PARK CITY, UTAH—By 24 hours on the ground here the following had happened: My roommate was over 15 hours late arriving and the airline lost his luggage, I lost my gloves, only to retrace my steps looking for clues for around an hour until I discovered them smashed in between theater seats, a shuttle driver missed a routine stop and caused a jam-packed bus full of people to run into a screening right when the lights were going down, I didn’t fall asleep the first night until close to 4 a.m. and had an 8:30 a.m. screening the following morning. Welcome to the chaotic and entertaining opening day of the Sundance Film Festival.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been making Sundance a regular working vacation the past five years. Not much has changed in beautiful Park City over the past year, but one of my favorite restaurants here, Nacho Mama’s, a Mexican restaurant nearby press headquarters, was closed and was a huge disappointment and prices at other grocery stores, restaurants and shops, were up everywhere.
Not wasting any time once I landed Thursday afternoon (when I left Minneapolis it was -10, and in Salt Lake City it was over 40 degrees), I proceeded to grab tickets for two films on opening night; these are the films I saw over the opening weekend.
The first was the Australian drama/mystery Wish You Were Here, starring Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Animal Kingdom) and Felicity Price (who also co-wrote the script with her husband director Kieran Darcy-Smith). When two couples from Australia travel to Cambodia for a week’s vacation it turns out not to be too memorable; when one of the travelers doesn’t return to Australia after going missing during a night fueled with alcohol and ecstasy (the drug), relationships and marriages are fractured and questioned. Told in a non-linear structure, we see the Cambodia getaway and its aftermath. Despite some solid acting from Edgerton and Price, playing married couple Dave and Alice, Wish You Were Here dances around its central mystery far too long and never makes an emotional impact—as one would suspect, since each character has moments of stupidity that ring false by its non-climatic ending, leaving the film nothing more than a mere exercise in banality.
Searching for Sugar Man, a winning music documentary by first-time Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, investigates the disappearance of 70s folk singer Rodriguez, who by all accounts was never more than a blip in the American music scene—that is, until a record shop owner in Cape Town, South Africa and a music journalist in Great Britain begin searching for the mysterious artist. Having made three albums in the States that never amounted to squat, Rodridguez’s albums in South Africa were outselling Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. His album was first brought to Cape Town in the 70s as an American woman was going to visit her boyfriend and brought his album with, so the story goes. His second album was bootlegged across South Africa and became an inspiration album for the entire country that were under apartheid and felt Rodriguez was speaking directly to them, some 4,000 miles from his home town of Detroit, Michigan. Benjelloul deftly weaves interviews with Rodriguez’s daughters, co-workers, and former music managers and producers with still photos to capture an artist who was supposed to be the next Bob Dylan and instead became the J.D. Salinger of the music world, including a website dedicated to finding out where and how Rodriguez “died”—and that’s only the first half of the film. I won’t say much more about the second half that unfolds in surprising sequences; the documentary will bring Rodriguez new fans. (Searching for Sugar Man was bought by Sony Picture Classics immediately after its premiere.)
Ever since playing Begbie in Trainspotting, Scottish actor Robert Carlyle has been mostly a supporting character and never really given a lead role—The Full Monty being a notable exception—until now, playing a retired and alcoholic musician in Marshall Lewy’s California Solo. Carlyle plays Lachlan MacAldonich, who was famous playing in a 90s rock band and now works on a farm outside of Los Angeles. Getting pulled over and charged with a DUI, MacAldonich may have to leave the States since he has a prior drug conviction; other complications in his life ensue along the way. California Solo means well in attempting to show a conflicted character trying to right his wrongs, but the film never gives us any reason to care, as each character makes stupid decisions throughout the film. Carlyle, who is terrific in the role, does his best with clichéd and stale material, even when he’s suddenly reunited with his ex-wife and daughter who he’s ignored for over a decade. Are we supposed to feel sympathetic? Once the story reached the 30-minute mark, its story felt tired and running on autopilot. Despite Carlyle’s performance and some beautiful cinematography by James Laxton, California Solo is nothing more than a filmic equivalent of an annoying one-hit-wonder song.
Sean Penn is one of the best living American actors and he proves it yet again with his bizarro turn as an aging goth rocker in Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s English debut, This Must Be the Place. Living in Ireland, Cheyenne (Penn), bored with his post rocker life although he has a great wife in Jane (scene-stealer Frances McDormand), who keeps their relationship lively, catches wind of a former Nazi who gave his father havoc in a concentration camp. Returning to the States after a long absence, Cheyenne goes on a journey to find the culprit. Many critics have panned This Must Be the Place since its premiere at Cannes last May, and its story sounds silly, but I found it very involving and completely unpredictable, and it doesn’t hurt to hear a Talking Heads song in a film. Penn finds absurd humor in the role and runs with it taking us along through his emotional state of stress and outlandish situations; the movie never feels forced or pretentious, and keeps the audience anxious. This Must Be the Place might have a hard time finding its audience, but never comprises by taking easy choices and delivers with challenging characters, striking originality, and humor. (The Weinstein Company will distribute This Must Be the Place this spring.)
Hopefully, a title change will happen to the indie-rock story I Am Not a Hipster, as its title almost made me want to skip this charming slice-of-life story about a musician dealing with death, his estranged father, and his impending rock star career. Brook (Dominic Bogart) made a hit record a few years earlier and now everyone is wondering what his plans are next. He hasn’t been able to focus much on his next record since the death of his mother—that is, until his three sisters and his father come to visit him. In his feature debut, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton spins a somber tale of isolation and angst, injecting his film with enough energy and spark to make a compelling film about acceptance and forgiveness. Bogart gives a fierce performance as a musician dealing with many demons and trying to turn his life around slowly, with the help of his family and his dedicated friend and “manager” (played wonderfully by Alvaro Orlando) as Bogart copes with moving on from the past and making a substantial future for his tortured soul.
To call the new film by Rodrigo Cortes (Buried) a disappointment might be the biggest understatement to come from Sundance this year; his paranormal mystery Red Lights was one of the more highly anticipated films to bow at Sundance, and left its premiere with a silenced and bewildered crowd. Starting out strong as two investigators (Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy) look into paranormal hoaxes and debunk each case, the film soon has both of them questioning an out-of-retirement blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro) as to whether he is in fact the real deal. When the media latches onto Silver, Murphy’s Dr. Buckley wants to investigate him to make sure he is authentic, whereas Weaver’s Matheson wants to leave him be. When Buckley continues his fascination into Silver, things start to get weird and Red Lights turns into a hoax itself. Cortes, who was the writer/director/editor/producer of the film, might be wearing too many hats to conjure a satisfying genre film and turns the final hour into a completely outrageous lark that never recovers from stilted dialogue, convoluted plotting, and a final act so laughable, it left me throwing my arms in the air with confusing and disbelief. One can only suspect that Red Lights will be re-edited and going back to the drawing board before its theatrical release. (Millennium Entertainment will distribute Red Lights later this year.)
Every year Sundance usually has controversy with a few films; this year, Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound) was all the chatter on opening weekend with his brilliant and disturbing second feature, Compliance. Based on true events, Compliance unfolds over a 24-hour period at a busy Ohio fast food restaurant with out-of-high-school employees and middle-aged managers. When Becky (Dreama Walker) is accused of stealing money from a customer at the counter, Officer Daniels (a creepy Pat Healy) calls to investigate the crime with Becky’s manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, in a riveting performance), who must detain Becky in the manager’s office and begins helping Officer Daniels locate the stolen money. As Becky states her innocence, Sandra is told by Officer Daniels that either she can come down to the station or have the situation handled at the restaurant under questionable and highly cruel circumstances. Without giving away much more, Zobel’s screenplay works magnificently at depiciting a despairing situation, which turns simultaneously incredibly difficult to watch but hard to look away from. Using tight camera shots featuring long takes, the film is sharply edited and features a pulsing musical score by Heather McIntosh. Once the end credits were over, a woman from the back of the theater shouted, “[This] is not entertainment and Sundance should be ashamed,” then fled the screening, leaving the rest of the audience in utter disbelief. Compliance was met with some feeling it was exploitive and misogynistic, and while it can be seen that way, it left me blown away by its audacity and the sheer horror of the average worker following orders by her superior in fear of losing her job in rough times. Compliance hasn’t found a U.S. distributor but it would be a shame if it didn’t, considering it is one of the provocative and surprising films, I’ve ever seen at Sundance. (An interview with writer/director Zobel and actors Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, and Pat Healy is forthcoming in the Daily Planet.)
Its creator returning to Sundance after winning the Dramatic Grand Jury prize in 2005 with his subdued drama Forty Shades of Blue, co-writer/director Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On focuses on another subdued drama—although this film feels a bit more personal, about a relationship between two different men. When Erik (Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, in his impressive English debut), a documentary filmmaker, meets businessman Paul (Zachary Booth) and begins a long relationship of love, hardship, drugs, and detachment, they must explore and decide whether they are really right for one another. Sachs’s screenplay is delicate and provides enough light moments to keep the film from being just another downer about romance, and Sachs stages beautifully crafted scenes of melancholy and innocence to make a convincing relationship on screen. Sachs brings compassion to his story and direction and keeps us interested in there relationship while most of the story is told through Erik’s eyes, it would have been nice to get a different perspective from Paul, who struggles with a drug addiction throughout the film, and at times I began to wonder what Erik really sees in Paul, other than just being lonely for love.
After his dark first feature Afterschool, gifted writer/director Antonio Campos has made his second feature, Simon Killer, even darker. Going to Paris after graduating from college, Simon (Brady Corbet) still can’t get over his five-year relationship ending; he becomes a stranger in an even stranger city. When Simon meets a prostitute and falls for her, feelings become fresh and dangerous for Simon as he deals with his personal demons of regret and an uncertain future. Once secrets are uncovered about Simon and his new mysterious girlfriend, Simon Killer becomes an absorbing and a psychological drama with unexpected twists. There are flaws to Campos story, mainly in its direction, but his cinematographer Joe Anderson and composers Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans keep the mood of the film intact and leave an uncertainly of Simon’s character wondering if his guilt and motives are self-infected or reckless.
The biggest buzz film from opening weekend was Benh Zeitlin’s striking original feature film debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, featuring a cast of non-professional actors. Taking place in the deep south of Louisiana in the Delta community, eight-year-old Hushpuppy (an extraordinary Quvenshane Wallis) is dealing with the loss of her mother and is in the care of her tough loving father Wink (a tour-de-force performance by Dwight Henry) as they struggle to keep afloat after their community, known as “the Bathtub,” is all but lost. When Wink starts to show signs of being sick, Hushpuppy decides to search for her lost mother and becomes more independent trying to grow up around her desolated culture. Based on the play by Lucy Alibar, Zeitlin (who co-wrote the script with Alibar) brings an original voice to a story that seemed impossible to bring to the big screen and knocks it out of the park, with a story that takes audience to an unforeseen world of wonderment and amazement. Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t have a big budget and still brings an exquisite vision and more creative and intelligence that many studios would kill for and Zeitlin might be one of the most exciting directors with a bright future ahead. (Fox Searchlight bought Beasts of the Southern Wild, but no release date has been set.)
In my next article, I’ll be reporting more on my final three days at Sundance and Slamdance films with reviews of opening night documentary The Queen of Versailles, the midnight female slasher film Black Rock, LCD Soundsystem concert documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, and the sex comedy The Surrogate.
Image: This Must Be the Place, courtesy the Weinstein Company