2009 Sundance Film Festival Top 10 and Wrap Report

SUNDANCE 2009

PARK CITY, Utah—-The 25th Sundance Film Festival wrapped with Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore expressing grave doubts about the plight of independent feature filmmaking:  “The future is not clear.  It really is uncertain.  The independent arena will change—and it needs to change, because there are too many good films here that need to be seen by audiences everywhere.  We need to work out a way for that to happen”.

But, while there wasn’t a “Little Miss Sunshine” record-setting deal of $10+ million, Sundance 09 saw a healthy number of films securing theatrical distribution.  The most remarkable breakout of this festival was Lee Daniels’ power-packed tale of the disenfranchised titled “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” which sold after the festival to Lionsgate for a reputed $5.5 million- the best anyone did this year.

One thing that changed in 09 was the festival leaned a slight bit more to being an international event.  Submissions from the USA dipped after years of steady increases to 1,905 features, while foreign submissions reached a record 1,756 from 1,603.  The 118 features included 91 world premieres, 16 North American premieres, and 5 U.S. premieres representing 21 countries with 42 first-time filmmakers, including 28 in competition and were chosen from 3,661 submissions, up slightly from 3,624 despite a faltering world economy and the weakest independent movie market in over a decade.

Mr. Gilmore added that “it hasn’t dropped the way it will drop, which I can tell you is certain to happen”.  On that gloomy note let’s review the remarkable Top 10 of what was a jam-packed ten days of film viewing, parties, panels and bus rides.

THE  FILM FESTIVAL TODAY TOP 10 OF SUNDANCE 2009

  1. Push: Based on the Novel By Sapphire
  2. We Live in Public
  3. The Cove
  4. Sin Nombre
  5. An Education
  6. Adam
  7. Johnny Mad Dog
  8. World’s Greatest Dad
  9. Burma VJ
  10. End of the Line

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

The Cove ****

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Director Louie Psihoyos has crafted a most disturbing and compelling eco-activist documentary with this impassioned primer on the sad plight of the dolphin. The film follows Richard O. Barry, the man who caught and trained the five dolphins that played Flipper in the 1960s TV show,   and, now has devoted his life to saving these sentient sea mammals from humans that wish to cannibalize their flesh.    The hideous slaughter of over 23,000 dolphins per year through harpooning is denied by the port town of Taiji Japan, but uncovered through tenacity and clever night vision cinematography by the maverick filmmakers.  This amazing film exposing the “killing fields of dolphins” won the Audience Award for the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance 09.

We Live in Public ****

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Director Ondi Timoner is a brilliant documentarist and the first woman to win the Grand Jury Prize in U.S. documentary twice at Sundance.  This award-winning film follows the mysterious meanderings of New-York based internet artist Josh Harris for the past ten years as he tried recording the 24 hour life cycle-first of 100 people living in a bunker in NYC, and then his own life with a girlfriend. Along the way he accumulates an $80 million dollar fortune.  That it all falls apart and Harris ends up destitute, alone and living on an upstate New York apple farm underscores how the virtual bubble burst.  This intense and immersive film creates a short history of the internet like no other you will likely ever see.

When You’re Strange *

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Director Tom DeCillo’s first-feature entry into documentary is a flawed effort.  Pieced together from footage of recording sessions, concert performances  and various backstage trips as well as a UCLA student film depicting Jim Morrison driving on a desert highway, the film tries to build a history of the counter-culture in tandem with a history of the legendary band.  Depending upon an omniscient, wall to wall voice-over from indie director DeCillo turns what could have been an entertaining experience into a labored event.  Voice-over reveals little new information and intrudes on listening to the powerful Doors music.   Those who have never seen the Oliver Stone feature film about Morrison will attain the equivalent of having completed “ Doors 101”.  Recommended for Doors fans who will marvel at the wonderful stock footage.

Crude ***

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You remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill? Well that’s small potatoes compared to the 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste dumped in Ecuador’s Amazon compliments of Chevron Oil. Chevron’s environmental catastrophe gets exposed by an Ecuadorian lawyer, who represents five indigenous Ecuadorian tribes, and, along with an American law firm, shine a spotlight on Chevron oil and corrupt Ecuadorian officials who are attempting to slip out of paying for the ecological devastation they’ve caused. It’s been a 15 year legal battle and it still isn’t over yet. Once again, director Joe Berlinger proves why he’s one of our best documenarists.  A must see for anyone with even a modicum of environmental conscience.

Dirt! The Movie ***

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Earth’s the only planet in our solar system that has a living, breathing skindirt. This documentary chronicles dirt. i.e. Adam means dirt. When earth first formed, volcanoes spewed water vapor which turned into rain. For millions of years rain pounded rock into clay forming oceans where life began.  Microscopic life oozed from the oceans where it mixed with clay to form the first living dirt. The film chronicles the destruction of earth’s dirt. One- third of earth’s topsoil has been lost and the demand for natural resources has completely changed our relationship with dirt which is the fabric of life. Dirt’s being torn apart that can never be put back together again. We’re destroying dirt in pursuit of raw materials like strip mining. Our future is condemned because we mistreat dirt. Dirt needs healing ASAP. A remarkable film from veteran directors Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow which will make you think and perceive the world a little differently.

The Reckoning ***

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Guggenheim winning documentarist Pamela Yates’ latest film is a history of the international criminal court from Nuremburg to the Rome Council that came into existence in 2002. The Chief prosecutor at the ICC, Luis Moreno O’Campo, from his small court in The Hague,  has indicted numerous mass murderers: e.g. Thomas Lobanga from the Congo, Joseph Krony from Uganda and Sudan’s dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The film also points out the Bush Administration’s lobbying against the ICC and the international communities indifference to the ICC. The film interviews the ICC’s analysts, investigators, the senior trial attorney, and the ICC’s Deputy prosecutor. This outstanding doc should be made a must see in every high school and college throughout the Western world.

Reporter ***

Eric Dan Metzgar directs and narrates this documentary about the Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof whose coverage of humanitarian crises worldwide has prompted U.N. intervention.  The film documents Kristof’s journey to the war-torn Congo in 2007. It explores his belief in psychic numbing” — the more victims portrayed, the lesser the degree of public compassion.  “Reporter,” whose climax finds Kristof in tense conversation with rebel warlord, the notorious  Laurent Nkunda, doubles as an urgent plea for the continuation of investigative reporting throughout the world.  An important film in a fragile world teetering on disaster.

The September Issue ***

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Photo Credit Lori Hawkins – Actual Reality Pictures

Veteran documentarist R.J. Cutler’s intimate portrait of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her team of designers, stylists and photographers as they put together the legendary “September Issue” 2007 is a triumph of sorts.  While not quite as revealing as we all would like, it still provides an engaging and compelling portrait of what it takes to assemble the world’s most important fashion magazine. Wintour who commands our attention, never comes off as draconian as her alter ego in the fictional “The Devil Wears Prada”.   Roadside Attractions,   a division of Lionsgate, will distribute theatrically with much cable action anticipated.


 U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Adam ****

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Writer-director Max Mayer’s film is a beautifully crafted tale of a young man named Adam who is afflicted with Asperger Syndrome and his valiant attempt to maintain a meaningful relationship with a woman named Beth.who falls for him.  Hugh Dancy stars as the emotionally awkward Adam and Rose Byrne as Beth.  Their performances are flawless and capture an underplayed soulfulness that renders a convincing result.  Adam was picked up by Fox Searchlight, a company that has had a solid track record of turning their acquisitions (Napoleon Dynamite, Once, Waitress) into box-office hits. It took home the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance 09 for its focus on science and technology.

Amreeka ***

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Director-screenwriter Cherien Dabis’ film tells the tale of a Palestinian mother named Muna Farah and her teenaged son who give up on the West Bank and come to America, believing it will be a lot easier to make it here than it turns out to be. This fish-out-of water script presents the trials and tribulations of an immigrant family trying hard to make ends with a warmth and sincerity that feels authentic.  The scenes in the White Castle hamburger joint where Muna works are particularly moving.  Entertainment One Films has landed the Canadian and international rights to Amreeka.

Arlen Faber **

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John Hindman’s writing-directing debut film is a quirky romantic comedy about an author named Arlen Faber.  Faber, played with understated professionalism by the great character actor Jeff Daniels, is an idiosyncratic malcontent who has achieved notoriety for a book about spiritual awakening.  The 20 year career hiatus since the publication of his best seller has left Faber in a shambles and it is a chance association with a single mom played with emotional tenacity by Lauren Graham that digs him out of his rut.  Lacking the emotional intensity of “The Squid and The Whale” that Daniels nailed in his last outing of this sort, Arlen Faber is a sweet, well made picture that will entertain but not overwhelm you.

Magnolia Pictures has secured the domestic rights to this one.

Cold Souls **

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Director/writer Sophie Barthes’existential, debut is an amusing romp which fails to generate those exhilarating Charlie Kaufman-esque moments for which this film will be forever compared. Taking the lead role in this bizarre spoof is the superbly talented Paul Giamatti, who while playing himself,  finds out his soul has been stolen by a company that can extract a person’s metaphysical presence and store it for safekeeping.   A satellite plot follows striking Russian blonde Nina (Dina Korzun), who hopes to get his soul on the black-market to improve her career. Giamatti’s attempt to retrieve his original soul plays to the human desire axiom that you never know what you’ve got to you lose it. Sam Goldwyn will take a chance on distributing this one.

Humpday ***

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Director Lynn Shelton’s experimentally improvised feature connected with the Sundance 09 audiences and it was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence. The Magnolia pictures acquisition centers on old heterosexual college buddies (played wonderfully by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) who reconnect after 10 years and decide to make a gay porn film starring themselves.  This one feels like a “festival” film, but we will see if it can build a wider audience when its released.

Paper Heart ***

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Winning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award is always a noteworthy accomplishment and Paper Heart’s remarkable blend of fiction and non-fiction is certainly unique. Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec who co-wrote the script with actress Charlyne Yi,  (famous for being the stoner chick in Knocked Up)  the film attempts to find out if true love exists.  Along the way Ms. Yi meets up with couples who share their real-life stories with her and she falls in love with actor Michael Cera, who plays a version of himself.  A serious challenge for distributor Unset which picked up the film, Paper Heart will reward those willing to adapt to its style.

Push:Based on the Novel by Sapphire ****

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Director Lee Daniels’ film was the most remarkable film screening at Sundance09. It was a triple winner in that it took home The Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in U.S. Dramatic and Mo’Nique took home A Special Jury Prize for acting.  Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe played an illiterate, morbidly obese, sexually violated Harlem teenager who is tormented by her mentally deranged mother played pitch- perfect by comedian Mo’Nique. Another delightful surprise in the film is Mariah Carey, who nails her roll as a welfare counselor.    Blending the voyeur with the visceral this film will leave an impact like no other indie you will see this year.  Lionsgate will distribute while The Weinstein Company will wail and holler it was cheated out of its deal. Meanwhile, John Schloss who brokered for Daniels will deposit $5.5 million in the bank.  Problematic will be how to avoid the dreaded NC-17 that the Sundance cut screened might have earned from the MPAA.

Sin Nombre ****

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Director-writer and NYU graduate Cary Joji Fuknaga’s Sin Nombre (Without a Name) marks the arrival of a major new talent in the film world. The story focuses on the wrenching and violent problems facing immigrants as they attempt to move from South to North. One of the brilliant script’s hubs focuses on the harrowing journey of a young girl from Mexico as she tries to cross the American border illegally –and into the heart of the debate over immigration from the 3rd World.  The scenes of communal gang life are compelling and engaging. An amazing largely unknown cast, extraordinary locations and impeccable lensing make this a quintessential Sundance feature.  Focus Features will bring this one to an art house near you sometime this year.

Taking Chance ****

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Producer-writer Ross Katz makes his directing debut with this moving story of duty and honor.  Produced for HBO, the story is based on Lt. Col. Mike Strobl’s first-person account of his odyssey with the remains of a soldier named Chance Phelps. Kevin Bacon delivers a dignified and affecting performance as the Lt .Col. What makes the film so poignant are the random acts of kindness he encounters as accompanies the flag-draped coffin to its final resting place in a small Wyoming town named Dubois.  Intended as a direct to cable release rather than for a theatrical run, “Taking Chance” will bring tears to your eyes and make you proud of the amazing integrity of those who sacrifice everything for our country.

“To me, this is not a movie about Iraq,” Strobl says, “this is a movie about America”

p.s. Taking Chance was watched by roughly two million viewers during its first HBO airing on February 21, which is the best for an HBO original flick in five year.


WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Afghan Star ***

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 Director Havana Marking’s first documentary is about Afghanistan’s version of American Idol. The Afghan people are thrilled that the Taliban are gone. Under the Taliban no music, no dancing, no computers or television; men were forced to wear a beard, and women were afforded sub- human treatment.  Now, since the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not in charge, Afghanistan’s people by the millions are voting with their cell phones for who they want to win. The TV station where the show is taped is packed with family, friends, and roaring fans cheering on the 2,000 contestants. The doc. also shows stock footage of Afghanistan in the 1970’s and 80’s before the Soviet invasion, when TV, movies, music and dancing were allowed.  Back then Afghanistan was a moderate, secular society; women weren’t covered in head scarves and possessed their dignity. Afghan Star won the Audience Award for World Documentary at Sundance FF09.

Burma VJ ***

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Award-winning Danish filmmaker/journalist Anders Ostergaard directed an intense documentary about Burma’s Saffron Revolution back in 2007. Reporters from DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma) got amazing footage with their palm-sized video cameras while being embedded with monks that are marching and demonstrating; sometimes putting themselves in  life threatening situations. You’ll witness the DVB videographer running away from where people are being shot at by Burma’s brutal junta. This excellent never before seen footage of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Burmese citizens applauding, clapping, and finally being beaten and arrested by the junta’s militias is put together so brilliantly it garnered the World Documentary Editing Award at Sundance.

TIBET IN SONG ***

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Ngawang Choephel is an accomplished artist and musicologist  who returned to his native Tibet to document the folk-singing tradition of his former homeland.

Instead, he was accused of being a spy and sentenced to 18 years in prison by the Chinese government. After serving years in jail an international campaign led by his mother gained his release.  This film, made with the assistance  of the Sundance Institute, documents what’s left of Tibetan folk music being wiped out by China’s Communist government.  It also presents a compelling case about China’s illegal occupation and genocide against Tibet’s people who are not Han Chinese. The film also maps out China’s seizure of Tibetan territory throughout the provinces. Ngawang speaks of the 3 poisons and shows China’s government loudspeakers  blaring communist party ideology on the streets of Tibet’s capital Llhasa. . Ngawang’s cause is to preserve Tibet’s musical heritage. This accomplished first documentary, won The World Cinema Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2009 and deserves the attention of anyone who values freedom.

THE END OF THE LINE ****

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British documentarist Rupert Murray (“Unknown White Male”) returns to Sundance with this smart, well-researched and polished piece of filmmaking, which should act as a wake-up call for all eco-activists. The film asserts that 90% of the ocean’s large fish are gone, and that by 2048, the planet will run out of seafood that swims freely in the oceans.  Our seafood diet will consist of polluted farmed fish.  The consequences of human greed being what they may are on display with these beautiful images reminding us of the terrible price we will all pay as we destroy millions of years of evolutionary development with our “improved fishing methods”.

KIMJONGLIA ***

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Director N. C. Heikin orders up her portrait of “The Dear  Leader” with artistry and skill. Her documentary details the lives of  North Korean defectors in the most isolated country on earth. Life in the Hermit Kingdom consists of eating grass, bark and roots. Even North Korea’s own soldiers die of starvation.  Because of malnutrition, women no longer have menstrual periods and two million North Koreans have died of starvation.  There are no basic rights or civil liberties and even listening to foreign music can get you arrested.  Other atrocities documented by Heiken include sexual slavery which occurs when North Korean women are expropriated by the Chinese and North Korea’s Yodak prison camp where we find three generations from different families imprisoned.  The film takes its odd title from  the national flower, the Kimjongilia. While mainstream theatrical isn’t likely, this doc seems likely to lead a healthy life on cable, at festivals and in art houses.  A must see. 

Prom Night in Mississippi ***

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Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman examines one of the last bastions of institutional racism in America with this crowd pleasing documentary about the first integrated prom in history at Charleston High School in Mississippi.  What adds glamour and excitement to the event is that Academy-Award winning actor Morgan Freeman was the catalyst that made it happen by offering to pay for the senior prom only if it was “racially integrated”.  What is refreshing is seeing how the young people of this small town are anxious to shed themselves of the older generation’s obvious racial prejudices. Getting this sleepy Delta town to embrace change is not easy and Paul Saltzman’s makes you a fly-on-the-wall to what will always be remembered as the night Old Dixie died and was reborn “color-blind”.

The Queen and I  **

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Director/producer Nahid Persson Sarvestani (“Prostitution Behind the Veil”) is Sweden’s most celebrated documentary filmmaker and of Iranian descent. The film she directs is a portrait of, Farrah Pahlavi, wife of the late last shah of Iran and is structured chronologically around a series of interviews between the two of them. The director Sarvestani grew up poor in Iran and joined the Communists of Khomeni’s revolution to oppose the Shah.     This was found out by Farrah so she suspended shooting the video; thus ending the documentary.   Later,  Ms. Sarvestani sent her what she had edited so far (a nice portrait) and Farrah allowed the unprecedented access and the continuation of the film,  which details an interesting history of Iran’s troubled history including Khomeini’s reneging on his promise for democracy. The pic will make it on the festival circuit and TV but theatrical possibilities are highly unlikely.

211: Anna ***

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Director/screenwriters Giovanna Masimetti and Paolo Serbandini create a disturbing documentary about Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was shot dead in 2006 because she and other journalists were reporting negatively about the Kremlin’s policy towards their brutal crackdown in Chechnya. She was the 211th journalist killed in Russia. Before being shot point-blank dead in her Moscow apartment building in 2006, newspaperwoman Anna Politkovskaya covered the Chechen conflict in a manner highly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Threatened, held captive and poisoned nearly to death, Politkovskaya appears in the film saying she’s willing to give her life to speak truth and unfortunately the film reveals that the cowardly Russians really don’t give a damn about her murder or the truth!

Docu’s rich material includes interviews with Politkovskaya’s journalist husband and their two kids and unsettling footage of the 2004 school hostage crisis in Beslan, where hundreds of children died during the firefight between Chechen terrorists and Russian security forces.  A remarkable film which deserves festival attention worldwide!

Rough Aunties ***

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Award-winning documentarist Kim Longinotto’s latest offering is an emotionally arousing film  about saving the lives of  severely abused children in Durban, South Africa.  Working in the verite style pioneered by Fred Wiseman,   she unveils an evil world where a tiny, helpless boy of perhaps three years old is sodomized by his homeless father while other children are knifed, raped, beaten senseless and drowned.  It’s a horror show worthy of Wes Craven and it’s all documented in this pic soon to be flickering this Fall  on American television thanks to HBO.

This one won the  World Cinema  Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance 09.


WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Bronson ***

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Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, whose “Pusher” trilogy developed cult status, is back with a bio pic about Charles Bronson,  England’s most notorious and ultra-violent inmate.   Bronson, born Michael Petersen, as a young man robbed a post office, and drew a  7-year prison sentence.  That 7 year sentence has grown to 34 with no end in sight.  Depicted by the enigmatic Tom Hardy, who apparently gained over 50  pounds of muscle to play the part, Refn’s Bronson is both dangerous and formidable. He addresses the camera directly, telling his audience a tale of rage and resolve. Director Refn, and co-writer  Norman Brock build suspense and unleash surprise after surprise.   If Bronson is insane, then why does he piss people off? And what does society do with someone whose art is violence? You’ll just have to see this one to decide for yourself.

An Education ****

Image from AN EDUCATION - Carey Mulligan (Jenny), credit Kerry Brown

 Danish director Lorne Scherfig(“Italian for Beginners”) takes Nick Hornby’s wonderfully evocative screenplay adapted from a memoir and creates a masterful coming of age film. “An Education” stars young British acting sensation Carey Mulligan as an early ‘60s teenager caught between marrying an older man of Jewish descent (played pitch perfect by Peter Sarsgaard) and chasing a riskier life of creativity and independence.  Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina are perfect as Jenny’s conservative parents, unsure of what to make of Jenny’s beatnik interests. Emma Thompson is foreboding as Jenny’s strict school headmistress. Olivia Williams is empathetic as Jenny’s teacher Miss Stubbs. Dominic Cooper is both cool and charismatic as Danny, David’s friend and unusual business partner. Rosamund Pike uses her good looks to great effect as Danny’s “hot” but less than gifted girlfriend Helen, content with her plush but vacuous life.  Sony Classics will roll out this winner of The World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance 09 latter this year. This is the film that should have been awarded the  World Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Competition had the judges had been more astute.

Five Minutes of Heaven ***

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German director Oliver Hirschbigel(“Downfall”)tells the intricate and convoluted tale of a perpetrator and a victim of 1970s Northern Ireland violence meeting decades latter after the crime that essentially ruined both their lives.  Played with power and grace by Liam Neeson and James Nesbit, a meeting of the two men arranged some 35 years after the fact by a television show does not go as planned.

The ensuing confrontation that results is unforgettable and ultimately raises the question of whether reconciliation in certain circumstances is ever really possible?  This powerfully executed film won The Sundance 09 World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award.

The Maid (La Nana) **

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Chilean director Sebastian Silva’s film won The World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for this character study of a bitter and introverted maid who wreaks havoc on her household when the mistress of the house brings on another servant to help with the chores. Catalina Saavedra’s portrayal of the maid named Raquel won her A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for acting and the entire ensemble can be complimented as well. While achieving a level of production excellence, the story itself sets up a predictable pathway which fails to connect with its audience the way you would expect  from an award-winning film. With a better screenplay and subject matter, director Silva is someone who has a bright future ahead of him.

Unmade Beds ***

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Argentinean director Alexis Dos Santos’ follow-up to his 2006 debut teen angst feature, “Glue” is  an original proto-New Wave examination of memory, identity and youthful exuberance. The story is about Axl (Fernando Tielve), a 20-year-old slacker from Spain who travels to London in search of a father who abandoned him at the tender age of 3 and Vera, an immigrant from France. Vera is in town taking photos of beds, first made then unmade, while engaging in sexual dalliances in between.  The two protagonists meet and take comfort in one another but not with the intention of a serious relationship. The lyrical playfulness of  20-somethings drifting in and out of  their transient liaisons is accented by a vibrant selection of Brit Rock.  “Unmade Beds” left Sundance 09 with some nice buzz but no distributor.

PREMIERES

500 Days of Summer ****

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Music video director Marc Webb crosses over to long form dramatic filmmaking and hits a home-run with this stylish feature debut.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel became Sundance favorites, starring together in this Fox Searchlight romance already scheduled for a July release. After the film at the Q & A at the Eccles, Joseph Gordon- Levitt opined “She and I have talked about it, and we want to be like Katherine  Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. We want to keep making movies together.” And judging from the quality of their effort that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. Scott Neustadter and Marc Webb’s script presents the relationship in a fractured and entertaining manner.  The heart of the story is the pain of rejection,  from the male point-of-view,  500 days after first meeting the woman he thought would be the love of his life.  See this one for its likeability and its panache.

Manure

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Director Michael Polish  “stunk up” Sundance 09 with this abysmal failure of a film.  In fact, it was close to unwatchable.  It seems that the driving force behind this debacle was the Polish brother’s desire to make scatological references to “shit” in every manner conceivable. The comedy follows five salesmen (or “bullshitters,”) and the heir to a top manure company as they try to keep the business afloat after its former owner “hit the fan.” Since the Polish brothers take their puns seriously, the tragic  news about Mr. Rose’s demise is accompanied by a cut to his corpse caught in the “fan”.  With the company in turmoil, the old man’s daughter goes through the records to find millions of dollars in debt, and “downsizes” the enterprise. One of the few remaining salesmen is Patrick Fitzpatrick (Billy Bob Thornton) who smooth-talks farmers with lines like, “its smart customers such as yourself that make Roses No. 1 in the No. 2 business.” Let me “smooth talk” you as well and tell you to avoid this “piece of shit” like the plague. Seriously, The Polish brothers have made some interesting films in the past, let’s hope they return to their artistic roots and stop making “shit” like this!

Mary and Max **

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 Australian  director/screenwriter Adam Elliot is the world’s pre-eminent claymation craftsperson. He won the Oscar in 2003 for his claymation short entitled Harvie Krumpet, about an unlucky man who stays optimistic. His first foray into feature length filmmaking is a mixed bag and once again utilizes the stop-motion claymation technique he calls clayographies-clay biographies.  The problem here is the morbid script which is so overloaded with verbiage that you want to shout shut-up to the characters on screen!   The story is about pen-pals:  Mary Dinkle, a chubby eight year old from Melbourne(voiced by Toni Collette) and Max Horowitz, a middle-aged morbidly obese New Yorker (voiced by the ubiquitous Phillip Seymour Hoffman) afraid to leave his apartment.  This unlikely duo have their share of amusing moments, but the weight  of the attempted humor relying often on scatological gags is dragged into the ground by an over-riding sense of doom and gloom.

Moon ***

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With a script by Nathan Parker, British commercials whiz director Duncan Jones, known as Zowie Bowie, has created a sci-fi paranoid thriller that hits its mark finding corruption even on the dark side of the moon.  A superbly cast John Rockwell,  the only human inhabitant of a lunar mining base begins experiencing odd phenomena just as he’s about to conclude his mission and return home.  In the tradition of “Solaris” this is a well made film that comes up a little short on incident and character development, but is admirable in its overall execution.  “Moon” was produced by Sting and wife Trudie Styler and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.

Spread ***

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 British director David McKenzie updates the “Shampoo” and “American Gigolo” legacy with this well-made and entertaining film about the cynical trading of sex for access to the “good life” in Los Angeles.  We are led into the world of a stud named Nicki,  (played with ease by Ashton Kutcher), through a voice-over.,  that reveals how this ego crazed gigolo thinks and stalks his prey.   In a matter of minutes we observe how he picks up middle-aged attorney Samantha (a wonderful Anne Heche) and talks his way back to her stunning five million dollar Hollywood Hills home.  Watching this gigolo fornicate in a veritable kama sutra of coital positions with Samantha provides the foundation for the inevitable fall from grace that this set-up requires. Spread” focuses on a womanizer realizing that he’s actually the one being played. His options are a lot more limited than his youthful, dream-in-my-heart-and-a-dollar-in-my-pocket former self had thought.

Anchor Bay bought North American and Australian rights to producer-star Ashton Kutcher’s film.

Johnny Mad Dog ***

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 Director/writer Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s first fiction work (after “Carlitos Medellin”, a documentary) provides a gut-wrenching look at psychology of the rebel children who kill humans with the brutality of Attila the Hun.  Sauvaire and Jacques Fieschi’s screenplay is based on Emmanuel Dongala’s 2002 novel about two very different teens caught up in a terrifying surge of violence in a Congolese city. One episode of shootings, lootings and rapes follows another as we follow the mesmerizing15-year-old Johnny (Christopher Minie) as he leads a band of young fighters for one of the rebel factions as they sweep through small towns on foot. When the smoke clears and its all over you’ve been a witness to one of the most savage and visceral political atrocities ever recorded on film.

Distribution prospects beyond DVD and Blu-Ray are almost non-existent based on the heartless carnage and its depiction. A vibrant, cult future may materialize for this highly disturbing work.

Lymelife ***

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Derick Martini’s directorial feature film debut of a coming-of-age story, he co-wrote with his brother Steven, is a searing experience. Playing a bit like “American Beauty”,  the film, which takes place in 1979, is framed  through the eyes of 15-year-old Scott Bartlett (played beautifully by Rory Culkin), an  awkward  Long Island youth whose family life has taken a dysfunctional turn. Young Scott has a lot on his plate.    He not only is trying to get something going with Adrianna (a pitch perfect Emma Roberts), but is dealing with parents who are on the verge of divorce and a brother who is shipping off for military duty. Scott’s father, Mickey (the great Alec Baldwin, who also produced), is a former construction worker-turned-real-estate developer who’s having a secret affair with his employee who also happens to be Adrianna’s mother, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon).  Her helpless husband, Charlie (Hutton) is wasting away with the tick borne Lyme disease and, hence, the title.   It all comes crashing down in a denouement which will intrigue and satisfy. This solid ensemble piece should render favorable numbers in the art houses for specialty distributor Cinema Vault.

World’s Greatest Dad ****

Image from THE WORLD

 Director-writer-comedian Bobcat Goldthwait returns with his latest directorial effort (1991’s Cult fave “Shakes the Clown” and 2006’s “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”) and three is the charm!   Starring a pitch- perfect Robin Williams as the dad raising the “teenager from hell”, the pic is a sharp and insightful satire which might be categorized as anti-Hollywood!  : Robin Williams portrays Lance, a high school English teacher who has unfulfilled aspirations of being a successful author. He is the father of a dysfunctional teenager Kyle (Daryl Sabara) whose only interests seem to be putting-down his dad and his lone friend Andrew (Evan Martin) and masturbating. While “whacking off” one day Kyle tries to increase the intensity of his orgasm through the practice of autoerotic asphyxiation and accidentally strangles to death. Lance rather than letting the world know how his son killed himself, fakes Kyle’s suicide, adding a note of his own creation, which the school paper gets hold of and publishes. Suddenly Kyle is the school martyr and Lance decides to capitalize on his late son by writing a fake journal and passing it off as Kyle’s. Telling you anymore than this will spoil the potent punch of the last act of this black comedy.  I highly recommend you see it whether in a theatre or on DVD/Blu-Ray.

It Might Get Loud ***

Documentarian Davis Guggenheim follows up his Oscar winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” with this decided change of pace exploring the style and artistry of three of the world’s greatest rock- guitar virtuosos. What makes the film so compelling are the idiosyncratic characters of Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page, U2’s masterful The Edge, and Jack White of the White Stripes and The Raconteurs. The. film profiles rock’s enduring symbol by exploring the creative process and generational differences of the three musicians.  Executive producer of   the billion dollar grossing “The Dark Knight”, Thomas Tull put the deal together through his Legendary Pictures label.  If you are rock music fan this film is indispensable and a true pleasure to experience.  Sony Classics Pictures (SPC) has picked up rights to North America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.


PARK CITY AT MIDNIGHT

The Carter ***

Image from THE CARTER

Documentarty filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough’s portrait of Dwayne (“Lil’Wayne”)Carter is a compelling and unconventional portrait of  the prolific rap artist. Gallivanting around the world with a gaggle of bodyguards, publicists and the “buzz” of the best “weed” and cough syrup money can buy; the 26-year-old “greatest rapper alive” is seen in bodacious interviews, and outrageous onstage performances. The film reveals that Wayne is always prepared to lay down his stream-of-consciousness lyrics and rhythms at a moment’s notice   turning them into the hits that have made him one of the music industry’s biggest stars.  Wayne even admits in one poignant interview that he’s too busy making music to even bother fornicating, claiming to record two songs every single day and never writing down a single damn lyric.  Immersive and uncompromising are the words to summarize Bhala Lough’s unforgettable film.  While a theatrical deal is unlikely, catch it on cable, DVD or Blu-Ray.

Dead Snow ***

Image from DEAD SNOW

Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s film can be summarized in two words: Nazi Zombies.   The story set-up is typical for this type of movie, with a group of carefree, good-looking medical students heading to a remote location to have fun with one another. Their encounter with these flesh-eating zombie Nazis who pop up through the frozen tundra provides the visceral thrills one expects from this type of film with a plethora of carnage as the film morphs from comedy horror to pure outright gore.  The ultimate verdict is that this is a generic transformation which can provide an evening of mindless pleasure, nothing more and nothing less. IFC Films has acquired the U.S. distribution rights.

The Killing Room **

Image from THE KILLING ROOM

Director Jonathan Liebsman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and Darkness Falls) takes a script from Gus Krieger and Anne Peacock about a secret government experiment that tests the limits of the human psyche. Placing all the unwitting participants in a single room and presenting them with life or death situations creates an intense level of both surprise and suspense.  Liebsman shows an impressive command of the material and delivering stellar performances are an ensemble of fine actors including Chloe Sevigny, Peter Stormare and Timothy Hutton.  While the story unfolds at times at a lethargic pace, it becomes an imaginative puzzle which will keep you engaged to its final frames. The film had pre-sold international distribution as it entered Sundance and an uncertain fate in North America.

WITH 43 REVIEWS, THAT’S A WRAP  FOR 09!   

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