Note from Jane: This is the first blog entry from FPH’s newest guest author, Karin Zauderer. Since I didn’t get to Sundance this year, and she did (she goes every year), I asked her to share her impressions of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
My first celebrity sighting of Sundance 2008 was at the Salt Lake City airport. I watched Tilda Swinton navigate her bags and a European looking hunk from the baggage claim to her private vehicle. I had just pushed my way though the fifty or so limo drivers waiting for various celebrities including Bono, Seal and Danny Glover to reach the baggage claim. While the chosen few were whisked away in SUV’s, the rest of us die hard film obsessed commoners waited patiently to be called for the next shuttle to Park City.
After a long two-hour wait, I finally found myself in the midst of eight strangers jam packed in a cramped van, making small talk and becoming bff’s for the hour ride to our respective condos and hotels. It was sort of like the Breakfast Club in a van. At one point the guy in the front seat says, “Did you guys hit Sundance last year? The movies were so depressing I felt suicidal afterwards.” We laughed and readily agreed. Ah the memories of Sundance 2007. The movies were provocative yet sitting through three raw, dark, intense movies a day is not for the weak hearted.
We optimistically anticipated a more balanced selection this year. Little did we know this year’s film festival was to be darker and gloomier than ever. No wonder distribution deals were few and far between. Even those films armed with A-list celebrities went home without deals. Sundance 2008 was indeed dark, but did not disappoint. I can only hope these films find their audience. Here are my Sundance highlights from the first half of the festival.
Ballast. To me, this movie is what Sundance used to be about and should strive to reclaim. I just love the fact that a first-time director made a movie with no celebrities or major connections and then holy shit.. finds himself at Sundance winning awards. That’s as cool as it gets. Ballast’s writer/director, Lance Hammer, put everything into this remarkable film shot in the Mississippi Delta using non-professional actors and a unique rehearsal process. The result is one of the most honest films in this year’s festival. A true gem in every sense.
Sundance describes the movie as “In the cold, winter light of a rural Mississippi Delta township, a man’s suicide radically transforms three characters’ lives and throws off-balance what has long been a static arrangement among them.” Hammer spent months in rehearsal collaborating with his actors while they acted out scenes from his script according to their instincts and inner voice. His mission with these actors was to dig deep and find out how these actors from the deep south would react to his story, and then capture these mesmerizing scenes on film. In the Q&A we learned that Hammer was immensely inspired by the Mississippi Delta landscape. He would drive for hours trying to loosen up his writer’s block and it was during these driving episodes through the dreary landscape that he decided to make a movie about life in the Delta. This subtle and moving film continues to be well received in Berlin and was one of the few films to reach a distribution deal during the festival.
Perro Come Perro. My house mates called at 8:30 AM saying they had extra tickets to see this movie. My friends and I are suckers for Latin films so we jumped out of bed, into our long underwear and raced to catch a taxi. There was no room for error and we miraculously reached our destination with two minutes to spare. The benefit of seeing this film first thing in the morning was there is absolutely no need for a coffee jolt. From the opening sequence peppered with catchy Latin pop music, you are hooked. The story is quite simple as Director Carlos Moreno and his talented cast and crew tell the story of a ruthless crime boss trying to find out who stole the money his thugs were supposed to collect on a job that went wrong. Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie would be proud of these folks. You are on the edge of your seat for most of this amped up film and although incredibly violent, you can’t help but appreciate that this film is indeed special.
Downloading Nancy. We chose to attend this film premier because we spent two hours standing in the main box office line at 6 AM with one of the producers. After a late night of partaking in the Sundance festivities, this poor guy had to endure the box office line at this ungodly hour to purchase tickets for their premiere because he’d already given his allotment away. His misfortune worked for us, though, because waiting in line we heard all about the controversial film including the financing challenges, change in cast members and late night drinking/rehearsal episodes in Canada. We decided to see what all the hype was about. And this film does indeed warrant hype. Or at least therapy.
The story centers on Nancy, played perfectly by Maria Bello, who is a despondent, empty soul living an unfulfilled life with her apathetic and distracted husband played by the superb Rufus Sewell. Nancy brings new meaning to the word disappointment. This woman has been let down by everyone around her and is so full of disappointment, there is literally no hope or chance of recovery. She is numb and struggles to make it through each day. She desperately wants to end her pain, and searches and finds an answer to her misery on the Internet, Jason Patric’s character Louis. The movie takes you on this emotionally exhausting journey as Nancy plans to do whatever it takes to find peace. This story is based on true events.
When this film was over I had two thoughts: Thought one – this is the most disturbing film I have seen since Deliverance (that is until I saw that one scene in the otherwise exceptional 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days , which is another story altogether); thought two – this film is flawless. Maria Bello is exceptional and deserves an Oscar even if no one ever sees this film. The other cast members were outstanding as well. Someone in the Q&A even asked the director “Why wouldyou ever want to make a movie this demoralizing and unconventional?” I have never felt a character’s inner turmoil and desperation before like I felt watching Maria Bello go to places I didn’t even know actors could go. This movie will haunt you for weeks but I am still glad we stood in the wait list line for over two hours to watch geniuses do their thing.
My biggest regret is choosing to see Henry Poole is Here, starring Luke Wilson and George Lopez over Hamlet 2, which is tapped to be the Little Miss Sunshine of this year’s festival and received one of the largest distribution deals in Sundance history. In my trancelike state after seeing ten or so hardcore depressing movies, I was going to laugh with Luke Wilson no matter what. The Owen Brothers do not disappoint. Or usually don’t. And I chose wrong! My housemates raved all night about the brilliant, smart and often hilarious Hamlet 2 starring Steve Coogan, about a high school drama teacher who tries to motivate his students and save his department by writing a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Catherine Keener and Elizabeth Shue co-star. How could I have missed Elizabeth Shue’s big comeback?
Henry Poole is a mediocre display of Luke Wilson’s improving acting talent. He proves he can carry a film, however the storyline is weak and unimpressive. The gist of this film is that Luke Wilson’s character believes he is dying and this film teaches us about miracles and having faith. This ‘nice’ film has a few charming moments, however is mostly too predictable. The highlight is the excellent soundtrack. It’s hard to believe this film was bought while other masterpieces still sit in limbo.
Other movies my group of friends enjoyed and would recommend seeing include:
Up the Yangtze. Upon completion, China’s mammoth Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River will be the largest hydroelectric power station in the world. Progress, though, comes at a price: the dam will displace more than a million residents and destroy numerous cultural and archaeological sites, upending a way of life. In Up the Yangtze, filmmaker Yung Chang sensitively examines the effects of this massive project on personal lives as he follows two young people, each one transformed by the construction.
Nerakhoon. With the rise of a Communist government in Laos, killings and arrests became common among those affiliated with the former government and the Americans. Families were torn apart–some finally emigrating to the U.S. In a truly remarkable collaboration spanning more than 20 years, famed director of photography Ellen Kuras debuts her first directorial effort with Laotian co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath, the main subject of the film. Phrasavath takes us through his youth, his escape from persecution and arrest in Laos, his family’s reunion, their journey as immigrants to America, and the second war they had to fight on the streets of New York City. By the way, this film took 23 years to make!
Red. Set in small-town America, Red derives its title from a 14-year-old dog that is the sole companion of Avery (Brian Cox), an older gentleman who lives alone with his memories in a simple existence posing no threat to anyone. One day while he is fishing, three troublesome teens terrorize him and kill the only thing he has left to love in the world—his dog. He sets out on a quest for an apology, but the situation soon escalates into much more.
We also enjoyed several of the Shorts programs. In fact, I enjoyed the shorts at Sundance more than the ones nominated for the Oscars. Looking back on Sundance 2008, including the sleep deprivation and carb-only diet, I find myself counting the days until next year’s showcase of the best in independent film. I am even looking forward to the 6 AM box office lines and torturous shuttle rides. It’s definitely worth it.