1999 Sundance Film Festival Update #2: "Sneak Peeks"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 26, 1999

Calling this film festival "Sundance" is a mistake. "Snowdance" would be a better name. Since the festival started last week, there hasn't been much sun. There has, however, been snow - a seemingly endless stream of it, pouring from the sky at rates of up to an inch per hour, making travel messy at best. Everyone out here notices the weather, but no one talks about it - not even visitors from Los Angeles who act like the white flakes are something strange and unnatural. There's too much to discuss regarding the movies. If nothing else, Sundance gets everyone on the same wavelength.

There are two kinds of people at the festival: those who generally love movies and those who are looking for a new product or new clients. Like locusts, publicists and agents arrive in swarms at each big screening. They trample anyone in their way as they press forward to lick the boots of a hot director or rising star. They identify their importance by who they have had lunch or a phone conversation with. It would all be quite amusing if these people weren't such arrogant, self-centered individuals. Even sitting in front of a group of them during a screening made me feel unclean.

On the other hand, the movie buffs are delightful. Strangers have come up to me and started conversations about what's good, what's hot, and what's not. This exchange of information is particularly valuable, since it's impossible to see everything here. I have been able to sit and have casual discussions with a number of critics without ever feeling awkward of intrusive. Interaction like this is always one of the best aspects of any film festival, regardless of how badly it's run.

Sundance is best known for its focus on independent fare, but the festival also offers about 20 World Premieres. These are gala events, always screened first in the 1500-seat, state-of-the-art Eccles theater, and attended by the director, producers, and key members of the cast. Anyone into star-gazing should attend these movies. That's where the "big names" come out to shine. Some of them even stay to see other movies, which is unusual at festivals.

Arguably the biggest mainstream film shown at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival was the opening night feature, Cookie's Fortune, the latest offering from respected film maker Robert Altman. In many ways, it's a "trick" movie, starting out as a quirky, lighthearted melodrama about the tender relationship between an aging woman, Cookie (Patricia Neal), and her odd-jobs man (Charles S. Dutton). At about the half-hour point, however, the film takes a somewhat unexpected and entirely welcome turn into straight (albeit dark) comedy. Despondent about her failing health, Cookie resolves to take her own life. When her niece, Camille (Glenn Close), finds the body, she decides to fake a burglary and murder, because "suicide is undignified." This results in a madcap plot that involves false arrests, paternity revelations, and all sorts of other intrigue. With a sly, clever script that consistently ratchets up the comic momentum, Cookie's Fortune builds to a delightfully funny climax. Some of the best moments are provided by small, aside jokes, such as when one character literally gets caught with her hand in the cookie jar. The cast is top-notch, with all of the actors sliding into parts that don't require more from them than they're capable of comfortably giving. Glenn Close is perfect as the scheming niece. Julianne Moore plays her dim sister, Cora. Liv Tyler is Cora's independent-minded daughter, Emma, and Chris O'Donnell is her cop beau. Supporting performers include Ned Beatty and Courtney B. Vance. This is not Altman's best work by far - it lacks the bite of The Player and the scope of his ensemble pictures, but, as a source of pure pleasure and solid laughs, it's hard to beat. October Films plans to release the movie in the near future.

Another high-profile comedy making its world debut at Sundance is Donal Lardner Ward's The Suburbans, a would be satire of the rock reunion movement that devolves into a predictable, feel-good affair. While the film undeniably has its share of funny moments, writer/director/actor Ward (My Life's in Turnaround) has trouble with the framing material. It's not interesting or in any way remarkable. As a parody, it's limp - at its best, it recalls This Is Spinal Tap, but that doesn't happen very often. The story centers around a rock band called The Suburbans, a one-hit wonder whose flash-in-the-pan occurred during the early '80s. Now, nearly two decades later, they have reunited under the guidance of a young, ambitious producer (played with great panache by Jennifer Love Hewitt), hoping to cash in on the world's undying infatuation with things two decades old. After a promising beginning, The Suburbans quickly falls into the trap of trying to be funny and endearing at the same time, and, as a result, it sacrifices edginess for blandness. The jokes aren't enough to effectively season a far-too-familiar plot about men suffering through mid-life crises. The two best things about The Suburbans are a brilliantly over-the-top comic performance by Ben Stiller (appearing with his real-life dad, Jerry) and a solid '80s soundtrack that is guaranteed to sell lots of CDs.

As they say, from the silly to the sublime... Errol Morris' latest movie, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. may be the noted documentarian's finest feature to date. The version shown at Sundance is not a final cut (Morris indicated that he's still tinkering with the editing of certain sequences), but, even judging by this unpolished version, it's a masterful character study that raises dozens of questions about morality, scientific process, and human nature. Many who see this film will have heard of Fred Leuchter, even if they don't recognize the name. An engineer by trade, Leuchter became known as an "execution technologist" when he designed a new, "more humane" kind of electric chair, then followed that invention with a lethal injection machine. What put Leuchter in the national spotlight, however, was a pseudo-scientific report he released in 1988 claiming that the "alleged" gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps were nothing of the kind.

While Morris calls upon several witnesses to illuminate the flaws in Leuchter's scientific process, Mr. Death is not an examination of the "revisionist history" movement. Instead, it's a deeply thoughtful look at Leuchter. Is he an anti-Semite and hate-monger, or is he merely someone so convinced of his own infallibility that he cannot accept that he might be in error? Leuchter comes across as a sympathetic figure, not the incarnation of evil some might expect him to be. He's an unassuming man with some odd views (he's a proponent of capital punishment, but believes that all executed men should be allowed to die with dignity and minimal pain), but not the kind of person one would associate with providing "proof" that the Holocaust never happened. Morris peppers the film with moments of wry humor, and the project as a whole is steeped in irony, but the most remarkable quality of Mr. Death is that it gives us real insight into the workings of the lead character's mind, and challenges us to form our own opinions. The film will eventually receive North American distribution, although, at this time, it isn't certain when (probably in the fall or early next year).

Finally, for those who like things a little on the macabre side, there's Antonia Bird's Ravenous, a period piece horror film that merges elements of the vampire legend with a Native American myth about how cannibals absorb the spirits of those they eat. The film has a suitably creepy beginning as it introduces the main character, Captain John Boyd (L.A Confidential's Guy Pearce), a hero of the Mexican-American War who has been dispatched to the remote western outpost of Fort Spencer (no, it's not Dances with Wolves). Life there is quiet until the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Calhoun (The Full Monty's Robert Carlyle), who appears on a frigid night with an unbelievable tale. It's at this point that Ravenous begins a slow-but-steady decline into grotesque pointlessness. Most of the film's second half uses gore to replace suspense. The script shows some irritating lapses that could easily have been patched up by someone paying attention, and the lack of character development reduces the level of tension in the final act. Finally, as in all horror movies, individuals do inexplicably stupid things. Ravenous is a stylish film, and far from a waste of time, but it's not worth running out to a theater to see. Twentieth Century Fox has the distribution rights, and will release the film later in 1999.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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