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Sundance Film Festival : Our last Report

The final three days here at Park City were filled with interviews and a plethora of diverse films, while the weather remained appropriately gorgeous. First up as I entered the seventh day of Sundance, was an interview with character actor Paul Giamatti, star of American Splendor, which would eventually take out the Grand Jury prize for dramatic feature

Giamatti totally embodied the character of real-life pessimistic comic book creator Harvey Pekar, in this sometimes bleak, dark comedy about isolation and the need for acceptance. The actor and I spoke at length about this extraordinary film in competition and how he felt it unlikely at the time he shot it, that it would ever see the light of day. We also talked about Confidence, screening in Sundance, and the quirky British comedy Thunderpants, which is yet to find distribution here in the US.

While so much here at Sundance was defined by an artful sense of cinematic depression and intensity, relief was about to find itself at hand with the world premiere screening of The Hebrew Hammer, the screen’s first Jewish action hero, self-described as ‘the meanest Heb this side of Tel Aviv.’ Adam Goldberg plays Mordechai Jefferson Carver, a Jewish superhero assigned to save Hanukkah from an evil Santa Claus who has killed his goody two-shoes Santa dad with help from a grown up Tiny Tim, out of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Irreverent, hilarious and at times utterly brilliant, Jews and gentiles alike should eagerly embrace this wonderfully original comic gem with consistent gusto. When Goldberg’s Hebrew Hammer guns down a bar full of new-Nazis under the immortal phrase: “Shabbat Shalom motherfuckers”, you know you are in for one helluva ride. A masterful debut from first time writer/director Jonathan Kesselman, The Hebrew Hammer is broadly farcical, yet also slickly crafted. Goldberg is wry and comically understated in the title role, while Andy Dick is delightfully malevolent as the evil Santa. Great script and fluid direction make The Hebrew Hammer a must-see.

Another must-see celebrating its world premiere is Prey for Rock’n’ Roll, beautifully directed by Alex Steyermark. A stunning Gina Gershon stars in this rousing tale of Jacki and her all-girl rock and roll band, Clam Dandy, who are trying to make it in the LA club scene in the late 1980’s. After ten years of being ignored by record producers, Jacki and the band find hope in one producer who promises to see them play and consider them for a contract. Jacki resolves to play this one last gig and then throw in the towel if she does not find success. Personal tragedies, however, threaten to rip the band apart, rocking the foundation of friendship and trust the women have built together. Ultimately, the band must find its strength in the music that is their passion and the thread that holds them together, inspiring them to prevail. Prey for Rock ‘n’ Roll is a perfect example of classic narrative cinema, a rarity in the Hollywood scheme of things. Writers Cheri Lovedog and Robin Whitehouse created a collage of well-defined characters giving each her own, well-developed arc. Directed with a fearless energy by Steyermark, the film’s heart and soul remains the extraordinary Gershon, who manages to be funny, touching and sexy throughout. And she sings too, with power and grace. Prey for Rock ‘n’ Roll is a sexy, exhilarating ride of a movie that is destined for commercial glory.

Following the screening of Prey, I was due to interview Richard Day, director of Girls will be Girls, but he cancelled because he didn’t like my review of his film. A word of advice Richard: If you can’t stand the criticism, get out of the cinematic kitchen. So it was a nice to take a break before settling into Matt Dillon’s directorial debut, City of Ghosts. Dillon co-wrote this haunting drama with Barry Gifford which casts Dillon as a shady insurance scam artist who travels to Cambodia (also on the run from law enforcement in the U.S.) to collect his share in an insurance scam, but discovers more than he bargained for. Part thriller, part political drama and part romance, City of Ghosts beautifully and honestly explores Cambodia’s underbelly while at the same time bringing us a fine narrative which takes the viewer to unexpected and unpredictable places. A journey of self-discovery for Dillon as director, as well as his complex character, he shows tremendous visual skill and style in this compelling and hypnotic drama. Dillon’s future as director is well and truly assured.

Second last day at Sundance, and off at running with another tour-de-force performance by the extraordinary Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In the captivating Owning Mahowny, is based on the story of the largest one-man bank fraud in Canadian history. Hoffman is remarkable as a Loans Manager with: a gambling problem who has access to a multi-million dollar account and gets into a messy situation when his addiction gets out of control. From a taut screenplay by Maurice Chavet and meticulously directed by the ingenious Richard Kwietniowski who helmed Love and Death on Long Island, Owning Mahowny is a powerful and gripping study on the effects of obsession and addiction. A fast-paced and fascinating drama, Hoffman is wonderful at capturing this character’s intricacies down to the last detail. John Hurt is wonderful as the manager of the Atlantic City casino who encourages Hoffman’s Dan Mahowny in his addiction. Only Minnie Driver disappoints as the supportive girlfriend, but she is a minor flaw in an otherwise engrossing and captivating film.

Time to return to interview mode with Matt Dillon. Charming and personable, Dillon talked about the problems he had making City of Ghosts, his run-ins with meddling producers and financiers and the genesis of the project. We also chatted about his early days as an actor, and he mentioned an upcoming retrospective of his films at Hollywood’s Cinemateque early next month. For Dillon fans, this is a must. Then interviewed talented documentary director Steve James, whose poignant Stevie took out an award. James, whose previous credits include Hoop Dreams, talked honestly about the role of the documentary director and subject, which is ultimately a theme of Stevie. He also talked enthusiastically about his next project, a series of films about the immigrant experience called The New Americans. James is the series’ executive producer and he is currently directing one. He hopes the entire series will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival before screening on America’s PBS.

To the other extreme I had a drink with Hebrew Hammer director Jonathan Kesselman, who talked about his wacky comedy’s genesis, his walkabout trip to Australia where he is dying to return and his hope that his film will be seen as more than just a Jewish comedy. Amen to that! My final interview of the day was with a tired but always interesting Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who not only talked enthusiastically about Owning Mahowny, but also his next project, on Broadway in the revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. If you’re in New York, this is a play worth while seeing. Hoffman also enthused about the star-studded Cold Mountain, which will open later this year.

I had a wonderful chat with Tim Blake Nelson. While he was munching on Buffalo Wings, the actor/director and I talked about a variety of subjects, from working in Russia on A Foreign Affair, through to Australian politics, his role in the upcoming Wonderland and his next directorial outing which is still officially unconfirmed but will mean a big budget and a very different direction for this wonderfully talented director and actor.

One last film was Alan Rudolph’s disappointing The Secret Lives of Dentists. Despite strong performances by Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, this depressing look at a marriage never quite locks one in. Based on Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief, the film centres on two dentists, married to each other [Scott and Davis] whose marriage is falling apart when one suspects the other of infidelity. A comment on the importance of communication in a relationship, ironically, Dentists has difficulty communicating specific ideas in a slowly-paced rather awkwardly staged piece that is disappointing from someone as visually arresting as director Rudolph. Instead, his latest film seems awkward and bland, and so pessimistic in tone that one cannot imagine the film appealing to a wide audience. Yet Scott is superb in a difficult and under-written role.

The last day at Sundance has arrived. Normally, like the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest, but I decided to tough out a trifecta of difficult yet richly rewarding films. First up was the gruelling but masterful documentary Capturing the Friedmans, certainly one of the most textured and compelling films of the year. Exquisitely directed by
Andrew Jarecki, the film tells of the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middleclass Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes. Director Jarecki has directed here an intelligent, disturbing and unflinchingly honest film about normalcy, family, relationships, justice, guilt and innocence. He has provided us with no clear answers, there is no pap conclusion to his study of this tortured family, which makes this award-winning masterpiece all the more disturbing and powerful. This is a risky, provocative and beautifully put together film, which enables us to appreciate even more the power of the documentary.

Powerful on a different level is the visceral and remarkable Irreversible. From master French filmmaker Gaspar Noé, comes this thrilling and disturbing drama. On the surface, Irreversible is a revenge thriller revolving around the after-effects of as savage rape, shown in reverse order. But Noé challenges the audience with his stark visual imagery, sequences of savagery and brutality, yet ultimately a work of immeasurable beauty and cinematic poetry. His juxtaposition of images are a metaphor of the world we inhabit and while some may cower at two sequences in particular, stay with the film, because what it ultimately says, and how Noé says it, makes the first half of the film worth the anguish. As the rape victim, the exquisite Monica Bellucci gives an emotionally rich and haunting performance, as does the wonderful Vincent Cassel as her lover. Ferociously yet beautifully directed by Noé from his richly layered script, Irreversible is not a film for the faint-hearted, but intelligent and demanding audiences should find this film all the more satisfying and extraordinary.

A popular favourite to end up on was thirteen, a spellbinding debut from Catherine Hardwicke, who worked on the script initially written by gifted 13-year old Nikki Reed who also co-stars in this vivid portrait of adolescence, rebellion and family. In the film, a thirteen-year-old girl’s (Evan Rachel Wood) relationship with her single mother (Holly Hunter) is put to the test as she discovers drugs, sex, and petty crime in the company of her cool but troubled best friend (Reed). A complete twist on the conventional teen genre, Thirteen is brutally honest, as it captures teen angst in all its unflinching and unwavering honest. A remarkable script, engineered by one so young, the film’s centrepiece is a complex, monumental and pure performance by Wood, a star-on-the-rise with talent too match. Brave and uncompromising, Wood is superb in a complex role of a teenager torn between friendship and the ferocity of rebellion. Reed is also impressive as her dangerous best friend, and Hunter shines as the single mother desperately trying to keep her fractured family together. As much a look as the tragic extents to which teenagers crave to fit in, Thirteen is a superb human drama that takes chances and is all the more masterful as a result.

Thirteen was the perfect conclusion to this 10-day cinematic rollercoaster, which offered audiences a complete variety of demanding, entertaining and exhilarating films.


It has been quite a Festival. We are often reminded that Sundance is all about the filmmakers, which is true enough. Then why do some actors who come here, insist on acting like stars? Rather than supporting their films by granting interviews, this year more than ever, actors have cancelled interviews because being here is far too difficult such as the B-grade actor, whose brother is far more heavenly famous, who cancelled over 90% of his interviews and the recently arrested veteran actor who just didn’t turn up. There are the publicists, some of who make it a point to be difficult to those of us with a desire to do nothing more than spread the word about the film they are hired to represent. Of course most publicists are a joy to work with, while others need to realise that our job is to support these wonderful films.

Yet through all of this, Sundance remains a great haven for the risky, the exciting and the adventurous. Here some of the year’s freshest films were unspoiled, not all masterpieces, but each one a reminder that if you have a story to tell, no matter how bizarre or controversial, Sundance exists for you. For the dreamer that is one day a volunteer and the next, a director actor, I salute you. Till Sundance 2004, enjoy a movie that is challenging and rewarding.


The final night at Sundance is of course the Awards, and like the Festival as a whole, represent as diversity of talent and product. The drama "American Splendor" and documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" ended up winning the major awards. "American Splendor" tells of the everyday life of comic artist Harvey Pekar and his relationship with Joyce Brabner, who is just as depressed and co-dependent as he, but somehow the pair seem to make it through life, together, in this sometimes grimly comic but satisfying affair.

"Capturing the Friedmans" took the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary with its recounting of what happens to an upper middle class family when the father and son are arrested.

The Festival’s audience awards went to "The Station Agent" (a truly wonderful idiosyncratic comedy/drama] in the drama group and "My Flesh and Blood" in the documentary category.

"Station Agent," a quirky drama about a lonely dwarf who moves into a small town’s abandoned train depot and is befriended two other loners, also earned writer Tom McCarthy the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
"My Flesh and Blood," which chronicles the lives of 11 special-needs children and the woman who cares for them, also garnered the Grand Jury Prize for directing for Jonathan Karsh.

The Grand Jury Prize for directing in the drama group went to Catherine Hardwicke for the wonderful "Thirteen,"

Festival juries also gave a trophy for excellence in cinematography to Dana Kupper, Gordon Quinn and Peter Gilbert for the popular documentary, "Stevie," and to Derek Cianfrance for the drama "Quattro Noza," about illegal drag racing.

Among international competitors, festivalgoers granted the World Cinema Audience Award on "Whale Rider," about a girl’s coming-of-age and her efforts to take her place as the leader of a male-dominated tribal village in New Zealand. A stunningly poetic and magnificent work, Whale Rider has just opened in New Zealand and will b e released in the US later this year through Newmarket Films. Sundance gave its Freedom of Expression Award for a documentary that educates audiences on a social issue, to "What I Want My Words To Do To You," about a group of female prison inmates working through their problems in a writing workshop.

As for acting honours, Patricia Clarkson was given a jury prize for acting for roles in three movies, "Station Agent," "Pieces of April," and "All the Real Girls, and Charles Busch was also handed a jury prize for acting in "Die Mommy Die."


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