Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sundance 2008 Wrap-Up

The two questions I’m always asked after Sundance:

1. What did you see that you liked?

★ ★ ★ ★ The Visitor
★ ★ ★ ★ Diminished Capacity
★ ★ ★ ★ Transsiberian
★ ★ ★ ★ A Raisin in the Sun
★ ★ ★ ★ Birds of America
★ ★ ★ Made in America
★ ★ ★ The Merry Gentleman
★ ★ ★ The Deal
★ ★ ★ U2 3D
★ ★ ★ Henry Poole is Here
★ ★ ★ The Yellow Handkerchief
★ ★ ★ Red
★ ★ ★ CSNY Déjà Vu
★ ★ ★ Baghead
★ ★ The Last Word
★ ★ Incendiary
★ ★ The Year of Getting to Know Us
★ ★ Sleepwalking
★ ★ Time Crimes
Pretty Bird
Savage Grace
Unrated: Death in Love

Other movies that got very good word-of-mouth, but that I didn’t see:
In Bruges (Colin Farrell, brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes)
The Great Buck Howard (Tom Hanks, John Malkovich, Steve Zahn, Colin Hanks)
Sunshine Cleaning (Amy Adams, Jason Spevack, Steve Zahn)
Phoebe in Wonderland (Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman)
Frozen River (Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott)
What Just Happened? (Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn)
The Wind and the Water (Spanish)

2. What stars did you see? I always hesitate to answer that. Perhaps the better questions would be:

What big stars did you meet personally, get to know, and plan to vacation with in the future? Uhhhh ... none.

What big stars did you make small talk with and exchange email addresses? Let me think. OK. None again.

What big stars did your wife bump into in the bathroom and you exchange a sentence with? Finally, one--Glenn Close. My sources tell me she did wash her hands after doing her business.

What big stars did you see as they walked by on their way to the podium to talk about their movies? Such a deeply personal connection. My new-found friends include David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Bono, The Edge, U2, Sharon Stone, Jimmy Fallon, Tom Arnold, Luke Wilson, Eddy Redmayne, Wes Bentley, William Macy, Meg Ryan, Stacy Peralta, Jason Ritter, Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda, Virginia Madsen, Michael Keaton, Kelley Macdonald, P. Diddy, Phylicia Rashad, Woody Harrelson, Glenn Close, Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Maria Bello, Ben Kingsley, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara and William Hurt, among others.

Which of these were most impressive? Ben Kingsley, Jimmy Fallon, Stacy Peralta, Alan Alda and Phylicia Rashad.

For most of us mere mortals, the big stars are very inaccessible at Sundance. Maybe you see them here and there, but it would be inappropriate to intrude, even if you could. On the other hand, there are plenty of people involved in the movies, e.g. directors, producers, writers and actors, who are passionate about their work and more than eager to talk about their films. They haven’t become big yet (and maybe never will) and they are very excited to be at Sundance. I always meet and talk to quite a few of these, and it is one of my favorite parts of the festival.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Made in America

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★

When I saw that Stacy Peralta had another documentary at this year’s Sundance, I put it at the top of my list. Both Riding Giants (surfing) and Dogtown and Z-Boys (skateboarding) were extraordinary peeks into unique and fascinating American cultures. Made in America shifts it's focus to another less romantic section of Southern California, and promised a more somber experience, taking a penetrating look at the gangs of South Central Los Angeles, one of the most deadly areas in the United States.

Like his other docs, this one takes a historical perspective. How did these gangs start? What cultural forces propagated their beginnings and fueled their growth? Who are these people? What are they really like, and why do they do what they do? I think Peralta’s gift is that he manages to really connect with his subjects and gain their trust, which turns out to be absolutely critical in the South Central neighborhoods. He also manages to tell a story with interest and compassion, but primarily through the perspective of those that have lived and shaped the experience.

Financed by South Central native and Golden State Warriors star Baron Davis, as well as an anonymous interested party in Hollywood, Made in America tells a story about a part of America we have chosen to ignore, despite the small-scale war that rages there every day. Seeing this movie will make you think a little differently about gang warfare, change your perspective, maybe add a little empathy to your world view. And for a filmmaker, that's perhaps the highest form of the art.

Sundance Moment
I saw this movie at the last day of Sundance down in Salt Lake City, far away from the glitz and glamor and stars in Park City. I heard Stacy Peralta was sick and probably wouldn't make it. But he did come, and not just for the introduction, but stayed for the Q&A as well, and talked with passion about how make this movie had changed him, and how important it is that we realize that teenagers are killing each other, something that would absolutely not be tolerated by society in any suburban area of our country, but goes virtually unnoticed in South Central.


Pretty Bird

2008 Sundance Film Festival

I think Pretty Bird is meant as a symbol of the dotcom era, or at least of dreamy-eyed entrepreneurs with a love for money, an endless supply of chutzpah, and not much else. But if the business plan for their new technology company is filled with holes, it is positively bulletproof when compared to Paul Schneider’s script. This is a film that didn’t just struggle to find its voice, but rather walked onto the stage with a bad case of laryngitis, which only went from bad to worse.

Curtis (Billy Cruddup) is a good-looking, charismatic schemer who waltzes into old friend Kenny’s mattress store one day with a brilliant idea. Kenny (David Hornsby), who is gay, is infatuated with Curtis and has great faith in him, although we never really understand why. Curtis convinces Kenny to fund their enterprise, which involves building a personal flying machine. Curtis, who is a complete idiot (and knows it, but uses his charm to hide the fact), hires Paul Giamatti, an unemployed rocket scientist with misanthropic tendencies and an anger management problem. While Giamatti is surprisingly successful at building the machine from Curtis’ plans, the enterprise never gets off the ground, and the movie flounders among creepy capitalists, disintegrating relationships, ridiculously bad management and preposterous antics.

Too bad, because Cruddup and Hornsby are both very good in their roles, while Giamatti is something less than inspired. In the end, Pretty Bird is less a symbol of the shallowness of business than it is of self-indulgent and poorly-conceived filmmaking.

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2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
Ten reasons why I like this movie:
1. IMDB lists 14 movies named “Red” in the past 30 years and this is the only one I’ve seen.
2. Production was bifurcated—shot by two different directors. But you could never tell, a credit more to the final director, Trygve Allister Diesen, than initial director Lucky McKee.
3. The Carmen Sandiego Factor: The movie is set in rural Oregon, and filmed in Maryland by a Norwegian director. Who would have guessed this could possibly turn out well?
4. Young TV actor Noel Fisher plays Danny--the spoiled, insecure and mean-spirited rich bully--realistically enough to make you hate him.
5. Tom Sizemore plays Danny’s dad, an even bigger jerk, which he does with natural ease and believability. This must have been shot before his 2007 prison sentence for another drug conviction.
6. Brian Cox (Bourne Supremacy) is really terrific as Avery Ludlow, the aged protagonist. He’s old, fat, bald and has a flawed past. And he’s the main man. How cool is that?
7. Thankfully, Ludlow does not engage in gratuitous sex with anyone in the movie. While this could have cost them the entry at Sundance, it was an act of good taste and gracious compassion to the audience.
8. Dogs and puppies make every movie better.
9. The story has all the earmarks of a Greek tragedy, but with a modern American twist. It definitely had a classical feel, including hubris as a fatal flaw.
10. Maybe unbelievable, trite and contrived, but nevertheless, the ending satisfied the audience, which sure beats the alternative.

Sundance Moment
I saw this on the last night of Sundance in Salt Lake City and both Diesen and screenwriter Stephen Susco came down to meet with the crowd and answer the worst questions I have ever heard in a Sundance Q&A. However, this was the first Sundance movie I’ve seen in Salt Lake, vs. the standard Park City locale, so maybe it’s par for the course. I felt badly for the two of them. The lowlight was when one guy started rambling on about how Diesen as a Norwegian director doing an American movie was the kind of cultural exchange that will save the world.

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Monday, January 28, 2008


2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★

Terrorism movies are the war movies of our generation. But the big difference is that the prospect of terrorism is lurking around all of us, whereas war is something most of us only expect to experience vicariously. So movies about terrorism can be unsettling, because the threat is so very real. That’s the spirit of Incendiary, by director Sharon McGuire (Bridget Jones’ Diary), about a woman (Michelle Williams) who loses her husband and child when bombs go off at a soccer game. There are a dozen reasons not to like this movie, but the fear of losing a child is so powerful that it was easy to get taken by the story.

Michelle Williams is adequate as the mother and Ewan McGregor solid as neighbor/lover. But the story is perplexing and the devices heavy-handed, obvious and contrived. For example, after being hospitalized for injuries after the bombing, she learns her son is dead when she first awakens and sees a large dirigible-like balloon with his face on it, commemorating the dead and floating just outside her window. Huh? What are the chances? And where did they get the photo? How did they pull this off so quickly? Another example might be the graphic sex scene, which occurs while the game is stopped by the bombing, which is on the television. I understand the desire to explain her guilt—engaging in an affair while her husband and son are killed—but do you really need to show the very explicit sex scene to communicate this? Gratuitous? Yes, in every sense of the word. But consistent with the bludgeoning nature of the film.

We’re going to see a lot more terrorism movies in the future, most of them better than Incendiary, and probably some even worse. But in any case, we’re going to watch them, because these acts of senseless violence are in all of our anxiety closets, and we will relate to the fear and suffering.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

CSNY Deja Vu

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★

In 2006, rock ‘n roll icons Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played a “Freedom of Speech” tour to protest the war in Iraq. The band that wrote Ohio, one of the most famous protest songs of the Vietnam era, decided that the country needed a wake-up call, some of the same spirit of protest and activism that once shook national policy and changed our nation forever. CSNY Déjà vu is a documentary based on this tour.

Being a rock star must be the ideal profession because you get all the girls when you’re young and somehow you're never too old. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young were an average of 62 years of age on the tour, but still audiences gave them license to “get down” on the stage, and generally applauded wildly with love and admiration. But don't expect the typical fawning fans of a concert movie. This is all about the tour, about why they hit the road, what they believe, and how fans, concertgoers and the American public reacted.

Director Neil Young deserves tremendous credit for being revealing. He quotes the glowing press reports, the negative ones and even the stinging mockery. He also shows both sides of the audience reaction, with the most antagonistic occurring in the southern states, where many fans walked out of the concerts in disgust, coming for the music without realizing they were in for incessant politicizing, including a song entitled “Let’s Impeach the President.” And he even shows Stephen Stills falling off the stage, looking every bit like the fat old man that he has become. (Only Graham Nash really looks good. David Crosby looks like your uncle. And Neil Young just looks a little craggy, until he takes his hat off. Then he looks like his age as well.)

It is fun and nostalgic to see the old footage interspersed, and to follow the band as they meet people, and introduce those that affected or were affected by the experience. CSNY Deja vu is not a great movie by any means. There’s not enough music to make it a concert film, and not enough action to pick up the slack. But there is nevertheless something admirable, even touching, about their breed of 60’s style activism, their belief that people are dying needlessly, and their genuine heartfelt desire to make a difference. As they repeatedly demonstrated, they have profound respect for the servicemen overseas, but don’t see continuing the war as the best answer. Agree or not, it strikes me as the sincerest form of patriotism.

Sundance Moment
Someone in the Q&A said that he had lost a brother in Iraq, and told Neil Young that “you have no idea what you’re talking about.” It was a tense moment in the very liberal Sundance crowd. I’m guessing that Young had dealt with this kind of thing dozens of times on the tour, and he chose to handle it by, essentially, backing down. “I think you’re right,” he said. “We’re just trying to get people to talk about it.” Well, that might be an easy answer, but it’s not honest. A song like “Let’s Impeach the President” is something more than an invitation for dialogue, it’s a political statement of the strongest kind. I respect the band’s sincerity, but was disappointed they were something less than forthright when challenged.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Savage Grace

2008 Sundance Film Festival

In 1972, socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, former Hollywood model and wife of plastics heir Leo Baekland, was murdered in her London home in a well-publicized and shocking story that captured the public’s ever-morbid interest and fascination. The popular book, Savage Grace, was published in 1986, which was the basis for the screenplay and the movie. It’s the tragic tale of social climber who married above her class (Julianne Moore), an insensitive and unloving husband (Stephen Dillane), too much money that they didn’t have to work for and the poor boy who was unfortunate enough to have been born into their family (Eddy Redmayne, who was also in The Yellow Handkerchief, at Sundance this year).

Watching this movie is a painful experience. One reason is that it’s a terrible film. The other is that this is a wretchedly awful family. And from my scant research, it appears that screenwriter Howard Rodman softened the screenplay from the book and reality to make the each of the main characters a little more palatable. The only thing of redeeming value is Julianne Moore’s performance, although it pained me to see her in the role.

If you’re looking for something slow, meandering and depressing that still manages to be graphic, perverse and dehumanizing, look no farther than Savage Grace.

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Birds of America

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

I’m getting a little tired of movies about dysfunctional families, even at this year’s Sundance. But Birds of America manages to break the mold and feel fresh and alive from the outset, delivering a warm, funny, zany, tender and compassionate film that left the audience smiling and content.

Morrie (Matthew Perry) is an uptight university professor anxiously seeking tenure, which requires the approval of his department head, who lives next door. Morrie and his wife Betty (Lauren Graham—Gilmore Girls) live in a house he inherited at 18 years old when his father committed suicide after his mother died. As a result, Morrie raised his brother Jay (Ben Foster) and sister Ida (Ginnifer Goodwin), both of which grew into their problems. Ida is substance-abusing and promiscuous, and Jay a deeply gentle and sensitive soul whose actions are almost completely unfettered by advanced thought. They reunite in the family home when Jay gets run over by a car (he was laying in the road) and Morrie, who still feels more parent than brother, asks him to move in for a while. Jay asks Ida to join them, stressing Morrie and Betty’s relationship and jeopardizing his career with their outrageous behavior.

Matthew Perry is surprisingly good in his deadpan portrayal of an overwrought brother who cares deeply for his siblings, often at his own expense. Goodwin is a pleasure as well, as the addictive personality with the carefree spirit. But Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) is great, and despite having such a naturally funny role, manages to never play Jay for laughs, creating an endearing and memorable character. Growing up without parents, these three have formed an unbreakable bond, with unconditional love and acceptance, and a tenderness and compassion unlike any I can remember in movies. Elyse Friedman has crafted a remarkable script, and Sundance veteran director Craig Lucas (Secret Lives of Dentists, The Dying Gaul) brings it to life with a funny but light-hearted and gentle touch.

As its cut, Birds in America will get an R rating, which is too bad because this movie has a big heart and would appeal to a wide audience.

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2008 Sundance Film Festival

After writing American Beauty and working as a writer, director and producer in TV, Alan Ball makes his big-screen directorial debut with Towelhead, which unfortunately disappoints on almost every count. Based on the novel by Alicia Erian, Towelhead is about a 13-year-old girl (Jasira) coming of age sexually, a disheartening process aided and abetted by neglectful parents, porn magazines, a lecherous neighbor and a sex-hungry schoolmate. I kept asking myself why anyone would want to tell this story. Here’s what I think:
1. Kids really are getting sexually active earlier.
2. Bad parenting can contribute heavily to this.
3. Societal values contribute as well.
4. There are perverts out there, one of which might be your next-door neighbor, or even someone in your household.
5. Good people should be proactive with their help and intervention.

I compassionately concur with all of the above. But if you’re trying to convince me there’s a problem, why use the outrageous example of a 13-year-old girl who finds a pornographic magazine while babysitting, looks at the naked women and immediately becomes a sex addict, masturbating during French class, s'il vous plait? I’m just not buying it. And why make the sexual situations so explicit? Just trying to make the audience squirm? Well of course they will, when a grown man is fondling a young girl. But that doesn’t make a movie “serious,” “relevant” or “important,” as Sundance often touts. That’s a cheap parlor trick and I resent the intrusion on my sensibilities.

Perhaps thinking that one road to the peaks of our outrage wasn’t enough, Towelhead adds another. Set during the invasion of Iraq, Jasira must also face painful prejudices and vicious taunts because of her Arabic heritage (hence the title), despite that fact that her father is an embarrassingly jingoistic U.S. patriot. I’ve never lived in the southern Texas setting, but I can’t imagine kids anywhere being so openly and egregiously racist. And then, upon contemplation, one must ask exactly what this unfortunate theme has to do with primary idea of youthful sexual awakening, other than to throw another shovel of shock value to an already malodorous pile.

The only thing that feels good in this movie are the other neighbors, played refreshingly well by a very pregnant Toni Collette and Matt Letscher (remember the bad captain in The Mask of Zorro, the other guy who has the hots for Catherine Zeta-Jones?). They take personal risks by proactively trying to help and protect Jasira, showing sensitivity and compassion. Nice effort, but not enough to rescue Towelhead.

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The Year of Getting to Know Us

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★

What a disappointment. The Sundance catalog called The Year of Getting to Know Us a dark comedy. If that’s what writer/director Patrick Sisam was after, he missed the mark badly. This is a drama, and not a very good one at that, with a few random snatches of humor. The casting left me scratching my head. Jimmy Fallon is a very funny guy but was floundering in this more serious role. Sharon Stone was also miscast, and unfortunately, didn’t even look that great in her red wig. And Tom Arnold … well, he’s never been very good.

Christopher Rocket (Fallon) is a writer in New York, about to say good-bye to his live-in girlfriend Anne (Lucy Liu), who is taking a three-year assignment in Europe. Chris isn’t close to his parents and Anne hasn’t met them, and for good reason, we find out, when Chris’ dad (Arnold) has a stroke and Jimmy returns home. Turns out his parents are quite eccentric, and that Chris has never come to terms with the emptiness of his childhood, and particularly the lack of love from his father. Fortunately, his dad is now in a coma, meaning Chris can finally have a meaningful conversation with him.

The Year of Getting to Know Us is slow, boring and dumb. It’s a movie in search of a fresh idea, but instead must be satisfied with simply a few weird characters. I couldn’t identify with anyone in the movie, and couldn’t have cared less about their fates. And the only character arc, in Chris, could be drawn with a very small protractor.

Sundance Moment
Jimmy Fallon was hilarious in the Q&A. Some admiring woman asked if, given that he was in Utah, would he consider a polygamous relationship. “I could go Mormon,” he replied. He also told a funny story about how pleased his mother was to be portrayed by Sharon Stone. I think everyone in the audience would have preferred 90 minutes of Fallon’s improv to watching the movie. In contrast, Tom Arnold was painfully boorish. I assume he was drunk, because he continually embarrassed the cast by hogging the microphone with inane comments for long periods, even when the questions weren’t directed at him.

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Friday, January 25, 2008


2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
Mark and Jay Duplass are Sundance veterans, and I really like their 2005 entry, Puffy Chair. Baghead is more of the same, but instead of a road trip comedy, this one is based on a standard slasher pic situation—a group of fun-loving partiers in a cabin in the woods. Matt and Chad are best buddies who haven’t made it to square one in Hollywood. One night, after a double-date, they decide to head to Matt’s uncle’s cabin in Big Bear to write a movie, starring all of them. Having never undertaken such a task, their attention wanders more to partying, flirting and … Baghead.

While funny in parts, Baghead is really more of a drama, although the genre kept slipping away from my expectations. Opening with some very funny satirical comedy, it quickly morphs into a frustrated relationship movie, then a scary slasher feel, and finally to a rather straightforward drama. Maybe it was my expectations—that I kept wanting to see the humor and charm of Puffy Chair, and ended up being a little disappointed. The acting is fine, the directing fresh and spontaneous, but the script seemed to fall a little flat in parts.

The Duplass brothers are unpretentious filmmakers, and because of that, their movies are hard not to like. They feel very intimate and familiar. They seem to revel in their low-budget productions, rather than apologize for them. Both Puffy Chair and Baghead are the kind of movies you and I would make, only a lot better. And while Baghead wasn't one of my all-time favorites, I look forward to their next movie.

Sundance Moment: Mark and Jay Duplass are very accessible, articulate and funny. They come across as guys you’d love to make friends with. Jay talked about their film-making style—a few weeks of rehearsals, collaboration with the actors, freedom of movement with no blocking, spontaneity and chronological shooting to give the actors a better sense of the evolving drama.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Visitor

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

I absolutely loved The Station Agent in Sundance 2003, so I put Tom McCarthy’s newest movie, The Visitor, at the top of my list. Boy was that a good call. This is a lovely, gentle and touching film that works on many levels. Richard Jenkins gives a perfectly understated performance. A veteran character actor (I counted 75 roles since 1985, that’s about five per year!), it’s the first time I remember him as a lead. And the rest of the cast is terrific as well, including Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira.

Walter Vale (Jenkins) is a widower who teaches economics at a Connecticut university. No longer motivated by his work, he lives alone, struggling to find passion and meaning in his life. In New York to present a paper at a conference, he goes to the apartment that he has kept since his wife was alive (but hasn’t visited for some time) only to discover a young couple living there, having been duped by an acquaintance who “rented” it to them. Despite their great cultural difference, Walter befriends Tarek, a Syrian citizen and drummer, and gradually builds a friendship with Zainab, his girlfriend from Senegal. One day, when returning from Central Park with Walter, Tarek gets arrested for jumping a subway turnstile, despite the fact that he had paid. The police discover he does not have legal papers and transfer him to an immigrant detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for and connected to Tarek, Walter stays in New York to help and support him. Not hearing from her son, Tarek’s mother arrives from Michigan to find out why, and she and Walter support one another while they attempt to free Tarek.

The movie is a painful illustration of the inhumanity of the post-911 immigration policies and procedures. At the same time, it beautifully illuminates the wonders of friendship, kindness, reaching out, exploring life and finding meaning in a challenging world. Despite it's gentle pace, the story glides by, establishing characters that we care deeply about. The Visitor has a lot of heart. The audience reaction was effusive, and gave McCarthy the longest standing ovation I have heard at Sundance. Scheduled to be released April 11 in New York, definitely put this one on your list.

Sundance Moment: McCarthy talked about Participant Media, which helped fund the production (and also Syriana, Charlie Wilson’s War, An Inconvenient Truth and other cause-related movies). Visit their website at to explore meaningful causes and how you can become informed and get involved. McCarthy also said that he wrote the screenplay with Jenkins and Abbass in mind, tailoring their roles to the two of them.

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A Raisin in the Sun

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

A Raisin in the Sun received a sincere, loving and prolonged standing ovation at its Sundance premiere, and it deserved every second of it. Lorraine Hansbury wrote the play in 1959, becoming the first black female to have her play produced on Broadway (she was 27). The original Broadway cast, including legendaries Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, also made the 1961 film version. And that was just the beginning. The latest Broadway revival was in 2004, with the same cast as this latest incarnation, a made-for-TV-movie scheduled to air on ABC February 25 (2008). Don’t miss it.

Director Kenny Leon has put together an incredible movie, retelling the story of a black family in Chicago (in the 1930's, I believe). The acting is terrific, including Sean Combs (P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, or whatever), who is surprisingly solid as Walter Lee Younger, and Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald as his sisters. But Phylicia Rashad (Claire Huxtable) is absolutely extraordinary as their mother, who holds the family together through crises while she encourages her son to follow in his father’s footsteps, and lead them with principles, honor and dignity. It’s easy to see why she won a Tony for her role on Broadway, but remarkable that it translated so well to the big screen.

Everything about the movie works. Yes, the story has a stellar pedigree. But director Kenny Leon keeps the show right on pace, the sets are perfectly understated for the period piece, and the outstanding music is from multiple Grammy Award winner Mervyn Warren. If you’ve never seen Raisin in the Sun, this is a must see. If you have seen it, it’s still a must see.

Sundance Moment: When asked about the role, Sean Combs said “I’ve been in movies before, but I’ve never had so many words!”

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Deal

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
The Deal is a wacky and frenetic Hollywood insider movie about a movie, in the spirit of Altman’s The Player or Mamet’s State and Main. Written by and starring William H. Macy and directed by his long-time friend and veteran TV movie director Steven Schachter, The Deal is part vanity piece, part industry insider self-indulgence and wholly funny.

Macy plays Charlie Berns, a one-hit wonder Hollywood producer with no money and no prospects and on the verge of suicide. Interrupting his plans is his nephew Lionel (Jason Ritter), who knocks at his door at the propitious moment, carrying his script about Benjamin Disraeli. Ignoring the script, Charlie returns to his morbid task, only to spot an article about a blockbuster action-hero movie star (L.L. Cool J) who has recently converted to Judaism and is looking for a Jewish film for his next project. Seeing a glimmer of hope, Charlie hatches an outrageous seat-of-your-pants scheme to coerce a studio into approving this preposterous pairing. Assigned to the project is Diedre Hearn, a second-tier studio exec (played by Meg Ryan, still trying to transition from her girl-next-door pedigree). Charlie is smitten, and resurrected. “Ben Disraeli – Freedom Fighter” gets green-lighted and the fun begins. There’s even a role for Elliott Gould, playing a rabbi who serves as a technical advisor and "Assistant Producer" to the film!

I guess Macy decided that at 57 if he was ever going to play a leading man, he was going to have to personally drive the project. And he has written himself a plum role—a multi-dimensional character with a lot of funny lines and Meg Ryan as a love interest! Charlie Berns has suffered all the indignities that Hollywood can dish out. But he’s learned enough tricks, and developed enough chutzpah that with a little luck he can really work the system. Macy plays the role with unflappable charm and impeccable comic timing.

The script bounces around a bit, and probably bounces a couple of times too many. The “resolution” feels a little like an add-on, and perhaps could have been left out. So while I doubt this movie will do great things at the box office, it certainly entertained the Sundance crowd.

Sundance Moment: Macy told the long story of how difficult it was to get the project funded, which is a recurring Sundance (and Hollywood) theme. They passed out red yarmulkas to the crowd, and many wore them while watching the movie.

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Death in Love

I wish I could talk intelligently about Death in Love, but I can’t. I only saw the first five minutes, which had some of the sickest stuff I’ve ever seen in a movie. Not knowing how long this would go on, I left. To be fair, I ran into some people coming out and they said they liked it, so either the movie got better or we didn’t share the same tastes. But if you’re sensitive to explicit sex or vividly graphic blood or how the two unite in twisted sexual perversion, skip this movie, at least the first five minutes of it.

That happens at Sundance sometimes. They like movies on the edge. It’s just that their edge is a lot farther from the middle than mine.



Sundance 2008
★ ★

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Diminished Capacity

Sundance 2008
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of four)

OK, maybe four stars are too much. Maybe Diminished Capacity isn’t “all that and a bag of chips,” as a friend of mine is fond of saying. But I’ll tell you what, it’s pretty funny. I think I heard more laughing than anything I’ve seen at Sundance since Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine. That bodes well for the box office prospects of this film.

Alan Alda gives a terrific performance as Rollie Zerb, a small-town Missouri old-timer with Alzheimer’s, who lives with his sister, plus the hilarious but unexplained Wendell who lives in a trailer by the house. They are visited by Cooper (Matthew Broderick), who arrives at his mother’s request to help talk Uncle Rollie into a nursing home. Cooper has mental problems of his own, due to a recent concussion (hence the movie title). While back in town, he runs into Charlotte (Virginia Madsen), his high school sweetheart who is recently divorced from the town mayor. And somehow Rollie, Cooper, Charlotte and her son wind up heading to Chicago together, where they are going to try to sell Uncle Rollie’s rare baseball card of Frank Schulte, from the 1908 Chicago Cubs (the last Cubbies team to win the World Series!).

Broderick is solid, in his awkward, understated way. Madsen is the straight woman. But Alan Alda delivers the comedy as Uncle Rollie, and dominates the screen in almost every scene. And yes, if you squint you’ll see shades of Hawkeye Pierce, but his Rollie character is a complete departure from anything he has done in the past, and probably his best comedic performance since MASH.

The script is very well-written, and under the direction of veteran actor Terry Kinney the action moves along briskly. Yes, it feels a little bit like Little Miss Sunshine, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a very funny and feel-good movie. What more could you want?

Sundance Moment: Broderick was much better on stage than I would have expected. He was there with his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, whose movie Smart People had debuted at Sundance the night before. Alan Alda was charming as well. Bobby Canavale was in two movies playing at Sundance this year, the other being The Merry Gentleman.

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Henry Poole is Here

Sundance 2008
★ ★ ★

Proposition 1: This is a classic Sundance movie. Starring Luke Wilson (now tell me that doesn’t just ooze Sundanceness! Dialogue driven. No special effects. Low budget.

Proposition 2: This is a real departure for Sundance. Gee, it seems to be religious, albeit in a weird sort of way. There are all these undertones of faith and hope and the priest doesn’t come across as an idiot. When was the last time you saw that at Sundance?

A case can be made for both. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) is depressed, and for good reason. So he buys a house to get away. But a perceived image of Christ in a stain on the side of his house soon attracts the attention of a neighbor, who invades his life. And then there’s his other neighbor, a cute little girl with an even cuter (and divorced) mom (Rhada Mitchell) and he can’t seem to get any peace, although that’s probably good for him.

This is a very deliberately-paced drama with an occasional laugh and more than a little tension. Wilson seems to enjoy his role, and the quiet, loner type fits well within his standard range. Mitchell (Melinda and Melinda, Mozart and the Whale) is wonderful and lovely, as always, and George Lopez has a small role as a Catholic priest. But veteran Mexican actress Adriana Barraza steals the show as the deeply religious and well-intentioned neighbor, Esperanza (meaning “hope” in Spanish, which is only slightly more subtle than the other neighbor, named Dawn, or the grocery checkout girl whose name is Patience).

If you don’t mind slow movies, Henry Poole is Here will reward you with a story that celebrates simple virtues, and suggests that there is plenty of room in this world for faith, hope and charity (and Patience). Not bad for Sundance.

NOTE: While this movie probably won't get a big release, it will almost surely come out as a PG-13 because of language, which is too bad because it really fits a PG audience much better, and that would likely boost its box office appeal.

Sundance Moment: This looks like the first thing screenwriter Albert Torres has done in movies, and he seemed thrilled to be at Sundance. And while Luke Wilson looked uncomfortable at the podium, George Lopez was a clown. Lopez said he and Wilson became good friends on the shoot and recently joined with Samuel L. Jackson to win a pro-am golf tournament.

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Park City Condos

Accommodations in Park City are hard to find during Sundance. However, because of a last minute cancellation, we have a spectacular Park City condo available at the Grand Summit.

The Grand Summit is located at The Canyons Ski Resort and is a full ski-in ski-out resort with heated outdoor swimming pool, hottubs, concierge, bellman, 2 restaurants, and full health spa.

Grand Summit 503 is a single hotel room available now through the night of January 29th. This room sleeps two and is available at a last minute rate of only $338/night plus tax.

Grand Summit 501 is a full 1 bedroom condo that sleeps up to 4 and is available from January 24th through the 29th. This corner unit is ideally located for maximum views.

Both units are located on the 5th floor (no rooms above you) with spectacular winter views up the mountain.

For more information, please follow the links above or contact Allison at 435-655-8756.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

U2 3D

Sundance 2008
★ ★ ★

Went to the U2 3D premiere. Bono was there and everyone went nuts over that. Al Gore was there too, and no one went nuts over him, but he did shake hands like the seasoned politician that he is. Actually, the whole U2 band showed up, and Robert Redford and other celebrities.

Watched the movie with my funky 3D glasses. It will be an instant classic rock ‘n roll movie. The 3D visuals and the extraordinary sound made you absolutely feel like you were in the concert, more than anything I have ever experienced. Several times I looked around to see if the clapping and hollering was coming from the theater or from the film (mostly the film). Absolutely captures the brimming energy and goodwill humanitarian appeal of a U2 concert.

But this isn't a Rockumentary. Nothing backstage. No interviews. No backstory. Just song after song of terrific music performed by a crowd-pleasing iconic band and experienced in an unusually powerful and realistic way. U2 3D. I know, it’s only rock ‘n roll. But I like it.

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The Last Word

Sundance 2008
★ ★

I read the synopsis of The Last Word in the Sundance catalog, which said it was a hilarious dark comedy about a guy who makes a living writing suicide notes. The idea sounded so fresh and unusual that I was braced for something very funny. But it never happened. In fact, I wouldn’t say this is a comedy at all, but rather a sometimes intense drama with an absurd premise and some moments of comic relief.

We never learn how Evan, played by Wes Bentley (American Beauty, Ghost Rider), got his start in this unusual profession. But the drama begins when he attends a client’s funeral (to take notes) and meets Charlotte (Winona Ryder), who is there mourning her brother. Charlotte pursues Evan and a relationship develops, although quite understandably, Evan never comes clean about his line of work or his role in her brother’s suicide. While the normally reclusive Evan begins to come out of his shell, he is also working on a note for Abel (Ray Romano), where another relationship shows signs of taking form.

Director Geoffrey Haley has never helmed a feature film before, although he had a very popular short film entry at Sundance a few years ago (The Parlor). Haley wrote the script as well, and the whole thing feels like the work of a young and earnest writer-director working in a hurry on a limited budget, which is pretty much what happened. The story drags in part, is too sharp and painful in others, and suffers from occasionally flat dialogue and undeveloped characters. Only Romano’s Abel manages to evoke real interest, although I must admit that it was jarring to hear the star of Everybody Loves Raymond and the voice of Ice Age’s Manny say potty words.

The Last Word could have been a very funny comedy. I wish Geoffrey Haley would have let it go there.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Merry Gentleman

Sundance 2008
★ ★ ★

I love Michael Keaton and was looking forward to his first directing gig. And while I enjoyed this movie, I had to overlook a lot of reasons not to like it. Keaton stars as Frank Logan, lonely and depressed, a tailor by day and hit man by night. (That’s an example of stuff that kept gnawing at me. Would a hit man really spend his days hunched over a sewing machine just to keep a cover?) In the course of his night job, Frank has an unexpected meeting with Abby, played wonderfully by Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men, Trainspotting), a woman who has come to the city to escape an abusive husband/cop. Their lives intersect and a relationship develops. They are soon joined by a recently divorced detective (Tom Bastounes), who is investigating one of Logan’s hits, and also develops a thing for Abby while he chases his own demons. And all this at Christmas, although it’s never quite clear why. In fact, there’s a lot in the movie that is unclear, and more than one moment that left me scratching my head.

The pace is sometimes awkward and slow, and even Keaton admitted after watching with an audience that it needed more editing. The script is funny at times, unbelievable at others, and never reveals much about the characters. (In fact, the laconic Logan remains a mystery throughout.) Despite this, I never got bored with A Merry Gentleman, and found myself caring for every character (my most important litmus test for movies), not realizing how Keaton managed to pull this off. And after some reflection, I also liked the ending, because it was consistent with the enigmatic nature of the entire movie. But not everyone will.

Sundance Moments: I’ve seen Michael Keaton at Sundance before and he is great with an audience. He mentioned that he was first approached to simply act in the movie, but when the planned director fell ill, he volunteered to step in. He talked about how much more exposed he felt as a director, comparing it to his skydiving experience, but with a 90-minute fall. On the bright side, he said that as a director he didn’t have to endure the many boring hours that actors spend in their trailers.

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

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

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

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

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

Transsiberian should do well nationally. Maybe very well.

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Time Crimes

Sundance 2008
★ ★

While introducing Time Crimes (Los Cronocrimenes, for the bi-lingual among us), director Nacho Vigalondo said that he thought this was the first ever Spanish time-travel movie. More accurately, this was the first Spanish bigger-budget variation of Sundance 2005’s Primer.

Hector appears to be living a happy and contented life in their new house with his pretty and affectionate wife Clara, when one day he spies through his binoculars a woman in the woods in the act of undressing. When Clara leaves, Hector goes off to investigate. And there the fun begins, as Hector’s quest thrusts him into an adventure that includes the discovery of a time machine, and a dogged quest to unravel its effects.

If you like mind game movies like Memento or the even harder to follow Primer, then Time Crimes will have some appeal. And while the movie does have some time-twisting inconsistencies, it generally ties the loose ends into a knotty, if not absurd conclusion. The story moves along briskly, requiring intellectual energy to keep up (especially with sub-titles) and a forgiving attitude to a few ridiculous devices. Fortunately, there is an occasional and welcome infusion of humor that makes some of the cheesier elements a little easier to swallow. But somehow, the whole thing felt more like a Twilight Zone episode stretched into a feature-length flick. Fortunately, like most Twilight Zone episodes, this one had a great ending. I just loved the final shot, which is quaintly ironic, although it will leave some viewers unsatisfied, I am sure.

Sundance Moment: In the post-movie Q&A, Vigalondo said that after editing, he realized what it really was—a love triangle story. My reaction was “Huh? Did I watch the right movie?”

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The Yellow Handkerchief

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★

I’m always a little apprehensive about ex-con redemption films. They are generally predictable, and the emotional puppeteering is all too easy and familiar. And I must acknowledge that in The Yellow Handkerchief, there is more than a little of all that. But I don’t think that’s at the core of the movie. Rather, this is a story about three individuals, all lost and lonely, led by fate into a beat-up convertible, and finding themselves unexpectedly on a little road trip in post-Katrina Louisiana bayou country.

Award-winning German producer Arthur Cohn put together this project, and Indian director Udayan Prasad made some great casting calls. William Hurt is at the center as Brett, a just-released ex-con battling his demons (which are gradually revealed throughout the movie) and tenuously reentering the outside world. It’s a role that comes naturally to Hurt, more like his classics The Big Chill, The Doctor and The Accidental Tourist than his arresting departure in The History of Violence. Maria Bello shows up mostly in flashbacks, as the love of his pre-prison life. Eddy Redmayne (Gordy) and Kristen Stewart (Matine) steal the show as the youngsters who meet in a store, and find themselves moments later asking Brett to make them an unlikely threesome.

Prasad does a great job of sharing with the audience the unadorned emotions at play as these three feel each other out, and gradually get comfortable with each other. Of course there is tension, as Brett is older, obviously hardened, and something of mystery, and even more so when they find out he is an ex-con. But also anger, fear and disgust, before the softening. The strengths and weaknesses of each character are slowly exposed as their journey leads them in search of acceptance, hope and love. And talented cinematographer Chris Berges brings an eerie sadness to a Louisiana bayou country not nearly recovered from the ravages of Katrina.

The Yellow Handkerchief may move too slowly for broad public acceptance. But the pacing was even and the story never lagged. One might accuse the ending of being a little hackneyed (and one would be right) but that doesn’t dull the effect of a movie that leaves you smiling and optimistic about life.

Sundance Moment: Prasad, Cohn, Hurt, Bello, Redmayne and Stewart were all at the premiere. Best line was from Cohn, who said some people told him this was a “little movie.” “There are no little movies or big movies,” he repeated twice. Sundance philosophy in a nutshell.

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