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Last updated: August 20, 2005
Copyright 2006
Michael R. Colford. All rights reserved

Film Festival Reviews

A Report from Sundance, 2002

by Clinton McClung
The onset of Olympics mania did nothing to dim the excitement surrounding Sundance, NoDance, DigiDance, SlamDance, the Lost Film Festival, and the million of other indie film extravaganzas lurking over tiny Park City for ten wintery January days. I only spent the first five days in the mountains of Utah, and twenty films later I have returned to Boston confident that The Sundance Film Festival, and all the activity it invites, indeed lives up to its reputation as the premiere film festival in the U.S.A. even if I found this year's selection to be a bit of a disappointment.
It's amazing how many of last year's features have made it to the top 10s for the end of the year: Memento, In the Bedroom, The Deep End, Hedwig, Waking Life, etc. Frankly, 2001 was an incredible year for quality independent cinema, so perhaps it is unfair to compare it to Sundance 2002. Still, the number of true surprises this year seems considerably smaller, despite the studio bidding wars that were heating up before the festival even began (a sign of desperation, I'm afraid, as the post 9/11 film world still seems to be reeling a bit).
However, there were still several stand-out films that I saw and heard about, and I learned a valuable lesson: trust your instincts. I eschewed a few films that I really regret missing (Cherish, Devil's Playground , The Dancer Upstairs, and Personal Velocity, all of which had very positive word of mouth, and Gus Van Sant's Gerry, which I don't really regret missing all that much), merely in order to somewhat expand the diversity of my screenings.

Most of my secondary choices proved to be at best humdrum. Cest La Vie. Such is the journey of discovering the unknown. Still, I have no reason to complain, as this was my first time exploring the quaint ski-town streets, trying to figure out the intricacies of ticketing, hobnobbing with the stars (celebrities I actually spoke to or touched: Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn, Philip Seymour Hoffman (I told him that his mom totally rocked), John Waters, Thomas Jay Ryan, Tilda Swinton, Robin Williams, Mike Schank and Mark Borchardt (they're certainly celebrities to me), John C. Reilly, and trying desperately to get into any party I could. Sadly, I lacked the necessary skills to beg for party invitations, so I missed out, but that's okay as my slate was filled with film after film after film.

Love in the Time of MoneyLove in the Time of Money
Director: Peter Mattei
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Rosario Dawson, Vera Farmiga, Adrian Grenier, Carol Kane, Jill Hennessey
Produced at the Sundace lab, this ensemble piece follows a narrative string of sexual encounters. While the film provides no new insights on sex - secretly gay husbands, how open relationships never work, empty one night stands, the hooker who redeems herself - the cast give excellent performances.

Since Mattei has a history as a playwright and stage director, the quality of the performances are not surprising, especially Buscemi, Dawson, and Hennessy. It's a fun-to-watch American Indie, but falls victim to many of the usual first-time traps: overlong scenes, bland music, yuppie-style set designs, and a not-as-surprising-at-it-thinks-it-is ending. Also, the use of digital video proves distracting. I am not a detractor of DV, but rather than using this more modern medium to capture the intimacy of the performances, it just seems like a shortcut to save money on traditional film stock.

This cheapens the artistic impact of the film, and I fear is pointing to a trend which may lead to more and more indie features with the trademark fuzziness of DV, when what it really needs is the crisp beauty of film. All that aside, compared to the frankness of Center of the World or the sexual looniness of this year's Secretary, Love in the Time of Money doesn't seem to have much to say. Still, while not memorable, it's worth seeing for the stand-out ensemble acting.

Un Crabe Dans La TêteSoft Shell Man (Un Crabe Dans La Tête)
Director: Andre Turpin
Cast: David La Haye, Isabelle Blais, Emmanuel Bilodeau, Pascale Desrochers
A tale of childish maleness in the form of Alex, a charming underwater photographer who can't help but dabble with every woman he meets. Turpin is a former d.p. (most noted for his work on Maelstrom), and the film is filled with some stunning cinematography, but the screenplay lacks structure. The film follows Alex as he interacts with some intriguing and quirky characters - the gay gallery owner, the crazed upper class drug addict, and the extremely forward and honest young film critic whom he falls somewhat in love with.

Unfortunately, none of these characters quite seem to ring true (the actors all make a valiant effort, but aren't given enough to work with), and the story meanders aimlessly about a subject, male pattern insecurity, that is terribly overdone. Still, there are a few stand-out scenes, like Alex's attempt to teach his best friend's deaf girlfriend the meaning of silence, and La Haye brings a strangely honest charm to Alex's hard to control string of lies. But despite the film's best efforts, eventually the urge to slap Alex and tell him he's a garden-variety jerk is almost overpowering. Throughout there are strange symbolic representations of a crab eating at a brain, which climaxes in a closing that makes little narrative sense.

Miss America
Director: Lisa Ades
A by-the-numbers documentary tracing the history of the Miss America Pageant, covering all the major scandals and triumphs. While the film contains some amazing and amusing stock footage, and features commentary from the likes of Margret Cho and Gloria Steinem, it merely celebrates the history and avoids the hard questions - most notably how does the pageant negatively affect the idea of femininity and what relevance does it have in modern society. Indeed, the tale peters out after the Vanessa Williams controversy, and fails to explore the stepford-looking plastic contestants of today. Noting that the credits generously thank the Pageant itself, this comes as no surprise. An amusing trifle that would fit right in with an evening of Behind the Music episodes, but in fact has already made it to PBS' American Experience.
Hibiscus from The CockettesThe Cockettes
Directors: Bill Weber and David Weissman
This thoroughly charming and visually exciting documentary follows the hippie drag troupe who started a legendary anarchist gender-ambiguous theatre movement in late 60's San Francisco. The Cockettes, a more ribald and daring kick-line than their New York namesakes, paved the way and inspired everything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to Divine (indeed, John Waters appears to recount her first meeting with the group), to pretty much every trashy, punky, filthy, and lovingly blasé drag farce since (including, methinks, Hedwig herself). Fabulous, fun, funny, and dare I say educational (hey, I didn't know their outlandish history, and I love this sort of thing) and inspiring. Well edited, with tons of archival footage, interviews with original members, and a touch of tragedy (many original Cockettes died of Aids in the 80s), The Cockettes is, overall, a joyful bash. A must see if only for the clips of the Cockettes' film Tricia Nixon's Wedding.
Director: Michael Dowse
Cast: Paul Spence, Dave Lawrence, Gordon Skilling
This improv-heavy mockumentary combines the white trash reality of American Movie with the social satire of Wayne's World in it's exploration of the life of two Canadian headbangers. Dean & Terry live in a ramshackle home, spend their days and nights drinking cheap beer and breaking things, and are basically on the fast track to loserville. So why is this documentary filmmaker following them around and filming everything? The (fake) filmmaker becomes as much a character as the creepy facial hair wearing stars, and everyone inhabits their roles to deliver incredibly comedic yet realistic performances.

Despite having some very funny moments, and throwing in a bit of tragedy to keep the story from stagnating, I can't help but feel that I've seen it all before. When one character discovers he has cancer and has to go into chemo, the humor doesn't overshadow the horror of disease, but still, it's hard to figure out the film's intentions. Cultural humor has become so intrinsically self-referential that it's almost hard to tell what's supposed to be funny anymore, at what is merely picking on easy targets. I guess I enjoyed it, but I felt like kind of a jerk for doing so.
Zooey Deschanel and Jennifer Aniston in The Good GirlThe Good Girl
Director: Miguel Arteta
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, Zooey Deschanel, Mike White
The writer and director of Chuck & Buck return with a stunning ensemble cast, lead by a surprisingly good performance from Aniston. She plays Justine, a dissatisfied young woman stuck in a dead end job (working the cosmetics counter at a cheap-o drug store), a marriage that has lost its passion, and a general feeling of malaise about her humdrum life. Then she notices her new co-worker Holden, a dark and broody teenager who keeps to himself and reads Catcher in the Rye (hmmm, wonder where that name came from?).

Justine becomes enamored with this mysterious boy and soon they fall into a steamy affair. But, as you would expect from this writer/director team, there are several surprising events which twist the plot and the tone in unexpected directions. Aniston does a great job with a character whose flaws include lying, cheating and scheming, but who really just wants to be a good girl. Reilly is a standout (again) as her thick-headed husband, and the rest of the cast bring to life their somewhat quirky characters without seeming unrealistic. This is definitely a film to watch out for, less controversial then Chuck and Buck, but still fiercely original and true.
Noon Blue ApplesNoon Blue Apples
Director: Jay Lee
Cast: Lauren Fox, Thomas Jay Ryan, Norbert Leo Butz, Tovah Feldshuh
A conspiracy thriller that goes beyond the usual "who shot JFK" to build on theories going back to the creation of the pyramids. The film starts out with characters and dialogue that are, frankly, tough to swallow and annoying. But with the entrance of Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool) as the owner of a cult book store the plot and the pacing tighten considerably. I could listen to Ryan read off my grocery list, and when he is on screen and presenting the wealth of conspiracies - from the ridiculous ("Happy Days" is a well-oiled brainwashing tool) to the surprisingly irrefutable (primitive African tribes able to identify star systems) - the film is enthralling.

Unfortunately, the plot is a muddled mess, and despite some clever twists that attempt to capture the same urgency as former Sundance breakout PI, the film is lacking in a solid direction style. Again, I think shooting on DV made the film too easy for the filmmaker, and there are several good moments in the film that could've been punched up and really affecting if it had more of a voice, trying less to be hip and more to be truly individual. And the acting, well, outside of Ryan I was sadly unimpressed.
Paradox LakeParadox Lake
Director: Przemyslaw Shemie Reut
Cast: Matt Wolf, Jessica Fuchs, Phe Caplan, Jason Miller
This intensely original film follows a dissatisfied and clinically depressed young man who takes a summer job at a camp for autistic children. As the film unfolds we learn about the internal politics of such a camp, as well as some of the ins and outs of autism, all with a verité feel that is helped by the fact that the film was shot at and features the residents of an actual autism camp. What keeps this film from lapsing into being another disease-exploitation feature is a mixture of the experimental camera work (for the first time in the festival, I was truly impressed by some innovative uses of DV technology), and a plot where the limitations and uniqueness of autism itself become an intricate part of the mystery.

Oh yes, this is a mystery, and one that is so subtle that you only realize you are in the midst of one about halfway through the film, making for an exhilarating twist as you must think backwards and trace the clues. The cast is marvelous, and comparisons to the similar communal filming style and quality of George Washington are not erroneous. I saw this film at midnite after a very long and tiring festival day, and even though the pacing was slow, I was wide awake for the whole thing. Very powerful.
Director: Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman
Jacques Derrida is my favorite French philosopher partly because he champions the idea of deconstruction, of breaking the elements of our lives down to their simplest truths. In line with his theory, Derrida remarks at the beginning as to how the very documentary film that is attempting to chronicle him, cannot in itself capture truth because the presence of the camera creates a different reality. If only the filmmakers listened to him and tried to build the film around this interesting premise. Instead, the directors unwisely chose to place Kofman's unemotional readings of Derrida's texts (she is a former student of Derrida's) as voiceover to scenes of him changing shirts and buttering toast. We learn little about the man, and little about his ideas (the readings from his books are very academic, and have no follow-up, so they provide little enlightenment). This doc's high points are scenes from Derrida's college lectures, which is an unfortunate example of how intensely boring and tedious the rest of the film is.
Run Ronnie RunRun Ronnie Run
Director: Troy Miller
Cast: David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Jill Talley, David Koechner
"Mr. Show" is one of the best and most irreverent sketch comedy shows on TV, the even more rebellious bastard step-son of "The Kids in the Hall". I figured that this film premiering at Sundance was a good sign that finally a good comedy show would make that tough to accomplish leap to the big screen intact. Unfortunately, something was seriously damaged in the transition, and besides a impossible to stretch out plot (Ronnie Dobbs is famous for being the man most arrested on the TV show "Cops"), the film is filled with broad parodies of easy targets ("Survivor", R&B videos) and misogynist gross-out humor. Watching Jack Black do an ultra-offensive version of a Mary Poppins routine should be so over-the-top that it's wildly funny, but after a whole film of similar gags I just felt insulted‚Äagain. Still, the audience laughed and cheered, but they were doing that before the film even started, and there seemed to be a sad desperation to will this film to be funny.
Soft for DiggingSoft for Digging
Director: JT Petty
Cast: Edmond Mercier, Sarah Ingerson
Both the Sundance Catalogue and Variety praised this interesting student film to high heaven, and even though the film was engaging and interesting, it's amateur style was a bit too evident. The story is a clever ghost tale involving a hermetic old man who witnesses a child's murder not far from his cabin in the woods. Most unique is that the tale is told with almost no dialogue, only the atmospheric soundtrack, and the film looks charmingly like a low-budget feature from the 1970s (an era when indie horror and suspense films were at their most creative). While the ending left a bit to be desired (the in-camera effects scenes weren't quite effective), I'd love to see what this director does next - even if it's a moderately budgeted remake of this promising exercise.
Love LizaLove Liza
Director: Todd Louiso
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Jack Kehler, Stephen Tobolowsky
Finally, a star vehicle for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and with a very unique and touching script by none other than his brother. In keeping with his most memorable career roles so far, Hoffman is simultaneously hilariously pathetic and disarmingly sweet. He plays Wilson Joel, a computer programmer who's wife has just committed suicide. Wilson is having trouble accepting his loss, and when he finds his wife's suicide note under his pillow, he is unable to open it. Instead he finds solace in an unlikely source - the toxic fumes of gasoline.

Soon, huffing gas fumes fills the emptiness in his heart, while numbing his senses and pushing him even further away from being able to confront his loss. Hoffman is top-notch as usual, and the supporting cast is excellent, including Bates as his similarly emotionally drained mother-in-law, and Kehler as a helpful friend trying to get Wilson to come out of his shell by joining him in his hobby of model airplane flying (Wilson already has a connection, as model airplane gas proves to be another potent mind-numbing fume). With a tone that moves from funny to heartbreaking and back again, often many times in the same scene, and a pace that is slow and deliberate (some people found the pace of the story a bit slow, but I enjoyed every minute of it), this is a very big little film. I loved it.
Tilda Swinton and... Tilda Swinton in TeknolustTeknolust
Director: Lynn Hershman Leeson
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Davies, James Urbaniak, Karen Black
Swinton is nerdy chemist Rosetta Stone, who clones herself and produces three sexy clones: Ruby, Olive and Marine. The clones live in their own secret apartment and find nourishment from man-tea (tea boiled with‚ ew‚ I can't say), while their scientist creator monitors their activities via a two-way video screen in her microwave. But what happens when her clones start infecting men with an undiagnosable disease? If the plot sounds weird, don't worry, it should be. This is a screwball comedy - Hal Hartley style, mixing deadpan dialogue with an almost incomprehensible techno-thriller plot and playing it for laughs. It makes for an inacessible, or at the very least hard-to-read film, and I think the notoriously strange Leeson is a bit too in on her one joke. But just sitting back and watching the cast chew their way through the dialogue is a sheer joy, not to mention the presence of four Tilda Swintons.
James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal in SecretarySecretary
Director: Stephen Shainberg
Cast: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lesley Ann Warren, Jeremy Davies
A charming and quirky comedy (and I appologize for throwing those words around so darn much, but what can I do when the shoes fit so darn well) about dominant/submissive relationships, and how they can lead to profound emotional connections. Gyllenhaal completely steals the film as Lee Holloway, a young woman just released from a mental institution, where she was hospitalized for her obsession with self-scarification.

At her parents' urging she lands her first job, after a rather unorthodox interview, in the office of paralegal E. Edward Grey (Spader). There's a certain unidentifiable bond between the two from the beginning, and it soon comes to light that all Lee needs is a little spanking and S&M to replace her more unhealthy urges - and her boss just may be the man to give it to her. Spader once again walks that fine line between creepy and charming that he does so well, and even though his character reminds us of his similar sexual deviant from Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his performance here is infused with a wonderful subtle humor (watching him attempt to repress his arousal towards his new secretary is especially funny). Kinky, funny, and in the end strangely romantic.
Director: Gary Winick
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Bebe Neuwirth, John Ritter, Aaron Stanford
There certainly was a lot of buzz on this feature, helped of course by the newsmaking 4 million dollar purchase by Miramax, but this comedy left me terribly dry and even a little ticked off. Oscar Grubman is a super-smart 15 year old prep school boy falls in love with an older woman and attempts to woo her in somewhat naíve but charmingly inventive ways. Sound familiar?

Sound like Rushmore? Well, yeah, this film is just like Rushmore, but with two major differences: 1) the older woman is our hero's step-mom, 2) the film has none of the panache and charm of Wes Anderson's far superior film. Once again, digital film makes the director lazy, and this screwball comedy is staged with little style or vision. While there are a few very funny scenes, mostly involving Bebe Neuwirth who is so full-of-life that she nearly steals the film, in whole the character development is tedious and heavy handed.

Oscar is half-French, his dad is a Columbia professor, and he can quote Voltaire, but all these attempt to make him surprisingly intelligent come off as nothing more than pretentious and spoiled - sort of an inverse of the Graduate. In truth, this is a more realistic characterization than Rushmore's of a precocious child prodigy, but the mere superiority of this little know-it-all made me want to jump up and punch the screen. More surprisingly is how John Ritter manages to upstage Sigourney Weaver, who barely seems to realize she's in a film. In all, Tadpole left a bad taste, like a paté that everyone says is delicious, but that you can barely choke down.
Director: Victor Nunez
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Josh Brolin, Sarah Wynter, William Forsythe
First, a basic summary: a man gets out of prison and returns to his hometown where he hooks up with old friends - the local deputy and his wife, friends since high school - and some dangerous old enemies - the drug dealers he went to prison to protect. Tragedy, betrayal and revenge ensue. In the end everyone is still friends and they enjoy a picnic. While I respect Nunez for focusing his features on the interesting and, it must be said, white trash region of Southern Florida, his films seem to just linger along and would be lost were it not for his luck with finding some incredible leads.

For Ruby in Paradise he introduced Ashley Judd, and with Ulee's Gold he reminded us that we've been ignoring Peter Fonda's glory. But this film is basically a cable-style revenge thriller with no character to lead it, and unfortunately it sinks under the weight of too much tension and not enough purpose. While lead actress Wynter gives a valiant performance, she is doomed by the bland macho posturing of her co-stars. Not that a tense slow-burn male dominated plot can't be powerful (Affliction comes to mind), but not if it includes laughably stereotypical villains, cliched bad-boy status symbols, and, I'll say it again, a happy closing picnic. A major disappointment.
Human NatureHuman Nature
Director: Michel Goundry
Cast: Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette, Rhys Iffans
Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind the wildly inventive Being John Malkovich, teams up with another influential music video director, Michel Goundry, who's visual flair has elevated Bjork's videos to near-perfect mini-movies (Malkovich director Spike Jones also stepped up from the music video ranks, and not coincidentally has also worked with Bjork) to tell a tale that is every bit as original, eccentric, and savagely funny as you would expect.

Describing the plot of this societal farce is a chore, as a mere description only outlines the lunacy without profiling the deeper emotions beneath the film. But here goes anyway: Lila (Arquette) is a woman born with hair all over her body, and for a while we follow the story of her life, from side-show freak, to famous naturalist, to meeting the man she is convinced she loves, nerdy behavioral scientist Nathan (Robbins). After having her precious hair removed with electrolysis, she marries her scientist (who has a strange repulsion to anything ape-like), and one day during a nature hike in the woods they discover a man who has been raised by apes (the marvelous Ifans).

The scientist takes the ape-man back to his lab to study him, and subjects him to a program of brutal experiments that will turn him into a gentleman of society. In short, it's Eliza Doolitle meets Tarzan by way of Dr. Caligari and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Got that? Of course there's much more, and the film is ripe with pathos, good humor, dark humor, musical numbers, and some very very strange wild jungle lust. I loved the originality and daring of this indie comedy, and am glad that the delightfully fun quirkiness of Being John Malkovich is once again about to hit the theatres.
Director: Max Makowski
Cast: Nick Stahl, Eddie Kaye Thomas, January Jones, Derek Hamilton, Lori Heuring, Amber Benson
You ever see a movie just because you have nothing to do but waste a little time? Well, that certainly leads to some clever diversions in movie theatres (I'm glad to this day that I stumbled into Pootie Tang just because I was bored), but on occasion you end up with that feeling that some of your life has been sucked away.

Yup, that's exactly how bad this movie was. So dull, so unoriginal, so poorly scripted, that I almost walked out about twenty times (the only reason I stayed was to have a post-film chat with Amber Benson, who co-stars on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", my favorite show on television). Five horrifyingly stereotyped teens get together in a posh mansion, share their feelings on sexual taboos (most of which aren't taboo, unless you're backwards enough to still consider homosexuality to be "wrong"), then die in horribly stupid and ill defined ways.

Meanwhile the bad music is deafeningly loud, the insipid dialogue numbs the brain, and the bad actors (January Jones is particularly grating) chew up the scenery in hopes of someday landing a Lancome ad. How this worse-than-straight-to-video stinker ended up at Sundance is beyond me.
Clinton McClung The Coolidge Corner Theatre 290 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446 (617) 734-2501,

Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema High Falls Film FestivalIndependent Film Festival of BostonProvincetown International Film FestivalSidewalk Film Festival • Sundance Film Festival •Toronto International Film FestivalTribeca Film FestivalVenice Film Festival