Thursday, January 16, 2003

Sundance 2003

2003 Sundance Reviews

Levity ★ ★ ★
An Ed Solomon film starring Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter and Kirsten Dunst. This is a very personal film by the writer of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Men in Black. Too slow-moving for mainstream acceptance, this is nevertheless a movie of depth and compassion. It grapples with the issue of redemption, and leaves the audience with uncertainty that is nonetheless remarkably calming—hope without moralism. Thornton was … Thornton. He has the range of a tetherball. I don’t think Morgan Freeman is at his best in this film. And we don’t see enough of Holly Hunter to appreciate her. The film had some very funny moments, but I can’t think of a less appropriate title. Having said all that, this movie is worth the trip because it is thought-provoking, subtle and oddly inspiring.

Unchained Memories ★ ★ ★
This documentary brings to life narratives taken in the 1930’s by the Library of Congress from former slaves. It features numerous prominent black actors reading the narratives, and includes tragic, saddening descriptions of the inhumanity inflicted on the slaves. What surprises most is the matter-of-fact descriptions, without bitterness or pity. The actors do a fine job of reading, including Samuel L. Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Don Cheadle and others. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the director does a credible job of maintaining visual interest without losing the focus on the voices from the past. This is a movie worth seeing, mostly because of its historical importance, but also because it is a moving, emotional experience.

Life Show ★ ★
By a renowned Chinese director, this film is beautifully and ingeniously shot. Nevertheless, it suffers in the translation, both literally (the subtitles) and figuratively, i.e. the storyline. Like so many foreign films, the cinematic cultural divide is so great that the average American moviegoer will have a hard time maintaining interest. And the subtitles really cannot go without comment. Sometimes amusing, sometimes cryptic, and occasionally even ridiculous, they were clearly written by someone who learned their English wearing a Chairman Mao button-down. (Child: “Auntie, you are much more garrulous than my mother.”) However, it’s all a moot point, because if you haven’t seen this film yet, you will likely never have the chance, unless you’re willing to travel to Asia for dinner and a movie.

It’s All About Love
When choosing what works will make it into Sundance, it must be easy to confuse films that reflect artistic creativity and innovation with those that are just plain weird, self-indulgent and insufficiently thought out. It’s All About Love falls into the latter category. A bizarre story line is combined with metaphors that are either clumsily obvious or vaguely ineffable. Along with inexplicable directorial decisions, these combine to create a film that, while at times captivating, leaves you frustratingly empty and dissatisfied. This is a movie that appears to be striving to deliver an important message, but is somehow rendered purposeless by a badly flawed script and undisciplined directing. Performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes are uninspired and keep us from connecting on an emotional level to the characters.

Whale Rider ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Whale Rider is a story of the quest for the new leader of an indigenous Maori tribe living on an island off the coast of New Zealand. Often this type of film ends up making a caricature of the people, accentuating their quaint customs and idiosyncratic behaviors and causing us to smile condescendingly at their ignorance and stunted development. Whale Rider does nothing of the kind. Director Niki Caro treats her subject matter with profound respect, genuine curiosity and effortless grace, while refusing to ignore the signs of cultural disintegration. It is as if we are invited into the Whangara community, and are free to observe comfortably, without fear or embellishment. The 11-year-old first-time actor Keisha Castle-Hughes gives the most astonishing performance by a child that I have ever witnessed, and lifts the movie from being just plain good to a profoundly moving experience. Whale Rider is a tale of the evolution of a culture, wrapped in humor and hope. It is a story of an indomitable spirit. It is a movie about love and change, about the grim realities of life and the marvelous miracles of faith. If you have a chance to see this film, do not miss it!

Confidence ★ ★ ★ ★
The Sting meets Pulp Fiction. A stylized tale of a team of grifters filled with enough double-crosses (and triple-crosses) to make you want to keep score. The film is carried by riveting performances from Edward Burns, Paul Giamatti and Rachel Weisz, and includes Andy Garcia as a frumpy Customs Agent (like you've never seen him before), and Dustin Hoffman as a morally bankrupt local crime king (like you never want to see him again).

James Foley wants to keep you guessing. An endless stream of F-words and generous doses of kinky sex convince us that this is not your daddy's version of The Sting. But beyond that, Confidence can't match The Sting's poker face. While there are a few potential surprises, there is way too much foreshadowing of the mandatory "surprise plot twist." We know it's coming and we pretty much know what it's going to look like when it gets here.

Confidence is worth seeing if you like this sort of thing. And it helps cement Edward Burns as a leading man that can almost carry a film. Also, Paul Giamatti may begin to rival Don Cheadle as a guy that might never be a star, but every director wants him in his/her film.

Pieces of April ★ ★ ★ ★
Pieces of April debuted at Sundance to generally very favorable audience reactions. This is a cute, low-budget film that holds interest while creating several very memorable characters. Katie Holmes is terrific as April, a young woman—a refugee from Long Island—living in a rough area of the city with her equally destitute and uncultured boyfriend.

In a gesture of reconciliation, April invites the family, including her estranged and cancer-ridden mother, over for a Thanksgiving dinner. We follow April and Bobby in their preparations, which is charming and fun. But better yet, director Peter Hedges takes us along for a road trip with April's family as they journey to the city for a dinner that everyone is dreading. Remember Daytrippers? This is almost as good.

There are plenty of amusing moments, but at the core of the movie is a commentary on friends and family, with the good mixed in liberally with the bad. Oliver Platt is probably miscast in this role, but Patricia Clarkson buoys the film as the cynical, outspoken mother with nothing to lose and facing death in her own way.

The Shape of Things ★ ★ ★
Labute is a proven filmmaker with a fresh point of view. The Shape of Things is a film version of his play of the same name (with the same cast) which ran in London and New York.

The movie was well-received at Sundance this year. Occasionally funny, it nevertheless suffers from a cast that appears to have tired of their roles and a script that, while cleverly conceived, doesn't have quite enough movement for the big screen.

The Shape of Things is built around a single idea, which reveals itself as the film progresses under Labute's direction. Wrapped around this theme are several important insights that are, unfortunately, difficult to digest, and even more challenging to piece together into a cohesive point of view. You get the feeling that Labute likes it like that. He doesn't mind if the audience is confused. He wants to tell a good story and let truth seep through the cracks.

The movie is worth the effort. Not because of the acting, or the script, or the direction. But because at it's core there are a few very provocative ideas that are worth thinking about. How much of ourselves should we be willing to change to please the opposite sex? And how do personality and character traits evolve to conform with our physical appearance? Labute wants you to think about those things. Just don't strain yourself.

Normal ★ ★ ★ ★
Normal is a funny, charming, touching love story about a God-fearing rural small-town Midwestern couple--Roy and Irma Applewood--played by Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange. Shortly after their 25th anniversary, Roy goes public with the revelation that he has long felt that he is a woman trapped in a man's body, and with the Protestant determination to do something about it, no matter the consequences. Irma (Jessica Lange), an avid knitter and member of the church choir, naturally finds this a little disconcerting. And so the fun begins. Roy gradually becomes a woman, and Irma, as well as the kids and the townspeople, all react.

Wilkinson is a curious transsexual, shattering virtually all of our myths, he evolves from an aging, non-descript man into a still-frumpy and hopelessly homely woman. While we may feel his pain, Anderson is much more interested in challenging our reaction to him than delving into his conflicted anguish. Nevertheless, she treats his change with a certain amount of whimsy. It is difficult not to warm to his smile when he dons his first earrings.

But it is Lange who is the star of the show. Demonstrating a surprising knack for dry comedy, she moves from frustration and resentment to acceptance and compassion. Surely drawing from her own Midwestern roots (some of the movie could easily have been filmed in her home-town of Cloquet, Minnesota!) Lange's character never wallows in self-pity, but searches for answers within, as she seeks to redefine her relationship to her husband.

Lange once again displays her extraordinary talent. (Truth be told, she was my first crush, and she is aging beautifully.) She portrays strength and vulnerability like few in her class. (Meryl Streep comes to mind. Jodie Foster does not.) Hayden Panettiere is also quite good as the 13-year-old daughter.

The Blues ★ ★
Martin Scorcese had an idea that a bunch of directors could focus on various aspects of the blues with short documentaries and a level playing field for budgets. Good strategy. Bad execution. While moderately interesting in parts, these shorts suffer from a lack of coherence and uncertain direction. On the plus side, the perspective from 60’s and 70’s era rockers, such as Van Morrison, Jeff Beck and Mick Fleetwood is an interesting homage to the influence of the blues on the development of rock ‘n roll. But be warned, all of these guys have gotten really old!

In America ★ ★ ★ ★
We have all seen plenty of immigrant films. But somehow, Jim Sheridan makes this semi-autobiographical effort no less inspirational than most, but with a fresh perspective and authentic voice. If there is a weakness in the film, it is the somewhat awkward skipping between a firm grounding in reality and the introduction of a most unbelievably written character—African immigrant Mateo—whose sudden transformation makes Dr. Jekyl’s changes look like Darwinian evolution.

Nevertheless, Sheridan has produced a charming, beautiful and memorable movie. Blessed with remarkable performances from all the women in the film—Samantha Morton as the mother and young sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, who make the strongest case against birth control since The Waltons went off the air.

Mondays in the Afternoon ★ ★
A Spanish film about the impact of unemployment on a small band of friends. Political and pointed. Suffers from a storyline that appears to go nowhere.

Masked and Anonymous ★ ★ ★
What could go wrong with a movie that features Bob Dylan playing some great tunes, leading actors John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Jeff Bridges and Penelope Cruz, and bit parts by Christian Slater, Ed Harris, Angela Basset, Mickey Rourke and Val Kilmer? Well, let’s start with a script penned by Bob Dylan that is easily as ineffable as, say, Subterranean Homesick Blues. If you know why the man in the coonskin cap wants eleven dollar bills (and you only got ten) then maybe you understood this movie. The rest of us struggled with mundane dialogue, disjointed vignettes, thinly veiled allusions to Dylan’s life, some sort of statement on revolution, and perhaps an admission by Dylan himself that even he doesn’t have a clue as to what most of his songs mean. Maybe if I saw this film another 2-3 times I would unravel the deeper meaning, peel back the layers of symbolism, and better grasp the metaphors that give deeper significance to the movie. On the other hand, it’s been 35 years and I still don’t know why I should hang around an ink well or watch the parking meters.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed this movie. But the fact is, I rarely laughed, certainly didn’t cry, and I didn’t really care about any of the characters. I could barely follow the plot line. And I didn’t understand most of what was lurking under the surface. None of the actors appeared to have clue as to what was going on either. But then, perhaps that’s what Dylan meant all along. Maybe so, but Bob, you shouldn’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.

The Baroness and the Pig ★ ★ ★
Call me a cultural bigot, but I’m predisposed to dislike Canadian movies. Don’t ask me why. I’m just skeptical that even the best movie produced in Canada can rival the middle of the Hollywood pack. The Baroness and the Pig supports my case.

Michael Mackenzie is a playwright by trade, and in fact this film might have been better suited to the theatre. Nevertheless, in his directing debut, Mackenzie delivers an incredibly beautiful film, making exquisite choices of sepia-toned elegance that nicely complement this period piece set in France. Patricia Clarkson is excellent as the Baroness, but the rest of the cast is generally uninspired, especially Caroline Dhavernas as Emily, a plum role that she somehow manages to perform without eliciting the slightest emotional response from the audience. This is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the entire film, although the script is uneven and the pace a little sluggish at times.

Mackenzie shows promise as a director, and this may be one of the best films out of Canada this year. What does that tell you?

Owning Mahowny ★ ★ ★
Owning Mahowny is a movie about a man with a gambling addiction. Based on a true story, it is nonetheless a classic (and perhaps overdone) tale of a life spinning out of control, accelerated by the centrifugal force and intoxication of increasingly high stakes. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the movie, and he does a nice job of portraying the numbing effect of Dan Mahowney’s affliction. As his losses mount, gambling tightens its grip around his life, and all other concerns become secondary. He is willing to risk everything to up the ante, although even when he gets whole he can’t stop. He lives for the shake of the dice, or the flip of the next card.

Unfortunately, as an audience we never quite warm to Hoffman. Pity him, yes. Even fear for him. But it’s hard to really care for him. He’s too guilty to like, but too innocent to loathe. And maybe it’s her hair in the movie, but I thought Minnie Driver was the most non-descript that I have ever seen her. It appeared to be an absolutely uninspired performance.

If this wasn’t based on a true story, it might be too painful to watch at all. But knowing this really happened brings out the voyeur in all of us, and we love to take a peek.

The Secret Lives of Dentists ★ ★ ★
The Secret Lives of Dentists is a quirky film that defies classification. There are a number of funny moments, generous portions of true-to-life conflict, and Denis Leary as a surrealistic metaphor for the dark side of man. By any film-making criteria, this movie is fatally flawed—an inconsistent script with weak acting and uninspired direction. Its redeeming value is the strength of director Alan Rudolph’s message—that marriage and relationships can be very difficult; that personal failings as well as circumstances can make it even tougher; that it would be easiest to give up; and that in the end sometimes all we are left with is our commitment to make a go of it. We can say what we want about Rudolph, but he made his point.

It’s like eating at a buffet. Nothing fancy, but enough truth to fill your stomach. Besides, it’s hard to find a good movie about dentists.

Raising Victor Vargas ★ ★ ★ ★
If I had known this movie was about teen sex I never would have gone. Fortunately, I didn’t, because I would have missed a rather remarkable film. Raising Victor Vargas is about a non-traditional Hispanic family in New York’s lower east side. Victor Vargas is a hormonally charged teenager with one thing on his mind. (If we believe the film, every young male in Spanish Harlem is preoccupied with similar thoughts.)

Then Victor meets Judy. Unable to make a sexual conquest, the relationship develops into something more meaningful for both of them. It is this process of discovery which is so encouraging and uplifting, as Victor learns, with the help of a firm and loving (if sometimes misguided) grandmother, a deeper set of values—genuine caring, friendship and family. As his façade of cultural expectations wears off, the vulnerable but inherently well-meaning Victor emerges with a more mature outlook, strengthened principles and firmer moral grounding. You might argue that the transition is a bit forced and happens too suddenly. Nevertheless, it is cause for joy.

This is not to say that the movie is a propaganda piece for pre-marital abstinence. There is enough promiscuity to make parents think twice about letting their teens see the film. But the over-riding theme of the movie builds the case that the sexual preoccupation of youth is selfish and immature.

Director Peter Sollett employed inexperienced actors with an improvisational style, and managed to elicit extraordinarily real and believable performances from Victor Rasuk (Victor) and Judy Marte (Judy). Sollett’s technique allows him to capture truth on film, without embellishment. He takes us to a world where we expect to find despair, and leaves us with hope and faith in the spirit of youth.

Long Life, Prosperity and Happiness ★ ★ ★
Long Life is Mina Shum’s second film about Canadian Chinese. While a limited niche to be sure, her familiarity with the subject matter provides what feels like a very authentic glimpse of the culture, while keeping the movie still stylistically (and comfortably) in mainstream North American.

It is fair to say that this is not a great movie. The first third feels a little like a made-in-China drama spoken in English, with over-acted caricatures that appear quaint or anachronistic to today’s cinema. Only in the middle of the movie do things begin to lighten up. Humor finally emerges. And we realize that Shum does not expect us to take this quite so seriously. And that’s when we finally get comfortable with her point-of-view and begin to enjoy the film.

It is clear that Mina Shum is a thoughtful and sympathetic observer of life and has a lot to tell us. Fortune smiles upon all, but we must be ready and willing to accept her blessing, in whatever form it takes. Our lives may be interconnected in subtle but meaningful ways. Relationships are what really matter. Perhaps nothing new here, but Shum has a knack for telling her story as if fate itself was writing the script.

Long Life, Prosperity and Happiness, which began as three separate but related shorts, comes together in a story of faith, hope and optimism.

Laurel Canyon ★
I like Francis McDormand in almost everything and I think Kate Beckinsale is a beautiful, talented actress. But I walked out of this movie because I couldn’t stand the glorification of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Angela ★
This is a terrible film, based on the true story of an Italian mafia wife (now there’s a novel idea!) who apparently is being lauded for her courage and honor as a drug-runner that cheats on her husband. There was not a single character in the movie that I cared about, one way or the other. If there is anything remarkable about this film, it is that it paints a world of cops and robbers completely gray, making for a completely unsatisfactory movie. The moral is: Some true stories should not be retold.

American Splendor ★ ★ ★ ★
Every now and then a movie comes along with a fresh approach to film-making that plays well and captures the public’s attention. Pulp Fiction comes to mind in recent years. Also Star Wars, and Forrest Gump. A remarkably infrequent occurrence, these innovations often change the nature of film-making as they are copied and adapted to the needs of other directors. Rarer still are those movies that are truly creative—even ground-breaking in their originality—and yet very difficult to transfer to other films because the distinctive creative approach is so uniquely tailored to the particular story the film-maker wants to tell. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (with apologies to Hedwig). The Blair Witch Project. Memento. And now, American Splendor.

To list American Splendor alongside these classic cult films is perhaps giving the movie more credit than history will allow. It is the story of Harvey Pekar, the real-life star of the autobiographical American Splendor comic books. In his comics, Harvey looks for relevant truths in his real-life, everyday occurrences. A working stiff file clerk, he is more than willing to reveal himself and his friends, warts and all. Given the opportunity to make a biopic out of this extraordinary situation, regular collaborators Shari Sherman and Robert Pulcini take us on a real-life journey that blends a wonderful performance by Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar, along with commentary and narrative by the real-life Pekar, cameos by a few of his associates and characters from the comics, archival footage of Pekar’s frequent visits to the Letterman Show, along with a few visual shots and devices pulled straight from the comics.

Altogether it works, and works well. While perhaps dragging in parts, we find this erudite but grubby guy funny and lovable. We marvel at his authenticity, his often embarrassing tendency to speak his mind, and his child-like honesty and curiosity. Pekar is an observant student of humanity, but filters what he sees through a generally pessimistic and sometimes misanthropic point-of-view. Through this film, we recognize that there is some of Harvey Pekar in all of us, and that generally we’d like to have a little more of him, although we would insist on the ability to pick and choose what parts.

This is an innovative, entertaining and lovingly crafted film. As an appropriate homage to Pekar, it is a true original. Let’s hope we never see another like it.

The Death of Emmitt Till ★ ★ ★
An able documentary about the killing of a young northern black man in Mississippi, apparently for whistling at a white woman. Graphic footage and eye-witness narratives deepen the outrage we still feel for this terrible event which helped to galvanize the civil rights movement. This is an important part of American history that the current generation never experienced. It is a story of man’s inhumanity to man, and how it can occur even in a developed and civilized society.

The Station Agent ★ ★ ★ ★
I believe there was a plot to this movie. I sensed some conflict on a low simmer. Then it suddenly erupted, although I’m not sure why. And it got resolved pretty quickly, but I couldn’t tell you how. Yes, there was definitely something faintly resembling a classic plotline. But it never seemed like a high priority in the movie.

But the funny thing is, it doesn’t really matter about the plot. Tom McCarthy, in his directing debut, either didn’t want one or maybe just didn’t need one. The backdrop of the movie is a vehicle to introduce us to some memorable characters, and a story that gave them the opportunity to band together in their pursuit of happiness. This is enough to both charm and entertain the audience.

Peter Dinklage is at the center and this is a perfect role for him. He walks into town like a modern-day Clint Eastwood—the man with no name. OK, so his name is Finn and he’s only four and a half feet tall. Still, ruggedly handsome and stoically silent, Finn’s unintimidating stature and elusive manner make him virtually irresistible to everyone that can see past his dwarfism. Completely believable, we are all drawn to this extraordinary character. Patricia Clarkson plays an artist living through an emotional crisis brought on by the death of her son and separation from her husband. And Bobby Cannavale is Joe, the guy who is running his dad’s hot dog cart since he took ill, and whose puppy-dog enthusiasm and good-hearted demeanor push the story along.

These three come together with grace, compassion and humor. The most unlikely of comrades, McCarthy senses their need to have their lives intersect, but allows them to make their own way of it. These characters are lovingly crafted and there is enough substance to them to carry the film. We’re smiling and feeling good when the credits roll.

It took some courage to do a movie with a dwarf as the lead. Unfortunately, McCarthy couldn’t quite play it straight. He started to make a movie about a guy who happens to be a dwarf. That was exhilarating while it lasted. But then he drifts into a movie about a guy being a dwarf. Still interesting, but not quite as daring or ambitious. Given Peter Dinklage’s complete package, I suspect that is still to come.


 Levity ★ ★ ★
 Unchained Memories ★ ★ ★
 Life Show ★ ★
 It’s All About Love ★
 Whale Rider ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
 Confidence ★ ★ ★ ★
 Pieces of April ★ ★ ★ ★
 The Blues ★ ★
 The Shape of Things ★ ★ ★
 Normal ★ ★ ★ ★
 In America ★ ★ ★ ★
 Mondays in the Afternoon ★ ★
 Laurel Canyon ★
 Masked and Anonymous ★ ★ ★
 The Baroness and the Pig ★ ★ ★
 Owning Mahowny ★ ★ ★
 The Secret Lives of Dentists ★ ★ ★
 Raising Victor Vargas ★ ★ ★ ★
 Long Life, Prosperity and Happiness ★ ★ ★
 Angela ★
 The Death of Emmitt Till ★ ★ ★
 American Splendor ★ ★ ★ ★
 The Station Agent ★ ★ ★ ★

Movies that got great buzz that I missed
Song for a Raggy Boy
The United States of Leland
The Cooler