The Sundance Report ’05

| January 21, 2005

Day 1
The snow-capped mountains and upper most ski resort of Park City says it is time again to visit the Sundance Film Festival, the first film festival of the year, and the most prestigious in its celebration of independent cinema. It is here that deals are made, stars mix with movie lovers and residents amidst the throng and hustle and bustle of Main St, or the various venues where a myriad and eclectic array of films are unspooled to the movie fanatic, film buyer and would-be Hollywood mogul, as well as the hundreds of American and foreign journalists who descend en masse each January to interview the famous and the infamous, or merely review some interesting film, which may or may not be, the next big thing.
Studios come here to premiere their latest, more risk-taking project, such as this year’s opening night film, Don Roos’ Happy Endings, which Lions Gate will be releasing throughout North America in mid-July. His first feature, The Opposite of Sex, was also was one of the first this journalist covered at Sundance. That was then, this is now, and Happy Endings is a satisfying film to have opened this Festival. The multiple narrative lines include a filmmaker blackmailing a woman about a son she long ago gave up for adoption; a gay man whose partner was, or perhaps wasn’t, the sperm donor for two of their best friends, a lesbian couple; and a 30-something girl who shacks up with a young man trying to convince his father he’s straight and then moves on to the dad. Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is being blackmailed. This filmmaker named Nick (Jesse Bradford) claims to know Mamie’s son–the one she gave up for adoption–but Nick won’t introduce her to him unless he can film the reunion. Enter Javier (Bobby Cannavale), Mamie’s massage therapist boyfriend, who convinces Nick to film him instead. Now they’re all making a movie about massage. And ‘happy endings’… Charley (Steve Coogan) has a long-time boyfriend named Gil (David Sutcliffe). Their best friends, Pam and Diane (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke), once tried using Gil as a sperm donor. They said his sperm didn’t take, but Charley thinks those selfish, control-freak lesbians are lying. Pam and Diane’s two-year-old son looks exactly like Gil. And it’s time to set the record straight… Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is pissed. Not at anyone in particular. Just in general. When her cousin kicks her out of the house, Jude shacks up with Otis (Jason Ritter), who’s still trying to convince his father, Frank (Tom Arnold), that he’s straight. Frank’s a widower. And he’s rich. So Jude decides to sleep with him, too. Really. The last thing she expected was to fall in love. Perhaps anger and life’s bitter equations are a theme at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but as bleak as Don Roos’ latest film appears from the outset, Happy Endings lives up to its title. A richly layered comedy of character, manipulation, sex and the search for love, Roos is back with a film that is partly acidic in tone and partly just so very human. Full of intricate and problematic characters, here is a deliriously sexy, entertaining and wonderfully together film, so beautifully written by a great observer of ourselves. Performances are consistently high quality with Kudrow shaking off her TV image with a bludgeoning determination, succeeding with masterful depth, humour and real pathos. Maggie Gyllenhaal refines her sexy, vulnerable persona with a hypnotic and engaging performance playing an unsympathetic but so watchable character.
Dark and light, comic and tragic, it is a film that is deftly handled, and wonderfully exuberant and entertaining. Lions Gate should do brisk business with this fabulous film.
Meanwhile, the more corporate-minded New Line premiered ITS less formulaic work, the absolutely superb The Upside of Anger. Written and directed by the immeasurably talented Mike Binder, the film takes a darkly comedic look at family, middle-age, sex, adolescence and, yes, anger, in a tautly scripted family comedy-drama, that is predominantly about women. The film ensues when the alcoholic matriarch of the wealthy Wolfmeyer family [played with an often comic but well-rounded relish by the magnificent Joan Allen] discovers that her husband has disappeared and left her to raise her four headstrong daughters of various ages, on her own, without any clear means of support. Her drunken tirades foster varying degrees of hostility and anger towards this quartet of young women coping with their own personal and professional aspirations, not to mention her middle-aged neighbour [Kevin Costner], an ex-baseball player-turned Dj and fellow drunk, who is making a play for her attention, while trying to cope with this household of interminably fiery women. What is especially striking about this film, is how observant writer/director Binder is, when it comes to the female psyche. As a male observer of women, they are the stronger sex by a mile here, even allowing himself to play a misogynistic radio producer who has no problems sleeping with women half his age, including one of the Wolfmeyer daughters. Yet Costner, whose own character grows up throughout the course of the film as much as the women, gives the best performance of his career. Hilarious, charming, sexy and human, Costner has virtually reinvented himself in this beautifully realised and sublime performance.
But of course, it remains the women of the piece who each give spectacular performances, with their own, well-defined arcs and moments in the sun, , including Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt, who are consistently surprising, funny and touching as four women so recognisable and so painstakingly real. The Upside of Anger is a film richly textured, Chekhovian in tone, yet delightfully comic on the one hand, and personal and moving on the other. In all, a wonderfully entertaining and totally satisfying masterwork that deserves to be a huge hit.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose is cinematic poetry. A tough sell commercially, it marks an auspicious maturity for writer/director Rebecca Miller, whose Personal Velocity garnered attention at Sundance a few years back. Miller’s latest film explores the depth of human relationships, especially that of father and daughter against a harsh but stunningly isolated backdrop. While also delving into Man’s relationship with nature and progress, the film’s environmental themes are part of an overall exploration of ourselves. This is a gloriously mounted and profoundly visceral work, featuring another intricate, powerful and moving performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in a role we’ve never seen from the British thespian before. Masterful and deeply human, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a beautiful and haunting film that stays with one long after its closing credits.
Jack Starks [Adrien Brody], a military veteran returns to his native Vermont suffering from bouts of amnesia. When he is accused of murder and lands in an asylum, a well-meaning doctor puts him on a heavy course of experimental drugs, restrains him in a jacket-like device, and locks him away in a body drawer of the basement morgue. The process sends him on a journey into the future, where he can foresee his death (but not who did it or how) in four days’ time. Now the only question that matters is: can the woman he meets in the future [Keira Knightley] save him? Originality is such a rarity in American cinema that a film such as The Jacket comes along like a breath of fresh air. Part genre to be sure, there is something intellectually razor sharp about this completely absorbing and thrilling film, masterfully crafted by the inventive John Maybury. Because it is so tough to categorize, The Jacket is a challenge to market, but word of mouth and strong reviews should help generate a strong buzz, and the film is certainly destined for a long post-theatrical hit on DVD as a cult favourite. Balancing dollops of black humour, intensity, a cool sci fi time travel component, all dressed up in a deeply moving and unforgettable love story, the like we have never seen before. Adrien Brody gives a solid performance in a complex character, but the film’s biggest surprise is an extraordinary performance by a barely recognisable Keira Knightley. Vocally and physically, there is no evidence of the pretty blonde who stole the likes of Bend it Like Beckham and Love, Actually. Encapsulating working class Americana at every turn, Knightley is a revelation here. The Jacket is an enthralling and compelling film, both visceral and engaging, daring the viewer to be propelled into an original and unique cinematic world.
Sundance 2005 is up and running and for the media, it’s a matter of trying to see films and chat to those in them, and this journalist is already exhausted, and we’ve barely begun. In coming days, I’ll be chatting to the likes of Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, and even ex-porn star Harry Reems is here. Things are about to take off, as Sundance rolls out guns that are big, small and somewhere in between.
Nothing like a totally exuberant, fresh and funny documentary about aspiring rock stars to begin a day at Sundance. The film is Rock School and the aspiring musos are aged 9 to 17. Funny and vibrant, the film explores the often unorthodox teaching practices if Paul who was a modestly successful rock guitarist back in the day and now communicates his deep passion of Black Sabbath and zeppelin to a group of often social misfits who see music as a free way of communicating in a world by willing ti embrace such youthful freedoms. From CJ the brilliant guitarist to a pair of 9 year olds innocently infatuated by rock stardom, Rock School is painstakingly honest yet hilarious and moving. Its a wonderfully exuberant film destined for commercial success.
There’s some music to be heard in Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs but mostly there’s sex and more sex and some dirty talk then some even more graphic sex. One is never sure of the point of this trite look at the relationship between a British researcher in Antarctica recalling a past love, and an American girl who loves her sex. Not much else happens apart from a lot of graphic sex in subdued lighting and the film becomes repetitious to the extreme. Performances from the two leads are brave, but the film is nothing more than a collage of quasi-erotic vignettes that are less satisfying for the audience than they might have been for its participants. Nine Songs remains consistently out of tune and has a limited commercial appeal, unless of course you want to see the boundaries of sexuality pushed to extremes. Perhaps DVD sales will be more successful than theatrical release, and given more conservative times we live in, getting this film released uncut in some territories will prove an interesting challenge.
Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads is a beautiful, languid tale about unresolved issues and relationships. Based on a true story, Loggerheads combines three stories in three different time periods in three different part of North Carolina. The events all unfold on Mother’s Day weekend on different years. A tad slow as it reveals past and present secrets, here is at least a film that has moments of genuine beauty, coupled with subtle performances by Bonnie Hunt and Kip Pardue. It’s a tough film, with its quiet, at times even poetic eloquence, but while it seems almost near perfect for a Festival such as this, it is less likely to find much of a home in cinemas, but rather on HBO and the like. Structurally complex, the film is gloriously human its detail, but overall, it is a film that is full of moments, leaving one curiously unsatisfied.
Scott Coffey’s Ellie Parker may sound familiar and if you were at Sundance back in 2001 you would remember the short of the same name, also starring one Naomi Watts. Back then, the actress was busy flogging that film with little fanfare. 4 years later, Watts is back with the feature version, in this comically insightful tale of a young woman’s struggle for integrity, happiness and a Hollywood acting career, in the midst of a city that thrives on the destruction of those that try to conquer Hollywood. One soon forgives the film’s technical look [it was shot on digital video], because Ellie Parker is a wonderful look at the comic and tragic life of aspiring actresses, with their inherent self-obsessions, paranoias and desperate need for acceptance. Watts remains a true revelation, delivering a magnificent, richly nuanced and at times outrageous performance in the title role. She is extraordinary to watch here, totally capturing, with an eerie honesty, the many facets of a woman desperate to succeed. She is ably assisted by fellow Aussie Rebecca Rigg, absent too long from the screen, who is gloriously funny and memorable here. Ellie Parker is a true independent film, and it’s wonderful to see Ms Watts return to those roots time and time again. In this film, she is a force to be reckoned with and the film is deliriously engaging, hilarious and disarmingly honest.
Day 2
As Sundance enters its second day here in sunny Park City, it’s time to drag oneself around, scheduling interviews, dealing with the inevitable rejection and the publicists. While most are as accommodating as they can be, there is the one, of course who would rather berate an underling than schedule interviews for the tiny films they have that will likely never be seen outside Sundance. But that, after all, is part of the pleasure and pain of being a working journalist at this Festival. As the journey continues, tomorrow I catch up with Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Naomi Watts, Rebecca Rigg, 2 of the girls from Upside of Anger and ex-porn star Harry Reems. Perhaps it’s not too bad a life after all!
Day 3
Another day of screenings and the first of interviews, as Sundance enters its third day for us weary journalists. The morning began with Brick, a unique film noir thriller. Unique in that in this surreal world of Dashell Hammett the setting is a hyper real high school. Featuring some of the screen’s most original and at times fitfully funny dialogue, Brick is often as confusing as the likes of The Maltese Falcon, but equally irresistible, as the viewer is plunged into this rather seedy world of adolescent crime lords, punctuated with some often brutal violence. Top notch performances are provided by a solid, young cast, though it is unclear what the primary audience is, for a film that has as young cast in a highly conventional and overly plotted narrative. But full marks to director for originality.
Next stop, interviews. Originally intending to speak to Australian actress Rebecca Rigg for Ellie Parker, the film’s star Naomi Watts insisted on joining the discussion. Naomi and Rebecca have been friends for years, and having known both for ages, it was a fun interview. Both talked about some of the parallels between the frustrated actresses they played and their earlier experiences. Watts of course has emerged as one of the biggest new stars around, yet as I reminded myself during this often funny and interesting chat, she hasn’t changed that much. She said she still has three months left on King Kong “and I’m having a wonderful time.” Next up for release is Ring 2, but the actress said it’s unlikely she’ll be around for that press junket.
I was supposed to interview another Australian actress, Emilie de Ravin, co-star of TV’s Lost, but she was a no-show. Perhaps she, er, got lost?
Then it was off to a condo in the middle of The Canyons, to chat to the always luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal about Happy Endings. We talked a lot about sex, nudity, independence and the choices she makes. The actress is fiercely intelligent, honest and always wonderful to talk to. She admitted that she has no problem with nudity “and wait till you see my next film Shall not Want”, she admits, laughingly.
From the middle of nowhere, it was off to Main Street, firstly to join in a group chat with The Jacket’s Keira Knightley, who also talked about Domino, describing it as “:a kick ass action film” during which she had to learn about lap dancing. She admitted that her lower lap dancing body a body double. As for Pirates, she says she hasn’t seen a script and still has no idea if they’re shooting both films simultaneously. But she has a start date and that’s it. I’ll be talking 1:1 with Keira later today. Then it was off to another location to chat to Erica Christenson and the gorgeous Keri Russell about The Upside of Anger. Both are busy, with Russell back in the game having taken a year off after completing four seasons of Felicity.
The last interview of the day was with ex-porn star and alcoholic Harry Reems, who is featured in the Brian Grazer-produced documentary Inside Deep Throat, which I’ll be checking out later tonight. Reems is a fascinating, articulate and honest individual, and his was a most compelling story. More on Harry prior to the release of Inside Deep Throat.
It was back to the movies and two significant highlights. First, the British comedy/drama On a Clear Day, a wonderfully engaging and superb film, handled with deft insight by director Gaby Dellal. Peter Mullen is extraordinary as Frank, middle aged and unemployed for the first time in three decades, who makes a decision to swim the English Channel partly to regain his self-respect, and partly to erase his guilt over the death of a son so many years earlier. Brenda Blethyn is wonderful as his wife, and Billy Boyd hilarious as a close friend. On a Clear Day is a film that is filled with some rich humour and moments of sheer poignancy, an irresistible, crowd-pleasing film, magnificently acted and a joy from start to finish. Icon is selling the film in the US and releasing it in Britain and Australia. It is certainly a must see.
The final film of the night is also a major highlight at this Sundance:
Pretty Persuasion. This can easily be the Heathers of the new millennium, a savagely dark and brilliantly written satire on media, adolescent sexuality and manipulation. Featuring a performance by Evan Rachel Wood that is truly extraordinary, as a 15-year-old girl who incites chaos among her friends and a media frenzy when she accuses her drama teacher of sexual harassment.
Wood delivers a brave, uncompromising performance, in a film that is comically savage, politically incorrect to the extreme and hauntingly compelling. This is no trite Mean Girls, but a complex, magnificently constructed parable that is hilarious and compelling. As for Wood, a star is born, and as her father, James Woods delivers a scene-stealing performance. Masterfully directed by Marcos Siega, Pretty Persuasion is likely to find distribution very quickly and commercial prospects are high indeed for this superb, bitingly anarchic masterpiece.
Later today I’ll be checking out Thumbsucker, Kung Fu Hustle and Inside Deep Throat, plus sprinkles of celebs along the way.
Days 4 & 5
Documentaries are often overlooked by some media, mainly interested in celebrity here at Sundance, and one rarely has the opportunity to check out the docs, but this year, I at least saw two, and both outstanding. Today began with a screening of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the darkly comic but ultimately tragic account of the rise and fall of this billion dollar corporation. Adapted from the book of the same name, “Enron” meticulously tracks the rise and fall of Enron boss Kenneth Lay and his second-in-command, Jeffrey Skilling, while also delving into the activities of their various lieutenants. A study of ego, power, greed, fraud and even sex, the film is a depressing exploration of the worst excesses of corporate America. Alex Gibney directs his film with clarity, underpinning the period in which this scandal took place. Deeply disturbing, the film has a powerful and emotive resonance, yet it does not attempt to over simplify the issues for audience sanitisation. A superb film in its detail and structure, Enron is a tragic tale of corporate greed, told with an almost savage humour and emotional depth. It is certainly a film worthy of serious consideration.
As darkly comic but so different is the wonderfully entertaining and exuberant Inside Deep Throat, thus far one of the best films at this Festival. This documentary examines the sexual revolution phenomenon that was the 1972 X-rated porn movie, ‘Deep Throat,’ which became (and still is) the most successful independently-produced movie ever made, bringing in a worldwide gross of $600 million on a budget of just $25,000. The focus of this documentary does not focus on the specifics of ‘Deep Throat’ as a movie, but will examine the reasons it was such a cultural sensation (which included the infamous Watergate source who took the movie’s name as a pseudonym), breaking down new barriers and helping establish pornography as a big business. The film is remarkable and ironic, given the fact that mainstream Hollywood distanced itself from the porn industry, yet here is Universal Studios, releasing this film with an NC-17 rating no less. It is a brave choice by the studio, as it includes some brief clips from the film, but Inside Deep Throat is not, by any means, just a film about pornography. Yes, it deals, often with vibrant humour, with how and why the film got made, but it does so within the context of a social and political milieu. The film chronicles the rise of the industry, its political ramifications, and how video would ultimately give new direction to what remains as a multi million dollar business. But Inside Deep Throat is a documentary about conservative America’s impact on sexuality, and it seems that we have come full circle. Here is a film that works as a political; and social commentary, and the under the flawless and astute direction of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, this quite stunning film is also deliciously entertaining, sexy and consistently fascinating. Whether you snuck a look at Deep Throat in your youth or not, this documentary remains unforgettable and insightful. Universal may well have an unexpected hit on its hand when the film begins its US roll out early next month.
As for the best of the dramatic films thus far, Thumbsucker is on top of the list. A coming of age story with a difference, this special and often unique comedy drama is about parents and sons, first love, self-discovery and ultimately breaking away. The film’s protagonist is one Justin Cobb, addicted to thumbsucking. A bright but awkward high-school teen, he wants to quit, but nothing works. He tries everything from putting ink on his thumb to hypnosis from his New Age orthodontist. He gets so desperate that when a school psychologist suggests using medication to help him focus, Justin leaps at the chance, despite his loving mother’s concern. Treated with a wonderfully wry, understated humour and featuring extraordinary performances from Tilda Swinton and a charming Keanu Reeves, Thumbsucker is a stunning debut from a director who has crafted a wonderfully rich and rewarding film, destined for commercial success if picked up by the right distributor.
For pure adrenalin-charged escapism, you can’t go past the irrepressible Kung Fu Hustle, the latest gem from the extraordinary Steven Chau. It makes little difference if some of the film makes little sense, because it so full of comic inventiveness, original, mind-blowing action sequences and visual effects that put expensive Hollywood to shame. The movie takes place in Shanghai before the 1949 revolution and is run by the notorious Axe Gang, an oversized mob of young men dressed in morning suits and top hats who swing axes to instill fear. More often than not, the axes wind up being planted in various skulls and between the shoulder blades of those who don’t kowtow to the Axe Gang’s reign. The only part of the city which the gang has no interest in controlling is Pig Sty Alley, a ramshackle neighborhood of poor but seemingly happy folk. Pig Sty Alley is run by the Landlord and his Landlady, an older married pair who seem to be in a constant state of sparring. Chau and Lam Tze Chung play a pair of would-be extortionists who try to shake down the seemingly submissive folk of Pig Sty Alley. Their attempts at intimidation fail miserably, especially when elderly women can land stomach punches which cause them to spit up blood. The dim duo accidentally bring the Axe Gang into the fray when a stray firecracker lands on the hat of the gang’s leader. But when the Axe Gang attempts to take control of Pig Sty Alley, they discover the lowly residents are more than capable of not only maintaining a degree of self-defense, but can also launch a high-octane offensive assault. One of the most visually innovative and exuberant films in the recent history of Chinese kung fu cinema, Kung Fu Hustle is as hilarious as it is action-packed, never allowing the audience to relax for a moment. It’s an ingenious and exuberant piece of entertainment.
When not seeing films, interviewing keeps one busy. Spoke to Brenda Blethyn who is about to start shooting a new film in Australia, while the always amusing Billy Boyd talked about life after Lord of the Rings. Then rushed off to interview Keira Knightley one on one where we talked fame and strip clubs. That interview will be running soon.
Next day was all interviews except for one major screening which ill mention soon. Day began with the wonderful Tilda Swinton who said her character in the upcoming Constantine provides a major plot twist to the dark action film. We also talked about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which sounds great. As Tilda won’t be doing print press for Constantine, watch put for the one and only online interview coming soon. Next stop was poppy Montgomery of Without a Trace. It was fun making fun of this Aussie whose Australian accent has all but gone. She’s here with the thriller Between.
More interviews included Steve Buscemi whose latest directorial film Lonesome Jim is here. Great guy who talked about his next job voicing one of the animals in charlotte’s Web.
Final interview of the day with the fascinating Steven Chau. Quite the day, and to end up the night, I attended the screening of the world premiere of the much anticipated Aussie film Wolf Creek, enjoying its world premiere here at Sundance. Loosely based on true events, this chilling Aussie film, acquired by Miramax/Dimension prior to Sundance, tells the chilling plight of three young tourists, two British women and their Aussie male companion, terrorised in the midst of Australia’s outback by a deranged loner. Wolf Creek could easily resort to hackneyed formula, but under the direction of debut director Greg McLean, Wolf Creek pulls no punches in its depiction of horror. Genuinely terrifying, McLean places the audience in a tranquil sea of safety as we get to know his characters, before the terror begins, and unlike Hollywood films, presents us with an intensely visceral experience. Visually hypnotic, the film explores, as so many Australian films have done so beautifully, the vast emptiness of the outback, which becomes a primary character. McLean has cast his film with some exciting new talent, including first-rate work from Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi, not to mention an extraordinary performance by veteran John Jarrat. A genuinely haunting, compelling and frightening work, Wolf Creek is one of the most original and daring thrillers to reach our screens in years.

About the Author:

Paul Fischer I've been an entertainment writer going on for three decades. Born in Australia, I began writing for Australian papers and was the first Australian journalist ever to interview both Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1999, and apart from my teaching career, have written for Film Monthly and Dark Horizons.

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