Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Friends With Money

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
I don’t know if Jennifer Anniston can give a bad performance. Coming off of Friends I never would have guessed it, but she has such charming vulnerability, almost a Mary Tyler Moore for our generation, that every character she portrays I find interesting.

With a tongue-in-cheek allusion in the title, Friends with Money is a study in contradictions. It’s a comedy with moments of uncomfortable intensity. It’s a social commentary that feels vaguely insightful while flaunting political correctness (the wealthy couple turns out to be the happiest and most well-adjuste). It’s an ensemble piece that clearly features Anniston in another successful and intriguing role.

This is a well-respected cast, mainly four couples linked by the friendship of the women, including Joan Cusack, Greg Germann, Catherine Keener, Francis McDormand and Simon McBurney. Cusack departs from her more usual comedic role, leaving the plum scenes to Anniston, who is so deadpan, and so pathetic, that she becomes completely endearing.

There are plenty of reasons to reject this film. It’s dialogue driven, with barely enough plot to move from scene to scene. It feels like it’s written for women, and maybe inaccessible to some men. And we never really get to know the characters well enough, only through intimate introduction to some of their problems.

But if you watch it like a conversation between friends you will likely find something familiar here. Along with the grins, and Jennifer Anniston, that makes Friends with Money worth the trip.


2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
Quinceanera, for the Hispanically challenged, is a traditional ceremony and celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, her transition from childhood to maturity. In this movie, the event centers on Magdalena, an otherwise role model of a girl and daughter of a part-time preacher who gets pregnant before her 15th birthday, despite her claims to have never had intercourse. To manage the conflict at home, she moves in with her Great Uncle Tomas, who also houses Carlos, her tattooed and tough-guy cousin who is also estranged from his parents, mainly because he is gay.

By all accounts, this movie ought to be panned. The script, while evenly paced, never rings true. Most of the characters are flat. The acting lacks inspiration or enthusiasm. But still, I was moved, because at the heart of the story is the impact of Uncle Tomas, who with the wisdom of the aged is able to look beneath the surface of these two young cousins and see only goodness. He is filled with kindness and compassion, although the movie never let’s itself get nearly as schmaltzy or overly sentimental as my description of it.

I suppose this idea of accepting the differences in people—Hispanics, gang-bangers, gays and pregnant teenagers—is tired and hackneyed in its political correctness. But there’s something about a glimmer of truth that is warm and enlightening. So, that said, I dug the movie.

Side note from the writer/directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are gay and live in Los Angeles. Wash is British. And it so happens that two of the main characters in the movie are gay lovers, living in Echo Park in Los Angeles, one of whom is a Brit. So naturally, someone in the Sundance audience asked them if these characters were, you know, autobiographical at all. And naturally, they said no, it was just a coincidence. And I guess I believe them because they had the guts to write these characters as not entirely likable. In fact, if Pat Buchanan had written he script, someone would have accused him of being homophobic. Believe it, or Not.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Come Early Morning

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
Come Early Morning opens with Lucy (Ashley Judd) waking up in the morning at a hotel in bed with a guy whose name she does not know. We soon learn this is normal for her. Lucy lives in a small town in the south, does a fine job helping oversee construction projects, drives an old pick-up truck, shares a small house with a roommate (Laura Prepon, from That 70’s Show), dutifully takes care of her aging relatives, is estranged from her father, regularly visits the one bar in town, drinks a lot and gets sloppy drunk and sleeps with strangers.

The plot is predictable—Lucy meets a guy and he hopes to help her out of this cycle and that proves to be rough on both of them and the relationship almost falls apart but then just before the credits roll they reconcile and I think everyone lives happily ever after.

Written and directed by Joey Lauren Adams (the memorable Alyssa from Chasing Amy), Come Early Morning is a reflection of her Southern Baptist upbringing and was shot in locations that were personal to her. Ashley Judd is excellent in the film and the supporting cast includes such veteran talents as Tim Blake Nelson, Stacy Keach and Diane Ladd, not to mention another southern boy, Ray McKinnon, who plays a local Holy Roller preacher.

While not a great film, it was a warm, entertaining and well-produced movie that told a genuine story about a complex character caught in an ugly rut. It also has a wonderful soundtrack, although it’s not clear how much of that will survive when they have to pay for the rights for national release.

Tidbits from the Sundance Q&A: Joey Lauren Adams was frank and refreshing. She said she did the movie because she wasn’t getting any good acting opportunities and realized she needed to do something in her life besides hang out. The bar that’s featured in the movie is the same one she goes to when she visits her home town, and one of the houses featured is owned by her grandparents, I think.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a semi-autobiographical story by first-time director Dito Montiel about his experiences growing up in New York in the ‘80’s. It’s told from the perspective of the writer Dito, played adeptly by the always impressive Robert Downey Jr., who returns to New York 19 years after leaving for California as a kid. The story jumps back and forth between the present-day visit and the experiences of his youth.

The neighborhood is tough and the kids have a hardened edge that’s difficult to penetrate. Their lives offer dim prospects and they know it. To provide an authentic experience, Montiel went back to the neighborhood and recruited real kids that live there. (The technique reminds me a little of one of my favorite Sundance films, Raising Victor Vargas.) The movie's greatest attraction is the genuine grittiness of the kids.

The plot line is a little thin, and it’s unclear where Saints is heading, or even where it’s been. But the anger and the uncertainty in these Dito and his young friends is almost palpable. And veteran actors Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest as Dito’s parents provide solid performances as flawed but meaningful adult figures for the kids in the neighborhood.

All in all, not a bad first effort by Dito Monteil. Someone asked him in the Sundance Q&A if he planned to direct more movies. His reply was candid and amusing, going something like this: “Sure, everyone says how hard making movies is. But it’s really not so bad. Now digging ditches, I’ve done that. That’s a hard way to make a living.”

It’s about time someone told these directors to stop complaining and count their blessings.

Steel City

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
Steel City is one of those low-budget movies that makes for satisfying Sundance fare despite lacking the necessary ingredients for broader box-office success. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family in a small town in Illinois, centering around 20-year-old PJ (Tom Guiry), who is trying to hold his life together as his father goes to prison for his role in a fatal car accident. PJ is angry, bitter and confused. He can’t hold a job or his temper. He resents his older brother Ben (Clayne Clawford), whose life is also unraveling from alcohol, selfishness and philandering. He’s alienated from his mother, who has moved in with a black cop and his son. And he tries desperately to be supportive to his father (John Heard), for reasons that gradually emerge in the movie. Finally he is connected to his Uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry), who helps him get a job and attempts to mentor him.

All this may sound vaguely familiar, but director Brian Jun manages to develop the characters with honesty and compassion. By the end of the movie each character has worked out his redemption, and in the process created bonds of love and concern within the family.

These Steel City characters feel like real people. The writing is crisp, hard and direct. The casting is terrific and each performance believable. This family will grown on you, and you will find yourself rooting for them to do well, to make good decisions, and to find happiness.

Friday, January 27, 2006

This Film is Not Yet Rated

The audience at the Sundance premiere loved This Film is Not Yet Rated. Of course, director Kirby Dick perfectly played the role of iconoclastic documentarian who is fearlessly stickin' it to the man (in this case, the MPAA). And in fact, the movie was plenty of fun.

Kirby makes frequent use of controversial footage (mostly sex-related) from films, as well as interviews with directors. But the highlight is the work of a private investigator who is tasked to identify the secret panel of reviewers who assign the ratings. The fact that the PI is a rather dowdy, middle-aged lesbian that is accompanied by her partner's teenage daughter is such a departure from the Sam Spade mythology that you're rooting for her from the beginning. This was a genius move on Dick's part! There is also plenty of footage of former MPAA president Jack Valenti, often pontificating in the silver-tongued (and silver-haired) glory he made famous.

I like documentaries, but I'm troubled that audiences are so easily swayed by these typically one-sided arguments designed more to enrage and entertain than to uncover the truth. So in that spirit, let me make a few comments on the MPAA rating system and the movie. Kirby drives home the following points:

1. The ratings board seems to have a greater tolerance for violence than for sex. I can see why filmmakers might feel that way, but honestly, how on earth can you compare the two? Is one decapitation equivalent to the fondling of a breast? I'm just not sure how anyone could successfully argue this claim. Frankly, I see an awful lot of explicit sex and graphic violence in movies.

2. The MPAA is harder on Independent movies than from the studios because it's studio-driven organization. This is probably true, but the documentary gives the flimsiest of evidence to support it. Kevin Smith gives an example from how the MPAA dealt with him on two movies, one indie and one studio, but they were five years apart and may have simply reflected different people, policy changes, etc.

3. The MPAA treats homosexual sex more stringently than heterosexual sex. Uh … yea. And so does network TV, cable, print and the Internet. This is not news. I'm not defending it, but I think it reflects the public's squirm factor.

4. The MPAA reviewers are supposed to be parents of teens or younger, but often their kids were grown. Hmmmm. Who cares? The whole parent thing is a silly PR ploy anyway. These reviewers probably jaywalk as well, and maybe lead with their dessert fork.

5. The fallacy of comparisons. Dick wants a world where a filmmaker can find examples of similar scenes that have been allowed in the past to get their scenes approved. My teenagers have tried to use the same approach to systematically eliminate restrictions. Open that door a crack and the wall comes crashing down.

6. The MPAA doesn't publish its standards, which is unfair to filmmakers. Unfortunately, Kirby never asks why. And there's the rub. The MPAA secrets its standards because they would be highly controversial and the public (as well as Washington) would use it against the industry. Everyone snickers about today's PG'13's being yesterday's R's, but what if it was laid out in black and white? What if the press reported when the MPAA chooses to make a new word acceptable in PG-13's that was previously restricted? This is fuel for those that attempt to censor Hollywood and the result would be exactly the kind of regulation the MPAA has lobbied against for years. The evolution of these standards over time would not suffer scrutiny well. Filmmakers can live in an ideal world, but Jack Valenti knew exactly what he was doing, which was protecting the economic interests of the movie industry.

I could go on. Personally, I think the MPAA ratings system is an abomination. At the same time, I think filmmakers ought to rejoice that an organization run by their own industry is allowed to police itself with secret standards and the worst punishment being not a restriction but rather an ill-defined ratings label. Filmmakers should come not to bury Jack Valenti, but to praise him.

The Darwin Awards

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★

This was another movie I was really looking forward to at Sundance. We’re all familiar with the Darwin Awards, a website started by Stanford molecular biologist Wendy Northcutt to humorously recognize extremely stupid acts that lead to self-inflicted, accidental death. Northcutt’s notion is that the human gene pool improves when these tragi-comic figures, who are presumably plagued by genetic stupidity, are removed from the population. Hence the Darwin Awards (www.darwinawards.com).

It sounds like a terrific premise for an outrageous comedy and like the rest of the audience I was licking my chops. Unfortunately, this movie was about as funny as Origin of the Species. Director Finn Taylor has made a couple of refreshingly oddball films (Dreams with the Fishes, Cherish) but The Darwin Awards fails on almost every level.

The concept was probably doomed from the outset by the decision to incorporate a bunch of award-winning events into a linear storyline, including madcap crime investigations and a little love interest. Casting Joseph Fiennes and Wynona Ryder as the leads was the second mistake, as neither of them was right for their parts (and despite their efforts, came off very flat). Follow that with writing that is simply not very clever and you have a disappointing movie.

The vignettes do include some great casting choices, including Chris Penn, Tim Blake Nelson, David Arquette and Metallica. But unfortunately, they are lost in the woeful script, and give us only the occasional funny moment.

As many have heard, actor Chris Penn was found dead at his Santa Monica home the day of the Sundance premiere. Finn Taylor had some nice words to say about Chris prior to the screening. And afterwards Winona Ryder, who had known Chris for 15 years, spoke at length about him. “He wasn’t just Sean’s younger brother,” she said. It was a genuinely nice tribute.

Right at Your Door

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
The 9-11 experience has given new relevancy to movies about terrorist attacks. In Right at Your Door, writer and first-time director Chris Gorak shows the impact of a sudden attack in Los Angeles. Similar to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Gorak chooses to focus exclusively on the impact of the events on one couple—Lexi, a professional woman who works downtown (Mary McCormack) and her husband Brad (Rory Cochrane), an out-of-work musician.

Right at Your Door adeptly explores the human implications of a scenario that seems all too plausible in today's world. At the onset of the attack there is fear, panic, despair, disorientation and poor judgment. However, as the reality of the situation settles in, a survival instinct emerges, a certain calculating rationality. And finally, Brad and Lexi must face the many moral conflicts that can plague us in times of limited resources, dangerous conditions and life and death decisions. Layered on all of this are further apprehensions and uncertainties that must be dissected: Who can you trust? What does the government know? Whose advice do you listen to? What do we tell our friends and family?

It is these issues that make viewing Right at Your Door a powerful and troubling experience. We see a little bit of ourselves in these characters, and it is easy to wonder how we would react in the face of these tragic circumstances. This movie will come back to you in moments of quiet contemplation.

Gorak has made a very good movie, especially given his very limited budget and complete lack of directing experience (he been a production assistant on another movie, but has never directed anything before). I particularly like his decision not to provide any information about where the attacks came from. It's probably not all that realistic, as surely the media would be engage in non-stop speculation, but it served to focus the emotions on those things that really mattered to the characters.

Interesting tidbit from the Sundance Q&A: Some of the scenes of smoke rising over the skyline used actual footage from the bombing in Iraq.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Don't Come Knocking

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★
I really wanted to like Don’t Come Knocking. It’s a contemporary Western by famed German director Wim Wenders, written by Pulitzer-Prize winner (and stud actor) Sam Sheppard, and including in the cast Sam’s main squeeze (and my first crush) Jessica Lange. With these credentials, I would have bet that Don’t Come Knocking would have been in my Top 5 at Sundance this year.

Not even close.

Here’s my #1 criterion for judging a movie: Did I care about the characters? Love ‘em or hate ‘em, either one is ok, they just have to mean enough to me to care about what happens to them. And unfortunately, I didn’t care two hoots about Howard Spence (Sheppard), the washed-up Western actor who tries to escape his past of hard living and general selfishness. I didn’t even care about Doreen (Lange), a former girlfriend from a movie shot in Butte, Montana. And I certainly didn’t care about Earl (Gabriel Mann), Doreen’s son, no matter how over-the-top obnoxious his behavior. Maybe I did care for Sky, the Butte native played by the remarkable Sarah Polley, who was clearly the most likable and the only truly compelling character in the movie. And Tim Roth’s portrayal of the studio bond man was interesting at least.

But beyond character development, this movie just didn’t have any direction, suffering from the thinnest of story lines and a pace that often needed a quick kick from Howard Spence’s spurs. It does feature some interesting locations and beautiful southern Utah landscapes. But that’s not why we go to movies.

Wenders and Sheppard go back to their collaboration on Paris, Texas in 1984, and they spoke very fondly of each other during the Q&A. They collaborated on the story over a period of years and have looked for a chance to work together again. I wish they would have produced something better.

Interesting Tidbit from the Q&A: Sheppard’s son Jesse is an expert horseman and did his father’s riding stunts for the movie. Sam Sheppard also rides well, but his contract limited his riding to a trot.

Second Interesting Tidbit: Wenders has wanted to shoot a film in Butte for twenty years, since his first visit there, and was concerned that someone else would film there before him.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★
I think the reason the Sundance organizers like dark depressing movies is that no one else does. You can make a rotten comedy and it can still do $30 million at the box office. But if you’re going to go the slow downer route, you’d better have A Beautiful Mind, or something like it, or you’re destined for straight to DVD. And if Sundance is intending to encourage an outlet for all forms of expression, I suppose that’s a worthy objective. Just don’t plan on enjoying some of the movies.

Cargo is about a ship leaving Africa for France, and a young man (Daniel Bruhl) who stows away. It is clear from the get-go that this is a mysterious voyage, with exotic birds and rough-looking sailors with secrets and mysterious searches and who knows what’s going on. I certainly didn’t. It all gets cleared up in the end, which proves to be anticlimactic. In fact, by the end of the movie I hardly cared.

Listening to the Q&A at Sundance I began to understand why. This was a script that took a meandering course to completion, often pausing at many forks in the road to production. Fantasy or reality? Nice guy or not? Happy ending or sad? Somehow, these decisions were made and as a result Cargo feels less like a director’s vision than it does a project by committee.

I didn’t really know or care about any of the characters. And with all the eeriness of the set-up, I was expecting something more.

The Hawk is Dying

2006 Sundance Film Festival

★ ★ ★
Paul Giamatti plays George Gattling, a single guy who owns an auto upholstery store and lives with his divorced sister Precious (Rusty Schwimmer) and her mentally handicapped son Fred (Michael Pitt). George is infatuated with birds of prey and is almost single-mindedly committed to training one. However, his past efforts have failed, much to his public embarassment, and the movie opens with Fred holding a private funeral for a recently deceased hawk.

George and Fred finally trap another bird, this an exquisite red-tailed hawk. His challenge is to eat so it will stay alive, no small challenge to a wild hawk suddenly in captivity. Saving the hawk becomes an objective Gattling tenaciously clings to despite tragic circumstances he is forced to endure. This is one plum role for Giamatti and he plays it to perfection. The movie might not play to a large audience, but Giamatti’s performance is once-again Oscar worthy.

Without getting too esoteric, the Hawk is Dying is a powerful metaphor. We do find things—hobbies, interests, relationships and activities—that bring passion to our lives, define who we are and give us a reason to endure. These pursuits can take on a life of their own, providing almost mystical enchantment and meaning to our otherwise humdrum existence.

One can argue that Hawk moves slowly, that there isn’t any meaningful action, that the relationships are … unusual. All those things are true. This is a flawed movie and certaily open to criticism. But Giamatti is so good, and his relationship to the hawk is so compelling, that it’s a movie you won’t want to miss.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Predicting Sundance Success

Interesting article in the LA Times about a guy, Matthew Prince, who uses historical data to predict Sundance success. Interesting idea, but I think what it really suggests is that the Sundance Festival team has a pretty good idea what films have commercial prospects.

Consider these predictors:

1. Eccles Theatre a positive predictor. Well of course, since Eccles is usually reserved for bigger budgets and bigger stars and bigger-buzz films.

2. Geoffrey Gilmore and John Cooper choices do better than ... say Trevor Goth's and Lisa Viola's. Geoff and John are top dogs and I'm guessing they get first dibs.

3. More producers improve the film's chances. What's the saying: "Success has many fathers. Failure is a bastard child."

The most interesting predictors were the language used in the Film Guide, some of which is obvious (words suggesting international and documentary films did not do as well). But others are worth noting:

"Golden: academic, accomplished, bedroom, complex, dialogue, dream, death, focus, girl, human, high, journey, love, mother, narrative, romance, relationship, superbly, sex, ultimately.

"Kiss of death: Africa, America, American, beautiful, black, best, emotional, fascinating, great, inspired, lake, new, riveting, Sundance, sexy, story, subtitles, truth, vision, world."

I'm working on my script now, and I've asked Geoff Gilmore to review it as such: "An accomplished bedroom dialogue between a girl and her mother that provides focus to their relationship as a superbly complex narrative journey that follows the very human dreams of love, romance, sex and, ultimately, high academic death."

It will not take place in Africa.

Half Nelson

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★
Half Nelson is another Sundance addiction movie, where we have the pleasure of watching Ryan Gosling play Dan, an inner-city junior high school teacher and basketball coach whose life is spinning out of control. The movie centers around his relationship with one of his students and basketball players, Dre (Shareeka Epps), a 13-year-old black girl. Dre is a bright, responsible and friendly girl who is trying to find her way with a difficult home and family situation. Dan befriends Dre and genuinely tries to help her. But there is a creepiness to their relationship that leaves you constantly dreading the worst. In fact, the whole movie feels like you’re waiting for something bad to happen. And given Dan is a drug addict, bad things do happen again and again.

And then, you know, the movie ends.

The acting is really pretty good on all counts. Gosling is more than a pretty face--a genuine talent and always impressive. (I really liked him with David Morse in Slaughter Rule at Sundance 2002.) Epps is excellent as well, given her youth and lack of experience. And the supporting performance are consistently good. But Half Nelson never goes beyond a relationship movie, and while it's not bad, it is rather painful to watch. I think most movie-goers would like to see a better defined sense of story, with a plot, conflict resolution, etc.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
Being at the world premiere of Neil Young: Heart of Gold was almost like attending one of the concerts in the movie. The audience clapped and cheered riotously after every song, paying homage to Young, who was in attendance with his family and members of his band.

This is a concert movie with music pure and unadorned. Director Jonathan Demme dispenses with most of the behind the scenes background so common to the genre and gets right to the music, recorded at a series of concerts in Nashville in August 2005. Young is joined on stage by some veteran musicians and old friends, as well as his wife Pegi and Emmylou Harris, as they play song after song after song, interrupted only by Neil’s warm and friendly introductions on stage. There is plenty of terrific new material as well as favorites going back to Harvest days. And all in Young’s distinctive twang, but now with the wisdom and maturity of years.

Demme is one of the most talented directors working today, and has perhaps the broadest range of anyone. Consider these: Melvin and Howard, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs and now this, not to mention his first movie, the destined-to-become-a-classic, Caged Heat. (OK, I’m kidding about the last one.)

There is a sentimental aspect to the film as well, as Young had been diagnosed with a brain aneurism and was going to surgery within days of the concert. All in all, Heart of Gold really is a wonderful experience for all Neil Young fans.

Art School Confidential

2006 Sundance Film Festival

Terry Zwigoff made a name for himself with two creative departures: Crumb (1994) and Ghost World (2001). So we might have forgiven him for the cheap comedy of Bad Santa a few years ago. But there is no forgiving Art School Confidential.

Maybe I’ve seen a worse movie, but I don’t remember when. What is it? A farce? (Too intense.) An art-school satire? (Sometimes, but without enthusiasm.) A love story? (Well, ok, but not a very good one.) A crime flick? (Yes, but a very bad one.)

What were they thinking? John Malkovich produced the movie, but his character is awful and he mailed in his performance. The most remarkable thing about male lead Max Manghella is his Groucho Marx eyebrows. Female lead Sophia Myles has virtually no identity. And everything else is a confused jumbo of overacting and plot contrivances. Even appearances by such talents as Steve Buscemi and Anjelica Huston can’t rescue this hopeless effort.

Maybe there’s something deep and metaphorical going on here, some level of satire that pulls it all together in a way that eludes me. But if this movie even stops at an arthouse for popcorn on the way to DVD I’ll be surprised.

The Illusionist

2006 Sundance Film Festival

★ ★ ★ ★
Hats off to director Neil Burger. He bit off a big challenge with The Illusionist, and he pulled it off admirably. This is a very liberal adaptation of a Steven Millhauser story about a magician in Victorian era in Vienna. Shot entirely in the Czech Republic at gorgeously befitting locations, this is a beautifully made period piece, complete with genuine turn-of-the-century illusions, a wonderful soundtrack, lovely cinematography and a great story.

Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, the magician who lost his first love as a young boy because they were separated by classes, but years later when he is touring Vienna rediscovers her in the form of Princess Sophie (Jessica Beil). Unfortunately, Sophie is engaged to be married to the unseemly Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who immediately takes a dislike to Eisenheim, mainly because he can’t figure out his extraordinary illusions. Prince Leopold, not one to do his own dirty work, relies upon Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to handle Eisenheim.

Edward Norton is great as Eisenheim. (That shouldn’t be surprising as he’s turned in some truly remarkable performances in the past—Fight Club, American History XXX, Rounders and The Score.) And of course Paul Giamatti is excellent as well, although his role is something of a departure for him. But perhaps most surprising is Biel, who is not only radiantly beautiful in this movie, but shows suprising talent as well, and holds her screen presence toe to toe with Norton.

Burger has managed to pull off really a remarkable film. The plot moves along steadily. The tonality is remarkably steady, as there is a forboding dreariness to it that perfectly matches the subject matter and the period. (In the same way that David Lynch did with The Elephant Man.) The illusions are captivating and almost believable. The love story is touching. And Eisenheim is a compelling and sympathetic hero, blessed with such unconventional heroic talents that the entire movie feels fresh and alive.


2006 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★
Sherrybaby, by first-time director Laurie Collyer, is a movie that is trying to find its direction. The premise, while perhaps unique, feels painfully familiar. Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal)has had a very tough life. The film opens with her getting out of prison where she kicked heroin and found God. She returns to her New Jersey home to reconnect with her daughter. But life is difficult for an ex-con and she struggles with the challenges of staying clean, finding a job, etc. I feel like I’ve seen this movie a hundred times before, or at least others like it.

Maggie Gyllenhaal turns in another outstanding performance, but it’s not enough to save this Sherrybaby, which moves slowly and is burdened by a depressing, my-life-is-unraveling tonality. There are other parts and characters, but they are poorly written, shallow and underdeveloped.

Maybe it’s me, but I’ve never liked addiction movies. I know it’s hard to kick anything—drugs, alcohol, gambling—and I’m very sympathetic to the tragedies that come from addictions. I just don’t find reliving them very entertaining, even with a spoonful of redemption.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Proposition

2006 Sundance Film Festival

★ ★
The best part about The Proposition is that it is a glimpse of Australian history that few of us know anything about. Screenwriter Nick Caves, who is primarily a composer, tells the fascinating the story of rival factions striving for control of the Australian outback in the 19th century. While we are never given dates, director John Hillcoat said in the Sundance Q&A that it roughly represents the second generation of imports, or children of the first convicts. The battle for supremacy is between the Irish and the British, with the aborigines tragically caught in-between.

The Burns gang is Irish, led by the educated, perceptive and slightly psychopathic elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston). Brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) no longer rides with the gang, apparently sickened by their wanton cruelty. The movie starts with British soldiers ambushing Charlie and his retarded and hyper-sensitive brother Mike (Richard Burns). They are seeking justice for the rape and killing of a local white family by Arthur and his gang. British Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) captures Charlie and Mike and gives Charlie a proposition—find your brother Arthur and kill him or your beloved brother Mike will be hanged on Christmas Day.

This is a gritty western that boldly strives for realism, complete with obscene and graphic violence, yellow teeth and nasty flies. (According to the cast at Sundance, the realism was intensified by filming entirely on location, sometimes in 130 degree temperatures with the flies as constant companions. “Everyone swallowed flies,” said Hilcoat.) It deglamorizes the period in much the same way that Eastwood’s Unforgiven did in 1992.

Guy Pearce puts in a solid performance as the silent type made up of sinewy strength and moral fiber. Winstone is also terrific as the ethically conflicted British captain, who vows to civilize the land, but recognizes that savagery is not the solution. John Hurt turns in a fine little performance. But I was most impressed with Danny Huston (John Huston’s son, Anjelica’s brother and former husband to Virginia Madsen (Sideways). His character is rich and multi-dimensional and Huston plays it beautifully—educated and intelligent, lover of Australian sunsets, sensitive Irish patriot, leader of the family and sadistic executor of frontier justice. Even after stomping people to death and beheading others I still couldn’t help feeling for the character.

(I spoke to Huston after the performance and asked him if it wasn’t unsettling being caked in blood and gore and playing such a ruthless character. He said it was a lot of fun. OK, so he goes to a different school than Daniel Day-Lewis. Anyway, I thought he carried the movie.)

It would be hard for me to recommend this as entertainment. It was slow-moving at times, relying on cinematography and landscape to keep your attention. And the blood and guts were way too much—I found myself closing my eyes in parts. But it does provide a rare glimpse of a part of history that Australians still grapple with to this day.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lucky Number Slevin

2006 Sundance Film Festival

★ ★ ★ ★ From the opening scene in Lucky Number Slevin, you will be straining to keep up. People are getting killed left and right, and it’s never clear until the end of the movie how they are all connected. But you know it fits somehow and Scottish director Paul McGuigan (Wicker Park) manages to keep you guessing while firmly grabbing your attention and holding leaving you barely a second to take a breath.

In the film noir tradition, but with the intense and graphic violence of the Lock Stock and Layer Cake genre, Slevin is really a caper movie, and frankly reminded me more of The Sting than anything else. It dances nimbly from grisly stomach-churning action to clever and light-hearted banter. This could only be accomplished by a truly incredible cast, led by Josh Hartnett in an outstanding performance, great work by Lucy Liu, Bruce Willis doing his thing, and supported by the always excellent Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley. There’s even a little time for Stanley Tucci.

Liu plays Lindsay, the next-door-neighbor/natural sleuth/coroner/love interest who discovers Slevin in her neighbor Nick’s apartment. They mystery that immediately engages her is what happened to Nick, who never shows up. However, plenty of people do show up, mistaking Slevin for Nick, and before long he is neck deep in murder contracts, called debts and warring gang factions. Hartnett plays the role to perfection. I’ve never seen him this good. He is both convincing and empathetic as a glib, fearless victim of mistaken identity, yet filled with confidence that he can make his plan work.

This is a terrific film, assuming you can stomach the bloody violence. The pieces fit neatly together (well, I have one bone to pick with the scriptwriter, but it would be revealing too much to share it). I highly recommend Lucky Number Slevin.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Ticket Tactics for the Sundance Film Festival

You can’t see a movie without a ticket. Fortunately, there are plenty of options. Here’s my list:

* Purchase an unrestricted pass. This is the coolest way to go because you can waltz right in to any movie and you get a cool picture ID badge to hang around your neck and if you’ve got a few thousand to blow this separates you from the riff-raff. There are other, less expensive passes as well, but none of them are cheap.

* Purchase ticket packages on the web. You have to pre-register for these and it can all be done online. But if you don’t already have one, you’re too late. Remember next year not to procrastinate. (Right, and to eat healthier and quit interrupting.)

* Buy “Locals Only” tickets. These are well-priced and the best way to go. The only downside is that you have to live in Utah. You know, some of us actually like that!

* Purchase individual tickets at the Sundance Box Office or online. By the time you read this hardly anything is left—maybe documentaries and foreign films at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. You can check on the website. Still, sometimes you are pleasantly surprised at how good the movie is. And sometimes you’re not.

* Day of Show tickets. Every morning at 8:00 at the Park City and Salt Lake City box offices there are tickets for sale that day. The morning lines are long, the time of day is terrible and the more popular movies usually aren’t available. But if you’re not real picky, you can usually get tickets to something. And if you’re really early in line, you’ll often get one you want. I’ll be honest, I’ve never done this.

* Ticket Swaps. I’m not sure if they are doing it this year, but there is usually a place to post ticket availabilities at the main box offices. Sometimes you might get lucky. It helps to have grown up with baseball cards.

* EBay. I’ve looked at these before. My impression was that they were way over-priced.

* Waitlist Tickets. An hour before each movie at the venue they pass out waitlist numbers. Unfortunately, the line for these usually starts more than an hour before. I’ve often had pretty good luck with this approach, even a half hour before the movie if it’s not too popular. The downsides: (1) Some lines are outside (like the Eccles Center), which in Park City can be cold. (2) You definitely feel like riff-raff standing in line while the better-heeled walk right in. (3) If you do stand in line for over an hour and don’t get a ticket it can really sour your attitude.

* Scalping. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to do this and you’ve got to be able to handle rejection well, but I’ve found that if you’re naturally aggressive you can be remarkably successful. People will often have extra tickets to sell, especially if you only need one. (Since the tickets are not for a particular seat, you can get two, one by one.) By the way, I’ve never heard of anyone selling a ticket at the venue for more than face value. Occasionally people will just give them away.

* Sneak in. I’ve never seen anyone actually do this, but I’m sure it’s been done. This is not recommended. I've heard that if you get caught they make you watch Icelandic movies until you're so depressed you don't want to go on living.

* Talk to people. At every movie, on the shuttles, in lines, at the restaurant, etc. talk to people. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the festival. Ask them what they’ve seen and what they have liked. Compare notes. And casually mention that you are looking for more tickets. I’ve gotten some great tickets like this, especially from big groups.

* Get a Press Pass. Try writing reviews for a small, off-beat newspaper. Then plead your case to the Sundance powers. It’s been done before. I know the paper in Paducah, Kentucky doesn't have a regular Sundance reporter.

* Make a Movie. This is one of the more difficult ways to get in and costs a lot more than ten bucks. But it’s definitely the coolest route.

My approach? I usually get a couple of local packages to start with. Then, over the course of the show, I have certain movies I decide to see. I’ll usually go and get a number at the venue, then go to the parking lot and do my best imiation of a hot dog vendor. I’d say my success rate is over 75%.

Hardest tickets to get: Weekend evening premieres with the big stars. (And I’ve always felt this was silly, because these are the films that almost surely will get picked up for distribution.) These are usually at the Eccles Center, which is the most challenging venue to get tickets to.

Easiest tickets to get: Always the second weekend because the glitterati have ventured to the next high-profile place. Always early morning, because people have a tendency to party late, then decide that 8:30 documentary on the Afghanistan war really isn’t a must-see. Foreign films and documentaries.

While it’s certainly preferable to purchase your tickets in advance, if you have a flexible schedule, are not too picky and are willing to work at it, you can walk into Sundance with nary a ticket and still see plenty of movies.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sundance Film Guide: Lavishly Loquacious

I get a kick out of reading the Sundance Film Festival Film Guide every year. The synopses of each movie have an eerily common tonality—kind of like listening to National Public Radio, where all the announcers sound alike, except of course the distinctly tremulous voice of Diane Rehm. But I’m rambling.

To be fair, these are not reviews. They are upbeat, positive capsules of the movie. What’s funny is how the writers all sound so much alike—sophisticated, intellectual, pedantic … insular, obscure, condescending … amusing, grating and sometimes plain silly. In case you missed it, here are some actual excerpts from the 2006 Film Guide:

Friends with Money
… “portrays a world we may think we know all too well: the liberal, professional lives of women and their husbands on the west side of Los Angeles.” Oh we all know that soooo well, don’t we? Hey mom in Iowa, this is your world, right?

Alpha Dog “…this is dense, galvanizing film-making.” I’m sure it’s just like all the other dense, galvanizing movies I’ve seen.

American Blackout … “emotionally revitalizes the core of our power as American citizens.” That’s not bad for ten bucks! They should rent this out to the Democratic Party.

Iraq in Fragments … “indelible, intimate portraits, painted with strikingly beautiful verite images and poetic visual juxtaposition …” They said the same thing about Garfield the Movie!

Flannel Pajamas … “brought to life by warm, natural, and genuinely inhabited performances.” Is this another possession movie?

All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise
… “the first-ever cruise for gay and lesbian families … a kind of nautical utopia.” I'm not sure this is what Thomas More had in mind.

Art School Confidential
… “When he sees that a clueless jock is attracting the glory rightfully due him, Jerome hatches an all-or-nothing plan to hit it big in the art world.” Boy that will show him.

A Guide to Recognizing Saints … “Montiel’s New York is steamy with humidity, cooking and adolescent sexuality.” And that’s just the cab ride from LaGuardia.

Half Nelson … “Gosling perfectly renders Dan, imbuing him with layers and dimensions rarely seen in film.” Sounds like a perfect role for Harvey Keitel. Or maybe Kathy Bates.

The Hawk is Dying … “an enigmatic and emotionally potent film.” Translation: You'll feel sad and you won't know why.

An Inconvenient Truth … “the gripping story of former vice president Al Gore.” I’m sorry, I just can’t read that without giggling.

In Between Days … “it is at once a love story and a neorealistic depiction of assimilation.” I have no idea what that is—maybe The Matrix meets Hegel.

Puccini for Beginners … “Maggenti playfully ushers in a new era of lesbian cinema.” What? You mean I completely missed the last era of lesbian cinema?

Sherrybaby … “all-around strong performances, led by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s deeply inhabited Sherry.” Maybe her head spins and she spews green slime.

Stay … “Raw, original and edifying.” If Sundance says it’s raw, you need to watch for food poisoning.

Steel City … “An authentic, textured sense of place.” Translation: It’s not Los Angeles.

Wristcutters: A Love Story … The title alone makes this sound like fun for the entire family.

The Giant Buddhas … “with pulsing immediacy, Frei essentially collapses time.” Einstein would have been proud.

Into Great Silence … “thrills the senses even as it eschews outward sensation. An exquisite cinematic recreation of devotional space.” This is the way film students talk when they are very, very high.

13 Tzameti … “Director Gela Babluani’s hand is firmly at the throttle.” I’m happy about that, because if he was pressing the ejector button I’d catch a different film.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros … “We follow Maxi through his glowing and textured world of shopping …” Sounds like me at Wal-Mart.

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave you with my favorite from this year’s catalog:

Allegro … “Christoffer Boe … (who) established his fascination for filmic ideation and creativity, again creates a figurative universe … a realm both real and unreal, at once a fictional place and a concrete reality … Its complex visual style mirrors the cerebral vision of its maker, and its exploration of metaphorical realities and the mysteries of memory and the subconscious is richly conceived.” I’m embarrassed to say this, but it kind of makes me long for Dukes of Hazzard.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Recalling Sundance: Dustin Hoffman

I’m not a stargazer at Sundance. But if you go to enough movies, you tend to run into folks occasionally. One such time happened a few years ago at the premier of Confidence at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City. I was going to skip the Q&A because I had another movie to get to, but instead I went back in the theatre to see what the director had to say. James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) was up front talking, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark recesses of the back of the theatre I realized that I was standing in the midst of the actors, who were waiting to be called down to the stage.

On my right shoulder was Dustin Hoffman, who asked me a few questions about the very distinctive Egyptian Theatre, which he liked. On my left was Andy Garcia, as well as Rachel Weisz and Paul Giamatti (Edward Burns wasn’t at Sundance). I think they thought I was an official volunteer, because they asked me what they were supposed to do. I was the only one who heard Foley invite the actors down to the stage, so I shooed them all down the aisle.

A little devil in me said to join them on the stage. The audience would assume I was with the movie, and the actors would think I was with the festival. Heck, I might have even answered a question or two. But maybe I lost my nerve, or perhaps just deferred to the good manners my momma taught me, but in any event I stayed put. George Plimpton would have gone, as would have Ali G.

As luck would have it, I ran into Hoffman again during that festival, where we were both attending the premiere of the New Zealand film, Whale Rider. I was almost overwhelmed by the movie, and afterwards joined a number of others in line to congratulate both director Niki Caro and 12-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes. I was again surprised to see Dustin Hoffman standing behind me in line, waiting patiently like all the rest of us schmucks. I told Castle-Hughes how completely impressed I was by her performance, which I still think was astonishing. Then I lingered a moment to see what Hoffman would do. I didn’t catch all of his words, but he leaned over to talk to Keisha eye to eye and very sincerely congratulated her on a remarkable movie debut.

I believe Dustin Hoffman is the greatest living actor and if I’m going to bump into anyone, I’m happy for it to be him, and I’m grateful that he impressed me as a pretty good guy.

Monday, January 02, 2006

New York Doll

New York Doll

Religious conversion stories are often dreadfully boring to all but fellow believers. Too often they are tales of interesting lives of despair lifted by a higher power to lives of less-than-fascinating virtue. I don’t mean to imply criticism of epiphanies in any form. But it is an axiom of sectarian movie marketing that the religiously inclined will tolerate the blandest of cinema if packaged faithfully, and that’s often what they get.

I was expecting more of the same when I heard about New York Doll at Sundance last year. This is the story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player for the legendary New York Dolls rock band of the ‘70’s, whose life descended into the gutter, but was resurrected when he found God and became a devout Mormon.

For those that didn’t follow the pop music scene back then, the Dolls were one of the hardest-edged, most controversial groups of their era. Forerunners of the punk movement, they paraded in drag and set the stage for later bands such as The Sex Pistols, The B-52’s and The Clash. Like so many other punk bands, the Dolls fell victim to excesses and addiction. Kane, known for his “killer” bass lines, was sometimes too drunk to perform, and would simply stand on stage with a bass around his neck while a roadie filled in for him. (However, since Kane was known for his wooden posture on stage, it may have been hard to tell whether he was really playing or not!)

After a meteoric four years, the Dolls dissolved and Kane drifted into alcoholism and obscurity, only rebuilding his life with his 1989 conversion to Mormonism and work at the LDS Family History Center in Los Angeles. But despite his discovered spirituality, he always harbored the desire for the band to reunite and play again. His seemingly impossible dream was realized in 2004 when Morrissey (The Smiths) engineered a reunion of the Dolls for the London Meltdown Festival.

Director Greg Whitely crafts a warm and engaging story set to this strange juxtaposition. Kane is an intriguing personality—simple, friendly and honest, he talks wistfully of his days of drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll (“some of my fondest memories,” he says) yet never wavers from his commitment to his Mormon faith. Interspersed in the reunion story are thoughts on Kane from Mormon co-workers and religious leaders as well as punk rockers Morrissey, Sir Bob Geldof (of Boomtown Rats and then Live Aid fame), Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and others.

But the drama is the reunion itself. Two of the Dolls died in the early 90’s, leaving Kane, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and singer David Johansen from the original group. Of the three, Johansen found the most success post-Dolls, both as an actor as well as singing under the alter-ego Buster Poindexter (remember “Hot, Hot, Hot”?). Kane resented Johansen for nearly three decades, and the tension is palpable when the singer arrives (over a day late) for rehearsals. While time and hard living have clearly slowed, humbled and mellowed Kane, in contrast Johansen comes across like Mick Jagger—a young-at-heart glam rocker in a craggy-faced, 50-year-old body. While Kane appears non-plussed by the experience, Johansen is still energized by the spotlight.

What is truly touching is how these two resolve their differences, rekindle their relationship and develop mutual respect. Kane tries to explain his religion to a bemused Johansen, including the Mormon principal of tithing—“It’s like an agent’s fee,” he explains. “It’s only 10 percent. It’s a pretty good deal.”

New York Doll is a well-executed and compassionate documentary that will warm the hearts of faithful and heathen alike. Whitely clearly cares deeply for Arthur Kane, who seems to have touched the lives of everyone—even those from the Dolls’ era. And it’s impossible not to like Kane, who is sincerely grateful for his good fortune—his past, his faith and his chance to once again be a New York Doll. This is a tender story with a bittersweet ending, which I won’t give away. I will tell you to keep watching as the credits roll, because there’s a song you won’t want to miss.