Eleven Sundance films…reviewed.

Year after year that I decide to make the great plunge and join in on the Sundance Film Festival, I always return jubilant and excited…and somewhat disappointed. Why disappointed? Somehow expectations and experiences of years past continue to rise, while the actual events have peaked.

Growing up was never my strong suit and nowhere is this more evident than here. Now this year was by no means a bad time, I did find time to attend over thirty-five parties/events, fifteen movies, and hob knob with filmmakers and celebrities alike. Perhaps it is the need to be “turned on” for a week that makes for a draining experience.

The second you step on that plane going to Salt Lake City, everything changes. The change is in the way you talk to people and they way that people talk to you. Mere mention of your motive operandi, and suddenly you are inundated with questions. Why are you going? Who are going with? Do you have a movie there? Do you know anyone famous?

Similarly, by covering Sundance, it becomes a who’s who and where and when will they be there guessing game. Parties often have “tip sheets” for what celebrities are planning on attending, but they rarely point out that these are people who were invited. Frequently, a list of twenty celebrities turns into a meager offering of two or three. And those few are usually ducked in, shot on the red carpet, and whisked to the magical and restricted VIP area. This provides whispers of, “Someone said they just saw so-and-so.”

But rather than focus on parties, below are reviews for ten films, plus one more for fun, I saw…

An Asskicking “Angel”

Luc Besson loves women and he loves to empower them in his films. Whether it was “The Fifth Element” or “The Professional,” women have long found vital leading roles versus backseat driving eye candy. Besson decides not to mess with this format with his latest film, “Angel-A.” In a gorgeous Paris, smeared in hues of black and white, the Eiffel Tower competes for screen time with seedy dance clubs. Contrast seems to be the object of Besson’s affection in this film.

Jamel Debbouze plays lowly con man André. He is a small time crook who finds himself the debtor to too many collectors with no money to give. Aggravated and unsure of what to do, he is soon filling the clichéd part of bridge jumper. Ready to jump, he finds a striking woman named Angela, fiercely portrayed by Rie Rasmussen, about to do the same. Springing from suicide to savior as the woman jumps, André pulls her ashore only to find her in his debt.

From here an unlikely buddy flick materializes. At times funny, their journey to pay back bookies and criminals, immediately draws parallels to “Fight Club” and Wim Wender’s immensely superior “Wings of Desire.” Rasmussen owns her role while Debbouze looks like he is literally hanging on for dear life. It could just be his character and exceptional acting, but he really seems out of his element.

As previously mentioned, contrast is a driving theme of the film. Nowhere is this more obviously then the physical attributes of André and Angela. He is short, dark haired and featured, rough and unkempt. She is light haired, elegant and sophisticated. These stark differences are evident, but there is a real question of why they are there. Why are things so harshly represented as polar opposites? Besson’s favorite theme of love conquering all practically lumbers alongside the characters removing a certain level of tension that could have added a layer to the film.

By the time the pink elephant in the room is pointed out, the audience knowingly shakes their heads in a defiant, “I told you so” way. The film is not necessarily bad, in fact it is superior to most action/comedy films, perhaps it is just lacking that je ne sais pas (I don’t know.) that Besson had in his other films.

Released in Europe in 2005, it is surprising this film has taken so long to come across the pond. Sony Pictures Classics already has snapped up the domestic distribution rights, even opening the film with their logo. A limited theatrical release is expected May 25, 2007.

A Good “Future” Without Accessories

Whether a viewer is a fan of the British musical group The Clash or not, “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten” tries to shine a light on the group’s front man. Documentarian Julien Temple attempts to tell Joe Strummer’s life, his entire life, in the span of a feature film. Clocking in three minutes over two hours makes this film more of a marathon than a sprint.

Strummer’s rise to rock fame is an interesting one and filled with many expected and unexpected pitfalls. Growing up in the turbulent 60’s, the film traces a boy named John Mellor in his shot to prominence and fortune and his premature end. Aided by Strummer’s voice, taken from his BBC radio program, and a deafening, pulsing soundtrack, Temple seems to conjure the spirit of the musician.

The first half of the film is encouraging and actually quite uplifting, but the second half fails to maintain an upbeat tempo and eventually battles with what is worth telling. As Temple becomes more and more focused on minute details the film strains to keep the average viewer captivated. A Clash enthusiast may blissfully wallow in the insider view of Strummer’s life, but it does murder to the film’s pace. “Future” is a film that so passionately wants to tell the life story of a vigorous songwriter that it sacrifices the whole picture for undertaking more than it can carry.

Coupled with insanely out of place interviews with John Cusack, Matt Dillon and Johnny Depp, a good thirty plus minutes could have easily and beneficially been excised. The ridiculousness of Depp’s appearance especially was cause for a laugh, as he had his “Pirates of the Caribbean” character’s goatee. Not only were these celebrity cameos unnecessary but also they added more faces to an enormous cast of friends, family and band members.

Of the vital on-screen interviewees who reminisced of days past, there were no nameplates at the bottom of the screen to identify them. Often times a person was interviewed in multiple locations and this added to the confusion of who was who. Technically, the audio was clearly all over the place. Interviews would sound fine when abruptly a transition to still photographs or stock footage would be accompanied to deafening music. The difference between the music and other audio was jarring and often ear-covering. Hopefully this issue will be resolved by the time the film finds release.

“Delirious” hilarity

Not to be confused with Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy of the same title, “Delirious” is a comedy, but is quite a bit more complex. Tom DiCillo once again teams up with Steve Buscemi to deliver their best collaboration in years. Michael Pitt stars as Toby Grace, a homeless guy who is taken on as the assistant of a paparazzi photographer, Les Galantine played by Steve Buscemi. By showing Toby the tricks of the trade, it also exposes Les’ mundane lifestyle. Even as Les tries to talk up what he does, he is still living in the shadow of parents who abhor what he does.

Buscemi exudes sleaziness and certainly sells the role of a man oblivious to the sad profession he works in. The brisk pace of the film keeps the jokes and plot advancing so the few questions that arise whiz by fast enough that they somehow do not need answers. Pitt acts with a carefree and wide-eyed abandon that allows him to be the opposite of the curmudgeon that is Buscemi. As the plot progresses, Toby becomes less of an assistant, and more of an integral part of Les’ business. Les realizes this, coupled with Toby’s chance encounter with a top actress/singer K’Harma Leeds, played by Alison Lohman, Les does everything he can to prevent Toby from eclipsing him and finding success.

DiCillo has found a way of emulating a dream on celluloid that truly does justice to the medium. Moments such as Toby’s walk through the city, after spending an evening with K’Harma, watching flower petals fall from the sky, transform a boring walk home, to a hazy alter-reality which Toby’s character hopes to escape to. “Delirious” works quite well except a last minute third act twist of Les’ character that threatened to ruin the entire film. Thankfully, this bizarre sub-plot gets quashed before leaving the viewer with a bad taste, but it is jarring enough it had a few people scratching their heads as to its inclusion. Maybe this twist is what kept this otherwise excellent film from as of yet finding a domestic distributor.

Documentaries with their directors as stars…sort of

The major problem with “Girl 27” and the short, “Scaredycat” that preceded it, came down to cases of documentary filmmakers too interested in themselves. “Scaredycat” was a thirteen minute live action short with animated sequences. A young man (Andy Blubaugh, the film’s director) is attacked and robbed, as shown through animated flashbacks, and he harbors some prejudice afterwards. Frustrated and upset, the filmmaker ends up chronicling how the assault has affected his outlook and interactions with individuals especially when he is alone. The style in which Mr. Blubaugh inserts staged sequences that he may encounter everyday emphasizes the confusion and emotional trauma he experienced. Somehow, it feels out of place as he interviews people he knows to elucidate the effect the robbery had on him. This is especially clear as he talks one of his attackers, now serving a minimum term in prison. By muddling actual and recreated or re-imagined events, the audience is left to decide what is real, and in a documentary, that should just not be the case.

The “real” story of “Girl 27” is a look behind the curtain at old Hollywood. But first, the film’s director, David Stenn, begins by telling his own story. Stenn was a writer interested in doing the biographies of golden age stars and he was able to find a benefactor in Jackie Kennedy Onassis. After completing a book on Clara Bow, he started to work on one about Jean Harlow. While researching, Stenn found a newspaper with the front page headline reporting on the rape of a young actress/extra at studio convention in 1927. Important as a story as it seems, it seems as though no one knows about it. Curious why no one knows about this story, Stenn undertakes the task of finding out what happened.

A 17-year old film extra, Patricia Douglas, was called out to a ranch with numerous other girls for what they thought was a part in a film. Upon getting out there, the women’s role becomes clear it is to entertain studio salesmen, and in Douglas’ case she is ultimately raped. By going public she is run through the mud and worse, her case is buried, even though it is the only rape case taken to federal court. Stenn, the writer, smells a story and begins to track down all information, and subsequently, Patricia Douglas.

Douglas clearly does not want to talk but as the film progresses, Stenn is able to prod her into talking more and finally the story comes out in an article he published in Vanity Fair in 2003. The scars that rippled throughout the rest of her life appear in Douglas’ rough demeanor and rocky relationship with her family. Unsatisfied with finishing the article, Stenn begins to shape a documentary around the story. To help fill the 86 minute length of the film, another “secret” story of Hollywood is told involving Loretta Young and Clark Gable and their illegitimate and never acknowledged child, Judy Lewis. While this aside is interesting, it is just another distraction from the story that should be told.

Although nominated for the Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, this documentary seems to fail on the very basis of what a good documentary stands for. Stenn manages to find any and all reasons to appear on-screen and shift the focus back to him. Inserting childhood footage, dancing on the grave of the rapist (Because he felt Douglas would have wanted to do that.), to ending the film with an answering machine message left by Jackie Kennedy Onassis to him, the audience walks away with a very disgusted feeling indeed. There is little doubt why this film did not find a distributor.

“King” of indie comedy

Comedies that involve a lead character as mentally unbalanced usually teeter between funny (“Bottle Rocket”) or embarrassing (“Running with Scissors”) to both filmmaker and actor. In the case of “King of California,” first time writer/director Mike Cahill channels a manic performance out of Michael Douglas.

Douglas’ wonderful performance as Charlie is both touching and humorous as a father recently released from a psychiatric hospital who finds his daughter no longer dependant on him. More importantly, his daughter Miranda, played by Evan Rachel Wood in an equally commanding performance, no longer regards him as a father, referring to him by his first name and acting more in the role of mother.

The first thing that struck me about the film was Wood’s voiceover. This is a typical freshmen director/writer mistake that usually equals a weak script. While there is still a nagging feel it could have been lost with detracting from the film, it does help to humanize a character that is forced to deal with a mentally ill parent.

As soon as he is released, Charlie embarks on a quest for gold that he believed Spaniard missionaries buried over four hundred years ago in Southern California. This pursuit for fools gold (?) starts innocuously enough, and with only Charlie searching for it. But there is something in his crazy eyes that convinces Miranda to help. As their search takes on preposterous propositions, a backhoe is leased, golf courses are trespassed upon, and cars and houses foreclosed to pay for the operation, Miranda must choose to stand with her father or stand up to his crazy scheme.

At one point of the film, Evan Rachel Wood exasperatedly says to Michael Douglas, “I’m paying the bills.” To which he replies, “That’s wild, isn’t it?” With arguments like that film succeeds in drawing laughs at what could have been, if played with a heavier hand, a depressing drama.

Writer/director Cahill throws in enough slapstick and one-liners to keep reminding the audience not to take the film too seriously. By the time the story is wrapping up and the film shows its serious side, Charlie’s character is so appealing, the audience does not want things to end. It was not just his daughter, Miranda who took that wild cross county journey, it was everyone in that theater.

First Look Pictures bought the rights to Michael Douglas’ dark comedy, King of California for three million, but a release date has yet to be set.

“Rambow” blows away the competition

Before a bidding war erupted in the condos of Park City for the film, “Son of Rambow,” there was little to no buzz about this so-called children’s movie. For the few that took a chance to see this, they were rewarded with a smart, highly enjoyable comedy. Director Garth Jennings is able to transport the viewer through time and space to England in the early 1980’s.

A young boy, Will, played by newcomer Bill Milner, daydreams and draws his days away. Repressed by his family’s religious beliefs, which prevent him from watching television and having friends outside this circle, Will is secretly yarning to break out of the authoritarian life he is forced to live. When the school’s wild child, Lee Carter, gets both of them in trouble, Will finds him first forced, and then drawn to the adventure that Lee Carter offers. Will Poulter stars as Lee Carter in a perfectly developed foil to the good hearted but naïve Will.

The title refers to the Sly Stallone character Rambo from the 1982 film, “First blood.” It turns out that Lee Carter is more than just a bad kid in school; he is also a bootlegger of films for his older brother. Using top of the line equipment, by 1980’s standards, Lee Carter tapes a copy of “First blood” in the theater and inadvertently has Will watch it. Blowing Will’s mind, the two embark on a journey to create their own homage/sequel.

Although the film is consistently entertaining and funny, a subplot involving a French foreign exchange student really ratchets up the humor. And despite having some solid laughs, it initially felt out of place, but Jennings is able to weave it into Will and Lee Carter’s film, literally, as the exchange student finds a leading role in their movie. “Son of Rambow” took nearly seven years to make but it is well worth the wait. Paramount Vantage won the right to distribute the film and is planning on releasing it later this year.

Watching “Red Road

A film that walks into Sundance with a Special Jury Prize from Cannes usually has a pretty amazing reason for screening. In the case of “Red Road,” British writer/director Andrea Arnold developed this project at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. This connection allows for the nearly eight-month lag between premieres; typically, films appearing at one festival will not appear at the other.

“Red Road” is intended to be the first of a trilogy starring the same main characters, though filmed by three different directors. The picture opens with gritty Glasgow through the unique viewpoint of Jackie, played by an amazing Katie Dickie. Jackie’s perspective is different as she works in video surveillance. It should be noted that the film is subtitled due to the characters’ thick Scottish accents.

With a wall of monitors Jackie finds regulars she endears and potentially dangerous strangers she calls the police on. As it is her job, she, and the audience, watches with a certain amount of voyeuristic pleasure blissfully ignorant people going about their everyday lives. But that’s all that happens, for the whole first act, and it’s boring.

Also isolating Jackie’s character is the lack of a typical film soundtrack. Features usually have a theme song or a character’s theme that plays to get the audience to identify with them, in this case, there is nothing but a low drone. Instead of engaging the viewer, the lack of action visually or audibly removes any motivation to get to know this character any better that is, until Jackie begins to stalk someone she sees on one of the cameras.

As it turns out, this person is not just any random stranger she has chosen. Tony Curran is the ex-con named Clyde with whom Jackie begins to follow by camera, and as her obsession grows, in person when she is not working. Just why she is following him, the audience has to wait nearly the entire movie to find out, but the suspense is epic.

It is quite disconcerting how quietly and quickly this film’s mood changes. Andrea Arnold shows her mastery of plainly revealing clues as to the direction of the story without really divulging anything. Yet, by the end, she is still able to clench down in a twist that sucked the air out of the theater.

The only real criticism, if it could be defined as such, is the murky muddled appearance the film has. It is consistent with the look her previous award-winning short, “Wasp” had, but it is disappointing to know this was shot on 35mm. This is not to say it is not an appropriate template, but in the age of digital, if a film looks like it was shot on digital, what was the point on shooting it on film? Tartan is distributing the film and this diamond in the rough will hopefully see a wider release then the announced April 6, New York City, New York premiere and the April 13, opening in Los Angeles, California.

At Least This “Snake” Won’t Be On A Plane

Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” won him the top Dramatic Sundance award in 2005, so there was a certain amount of anticipation for his follow-up, “Black Snake Moan.” That anticipation has receded to polite golf clap applause when the plot for “Moan” comes out. Rae is a small town Tennessee girl with a disorder that causes her to want sex, all the time and with anyone, despite having a serious boyfriend. Not exactly a script that will appeal to the Bible belt, and that is just half the story.

When Rae’s soldier boyfriend is called to duty, she embarks on a sexscapade that leaves her beaten and left for dead at the side of the road. A down and out recent divorcee finds her and tries to nurse her back to health. Confronted her sexual advances leave him shaken; he commits to “saving” her, and rationalizes CHAINING HER TO HIS RADIATOR. And just to make things extra interesting, writer/director Brewer has decided to make the female character white and the male character black.

Needless to say this film attempts to elucidate shocking moments, but in its quest for jaw dropping sequences, it just fails to deliver. While Christina Ricci gives a wild performance as Rae, it is Samuel L. Jackson’s bellowing Lazarus that commands the audience to stay put until he can make things better. Justin Timberlake plays Rae’s boyfriend in this muddled mess of pounding beats, confused characters, and a storyline that is easy enough to follow, yet difficult to digest. Timberlake tries his best to do something with the poor role he is given, but fails to give a performance as mesmerizing as he did in last year’s Sundance premiere, “Alpha Dog.”

It is admirable how closely Brewer is able to meld a soundtrack with a film. What “Hustle & Flow” did to rap, “Black Snake Moan” is able to do with blues. That is meant as a compliment, but finding aspects of the film that are flattering is quite a challenge. At no point did the film even attempt to suspend the audience’s disbelief. It was as if he thought up the most ridiculous premise and figured there is no time like now to make a movie no studio would otherwise seriously consider greenlighting. And as the inevitable in the film becomes reality, the audience is forced to ponder, what are the limits of ridiculousness? Paramount Vantage is giving the film wide release on March 2 of this year.

Gruesome “Teeth”

Director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s “Teeth” was one of the more anticipated fiction films of the festival. Made independently and with a cast of predominantly fresh faces, it tells the story of a Dawn, a high school girl who is spokesperson for abstinence. Played by Jess Weixler in a true breakout role, (Weixler would go on to win a Special Jury Prize for Acting), Dawn is a virgin and intends to stay that way. But as the film’s opening shows, Dawn’s decision to abstain may be due to her having a case of vagina dentate.

Without elaborating too much on the story, the film takes a turn from a cheerful after school special to a dark horror film. Even as the film morphs into another genre, it tried desperately to retain a sense of humor. Unfortunately, incest, genital mutilation, and dismemberment are some of the topics it tries to make fun of.

The main problem with the film is how it portrays its characters. Every guy in the film, except Dawn’s father, is a perverted sex obsessed maniac. Down to the very last male character introduced, an old man licking his lips with glee and anticipation. If only there was a more of a balance, it would make this film quite a bit better. Since there is no good to contrast the bad, the audience neither routs for the horror that will befall the guys, nor is there a feeling of empathy for them. Instead it is the graphic gore that makes viewers squirm.

With The Weinstein Co. taking a chance and purchasing the film, it raises the question what type of audience they are looking for. In a way, if this film were to be cut, it would lose the only gory appeal it has going for it. A release date has not yet been set for it.

A Dirty “Trade”

Films that attempt to bring social injustices and problems to the surface nearly always have detractors lambasting them for their inaccuracies. These inaccuracies are usually the result of writers trying to find a formula of fitting a news story into a feature film format. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you get a film like “Trade.”

The film is based on a New York Times article about the international sex slave trade, and was co-written by Peter Landesman and “The Motocycle Diaries” scribe, Jose Rivera. Whether the fault or the glory of a film should fall on director or writer remains a debatable issue. But it feels as though German director Marco Kreuzpaintner tries to cover one too many bases.

By spreading the focus of the film to cover several different stories of girls being kidnapped and forced into this disturbing world, it loses the impact of just following one girl’s point of view. And with a running time just shy of two hours, “Trade” unravels at a breakneck speed that helps and hinders it. Constantly moving and cutting between stories creates an enormous sense of urgency, but reduces the attachment to each character. To compensate for the lack of depth, intensely ghastly situations are fashioned that make the audience quiver in horror.

In the case of “Human Trafficking,” a recent made-for-TV miniseries that took on this same issue, its three-hour-plus length allowed the program to introduce several characters from several countries and pace each story in a more leisurely manner. Multiple storylines that crisscross only waters down the strength of a solid single narrative.

“Trade” follows Russians stealing Mexicans, Mexicans stealing Czechs, and other kidnappings where the final destination is the United States. The cast is made of relatively unknown actors except Kevin Kline in the role of a Texas police officer who crosses paths with the brother of a Mexican girl who was kidnapped. Initially, Kline’s character finds the boy’s story implausible, but he is eventually convinced and the race to young girl begins.

Somehow this film manages to be unsettling without really showing anything. An example lies in a sequence where a girl is brought to a field and sold for a certain period of time. Her captor leeringly outlining what he could and could not do to her. As the young girl is dragged into a field, a path reveals little areas of trampled weeds that are sometimes occupied with men and young children and sometimes vacant. The camera moves quickly, never lingering on who is doing what. Instead, the focus seems to be on other details, such as a scarred doll and an egg timer placed in front of the trampled weeds. All haunting images.

Lionsgate will give this film a limited release Aug. 31, 2007.

Animals running the “Zoo”

Quite a bit of controversy surrounded the opening of “Zoo,” a psuedo-documentary retelling an incident that took place July 2, 2005, in Enumclaw, Washington. The incident in question involved a man who was literally dropped off at a hospital with a perforated colon, only to die shortly thereafter. As police trace the license plate of the vehicle to a farm, upon getting there they discover hundreds of videos of horses having sex with men.

Needless to say, while there was buzz whirling about this film, it was more of a peepshow excitement to see what the filmmakers were going to show. (If you’re looking for a graphic bestiality film then look elsewhere.) Director Robinson Devor was able to wrangle a few of the participants into telling their side of the story, but was faced with their refusal to show their faces. Possessing an interesting story but no one willing to appear on-screen, Devor tried a unique approach. He reenacts their story, told in voiceover, with actors who have a sprinkling of dialogue but mainly pantomime to the commentary.

With a fascinating story, and idea of how to tell it in place, cinematographer Sean Kirby was tapped to find a cohesive way of filming it. Kirby used a Sony HD cam that pushes the very limits of the digital medium. And as a result, “Zoo” was easily the most beautifully photographed film of the festival. It was composed of long panning shots that would often times look like paintings; it had the potential of being the runaway hit of the festival.

Unfortunately, there is a glaring problem when, 20 minutes into the film, three people sitting nearby are asleep. The film’s largest asset quickly became its biggest enemy. The length of the shots and lack of action in the frame proved to be too hypnotic and eventually tiring on the eyes. Worse, the story crept along at a snail’s pace, and the characters that¬ were introduced were not compelling. In fact, because they were anonymous, they remained that way to the audience. Without being able to connect to a single character, save perhaps the man who died and even then only superficially, the audience walks away without being moved. Given the chance to do it again, this film could have done well if it had been trimmed to a half of its already grasping 80-minute length.

Thinkfilm has acquired the worldwide rights to distribution but has yet to set a release date.

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