Sundance 2008: The Wrap Up
Posted on Monday January 28, 2008, 11:21 by Olly Richards in Under The Radar
The 2008 Sundance film festival was well over the halfway mark when something remarkable happened: not only did the quality of the films start picking up, but three bona fide discoveries were made. Now, the structure of the festival means that press screenings follow public screenings, so maybe we were a little late in catching up with heavy metal doc Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, which had its first shows on the opening weekend. Similarly we may have seen claustrophobic horror-thriller Donkey Punch after its midnight premiere. But World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary Winner Man On Wire truly came from nowhere, with British-born director James Marsh changing his travel plans to attend the closing-night ceremony with his superb, affecting film.
Anvil was slotted into the Spectrum strand of the festival (whatever that means), and, on paper, it sounds like a tired, post-Spinal Tap spoof, focusing on a Canadian hairdo rock band who enjoyed a brief vogue in 1984 when they played in Japan with the likes of Bon Jovi and The Scorpions. But although it owes several large debts to the early 80s comedy classic, Anvil is its own beast, simply because it is so acutely and painfully real, drawing an achingly funny picture of friendship and determination as the now fifty-something rockers give their axe-hero dreams one last go.
Had Donkey Punch figured in the World Dramatic Competition it might have had more exposure, but perhaps its sheer visceral tension was better left to the midnight crowd. It starts a bit like a Mike Leigh movie, with some northern British girls putting on micro-dresses and getting ready for a night on the tiles in Marbella. Before long, they've met some guys and they're on a boat, smoking meth, taking E and having rampant sex. Which could still conceivably be a Mike Leigh movie, until the film lands its killer blow: the signature move of the title that leaves two girls minus a friend and four guys looking at a prison sentence. It would be unfair to give away more about this terrific thriller, which plays like a mixture of Final Destination and Dead Calm. Suffice to say, there may be a drop in drug use by Brits abroad after this bloody but scarily believable thriller bows in summer.
Man On Wire might not be for all audiences either, and sufferers from vertigo may feel themselves put through the wringer as they watch, in recreated material and footage from the early '70s, French street performer Philippe Petit prepare for his life's ambition: to walk a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It's hard to pinpoint the exact appeal of this fantastic film, simply because there are so many fascinating elements, from the planning of this audacious hit-and-run stunt (Petit calls it a “coup”), to its execution on a cold August morning in 1974. But it's fair to say that Petit is the star of the show, a delightful Frenchman with a contagious sense of romance whose 45 minutes of fame high above the streets of New York's financial district remain an incredible achievement. Rightly, the film also won a prestigious audience award on Saturday night.
As usual, the awards were a mixed bag of dead certs and outsiders: with so many films screening, it was a rare festivalgoer who fitted in all 17 films in the US Dramatic Competition. The big prize went to Frozen River, with various nods to Ballast, Choke and The Wackness, and jury president Quentin Tarantino was most mindful of his responsibilities, making sure no filmmaker went home unappreciated. However, it must be said that Empire was a little disappointed to find that its favourite film came and went without much comment, except for the usual moans from industry types that it was simply there as “sale bait”, which, after a $10.5 million cheque from Universal, it proved to be. Still, there's no doubt about it: Hamlet 2 is already perhaps shaping up to be the funniest film of the year, giving even Judd Apatow's recent spate of laffers a run for their money.
Hamlet 2 stars Steve Coogan as drama teacher Dana Marshsz, a former alcoholic who, when not appearing in infomercials for juicers and STD treaments (“I'm having a herpes outbreak – but you'd never know. Thanks, Herpecol!”), stages high-school productions of Hollywood movies. After his version of Erin Brockovich is trounced by the smart-aleck school critic (“I feel like I've been raped…” he wails, “IN THE FACE!”), Dana decides to write his magnum opus: a sequel to Hamlet in which the Danish prince redeems himself, squares up to his father and, more importantly, builds a time machine that will save the lives of all those who died in the original (ie, everybody). Coogan is simply hysterical, doing all his usual goofy stuff but this time with a surprisingly three-dimensional, human depth and certainly more slapstick energy. Many of its lines will live on, like the warning that alcohol leads to “weed, cocaine, meth, chicks with dicks and jail – it's a slippery slope.” But this isn't simply a collection of one-liners and bare-arse jokes (not that there's anything wrong in that). This sharply scripted farce actually works as a movie too, right down to the final punchline, and even those who think Alan Partridge is the high watermark of Coogan's career may think again when they see the controversial centrepiece of Dana's ludicrous play: a Grease-style dance number called 'Rock Me, Sexy Jesus', with Coogan as a lascivious hot-body messiah, doing the mashed potato and kicking Satan's ass. For once, here was a rare film in the 2008 Sundance line-up that delivered what it promised. And unlike a lot of the bigger, starrier films on display (Hollywood movie biz spoofs The Deal, with William H Macy and Meg Ryan, and What Just Happened?, with Robert De Niro), it certainly won't be forgotten in a hurry.