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Sundance Film Festival – Days 1 to 3

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Caffeinated Clint
@http://www.twitter.com/clintmoviehole

Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

As Sundance moves briskly along, PAUL FISCHER reports there’s something to ‘Sing’ about while for ex-child star Culkin , the ‘Party’ is well and truly over. Amidst the bells and gongs of cell phones everywhere here in Park City, the Festival is in full swing. As I remind myself every year I come to this idyllic resort, the films are what we’re here for; everything else is an ancillary bonus. Day 1 began with a promising start with the press screening of opening night film Levity, directed by screenwriter Ed Soloman [who scripted Men in Black].

Billy Bob Thornton stars as a man who is free after serving 19 years for killing a teenager during an attempted robbery. After nearly two decades of staring at his victim’s face on a newspaper clipping in his cell, the paroled man attempts to find redemption, in the form of a mysterious minister (Morgan Freeman) and two needy women played by Kirsten Dunst and Holly Hunter). An overly sombre film for opening night one might think, but a graceful, poetic character study, beautifully realised by Soloman and masterfully acted by a superb cast. Though regrettably similar to Monsters Ball, Levity works on its own level, as a powerful and evocative study of redemption and growth. Thornton reminds one of how great an actor he is, subtle and nuanced, and Dunst is also terrific here. A sad but unflinchingly honest and rewarding film, which should do well in, limited release.

After racing the Park City cold to venture off visiting publicists, an adventure in itself, it was time to be well and truly confronted by the latest film from British director Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later. It can easily be described as Boyle’s answer to the zombie genre as only this dynamic director can do. This often visceral and strangely hypnotic drama tells of a powerful virus that escapes from a British research facility. Transmitted in a drop of blood and devastating within seconds, the virus locks those infected into a permanent state of murderous rage. Within 28 days the country is overwhelmed and a handful of survivors begin their attempts to salvage a future, little realising that the deadly virus is not the only thing that threatens them once they arrive, seemingly, to safety. Despite intense moments of graphic violence, its opening images pave the way for a film that is unusual for a director such as Boyle. Energetic and pumped up, sharply cut together and consistently entertaining, 28 Days Later is a hypnotic and fast-paced work, despite a tendency to fall apart towards the end. But even that doesn’t matter. This is pure cinema, inventive, exciting and masterfully directed, that puts the horror/zombie genre on an entirely new level.

It was time for a breather and the opening musical celebration on Main Street, featured a virtuoso performance by Australia’s own Kate Ceberano, performing with the Mark Isham Band. Hundreds gathered to hear Ceberano strut her stuff as the 2003 Sundance Film Festival was launched for the public with this free outdoor concert. Much dancing was seen and the music was fabulous, the perfect break from cinematic zombies.

Back for the final screening of the night and the perfect way to end the first day with the world premiere of The Singing Detective, directed by Keith Gordon, based on the late Dennis Potter’s screenplay. It is no surprise that Detective polarised the packed press in attendance, and will continue to do so well in release. But that’s fine, because truly great art has the propensity to divide. The Singing Detective is quite simply an audacious masterwork, a stylish, visually hypnotic film that will serve as a reminder that Robert Downey Jnr is one of the great talents of his generation. In the title role, Downey is the heart, soul and emotional breadth of this film. His virtuoso performance is the glue that holds Gordon’s vision together, in the role of a hospitalised author whose skin disease parallels an abusive youth. The film’s energetic fantasy music numbers enhance narrative, theme and character and all gel beautifully. As his psychiatrist, Mel Gibson is magnificent, giving his best performance in over a decade. A remarkable, brave and intelligent achievement, The Singing Detective is unique, uncompromising and darkly comic.

DAY 2

A promising start with the powerful Spanish drama Mondays in the Sun, an outstanding acquisition in the US from Lion’s Gate. The always-superb Javier Bardem stars in this fine drama that revolves around the impact of the closure of a major shipyard in a small Spanish town. Fluidly directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, Mondays is both gently funny and genuinely poignant as it explores the impact of unemployment on a microcosm of Spanish society. Bardem gives an arresting performance in this quietly engrossing drama.

Time to do some interviews for the rest of the day before returning to the screenings. It was a pleasure to chat to Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman about his work on Levity. A man who freely admits to hating the cold, Freeman, who is about to jet off to Paris to work on Luc Besson’s production, Danny the Dog starring Jet Li in the title role. “Luc mentioned that they were going to shoot in London or Paris. I told them if they chose Paris I’d do it”, he told me, laughingly. Freeman also has high hopes for Dreamcatcher, saying how much fun it was to work with Larry Kasdan. A gentleman and a great actor.

Then it was time to chat to the cast of Singing Detective. Robert Downey Jnr was funny and forthcoming about the parallels between his hallucinatory character and his past drug problems. More on Downey later. Also chatting was the beautiful Katie Holmes, at Sundance with both Singing Detective and the delightful Pieces of April which I’ll get to later. Surprisingly, Holmes did admit that this may not be the final season of Dawson’s Creek after all. “No decisions have been made.”

Two very different films to end the second day here at Park City. First was Party Monster, starring a now adult Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green in the true story of 90s New York underground party kingpins Michael Alig and James St. James, whose drug-infested antics come crashing down as a result of a tragic and futile murder. A wonderful story has been wasted on this loathsome, ineptly acted and simplistically directed piece of cinematic hogwash, which is puerile and pretentious. A film that attempts to get away with being clever is merely outrageous for outrageousness sake. As for Culkin, he was a cute child actor with no real talent, a fact reinforced by his one-note performance. Green is slightly worse if that’s possible. A film whose central characters remain consistently unempathetic makes for poor drama, and Party Monster is an example of a film which lacks narrative cohesion and any real sense of character. A truly awful film and a waste of time.

The complete opposite can be said of Neil LaBute’s masterpiece, The Shape of Things, based on his play. What starts out as a romantic comedy about a shy security guard who falls for a rebellious art student, is magnificently turned on its head in the most deliciously unpredictable and savage last act of a film seen in recent memory. To tell more would be giving too much away, but LaBute intelligently and masterfully explores the nature of art within the milieu of contemporary relationships. Rachel Weisz gives a monumental performance, and is well partnered by Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller who are all sublime, in a script that is brilliant, hilarious and ultimately complex and unpredictable.

DAY 3

Documentaries rarely get as much coverage as they deserve so it was refreshing to see one that is as good and compelling as Stevie. In 1995 director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) returned to rural Southern Illinois to reconnect with Stevie Fielding, a troubled young boy he had been an ‘Advocate Big Brother’ to ten years earlier. He began a film, a search, to discover not only what had happened to Stevie over the past ten years but to understand the forces that had shaped his entire life. Part way through the filming, Stevie is arrested and charged with a serious crime that tears his family apart. What was to be a modest profile turns into a intimate four and half year chronicle of Stevie, his broken family, the criminal justice system and the filmmaker himself, as they all struggle with what Stevie has done and who he has become. As much a powerful comment on the art of documentary cinema and the nature of subjectivity, Stevie is a deeply moving and powerful portrait of a man initially unwilling to connect with a mother who abused him as a young child. The film raises questions about responsibility and is an emotionally charged and extraordinary film that is complex and richly profound and moving. As it’s getting a release, Stevie is a must.

Pieces of April was digitally shot in 10 days on location in New York and is one of the treasured highlights of Sundance. The film revolves around April Burns (Katie Holmes) who invites her family to Thanksgiving dinner at her teeny apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. As they make their way to the city from suburban Pennsylvania, April must endure a comedy of errors – like finding out her oven doesn’t work – in order to pull off the big event. Gently comic and ultimately moving, Pieces of April is smartly directed by a major new director in Peter Hedges, and features a star-turning performance by Holmes, who has a flair for comedy that shines through here. Beautifully constructed, the film also boasts a wonderful performance by Patricia Clarkson as April’s cancer-stricken mother, but this is not a depressing film, but rather a hopeful study in the fragility and importance of family. Captivating, funny and human, here is a film deserving of the widest possible audience.

The final film of the evening was the magnificent British drama, Song for a Raggy Boy. Based on a true story, this exquisite film boasts a masterful performance by Aidan Quinn in the story of one man’s courage to stand up and fight against the tough Catholic regime in a boys Irish Reformatory School in 1939. Unflinching in its savage honesty and deeply affecting, the film is even timelier given recent events, which makes the film all the more powerful. Beautifully realised, tough yet deeply human, the film is a reminder of Quinn’s much under-utilised talent. His performance matches the greatness of this film.

Sundance continues tomorrow when I talk to Aidan Quinn, Dustin Hoffman and Ed Burns, see a movie or two and check out a party or two in the process.

-PAUL FISCHER.

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Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

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