Sundance 2009 – Complete Film Coverage
The big news at Sundance was the economy. Buyers were cautious with their wallets, and many films are still awaiting a sale. But as always, there were myriad gems being screened and at least one well-named stinker.
The Sundance Logo celebrated the Festival’s 25th Anniversary
The most moving film of the Festival, and perhaps the most moving film I have seen in years will never again grace the big screen. This true story is going straight to HBO, where the director is confident (and accurate) it will garner more eyeballs. Kevin Bacon plays a senior Marine officer who for semi-inexplicable reasons volunteers to accompany a Marine killed in Iraq on the dead soldier’s final journey home.
Director Ross Katz told me that the recent spate of Iraq films and the current economic climate do not bode well for a film such as his. The difference between Taking Chance and so many other Iraq films has to do with honoring the soldier, not the debatable policy of the war. Screenwriters Lt Col Michael R. Strobl (Ret.) and Ross Katz had pages of script with no dialogue, which caused no end of consternation for the executives at HBO. Bacon had to express much emotion without dialogue, while striking a knife-edge balance of a Marine’s dignity and a man touched by the nearly inexplicable.
The entire creative team spun magic. Cinematographer Alar Kivilo was responsible for evoking images where words weren’t possible. The budget did not allow for a massive orchestra, yet composer Marcelo Zarvos underscored the film’s message with grace and understatement. Precise editing by Lee Percy and Brian A. Kates detailed the intricate process by which a soldier’s body is prepared for his last voyage, and traced the story across the country. Taking Chance is Katz’s stunning debut as a director. This is a monumental film, and it is being tastefully previewed now on HBO for screening later this month.
The documentary genre has blossomed in recent years, evolving into enjoyable polemics from the likes of Michael (Farenheit 451) Moore and Morgan (Super Size Me) Spurlock. Crude represents a welcome return to form, where both sides of the issue are presented. In this case, Joe Berlinger revisited Sundance with a well-honed film about the struggle of Ecuadorans seeking redress from Texaco/Chevron for petroleum damage done in the Amazon. The battle has continued for over a decade, with 30,000 Ecudorans and several attorneys fighting the US corporation. The legal skirmishes are presented with an even hand; Chevron was given a full release when they turned over operations to PetroEcuador. The film makes clear that the damage to the region (one of the most biodiversified areas on the planet) is shocking. To this viewer, the guilt seems to be spread among Chevron, the government of Ecuador and its national oil company. The sad reality is that those least able to seek redress (the indigenous tribes in Ecuador and the larger community of man) rarely get their story told. Berlinger (previously at the helm of the Metallica documentary) does an admirable job of revealing this saga.
Kevin Spacey plays the titular role, a weary and weed-fueled psychiatrist of a disparate crew of Hollywood characters. The psychiatrist’s chair has been a popular motif, made recently compelling via The Sopranos. Here, the motif is reversed because it is the doctor’s story we are following. (A calculated but throwaway line about the film Ordinary People generated knowing laughs, given Redford’s involvement therein and his frequent visage at Sundance).
Spacey is at the intersection of a Venn Diagram, with stories intersecting across characters. Thomas Moffett’s screenplay hangs together well, and Jonas Pate’s direction is solid. A bevy of actors are in fine form, including cameos from Gore Vidal and Robin Williams. Dallas Roberts is notable as an amped version of Jeremy Piven’s tightly wound agent. The sturdy Robbert Loggia plays Spacey’s father. A simplistic description would be Shrink = Crash + Entourage + Short Cuts. This film will do decent numbers in wide release.
After the screening, Kevin Spacey consistently praised his castmembers.
In The Loop
Speaking of simplistic formulas, In The Loop = Wag The Dog + The Office. This clever comedy shows the sausage-making process of political policy on both sides of the pond. A pair of thick Scottish accents obscures some scathing and hilarious dialogue. (Subtitles would not be out of place for some scenes). One wag commented the writers spent more time on the swearing than the plot, but I found the film clever. The action bounces between Washington DC and 10 Downing Street. Leaving aside the wacky plot, the story develops nicely and the chuckles are delivered consistently from the four screenwriters. James Gandolfini plays a robust General, and he is joined by a talented cast including Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, David Rashe, Gina McKee, Chris Addison, Anna Chulmsky and Mimi Kennedy.
Set in a sparkling New York City on a recent May 25th, Uma Thurman plays a harried Mom trying to do it all. Minnie Driver plays her best friend and Anthony Edwards is the husband. Katherine Dieckmann directs from her own script, and told the screening audience that she shot on her own street and that she referred to the production as “No Sex in the City.” The audience included the main cast, plus Jodie Foster who has a cameo playing herself. Driver wowed the packed crowd at the afterparty, running through a musical set.
Fielding Audience Questions: Uma Thurman, Katherine Dieckmann, Minnie Driver and Anthony Edwards
Minnie Driver at her post-screening gig.
Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire
The closing night Grand Jury award winner was the gripping, gritty, grim but ultimately uplifting tale of an obese teenager twice impregnated by her absent father. Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in squalor, struggling to exist in NYC.
Director Lee Daniels and Gabourey Sidibe savor the Jury Award ceremony
Her mother (played by Mo’Nique) is easily the most horrible character in recent memory. Paula Patton is the eye catching teacher who gives Precious guidance and hope. A nearly unrecognizable Mariah Carey is a social worker caught between mother and daughter. The story could have been predictable, but in director Lee Daniels’ hand the script by Damien Paul unfolds in a surprising way. Much of the cast had departed Park City by closing night, but Daniels was ebullient about the award, cracking jokes about the black cast being unsure about travelling to the whiteness of Utah. Once this film gets out of its post-Sundance litigation, it will prove a marketing challenge.
Most everyone agreed that this film was astutely titled. The Polish Brothers delivered an over-stylized, second rate Coen Brothers derivation. Tia Leoni channeled Teri Garr and Billy Bob Thornton reprised many of his prior roles. Kyle Lachlan played a rival fertilizer salesman. The constant sepia tone of the film wore thin, and the era is better portrayed on TV’s “Mad Men.” Give this film a miss in favor of any of the other films in this review.
Billy Bob Thornton, Tea Leoni and Kyle Lachlan interspersed with cast members.