Friday, January 16, 2004

Sundance 2004

Sundance 2004 Summary

Riding Giants ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Wow! Stacy Peralta has followed up Dogtown and Z-Boys with an equally stunning documentary about the history of the big-wave surfing culture in America. Piecing together insider archival footage along with interviews from the big-wave legends, we are transported into the daring and free-spirited life of the early pioneers whose sheer passion for the sport spawned an industry that today touches the lives of millions.

It’s in getting to know these icons and their stories that gives the film its warmth. You can feel the respect Peralta has for these men as we hear accounts of Greg Noll striding from a pack of awestruck fellow surfers on the beach to singularly challenge 50-foot swells off Hawaii’s North Coast. Or Jeff Clark, surfing the outrageously dangerous Maverick off the northern California coast all alone for 15 years before it was discovered and became the surfing destination in California. And the storybook history of Laird Hamilton, today’s surfing icon. Hearing Greg Noll reverently refer to Hamilton as the best surfer ever sends chills up the spine.

(As an aside, Noll, Clark and others were at the Sundance screenings. Noll humbly described himself as an old, over-the-hill surfer. He was deeply moved by the audience reception of him and film. Both he and Clark were as likable in person as they were in the film.)

Riding Giants pays homage to these extraordinary athletes while at the same time rewarding us with an insight into the magnitude and terrifying power of the waves, the gut-wrenching vertical drops required to get into them, and the almost unfathomable combination of adrenaline and fear that the surfers go through each time they take on a monster swell.

All this, and the movie has more. For those of us that didn’t live in California in the 60’s, we get an insight into the impact of surfing on American pop culture. (And, to my surprise, the impact of the movie Gidget on surfing!) Peralta also weaves in a primer on some of the technical aspects of the sport and the history of innovation in equipment. I’m not a surfer, but like the rest of the Sundance audience, I was absolutely captivated by this film. Peralta is staking his claim as the Big Kahuna of American documentaries.

Goodbye Lenin ★ ★ ★ ★
I flat-out loved this movie. It was my favorite film at Sundance this year, although I didn’t see a few movies that got great buzz. Goodbye Lenin is a fresh, comedic look at impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on an East German family. The movie is funny, warm and insightful. I learned more about Soviet Bloc folks might have perceived their countries and their government than I have in all the stuff I’ve read in the past 20 years.

This is a light-hearted film that moves quickly and manages to not take itself too seriously. Acting is excellent throughout—Daniel Bruhl and Katherine Sass as his mother. But it is the gentle political commentary the carries the day here, along with some hilarious scenes and images throughout.

One Point O ★
Matrix meets Kafka meets Eyes Wide Shut. On a budget. Without the cool. This is a painful film to watch, which I think was the intent. Take away the fact that the film has a very interesting Philip Dick type of premise and some clever directing (the sound practically carries the movie!) and you are left with cryptic dialogue, shallow (but spooky) characters, kinky sex and an occasional beheading.

The Best Thief in the World ★ ★
Two years ago at Sundance I loved Josh Kornbluth’s directing debut—Haiku Tunnel. So I was looking forward to his brother (and frequent collaborator) Jacob’s The Best Thief in the World. This is a drama about a seemingly good kid growing up in a lower-class area of New York. The movie is not without its poignant moments. At times, it is as if Kornbluth is working way too hard to state the obvious: Life can be very difficult for some people. And life isn’t fair. More subtle, and more important, is our understanding that despite all of these somewhat abhorrent cultural underpinnings and the anti-social behavior they may spawn, these characters have no shortage of goodness and humanity. We can recoil at their language and their living conditions, but we are cannot discount their intent. And in fact, their struggles to maintain a family under such adversity has a certain nobility that most of us can barely appreciate. Kornbluth grew up in this neighborhood, and his compassion for the people is evident throughout.

Having said all this, The Best Thief in the World suffers from many painful flaws (including the title). The characters aren’t very believable. The writing is uneven. And the plot-line is barely discernible. And for many the most disturbing thing is that Kornbluth uses two young black boys as a Greek Chorus mimicking gangsta rap between scenes. To each his own: But while I don’t question the potential realism of this phenomenon, it pains me to see 5-year-old children spouting painfully adult language. It’s unnecessary shock value and just doesn’t fit with the rest of the film.

Second Best ★ ★ ★
Written and directed by Edward Weber and produced and starring Joey Pantoliano, Second Best is a curious movie that is painfully entertaining, embarrassingly funny and surprisingly touching in the end. Debuting at Sundance last night, Weber’s story is about the anti-heroes—the average Joes that have cashed in their dreams for mediocre careers and dysfunctional families. Accustomed to failure and disappointment, they now only play-act at success, and will grasp at the fringes of worldliness.

Weber effectively makes the case that there is something aspirational in the lives of the below-average and that the friendships that bind these people (for they have nothing else but friends) is of greater value and meaning than the worldly success they aspire to.

Pantoliano hasn’t branched far from the tree. He plays Eliot, a wise-cracking, cynical, self-proclaimed loser with a broken marriage and a job selling menswear. He nevertheless is the catalyst for his gang of pals, one of which is a Hollywood mogul currently on top of the world. What’s the allure? Eliot is a funny, interesting, original thinker who, in the end, we know to have a heart of gold. Jennifer Tilly is also typecast.

I wanted to like the movie more. More of a plot would have been nice. I also found the Freudian obsession with sex in a group of 40-year-old men a little tiresome. And I never bought into the extraordinary insensitivity Eliot displays to his friends. And finally, the only remotely likeable female character is Eliot’s mother, Barbara Barrie, who gives a nice comedic performance.

Edge of America ★ ★ ★
Killer premise: Black male teacher is recruited suddenly to teach English at an Indian reservation high school and takes over as coach of the hapless girls basketball team. Chris Eyre is a talented director. (He actually reprises the reservation DJ commentary that was so funny in Smoke Signals.) This is Hoosiers on the Rez.

I love Eyre’s movies because they are thoughtful, funny and compassionate, and always force us to consider people in a new light. He does an extraordinary job of exposing us to the good and the bad in Indian country, and I walk away from his films both enlightened and uplifted.

The Return ★ ★ ★
I’m always skeptical of Eastern European films. While not as universally depressing as, say, Icelandic cinema, I am nevertheless always prepared for tragic characters in an utterly depressing environment. I don’t mean to belittle the culture or the countries. I am certain that life can be very tough in Russia. And that generally makes the movies painful to watch.

In The Return, Andrey Zvuagintsev has crafted a powerful and interesting film about two young Russian brothers and their father, who suddenly and inexplicably returns after a 12-year-absence. They immediately set off on a 3-day fishing trip, with a little unexplained and mysterious business along the way. This unspoken agenda adds a compelling undercurrent throughout the film. With only a few very subtle clues, Zvuagintsev gives the viewers a plot-line written into the seams of each relationship—brother to brother and brother to father, although the ending feels a little contrived.

It is the relationship of the boys and their father that form the substance of this movie. With excellent performances from each of the three principals, we search the characters for signs of understanding. The father is particularly enigmatic, and through glimpses of insight our attitudes toward him jump freely from disgust to sympathy to admiration and back again. We feel the boys’ sense of alienation, confusion, anger and rejection, as they learn about having a father—in all his imperfections—while the father struggles too with his new role. The Return is a powerful and engaging film directed with originality and sensitivity.

Chrystal ★ ★ ★
Didn’t I just see Billy Bob Thornton as an ex-con in a redemption film called Levity a year or two ago? And didn’t he play a pot-planter in Home Grown? So I guess I was baffled that Ray McKinnon would insist on Thornton for the lead in his first feature-length directing effort. Isn’t this a little like asking Russell Crowe to do Mutiny on the Bounty? Or Kevin Costner to follow-up Bull Durham with Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game? (Wait, he did do that, didn’t he?)

The best part of Chrystal is the folk music. The story takes way too long to develop. The writing, while carefully crafted, lacks cogency and the acting is uninspired (except a surprisingly believable Colin Fickes). Further, for a story that could still, despite all this, come off as sweet and uplifting at the end, there is enough absolutely unnecessary graphic sex and gruesome violence to make you feel more disgusted than inspired at the end. (I know some people will call me a prude and not agree with this. Surely, the fact that Chrystal slept around was core to her character. But I don’t think we need to see the act to get the point. And I also wonder why this particular movie has the most excruciating fight scene of any in my memory.)

I heard McKinnon talk about the film at Sundance and he was impressive. He clearly has a passion for the both Arkansas and Appalachian folk music. Still, I’m shaking my head at some of his choices.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring ★ ★
Disclaimer: I’m an American. I’m not blessed with much patience. And there is a lot in the world and other cultures that I don’t understand. It has been my somewhat limited experience that there are two kinds of Asian movies: Those that have martial arts in them and those that are slow. There are no fight scenes in Spring Summer. This is a South Korean film about the life of a young boy raised by a Buddhist holy man. Beauty? Yes. Subtlety? Absolutely. Lyrical, lilting, deeply philosophical and instructive in a Zen sort of way, this is a film that is sometimes touching and often thought-provoking. But you have to have the patience to sit through a turgidly paced plot with a handful of characters, none of which I liked. It’s just not my cup of green tea.

Farmingville ★ ★
I don’t mind a documentary having a point of view but one thing that really angers me is when the filmmakers pretend they are being unbiased and then clearly make a one-sided movie. Farmingville is all about a battle between residents of the Long Island town (15,000 pop.) and a sudden influx of 1500 mostly illegal Mexican immigrant men. One of the two pivotal events of the film was the attempted murder of two Mexicans by town citizens. (The actual murder of a young mother by a drunk immigrant was barely mentioned.)

I don’t think I’m a bigot. I believe the immigration problem is an extraordinarily challenging one that needs to be part of public debate. Nevertheless, we will not advance solutions by producing documentaries that make most of the white residents out to be racist idiots and a group of 1500 Mexican men out to be saints. If I were to believe this film, the Farmingville Mexicans were the most respectful and well-behaved group of men in American history—of any race. These guys make the Amish look like hell-raisers, their sole crimes apparently being their custom of gathering on corners to find work and a lack of affordable housing. Any other negatives we hear are accusations and innuendo from the whites, which come off as paranoid rants. The oppressed men of this film just want to work hard, play soccer and be left alone.

When I pushed these questions wtih one of the directors, Catherine Tambini, she said that it was difficult to get any bad behavior from the men on film. But apparently the stupid white folks were more than willing to immortalize their ignorance. Most of the Anglo citizens of Farmingville that were featured were mean-spirited, ignorant human beings. The sole thoughtful and articulate exception was a legislator that was a champion of the Latino community. Honestly, this film was so biased that I felt like I was watching Reefer Madness. But then, it was funded in part by Latino organizations.

Mexican immigration is a major issue for our country, and it’s good to see film-makers tackling the problem. Farmingville is a symptom of a bankrupt immigration policy—both legislative and executive. Fear and self-interest brought out the worst in many people of Farmingville. It’s a sad chapter in American history. But let’s not ignite the debate by deifying immigrants or vilifying whites. That’s not a documentary. That’s propaganda. That’s Michael Moore.

Speak ★ ★ ★
I can react to this movie on a number of levels. First of all, it is a wonderful thing that this film was made. It deals with a very real yet very troubling issue, and handles it with sensitivity and hope. This movie has the potential to really help people, and I can’t think of a better legacy for a filmmaker.

Despite all that, I wish this would have been a better movie. The pacing of the story seemed wildly out of whack and there were a couple of directorial decisions that could certainly be questioned. On the other hand, Kristen Stewart’s performance in the lead role of Melinda was excellent, although the rest of the acting left me flat. (Even Steve Zahn, who I normally love, seemed a bit miscast.) And while the writing didn’t grab me, there were enough light-hearted moments to make Melinda’s personal anguish bearable for the audience.

Beyond cinema as therapy, the film contained meaningful insights and points of view as well—such as the potential of artistic expression in healing, the general alienation of being a freshman in high school, or the critical relationship of an individual’s will and determination with the healing process. People should see this movie not because of its cinematic excellence but because it has an important and optimistic message.

Never Die Alone ★ ★
Film noir, gangsta rap style. Grisly and grainy with a clever plot. Nevertheless, the movie sickened me. I have rarely seen such callous evil, even in the movies. And the notion that this gangsta culture has become so celebrated in mainstream music that our kids listen to should scare the life out of every parent alive. These cool, good-looking black men dress very fine, have lots of money and spend their lives snorting drugs, having sex, killing people without conscience. I wouldn’t mind it so much if they were all really bad guys and I had never listened to Eminem. Nope. These are role models. Welcome to Hollywood, DMX!

Net, if you like this part of our culture, you will probably like this movie. But if graphic sex, heroin addiction, at least 10 murders, and having our beloved hero (Michael Ealy) smack his teenage sister in the face isn’t your thing, you might try something milder. Maybe rent Pulp Fiction.

Tiptoes ★

If I was going to look for an actor to play a sympathetic lead role of a dwarf for a straight-up drama about “little people,” naturally I would turn to Gary Oldman. Yes, that Gary Oldman. Dracula. The Devil. Pontius Pilate. Maybe 5’11”. I guess Al Pacino wasn’t available.

This is a bizarre movie. Matthew McConaughey plays Oldman’s brother (not a dwarf), so this Schwarzeneggar and Devito as twins straight up. Both McConaughey and Kate Beckinsale turn in reasonable performances, as does Peter Dinklage. (As an aside, I think this guy is a terrific actor. In both this and Station Agent, soon into the movie I quit thinking about him as a dwarf.) However, I was most enchanted by the acting of the little people in the supporting cast. They brought me inside an inaccessible subculture and often made it very comfortable and believable.

However, Bogie, Bacall and the entire cast of the Wizard of Oz couldn’t rescue this movie. This is an ambitious project with an intriguing premise. And apparently, Oldman is the one that drove the project, because he wanted to play a dwarf. (The kid that has the football gets to be quarterback?) But everything else about the movie is … bad. There were times when the Sundance crowd laughed out loud at some of the directing/editing. And the script seemed to be pieced together.

More Weirdness: At the premiere at Sundance, writer-director Matthew Bright scathingly denounced the film. He didn’t watch the movie and said he never will. (“It’s like making love to your ex-wife.”) Bright apparently got into an argument with the financier of the film over creative differences. I think what I heard is that Bright wanted to close with a love scene between Oldman (playing a dwarf) and Kate Beckinsale. I guess the money guy just didn’t think the American public was ready for this. Anyway, according to Bright, he was fired from the movie and a bunch of inexperienced hacks who know nothing about the movie business finished the film. Bright said neither he nor none of the artists were paid a dime and that they didn’t support the movie. Maybe this explains why this was such a disappointing film.

Napoleon Dynamite ★ ★ ★ ★
This movie is fresh and alive with laugh-out-loud truths about growing up in general, and particularly growing up in small-town America. First-time director Jared Hess is either loony, very gutsy, or (quite probably) both. Dumb and Dumber meets The Royal Tanenbaums. Some scenes are priceless. And the sheer chutzpah of this ludicrous effort is enough to make you want to overlook the flaws. Jon Heder is outstanding as Napoleon, and Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino and Aaron Ruell manage to play their characters convincingly, crazily flat.

Here’s the thing—somehow, through all their flaws, their handicaps and their pathological weirdness, these characters manage to rise above the fray with a nobility that we want to embrace. There is a bedrock morality to each one. They know something about friendship on an intuitive level, because they have lived their lives often without friends. These characters are simple, but extraordinarily deep, and to me, that is the genius of this movie.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the comedy. Friends of mine who were more familiar with rural Western small towns thought it was hilariously on target. Plus, I think there’s some generational humor that I didn’t appreciate. (I had a discussion about this with a friend. He thought that Napoleon getting hit in the face by a thrown steak was laugh-out-loud funny. I didn’t.) An older crowd might miss the humor entirely. But one thing is certain: this movie isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen before. Napoleon Dynamite is an American original.

I Like Killing Flies ★ ★ ★ ★
What a great idea—a documentary that just wants to entertain. Killing Flies is a restaurant-sized slice of life about Kenny Shopsin and his diner in Greenwich Village. The place is one of a kind and Shopsin’s ad lib rants are as entertaining as any screenwriter could contrive. Watch this film and you will go out of your way to visit this restaurant when in New York, not just because of the eccentric owner, but because the food has the same eclectic appeal. Directed by Matt Mahurin, who got the idea as a regular Shopsin customer, Killing Flies is fun and captivating entertainment without the usual documentary pedagogy. (OK, I did learn a few things: You can put about anything into pancakes. And DON’T bring a party of five into Shopsin’s!)

Zatoichi ★ ★ ★ ★
I must admit that I don’t know the martial-arts movie genre very well. I think the last one I saw starred Bruce Lee. Zatoichi is about a blind old samurai warrior roaming from town to town as a masseur. Of course, he’s always the toughest guy in the village, besides being one very cool samurai. Apparently director Takeshi Kitano is something of a legend in Japan, but this film strikes me as an unusual blend of classic “Seven Samurai” good vs. evil combat combined with tongue-in-cheek choreography, and somehow, it all works.

Warning: This is not for the squeamish. They drained the blood bank to film some of the scenes and there are probably at least 50 deaths----all by a single swipe of the long blade. Tarantino, slice your heart out!

Seven Times Lucky ★ ★ ★
Film noir Canadian style shot on a shoestring budget. Kevin Pollak in a rare lead role. Some interesting twists and turns. Lies and deception. Happy ending. It is refreshing to have the film set at Christmas, and creates opportunities for delightful contrasts with low-lifes and Christmas music.
I love the genre and I liked the movie. Not great by any means. But it moved along nicely and had enough subtleties and nuances that it felt fresh and not simply derivative. Oh, and Liane Balaban is fetching without working too hard at it.

There were some other films that I didn’t see but heard good things about:

The Woodsman—Kevin Bacon plays a convicted pedophile back in society after prison. Some people thought this film was powerful and captivating. Other found it disturbing.

The Primer—The lowest budget movie at Sundance ($7000?) but also a multiple award winner. I know people who saw it and liked it a lot. Complex Memento-like plot that takes some work.

Supersize Me—A very well-received documentary about a guy that only eats at McDonalds for a month. It will probably play better to adults. Funny but also enlightening and a little scary.

LBS—About an extremely obese guy losing weight. I know people that loved this movie.

Garden State—Mixed reviews, but many people thought this was pretty funny.