Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Sundance 2008
★ ★

After the premiere of Sleepwalking, Charlize Theron, who produced and starred, talked about how inspiring she thought the script was. Others commented that Sleepwalking was all about hope and redemption. And I sat wondering what movie they watched, because the version I saw had precious little of that. In fact, I thought Sleepwalking was pretty standard Sundance fare. A big star wants to make an indie so she sweet-talks a few other stars and cajoles the investment money and makes a movie that is terribly depressing and not very good.

Theron plays Jolene, a 30-something who has been living hard and wild, despite her 11-year-old daughter Tara, played by AnnaSophia Robb (Because of Winn Dixie). Mother and daughter have been staying with Jolene’s boyfriend, but he gets busted for selling pot so they have get thrown out by the cops and have to move in with her brother James (Nick Stahl), in his shabby apartment. This is all very sad, tragic and painful to watch. Despite her love for Tara, or perhaps because of it, Jolene skips town, leaving Tara with James, a nice enough guy, but with no education, skills or self-confidence.

After a few twists in the road, they find their way to James’ estranged father (Dennis Hopper), a mean and brutish farmer, where things don’t get any better. And then some more bad stuff happens and then the movie ends. Redemption is pretty hard to find, although James and Tara’s character seems to be arcing in the right direction. But to be clear, the handful of feel-good moments in this movie are largely overshadowed by Jolene’s angry, selfish and self-destructive behavior, and Dennis Hopper’s revolting ugliness.

Hopper is outstanding and gives a truly unsettling performance. Nick Stahl (Ben Hawkins from the Carnivale TV series, if you’re into that) is also great, playing the mousy, confused and insecure James. But the script is so weak that these performances don’t help much. Even a small and entertaining role by Woody Harrelson, playing James’ white-trash party-loving co-worker, is for naught. And what’s worse, it’s 90 minutes of mostly depression. Directed by first-timer Bill Maher (no, not that Bill Maher).

Sundance Moment: In the Q&A, someone asked Theron why she chose to play such a hard woman. Her response: “Me? Have you seen my work?” Hmmm. Good point—Monster, North Country … definitely a theme here. Someone else asked Dennis Hopper how he could play such a nasty cuss. He said he had a good teacher—Lee Strasberg.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008


2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of four)

My favorite movie from the first day of Sundance 2008. Roy (a very young-looking Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are a nice Iowa couple, returning from a church humanitarian mission in China via the Transsiberian Express, where they encounter the much more adventurous Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). Boarding mid-way is Ben Kingsley, who we have learned from the opening scene is a Moscow police detective.

Like a Hitchcock classic, Transsiberian grabs you in the opening scene with a feeling that things are not all as they seem, and you don’t lose that uneasy feeling that something very bad is going to happen until bad things really start happening. The tension is eerie and relentless, with telling glances and social conversation that suggest the relationships between these four are going to take a disturbing turn. Written by Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist), and inspired by a Transibberian trip he once took, the script is very tight, the characters infused with extraordinary depth and interest, the Russian state a harrowing umbrella and the dialogue consistently powerful and compelling. (My favorite line, from Ben Kingsley, goes something like this: “We have a saying in Russia: You can always go forward with a lie, but you can never go back.”)

As Anderson said in the Q&A, the confined spaces of trains make for heightened drama. Shot in Lithuania, the cinematography is haunting, capturing the mysterious, bleak and unsettled state of post-Soviet Russia, which makes for a marvelous backdrop to the action.

Sundance Moments: Brad Anderson and all the principals of the cast were at the Sundance premiere. More so than usual, they all praised Anderson as an extraordinary and meticulous director, one of the greats. Ben Kingsley noted that what attracted him to the movie, besides the Russian sub-story, was that the characters were archetypes and not caricatures, which is quite true. Anderson said that it was bitterly cold in Lithuania during the shoot.

Transsiberian should do well nationally. Maybe very well.

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