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Cover Story: Fresh Voices, New Stories and New Approaches to Storytelling

Despite all its hype, Sundance remains the place to show your indie film

By Jason Gargano · January 23rd, 2008 · Cover Story
  Jennifer Phang
Jennifer Phang

Jennifer Phang

PARK CITY, UTAH -- It's cold. Really cold. As in single-digit, below-zero-after-wind-chill cold. As in my feet feel like blocks of ice within 10 minutes of landing in the snow-laden terrain here, home of the Sundance Film Festival.

Weather is but one of the many traits that make Sundance a unique, sensory-stimulating experience.

The 24th edition of the festival kicked off Jan. 17 as thousands of film freaks of every stripe -- from platoons of distributors and filmmakers to journalists and publicists to actors and hangers-on -- flocked to this small ski resort town for what´s become the largest, most significant film festival in the United States.

In fact, given the ongoing writers strike in Hollywood, this year's edition is being hyped as possibly the most important to date. Studios, terrified the strike will cut into their future release slates (that's a good thing, right?), are likely to snap up anything remotely marketable, which means the frenzied, late-night negotiating between distributors and filmmakers could rise to even more ludicrous levels.

Yet by the close of Sundance´s opening weekend, few films had been sold. Marina Zenovich's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a documentary about the acclaimed filmmaker´s legal troubles, was a rare exception. The Weinstein Co. snapped it up shortly after its first screening.

More importantly, few movies were getting the kind of unabashed love that one hopes to experience at a festival featuring more than 200 feature films (culled from 8,731 submissions).

Nearly everyone I talk to has had the same reaction: "I liked a lot things, but I'm still waiting for something I'm truly excited about."

Yet Sundance is 10-day festival, and favorites are sure to emerge. As are trends, one of which has already surfaced: The majority of the dozen films I watched the first weekend dealt with the uneasy state of the world today.

A sense of deep anxiety courses through the veins of these films, and several delve into issues of death and/or emotional desolation, whether in an overt way (George Romero's Katrina-inspired zombie movie, Diary of the Dead) or in a more intimate fashion (Jennifer Phang´s elegant family melodrama Half-Life).

Yes, according to the films of Sundance 2008, one is left with the distinct sense that the apocalypse -- on a personal and/or global scale -- is imminent.

'Sundance is weird'
American independent dramatic and documentary features are still Sundance's bread and butter, but the festival's rapidly improving slate of foreign films has been an intriguing development in recent years.

I shared a van ride from the Salt Lake City airport to Park City with Japanese filmmaker Naoko Ogigami, whose Megane is in the World Dramatic Competition. Exhausted after a 17-hour trip from Japan, Ogigami, after several pregnant pauses, sheepishly described her film like this: "Hmm, uh, yes, uh, it's a comedy." Alas, so far I've been unable to see if her spare description is accurate -- I missed the lone opening-weekend screening.

"We see ourselves as the premiere film festival in America," Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore said when introducing the Jan. 17 opening-night film, In Bruges. "And we have a mission to each year showcase what we consider to be the best, most interesting, most provocative American independent film in its fullest spectrum, its fullest range.

"But we've become increasingly international in the last couple of years. I think the fourth year of our international competition and the focus that we've had on a number of international films really says something about how much the global independent world has evolved and developed. The Sundance Film Festival has evolved over the years -- it's changed, the independent world has changed, but we've remained consistent in one way: It's a festival of discovery, and it still is and always will be as long as we're running it."

Word is that more than 50,000 people will attend Sundance this year, which means another mammoth bounty for the makeshift concession stands at the various screening venues scattered around town. I paid $2.50 for a mediocre 12-ounce coffee prior to the opening-night screening of Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, only 4 ounces of which actually made it into my mouth: I forgot that coffee isn't allowed inside The Eccles, a crime against a fest-goer's humanity if there ever was one.

McDonagh's name should be familiar to Cincinnatians -- he's the Irish playwright behind Know Theatre's recent production of The Pillowman. His full-length feature film debut stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of hit men who are jettison to the medieval town of Bruges, Belgium, by their boss (a scary Ralph Fiennes, whose head here resembles a throbbing anvil) after a job goes awry.

As fans of his stage work already know, McDonagh is a fine storyteller who has a way with pungent, profane, often caustically funny dialogue. While In Bruges' plot becomes a little too mechanical by its final act -- a familiar pitfall for many playwrights who move into screenwriting -- McDonagh has crafted a dark, amusingly eccentric crime thriller that entertains as often as it repels. And Farrell, whose recent run as a leading man has yielded a mixed bag (at best), actually isn't bad. Paired with the ever-authentic Gleeson, he's right at home in a world of men who live by their own, often amoral, code of honor.

A fiftysomething woman clad in furry boots, a (probably faux) mink jacket and botoxed cheeks gave me this brief post-screening synopsis: "Boy, that McDonagh guy needs some Prozac."

It's a sentiment that can be said of many Sundance films, which tend to jump into deep psychological waters.

Which brings me to a quote I recently unearthed from none other than Britney Spears, who no doubt horded a bounty of swag when she visited the festival in 2002.

"Sundance is weird," she said. "The movies are weird -- you actually have to think about them when you watch them."

Speaking of celeb-spotting -- a sport I typically ignore due to the already convoluted logistical nightmare of trying to cover a festival that asks one to traverse terrain better left to Eskimos -- my favorite run-in occurred during a stop at Albertsons supermarket.

While trying to find a suitable six-pack of beer (no Red Stripe?) with which to unwind after four consecutive screenings, I heard a pair of familiar voices -- Sundance darling and kick-ass actress Patricia Clarkson and actor/filmmaker Stanley Tucci were standing beside me in the beer aisle. They proceeded to follow me to the checkout line, where they perused a heinous photo of a bloated Kirstie Alley on the cover of a tabloid magazine. Ah, the surreal nature of Sundance never fails to surprise.

Documentaries outshine feature films
The Documentary Competition is often the most fulfilling aspect of the festival, a collection of films that revel in everything from "cultural trends and political movements to examinations of deeply personal issues.¨

Peter Galison and Robb Moss' Secrecy is a balanced, provocative investigation of the U.S. government's tendency to hide things from its citizens in the name of safety and security. The directors employ a variety of crafty cinematic techniques to examine an urgent issue following 9/11, an event the Bush Administration used to basically run roughshod over the U.S. Constitution. Yet Secrecy isn't a polemic -- it seeks only to determine what's in the best interest of the average American citizen and who should decide where the ambiguous line between transparency and security should be drawn.

Margaret Brown's The Order of the Myths is a fascinating look at the city of Mobile, Ala., home of the oldest Mardi Gras in the U.S., which dates back to 1703. A Mobile native, Brown pulls back the curtain on this cherished tradition that features two different carnivals -- one black, one white, both immersed in vibrant pageantry -- and in the process unveils a complex local history that raises questions about the state of race relations in this country.

Moving and multi-layered, Brown's loving, observational portrait is probably the best thing I've seen so far at the festival, a film that investigates the importance of tradition and its place in a rapidly evolving world.

Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a fitting tribute to an iconoclastic rebel who influenced presidential elections, who took drugs and drink with unparalleled ferocity, who loved guns and girls and, most importantly, who fought for truth in a world that seemed interested in anything but. Narrated by Johnny Depp and featuring a host of little-seen archival footage, Gonzo is a vibrant look back at Thompson's heydey (1965-1975), an essential document in an era that seems to be repeating many of the hypocrisies he railed against.

The dramatic films I've caught have been less successful than their documentary counterparts. Content to wallow in patented Sundance tropes, Marianna Palka's Good Dick, which features its writer/director in a central role, and Jonathan Levine's The Wackness are threadbare, often clichéd, sexually dysfunctional coming-of-age stories. But they feature fresh faces -- the camera absolutely loves Palka´s alluring visage -- and the latter has its share of laughs, largely courtesy of Ben Kingsley, who plays a pot-smoking therapist in 1994-era New York City.

Probably the most anticipated film in the festival's Premieres section, Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind also disappoints. Coming off the crafty, whimsy-powered one-two punch of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, Gondry´s latest -- the story of two New Jersey video-store clerks (Mos Def and Jack Black) who fight to save their faltering business and building -- fails due to its spotty narrative and saccharine finale. Note to Gondry: Please give Charlie Kaufman a call.

The Merry Gentleman is an odd choice for Micheal Keaton´s directorial debut -- a laconic, narratively inert but admirably obtuse affair that contains the actor's most restrained performance to date as a suicidal hit man who strikes up an unlikely relationship with an abused young woman (Kelly MacDonald).

The actor/director was on hand for a post-screening Q&A. Clearly nervous, Keaton said he was happy that the sold-out Eccles Theatre crowd seemed to stay with the story despite its slow pacing. He also said that, based on audience reaction, he was going to make "a few cuts here and there."

Uh, no disrespect, Mike, but it´s going to take more than a few snips to make The Merry Gentleman palatable to anyone besides gawkers of your receding career.

Apocalypse now
The two best fictional features of my fest to date -- Diary of the Dead and Half-Life -- have a similarly apocalyptic feel. But the two couldn't be more opposite in their aesthetical approach.

Romero's latest zombie foray centers on a group of film students making a horror movie when, yes, a pack of undead attacks them. The students ditch their project to shoot the zombie outbreak in a first-person style that recalls the reality-blurring techniques of The Blair Witch Project, setting off a survival/fact-gathering spree that ends with as many questions as it answers.

While Diary of the Dead is a departure from Romero's previous zombie installments � it's funnier and fresher if less effectively acted � it does delve into many of his pet issues, including his interest in governmental and family-unit failures. The chaos of Katrina, 9/11 and other disasters are eerily evoked. Then there's Diary's concern with a media landscape that's become as frightening as the flesh-eating creatures that are the director's long-running conceit.

"The thing that initially made me want to make the film was suddenly having this sense that we´re all caught up in this multi-tentacled beast of emerging media," Romero says during a brief chat in a Main Street bar. "Everybody´s a reporter now. You know, CNN recruits you at home: 'If you see a fire outside your window, you know, shoot it and we´ll put it on the air.' In presidential debates questions aren't being asked by anchors anymore, they're being asked by people out there who send in their shit on YouTube. To me, it feels a bit dangerous. It feels helter skelter."

Romero -- whose tall, lanky frame is topped off with a head marked by white hair and thick black-rimmed glasses -- is surprisingly laid-back and chatty as he talks about the inspiration for Diary of the Dead.

"After making (2005's) Land of the Dead I just wanted to go back to the roots and do something really small,¨ he says. "I saw this series of zombie films getting more and more that way, sort of going Thunderdome: You have to make it bigger, more action, more gore and you have to keep pushing it. I just didn't want to keep doing that.¨

In contrast to the festival's band of young filmmakers (half are first-timers), Romero has been at it for more than 40 years, most of which has been spent in the horror genre. Yet he seems right at home at Sundance, a man who has the passion of a filmmaker half his age.

"I grew up on it, man," he says of the horror genre. "I'd love to make other kinds of films, but my zombie thing is almost a little secret trick or secret franchise of mine. If I see something happening and I want to make a movie about it, all I have to do is throw zombies in it and I might be able to get it financed. I don't feel like I'm stuck in a genre because I've been able to actually show myself, offer my opinion, my commentary on things. Maybe I'm the Michael Moore of the horror genre?¨

Writer/director Jennifer Phang's Half-Life is a remarkably assured and ambitious debut. Elegant and often surreal, the film's inventive visuals are a hypnotic blend of beautifully composed cinematography and animation.

The complex, emotionally rich narrative tells the story of a troubled Asian family (and those in their immediate orbit) in suburban Northern California. Phang impressively balances an array of issues -- religious righteousness, homosexuality, the environment, the power of media to infiltrate our lives, the dissolution of the family unit, multicultural relationships -- without ever coming off as a didactic.

"I'm most interested in complex stories about people of color that haven't been told before in these combinations of gender, sexuality and race," Phang says during a chat at the Yarrow Hotel. "And I like for it to not be labeled an 'Asian' film or a 'white' film or a 'black' film or a 'gay' film. I want it to be a film about people's lives and all these things that intersect in our lives."

Years in the making, Phang is happy Half-Life is finally seeing the light of day, especially at a nurturing place like the Sundance Film Festival.

"I'm excited about letting people finally experience the film and seeing their response," she says. "Coming to Sundance is probably one of the greatest things that can happen to an indie film. It's where people come to see fresh voices, new stories and new approaches to storytelling in film. For an American indie, this is the place to show your film."

Check out JASON GARGANO'S SUNDANCE BLOG POSTS at blogs.citybeat.com/ae


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