MOVIES | Sundance report, Part 2: Tragedy, controversy, and a few good laughs

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PARK CITY, UTAH—Battling the sloppy and slush-filled sidewalks, a sporadic sleep schedule, constant drowsy red-eyes, and lack of protein, Sundance was just heating up and I needed a second wind to make it through my final three days. Having some much-anticipated titles to look forward to, I was not going to have the unexpected or uncertain elements, bring down my movie-going experience. Working up a frenzy to keep pace I just had to strive forward and hope that the films I was planning on seeing over the next three days lived up to the ones I had just seen.


While I was looking forward to Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me more than any other title at the festival, after seeing it I can see why it became a polarizing title at the fest. Faithfully based on Jim Thompson’s 1952 pulp novel, the film stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a sheriff in a small Texas town, who is hiding a villainous secret within him. When Lou’s boss tells him to kick Joyce (Jessica Alba), a beautiful prostitute, out of town, he ends up falling for her, and they begin a sexual and violent relationship. All the while, Lou has been dating Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). Lou and Joyce plot revenge against Chester Conway—a local construction kingpin—and his son Elmer, who’s been with Joyce; Lou blames Chester for the death of his brother, Mike who worked for Conway. What starts out as a double-cross on Ford’s part only becomes more tangled in deception, lies, sex, and more violence. Audiences were split on the film, due to the violent nature of Affleck’s characters physical abuse against Alba in a graphic, brutal beating. By choosing not to cut away, Winterbottom should have people talking about this scene until the film is released by IFC Films, who picked up the film shortly after its world premiere. This is the same company that released Lars von Trier’s controversial Antichrist, so I don’t see them cutting anything out. If people want to dismiss the film because of one scene, so be it—but The Killer Inside Me beautifully captures the 1950s noir period. Thie movie is filled with dark humor and features another brilliant performance from Casey Affleck, again shows himself capable of showing the different sides of a complicated character—in this case, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Grade: B


From a violent American film to a violent Australian film: David Michod’s Animal Kingdom has promise to make it to American screens and should, with its Greek-tragedy storyline. After the mother of young Joshua Cody, or “J” (newcomer James Frecheville), dies from a drug overdose at the beginning of the film, J goes to live with his relatives—who happen to be hiding from the law after committing armed robbery. The ringleader Pope (a ferocious Ben Mendelsohn) now needs J to trust him and his other troubled relatives, who are holed up at the home of his godmother (an exceptional Jacki Weaver), but when J is approached by Lt. Leckie (Guy Pearce) after his uncle Baz (a fine Joel Edgerton) is gunned down by the police, Leckie offers to help J out of his moral dilemma and possibly to rescue him from his crime-ridden family. Michod’s story—he also co-wrote this year’s Hesher—is compelling and violent, featuring a few scenes with unexpected violence (think John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, in Pulp Fiction, shooting Marvin accidentally in the face), but the film seems to come to a screeching halt, then goes back into overdrive, and then comes to another stop to slow the story down even more. Animal Kingdom runs close to two hours and could been edited down a good 15-20 minutes. Grade: B-


The harrowing documentary A Film Unfinished brings to light a previously unknown propaganda film that was started, but never completed, by the Third Reich. No one knows who actually “directed” the film, but it was called The Ghetto. The film was discovered after the war, with no soundtrack and voiceover, and Film Unfinished supplies no voiceover narration. The footage shows Jews living in luxury, while in fact they were living in horrible conditions. Director Yael Hersonski has survivors watch the film, who were children at the time, on camera; even more surprising, Hersonski finds the original cameraman, Willy Wist, who watches the film in horror and gives commentary on everything he shot and how he was able to achieve the footage. A Film Unfinished is tough to watch and never lets up during its 90-minute run time. There is still a pain in my stomach from watching the footage of the unspeakable horror the Nazi regime did to so many innocent people. Grade: B


Tender moment


Derek Cianfrance’s film Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple whose marriage is on the brink of ending. While Cindy and Dean have had a tough go of it lately, they decide to go away for an evening in hopes of making their marriage and family—they have a daughter Frankie (an adorable Faith Wladyka)—work. Blue Valentine uses flashbacks to show the origins of the couple’s relationship, which works as a mystery showing where their once loving relationship started and why it has now gone south. Gosling and Williams both give the best performances of their careers, performances you’ll want to savor. Cianfrance and his two co-writers have raised the bar for romance movies, getting up close and personal in Cindy and Dean’s lives. Watching Gosling and Williams in some intense verbal altercations, semi-explicit sexual scenes, silent desperation, and in the harmonious beginnings of their love, I decided that Blue Valentine was not only my favorite film I saw at Sundance this year, but the best I’ve ever seen at Sundance. The Weinstein Company has picked up the film, my guess is that it will be released right before Oscar season heats up next fall. Grade: A


Going to Sundance, there is always a film or two that ends up being a wild card: one that I haven’t had on my radar until I actually get into the thick of all the standing and waiting in lines, talking with other programmers, journalists, and film enthusiasts. In my first three days, I heard nothing but extremely positive remarks about Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a drama mystery set in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri. Winning the Dramatic Grand Jury prize and picked up by distributor Roadside Attractions, Winter’s Bone is an astute family drama and has a strong lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence (The Burning Plain) and terrific supporting work from Minnesota native John Hawkes (Me and You and Everyone We Know). Ree Dolly (Lawrence) has just been notified that her meth-cooking father, Jessup, has put their home and land up for his bail, and now Ree has one week to find her father before her family—a catatonic mother and two younger siblings—have to vacate their land and home, which is all they have. Ree struggles to find answers from other friends and relatives who keep quiet rather than speak the truth, and the only help she finds is from her dad’s brother, Teardrop (Hawkes). Winter’s Bone is an involving film, where characters lie and hide information, and Ree’s investigation only becomes part of the central mystery as Grabik’s profound script, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell and winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, creates tension supplies haunting characters, memorable locations, and engrossing surprises. Winter’s Bone keeps you guessing at every bump in the woods. Grade: A-


Girl in wind


After one too many dramas, I was in desperate need of a good laugh, so thank goodness for Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s absorbing and delightful documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The doc showcases a year in the life of Ms. Rivers, who at age 75 still works overtime and has no plans of slowing down any time soon. The workaholic Rivers made me tired, watching her go from QVC studios promoting jewelry products to working on a stage play she was set to premiere in London and becoming a contestant on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice—breaking a blackballing inflicted upon her by NBC for over 20 years, since she left The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to star in her own talk show. Amid all that, Rivers still finds time to sign books. Stern and Sundberg’s film, in its zesty 81-minute run time, is at various moments moments hilarious and heartbreaking: it’s a truthful examination of one of America’s most iconic entertainers. A winner for best documentary editing, Penelope Falk captures the lightning bolt that is Rivers, hectic and joyous in her everyday life, even while Falk shows the constant strain Rivers goes through as she constantly strives to reinvent herself. Stern and Sundberg’s previous documentaries have been on more somber subjects compared to Rivers (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback, The End of America)—not to say that Rivers doesn’t have her serious moments on screen—and with Charles Miller’s skillful cinematography, Stern and Sundberg succeed again at giving their subject enough room to open up. They tell their story with compassion and truth, and I have a newfound appreciation for Ms. Rivers after seeing her work her magic. Grade: A-


If Joel Schumacher’s Twelve, the closing night film, was a comedy, nobody told me. Based on Nick McDonell’s 2002 novel (he was only 17 years-old when it was published), Twelve is nothing new, with its look into the world of wealthy Manhattan teenagers who crave attention, drugs, sex, and violence. As White Mike (Gossip Girl‘s Chace Crawford) is looking forward to selling weed to students home on Christmas break, his cousin is shot by drug dealer Lionel (rap star 50 Cent), who White Mike buys his stash from as his other friend is accused of killing his cousin with everything leading to a rich kid’s big birthday party for the girl of everyone’s dream, Sara Ludlow (a bland Esti Ginzburg). A pedestal plot that has been done over and over again features endless voiceover from Kiefer Sutherland, who does have a great voice, but the voiceover is about as interesting and pointless as yesterday’s news. Jordan Melamed’s script has some unintentionally hilarious lines, that I think they were meant to be taken seriously; as for Schumacher, who directed a bunch of brat-packers in St. Elmo’s Fire, back in the mid-80s, he was probably looking to get some indie cred with this unenlightening portrait of youth in turmoil. Surprisingly, Twelve was picked up before its world premiere by distributor Hannover House and will eventually open in theaters. Grade: D+


On the other hand, a film that deserves to be picked up and seen across the country, where it will soon be deemed a cult film, is Eli Craig’s over-the-top silliness Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. When Tucker (Reaper‘s Tyler Labine) and Dale (Serenity‘s Alan Tudyk) head to their new cabin in the woods, they have a run-in with some college students leaving for a weekend of camping. Later on, as Tucker and Dale are fishing, not too far from their boat the kids are skinny-dipping. One of the girls spots Dale sneaking a peek at her, and as she falls into the lake, Dale dives in to save her and brings her aboard their boat. The college kids think that their friend has been kidnapped by Tucker and Dale, and that’s when the film takes flight and brings new meaning to the term, “comedy of errors.” Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson have created an original story that deftly weaves elements of horror and comedy together. Watching Labine and Tudyk go back and forth with classic one-liners about how to handle “the issues” the kids have is uproarious, and this is one film I’d love to see a sequel to. From David Geddes’s slick cinematography to Bridget Durnford’s precise editing to a plot that prances from one mischievous accident to the next, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil might have been the best escapist film of the festival. Listening to others chuckle continuously through an 85-minute film is rare, and I wanted more. Grade: B+


Lastly, the Slamdance Film Festival—an independent event that occurs concurrently with Sundance—had an interesting slate of films screening, including the world premiere Spalding Gray documentary from Steven Sodenbergh, And Everything is Going Fine, which sadly I missed due to conflicting screenings. I did see three films from Slamdance; the first was Todd Berger’s The Scenesters, an interesting take on film noir through the eyes of a crime scene cleaner. With the help of a independent film director and producer, the three team up to catch a serial killer in east L.A. The Scenesters doesn’t really work as a comedy, thriller, or a film noir, and has issues with its unappealing script trying to fuse all the genres into one. Aside from a promising lead performance from Blaise Miller, playing crime scene cleaner Charlie, Berger’s film falls to the waste-side. Grade: C


YellowBrickRoad follows an expedition of young exploers walking into the woods searching for clues as to what happened to the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire some 70 years ago. The film starts strong but about halfway through loses its marbles searching for answers to its own questions, almost like a dog chasing its own tail. The film has eerie similarities to The Blair Witch Project, and has sections of experimental filmmaking—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but watching people eating poisonous berries, talk to a hand-held video camera about their fears, and yelling constantly left me with the distinct taste of rehash. Grade: C-


The best of the three Slamdance entries I saw was director Alexandre Franchi’s highly original and oddly strange The Wild Hunt, a Canadian narrative that sinks its teeth into its subject and never lets go. In the world of live action role-playing (LARP), Erik’s girlfriend Evelyn has had enough of him and goes away for the weekend to participate in a LARP game where his brother Bjorn (co-writer Mark A. Krupa) is heavily involved as one of the captains in the game. When Erik goes to the event looking for Evelyn, he is annoyed as he walks into something over his head, dealing with the various players and tribes taking the game more seriously than there own lives. There are some severe consequences in The Wild Hunt, and Franchi takes the viewer along a wild hunt indeed, turning the game sideways and leaving no competitor safe from any wrongdoing. The Wild Hunt‘s cinematic game may result in catastrophic damage, but aren’t we taking chances every day on our own “wild hunt” to survive life? Grade: B+