1999 Sundance Film Festival Update #6: "Final Thoughts"
Commentary by James Berardinelli
February 1, 1999
An exercise in mediocrity - that's as apt a description of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival as any I can think of. Virtually everyone attending agreed that this year's crop of films, especially those in the dramatic competition, were weaker than last year's, and the 1998 group was no great shakes, either. Distributors concurred, as well -- of the 16 movies vying for the Grand Jury Prize won by Three Seasons, the rights to only three (Happy, Texas; Trick; Tumbleweeds) were purchased. Two others (Guinevere, Three Seasons) came in with those deals already in place. That leaves 11 directors who went home shaking their heads sadly at what might have been.
Not everything showing at Sundance was bad. In fact, most of the films were entirely watchable. With 75% of these movies, had I seen them in local multiplex or art house, I would have left with a small smile on my face and a good feeling inside. But, after traveling 2000 miles and enduring the snow and ice of Park City, I was hoping for something more. In two years, I haven't given one four-star review to a Sundance movie (by comparison, during the same period, three films from the Toronto Film Festival have earned that accolade).
Of course, the secondary boon of attending a film festival doesn't have much to do with the movies. It's the little side moments, like a dinner with film critics Roger Ebert and Scott Renshaw, sharing a wait-list line with the father of film maker Michael Steinberg, (a born storyteller), or overhearing publicists try to outduel each other in the name-dropping game. Still, it's easy to understand why many people (especially those on my side of the business) are so discouraged by Sundance. It's a hassle, and the end result hardly seems worth the struggle. I think I'll adapt Ebert's approach of going every other year. It may diminish my ability to remain on the cutting edge of the independent film world, but it will reduce my stress level.
The hottest films of the 1999 edition of the festival were (in order of difficulty to gain admission): Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, American Pimp, Three Seasons, Happy, Texas, and Go. I missed Sex because I wasn't interested enough to stand in the long lines (the buzz on the film, a documentary about a woman who had sex with 251 men in 10 hours, was mixed). I tried to get into American Pimp (the Hughes Brothers' doc about the real lives of pimps and prostitutes), but the only people to obtain a space in the 170-seat theater from the waiting line were those who had been there for three hours. I procured tickets for both Three Seasons and Happy, Texas (see update #5), but one glance at the 350-person line for Go, Doug Liman's follow-up to Swingers, encouraged me to look elsewhere for entertainment.
To close out my coverage of the festival, here are a few thoughts regarding the six movies I saw but haven't yet written about. They're a mixed bag: three premieres, two world cinema entries, and one from the American spectrum program. All but two (The Invisibles, When Love Comes) currently have U.S. distributors.
- Forever Fever: While movies like The Last Days of Disco and 54 attempt to make a socialogical statement about the late-'70s, Forever Fever, from Singapore-based director Glen Goei, dispenses with such lofty pretenses. It's pure entertainment - a try to both gently satirize Saturday Night Fever and reminisce about the dead-but-not-forgotten disco lifestyle. The film is set in Singapore, 1977, where a low-budget takeoff on Saturday Night Fever has just opened in the local cinema. Grocery store clerk Hock (Adrian Pang), obsessed by the movie, decides to enter a local dance contest. His partner (Madeline Tan) is secretly in love with him, but Hock is attracted to another dancer (Anna Belle Francis). Eventually, he's opening eyes on the dance floor with his unique style, which is a mixture of John Travolta and Bruce Lee. As was true of the original Saturday Night Fever, the best parts of the film are those that involve dancing (Goei did not skimp on the music, using a significant portion of his budget to purchase rights to about 10 "classic" disco hits, including three or four by the Bee-Gees). They're energetic and lively, and all of the actor/dancers have the right moves and the necessary chemistry. With the possible exception of a miscalculated dramatic subplot centered on Hock's brother's desire to have a sex change operation, the film stays on the light side, which makes it an enjoyable (albeit inconsequential) piece of fluff.
- The Invisibles: Welcome to the land of low-budget film making. Had more Sundance entries been like this one, I would have declared the festival an unqualified success. The Invisibles was filmed on a budget of about $8000 with a shooting schedule that lasted just over a week. Including costs associated with getting a 16 mm print ready for Sundance, the movie's tally reached a modest $13,000, but the final product works much better than dozens of films made for four orders of magnitude greater. Jude (Michael Goorjian) and Joy (Portia de Rossi), a rock star and a model, have fled a Parisian drug rehab shelter and are holed up in a small apartment. They spend their days and nights talking, having sex, and going through withdrawl. Writer/director Noah Stern takes us into their world and exposes their souls to us through lengthy conversations that get us to care deeply about these two people. It's not so much a love story as it is a life story, and the ending is perfect (not too cute, not too bleak). Tremendous performances by Goorjian and de Rossi (both of whom worked for free) and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Rob Humphreys make this a wonderful and deeply affecting motion picture. It's too bad the film lacks a distributor. I'd much prefer having a copy of this in my video library than the latest abomination from producer Jerry Bruckheimer or director Roland Emmerich.
- Jawbreaker: After a merciful 10-year break, teen films are big again. And, as was true the first time around, there are more stinkers than genuinely entertaining entries. Jawbreaker is the latest to deal with teen angst and insecurity, but, unlike many of its late-'90s cinematic cousins, it has an edge that's too-often missing from the genre. There's more than a little Heathers in this story, which deals with the potentially-fatal ramifications of being a member of Reagan High's most popular female clique. Nothing is beyond these girls, including ruining reputations, covering up crimes, and even committing a murder. Aided by a standout, deliciously over-the-top performance by Rose McGowan as the conscienceless Courtney and a number of flashy photographic sequences, director Darren Stein keeps the film moving without ever losing its dark sense of humor.
- Thick as Thieves: The latest in the crop of post-Tarantino thrillers, Thick as Thieves has the feel of something penned by Elmore Leonard, even though it isn't. Brilliantly directed by Scott Sanders, who punctuates nearly every scene with at least one unconventional detail, this crime movie stars Alec Baldwin as Mackin, a professional thief whose latest job - robbing a food stamps factory - has turned into a blood bath. Now, Mackin is out for revenge against the drug lord (Michael Jai White) who set him up, while a Detroit detective (Rebecca de Mornay) is hot on his trail. The film is thoroughly engaging in the way it plays the various characters off against one another without "dumbing down" anyone - all the protagonists are smart, which makes watching this movie more like observing a high-energy chess match than a series of mindless gunfights and chases. Baldwin is in top form, and special note should be made of the scene-stealing work of Andre Braugher, who plays the drug lord's top assistant.
- A Walk on the Moon: This movie, the directorial debut of actor Tony Goldwyn, comes close to being a period piece soap opera, but, because of the depth of emotions explored and the quality of acting involved, manages to transcend its insipid premise. The year is 1969 - when men walked on the moon and Woodstock became a cultural marker. Diane Lane is Pearl, a 30-year old housewife who is dissatisfied with her life and her marriage to a TV repairman (Liev Schreiber). While vacationing in the Catskills with her teenage daughter (Anna Paquin), she meets an itinerant blouse salesman named Walker (Viggo Mortensen), and starts a passionate affair with him. But, as with all instances of infidelity, heartbreak lies ahead. A Walk on the Moon works because Lane and Schreiber create vivid, sympathetic characters whose dilemmas touch the audience. It's a fine, emotionally-satisfying motion picture that avoids descending too far into the realm of manipulative melodrama. Goldwyn shows great promise here; his craftsmanship is evident in nearly every scene. This film is only one of two I attended (the other being Three Seasons) to receive a standing ovation - and that's from an audience of 1300.
- When Love Comes: A dull, uninspired import from New Zealand, director Garth Maxwell's trilogy of love stories (one gay, one lesbian, one heterosexual) gets bogged down in an inert plot. Four of the six characters are uninteresting, and the two that capture our attention are given little more than token screen time. Rena Owens, who was brilliant in Once Were Warriors. gives a solid performance as Katie Keen, a singer whose best years are long past, but it's a wasted effort. In the end, we don't really care whether the couples stay together or blow apart, and their interaction, like the script, lacks energy. When Love Comes threatened to put me to sleep in the middle of the day. It's also the only screening I saw at the festival where the director was not present to conduct a Q&A.
© 1999 James Berardinelli
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