2001 Sundance Film Festival Update #2: "A Tale of Two Festivals"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 20, 2001

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by readers of my film festival coverage is why I go out of my way to praise Toronto and lambast Sundance. Are the two festivals really all that different? Let me count the ways...

The first and foremost difference is in organization. Toronto runs like a well-oiled machine. The people there - from the full-time workers in the festival office to the unpaid volunteers - all seem to know what they're doing. If you have a question or aren't sure where to go, it doesn't take long to find someone with an answer. Sundance, however, is a perfect portrait of chaos in action. No one seems to know what's going on, and half of the people don't care. With the exception of the volunteers, most of the workers are surly and generally unhelpful. And if you have a question, forget it. You'll get a more accurate response from a Ouija board.

Ticket availability is a problem at both festivals, but Toronto offers such an overwhelming number of films that there's almost always something available in any given time slot (except Friday and Saturday nights), even if it's not a first or second choice. Most Sundance shows are sold out before the festival starts. There are methods to get "day of show" tickets, but most of them involve some sort of masochistic experimentation in sleep deprivation (staying up all night waiting for the ticket counter to open the next morning). It's possible to show up at Toronto with nothing pre-bought; at Sundance, that approach might lead to a lot of time available to spend on the ski slopes.

Then there are the venues. In Toronto, the movies are primarily shown in real theaters, some of which have stadium seating and most of which feature comfortable seats. In addition to the Varsity, the Uptown, and the Cumberland, there's the majestic Elgin theater, which is an architectural masterpiece. And, for the galas, there's the Roy Thompson Pavilion, which isn't the greatest place to see a movie, but it holds a lot of people (about 3000).

At Sundance, the situation is bleak. The Egyptian is a nice theater, but it's tiny. The Holiday Village Cinemas are falling down. The library is a cramped and uncomfortable place, totally unsuited to seeing a film. The Yarrow and Prospector Square Theater are inferior when it comes to audio and visual presentation. In Park City, that leaves the Eccles as the only decent venue, and its auditorium design makes it less than ideal. One of the saving graces at Sundance is that many of the key movies are shown at real theaters in Salt Lake City.

Accommodations in Toronto certainly aren't cheap. Good hotels are expensive; only dives and b&b's offer reasonable rates. But the price of staying overnight in Toronto is miniscule compared to what it costs in Park City. Prepare to liquidate your first born's college fund if you want to spend a week at one of the lodges or condos in Park City. (Tip: the best alternative is to stay in Salt Lake City, where the hotel rates are about three times less expensive, rent a car, and drive to Park City every day. The trip is only about 40 minutes, and there's the added incentive of being able to see a fair number of screenings in the less frenzied surroundings of the Trolley and Sugarhouse 10.)

Finally, there's the weather. Toronto in September is beautiful - perfect late summer walking weather with just a hint of fall in the air. Park City in January is perfect for skiers, but not for movie-goers. It's cold, damp, and typically icy, and if you can go a day or two without being snowed upon or slipping on an icy sidewalk, consider yourself lucky. Hey, some people thrive in this kind of weather. But I'm not one of them.

However, once you're actually sitting in a darkened theater enveloped in a movie's atmosphere, all of these niggling side issues evaporate, at least for a little while. Only in those extended moments do Toronto and Sundance reach parity. Take Sexy Beast and Angels of the Universe, for example. Those two movies are among a handful that have been selected by both Toronto and Sundance. And the essential experience of viewing each film does not change appreciably from one festival to the other.

The oddly-titled Sexy Beast (oddly titled because neither of the main characters is sexy, although both are certainly beasts) focuses on a husband's determination to honor a promise he made to his wife. The movie, the debut effort from British director Jonathan Glazer, is essentially a caper flick, although the best parts take place before the crime gets underway. The first two-thirds of this film represents a test of wills between retired criminal Gary (Ray Winstone, playing a softer role than in either Nil By Mouth or The War Zone) and gangster Don (Ben Kingsley), who wants Gary to come back to work with him on one more job. Don is abusive and unrelenting; Gary is more laid back (at times almost submissive).

Both Kingsley and Winstone give forceful performances, and their often vicious, occasionally volcanic give-and-take is a delight to behold. Satellite characters, such as Gary's wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), enrich the plot by raising the stakes. Gary can cope with Don's threats and bullying when they are directed at him, but not when his wife is their target. The tension is effectively leavened with comedy to keep the tone from becoming too harrowing. There's a priceless scene early in the proceedings featuring a boulder and a swimming pool that needs to be seen to be believed. With a style that recalls recent films like The Limey and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sexy Beast offers a suspenseful 90 minutes. (The British sure seem to live these movies - no wonder Tarantino is revered over there.) Sundance appears to be its final stop on the festival circuit; it will blow into U.S. Theaters in a few months.

Angels of the Universe is a 180-degree turnaround from the testosterone-powered escapism of Sexy Beast. About the only thing the two pictures have in common is that it's virtually impossible to sit through either without laughing at least once. Angels of the Universe is the latest offering from Icelandic filmmaker Frederick Thor Fridriksson (Movie Days, Cold Fever). Fridriksson's movie enters the uncertain realm of dramatizing mental illness. The director calls the movie a comedy, at least in part, but the humor is often dark and is brought in as a means of relief from the sustained, unsparing dramatic sequences. The story is so intense that some form of release is necessary, and what better outlet than laughter? Although, as is often the case with movies like this, many of the chuckles are far from hearty and there's often a nervous edge to them. From the beginning, we suspect that all is not going to turn out well.

Fridriksson has admitted that this was a film he knew he was destined to make, but which he put off because he was so close to the situation. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Fridriksson's best friend, Einar Mar Gudmundsson, and is the true story of Gudmundsson's brother. As a result, Fridriksson felt compelled to do the story justice. He didn't merely want to be doing an Icelandic version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; he intended to bring something new, both in perception and approach, to the genre.

Part of that was achieved by personalizing the story. We get closer to Angels of the Universe's main character, Paul (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), than we do to anyone in the whole of Cuckoo's Nest. At times, we see and hear things from his perspective (Fridriksson does some eerie things with the soundtrack to give us the sense of hearing through the ears of an insane man). When we first meet Paul, he seems like a normal person with normal problems - for example, his girlfriend has decided to dump him because he doesn't meet her family's standards of what her future husband should be. Soon, however, Paul's behavior becomes inexplicable and erratic, and he is committed to an asylum with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Over the next several years, Paul is in and out of the hospital. On the inside, we see him interact with other patients - one who thinks Hitler is a great guy and another who believes he wrote all of the Beatles' songs - and on the outside, we see him try to live a normal life, although, as one friend points out, the world's madness is not confined to within the walls of a madhouse.

Most movies of this sort focus on the relationships between patients, doctors, nurses, and orderlies within the hospital. Fridriksson breaks the mold by allowing much of the action to transpire beyond the walls of the asylum (when the characters have escaped or have been allowed to leave). This gives us an opportunity to see the interaction between "normal" individuals and "insane" ones. In truth, there are times when it's difficult to tell the difference. With Angels of the Universe, Fridriksson has created an intense and disturbing motion picture - one that lingers in the mind even in the midst of a film festival, when cinematic images sometimes last no longer than the opening credits of the next feature. In addition to this being the director's most personal work, it is one of his most accomplished efforts. Films of this sort - those that deal with mental illness as a "sickness" (rather than a personality quirk) and don't offer easy answers - are difficult to sell, so it's unclear whether Angels of the Universe will receive attention beyond the film festival circuit.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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