Sundance 2011 – Film Round-up
This year’s Sundance was marked by an uptick in attendees and acquisitions. The weather was generally superb, and the films were generally noteworthy. Here is a representative overview of the myriad films on offer.
An African Election
Over the last few years in Ghana the Merz brothers were granted unprecedented access to both candidates, their political parties and crucially the vote tabulation process. Director Jarreth Merz explained after the screening that his family’s several generations of being on the ground in Ghana established a sense of trust among the various players. In much the same way Annie Leibovitz once described herself as becoming a nearly invisible part of the notorious 1972 Rolling Stones tour, Merz and his crew faded into the background of the Ghana election. It is that fly on the wall status during tumultuous times that makes this documentary so compelling. The subtitles became superfluous after about ten minutes, once the accents became digestible. The film’s theme is that after the 2008 election in Ghana the world’s perception of regime change in Africa was forever altered. As evidenced in Ghana, no longer would an African election automatically result in riots, bloodshed or coup d’etat. The candidates were shown to be charismatic and the slices of Ghanian life were fascinating. Merz mentioned after the screening that the election was monitored by several global organizations, including the Jimmy Carter Center. The film would have been more powerful had reference been made to those organizations. Like the best documentary films, An African Election opens a door into an otherwise little known topic.
My Idiot Brother
A strong cast saves this film from slipping into mediocrity: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer. Rudd plays Ned, a character made of equal parts from The Big Lebowski, Rain Main and Inspector Clouseau. Rudd/Ned is less of a stoner than The Dude, but he could have easily been a first cousin. Busted early in the film for selling pot to a uniformed cop, Ned lands in jail. He then returns home to his organic farm, girlfriend and beloved dog Willie Nelson. The girl kicks Ned out (she has already replaced him with another dude), and won’t let Ned take Willie Nelson. Ned then sets out on a series of vignettes visiting and innocently disrupting the lives of his three sisters (hence the film’s title). A nymphy bisexual sister does not know how to deal with her surprise preganancy. A mousie sister discovers her documentary-shooting husband is boinking his ballerina subject matter. And budding Vanity Fair journalist sister is caught in a fact-checking sequence about a billionaire heiress whom Ned befriends. Director Jesse Peretz keeps the pace lively, in what could have been a sitcom styled production.
In A Better World
Director and writer Susanne Bier is a veteran at Sundance. Her latest offering is a complex and emotionally engaging morality tale. The story draws an unlikely parallel between a Scandinavian teenage boy and an evil African gang leader. But the connection only evolves amidst a multilayered storyline. The question raised by Bier is whether revenge is justifiable. She elucidated after the screening that the emotional pull supporting revenge is universal, but the end result is rarely satisfying. A solid cast buttresses the film, with stand out performances by Mikael Persbrandt as the seemingly moral doctor without borders and William Jøhnk Nielsen as the troubled youth yearning for clarity. Sony Classics will have a winner when this film is distributed.
The best film yet to get a distribution deal. Kevin Clash can stroll down the busiest street in Manhattan completely unrecognized. When he performs, however, he becomes perhaps the most recognizable character in the world. This documentary describes the journey of a young man with a dream, who achieves his seemingly unattainable dream. Clash began sewing his own puppets at an early age, putting on backyard shows and getting grief from his classmates. He then met some of his hero puppeteers, got a spot on a local TV station in Baltimore and could not believe his good fortune. Through long lost footage and interviews shot over the last few years, director Constance Marks and her stellar team have crafted a film that elicits smiles and tears in equal measure. A particularly sublime sequence is when Clash makes the wrenching decision to turn down an offer to work with his hero Jim Henson on the feature film Dark Crystal. It would have meant Clash leaving two steady TV gigs. But when Henson later asked Clash to design puppets for Labyrinth, Clash takes the leap of faith. Once hired at Sesame Street, Clash handles a series of puppets until one of the veteran puppeteers tosses him one of the minor characters. Clash evolves Elmo into the rock star, and the rest of the story is a testament to Clash’s humility and success. It is hard to believe this film has yet to find a distributor.
The Grand Jury Prize drama is one of the lighter films to win this award, but it is an accomplished sophomore effort for cowriter/director Drake Doremus. (His film last year was the underwhelming Douchebag). Producer Jonathan Schwartz confirmed that the budget was less than that of Avatar, and then recalibrated that the budget was rather less than $3 million. Constructed from a 50 page outline and shot on a modified Canon still camera, the mostly improvised production is an impressive accomplishment. The story has a strong start, a slightly sagging middle and a strong third act. A young couple meets on the eve of college graduation, each in their first relationship. He is set to stay in LA, and she needs to return to London becasue her student visa is set to expire. The depth of their relationship is tenderly portrayed. Doremus confirmed that he did not want to blame her, him or the immigration laws that kept them apart. Doremus set out to show what it is like to be in a long distance relationship, and he succeeded admirably. Felicity Jones (who earlier in the evening won the Special Jury Prize for Acting) is a charming and beautiful actress. Her beau, played by Anton Yelchin is equally evocative. Her British parents are delightful, with a penchant for whiskey. Jennifer (Winter’s Bone) Lewis has a small but tender role, and she undoubtedly holds the distinction of being the only actor to appear in two successive Sundance Grand Jury winning dramas. The scenes at LAX and Heathrow are remarkable for capturing the essence of poignant departures. My completely unscientific survey revealed a strong male affinity for the film. Over a few days contemplation, I realized the film owes more than a nod to The Graduate, and not just because both films feature memorable use of music by Paul Simon, from two eras.