2000 Sundance Film Festival Update #6: "Hot Potatoes"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 29, 2000

In this column, I'm going to look at some of the hottest tickets at this year's Sundance Film Festival - at least based on word-of-mouth, audience reaction, and waiting line length. As usual, there isn't necessarily a correlation between hot buzz and high quality.

Even with the end of the festival on the horizon, the hottest ticket remains one of the early premieres -- American Psycho. Lines were the longest and ticket scalpers were getting the most for this feature. Two other talked-about titles, Groove and Saving Grace, are not on my schedule, so I won't have a report on either.

Then there's Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. Imagine the line "To be or not to be" delivered in the aisles of a Blockbuster Video store. Or "The play's the thing" referring to a movie, not a live production. Or the lead character telling Ophelia to "Get thee to a nunnery" via a phone answering machine. All of these things, and more, happen in Almereyda's re-interpretation of the classic production. However, while the director has succeeded in creating a visually interesting film, he has also lost the play's soul, and the number of cuts employed render the final product virtually incoherent.

Those who are familiar with "Hamlet" will have no problem following this version. However, anyone drawn to the story by the promise of a young, happening cast will find themselves lost early with little hope of recovering as the proceedings continue. Almereyda pares the content down to a bare minimum. In its entirety, without intermissions, "Hamlet" generally takes between 3:50 and 4:15 to perform (depending on the production). This movie clocks in at a relatively skinny 1:53. Obviously, something is missing.

Almereyda's style is low-key, and this approach saps the play of its energy. In contrast to Kenneth Branagh's glorious, full-length Hamlet, which contained moments to cause nape hairs to stand on end, this interpretation comes across as lifeless and plodding. Branagh's version may have lasted a full four hours, but Almereyda's seems to be the longer of the two adaptations.

To tell his Hamlet, Almereyda retains Shakespeare's dialogue (except for the inclusion of the "Welcome to MovieFone!" spiel, which I'm pretty sure wasn't in the original). Most of the best-known lines are there, although poor Yorik doesn't get his moment in the spotlight. The setting has been shifted to New York City in 2000. "Denmark" is the name of a corporation, not a country, and Claudius is the CEO. Computers and video cameras are commonly employed. In fact, when the ghost of Old Hamlet first appears, he is seen on a security monitor. And the final duel takes place with guns as well as swords.

This approach will immediately draw comparisons to the Ian McKellan/Richard Loncraine version of Richard III, Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, and Julie Taymor's Titus, but there is a key difference. Those films set the play in surrealistic, dream worlds, while Almereyda's Hamlet tries to place events in a modern-day pseudo-reality. For the most part, it doesn't work. The old style English loses its impact when delivered in Blockbuster aisles and on New York City streets. The whole thing is too jarring.

For the most part, the cast is disappointing, as well. Ethan Hawke essays a bland, uninvolving prince. Julia Stiles is flat as Ophelia. Bill Murray's Polonious is stiff and unyielding. And neither Diane Venora nor Kyle MacLachlan, as Gertrude and Claudius, generates much interest. In fact, the only actors to deliver compelling performances are Liev Schreiber (as Laertes) and Sam Shepard (as Old Hamlet).

Although it's virtually impossible to make a bad movie based on a play as strong as "Hamlet", Almereyda almost succeeds. This interpretation has a few strengths, but, on par, the weaknesses outweigh those. Anyone with a real interest in seeing a filmed version of the play can go to their video store and rent Branagh's version - nothing before or since has topped it, especially not this plodding, trendy adaptation.

Love and Sex became one of the festival's surprise hits, and attracted the attention of large crowds and more than a few distributors. The breezy romantic comedy, which is the feature debut for writer/director Valerie Breiman, stars Famke Janssen and indie favorite Jon Favreau (the man behind Swingers) as the two members of the film's central relationship. While the movie doesn't break into new territory, it mines this familiar ground well, generating numerous laughs and an overall warm, fuzzy feeling. Film critic Harlan Jacobson described it as a Sandra Bullock movie without Sandra Bullock.

Breiman jokingly referred to Love and Sex as "my sex life on screen", and, while that line got a hearty laugh from the post-screening Q&A audience, there's probably quite a bit of truth to it. Many of Kate's sexual encounters, while presented with a light, comedic flair, have a sense of verisimilitude that similar sequences in other, overplotted romantic comedies lack. Of course, there's a happy ending, but the route to get to that point takes a few refreshing detours from the expected path.

Love and Sex's main character is Kate Welles (Janssen), a writer for Monique magazine, where she pens "happy, perky [pieces] on how to find and keep that perfect man." She spends the early part of the film ruminating on a number of failed relationships; in fact, like the female lead in every romantic comedy, she's looking for Mr. Right, but having a hard time finding him. In her words, "It hurts so much to be alone that we'd all rather blow up than be single" - a sentiment that explains her predilection for becoming involved with inappropriate men. Then Adam (Favreau), an artist who creates bizarre paintings, bulldozes his way into her life and heart. "We were instant best friends," Kate rhapsodizes as she recounts the early stages of their relationship - the so-called "honeymoon period" when love rules by day and sex by night. Unfortunately, no two people who remain together can stay in that wonderful place, and things eventually become dull. "The more you're with someone, the more annoying they'll become." Eventually, Adam decides that he is bored with the relationship's stasis and wants to move on.

It's easy to understand Love and Sex's appeal to Sundance audiences - it's one of the more enjoyable romantic comedies out there and it represents a refreshing change-of-pace from the more "serious" fare of the rest of the festival. Favreau and Janssen both show themselves to be more than capable in the comedy arena, and, while there isn't much heat between them, they are playful and cute as a couple, and the fact that they were having a good time making the film shines through. Brieman's script contains both insights into relationships and enough genuinely amusing moments to elevate it above the romantic comedy continuum. This is a film that will find an audience when it is eventually released in multiplexes.

Another of the festival's unexpected hits was The Cup, a Bhutanese comedy/drama about a Tibetan monastery-in-exile that becomes gripped by World Cup soccer fever. The advance word on this film was strong, and the lines outside of its two weekday afternoon showings, both at theaters that only seat about 200 people, were long. In fact, the number of people in the waiting list line outside of the Egyptian theater on Monday exceeded the number of seats inside.

Many recent films about Tibet and its people have been highly politicized. This is not one of them. While it would be disingenuous to claim that the movie is entirely apolitical, the movie, directed by Khyentse Norbu, does not hammer its audience with anti-Chinese propaganda. During the course of the film, the Chokling Monastery, located in India, accepts two persecuted Tibetan nationals who flee their country, and the abbot expresses an almost daily desire to return to his homeland, but that's about it.

The story centers on Orygen (Orygen Tobgyal), a 14-year old monk-in-training with an unquenchable passion for soccer. During the 1998 World Cup, Orygen and several cohorts sneak out of the monastery by night and make their way to a shop in the local town where they can watch the matches. Eventually, they are caught and disciplined by Geko, the monastery's "policeman". Undeterred, however, Orygen comes up with a scheme to bring the World Cup Final to within the walls of the monastery. There are several pitfalls, chief of which are raising the necessary money and persuading the abbot, who can't understand why "two civilized nations are fighting over a ball", to agree.

Norbu openly admits that this is a slow-moving film (in fact, before the screening, he proclaimed that he would not be offended if anyone fell asleep), but the pace is necessary to set the tone and introduce the characters. Nevertheless, this is not a motion picture for those with short attention spans. From start to finish, The Cup is peppered with light, humorous touches - such as the monk who constantly falls asleep during prayers - but it never goes overboard in a way that would make the characters seem fatuous or unreal. This is, after all, based on a true story and the cast is comprised primarily of real-life Chokling monks.

The primary source of fascination here is not the simple plot but the opportunity to open a window into life within the monastery. One of the great strengths of movies - both documentaries and feature films - is the ability to transport an audience to places they have never previously visited. The Cup fulfills this promise, offering a glimpse of how the monks live - and it may surprise some viewers to learn that their daily routine is not dominated by the strict, ascetic activities one might suppose. There is a strong spiritual component to this existence, but it is not all-consuming. The monks are not averse to partaking in certain "worldly" pleasures (soccer being one of them). Norbu's feature is at its strongest when depicting the day-to-day activities of the monks. Fine Line Features owns the North American distribution rights and is planning to release the movie in theaters this spring.

The Virgin Suicides is Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, and its effectiveness illustrates that she's better behind the camera than she is in front of it. Tragic, haunting, and sometimes darkly comedic, this movie leaves a strong impression in its telling of a story about the destruction of innocence. The film is based on the book by Jeffrey Eugenides, which happens to be Coppola's favorite novel. As a result, she felt that, in brining the adaptation to the screen, she had a strong responsibility to be faithful to the source material.

The time frame is the mid-'70s and the setting is an upper class suburban community in Michigan. The film tells the sad story of the five Lisbon sisters - Cecilia (age 13), Lux (age 14), Bonnie (age 15), Mary (age 16), and Therese (age 17) - who all come to a bad end before finishing high school (this much is given away in the introductory voiceover). Unhappy, neglected Cecilia is the first to go - after surviving one suicide attempt, she is successful on the second try. In the wake of that event, the atmosphere around the surviving sisters becomes grim, and their parents' overprotectiveness threatens to suffocate them. For most children, mothers and fathers set boundaries; for the Lisbons, it's iron bars.

The Virgin Suicides is filmed as a memory looking back through 25 years, and the point-of-view is that of a boy who was in love with one (or perhaps all) of the girls. As a result, the events recounted here offer a filtered perspective of the sisters and the complexities of their lives. Presenting things in this manner, The Virgin Suicides manages to be both poignant and touchingly nostalgic. Also, Coppola's style is such that she avoids turning the film into a sudsy melodrama that glamorizes suicide.

One of The Virgin Suicides' strengths is its ability to effectively capture the nuances of teenage life during the '70s. Coppola gets all of the little things right: the awkwardness of a chaperoned boy/girl party, the thrill of first love, and the nervousness of the pre-dance ritual (in this case, the homecoming dance, not the prom). The film also boasts a solid soundtrack that features a few songs that haven't been endlessly recycled in recent set-in-the-'70s features. In one key scene, music provides a link between the Lisbon girls and the outside world - it becomes their only viable means of communication and free expression.

Most of the cast is comprised of fresh faces, all of whom to solid jobs. The more recognizable names include Kirsten Dunst as Lux (the girl with the most visible role), James Woods (as the girls' father), and Kathleen Turner (as their mother). Josh Hartnett, who is slowly building a reputation in Hollywood, plays heartthrob Trip Fontaine, whose poor treatment of Lux sets off a chain of events that leads to one of the movie's tragedies. The Virgin Suicides also includes excerpts from a modern-day interview with a forty-something Trip (played by Michael Pare), who clearly has regrets about his treatment of Lux.

By using occasional bursts of humor and setting up the film as a collage of reminiscences, Coppola establishes a mood that is wistful and sad, but not funereal. There are a few instances when the film gets a little heavy handed, but, for the most part, the tone is well modulated. Although Coppola almost certainly gained more than a little help from her famous father in getting the production off the ground, the talent evident in her debut argues that this is not a case of unwarranted nepotism. The apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Finally, there's The Prompter, which arguably doesn't belong in this section, since it wasn't one of the festival's hardest-to-get tickets. However, of all the films I attended this year, it received the warmest and most heartfelt ovation. The audience loved this simple story of a woman's struggle to overcome the fear that always holds her back. Siv (Hege Schoyen), the thirty-something protagonist, works as a prompter at the opera. Her first love in life is music, but she spends much of her time in a small space, hidden from the audience, giving cues to the performers. On the home front, Siv is newly-married, but her husband often seems more concerned about pleasing his ex-wife than making sacrifices for his new one, and his two children show Siv little in the way of respect of affection. Gradually, her entire life begins to crumble and her inherent passivity restrains her from acting.

The Prompter, Norway's official submission for the 2000 Oscars, is a wonderfully written and strongly acted character study. Director Hilde Heier has a real feel for the nuances of life, and gets many of the details right. For example, Siv's importance (or lack thereof) in her husband's life will be emphasized by those who note that there are pictures of his children, but not his wife, on his desk at work. It's little things like these that make the film seem real and immediate, instead of contrived and melodramatic.

Actress Hege Schoyen, who is an accomplished comedienne in Norway, gives an almost perfect performance, effectively realizing the emotional complexity of her character. The supporting cast is equally strong, including Sven Nordin as Siv's husband and Philip Zanden as a tuba player who is smitten with her. The soundtrack, which includes whole numbers from Verdi's "Aida" (chosen because of certain parallels with Siv's situation), is glorious. The Prompter has all of the elements necessary to be a crowd-pleaser, especially on the art house circuit. At this time, however, it lacks a North American distributor.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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