Sundance Part 9: oh, all sorts
Posted on Saturday January 24, 2009, 10:03 by Damon Wise
It's hard to see everything here in Park City, so I've seen a very small percentage of the films in the competitions. However, the half dozen I've seen have been quite diverse and pleasantly decent. Big Fan is one I particularly enjoyed but I can't imagine it ever getting a release in the UK, since it's about American football – which is ironic, since there isn't actually a single scene of American football in the movie. If I had money to burn I'd by the remake rights, since it would transfer amazingly well to soccer. It stars Patton Oswalt as Paul, a guy in his 30s who still lives with his mother in Staten Island. Paul is a Giants fan, obsessed with quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), and when he and his loser best friend see Bishop at a filling station they decided to follow him. Bishop's first stop is a crack house, though Paul doesn't realise it, and then they move on to a strip club, where Paul approaches Bishop in the VIP area, explaining that they've been following him. In a coke-addled fit of paranoia, Bishop lashes out, beating Paul to a pulp. But, ever the fan, Paul refuses to press charges, and even feels guilty when the Giants' star player is suspended. While there are shades of Taxi Driver, it's quite a sweet comedy, although writer-director Robert Siegel (who also penned The Wrestler) perhaps understates the narrative to the point of sparseness.
Less interesting was Adam, with Rose Byrne as Beth, a budding children's author who falls in love with the man downstairs (Hugh Dancy), an astronomer with Asperger's Syndrome. Though there are some funny lines (“I'm not Forrest Gump,” he despairs when Beth gives him a box of chocolates), this is just an average issue-of-the-week movie, the kind of thing the Hallmark Channel might show, although it does avoid some of the usual cliches. Better in this field was Lee Daniels' Push, about an overweight black girl struggling in the projects of New York. Peppered with dream sequences that alternately work and don't work, it's a bit of dog's dinner that benefits from great performances and a lot of warmth and sincerity. The audience loved it; it's sure to win something.
In The World Dramatic Competition, Lone Scherfig's An Education (above) is the front-runner by a mile. Starring a brilliant breakout performance by Carey Mulligan as precocious 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny, it takes place in 1962 in the suburbs of London. While waiting for a bus, Jenny meets the suave, sophisticated David (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy entrepreneur who sweeps her off her feet. David seems too good to be true, and it's pretty clear that it won't end well, but Scherfig brings her usual light touch to Nick Hornby's somewhat schematic script, and there are myriad delights in the incidentals, whether it's Alfred Molina's hangdog turn as Jenny's social-climbing father, Emma Thompson as the stern headmistress and Sarsgaard as the sleazy but sympathetic David. This excellent film will figure heavily in next year's Baftas, methinks. Unlike the next two: Dead Snow, a Norwegian zombie movie, is great fun, popcorn stuff but not much more. It starts a bit unevenly, with in-jokey dialogue that recalls the beginning of Cabin Fever (lots of name-checking of slasher flicks), but when the kids get to the isolated house in the snowy mountains it starts to get much, much better. Cribbing the lost treasure macguffin from the Pirates movies, it finds a roving band of undead Nazis coming back from the grave to protect their ill-gotten gold. Lots of great, inventive gore ensues, and thankfully the film doesn't outstay its welcome.
Meanwhile, I still don't know what to make of White Lightnin', a Midnight Movie by Dominic Murphy starring Edward Hogg as Appalachian dancer Jesco White, whose somewhat colourful life starts with glue-sniffing and ends with self-mutilation (to put it mildly). As Variety would say, tech specs are aces; Hogg is terrific and the grubby, violent world of white-trash America is scarily recreated, but the film has a staccato quality that makes it hard to buy into. I suspect that's partly the point; like Jesco, White Lightnin' takes no prisoners, and it made an interesting companion piece to Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, a similarly provocative, full-on crim-pic that has been wowing audiences here.