Mixing it up with Redford for another year
By Paul Fischer
It’s back, the first film festival of the year, and if it’s January, it must be Sundance. The stars are yet again out in force, the deal makers and wanna be’s gather en masse, and anybody who writes for just about anything seems to have that all-important press pass.
Ah yes, 12 Sundances later, things here in chilly Park City are more frenetic than ever. But if one gets past the sheer madness and climatic extremes, one realizes that it’s still, after all, a film festival. Publicists are a perennial pain at times, the traffic a nightmare and the ice on the ground treacherous, but if my first day in the dark is anything to go by then, dear readers, this Sundance boasts some veritable cinematic treasures. Maybe, one of today’s films may be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine or Half Nelson.
Being the first day, it was time to settle into the movies, and it was an impressive trio of films that unspooled, beginning with the exquisitely droll and moving The Savages. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play the title roles, as siblings with their own set of mid-life crises that come to light as they care for the crusty, dying father who abandoned them.
Both a treatise on life and death, as well as a wry comment on the way we try and evolve as human beings, Linney and Hoffman, who rarely display a deft comic touch, do so here in spades, giving wonderful performances, in a rich, witty and very intelligent work. Picked up for domestic release by Fox Searchlight, The Savages is fresh, funny and insightful, that should prove popular to an older demographic.
It seems that Sundance favorite Tom DiCillo has been absent for far too long. His latest work, Delirious, is his best, a joyously raucous, sexy, deliciously biting fable that explores celebrity, paparazzi and friendship, in an acerbic, somewhat subversive way. In what may well be a career-defining performance, Steve Buscemi is brilliantly acerbic as Les, a desperate paparazzi photographer who teams up with an affable homeless guy, Toby, who becomes his unlikely assistant. But Toby’s love for a famous singer may lead to the salvation of one and the misery and self-realization of the other.
Delirious lives up to its title, and this crowd-pleasing gem is both hilarious and quietly sentimental, delivering a collage of wonderfully drawn characters played effortlessly by a cast that includes a hauntingly beautiful Alison Lohman, a ferociously biting and sexy Gina Gershon, and a charming Michael Pitt who breezes through his Toby. DeCillo’s writing is punchy and elegant, and his direction energetic and fluid. Beautifully put together with a very evocative soundtrack that accentuates character and mood, Delirious is superbly entertaining and completely satisfying. Commercial success and release for this film is inevitable.
It would be fair to say, the press rarely applauds at press screenings, but applaud they did at the unveiling of a true masterpiece: Rocket Science. With its cast of largely unknowns, this stunning tale of teenage angst is original. An original teen movie? Impossible, but true. A film about finding one’s voice, literally and figuratively, through the eyes of an awkward, stuttering teenager whose infatuation for a brilliant debater leads him to discover his own voice, is a mesmerizing, unpredictable, unHollywood masterwork.
Eloquently written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, this is a disarmingly honest, poignant and wry look at first love, debating and the need for our hero to order pizza. All of which is a metaphor for the challenges we stumble upon which seem all important at the crossroads of our young lives. Fully expecting the film to cop out at its climax, Blitz makes an unexpected detour into reality, avoiding Hollywood’s desire for neat conclusions, offering us instead a portrait of youth rarely seen on screen.
Yet it’s highly commercial and may prove to be the Indie film of choice this year, for those seeking their films devoid of cliché and remarkably intelligent. Lead actor Reece Thompson is a major find, and he is ably supported by Anna Kendrick as the debating girl of his dreams. Rocket Science is extraordinary, and a fitting final film for this first, promising day in Park City.
An American Crime
For every undiscovered gem at the Sundance Film Festival, comes the one film that is unanimously loathed, and such a film is An American Crime. Directed with an unsubtle sledgehammer approach to filmmaking by Tommy O’Haver, his American Crime purports to tell the true story of suburban housewife Gertrude Baniszewski, [played by a one-note Catherine Keener] who kept a teenage girl locked in the basement of her Indiana home during the mid-1960s.
Switching back and forth between the trial and the events, much of the film depicts the tragic teenage character in question, Sylvia Likens [a strong performance by Ellen Page] in the basement being tortured, in gruesome fashion, not only by this overprotected mother, but also her children and their friends.
While I am all for the power of cinema to explore the dark nature of humanity, this is such a consistently unpleasant film, made with no subtlety or sense of character, that there is no reason for its existence at a film festival. Here is a perfect example where a ratings board decides to say no to such a cinematic monstrosity.
Apparently due for US release in the late summer [yes the perfect counter-programming to the likes of Harry Potter I’m sure], one cannot imagine an intelligent member of the movie-going public forking out $12 to see a teenage girl being tortured. What is torture is having to sit through a film that offers little but graphic violence and characters imbued with simplistic amorality. That, coupled with a hokey, pretensions third act, makes it a crime to see what may well be the worst film to unspool at Sundance in years.
The Good Life
Darkness and despair also tend to permeate through the ironically titled The Good Life. Written and directed by former actor Stephen Berra, a sublime Mark Webber delivers a haunting, beautifully delineated performance as Jason, who is encouraged by a new friend, Frances, (Zooey Deschanel) to cope with living in a small Nebraska town where he doesn’t necessarily fit in.
The Good Life is a melancholy, but ultimately rewarding piece, on isolation, love, despair, family and the need to connect. Apart from Webber who encapsulates a young man’s desperation to succeed, the film’s performances are all superb, especially the always stunning Deschanel, here at Sundance with another film.
Chris Klein is also magnificent as a town bully, delivering his finest performance to date, and the film is mesmerising in its attention to detail and reality of human desperation. This won’t be an easy sell, but it deserves attention.
It was a time for a brief break to do my first interview, with the perennially sexy and talented Gina Gershon. We talked extensively about her career and despite an up and down acting career, the philosophical actress is also focusing on her music, and recently co-wrote a young adult novel with her brother. “We just found out that Spielberg and Nickolodeon are combining to turn it into a movie,” she revealed. Gershon said that she tends to turn down acting roles “if I don’t like them”, but will appear next opposite Hilary Swank in P.S I Love You, due out next year. More on my interview with Gina soon.
The end of my second day was at least a film that made me laugh, and is an irresistible treasure. Zoe Cassavetes’ feature debut, Broken English, is a comically luminous study of a young woman’s plight trying to find the perfect boyfriend. In a career-defining performance, the exquisite Parker Posey plays Nora Wilder, a customer service manager of a small New York Hotel.
Within her mundane life, everyone around her is in a relationship, while she is in her thirties, alone with job she’s outgrown and a mother who constantly reminds her that she’s single. After a series of disastrous dates, Nora unexpectedly meets Julien, a quirky Frenchman who opens her eyes to a lot more than love, but when he returns to Paris, she must decide what it is she really wants.
While in many ways, Broken English is a conventional love story, it is more a wonderfully rich character study, exploring a woman’s need to become truly independent. Fresh, sexy, funny and wonderfully real at the same time, Broken English shows us how truly extraordinary Parker Posey really is. Each facial gesture, each line delivery, is an exercise in the purity of acting, and whether she’s being comedic here or vulnerable,
Posey delivers a great performance in an auspicious, emotive debut by another talented member of this family. Commercial success with Broken English is a strong possibility. Magnolia will release the film later in the year.