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issue no.
  thursday
161
  january 22
2004
c o n t e n t s
 
Tread Lightly and Carry a Big Beard: Two New Bands Enter the Scene
RED Reviews
 
Projecting Self: Erica Church Presents Myth and Video
 
 
Sundance and Sundon't: The Only Reason We Still Feel Special Rolls Into Town
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
20 Sundance Films
 
 
described by
Jeremy Mathews
 
     
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
 
 
 

 coverStory

 

The Nonstop Mambo of Sundance

A Daily Account of the Country’s Largest Film Festival
by Jeremy Mathews

 
For 10 days in January Park City Main Street is prettier than Christmas. Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine
 
 
One of the hardest theatres to wait-list into, the historic Peery's Egyptian Theater in Park City is also the farthest walk from a shuttle.
Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine

 

   

fter six nights and five days, the 2004 Sundance Film Festival is shaping up reasonably well. On a series of five-film days, I haven’t seen as many horrible films as usual, and after seeing some remarkable ones like “Maria Full of Grace” and “The Machinist,” it will have been a fine fest if the final days continue in this tradition.

Thursday: An Opening Night of Change

Tis year’s Sundance Film Festival’s opening night contained several firsts. It was the first time the Park City-based event opened in Park City, and it was the first time that a documentary opened the 10-day event.

The festival, which runs until midday Sunday, Jan. 25, opened at the Eccles Theatre in Park City with Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants.”

The documentary follows three pioneers in big-wave surfing (really big waves) with kinetic cutting and music. Peralta comes up with nice editing techniques to document elated moments of wave- catching and disquieting deaths, creating a more involving film than the standard historical talking- head picture.

The festival has always been very supportive of documentaries, with the competing documentaries often making for the strongest category of the festival. Peralta’s “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” about skateboarding (and a little of the surfing that influenced it), was an audience favorite when it played three years ago, and such breakthrough documentaries as last year’s “Capturing the Friedmans” and 1999’s “American Movie” (whose director, Chris Smith, has a special screening with “The Yes Men” and is a jury member this year) have emerged from the festival.

In a year when documentaries like “Friedmans,” “Spellbound,” “Winged Migration” and “Fog of War” played well in theaters, it seems appropriate that Sundance gives the documentaries a little more limelight. Maybe next year they’ll play the doc competition in bigger venues than the tiny Holiday Village Cinema.

The other change, although not as significant, is the movement of opening night from Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City to the Eccles Theatre, which is half the size of Abravanel Hall. The only real problem with this is that they might as well not have the Salt Lake City premiere, which now takes place Friday when the festival is in full swing, since most press and hard-core festival-goers won’t be able to go to the film, Chris Eyre’s “Edge of America,” because many other films will be on in Park City at the same time.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the poor quality of digital projection. Every year I try not to see very many digitally projected films — and sit in the back when I do see them so that the poor quality details aren’t as apparent (although there’s nothing I can do about the color problems). Every year I find myself scribbling into my notes that the picture looks crappy shortly before I get a headache. This is the first time I’ve written the tirade after seeing only one film, though.

The effect was particularly detrimental to some of Peralta’s clever cutout animation sequences, which are supposed to look like an old filmstrip — and also to the archival footage that actually is an old filmstrip. While it might make for some interesting postmodern experiment to have pixelized images that are supposed to look like old filmstrips, this effect shouldn’t be forced on movies.

"Sundance Myth #18: You can never have too much publicity."
Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine
Friday: Warm Receptions For “Iron Jawed Angels” and “Garden State”

Having gone through entire past festivals with none or only one of them, it was a bit surprising to witness two standing ovations on the first day of the festival, for “Garden State” and “Iron Jawed Angels.” While neither film was flawless, they both vibrated with emotion that apparently grabbed the crowd.

Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” in dramatic competition, turned out to be much better than most dramatic competition films that receive a lot of hype prior to the festival, when no one has seen them. The film is an intelligent romantic comedy starring Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm and Peter Sarsgaard, with clever, thoughtful dialogue and several hilarious sight gags that recall a forgotten age of cinematic comedy.

With its many well-known actors and less-than-original premise, I can already hear people besmirching the film for being too mainstream, but it really isn’t. The characters are vivid and thoughtful and there’s no reason that independent film can’t be filled with humor — it can be a refreshing break from a few films that take themselves too seriously.

With strong performances and interesting and joyously jumpy editing, Katja von Garnier’s premiereIron Jawed Angels” tells the story of the National Women’s Party, founded by Alice Paul in 1912 to speed up the slow- moving suffrage movement by demanding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Hilary Swank plays the brave Paul in a quasi-passion story as she stands up for what is right, even if it means breaking with her peers, who want to take things slowly.

The film’s final act, in which the party members are arrested for legal protests on fabricated charges and go on a hunger strike, caries affecting poignancy and was most likely the source of the standing ovation.

HBO Films produced the movie, continuing its support of independent narratives and documentaries that include past festival entries like “Southern Comfort” and 2003’s hit indie film “American Splendor.”

You never whom you'll see on the streets of Park City.
Photos by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine
Saturday: World Cinema Spins Globe in its Category and in Premieres

The World Cinema category at Sundance often holds some of the most interesting films of Sundance and this year is no exception, with a blend of charming and powerful films. Last year saw “Whale Rider,” “28 Days Later” and “Bend it Like Beckham” as well as the new documentary category, which included “Balseros” and “Bus 174.”

Two premieres tonight were foreign works and the regular categories have displayed strong works throughout the festival.

Guy Maddin, that strange Canadian filmmaker who gives his films a look as if not much has changed in photography since the silent age, delivered another happy oddity in “The Saddest Music in the World.” Set in Winnipeg during the Great Depression, the film circles around three family members competing for separate countries in a competition for the saddest music in the world, a contest sponsored by the beer baroness of Winnipeg, played by the redoubtable Isabella Rossellini.

The money-obsessed, nonmusician son Chester (Mark McKinney) has sold out to compete for America with fancy broadway numbers featuring a French nymphomaniac he picked up, while his veteran father represents Canada. Both men have a dark romantic past with the baroness. The other depressed son, whose wife left him, is representing Bolivia with his cello. I’d try to describe more, like the celebratory beer pool, but it would just sound stranger.

Maddin creates an insane mishmash of cultural and personal identity, set to the music of scarred, tortured souls.

“Central Station” director Walter Salles premiered his new film The Motorcycle Diaries” as well, resulting in yet another standing ovation, this time from a packed crowd very excited to see executive producer (and Sundance Institute founder, of course) Robert Redford.

While there might have been a strong bias from the excited audience, the film is indeed very good, portraying a young doctor-in-training and his slightly older friend from Argentina who venture to ride through all of South America. With Gael Garcia Bernal’s strong performance grounding the film, Salles paints a portrait of a pointlessly split continent and a need for human compassion.

While these high-profile premieres bring foreign film to the foreground, the regular World Cinema program has a strong collection of good to brilliant films. One of the best films at the festival is the Spanish entryTake My Eyes.” In a brave performance, Laia Marull plays a wife whose husband abuses her. While most mainstream films deal with domestic violence as a jumping-off point for a cheap thriller, writer/director Icíar Bollaín refuses to paint the husband as a simple villain and instead shows him as a man with whom a woman could fall in love and try to forgive — except in the moments when his jealousy and insecurities turn him into a monster.

Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin!” is already an international hit and Sony Pictures Classics is going to distribute it in the United States. It played to an enthusiastic audience at the festival. The film takes place over the course of the year in which the Berlin Wall fell and the German Democratic Republic ended and with it, communism in Germany.

The film is about a young man whose nonsocialist father left his idealistic mother when the country divided. Shortly before the wall comes down, his mother has a heart attack when she sees her son arrested for protesting, and she doesn’t wake up until after the drastic social change. The doctor says that excitement might hurt her, so her son takes her home and tries to create a world for her that still looks like the world before she left, creating fake newscasts and wearing old clothes.

Stander” has a fantastic source story, portraying South African bank robber Andre Stander, who made a name for himself in the early 1980s by thumbing his nose at a disliked government. A cop from an esteemed family, Stander grows fed up with apartheid rule and the killing of unarmed blacks and bucks the system to become an uncatchable bank robber. At one point, he hears on the radio that he missed a hidden safe at a bank robbery and goes back.

As Stander, Thomas Jane offers a performance that requires his ability to assume many identities, as Stander did both during his robberies and his life. Director Bronwen Hughes takes advantage of Stander’s wonderfully outlandish and unlikely crimes to make a film that’s at times entertaining and at times disturbing.

The World Cinema Documentaries category, starting its second year, is quickly becoming a fascinating realm as well, with the striking Screaming Men,” an exploration of a Finnish performing arts troupe.

One of the most U.S.-related topics of the festival is in the Canadian film The Corporation.” An audience hit at several previous festivals, the movie uses interviews with icons and experts and humorous clips from old classic, educational and propaganda films. In over two hours of studious material, the filmmakers argue that the drive to make money goes beyond moral and immoral people because the corporate structure itself causes the problems since by its design, it limits personal liability yet claims the protective rights of a person.

Interior of the beautifully refurbished Peery's Egyptian Theatre at the top of Main Street in Park City.
Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine

Sunday: The Nightmare of “The Machinist” and Real-Life Horrors of “Maria Full of Grace”

Two of the festival’s best films debuted today, with Brad Anderson’s premiere “The Machinist” and the dramatic competition entry “Maria Full of Grace.”

The Machinist” is a masterpiece that fully enters the mind of a troubled, sleepless man. In one of the most transformative and brilliant performances ever, Christian Bale looks like a starving man as a factory worker who has withered away after not sleeping for one year. “If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist,” he’s told, and it’s true.

I desperately asked Bale, who lost 64 pounds for the film, if the footage was digitally altered to make him look any thinner, but no, it was all him.

His character, Trevor, is a lonely factory worker who finds company only in a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and an airport diner waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) whom he tips big. His insomnia begins to play on him psychologically as the film spirals toward a conclusion that denies the standard pitfalls of puzzling films while combining with Xavi Giménez’s cinematography for a hypnotic experience.

First-time writer/director Joshua Marston’sMaria Full of Grace” debuted as one of the best films in competition. With a wonderful cast of unknowns, it is a mostly Spanish- language film about a 17-year-old Colombian girl whose situation of poverty and newly discovered premarital pregnancy leads her to transport drugs to New Jersey. It follows the recruitment and mission, as she swallows capsules full of heroin.

If any of them break, she dies, and they must stay in her stomach until she gets out of customs.

A riveting scene on an airplane shows Maria and three other women sweating and worrying as they stay on the plane without any control over their fates. While there are certainly political connotations to the film, its greatness lies in its involving ensemble of characters in desperate situations.

If “Maria Full of Grace” is the most powerful film in competition that I’ve seen, One Point O” is the strangest. Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson have created a futuristic world that that’s a bit of “Brazil” and a bit of nothing you’ve ever seen before. The film is a combination film noir, Luis Bunuel and David Cronenberg. While the sinister plot can sometimes drag as much as it intrigues, it’s the best-looking film in competition so far.

Monday: Dramatic Competition Strongest in Years

 
  This wouldn't be legal in Salt Lake City. Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine

I’ve seen two more strong films in dramatic competition, “Primer” and “The Woodsman.” With other films I’ve yet to see like “Napoleon Dynamite” receiving strong word of mouth and “Maria Full of Grace” and “Garden State,” this competition program is becoming quite solid, if a little short on masterpieces.

There are small independent films, and then there’s Primer,” Shane Carruth’s $7,000 science-fiction drama in competition. Despite his lack of funds, Carruth put digital filmmakers to shame and shot on Super 16-mm film and got strong performances out of his unknown cast.

The film is a puzzling time-travel story that avoids the standard time-travel paradoxes for developments that are all its own. Carruth, who decided to act in the film because he knew he’d always be on the set, and David Sullivan play two corporate technological scientists who operate a side business with two other friends in their spare time. They decide to work on an ambitious project without their friends and the ramifications of their discoveries slowly become clear.

The film’s spiral structure creates layers of puzzles that will likely appeal to fans of works like “Pi,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Memento” that demand multiple viewings for full appreciation. At the same time, it communicates thoughts on trust and friendship on the first viewing instead of being a convoluted mess and we understand that if it’s a bit complicated, it’s because the characters have put themselves in complicated situations.

Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman” sees the humanity and personal struggle of a man who could easily be dismissed as a monster. Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a convicted child molester who returns to his hometown after 12 years in prison and has to try to readjust to a normal life.

The film admirably tries to understand the struggle and the horror that the perpetrator feels about his own reprehensible deeds, while examining the way others treat him. Kyra Sedgwick plays an employee at the lumber yard where Walter gets a job, and she tries to understand and forgive him while most people want him dead.

An amazing scene toward the end of the film reveals both the frightening danger of Walter’s impulses and himself coming more to terms with it.

There have been a few other interesting films in competition. Jacob Kornbluth’sThe Best Thief in the World” contains an accurate portrayal of troubled youth. It manages to have a mother who’s very caring but also says things like, “At this rate you’re going to be thrown in jail before you get laid.”

Untrained actor Michael Silverman plays Izzy, a 12- year- old growing up in New York City and who likes to be alone and break into people’s houses — but not to steal things, just to mess with them by taking a shower or rearranging their furniture. His father is incoherent and in a wheelchair after a stroke and Izzy’s mother, a schoolteacher, is worried about his recovery, keeping her job while having to take care of her husband, insurance problems and her oldest son.

Tuesday: Documentaries Reveal Personal, Historic and Political Realities and Bertolucci Survives Censorship

This year’s documentary competition contains an assortment of historic, PBS-style films like “The Fight” that are well- done — if a bit conventional — personal journeys such as “In the Realms of the Unreal” and “Dig!” and political statements like Super Size Me,” which has become the most popular film of the festival so far.

To investigate the United States’ obesity problem and corporate responsibility, director Morgan Spurlock decided to try an experiment in which he eats nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. That’s three meals a day, nothing that isn’t available at the restaurant and if they ask him if he wants to “super-size” his meal, he has to say yes. Morgan is an amusing and observant interviewer when he talks to employees about their super-size success rates and when speaking with his doctors, who find his health deteriorating at a rate faster than anyone expected.

Morgan’s humor and clever visual devices, including various on-screen representations to hammer home the significance of statistics and studies, make him a promising force in documentary- making.

Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal” looks at the life of outsider artist Henry Darger, who painted hauntingly odd pictures and wrote a 15,000-page epic novel about a longtime war in a fantastical world.

Yu splices together different interviews with people who knew the elder Darger while was working as a janitor and attending church in the 1970s, demonstrating that none of them really knew him and weren’t even sure how to pronounce his name.

The film’s most interesting concept is the parallel combination of Darger’s novel and his life story, culled largely from his autobiography. Animated versions of his paintings bring the story to life as Darger moves from various fragile emotional states and questions his faith and purpose. Yu has cleverly created a study of a man whom nobody knew.

Screening in a special section was The Yes Men,” the new film co-directed by Sarah Price, Dan Ollman and Chris Smith, who is a juror and has been at Sundance three times previously with “American Job,” “American Movie” and “Home Movie.” The film follows the antics of two men and their many collaborators who, after creating a satirical Web site making fun of the World Trade Organization, were mistaken for the organization several times and invited to speak at conferences.

Their funniest antic involves a presentation in a textile company in Finland that evolves from a clinical presentation about third-world labor being cheaper than slavery and ends with the speaker ripping off a suit to reveal a gold jumpsuit with a giant phallus that has a built-in screen so that corporate leaders can monitor their workers while enjoying leisure activities. Smith and Co. leave open how useful the group has been, but they’ve at least gotten press out regarding their views.

At the screening on Tuesday, the Men revealed their new model of the phallic gold suit —now a camouflage one with the phallus as a rocket (or confetti) launcher.

At night, Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film The Dreamers” made its U.S. premiere, uncut after a bit of censorship. “An orgasm is always better than a bomb,” he said, from a video recorded in Rome, Italy. Bertolucci was unable to attend the premiere due to a recently procured injury.

Despite his reputation, Fox Searchlight almost censored Bertolucci’s film for U.S. distribution, but made a last-minute decision last week to release it with an NC-17 rating, which studios avoid because of an unfair stigma on the rating. It’s sad to be reminded how much money and marketing concerns affect independent film, due to the financial risks involved.

The film was a nice marker to the first half of the century, a bittersweet love letter to cinema and Paris and one of Bertolucci’s best films in recent years.

This diverse round of films, from a guy with $7,000 creatively making a movie to a TV actor using his connections to get his dream cast on a unique romantic comedy to a documentarian exploring the identity of an enigmatic artist, represents the many voices in independent film today and the Sundance Film Festival —overly categorical or commercial as it may be —houses them all.
jeremy@red-mag.com



 
 

 

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