Sundance 2008: The Hits and The Misses
Posted on Thursday January 24, 2008, 11:07 by Olly Richards in Under The Radar
It's well past the halfway mark at the Sundance film festival and what's curious is the almost total lack of buzz movies this year. By the opening weekend, Park City gossip is normally sprinkled with must-see titles, and the following Monday is when the first deals are announced. But, curiously, this year has been surprisingly quiet, and the feature films have been slow to shift – a mysterious situation, given the writers' strike and the studios' need for product. Instead, the documentaries have been leading the sales, with Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired getting an early send-off to HBO in the US and the Weinstein Company internationally. Though it features some great library footage and insightful interviews, however, this isn't a masterpiece by any means, spending too little time exploring the director's magnetism and motivation but far too long on the details of his trial for rape in the late 70s.
Another doc generating buzz is American Teen, a Real World-style quartet of high-school stories looking at the real person behind the labels 'jock', 'princess', 'emo kid' and 'nerd'. Again, it's good, but it ain't all that, although there is a superb illustration of Juno's depiction of teenage politics when the jock's best friend dates the emo girl – and drops her like a stone.
Also disappointing is Morgan Spurlock's Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, an attempt to track down the super-terrorist that, er, doesn't actually try very hard to track down the super-terrorist at all. It's amiable enough, with a brilliant opening salvo of dancing Osamas, but far better is a Spurlock-style investigation of steroids in sport, titled Bigger, Stronger, Faster. Ostensibly about the use of anabolics, director Chris Bell's busy, energetic film finally reveals itself as a study of the American dream and the desperation to win at all costs.
Osama's name appears elsewhere in the festival, mentioned liberally in Sharon Maguire's Incendiary, a rather poor study of grief starring Michelle Williams playing – brilliantly – a working-class Brit whose husband and son die in a terrorist attack. In a terrible coincidence, Williams' real-life (estranged) husband Heath Ledger was found dead the next day, and his passing not only dominated the news, it led to several unexpected connections. As a direct result, the cast of Funny Games pulled their press – Naomi Watts used to date Ledger, and Brady Corbett was a good friend – and the erroneous mention of Mary Kate Olson, whose apartment was at first believed to be the scene of the tragedy, led many to speculate about how much of her real personality went into her character in The Wackness, a drugged-out hippie girl with a thing for older men.
The Wackness is a film that typifies a new trend this year, which is the stand-out performance in a flawed film. Here, the scene-stealer is Sir Ben Kingsley as a pot-smoking psychiatrist who pals up with a young patient when his marriage hits the rocks. Like Sexy Beast, this is a revelation: with long, straggly hair and a goatee beard, Sir Ben is just amazing, giving what could so easily been a one-note performance a great deal of depth and empathy.
The same could be said of John Malkovich in The Great Buck Howard, in which he plays a fading magician (he prefers “mentalist”) who hires a frustrated law student (Coin Hanks) to be his assistant. The film never soars but Malkatraz does, complete with leery grin, stern handshake and a goofy catchphrase (“Isn't that WILD, folks? Isn't that WILD?”) that only he could do justice to. And finally, after a string of one-scene cameos in Planet Terror and Fast Food Nation, Bruce Willis gets an overdue meaty role in Assassination Of A High School President. Playing the school's ex-military principal in a mixture of Brick and The Parallax View, he's a deadpan treat, most especially when he's leading the school through a sing-song of a tune he wrote himself (“AM-ER-I-CAN... Fighting in the sand!”).
As of Wednesday, only three films had sold, the first being the Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke, a story of sex addiction and fraud, which went to Fox, followed by Hamlet 2, a Steve Coogan comedy snapped up by Focus Features in what many considered to be a pre-arranged deal. Most bizarre of all was the $3.5 million coughed up for Henry Poole Is Here, a drab comedy starring Luke Wilson as a terminally ill man whose last days are plagued by a nosy neighbour who sees the face of Christ on his outside wall. Still, there's a good few days left, with the hotly tipped Sugar, co-directed by Half Nelson's Ryan Fleck, getting decent world of mouth. But it has to be said, though the festival is as fun, lively and friendly as it ever was, the class of 2008 sadly doesn't square up to many previous alumni.
My Picks So Far
If Juno pushed the envelope, this smart, daring suburban comic drama seals it and posts it, telling the story of a half-Lebanese teenager who struggles with her sexuality. Toni Collette is the concerned neighbour and Aaron Eckhart plays the lascivious local guy-next-door who preys on her in this thoughtful feature debut from American Beauty writer Alan Ball.
Brian Cox is just staggering in this low-key revenge tale, which plays like The Straight Story meets A History Of Violence. After seeing his dog murdered by teenage yahoos, an ageing widower (Cox) goes on a quest for justice that ends in mayhem and murder in his close-knit community.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger
Concerned by his two brothers' use of illegal steroids, bodybuilder and filmmaker Chris Bell investigates the history of drugs in sports, and makes some uncomfortable observations. Scattershot it may be, but its passion and intelligence make up for a lack of clear structure.
Assassination Of A High School President
Someone steals the SAT papers in this uneven but vastly entertaining film noir/conspiracy thriller spoof, starring Bottle Rocket's Reece Thompson as a student journalist who investigates the theft and finds there's a whole can of worms just waiting to be opened.
The Great Buck Howard
John Malkovich rules as a cheesy illusionist in this often hilarious story of a college dropout who goes to work in the shabbier end of showbiz. Colin Hanks struggles in the lead but Malkovich is just brilliant as the out-of-touch maestro, boasting of his friendship with George Takei (Mr Sulu in “the Star Trek”) and graciously sharing the limelight with the famous “David Blainefield”.