychopathic brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), is hiding somewhere in the bush; all three are wanted for a brutal crime. Stanley makes Charlie a devastating proposition in an attempt to bring an end to the cycle of bloody violence. Unlik the classic American western, The Proposition blurs good and evil and does not present us with stereotypical stock figures. From an exquisitely taut and sharp script by Nick Cave, and the beautifully realised direction of John Hilcoat, The Proposition is truly a mesmerising and captivating work, a masterpiece of filmmaking that captures the pure essence of the harsh Australian landscape, brutal io its desolate beauty. Featuring wonderful performances by Pearce, Huston and a fabulous Ray Winstone, this film is bound to attain critical raves and respectable box office when First Look Releasing releases The Proposition in select US cities in May.
The films at Sundance one savours are those that creep up on you with few pre-expectations and mostly these are competition films. The Hawk is Dying is such a film. Based on the Harry Crew novel, the magnificent Paul Giamatti stars as a Gainesville Florida auto upholsterer who attempts to subvert his mundane life by training a wild, red-tailed hawk, and in doing so, try and bring added meaning into the life of his mentally handicapped nephew. This is a haunting, lyrical work, beautifully directed by Julian Goldberger and featuring a spectacular performance by Giamatti.
Half Nelson was also a film to savour, featuring a richly layered performance by Ryan Gosling as an English teacher addicted to cocaine, trying to remain afloat through his relationship with his 13-year old African-American student. Hauntingly eloquent and honest, here is another Sundance film to watch out for.
Sundance is defined, as always, by its diversity, and that is what this Indie film festival is al about. Finally, there are the awards.
The winners of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prizes, World Cinema Jury Prizes, and Audience Awards were announced at the closing award ceremony in Park City, Utah. For the first time in the Festival’s history, both the Grand Jury Prizes and Audience Awards for Documentary and Dramatic Competitions were presented to the same two films. The Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was given to GOD GREW TIRED OF US, directed by Christopher Quinn. In the late 1980’s, 27,000 Sudanese lost boys marched barefoot over thousands of miles of barren desert, seeking safe haven from the brutal civil war in their homeland. The film chronicles the experiences of three of these boys who seek refuge in the U.S. as they work to adjust to a strange new world. The Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to QUINCEAÑERA, written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. Disaffected Latino teenagers come of age in a gentrifying community in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles. Westmoreland and Glatzer have molded their mostly unknown ensemble into a tender portrait of a changing world and in doing so, have illuminated modern realities of family and hope. The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary was given to IN THE PIT (Mexico), written and directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo. According to Mexican legend, whenever a bridge is built the devil asks for one soul, in exchange for keeping the bridge standing. This film chronicles the daily lives of the workers building a second deck to Mexico City’s Periferico freeway—their hopes, dreams and struggle for survival. The World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to 13 TZAMETI (France), written and directed by Géla Babluani. When the protagonist decides to follow instructions intended for someone else, he finds himself at the brink of human decency, a place whose only inhabitants are the underbelly of society. In his feature debut, Babluani expertly combines story and style. The Audience Award: Documentary was presented to GOD GREW TIRED OF US, a film directed by Christopher Quinn. The Audience Award: Dramatic winner is QUINCEAÑERA, written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. The Audience Awards are sponsored by Volkswagen of America, and are given to a documentary and a dramatic film screening in competition, as voted by Film Festival audiences. The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary was presented to DE NADIE (Mexico), directed by Tin Dirdamal. Maria, a Central American immigrant who is forced to leave her family in search of a better life embarks on the dangerous 1300-mile journey through Mexico to the U.S. Without taking a political stance, the film provides a deeper understanding of the United States’ border crisis and intolerance in Mexican society.
The World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic was presented to NO. 2 (New Zealand), written and directed by Toa Fraser. Nanna Maria’s family has forgotten how to party. She’s going to change all that, and make them come alive with the heat and passion of the South Pacific.
Thus ends another Sundance and it’s back to the City of Angels and the more mainstream world of Hollywood. ‘Till next January.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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