Sundance 2003 | Film Festival | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Culture » Film Festival

Sundance 2003




All the Real Girls

(Dramatic Competition) * * *.5

Writer/director David Gordon Green follows up his debut home run George Washington with a leg-triple. Set in a North Carolina mill town, it casts Paul Schneider as an aimless 22-year-old skirt-chaser who falls for his best friend’s inexperienced 18-year-old sister (the electrifying Zooey Deschanel). From the stunning opening shot that bypasses meet-cute for cinema’s sexiest hand kiss, Green and cinematographer Tim Orr make naturalistic rural ennui as visually arresting as it is emotionally convincing, scored to a stunning must-own soundtrack. While the side trips to other characters’ stories occasionally feel distracting, the unconventional love story at Real Girls’ core boils with conviction.

Balseros (World Documentary) * * *

This seven-year history of five Cuban families affected by the 1994 mass raft exodus to the United States develops into a fascinating examination of grass-is-always-greener thinking. Providing a solid context for the refugees’ desires to better themselves, the filmmakers follow the balseros as they discover American life isn’t what they expected, while divided families respond to separation in widely varying ways—occasionally depending on the filmmakers’ video to know what’s going on with one another. Memorable characters contribute to the impact of a surprising thesis: Immigrants’ American Dreams may not always be worth the cost.

The Baroness and the Pig

(World Cinema) * *

It probably seemed like a brilliant conceit: Shooting a period drama about democratizing technology on high-definition digital video. Problem is, HDDV still looks all wrong for a film like this. Michael Mackenzie adapts his own play about an American heiress (Patricia Clarkson) who marries a debt-ridden French nobleman (Colm Feore) and dreams of bringing her “modern ideas” to 1887 Parisian society, including civilizing a girl (Caroline Dhavernas) raised among swine. Interesting ideas emerge once you’re past the obvious who’s-the-real-pig-here motif, but the flat DV keeps underscoring Mackenzie’s awkward direction. Thematic appropriateness be damned—give this thing some gloss, and it might have worked.

Bookies (American Spectrum) * *

Is it an edgy comedy? A tense crime thriller? Or a soggy melange of the two? Nick Stahl, Johnny Galecki and Lukas Haas star as college pals who start a small-time bookmaking operation out of their dorm room, but quickly get in over their heads. The same could be said of director Mark Illsley, who tries to set up a kinetic pace but winds up with a pure plot machine where the plot—including the buried climactic twist—simply isn’t that interesting. A game little genre piece forced uncomfortably into an indie wrapper, Bookies can’t put its money where its attitude is.

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (Documentary Competition) * *.5

Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin taught the principles of passive civil disobedience to Martin Luther King, and organized the 1963 March on Washington. So why don’t you know his name? According to this bio-profile, probably because his sexual orientation—he was openly gay—forced him into the background. Those who remember the 1998 Sundance doc Out of the Past already know Rustin’s story, and this more detailed account takes a thoroughly straightforward approach, including plenty of general background about the segregated South. As history, it’s important in reviving Rustin’s legacy; as filmmaking, it’s still more of a textbook than a living, breathing portrait.

Bukowski: Born Into This

(Documentary Competition) * * *

The hypnotically lilting voice of Charles Bukowski—America’s poet laureate of dissolute living throughout his 40-year writing career—commands attention in this portrait of the artist told largely in his own words. Director John Dullaghan effectively juxtaposes the character Bukowski created for himself—a fighting, drinking, gambling womanizer patterned after his hero Ernest Hemingway—with a more complex personal biography. Scattered expert interviews provide seasoning, but the man himself provides the meat in archival interview footage rich with raconteurial spirit and the author’s sinewy verses.

Cremaster 3 (Frontier) * * *.5

Don’t worry that you won’t “get” the final film in sculptor-turned-director Matthew Barney’s Cremaster saga if you haven’t seen the others—you won’t get it even if you have seen the others. But “getting” Cremaster 3—a freaked-out three-hour tone piece involving Freemasonry, the construction of the Chrysler Building and a video game-type ascension through the Guggenheim Museum—is thoroughly secondary to experiencing the jaw-dropping melding of its visual and sound design. Blasting his way through everything from slapstick comedy to Cronenbergian body distortion with avant-garde glee, Barney turns modern masculinism into an unforgettable head trip.

The Day I Will Never Forget

(World Documentary) * *

Intrinsically gripping though the subject matter may be—the tradition of ritual female circumcision on pre-teen girls in Kenya—British documentarian Kim Longinotto never finds that one ideal angle from which to approach it. Instead, she slides back and forth between several “sub-plots,” making for a mix of gut-slamming moments—a girl pinned to the ground and mutilated against her will, a husband more concerned with being shamed than with physically harming his wife—and frustratingly cursory character studies. The result is a cultural anthropology lesson that keeps pulling back just when its individual human subjects are about to come into focus. (World Cinema) * * *

Three Canadian teens—impulsive street kid Harold (Harold Amero) and his less worldly friends Adrian (Adrian Rogers) and Nicole (Nicole Raven)—take a gritty 11-day cross-country trip to complete a suicide pact in this surprisingly effective verité drama. Plenty of viewers will cringe at the Blair Witch-ian vibe of three self-named characters on a strange videotaped journey, or the idea that this is just a north-of-the-border variation on Kids (which writer/director S. Wyeth Clarkson knowingly skewers in one bit of dialogue). But pitch-perfect performances and several priceless episodes energize it, even when the whole ends up less than the individual parts.

Detective Fiction (American Spectrum) *.5

Patrick Coyle manages the triple threat of floundering as writer, director and star of this muddled portrait of a marriage on the rocks. Jack (Coyle), a recovering alcoholic technical writer, is trying to express himself by writing a hard-boiled novel; his wife Jennifer (Mo Collins) waffles over her affair with a college student. But should we care? Coyle pitches most scenes with a tone of detached irony, making it impossible to invest in the fate of his characters. A few clever monologues can’t disguise an emotional vacuum so complete it should be studied by physicists.

The Education of Gore Vidal

(Documentary Competition) * * *

Memo to documentarians: It helps immensely to have a born provocateur like Gore Vidal as your subject. Director Deborah Dickson dutifully explores the historian/novelist/liberal gadfly’s background as scion of American political royalty who used his insider’s view to criticize power, and employs staged readings of the author’s work by notables including Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon to highlight his oeuvre. But the film comes to life when Vidal speaks matter-of-factly in his own voice of a democracy torn loose from its moorings. Perhaps more entertaining to the like minded, it’s nevertheless a lively portrait of a man unafraid to say anything to anybody.

Iran, Veiled Appearances (World Documentary) * *

What a shame to take such a potentially fascinating subject and turn it into an organizational mess. Belgian filmmaker Thierry Michel explores Iran 20 years after the revolution, and discovers a society torn between hard-line Islamic fundamentalists and a younger generation longing for a freer, more democratic government. That’s great stereotype-busting stuff, but Michel buries it in lengthy, almost gawking scenes of Iranians in fervent religious expression, many left unexplained for far too long. While the voices of reform are surprising, the film unfolds largely as a frustrating, shapeless jumble of exotic images.

Is the Crown at War With Us? (Native Forum) * *.5

Veteran documentarian Alanis Obomsawin’s inspires a contagious sense of outrage as she chronicles a dispute between the Canadian government and the Mi’gmaq nation of New Brunswick over fishing rights that had in theory already been granted the native people by a Supreme Court ruling. But she winds up so obsessed with the issue—and with one-sided interviews—that she spends too little time observing how it affects the Mi’gmaqs’ daily lives. Startling footage and an infuriating sense of injustice can’t erase the impression that, with a slightly broader vision, Obomsawin could have had a classic on her hands.

The Kite (World Cinema) *.5

For some, lugubrious ultra-realism like this qualifies as art. Others will suspect that somewhere, Sergei Eisenstein is rolling over in his mogila. Alexei Muradov directs this 24-hours-in-the-life study of a Russian man (Victor Solovyev) with a painful life as a prison guard and father of a wheelchair-bound son. Weathered faces, bursts of blinding light and creative sound design only take you so far when every miserable moment makes the average Mike Leigh film look like a Marx Brothers romp. Bonus points, though, for likely being the only Sundance film this year in which you can see a grown man bitch-slap a rooster.

Laurel Canyon (American Showcase) * *.5

Lisa Cholodenko (High Art) delivers another story about the irresistible appeal of mature, drugged-up bohemian women. Sam (Christian Bale) returns for his psychiatric residency to his home turf of L.A. with bookish fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who gravitates to the world of Sam’s mother Jane (Frances McDormand), the record producer whose rock ‘n’ roll life has been a life-long embarrassment to Sam. Performance and milieu carry the film a long way (just like in High Art) but depth of characterization comes only in drips (also just like in High Art). Cholodenko’s next step is to move beyond films that look great to films that cut deeper.

Levity (Premieres) * *.5

This is the guy who wrote Men in Black, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Super Mario Bros.? Ed Solomon makes his directing debut with this low-key redemption drama about convicted murderer Manuel Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), released from prison after 23 years and trying to atone for his wrongs. Thornton typically disappears into the role, and he plays well with stellar supporting cast members Morgan Freeman, Kirsten Dunst and Holly Hunter. Solomon, however, directs the way writers-turned-directors too often direct—happily giving his cast great dialogue without creating a compelling visual sensibility. Slow, thoughtful and serious don’t make it art.

Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity (World Cinema) * *.5

Mina Shum (Double Happiness) continues her exploration of Chinese-Canadians wrestling with the demands of tradition in this amiable dramedy about three families in one neighborhood, centered around a 12-year-old girl (Valerie Tian) and her misfiring attempts to help her single mother with magical charms. The fanciful elements sometimes collide uncomfortably with the more conventional conflicts, often dampening the potential for real drama. But the appealing performances—and a goofy karaoke performance of “Sometimes When We Touch” by a love potion-afflicted suitor—help it all go down smoothly, even if it’s no more filling than a bite of dim sum.

Love and Diane

(American Spectrum) * * *

Diane, a recovering Brooklyn crack addict, spent years trying to get clean and regain custody of the children taken from her by social services; daughter Love found herself in an identical crisis when her own infant son was placed in foster care. Jennifer Dworkin spent five years following the family, creating an epic portrait of cycles of tragedy. It occasionally spends too much time on mundane detail when a simpler telling might have served the story better, but still creates indelible images of people searching for a way to make peace with their past sins.

The Murder of Emmett Till

(Documentary Competition) * *.5

A galvanizing moment in the American civil rights movement—the 1955 slaying of a 14-year-old Chicago boy in Mississippi because he allegedly whistled at a white woman—gets a lean, mean treatment in Stanley Nelson’s documentary. Nelson effectively conveys the differences between life in the segregated South and Till’s native Chicago, and benefits from the strong voice of Emmett’s mother Mamie. But ultimately there’s little here that’s truly revelatory besides a great snapshot characterization of a gleefully racist sheriff. Disturbing though the story—and the images of the brutally beaten Emmett—may be, here it only makes for occasionally gripping filmmaking.

The Pill (Documentary Competition) * * *

Chana Gazit and David Steward construct an energetic history of the oral contraceptive that gives it both context and character. Using short but effective strokes, the filmmakers introduce all the key players—family-planning activist Margaret Sanger, down-on-his-luck biologist Gregory Pincus and Catholic obstetrician John Rock—as well as the social obstacles faced by their quest for female birth control. Though limited by its one-hour running time, The Pill nevertheless creates a compelling argument for its subject’s central role in liberating women and mobilizing them to monitor their own heath issues.

Robert Capa: In Love and War (Documentary Competition) * *

The measure of a talking head bio-doc like In Love and War is the extent to which it brings its subject to life—which Anne Makepeace never quite accomplishes. Her profile of the Hungarian-born photographer, whose too-brief career generated some of the most astonishing images of warfare ever recorded, captures all that was so remarkable about his work. However, despite narration from his journals provided by actor Goran Visjnic, the answer to why Capa risked his life for his art remains tantalizingly out of reach, leaving a film that works better as an installation than as a character study.

Rolling Kansas (Midnight) * *.5

If the words “this year’s Super Troopers” don’t inspire a grin, direct your attentions elsewhere. Those who can’t help chuckling over misfit misadventures—like this road movie about a quintet of pals seeking a legendary forest of marijuana—will enjoy the ride as long as it lasts. Actor Thomas Haden Church (Wings) directs with a bit too much concern for making things wacky, like the ongoing use of goofy subtitles. That still doesn’t spoil the mellow entertainment of Rolling Kansas’ episodic silliness, highlighted by Charlie Finn as the group’s blissed-out quinte-stoner and Rip Torn’s cameo as an aging hippie guru.

The Same River Twice

(Documentary Competition) * *

I wish I could find something inherently compelling about the fact that people who were once free-spirited 20-somethings are now responsible 40-somethings. Robb Moss juxtaposes film clips from 1978—when he was part of a nudist commune of Colorado River guides—with present-day portraits of five of his subjects. He finds that yes, they have grown older, and that, refreshingly, none of them have entirely sold out their idealism. But the effort to connect past with present feels token at best, leaving isolated shots of Baby Boomers living their lives—and as lives go, they’re just not interesting enough.

The Shape of Things (Premieres) * *.5

From the first hammering chords of Elvis Costello’s “Lovers’ Walk,” Neil LaBute’s fifth feature announces itself as a tale about the treacherous path of a relationship—this one between a nerdy museum security guard (Paul Rudd) and an edgy art student (Rachel Weisz). It’s also about the treacherous path sometimes playwright LaBute walks as he tries to bring a cinematic sensibility to material that screams out to be performed on a stage. As a text it swirls with discussion-provoking ideas and LaBute’s stinging Mamet-ian dialogue. But is this thing really a movie? Just because it’s in the shape of one doesn’t mean it is.

Soldier’s Girl (Premieres) * * *

Frank Pierson (the telepics Truman and Citizen Cohn) snaps off another crackling fact-based drama in this story of army private Barry Winchell (Troy Garity), who stared down the dark side of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when he fell in love with a transgender cabaret singer (Lee Pace). Shawn Hatosy co-stars as Winchell’s troubled roommate, and he struggles to give weight to the repressed feelings hinted at in Ron Nyswaner’s script. But the central romance comes to life through brilliantly staged musical numbers and the splendid performances of Garity and Pace. Soldier’s Girl aches with a rare genuine emotion.

Song for a Raggy Boy * *

It’s an inspirational teacher drama! It’s a squalid period tale of Irish les misérables and institutional abuses by the Catholic Church! Wait, kids—it’s both! Aidan Quinn stars as our Hibernian Mr. Chips, a Spanish Civil War vet circa 1939 who tries to make a difference at a church-run boys’ reformatory school lorded over by the brutal Brother John (Iain Glen). The naturalistic performances by young newcomers provide the only spark of authenticity in Aisling Walsh’s heavy-handed tale. It’s too busy creating inhuman villains to make for anything but alternately affecting and distasteful melodrama.

The Thirteen Steps (World Cinema) * *

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing director Masahiko Nagasawa is against the death penalty. There’s really no mistaking the blunt-instrument moral of this ostensible mystery about a prison guard (Tsotomu Yamazaki) and a recently furloughed prisoner (Takashi Sorimachi) teaming up to find evidence to clear a wrongly convicted death row inmate. Potentially intriguing quests for redemption abound, as do plotting decisions that seem to have been sent to potential American remake partners for approval. A movie with a message but not the faintest sense of subtlety, The Thirteen Steps takes way too many false ones.

Woman of Water (World Cinema) * * *.5

Filled with compositions that make you giddy at their virtuosity, Hidenori Sugimori’s debut feature casts a spell even when its story wears thin. Japanese pop star UA plays a woman with a “gift” for causing rain, who inherits the family bathhouse business and a life of loneliness after the death of both her father and her fiancé. A love story involving a fire-obsessed young man ensues, including a silent, impressionistic sex scene that is only one of Sugimori’s seemingly endless supply of memorable images. As a fable it can only be so emotionally involving, but when a movie looks this good, it almost doesn’t matter.

How to Sundance

Individual tickets for some screenings are still available by phone (521-2525) or at the Trolley Square (8 a.m. ? 7 p.m. through Sat. 1/25; 8 a.m. ? noon Sun. 1/26) and Park City Gateway Center (8 a.m. ? 7 p.m. through Sat. 1/25; 8 a.m. ? 5 p.m. Sun. 1/26) box offices. Tickets for all screenings are $10. American Express, Visa, MasterCard or cash are accepted.

Day-of-show tickets are released for many screenings, and must be purchased in person at the Trolley Square or Park City Gateway Center box offices, or at screening locations after regular box office hours.

Wait List tickets are available for many screenings. Numbered Wait List cards are distributed one hour prior to screening times on a first-come, first-served basis. Large venues (Eccles Center, Library Center) offer the best opportunities for successful Wait List entry, though these venues do also host films for which demand will be higher.