Tim Basham on what was good/ what wasn’t
With Tim Basham
For the nine thousand or so people who call Park City their home, Sundance can be everything from a cash cow to a bull in a china shop as the town’s population easily exceeds 50,000 during the eleven-day event. Although the entire town is seemingly one big ski resort, ironically, it’s the best time to ski because everyone else is film festing. And though I had heard some nasty stories about townspeople attacking festival goers, verbally and literally, I have nothing but praise for the people I met. (Well, there was that one grocery clerk who tried her best to cheat me out of an additional 87 cents for a bottle of water.)
Here are some of my other Sundance highlights…
My Park City housemates were indieWIRE founders Brian Clark and J.D. Ashcroft and Paste Magazine Senior Editor Tim Porter. I hit a lot of industry parties throughout the week, but none was better than the one we threw at our own house. It didn’t start until a few phone calls were made around midnight but after a couple of indieWIRE interns were sent on a beer gathering mission (thank you, Red Stripe) the house was soon filled with a slew of directors, writers, actors, crew members and other industry folk, plus a few bleary eyed souls who thought they were there to make videos with Paris Hilton. (Paris did not show, however.) Sundance may be full of empty promises and overblown pitches but this party rocked while a steady stream of “real” movie people passed through. Susan Buice and Erin Crumley, whose film Four Eyed Monsters was a big hit at last year’s Slamdance Festival (a kind of “step sister” to Sundance) were in the kitchen talking about the future of the internet and film with Gen Art’s Jeff Abramson. Monsters has led to a video podcast phenomenon with Buice and Crumley producing short sequels for downloading, First-time writer/director Erica Dunton was there talking about this year’s Slamdance success story, her romantic comedy Find Love starring Alexie Gilmore and Christian Camargo. The film would have a distribution deal with Canada’s Maple Pictures by the end of the week. Alexie can also be seen in Meryl Streep’s upcoming The Devil Wears Prada. The guys from Withoutabox.com were there chatting up their unique online distribution service of which Four Eyed Monsters would be a part of in a matter of days. As the party rolled on I realized the house was full of young talented creatives, perhaps even tomorrow’s stars. Talent who, like the composer I met who did short film and television commercial scores, were on brink of something bigger. Or maybe it was the Red Stripe talking.
My last full day at Sundance ended with the biggest party (aside from ours) of the entire festival. Gen Art and My Space sponsored the event at the Park City Mountain Lodge where a couple thousand guests enjoyed a high-energy, live performance from The Beastie Boys. You can imagine the logistical nightmare of just separating the invited guests from the party crashers. (Not that I blame them for trying.) But organizers did an incredible job with help from dozens of people outside in the cold with temperatures approaching zero—including Alex Klenert, VP of publicity for Think Film who spent the night checking badges of attendees. These are the unnamed heroes of Sundance who never get the attention but spend hundreds of sleepless, thankless hours on keeping this “zoo” together.
It may not sound like it, but I actually saw a few more films while I was there…
Lucky Number Slevin
A mafia murder mystery in the vein of “Pulp Fiction” and “Layer Cake”, “Lucky Number Slevin” comes up a winner. In one of his strongest performances to date, Josh Hartnett plays the victim of mistaken identity resulting in his life being threatened by two warring crime lords played by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley. With frequent twists and clever turns, the film never lets up but eventually comes to a satisfying conclusion. Although Bruce Willis gives his usually acerbic, tough guy performance, Lucy Liu is refreshingly charming as a playful coroner and Hartnett’s romantic interest.
The downside of film festivals: too many bad meals, too little sleep, too much partying, too heavy a hangover, too big the bling in over-indulged actors. It’s all worthwhile, however, when you see that one film that truly represents what festivals like Sundance are all about. This year, for me, the film is “Half Nelson”. Directed by Ryan Fleck and co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, this story of a crack-dependent high school teacher and his tenuous but crucial bond with one of his students took me by surprise with its depiction of real, inner-city issues and their affect on a young girl valiantly trying to get a handle on what’s right and wrong. The teacher, played by Ryan Gosling (“Stay”, “The Notebook”), thinks he knows right and wrong and in one of the best scenes of the film he tries to persuade a drug dealer (Anthony Mackie, “Million Dollar Baby”) to stay out of his student’s life because the pusher is a bad influence—the same dealer who sells drugs to the teacher. These ironies demonstrate the complexity of the problem. The student, powerfully portrayed by newcomer Shareeka Epps, actually copes incredibly well given the tools she has to deal with. All three of these actors provide marvelous performances that should give their street values a hefty boost.
The Hawk is Dying
While running into a Paul Fischer at the press screening of Paul Giamatti’s “The Hawk is Dying” he expressed what seemed to be universal sentiment: “I’ll see anything with Giamatti in it.” And why not? His recent string of award-worthy performances in films like “American Splendor”, “Sideways” and “Cinderella Man” has earned our attention (what, didn’t like “Big Fat Liar”? – Ed). Unfortunately, streaks have a way of ending. In “Hawk” Giamatti plays George, a man frustrated with his life and his failure to tame the wild hawks that have been frequently dying on him. Living with his weight-challenged sister Precious (Rusty Schwimmer) and her mentally-challenged son Fred (Michael Pitt) George is determined to train a beautiful red-tail hawk with help from Fred. Just as she did in The Perfect Storm, Schwimmer proves her ability as one of our strongest character actors. The relationship between the hawk and the family, plus George’s strange sexual relationship with a pothead named Betty (Michelle Williams) gives impetus to the picture and leads to some tragic happenings. But watching George’s torment becomes almost as hard for us to endure as it is for George to go through almost half the film with a hawk attached to his arm. It just goes to show that there can be too much of a good thing—even if it’s coming from a talent like Giamatti.
Solo Dios Sabe
Mexican director Carlos Bolado has given us a beautiful travel film disguised as a love story, or maybe a love story disguised as a travel film. Along with a cultural expedition covering North and South America, the two themes feed off each other. When a Brazilian art student (Alice Braga, “City of God”) studying in America is stuck in Tijuana without her green card, a stranger from Mexico (Diego Luna) agrees to drive her to Mexico City to acquire a new card. But they both find they’re searching for something more as they face their own spirituality. Though longer than it needed to be, it’s worth the journey.
This strange and moody film from Denmark had its moments. A concert pianist (Ulrich Thomsen) who has left his memories behind him is forced to look back when he returns home to Copenhagen for a performance. Before arriving an extensive force field envelops a portion of the city which becomes known as “The Zone”. No one gets in, no one gets out. However, the pianist is invited into The Zone and when he RSVPs he’s reunited with his memories. Yes, I thought it was a little weird, too. It almost works except for some very stiff and sterile dialogue; although Thomsen does give a commendable performance.
I did have a chance to see three films from that “other” festival, all winners with me.
Writer/director Erica Dunton has done what few, budget-straining, indie filmmakers are able to do—make a feature worthy of distribution. Find Love is an enjoyable film about a man and woman who meet while waiting for the same flight and find romance although they are each committed to someone else. Over the next 24 hours their relationship puts a strain on making some major decisions that can change both their lives. Christian Camargo and Alexie Gilmore make a good script even better with outstanding performances.
With an even lower budget, director/writer Paul Gordon gives us Motorcycle where the star of the film is the bike as it falls into the hands of various people on their way to who-knows-where. Gordon directs his actors through subtle and witty performances that provide a kind of voyeuristic experience.
Still Life (short)
This nine-minute film blew me away. After driving with too little sleep, a pill-popping traveler enters a town where everyone appears to be mannequins. I can’t really say more than that for fear of giving the ending away.
I ran into Matt Dentler, director of programming for the SXSW Film Festival, who was finding more films for his Austin extravaganza which starts March 10th. Oh, good. More parties!