Moviehole at Sundance – Day 1


Paul Fischer at Sundance

The snow capped mountains and upper most ski resort of Park City says it is time again to visit the Sundance Film Festival, the first film festival of the year, and the most prestigious in its celebration of independent cinema. It is here that deals are made, stars mix with movie lovers and residents amidst the throng and hustle and bustle of Main St, or the various venues where a myriad and eclectic array of films are unspooled to the movie fanatic, film buyer and would-be Hollywood mogul, as well as the hundreds of American and foreign journalists who descend en masse each January to interview the famous and the infamous, or merely review some interesting film, which may or may not be, the next big thing. Studios come here to premiere their latest, more risk-taking project, such as this year’s opening night film, Don Roos’ "Happy Endings", which Lions Gate will be releasing throughout North America in mid-July. His first feature, "The Opposite of Sex", was also was one of the first this journalist covered at Sundance. That was then, this is now, and "Happy Endings" is a satisfying film to have opened this Festival. The multiple narrative lines include a filmmaker blackmailing a woman about a son she long ago gave up for adoption; a gay man whose partner was, or perhaps wasn’t, the sperm donor for two of their best friends, a lesbian couple; and a 30-something girl who shacks up with a young man trying to convince his father he’s straight and then moves on to the dad. Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is being blackmailed. This filmmaker named Nick (Jesse Bradford) claims to know Mamie’s son – the one she gave up for adoption – but Nick won’t introduce her to him unless he can film the reunion. Enter Javier (Bobby Cannavale), Mamie’s massage therapist boyfriend, who convinces Nick to film him instead. Now they’re all making a movie about massage. And ‘happy endings’… Charley (Steve Coogan) has a long-time boyfriend named Gil (David Sutcliffe). Their best friends, Pam and Diane (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke), once tried using Gil as a sperm donor. They said his sperm didn’t take, but Charley thinks those selfish, control-freak lesbians are lying. Pam and Diane’s two-year-old son looks exactly like Gil. And it’s time to set the record straight… Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is pissed. Not at anyone in particular. Just in general. When her cousin kicks her out of the house, Jude shacks up with Otis (Jason Ritter), who’s still trying to convince his father, Frank (Tom Arnold), that he’s straight. Frank’s a widower. And he’s rich. So Jude decides to sleep with him, too. Really. The last thing she expected was to fall in love. Perhaps anger and life’s bitter equations are a theme at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but as bleak as Don Roos’ latest film appears from the outset, "Happy Endings" lives up to its title. A richly layered comedy of character, manipulation, sex and the search for love, Roos is back with a film that is partly acidic in tone and partly just so very human. Full of intricate and problematic characters, here is a deliriously sexy, entertaining and wonderfully together film, so beautifully written by a great observer of ourselves. Performances are consistently high quality with Kudrow shaking off her TV image with a bludgeoning determination, succeeding with masterful depth, humour and real pathos. Maggie Gyllenhaal refines her sexy, vulnerable persona with a hypnotic and engaging performance playing an unsympathetic but so watchable character.

Dark and light, comic and tragic, it is a film that is deftly handled, and wonderfully exuberant and entertaining. Lions Gate should do brisk business with this fabulous film.

Meanwhile, the more corporate-minded New Line premiered ITS less formulaic work, the absolutely superb "The Upside of Anger". Written and directed by the immeasurably talented Mike Binder, the film takes a darkly comedic look at family, middle-age, sex, adolescence and, yes, anger, in a tautly scripted family comedy-drama, that is predominantly about women. The film ensues when the alcoholic matriarch of the wealthy Wolfmeyer family [played with an often comic but well-rounded relish by the magnificent Joan Allen] discovers that her husband has disappeared and left her to raise her four headstrong daughters of various ages, on her own, without any clear means of support. Her drunken tirades foster varying degrees of hostility and anger towards this quartet of young women coping with their own personal and professional aspirations, not to mention her middle-aged neighbour [Kevin Costner], an ex-baseball player-turned Dj and fellow drunk, who is making a play for her attention, while trying to cope with this household of interminably fiery women. What is especially striking about this film, is how observant writer/director Binder is, when it comes to the female psyche. As a male observer of women, they are the stronger sex by a mile here, even allowing himself to play a misogynistic radio producer who has no problems sleeping with women half his age, including one of the Wolfmeyer daughters. Yet Costner, whose own character grows up throughout the course of the film as much as the women, gives the best performance of his career. Hilarious, charming, sexy and human, Costner has virtually reinvented himself in this beautifully realised and sublime performance.

But of course, it remains the women of the piece who each give spectacular performances, with their own, well-defined arcs and moments in the sun, , including Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt, who are consistently surprising, funny and touching as four women so recognisable and so painstakingly real. "The Upside of Anger" is a film richly textured, Chekhovian in tone, yet delightfully comic on the one hand, and personal and moving on the other. In all, a wonderfully entertaining and totally satisfying masterwork that deserves to be a huge hit.

"The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is cinematic poetry. A tough sell commercially, it marks an auspicious maturity for writer/director Rebecca Miller, whose "Personal Velocity" garnered attention at Sundance a few years back. Miller’s latest film explores the depth of human relationships, especially that of father and daughter against a harsh but stunningly isolated backdrop. While also delving into Man’s relationship with nature and progress, the film’s environmental themes are part of an overall exploration of ourselves. This is a gloriously mounted and profoundly visceral work, featuring another intricate, powerful and moving performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in a role we’ve never seen from the British thespian before. Masterful and deeply human, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a beautiful and haunting film that stays with one long after its closing credits.

Jack Starks [Adrien Brody], a military veteran returns to his native Vermont suffering from bouts of amnesia. When he is accused of murder and lands in an asylum, a well-meaning doctor puts him on a heavy course of experimental drugs, restrains him in a jacket-like device, and locks him away in a body drawer of the basement morgue. The process sends him on a journey into the future, where he can foresee his death (but not who did it or how) in four days’ time. Now the only question that matters is: can the woman he meets in the future [Keira Knightley] save him? Originality is such a rarity in American cinema that a film such as "The Jacket" comes along like a breath of fresh air. Part genre to be sure, there is something intellectually razor sharp about this completely absorbing and thrilling film, masterfully crafted by the inventive John Maybury. Because it is so tough to categorize, "The Jacket" is a challenge to market, but word of mouth and strong reviews should help generate a strong buzz, and the film is certainly destined for a long post-theatrical hit on DVD as a cult favourite. Balancing dollops of black humour, intensity, a cool sci fi time travel component, all dressed up in a deeply moving and unforgettable love story, the like we have never seen before. Adrien Brody gives a solid performance in a complex character, but the film’s biggest surprise is an extraordinary performance by a barely recognisable Keira Knightley. Vocally and physically, there is no evidence of the pretty blonde who stole the likes of "Bend it Like Beckham" and "Love, Actually". Encapsulating working class Americana at every turn, Knightley is a revelation here. "The Jacket" is an enthralling and compelling film, both visceral and engaging, daring the viewer to be propelled into an original and unique cinematic world.

Sundance 2005 is up and running and for the media, it’s a matter of trying to see films and chat to those in them, and this journalist is already exhausted, and we’ve barely begun. In coming days, I’ll be chatting to the likes of Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, and even ex-porn star Harry Reems is here. Things are about to take off, as Sundance rolls out guns that are big, small and somewhere in between.

-Paul Fischer