Writer/director Paul Schrader's tackles Washington DC intrigue with this mess of a story involving a gay Southern gentleman (Woody Harrelson?!) whose main task in life is to occupy the time of wives of well-to-to political bigwigs while they themselves are doing the business of whatever they do in that perpetual lurid town. Add to this strange mix a murder, and Woody's desire to help cover up for one of his ladies (Kristin Scott Thomas)-a desire which ends up implicating him as the prime suspect. What could have been a success in the hands of a Hitchcock, turns into a lame attempt at mystery by the usually interesting Schrader. Nice turns by the distinguished case including Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, and William Defoe, however, fail to save the lame script and premise.
Jay Berg here for my yearly wrap up of my 7th Sundance with capsule reviews of only (!) 14 flicks. The numbers were down this year for the first time because, against my better judgment, I decided to take in the first 5 days of the fest instead of my usual back end. Going on the front end meant longer wait list lines (up to 3 hour waits for the most in demand movies-and there were instances when that didn’t get you in!) when tickets weren’t in hand (I went in with only 3). The crowds were enormous, despite the fact that the organizers made an attempt to spread them out using a closing night film for the first time, and attractive musical appearances as bait. The crowds didn’t bite. A friend who was there for all 10 days said the back half of the fest was extremely more manageable than the front end-and you could get into most wait listed movies without a problem. I also missed not seeing the award winners on the last day. So, as it turned out, for the first time I didn’t see any of the award winning films. Here are capsule reviews (using a 4 star rating system) of the programs I screened.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 19
“FRIENDS WITH MONEY” (**)
My group rolled into Park City late in the afternoon and headed straight to The Eccles to try and catch the 9:45 second screening. We ended up wait listing over 2 hours. We lucked out when the volunteers made the announcement just after the start of the Premier that it was unlikely that anyone would get in for the 2nd screening which resulted in about 100 people leaving the line. We decided to stick it out and were rewarded (?) when we were among the last group to get it. The star studded cast (including Jennifer Anniston, Joan Cusak, Catherine Keener, and Frances McDormand) made a token appearance on stage before heading for the party. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the highlight of the night. The movie? Disappointing. The 88 minutes seemed longer as it chronicled 4 lifelong L.A. friends and their relationships with each other and their significant others. Anniston as a kleptomaniac cleaning lady? PULLEESSSE! The dialogue and the relationships were a stretch to say the least. I had more fun in the wait list line.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 20
“WIDE AWAKE” (**1/2)
Director and screenwriter Alan Berliner’s documentary on his inability to sleep seemed like a novel concept in theory, but became bogged down in repetition and self-indulgence. A master editor, he trains his camera 24/7 on himself and, once again, 90 minutes seems like an eternity as we watch him struggle to gain some much needed shut-eye. If he had included some psychological and scientific studies on sleep deprivation, it would have been a tad more interesting. However, he seemed more intent on including the vast (and I do mean vast) collection of material in his workshop which he interjects constantly throughout his film to relate his struggle to stay asleep. I actually came away more concerned about his obsessive compulsive tendencies than his inability to get a good night sleep.
“COME EARLY MORNING” (**1/2)
Included in the dramatic competition, this was written and directed by Joel Lauren Adams and stars the talented Ashley Judd as a southern belle who always has a knack of choosing the wrong men as she tries to deal with her past. I never bought into the script or its characters. Judd’s acting, although superb, couldn’t raise this tired story to a higher level.
6 visual directors were asked to create an erotic/porno short with the caveat that it be no longer than 20 minutes in length. I was particularly drawn to this because it included one of my favorite directors Gasper Noe (creator of the brilliant “Irreversible” from 2004). As it turns out, his piece, “Babysitter”, was one of the least interesting of the lot. Watching sex with a blow up doll under a constant strobe effect was more annoying than erotic. Most of the pieces were tedious but the best one was by Larry Clark. “Impaled” details the director’s search for a willing virgin boy and then fulfills the boy’s ultimate fantasy to be broken by a porn-star of his choosing. HBO was mentioned twice in the credits so look for that to appear, if not in the theaters, somewhere in their future late night programming (maybe after their “Real Sex” series).
SATURDAY, JANUARY 20
After a VERY disappointing first full day, the mediocre steak finally ended with, what turned out to be, the best movie I screened at the festival. Director/screenwriter Laurie Collyer created a beautiful tough tale about ex-addict Sherry Swanson who, just released from a 3 year prison stay, tries to win the love and affection of her 5 year old daughter (being care for by her brother and his wife) while at the same time trying to adjust to an increasingly hostile world. Starring the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal, this film brings to realistic light characters that seem to jump off the screen. The script and acting are so wonderful by all the actors that, at times, I felt like I was watching a documentary. And watch out for 5 year old Ryan Simpkins! As for Maggie, her performance is a tour de force and is totally Oscar worthy. And, the Q & A was also amazing. The first question was by a woman who identified so much with the realism and subject matter that she literally broke down as she spoke. This prompted 2 of the actors to respond in same as each talked about how the movie affected them. Brad Henke (who plays Sherry’s brother) sobbed as he spoke about a sister he no longer was in contact with, while Giancarlo Esposito, who played Sherry’s parole officer, welled up while talking about how much he identified with the themes presented in the film. Not an easy flick to watch, the movie kept me spellbound to the very end.
“STAY” (*** ½)
I followed my best screened movie with, what turned out to be, my 2nd best. You may have read about the actual shocking premise, but I won’t spoil it here, even though it reveals itself in the first frames. Best to be surprised but, even if you aren’t, don’t let this deter you. A sweet innocent young lady does a one-time indiscretion that could possibly haunt her for the rest of her life. That is, unless she just keeps it a secret. And that is really the intent of the movie: when is it best to keep an indiscretion to yourself and to keep the truth from those you love? Brilliantly written and directed by Bob (Bobcat/”Shakes The Clown”) Goldthwait and starring Melinda Page Hamilton (who plays a nun on TV’s “Desperate Housewives”), this is actually a romantic comedy that must be seen to be believed. Hilarious and ultimately heartwarming, this film says a lot about relationships and truth. The film was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, so look for it in the theaters-hopefully soon.
“THANK YOU FOR SMOKING” (***)
I ended the day with the Premier screening of director Jason Reitman’s story based on the Christopher Buckley’s novel. A biting satire on the tobacco industry, politics, and Hollywood, this one has an all-star cast including Aaron Eckhart, Mario Bello, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes, and Rob Lowe. Eckhart plays (what else) the sleaziest lobbyist this side of Washington who is trying to defend the rights of smokers and cigarette makers in a society trying to rid it of both. At the same time, he tries to convince his son that what he is doing is right for the world. Unflinching in how it looks at both sides of the question, no one escapes unscathed. My only fault is that it went on a little too long and ultimately the film runs out of steam by the final reel. However, it is a load of fun for most of its ride.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 22
“THE NIGHT LISTENER” (** ½)
After a spectacular second day, I was brought back to earth with a disappointing premier of Robin Williams’ latest. Director Patrick Stettner, using a screenplay written by himself, Armistead Maupin (“Tales Of The City”) & Terry Anderson, weaves a psychological thriller about a dee-jay who investigates an alleged screenplay sent to him by a mysterious young listener. The cast includes the wonderful Toni Collette, who gives an eerie turn as the alleged young playwright’s guardian. The story was stodgy and never grabbed me and the ending never delivered on its premise. During the Q & A, the screenwriters revealed that the story was based on Maupin’s & Anderson’s actual experience and that there is an actual medical condition represented by the piece. Knowing this made the film ultimately more interesting, but not enough to recommend it.
“EVERYONE STARES (THE POLICE)” (***)
The 3 stars here are more for nostalgia than anything else. Sure to please any fans of The Police, this curious piece is all about drummer Stewart Copeland’s use of his super-8 as he documented the short but glorious history of the famous pop group. The quality of the film is limited by the original equipment and the choppy editing. Yet, there is something special about capturing what no one has done before: depicting the rise and fall of one of rock’s greatest bands from the inside while giving rare creative and personal glimpses of each member that one usually doesn’t get from slick documentary bios. Cuts of the musical pieces that are interspersed throughout in order to back up the visuals only wetted my appetite for hearing the complete songs by the super group.
“THE ILLUSIONIST” (***)
The premier of director/screenwriter Neil Burger’s period piece stars Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, and the great Paul Giamatti (who was quite busy at the fest with his starring turn in “The Hawk Is Dying”) in a juicy supporting role. The film, set in 1900 Vienna, relates an unusual love story between a poor magician (Norton), and his out-of-his-class love interest, the Duchess von Teschen, currently engaged to the smarmy crown prince (Rufus Sewell). Full of wonderful magic and illusion (at the Q & A it was revealed that no CGI was used in the film-and Norton performed all the tricks himself) the story will have you mesmerized and guessing till the end. Beautifully filmed and shot on location, this independent film has the feel and the look of many a mainstream movie. And Giamatti shows once again why he is one of the greatest actors on the planet. Great fun!
MONDAY, JANUARY 23
“FLANNEL PAJAMAS (*1/2)
I hated this trifle by directory & screenwriter Jeff Lipsky. The film chronicled the evolution of a relationship as it follows the couple from first meeting to final breakup. Both characters were sophomoric and I never believed or identified with either lead (Julianne Nicholson and Justin Kirk). Whether this was due to the pedestrian script or the acting, I found its over 2 hours almost unbearable.
Another movie based on Charles (“Barfly”) Bukowski’s second novel, as it focuses on Bukowski’s alto ego, Henry Chinaski, played sleazily and brilliantly by Matt Dillon. “Factotum” (“man of many jobs”) chronicles Chinaski as he goes from job to job, bottle to bottle, woman to woman, and bet to bet, while at the same time trying to become a writer. At times amusing, and other times disturbing, the movie is compelling and will literally drag you along for the voyeuristic ride. Nice turn by the talented Lili Taylor in a non typical role (for her) that will surprise you as Chinaski’s partner in crime.
“ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL” (**1/2)
I was somewhat disappointed in this premier of talented director Terry (“Ghost World”) Zwigoff’s latest based on Daniel Clowes’ screenplay. An over-the-top satire, it follows a good guy art student played by Max Minghella (director Anthony’s real life son) and his adventures in art school. The movie started brilliantly but fizzled out completely during the last two reels. And the abrupt ending had the audience collectively scratching their heads. Executive producer John Malkovitch gives a nice, but, for him, forgettable supporting role as an art teacher, but, overall this one needs some tighter editing and a much more satisfying conclusion.
“NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD” (****)
Jonathan Demme’s latest masterpiece is a compilation of Young’s 2 Nashville “Prairie Wind” concerts from last August-a mere 4 months after a brain aneurysm threatened to end his life. No one makes music/concert documentaries better than Demme (his Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense” still remains the standard in this category), and here he doesn’t disappoint. Thrillingly filmed (Demme used 9 cameras and a steady cam) and edited, you will be clapping along with the Nashville audience after each of the nearly 20 songs performed by one of the music world’s greatest living legends. Accompanied at times by Emmylou Harris and steel guitarist Ben Keith, as well as a host of other talented musicians, this documentary of music should be seen by anyone who loves and appreciates musical talent par excellence. The star studded audience included Matt Dillon, Clarence Howard, and a rare appearance by Sundance God Redford himself, who came down from his Sundance Ranch throne to honor Neil-who also had his wife Pegi and son in attendance. This is mainly the “acoustic” Neil Young, but the music rocks as much as a plugged- in concert. A true gem!