Posted: 01/18/2009

 

Sundance Film Festival Report

by Paul Fischer




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SUNDANCE CLOSES AS ‘DIVERSE FILMS WIN MAJOR PRIZES

PARK CITY, UTAH. After another frenetic and diverse Sundance, the 2009 Sundance Film Festival closed with its annual award night.

The 2009 Sundance Film Festival Juries consisted of:

U.S. Dramatic Competition:, Virginia Madsen, Scott McGehee, Maud Nadler, Mike White and Boaz Yakin; U.S. Documentary Competition: Patrick Creadon, Carl Deal, Andrea Meditch, Sam Pollard and Marina Zenovich; World Dramatic Competition: Colin Brown (U.S.), Christine Jeffs (New Zealand) and Vibeke Windeløv (Denmark); World Documentary Competition: Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Thom Powers (U.S.); Hubert Sauper (France); Shorts Competition: Gerardo Naranjo, Lou Taylor Pucci and Sharon Swart; The Alfred P. Sloan Prize: Fran Bagenal, Rodney Brooks, Raymond Gesteland, Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Alex Rivera.

For the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, 118 feature-length films were selected including 91 world premieres, 16 North American premieres, and 5 U.S. premieres representing 21 countries with 42 first-time filmmakers, including 28 in competition. These films were selected from 3,661 feature- length film submissions composed of 1,905 U.S. and 1,756 international feature-length films.

Here are the 2009 Sundance Film Festival Award Winners:

The Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary was presented to We Live in Public,directed by Ondi Timoner.

The Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire, directed by Lee Daniels and written by Damien Paul.

The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Rough Aunties, directed by Kim Longinotto.

The World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to The Maid (La Nana), directed by Sebastián Silva.

The Audience Award for U.S. Documentary was presented to The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos.

The Audience Award for: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Push:

The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary was presented to Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking.

The World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic was presented to An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby.
Directing Awards recognize excellence in directing for dramatic and documentary features.

The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to El General and director Natalia Almada.

The Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Sin Nombre, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga..

The World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary was presented to Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking.

The World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic was presented to Five Minutes of Heaven, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert.

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award was presented to Nicholas Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi for Paper Heart.

The World Cinema Screenwriting Award was presented to Five Minutes of Heaven, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert.

The U.S. Documentary Editing Award was presented to Sergio. Directed by Greg Barker and edited by Karen Schmeer.

The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award was presented to Burma VJ. Directed by Anders Østergaard and edited by Janus Billeskov.

The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to The September Issue.

The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Sin Nombre, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.

The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary was presented to Big River Man.

The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic was presented to An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby.

A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Originality was presented to Louise-Michel, directed by Benoit Delépine and Gustave de Kervern.

A World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Tibet in Song directed by Ngawang Choephel..

A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Acting was presented to Catalina Saavedra for her portrayal of a bitter and introverted maid in The Maid (La Nana). Chile

A Special Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary was presented to Good Hair, directed by Jeff Stilson, in which comedian Chris Rock travels the world to examine the culture of African-American hair and hairstyles.

A Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence was presented to Humpday, Lynn Shelton’s farcical comedy about straight male bonding gone a little too far.

A Special Jury Prize for Acting was presented to Mo’Nique for her portrayal of a mentally ill mother who both emotionally and physically imprisons her daughter in Push:

Finally, the 2009 Sundance Film Festival Alfred P. Sloan Prize was presented to Adam, directed by Max Mayer.


DAY 5

On the last day that this journalist is saw films at Sundance [tomorrow it’s interviews back to back] the theme for today seemed to be relationships, all depicted vastly differently. John Krasinski, best known as the laid-back Jim from The Office, makes his directorial debut on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, based on the cult novel by the late David Foster Wallace. The film’s protagonist is grad student Sara Quinn who, after her boyfriend [played by Krasinski] mysteriously leaves her with little explanation, she is left looking for answers as to what went wrong. Directing all her energies into her anthropological dissertation, Sara conducts a series of interviews with men in an effort to uncover the secret thoughts that drive their behavior. As she records the astonishing and disquieting experiences of various subjects, Sara discovers much more about men and herself than she bargained for.

This is the kind of film one needs to mull over for several hours. I must confess, my instinctive reaction was that the film is too anti-male, overly verbose and requires too much thought, in particular seeing the film at about 9am. Yet, when one begins to think about it, one realizes that it’s far more ingenious a philosophical treatise than one realizes, and writer/director Krasinski has made a very intelligent, brilliantly acted cinema verite piece, that goes in some unexpected directions. Yes, there is some male bashing, but that is really being far too simplistic an examination of a film that deeply and courageously explores the male psyche. There are harsh truths spelled out by some of Sara’s ‘subjects’ and some characters are intensely misogynistic, but Krasinski is deftly non-judgmental and that is why the film works so well. It is a very dialogue centric piece, requiring the audience to think and analyze, but cinema is often superficial and mundane, so a film like Brief Interviews comes as a refreshing change. Krasinski’s direction is simple, not cinematic, which is in keeping with the style of the piece, and his own performance that closes the film, in which he delivers an emotive monologue offering his reasons for leaving, is simply stunning. As to what the audience is for the film, is a different matter. It may be better served on an HBO, but either way, this is a bold and audacious work that is provocative and intellectually stimulating which deserves an equally wide and intelligent audience.

On the other hand, Australian director Gregor Jordan’s ode to the 80s, The Informers, seems so out of place at this festival. Sure it’s a guilty pleasure film full of copious amounts of sex and nudity, which is not objectionable per se, but a script helps, and actors who can solidly interpret characters. Based on author Bret Easton Ellis’ rambling tales of 1980s Los Angeles, The Informers is a multi-strand narrative set in 1984 Los Angeles, centered on an array of characters who represent both the top of the heap (a Hollywood dream merchant, a dissolute rock star, an aging newscaster) and the bottom (a voyeuristic doorman, an amoral ex-con). Connecting the intertwining strands are a group of beautiful, blonde young men and women who sleep all day and party all night, doing drugs — and one another —with abandon, never realizing that they are dancing on the edge of a volcano. I get what Ellis was doing, commenting on the sexual excesses of the 80s when AIDS was first coming into being, and the disease is certainly part of the film. But the screenplay, co-written by first-timer Nicholas Jarecki, along with novelist Ellis, has no depth whatsoever, but a meaningless series of unsympathetic caricatures, brought to life by a bevy of attractive, soulless actors. None of this is the fault of director Jordan, an accomplished filmmaker who can only shoot the material available to him. He has a fluid, visual style, and the film certainly looks stylish and perfectly captures the period. With the exception of pros Billy Bob Thornton and a striking Kim Basinger, The Informers has very little to offer, apart from numerous sex scenes, drug-taking and the weirdest, out of place character played by Mickey Rourke who needs to think about the choices he makes. This film about perpetual self-destruction is an unnecessary addition to Sundance, and it is likely given the film’s bad reviews, that a theatrical release is an unlikely event, but rather relegated to cable and DVD. As a huge admirer of Gregor’s work, it is unfortunate that he opted to do something this shallow and narratively incohesive, but then you’re only as good as your source material and therein lay the problem.

Relationship movies are a dime a dozen at Sundance, and some work, others are bold failures. Jay DiPietro’s Peter and Vandy falls under the latter category. The film is a love story told out of order about a couple that is out of order, juxtaposing Peter and Vandy’s romantic beginnings with the twisted-manipulative-regular couple they become. It is a bold idea, but the idea of completely confusing your audience by telling a story out of order, where scenes are juxtaposed, doesn’t quite work. A good film, a good relationship film, needs carefully delineated characters in order for the viewer to be invested in the relationship, so by mixing up scenes and moments, by showing the destruction of the relationship at one point, followed by love confessions, the two characters are never allowed to grow. In addition, the film becomes very confusing, and for a relationship film, that is inexcusable. On the plus side, the film is beautifully shot in New York and feels like a rich love letter to that city. The acting is terrific. Jason Ritter is an explosive talent who goes from romantic to angry character with effortless brilliance, and the beautiful Jess Weixler of Teeth fame, has a luminous expressive quality. The film’s flaws are structural, a lack of character development and narrative problems, and one questions its ability to find theatrical distribution.

DAY 4

From Jim Carrey as a gay con man to a whimsical love story between a children’s author and a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, such is the rich diversity of Sundance as one tirelessly ploughs through a fourth day of screenings and interviews.

Jim Carrey is quite capable of being comedically charming and goofy in mainstream Hollywood, as he was, successfully, in last month’s Yes Man, but it is equally apparent that there is so much more to the comic actor than meets the eye, as is evident by watching him dazzle us in the remarkable I Love You Phillip Morris, surprisingly based on a true story.
Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a man who lives a secret life as a gay man, while coming home to a loving wife. After a car accident, he decides he’s had it with the lies. Once he’s out of the hospital, Steven ditches his wife and starts to live a gay life with all of its wealth and flamboyancy, and to afford such a lifestyle he becomes a con man.

He eventually lands in jail, over and over and over again, where he finally meets and falls in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a quiet, sensitive gay man who believes anything Steven tells him. When circumstances separate them, Steven uses his powers of deception to get them back together. Sometimes that means posing as a lawyer, sometimes it means bribing other inmates for a hooker outfit to use in one of his many prison escapes. There is no doubt that I Love you Phillip Morris is a deliciously entertaining film, part con artist caper flick and part love story. Though based on actual events, Carrey takes this character and makes him fun and vividly intoxicating. The actor relishes the character and manages to deliver a performance that is both wildly hilarious and quite moving. It’s a film that never quite knows in which direction to go, and offers lacks a succinct, narrative through-line. McGregor is less interesting as Morris, and in fact his rather standoffish performance is in such stark contrast with Carrey, one never really understands the attraction. I Love You Phillip Morris is very likely to have news of a distributor prior to the end of Sundance, and Carrey’s fan base may allow it to succeed, but it’s a harder sell than I think people realize, and is not helped by a stubborn refusal of the film’s cast to do press for the film here, rather than one ridiculous press conference. However, Carrey certainly gives a full-throttle, bravura performance in a highly entertaining cinematic journey. But in these economic tough times, selling Carrey in this particular role may be easier said than done. Only time will tell.

One may not necessarily associate Chris Rock with Sundance, but he is front and centre of a wonderfully funny and perceptive documentary on the relationship between hair and the Black American psyche. Rock is terrifically funny here as he conducts interviews with a plethora of actors, writers and politicians, from Maya Angelou to Ice T, rapper Eve, actress Nia Long and many others. His journey takes him to India, North Carolina and Beverly Hills; from barbershops to factories in his pursuit of why it is Black women are more than a tad obsessed by their hair. There are many wonderfully funny moments in this wise and sharp film, as we, as a society, are observed commenting on sexuality and hair, hairstyle competitions, and a variety of such in-depth discussions. A film that explores the nature of individuality and self-expression, the film attempts to define good hair and comes up with many responses by Rock’s eclectic subjects. It is Ice T that finally has the last say, and what he says, sums up this film to a tee. No matter what your ethnic origin, or you’re your position on the role of women’s hair in particular, Good Hair is a superb, sharply observed and well crafted comic documentary. HBO will screen the film in the first half of the year, and it’s a film to watch out for.

Love stories that work and are original are rare to find, though they seem to succeed more in the Indie world than mainstream Hollywood. What I adored about Max Mayer’s exquisitely crafted Adam, was its extraordinary honesty and its ability to develop the film’s central relationship with painstaking truth. In a magnificent performance, Hugh Dancy stars as Adam, a fiercely intelligent man who lives alone in his New York apartment, has a job creating computer chips for toys, falls in love with his new neighbour, and, oh yes, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which effects his ability to form meaningful social relationships. Adam of course says what he means and means what he says, yet his neighbour, Beth [Rose Byrne] finds something within him, a soulful innocent perhaps, that draws her to him and they begin a tentative, awkward relationship, while Beth is dealing with her own parental problems. This is the least likely of romantic dramas, yet not being mainstream Hollywood, is not full of pap happily-ever-afters, but more hopeful optimism when it comes to these intricately drawn characters. Max Mayey’s direction is thoughtful and has created a poetic, lyrical and charming film that really explores the nature of communication within all of us. It’s a beautiful, Joyful work richly layered and gorgeous to watch. Hugh Dancy is a revelation in this film, not overdoing the character or reducing him to self-pity. He is magnificent, as is the luminous and breathtaking Rose Byrne, who lights up the screen, and gives plenty of depth to this fascinating and equally lonely character. Adam is very much a Sundance film, and in a good way: honest, reflective, full of richly drawn characters and a beautiful script that add up to cinematic perfection.

DAY 3

Sundance continues as one becomes acutely aware that the economic crisis extends to this festival, with fewer journalists, publicists and a slightly diminished audience. How all this will effect sales of films remains to be seen, but the prognosis is pessimistic to say the least. Still the quality of the films screened this year remains impressive, at least the ones I have managed to see.

Duncan Jones’ sci-fi thriller Moon is an entertaining and fascinating film with a compelling performance, but a film that is more great entertainment than great cinema. The film’s protagonist is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who is nearing the end of his contract with Lunar. He’s been a faithful employee for 3 long years where his home has been Sarang, a moon base where he has spent his days alone, mining Helium 3. The precious gas holds the key to reversing the Earth’s energy crisis.

Isolated, determined and steadfast, Sam has followed the rulebook obediently and his time on the moon has been enlightening, but uneventful. The solitude has given him time to reflect on the mistakes of his past and work on his raging temper. He does his job mechanically, and spends most of his available time dreaming of his imminent return to Earth, to his wife, young daughter and an early retirement. His only companion to speak of, is a very advanced robot [voiced by Kevin Spacey].

But 2 weeks shy of his departure from Sarang, Sam starts seeing things, hearing things and feeling strange and when a routine extraction goes horribly wrong, he discovers that Lunar have their own plans for replacing him and the new recruit is eerily familiar.

What makes Moon work so effectively is the astounding performance of Rockwell, whose scenes of isolation are mesmerizing but he ends up delivering a multi-faceted performance that comes alive in unexpected ways in the film’s second half. It’s fascinating to watch Rockwell, but without revealing too much, it is astonishing what the actor does. The film is imaginatively crafted by director Duncan Jones’ who, on a small budget, has been able to visually replicate asspectes of the moon’s surface and the interior of Sarang, stylishly and with a visual depth one generally sees on higher budget studio films. Jones, production designer Tony Noble and cinematographer Gary Shaw give the audience a visual impression of depth that manages to make Sarang an integral character in the film. Sharply edited, the film sustains an atmosphere of dread throughout its climatic third act, further enhanced by Rockwell’s nuanced performance. The film has been pre-sold to Sony, but as yet it is unclear what division of the studio will release it, but it has strong commercial possibilities in particular with the lack of smart science fiction in the market place. Moon is an unusual Sundance film as it is very traditionally structured, but it is a vivid look at some pertinent issues in the United States, and remains an entertaining, well-made drama featuring a great central performance.

Sometimes, films at Sundance suffer from, adequate writing but rise above mediocrity because of strong performances or a great idea. It is rare to find a first feature from a writer/director making his début in both departments, that is flawless in both the writing and direction. Such is the case of the brilliant and deliciously quirky Arlen Faber. The film stars Jeff Daniels as the title character, an author of a popular spiritual self-help book “Me and God” who has remained in hiding for 20 years. On the eve of the 20th Anniversary, Arlen, suffering from severe back pain meets single mother and back healer Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) who might just be the salvation he needs. In addition he meets a struggling bookseller fresh out of rehab (Lou Taylor Pucci), looking for the answers he thinks think only Arlen can provide. Writer/director John Hindman has written a succinct, razor-sharp, funny and optimistic romantic comedy that is masterful in its conception and final execution. It is a witty, profound film about spirituality, cynicism, love and the search for answers, packaged in this taut script that he so beautifully directed. A Woody Allenesque comedy without his often neurotic self-indulgence, the film also boasts two formidable performances that are breathtaking. Jeff Daniels has evolved as an actor who can play any character, and his Arlen is both cynically bitter and ultimately deeply human. This is a performance that runs the gamut and the actor pulls out all the stops from sheer wit and hilarity, to vulnerable and human. It’s a rich, beautiful performance full of intricate layers. One can’t speak highly enough of the sublime and intoxicating Lauren Graham, whose penchant for witty comedy was evident in Gilmore Girls but is far more defined here. She delivers her best big-screen performance, and looks luminous in the process. Arlen Faber should be picked up at Sundance and a commercial shelf date is likely, given the film’s wonderful sense of romantic optimism, and if ever we needed a film like this, it is now.

The award for the most original and oddest film so far is the strangely irresistible Cold Souls, from writer-director Sophie Barthes, which has elements of similarly odd films such as Being John Malkovich. Paul Giamatti stars as, well, Paul Giamatti who begins the film rehearsing the title role in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which is taking its toll as he plunges into intense Russian angst. Giamatti’s agent tips him to an article in The New Yorker, profiling a new service called “Soul Storage,” where you can have your souls extracted by one Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) and held in a kind of escrow so they can live less complicated lives. Giamatti, wondering if having less soul would help him better play the part and get through the day, goes to Flintstein’s office to get the details, but after his soul is extracted, he finds life not as fulfilling, so he decides to ‘borrow’ an anonymous soul that once belonged to a Russian poet. At the end, of course, Giamatti realizes he needs his own soul in order to save his marriage and career, except it appears his soul has been stolen by a mule and sent to Russia. If the plot of Cold Souls sounds confusing, then it is, but yet, as the film progresses, it entices one into this bizarre and comically soulful world. The film is at times hilarious, and yet it is surprisingly melancholy. Giamatti is an astounding actor, as anyone would know who saw his recent portrayal of John Adams, and he here gives a sterling performance, one that is ferociously comic and anarchic, as an exaggeration of his own persona. While Cold Souls lacks the depth of Being John Malkovich, it nonetheless is an audacious and darkly funny piece, beautifully shot and exquisitely entertaining, featuring a performance by Giamatti that is original and hypnotic. Hopefully, a smaller arthouse distributor will take it on, because cinema needs original voices, and writer-director Sophie Barthes is a voice to watch out for.

DAY 2

Day 2 at Sundance was not stressful. I spoke to Parker Posey about Spring Breakdown, and the actress mentioned she was heading to LA shortly after our interview to meet on the contemporary adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels. She also told me about a VH1 TV journalist who interviewed her the day before and whose first question to her was: Is this your first time at Sundance? Oh, and the second one was about how much swag she was getting. Has Sundance and the media really come to this? I then caught up with Emma Roberts for a 1:1 about two films she has at Sundance, and neither of which is Hotel for Dogs by the way. She did admit, as she approaches her 18th birthday, that she might be retiring from family films. Based on her performance in Lymelife, screening here, that sounds like a plan.

While the VH1 reporter may not know an Indie film if she stumbled onto it, for me, Sundance is still about the movies and the sheer diversity reflects what this festival is all about. Today I saw films from a psycho thriller, to a documentary on fashion, to a human drama exploring grief and family. They don’t get more diverse than that.

Jonathan Liebesman’s The Killing Room is an interesting, entertaining diversion but lacks originality and is an odd film to have attracted the cast it did. The film revolves around four individuals who sign up for a psychological research study only to discover that they are now subjects of a brutal, classified government program in which there can only be one survivor. Perhaps slightly smarter than the recent Saw films and minus the extraneous violence, one wonders why someone as talented as Chloe Sevigny, for instance, would even bother to play an underwritten character who spends much of the film observing the killing room in question. Even at close to 100 minutes, the film seems overly long, full of its own silly self-importance, and not the kind of film suited to this kind of festival. The script by Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock is so derivative of the likes of Saw and Cube, that begs the question: What were the Sundance programmers thinking? Commercial possibilities for this are limited more to DVD and other ancillary markets, as director Jonathan Liebesman has a very unimaginative visual style. His last film, by the way, was the awful Texas Chainsaw prequel that did modest business at the box office. This film is often sluggish and pretentious, with little heightened suspense and a rather inexplicable narrative. Horror fans will be disappointed in this very ordinary, grim work.

Documentaries are often more exciting to watch than the narrative features at Sundance, and The September Issue proves that. The title refers to the September issue of the iconic fashion magazine, Vogue. The September 2007 issue of Vogue weighed nearly five pounds, and was the single largest issue of a magazine ever published. With unprecedented access, this film tells the story of legendary Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour and her larger-than-life team of editors creating the issue and ruling the world of fashion. Directed with gusto by the brilliant R.J. Cutler, the film is an inside look at this rather strange, flamboyant, stressful and egomaniacal world of fashion, ruled with a forceful steely-eyed intensity by the formidable Wintour. Yet Cutler’s film is a very sympathetic account of a woman with a difficult reputation. She is seen with her daughter, she talks about her British father, a well respected journalist, she is both tough and determined but at times surprisingly human. And through it all, we see the creation of this century old magazine and its impact on all facets of the industry. As a piece of cinema, what I loved about this remarkable work was the way in which Cutler used a cinema verite approach to present the world of Vogue in its more insular environment, yet when he films shoots in Paris and Rome, the film becomes more cinematic, rich in the colors that saturate these cities, Paris in particular which looks gorgeous through the lens of cinematographer Robert Richman. As exciting, alluring, funny and compelling as any narrative feature, The September Issue deserves a theatrical release and should do strong business in the right arthouse cinemas if marketed properly. It is an exhilarating and fascinating film.

One of the reasons I love coming to Sundance is that a film comes along that you truly love, such as The Greatest, featuring the best performance by Pierce Brosnan in his career, which marks the auspicious directorial debut by writer/director Shana Feste. The film tells of a family still coping with the death of their son when their son’s girlfriend reveals that she is carrying his child. Each family member is dealing with grief in his or her own way, while at the same time coming to terms with this girl who enters their lives. The Greatest is a film that explores the complexity of emotion, and how grief can either set about destroying us or making us seem stronger. This is a film about family, yet it is not about dysfunction, but the realities of coping with our feelings under such tragic circumstances. It is also a film about memory, trying to hang onto a past that often fills us with emptiness. The Greatest is an emotive, eloquent, lyrical masterwork, yet it refuses to merely wear its heart on its sleeves, thanks to a sincere, richly evocative script by Feste, who has created a collage of deeply delineated characters, played to perfection by a flawless cast. We have seen the light side of Pierce Brosnan more recently in Mama Mia, but here, he plays a mathematics professor obsessed with numbers unable to express the kinds of emotions he needs for catharsis. This is a side of the actor one misses, and he gives the performance of his career, simply magnificent and controlled. Yet there are times when you can see the anguish written on every pore of a broken visage. He’s exquisite. Sarandon is spellbinding as his tormented, grief-stricken wife, desperately searching for answers, a search that has the potential to destroy her marriage. The actress is sublime in this film. British newcomer Carey Mulligan deserves a special mention as Rose, the 18-year old who fell in love with a boy only to have never gotten to know him before his tragic death. This is a ferociously talented actress to watch for. Under the fluid and meticulous direction of Feste, The Greatest has strong commercial possibilities, and is a luminous, exquisite piece of cinema that is heartbreakingly honest and Brosnan fans will be in awe of his complex, thoughtful and extraordinary performance.


DAY 1

On the first full day at Sundance, it was time to check out three very diverse and eclectic films at the Festival, beginning with Humpday, part of the official Dramatic Competition here at Sundance. The film revolves around Andrew (Joshua Leonard) who unexpectedly shows up on Ben’s doorstep late one night, at which point the two old college friends immediately fall into their old dynamic of heterosexual one-upmanship. To save Ben from domestication, Andrew invites Ben to a party at a sex-positive commune. Everyone plans on making erotic art films for the local amateur porn festival and Andrew wants in. They run out of booze and ideas, save for one: Andrew should have sex with Ben, on camera. It’s not gay; it’s beyond gay. It’s not porn; it’s an art project. The next day, they find themselves unable to back down from the dare. And there’s nothing standing in their way - except Ben’s wife Anna, heterosexuality, and certain mechanical questions. Humpday is the quintessential Sundance film, ferociously independent, audacious, often self-mocking and visually raw and cinematically unobtrusive. This is a sharp, hilarious, fascinating film that explores the ritualistic games men play in this often-abrasive view of male bonding at its most extreme. Largely unscripted, director Lynn Shelton has created a funny, sometimes uncomfortable exploration of manliness, friendship and relationships, but it also has moments of clumsy awkwardness in the first act. Commercial possibilities seem limited to the arthouse circuit in major centers, with its unknown cast and its views of the male psyche, but it is a very entertaining, clever piece, featuring a superb performance by Leonard, whose loser character is ultimately a pitiful, melancholy figure. Humpday is an overall impressive and fascinating film.


Emily Abt’s emotionally powerful feature film, Toe to Toe, tells the story of a love/hate relationship between lacrosse mates Tosha and Jesse, two senior girls at a competitive Washington, D.C., prep school. Tosha is a fiercely determined African American scholarship student from Anacostia, one of Washington’s poorest areas, while Jesse is a privileged, but troubled, white girl from Bethesda, who deals with promiscuous tendencies that pull her toward self-destruction. Abt’s film, which takes a detailed look at class, sexuality and social inequality, could have opted for a clichéd view of teenage girls dealing with their own individual issues and demons. But there is no such clichéd approach to the material present. A beautifully textured, multi-layered and confident film, Toe to Toe takes on issues of race and class, but you never feel that you’re being hammered over the head with it. This is a powerfully, emotive, visually lush and superbly made film featuring some extraordinary performances, but the standout is Louisa Krause, who gives a passionate, intense, brave, magnificent performance as a complex young woman. She is someone to watch. Newcomer Sonequa Martin is also impressive as the fiercely academic Tosha, determined to break away from her working class roots. Under the beautiful direction of Abt, Toe to Toe has strop commercial possibilities and deserves to be seen for the passionate, glorious film it is.

It was appropriate to see Ryan Shiraki’s joyous Spring Breakdown at midnight. This poor film has been sitting around for quite some time, having fallen victim to the demise of Warner Independent. The real tragedy is, that Warner Premier is releasing it on DVD and so far, no indication as to whether it will open theatrically. How can it not? This raucous, deliciously satiric comedy celebrates the luminous and comedic qualities of an ensemble of brilliant women. The film revolves around three thirtysomething friends who break the monotony of their uninspired lives by vacationing on an island that’s a popular spring break getaway for college co-eds. There’s Gayle O’Brien [Amy Poehler], Judi Joskow [Rachel Dratch] and Becky St. Germaine [Parker Posey]. Becky works for a powerful senator [the formidable Jane Lynch] whose daughter Ashley [Amber Tamblyn] is one of those co-eds, only she’s as geeky as her chaperone. Director Shiraki co-wrote this cheekily funny script with actress Dratch, as a tribute, one suspects, to those awful teen films of the 80s that all had ‘Spring’ in their title. Spring Breakdown takes the genre, turns it on its head, and gives a film that is not a laugh-out-loud comedy, but a film that has something to say about who we are and remaining true to oneself. This trio of women are sublime. Poehler is a gifted actress with a razor sharp comic sensibility, Posey is beautiful and astutely understated in a brilliantly observed way, while Dratch is a comic actress with top notch timing and emotional range. These women are magnificent and their co-stars shine just as bright, including Australia’s Sophie Monk as the leader of a group of seven brainless vixens who trample on those that don’t follow their lead. Spring Breakdown gives one hope that smart comedy is alive and well, and one can only hope that audiences will laugh until they cry at a multiplex near you. If not, then see it on DVD but with a large group of appreciated friends.


OPENING NIGHT

It is hard to believe that the 2009 Sundance Film Festival is 25 years old, and for me, this is my 12th festival. Massive in scope and scale, this Festival nestled within the confines of the snow-capped mountains of Park City, Sundance is defined as the centrepiece of independent film. While the mainstream industry flocks here in the hope of acquiring the next Little Miss Sunshine, and BlackBerries and Iphones illuminate the hallowed halls of makeshift cinemas, audiences flock to this festival because they have a love of film, and hoping that they, like myself, get to saviour a cinematic treasure that leads to discussion and the hope of commercial distribution.

This year’s Sundance’s official opening night film truly defined the nature of both this festival and independent film, though some may see it as an odd choice for an opening night film. Mary & Max is a claymated feature film from Adam Elliot, director of the Academy Award winning short animation Harvie Krumpet, It is a simple tale of pen-friendship between two very different people; Mary Dinkle, a chubby lonely eight year old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max Horovitz, a 44 year old, severely obese, Jewish man with Aspergers Syndrome living in the chaos of New York. Spanning 20 years and 2 continents, Mary and Max’s friendship survives much more than the average diet of life’s ups and downs. Animation this might be, but beyond the extraordinary visual look of the film, Mary and Max is a deeply rich and human work that takes the audience on an emotional journey that is both sardonically witty and yet deeply tragic and heartbreaking. Here is a film that explores, with an aching sense of reality, loneliness, friendship, life, love and death. It is a film about those flawed bumps in the road we all traverse in our lives and for many of us, there are elements of these intricate characters somewhere buried in our subconscious. Writer/director Elliott has not only a sense of profound humanity, but also his capturing of both the Australian and New York Jewish character are sublime. Toni Collette and in particular the magnificent Phillip Seymour Hoffman, vocally create exquisite, funny and painfully human characters who leap out of the screen longing to be loved and appreciated for who they are. It’s wonderful acting work, with Barry Humphries as the film’s narrator adding a classy, eloquent tone to the piece. But the real star of Mary and Max is its extraordinary director, who has not only a memorable and unique visual style but an equally distinctive voice, one that is highly original. This is a masterpiece that is rich in character, deft humor and emotional complexity, and is a film that deserves to be seen around the world. Hopefully a US distributor will have the courage to take on a film that has something honest to say about humanity. If Sundance continues on this level, there is much to be excited about in the days ahead.

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



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