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PARK CITY, UTAH, January 31—As the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." I'm experiencing another feeling of déjà vu at the half point of my Sundance trip, I'm going through another bout of sleep deprivation, bloodshot eyes, altitude sickness, and hunger pangs, but it doesn't stop me from catching those packed 8:30 a.m. screenings. Yet the festival is in full swing now as I rise early on Monday, not sure what to see.
I was debating between a press screening of the closing night film, The Son of No One, from writer/director Dito Montiel, who was at the festival last with 2006's autobiographical Sundance prize winner A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints—which didn't impress me. Since I'm out here covering the festival as a journalist, I thought it would be more suitable to check out Andrew Rossi's documentary on the New York Times. It was definitely the right decision, as I heard rumblings of massive walkouts during The Son of No One.
Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times is not only a fascinating portrait of the printing press industry, but an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at perhaps the most powerful daily paper in the world. Going inside the newsroom at the New York Times during a tumultuous time for journalism, Rossi's doc takes a distinct and sharp look at the different editors, writers, and correspondence reporters as each battle for the coveted front page.That decision falls to Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, as he tries to restore the image of the Times since its debacle with the Jayson Blair scandal, in the face of competition from new media such as Twitter and Wikileaks. The film provides a glimpse of the writing process with such writers as Brian Stelter, whose story alone could have been a great doc: he was discovered when he founded the blog tvnewser.com. The story was picked up by the Times, front page no less, which eventually led to his hiring by the Times, and Stelter is a machine. Stelter, one of the youngest writers at the Times, has quite a system of managing his work, writing on two computers, sending tweets, calling interview subjects, and still making time to write multiple articles before crucial deadlines. We also meet former Twin Cities Reader columnist David Carr and learn about his unlikely path to the Times as he battled drug addiction and jail time to become one of the most gifted writers working at the Times. There are even bits showing Carr returning to Minneapolis to point out where he was arrested, and speaking the truth about his career; it was not only harrowing, but a great triumph of will. (Page One was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and is expected to be released early this summer.)
One of the more anticipated films of the festival for me is Jeff Nichols's follow-up to his solid first film from 2007, Shotgun Stories: the powerful and equally challenging Take Shelter. Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a family man living in small-town Ohio with his wife and his young deaf daughter and starts to unravel. He begins to have visions of a massive storm on the horizon, which forces him to have sleepless nights, affecting his work as a construction worker and grappling with that the fact he could be schizophrenic like his aging mother (played perfectly by Kathy Baker). Eventually he retreats to his backyard to build a bomb shelter. The drama plays out slowly and builds tension around every nook and cranny as Shannon's conflicted condition causes him to start losing focus on his own life. Ultimately he starts stealing money from a vacation fund his wife is saving and taking out a mortgage on his home to build his bomb shelter, instead of saving that money for a cochlear implant procedure for his young daughter. Nichols's screenplay and direction, along with cinematographer Adam Stone's bleak hues and whites, bring to mind disaster and apocalyptic films from the last 1950s and early 60s; everything in Take Shelter is completely plausible, and Shannon is magnificent in every scene. He should get some mentions for a possible Oscar nomination next year. Take Shelter's ending is a doozy too. (Sony Pictures Classics bought the film pre-Sundance and there's no word yet on an actual release, but it wouldn't surprise me to see the film released in the fall, to start a Michael Shannon Best Actor campaign.)
From the confines of home in Take Shelter, to the tongue twisting title of Martha Marcy May Marlene, my day was all about getting the hell away from home. Writer/director Sean Durkin's follow-up to his 2010 Cannes short film entry Mary Last Seen, supposedly a prequel of sorts to MMMM, featured the number one breakout performance of the festival from Elizabeth "Lizzie" Olsen (the younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley), who plays Martha, a young woman who escapes her cult surroundings and begins the healing process by staying with her older sister Lucy and her husband. Durkin's narrative jumps back and forth between the present and the past, as we see Martha—known at the cult as "Marcy May" or "Marlene"—as she is brainwashed by the leader/husband figure Patrick (another great performance from recent Oscar nominee John Hawkes) and living a seemingly normal life, other than the fact that the cult's women are treated more as pawns than people. When Martha is picked up by her older sister Lucy and is brought to Lucy's nice vacation home, she starts adjusting to everyday life (she tells Lucy she ran out on an abusive relationship) but continues to relapse into her cult life. In one scary scene, Martha in the middle of the night walks into Lucy's bedroom and lies in bed with her sister and husband, who are having sex. When the two of them realize Martha is only inches away from them, her response is, "Your bed is bigger, and I didn't think you'd mind." The scene caused uncomfortable laughter in the theater; we can't make heads or tails of Martha and what is in store for her future. Let's just say that when the cult members figure out that Martha has escaped, they plan on rescuing/capturing her and bringing her back to their Koresh-like farm. The ending of MMMM left me speechless—a good thing in this case—and it may split audiences, but Durkin is a talent to watch and Olsen, playing the frail Martha, gave a tour de force performance that will be remembered throughout the year. (Fox Searchlight bought Martha Marcy May Marlene during the festival, but there's no word on a release date yet.)
Returning to the festival again—as a filmmaker and jury member—Danish director Susanne Bier presented In a Better World, which recently won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film and was also nominated for an Oscar. Written by Anders Thomas Jensen (he wrote Bier's Brothers and After the Wedding), the film contains strong elements of revenge, disconnected families, and resiliency that will affect each character's future. Young Elias (Markus Rygaard) doesn't have too many people in his life, as his father, Anton, is a pacifist doctor working in war-torn African refugee camp, so the two don't see each other much. When Christian (a remarkable and scary William Johnk Nielsen), a new student, befriends Elias at school where Elias is constantly picked on, the boys team up to help one another through the struggles of being loners and quickly become wrapped up in taking revenge on a local mechanic who bullies Anton when he comes home to visit. Christian's father, Claus, doesn't realize that Christian is deeply troubled by the loss of his mother, and is never around to console Christian. Elias's own parents, Anton and Marianne, are going through their own marriage problems; they don't see the desperation in their son's actions until it's too late. Bier's direction is flawless, giving each character enough screen time to present a compelling story of wounded souls, loneliness at home, and struggles of maintaining a healthy family. Give Jensen credit, for writing spot-on dialogue of the inner workings of an unstable friendship and distance parents, who seem to know their own life is hanging in the balance. (In a Better World will open at a Landmark Theatre in mid-March.)
Each year at Sundance there are films that break out and have everyone talking about them; one such film this year is co-writer/director Drake Doremus's U.S. Dramatic competition winner Like Crazy. After its first screening, it was quickly picked up by Paramount Pictures. Having similar themes to last year's romance Blue Valentine, Doremus's film is a bit softer, but still packs a punch in less than 90 minutes. We first see students American Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and British Anna (a lovely Felicity Jones) in class together; moments later, Anna leaves a love note for Jacob on his car windshield and the two quickly become an item. When Anna's visa is about to expire, the two don't know what the future holds for their relationship, but against Anna's parents wishes of returning home on time, Anna decides to stay with Jacob longer. Once she finally does leave and tries to come back to L.A., she is deported back to the U.K. and so begins a bumpy long-distance relationship. Both leads are terrific; Yelchin's Jacob shows vulnerability in his character's conviction of hanging on to hope with Anna, although he starts seeing his assistant at his wood furniture workshop; Jones's Anna so desperately wants to be with Jacob, even though she takes an interest in a neighbor, and when Jacob comes for a visit, their love is still present but so is the increasing suspicions of trust, lies, and false promises. (Like Crazy will be released later in 2011.)
The Colombian oddity All Your Dead Ones, from co-writer/director Carlos Moreno, brings an interesting premise to the table; though it falters in its third act, there is plenty to chew on here. When farmer Salvador, also known as "Cross-Eyed" by the locals, discovers a pile of corpses in his field, he alerts the local authorities on what happens to be Election Day. Not wanting to get the story leaked on the important day, the mayor and his police lieutenant want to clean up the bodies before word gets out. Moreno's direction is solid, and cinematographer Diego F. Jimenez is aces at capturing a dizzy feeling of crisp beautiful reds and yellows among the saturated sky. Looking dumbfounded about his situation, Salvador (Alvaro Rodriguez) has some funny moments as his gaze into the camera at times suits his nickname. All Your Dead Ones never rises above its predicament other than the mayor's plan to "get them out of here," and we're left standing around for long stretches as we wait for the officials to work it out. Knowing nothing about the current situation in Colombia before I saw the film, I was left knowing nothing more about the politics and secret government officials; while I have to admit the film did move me at times, it never had the impact I thought it would. (All Your Dead Ones currently has distribution interest but at the time of this article, the film has yet to be bought.)
Almost D.O.A. from the start, David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense features tedious voiceover and pointless rhetoric; it seemed to be new age gobbledygook for the uninspired. When Michael (Ewan McGregor), a restaurant chef, crosses paths with an epidemiologist, Susan (Eva Green), they embark on a romance shortly before their world starts crumbling. As the world population starts losing its senses, the couple begin to discover that life is still worth living even if they are losing their senses and their way of life. The snail-paced sci-fi romance is so dopey that there are moments of unintentional hilarity (I'll admit, I did laugh when I saw Ewan Bremmer and McGregor on screen together, the first time since Black Hawk Down and, previously, Trainspotting); there is never any significant meaning or resolution regarding how people start to lose their senses and try to preserve them. In one scene, when Michael and Susan are in the tub, and they have lost their sense of smell and taste, she begins eating his shaving cream off his face and Michael chomps at a bar of soap. I'm sure neither are delicacies, but I think anyone would know better than to start eating cleaning products, even if you're not in the right state of mind and the world is coming to an end. (Believe it or not, IFC picked up Perfect Sense and will release the film in the summer of 2011.)
One of the highest-profile films at Sundance was writer/director J.C. Chandor's star-studded Margin Call, a fictional inside take on an investment firm's 24 hour period before the 2008 financial crisis. When Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is given his walking papers at the beginning, he thinks he's figured out a pattern that will not only bring the firm down, but might bring down the entire financial industry. Before he leaves, he hands off the information to analyst Peter Sullivan (Star Trek's Zachary Quinto), who investigates Dale's findings. When he discovers Dale's findings, the entire firm is rocked and that's when all the big players show up, spouting dialogue about the crisis. Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore come together to sort out the issues and take action in order to save their skin. Chandor's film is fast-paced and makes good use of locations within the building, offices, elevators, and outside exteriors, but the story bogs down halfway through, with too much banter from all parties about how to solve the problem. Only Spacey's performance as a top executive connects: he's a man ripped open who's hid behind sarcasm to get by for the past 30 years in his high-ranking position. Margin Call has an audience (audiences were divided at Sundance) and the cast alone will get people to the theater to see it, but ultimately it never felt like anything more than a bland business seminar. (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will release the film later in 2011.)
From Jill and Karen Sprecher, the locally produced and shot The Convincer was a pleasant surprise: a thoroughly entertaining crime caper from start to finish. The Convincer does borrow bits of Fargo and A Simple Plan (two other Minnesota-shot films), but its setup is as old as the snow-covered ground. Greg Kinnear plays Mickey Prohaska, an insurance man who believes he's got the gift of gab in convincing people to buy insurance, but when he finds out about a valuable violin stashed away in a retired farmer's cabin and farmer Gorvy (Alan Arkin, with a funky accent) doesn't believe the violin is worth much, Mickey has his eyes on the prize. As Mickey starts setting Gorvy up, that's when the Fargo-esque moments begin. Enter Billy Crudup's hilarious ex-con locksmith, who goes into Gorvy's place looking to grab whatever items he can to pawn; he gets wind of Mickey's scheme and helps out him with disastrous results that lead all three men down an uncertain and unpredictable path. The Sprecher sisters take some chances with the screenplay, but their risks pay off, especially an out-of-left-field switcheroo, that may confuse some, while bringing to mind for others a Best Picture winner with the Sundance kid himself. The musical score by Alex Wurman and Bela Fleck works wonders over the offbeat film, and the scenery is gorgeous: watching Crudup out in the middle of a frozen lake, seeing his frosty breath hits almost too close to home. (The Convincer currently has no U.S. distribution deal.)
The last film I saw at Sundance was another crime caper, but one shot across the pond: John Michael McDonagh's Irish crime comedy The Guard. In a brilliant performance that's the strongest part of the film, Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, Harry Potter series) plays sergeant Gerry Boyle, a foul-mouthed, no-nonsense sergeant who reluctantly helps an American FBI agent, played by Don Cheadle, track down some international drug smugglers. Boyle is usually drinking at the pubs, taking days off to be with hookers, and offending everyone in his sight, but he does have an unique Colombo approach to solving cases and is sharper than he acts, which annoys Cheadle's FBI agent on more than one occasion. McDonagh's script is very hit-or-miss and contains a few too many subplots, but some of the one-liners he's written for Gleeson are top-notch and very original. While the story feels very pedestrian, the performance by Gleeson is worth seeing and will have you trying to remember all his filthy quips. In one scene, Gleeson answers the front door in his underwear only to say to the woman, "Excuse me while I put something more comfortable on." What he is seen wearing next might have made for the loudest laugh in the entire film. (The Guard was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and will be released in 2011.)
In my last article from Park City, I'll be reporting on films from the Slamdance Film Festival and will have an interview with director/editor/writer Simon Arthur and star Lee Tergeson of the dramatic thriller Silver Tongues.