2000 Sundance Film Festival Update #7: "Final Thoughts"
Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 30, 2000
Another January over, another Sundance Film Festival behind me. In what hopefully is not a trend for the year in movies, there was too little to cheer about at the festival, and the generally limp roster of titles available in Park City represents the weakest group in years. Both the high points and the low points were lower than usual, and the single word that best describes the 2000 edition of Sundance is "mediocre." The dramatic competition was weak, and, although I didn't see everything playing in that category, only one title, Girlfight, struck me as award-worthy, and there was no buzz to speak of about any of the 16 entries. And some of the shorts paired with the features on the program were simply awful.
In brief, here are some thoughts on a few other films:
As far as my final assessments go:
- About Adam: This film, from Irish director Gerard Stembridge, is instantly and immediately likable. That's also all it is. About Adam is a romantic comedy that's...well... about Adam (Stuart Townsend), a seemingly perfect Irish guy. When Lucy (Kate Hudson) meets him, she gives up her "man-izing" ways and wants to settle down. Lucy and Adam seem like the perfect couple, but, in reality, he's not as faithful as she believes. While engaged to Lucy, he's sleeping with both of her sisters and her brother's girlfriend. But he's not doing this out of lust or nastiness - he's a good Samaritan who's just trying to help them all find happiness. Stembridge sees the irony of the situation and brings it to the fore with good cheer and a wink and a nod at the audience. His script is peppered with mildly amusing moments, but few that are uproarious. The film's structure, which repeats the same time period from four different perspectives, becomes a little tiresome after the third go-through. The acting is on the mediocre side. Townsend is fine as the lead, but Kate Hudson is woefully miscast as an Irish lass. Who ever told her (or Frances O'Connor, who plays one of her sisters) she could do an Irish accent? In the final analysis, About Adam is as inconsequential as it is pleasant.
- Happy Accidents: Take your pick: Happy Accidents can be seen as either a romantic comedy or a science fiction effort. The film, from writer/director Brad Anderson (Next Stop, Wonderland), stars Marisa Tomei as Ruby, a woman who has a history of dating men with problems. Her latest beau, Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio), is no exception, but he takes the cake: he's a time traveler from the year 2470. He has gone back 470 years after becoming infatuated with a photograph of Ruby he saw while in the future. As one might expect, their relationship has its ups and downs (chief of which is that Ruby thinks he's a nutcase, even though she's hopelessly in love with him). Happy Accidents is about as unconventional a romantic comedy as you're likely to find. Tomei is wonderfully natural and luminous and D'Onofrio is typically solid, although there isn't much heat or chemistry between them. As a science fiction effort, however, Happy Accidents feels a little hackneyed. Its approach to time travel paradoxes isn't especially compelling or interesting, and has a been-there, done-that feel. We have seen this stuff before, in The Twilight Zone, Doctor Who (from which a technobabble term is borrowed), and Star Trek ("The City on the Edge of Forever"), to name a few. The ending is also a cheat (a fact that Anderson basically admitted in the post-screening Q&A). Happy Accidents is best viewed as an offbeat romantic comedy. From that perspective, it's fresh and unusual. Anyone who calls this "innovative", however, has a serious science fiction underexposure quotient.
- Committed: This film, writer/director Lisa Krueger's follow-up to the delightful Manny & Lo, might have worked a little better if lead actress Heather Graham showed a scintilla of acting ability. As it is, the production falls into the same bin as so many other Sundance entries: watchable but not memorable. In fact, it has only been a few days since I saw the film and already the details are fading. Joline (Graham) is the most committed wife in North America, and when her husband, Carl (Luke Wilson), flakes out on her and bolts from their marriage, she refuses to hear a bad word said against him, and heads for the Southwest to track him down. Even when she finds him, and learns that he's having an affair, she still believes that their marriage is salvageable. I suppose one could consider this another in the slew of Sundance romantic comedies, although it's more about Lucy's journey of self-discovery and empowerment than about a relationship with a man (or men). Seen as a series of comedic and (at times) satirical episodes, Committed is moderately entertaining, but things don't work as well when pieced together into a larger story. The whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts. There are times when Krueger's farcical script works, capturing a scene or an incident perfectly, but, overall, the writing is disappointing. And Graham's perky-but-strained performance fails to connect with the audience. Committed is a disappointment.
- Other Voices: A competition entry from writer/director Dan McCormack, Other Voices is an explosion of dark images and loud music that plunges the viewer into the confused and paranoid world of lead character Phil (David Aaron Baker), whose relationship with his wife, Anna (Mary McCormack), is on the rocks. Both of them are having affairs. Phil's best friend (Campbell Scott) is determined to "convince" Anna's lover to quit, while Anna's brother (Rob Morrow) harbors similarly violent intentions toward his brother-in-law. McCormack's structure is vaguely Hitchcockian in a broad sense, although his plot is on the thin side. The "wrong man" element is certainly in evidence. Other Voices is an atmosphere-over-substance feature, and there are times when the director's overbearing style becomes too much to handle (on more than one occasion, the pumped-up music drowns out whole passages of dialogue). The characters generally fall into one of two categories: dislikable or irritating. However, although the film is not conventionally enjoyable, there is a surprising amount of thought-provoking substance to it, especially in the way it views the isolation and lack of communication that characterize the modern institution of marriage. Has it become so difficult to connect with someone else, even a spouse, that these sorts of methods are necessary? From time-to-time, McCormack shows evidence of real directorial prowess -- his intercutting during the climax builds a genuine sense of suspense, even though we don't care much about the characters involved. Ultimately, Other Voices' edginess works like a double-edged sword - not only does it make the film more interesting, but it can cause proceedings to get on the viewer's nerves.
- Bloody Angels: Karin Julsrud's harrowing murder mystery is the best movie I saw at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Tough and uncompromising in its look at human nature and vigilantism, the movie has a devastating, double-pronged climax that illustrates the potentially horrifying consequences of divorcing justice from law. Bloody Angels also offers a window into the mindset of children who perpetuate fatal violence on other children. In the wake of Columbine, it's almost surprising that an American distributor has taken a chance on this film, which will deeply offend viewers who don't want to be taken where Julsrud transports us. At the beginning, Bloody Angels has the look and feel of a traditional murder mystery. In the rural town of Hotten, Oslo expert detective Nicholas Ramm arrives to help the local police in solving a disturbing crime. A young girl with Down's syndrome has been raped and murdered and now one of her two suspected killers is dead. Ramm gets to work, but finds his investigation stymied on all sides. Not even the local police are willing to help. Meanwhile, he befriends the lonely younger brother of the dead suspect and tries to protect him from the unwarranted cruelty directed towards him by the townspeople. As one might infer from the subject matter, this is not a happy story. In fact, it is at times difficult to absorb. There are numerous anti-Hollywood touches (one shudders to think what would happen in an American remake) and the ending has a devastating impact. Julsrud successfully captures the cold bleakness of the setting by using filters and color desaturation. Hotten turns out to be an unpleasant place to live and an even worse place to visit. As is common with police thrillers, red herrings abound, but it quickly becomes apparent that "whodunnit?" is the least important question posed by this motion picture.
- Butterfly's Tongue: For the most part, Butterfly's Tongue plays as a fairly conventional (albeit expertly filmed) coming-of-age story. What sets this movie apart from so many other, similar films is its ending, which is a powerful and heartbreaking statement about the destruction of innocence and how quickly children learn the art of self-preservation. Butterfly's Tongue is from director Jose Luis Cuerda, who previously produced Alejandro Amenabar's Thesis and Open Your Eyes. Set in the winter of 1936, the story tells of the unique relationship between eight year-old Mocho and his kindly teacher, Don Gregorio. With patience and affection, Don Gregorio imparts life lessons to his young charge, teaching him about nature and how to woo a girl. But storm clouds are gathering over Spain as the political situation becomes a powder keg, and, through what transpires as a result, Mocho learns his most unpleasant lesson. Butterfly's Tongue has the virtue of mixing a pleasant tale about growing up with a harder-edged conclusion. This is not, however, the case of an ending saving an otherwise mediocre motion picture, because Cuerda's feature is worthwhile throughout.
- Luna Papa: An offbeat flight of fancy, Luna Papa is a tragic comedy that takes place in a realm of fantasy shifted just slightly outside of our reality. Directed by Bakhtiar Khudojnazarov and set in central Asia, this movie is consistently odd and thoroughly unpredictable. And, as in Black Cat, White Cat, farcical and unexpected things keep happening to people - like the time when two characters are crushed by a cow that falls out of the sky. The story focuses on a beautiful young woman named Mamlakat (a talented performance by Chulpan Khamatova), who finds herself pregnant after a rape. Her father is determined to find the baby's sire and force him to marry Mamlakat. So begins a bizarre odyssey of traveling from town-to-town, looking for the man. And, along the way, strange (and sometimes hilarious) events continuously plague the heroine - right up to the very end. Luna Papa is zany fun. It has both a heart and a funny bone, and leaves the viewer energized and somewhat amazed.
Finally, for anyone who hasn't seen them elsewhere, here's the list of the winners:
- Best Competition Film: Girlfight
- Best Premiere Film: American Psycho
- Best Overall Film: Bloody Angels
- Worst Overall Film: Waking the Dead
Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic Film: (TIE) Girlfight, directed by Karyn Kusama; You Can Count On Me, directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: Long Night's Journey Into Day, Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann
Audience Award, Dramatic Film: Two Family House, directed by Raymond DeFelitta
Audience Award, Documentary: Dark Days, directed by Marc Singer
Audience Award, World Cinema: Saving Grace, directed by Nigel Cole
Directing Award, Dramatic Film: Girlfight, directed by Karyn Kusama
Directing Award, Documentary: Paragraph 175, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Filmmakers Trophy, Dramatic Film: Smoke
Signals, directed by Chris Eyre
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: You Can Count on Me, screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan
Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Performance: Songcatcher, featuring Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, Jane Adams, Gregory Cook, Iris Dement
Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance: The Tao of Steve, featuring Donal Logue
Cinematography Award, Dramatic Film: Committed, cinematography by Tom Krueger
Cinematography Award, Documentary: (TIE) Americanos: Latino Life in the United States, cinematography by Andrew Young; Dark Days, cinematography by Marc Singer
Freedom of Expression Award: Dark Days, directed by Marc Singer
Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement, Documentary: The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, directed by Aiyana Elliott
Special Jury Prize for Writing for Documentary: George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, written by Daniel McCabe, Paul Stekler, and Steve Fayer
Jury Prize in Latin America Cinema Award: (TIE) Herod's Law, directed by Luis Estrada; No One Writes to the Colonel, directed by Arturo Ripstein
Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking: Five Feet High and Rising, directed by Peter Sollett
[Honorable mention: G., directed by Rolf Gibbs; Titler, directed by Jonathan Bekemeier; The Drowning Room, directed by Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley; This Is for Betsy Hall, directed by Hope Hall; Ice Fishing, directed by Alexandra Kondracke; Darling International, directed by Jennifer Todd Reeves and M. M. Serra; Friday, directed by directed by Jodi Gibson; hitch, directed by Bradley Rust Gray; The Bats, directed by Jim Trainor]
© 2000 James Berardinelli
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