Noel Murray @ Sundance ’09: Day Five
- Day Eight wraps up an exceptionally good Sundance with a late-breaking entry to round out the Top Five list
- Documentaries on Pussy Riot, FAME Studios and Sound City highlight an all-music Day Seven at Sundance
- Day Six at Sundance tackles the Beltway Sniper killings and a second go-around for Michael Cera and Sebastían Silva
- Day Five at Sundance is all about the perplexing, overwhelming, heart-stoppingly beautiful Upstream Color
- Before Midnight, a Terrence Malick homage and Lake Bell's directorial debut top a great Day Four at Sundance
Director: Robert Siegel (91 min.)
Cast: Patton Oswalt, Michael Rapaport, Kevin Corrigan
Headline: World’s biggest Giants fan has existential crisis after unpleasant encounter with his favorite player
Indie type: Shlub-watch
Report: Perhaps when the career of writer-director Robert Siegel (a former Onion writer, but you all knew that, right?) gets far enough along, someone will write a treatise on his use of Christian imagery and themes. The Wrestler was, essentially, The Passion Of The Christ in spandex, and now Big Fan follows a dude named Paul (ahem) as he has a revelation and contemplates a conversion. Paul—played by Patton Oswalt—also wrestles with a potential sacrifice, suffers physical pain for the sake of his favorite team, and (briefly) changes his name (to Mark, not Saul, but still). And I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s even a moment in Big Fan when a character appears to be bleeding from his hands, stigmata-style. Paul’s story doesn’t turn out exactly like the biblical Paul’s (or Christ’s, for that matter), but Siegel’s subtle and not-so-subtle introduction of a spiritual dimension is part of what makes Big Fan more than just some dopey comedy about a football-loving schmuck who gets his ass kicked by everyone he loves. Also elevating Big Fan: the well-articulated milieu, which moves from dank Staten Island bedrooms to lavish McMansions to Manhattan strip clubs to the parking lot of Giants Stadium. And then there’s the soundtrack, which alternates between character-defining pop songs like “Delta Dawn” and “Calvary Cross” (again, ahem) to the constant chatter of sports-talk radio. Siegel captures exactly the kind of people whose identities—and sense of righteousness—is so bound up in their team that they take each failure on the field personally, as a diminishment of who they are. After Oswalt’s Paul finds out that his Giants hero isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, he considers whether he's who he thinks he is. Because most of that struggle is internal, Big Fan sags a bit in the middle. But on the other hand, because the audience isn’t privy to Paul’s thoughts, the final 15 minutes of so of the movie are white-knuckle, since we don’t know what that Giants-crazy bastard will do. And isn’t that why we love sports so much? Because we can’t predict the outcome?
Against The Current
Director: Peter Callahan (95 min.)
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Justin Kirk, Elizabeth Reaser, Mary Tyler Moore, Michelle Trachtenberg
Headline: Man swims the length of the lower Hudson River in order to mourn the death of his wife
Indie type: Overwritten “everyone’s dysfunctional” mope-‘n’-hope
Report: I hadn’t taken a really close look at the catalog description for Against The Current before I entered the theater—to be honest, I was mainly interested in seeing it as a contrast to Big River Man—so I was pleasantly surprised at first to see that Joseph Fiennes was playing the lead. Not that I’m a big Fiennes fan, but his presence seemed to insure that the movie would be at least competently performed. But then when I started seeing other recognizable names in the cast, my heart sank. There’s a threshold beyond which star power begins to work against an indie. The more famous faces, the more likelihood that the movie will be all about complicated character backstory and not-as-clever-as-it-thinks dialogue—the kind of qualities that can get a Mary Tyler Moore to put in an apperance—and not about visuals, mood, or capturing something elusive. Against The Current looks okay; it’s not stunning or anything, but when Fiennes is slowly stroking through the water on a golden afternoon, and Sun Kil Moon is droning away on the soundtrack, the movie achieves, for a moment, the elegiac tone it's shooting for. Then the characters start talking again, with Fiennes parceling out details about his wife’s death and his reaction to it (as though the audience would bolt if he just explained himself all at once), and his best friend Kirk making deadpan crude comments to mask his frustration with his sexless marriage, and along-for-the-ride Reaser dropping hints about why she’s been avoiding sex herself for the past year. It doesn’t take long to realize that these folks are little more than an accumulation of quirks and bruises, and that we’re going to spend the next 90 minutes learning exactly how they got that way. It’s as though the writer-director Callahan ticked a bunch of boxes in an indie-drama screenplay generator. (“Let’s have the hero drink Coke instead of coffee for breakfast; that’ll make him more distinctive.”) Against The Current means well, but in figuring out how to make something out of the “man swims river and reflects” idea, Callahan repeatedly takes the path of least resistance.
Don’t Let Me Drown
Director: Cruz Angeles (105 min.)
Cast: E.J. Bonilla, Gleendilys Inoa, Damián Alcázar
Headline: Two inner-city youths find romance amidst the rubble of 9/11
Indie type: Carefully massaged slice-of-urban-life
Report: Here’s an indie drama that exists sort of halfway between Against The Current and Big Fan in terms of how it handles narrative, character and style. The story in Don’t Let Me Drown isn’t much. A month after 9/11, a Mexican teenager whose father works at Ground Zero meets a Dominican girl whose sister died in one of the towers. They have a few awkward encounters, then begin to fall in love, against the backdrop of the kind of family crises we’ve seen countless times before on the movie screen. But what makes Don’t Let Me Down extraordinary—aside from the way Angeles recreates the look of immediate-post-9/11 New York on an indie budget—is how intimate and lived-in everything looks and feels. Unlike Against The Current, where the actors, director and screenwriter seem to be approaching character development and setting as a job of work, to be carefully arranged and thought-out, the milieu in Don’t Let Me Drown and Big Fan just is. (And Big Fan has veteran actors in it, which makes that trick harder to pull off.) I confess that I wanted to like Don’t Let Me Drown more than I did; much like yesterday’s Amreeka, I feel like Don’t Let Me Drown gets too bogged down in melodrama. But I enjoyed spending time with these down-to-Earth high school kids in their shabby corner of Brooklyn, and I appreciated that the dialogue didn’t feel forced or fussed-over. As a storyteller, Angeles has some room to grow, but as a scene-setter, he’s already at the top of his class.
Director: Louie Psihoyos (90 min.)
Headline: Team of experts endeavor to surreptitiously document Japanese dolphin-slaughter.
Indie type: “If you’re not an activist, you’re an inactivist.”
Report: I don’t have any strong opinion about the rare and widely reviled practice of dolphin-fishing, but I accept that dolphins are extraordinary animals, and that our seas are over-fished already, and that the larger ocean-dwellers contain toxic levels of mercury that make their meat largely unsafe for consumption. Yet because The Cove largely keeps the Japanese point-of-view about whaling and dolphin-fishing limited to a few inarticulate or thuggish boobs, I was more irritated by the sloppy, slanted journalism than convinced that Psihoyos and company’s cause is just. I also felt that their cause—especially as represented by former Flipper-trainer-turned-activist Richard O’Barry—is a little muddled. O’Barry wants all captive dolphins freed, and his passion for that project leads him to fight on multiple fronts: railing against dolphin-eaters, and against government cover-ups of the mercury levels in dolphins, and just generally siding with anyone who wants to protect dolphins, whether they want to shutter Sea World or not. Still, The Cove gave me a lot to think about in terms the future of man/fish relations, and I was also impressed with Psihoyos’ gift for using fiction-feature conventions to make an unpalatable subject entertaining. While dropping facts and arguments left and right, Psihoyos is simultaneously staging a slick caper film, in which he assembles a group of like-minded individuals and has them sneak cameras and microphones into the secret cove where Japanese fisherman turn the water red with dolphin blood. The mission is dangerous and nail-biting to watch. Not to sound glib, but Psihoyos made the exposé of the slaughter so exciting that part of me was glad it was there for him to film.
Director: Jeff Stilson (95 min.)
Headline: Chris Rock leads a globe-trotting expedition to get at the roots—ha ha!—of why black women obsess over their hair
Indie type: Breezy consideration of little-remarked-upon cultural phenomenon
Report: I don’t have a heck of a lot to say about this free-ranging survey of trends in African-American hairstyles, except to say that I learned a lot I didn’t know, like the fact that the average weave costs a thousand bucks, and that black women don’t like their men to touch their hair during sex. Also, I was impressed that Rock and Stilson broached some touchy political subjects. (Did you know that most of the hair for weaves comes from India, where hair-thievery has become common?) But a large chunk of Good Hair is given over to an Atlanta hairdressing competition that I never fully understood, and for all Rock’s hand-wringing over whether he’s going to let his daughters use relaxers or get weaves, he and Stilson don’t spend hardly any time at all on natural hairstyles. Rock tends to cock an eye at the ridiculous expense and fuss that goes into black hair, but he’s never actively critical. This movie could use a bit more of his bite, though it’s entertaining and informative enough as it is.
-A few of my colleagues are beginning to comment on the all-too-common phenomenon of “festival fatigue,” which hits after a couple of days when you start to get homesick, and exhausted, and you start fretting over all the movie you’re not going to get to see. I can’t complain too much, but yesterday was kind of a down day for movies, and while today was better, there was a lot I wanted to see today but couldn’t fit in: I Love You Philip Morris, An Education and In The Loop in particular. And I’m already aware of a handful of other bigger-name movies that I’m just going to have to miss. By and large, I’ve been doing okay. But it sucks when you’re watching something like Against The Current and wishing it were Sin Nombre.
-There’s been a big push to make Sundance more “green,” which began with every member of the press being given a refillable water bottle. I wasn’t wild about the bottle at first, but I’ve been filling it up at the “hydrations stations” regularly, and it’s come in handy for sure. On the other hand, I have qualms about the recycling cans that read: “Landfill Relief Fund. ‘Donate’ Recyclables Here.” Are the quotation marks around “donate” really necessary? Talk about stepping on a joke.
-I’m actually seeing one more tonight: the Spike Lee film of Stew’s Tony-winning musical Passing Strange. But since it starts late and runs late, I’ll save my comments on it for tomorrow.
Tomorrow: Passing Strange! Bronson! Adventureland! The Informers! Brief Interviews With Hideous Men! Black Dynamite! The last day in Park City gets hectic.