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Jay Berg

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

Nice article, a complete summary of this reader’s experience with the festival this year.

2004 SUNDANCE DIARY-23 REVIEWS

Well Harry, another Sundance has come to a successful conclusion. It has been my 4th in 6 years (including the last 3) where I attended the last 5 days of the 10 day festival. Overall, I’d rate it 3 stars (last year was nearly a 4 with such great movies as “The Station Agent”, “American Splendor”, “Irreversible”, and “Capturing the Friedmans” among the wonderful films screened last year!). This might account for the demand for tickets this year, as there were 40,000 tickets sold the first day they went on sale on January 6th (compared to 20,000 for the 2003 festival). And, for the second year in a row, the weather was wonderful in the Utah Mountains compared to the storms on the East Coast, in general, and Baltimore, in particular. We nearly had to land in Albany last night but, thankfully, we were allowed to land in the middle of the latest snow/ice storm.

I arrived in Salt Lake City on Wednesday the 21st (day 5 of the festival) around 11:00 and by 3:00 I was in Park City’s Holiday Cinema (where I would screen 6 of my first 8 movies) to start the marathon of 23 movies in 5 days (I must be getting lazy-this count is down 2 from last year)! Here is the capsule rundown of my screenings:

“NEVERLAND: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SYMBIONESE LIBERATION ARMY” (*** ½)

The festival starts off with a proverbial bang (literally and figuratively) with this outstanding documentary. Focusing more on the complete history of the SLA rather than its famous kidnapped victim (Patty Hearst), this totally engrossing doc reveals information about each of its members that most of the public never knew. Director, Robert Stone reveals the political & violent extremism of the group and, afterwards, you have to agree with the assessment of one of its member that the Weather Underground were just a “bunch of pussies”.

“IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL” (****)

This was the best documentary I saw at the fest! One of the most amazing docs you will EVER see, this film took Jessica Yu 5 years to complete and the results on the screen are beautiful and amazing. Utilizing 7 animators, it tells the story of Henry Darger who lived a reclusive life and died alone at the age of 81 in 1973. His apartment contained a 15,000 page manuscript (entitled “In the Realms of the Unreal”) including hundreds of paintings illustrating the novel. The film is in equal parts his life story as well as the novel’s story that recounts the wars between nations on an unnamed planet. This is one of the most beautiful and haunting portrait of an unknown genius who died while living in total solitude. This one is still with me to this day. Truly unforgettable!!!

“SAW” (* ½)

Throwaway horror flick which greatly suffered by amateurish acting by the majority of the cast. The story of life & death games created by a deranged protagonist, it goes on waaay too long and somehow enticed Danny Glover (his career has gone down a long way from “The Color Purple”) to join the cast. A nice try but, ultimately, a bloody mess.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 22

“THE FIGHT” (*** ½)

Back to documentaries with this excellent chronicle of the Joe Lewis/Max Schmeling fights that began in the late 1930’s. More than just a sports doc, it will give you a fuller appreciation for the fighters and the times during which they battled as reflected in the historical context of the era in which they fought. Informative and entertaining, this is part of PBS’s American Experience series and will be shown on TV in January 2005 following a theatrical release. However, SEE IT IN A THEATER!

“DISBELIEF” (** ½)

Yet another documentary. This one recounts one family’s experience dealing with the fatal bomb blast in Moscow in 1999 that was blamed on Chechnya terrorists as well as investigating the government’s allegations and conclusions. The film never came together for me and went on a bit too long for a film that raises more questions than it answers.

“STANDER” (***)

Entertaining film based on the true story of Andre Stander (starring a Maryland boy, Thomas Jane, who gives a riveting performance in the title role) who started off as a police officer in Johannesburg and ends up as the head of one of South Africa’s most notorious bank robbing gangs in the 70’s. The ride is made more poignant and amazing by the fact that it is a true story.

“TIPTOES” (* ½)

Now for the most bizaare cinematic experience I have ever had at any of my 4 festivals. Unfortunately, not the film, but the Q & A! More on that in a minute. First the flick: in a word, weak. The first problem I had is that this is, supposedly, a politically correct movie about dwarfs, that doesn’t star an actual dwarf! Gary Oldman once again reinvents himself as a dwarf (!) who ends up taking the beautiful Kate Beckingsale away from normal sized Mathew McConaughey. It also stars Patricia Arquette in her usual type-casted role as an off-the-wall loose woman who ends up with the wonderful real-life dwarf Peter Dinklage (“Station Agent”) who plays a wild French motorcycle/boozing who is Oldman’s friend. The twist: McConaughey is the only normal size family member of a dwarf family that includes brother Oldman. As she did in last year’s “Laurel Canyon”, Kate’s character reverts a little too quickly from prejudice to acceptance when she realizes her and Mathew’s baby could be a dwarf. What seems like an original idea merely deteriorates into slapstick and maudlin situations. Now for the amazing Q & A: Only the “director”, Matthew Bright (“Freeway”), appeared onstage. After stating that he wrote the script when he was 17 but only made the movie after being persuaded by Oldman, he immediately started lambasting the producers (using profanity out the ying-yang) after saying that he was fired from the project. Then he went on to totally destroy the movie (can’t blame him). We were fully expecting the cast members to be there, since it was the first Park City premier. When someone asked where the cast members were, he said none of them were there because they refuse to support the picture. (However, I read in USAToday on Monday that Kate was about to embark on a plane to Park City for the premier when she had an emergency appendectomy). The tirade left the audience dumbfounded, to say the least. More bizarre than the movie!

“SEPTEMBER TAPES” (***)

An amazing drama. A search for Al Qaeda & Bin Laden in the mold and realism of “The Blair Witch Project”. Actually filmed in Afghanistan after 9/11, it chronicles journalist Don Larson’s attempt to uncover the truth behind the attacks by embarking on the journey himself. It’s amazing that no one got killed in the making of this film. Brave and scary, afterwards some of the audience said they felt betrayed not knowing that it was fiction until the end. It is that real and engrossing. The filmmaker said that he didn’t mean to trick the audience and that the advertising campaign will emphasize the fictional aspects of the story. Quite compelling when you realize this was filmed in one of the most unstable and dangerous countries in the world and not on a soundstage!

“THE PARK” (*)

Not a good way to end the day. Hong Kong 3-D horror movie about a haunted amusement park. Very loud. Very violent. Very campy. And, with horrible 3-D effects. Enough said.

Friday, January 23

“EASY” (** ½)

Lighthearted film about contemporary single women seeking relationships with noncommittal guys. This film is pleasant but lacks the grit of “We Don’t Live Her Anymore” (see below) but is worth seeing if only for the absolutely wonderful turn by lead actress Marguerite Moreau who, undoubtedly, is one to watch!

“NOVEMBER” (***)

Winner of the Dramatic Cinematography award, this digitally shot feature stars Courtney Cox as a woman who is constantly reliving the death of her boyfriend as she mentally spirals deeper & deeper into her traumatized memory of the event. Interesting concept and acting by the usually lightweight Cox.

“DOGVILLE” (** ½)

The toughest ticket in town was for this latest by Dogme95 director Lars Von Trier. This one-time premier showing (it first premiered at last year’s Cannes & is actually now available on European DVD/Video) was sold out even before January 6th! One dude in the parking lot was trying to unload one of his $50 Ebay-bought tickets. There was even the rumor going around right before the screening that Nicole Kidman was there. What drama! What hype!! What disappointment!!! I am a huge Lars fan (I put “Breaking the Waves” in my all-time top 10) but have to agree with most of the masses on this one. Although about 10% of the sold-out audience left before the end of the first hour (running time was 177 minutes!), I stuck it out. Basically a morality play (literally since the movie is shot entirely on a stage), it relates the story of a strange woman who happens on the small town of Dogville in the 1930’s. She is hidden and accepted by the townspeople, despite the fact that she appears to be ultimately wanted first by the mob and then by the police. It finally comes together and is interesting in the final 45 minutes-but by then you’ll probably be asleep or have left the theater. Very original but ultimately, too long and tedious by one of the world’s most original directors. Oh, not even a Q & A for this “dog” of a movie.

“SCREAMING MEN” (** ½)

Back to the docs. This one comes from Finland about the Screaming Men choir whose specialty is screaming national anthems, folk songs, & poems at the top of their lungs. The conductor is humorous, but not enough to cover this “one-note” flick. Probably better on video (I never thought I’d write that line) where you can, at least, turn down the volume or turn off the video after it runs its course after about 30 minutes.

“HEIR TO AN EXECUTION” (*** ½)

Another of the excellent documentaries I screened at this year’s festival. This one was made by Ivy Meeropol, granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for spying during the Cold War. This film is a family’s personal search of the couple’s humanity without commenting on the political questions surrounding the execution. Despite how one feels about the case, this documentary is gripping and succeeds in poignantly conveying how this case affected the family and friends of the Rosenberg’s.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 24

“WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE” (****)

The winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award (by Larry Gross, who wrote “48 Hours”), this was the best dramatic film I screened. Totally riveting writing & acting by an ensemble cast that included Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Dern (Academy Award material here, folks), Peter Krause, and the great Naomi Watts, this is the relationship movie “Easy” tried to be. It tells the story of 2 married-with-children couples who end up having an affair with each other’s spouse. Very adult and realistic to the core, this one will stay with you long after the final credits. Great movie!

“MVP” (**)

This Detroit crime drama starring Wood Harris is gritty and, at times, realistic, but is ultimately average when compared to others in this genre. I never got emotionally involved with any of the characters-good or bad. Nice score, though.

“REMEMBER ME” (*** ½)

The latest from Director Gabriele Muccino whose last movie, “The Last Kiss”, won major awards around the world (& was my favorite movie from the 2002 festival). It is in the same style as his previous movie. Although not as great as that film, it is still quite enjoyable as it explores, once again, the life and relationships of each member of a middle class Italian family. The father is going through a mid-life crises and is about to renew an affair with an ex-girl friend (Monica Bellucci!). The wife is trying to renew an acting career while dealing with a stale marriage. The 18 year old daughter is trying to break out of her family’s grasp and make it the world of TV. The son (the director’s real life son) is trying to get out of his geekdom. Always moving and never boring, it manages to tell each of these stories almost simultaneously without overwhelming (as in “The Last Kiss”).

“SEVEN TIMES LUCKY” (***)

Well done con-game noir movie with a nice turn by Kevin Pollack involving double cross upon double cross upon double cross. It will keep you guessing.

“HAUTE TENSION” (**)

A French slasher movie, in the vein of “Halloween”, with a twist (and I’m not talking limes here). The suspense is well done (hence the extra star) but, ultimately, there were so many heads rolling and so much blood gushing that, in the end, you end up laughing instead of cringing in horror.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 25

“SEDUCING DR. LEWIS” (****)

The perfect movie. Absolutely the best movie I screened at festival. Totally charming, the World Cinema Audience Award winner, is one of the most enjoyable experiences I ever had watching a movie. It tells the story of a tiny fishing village that must attract a factory in order to survive. The catch: they must have a resident doctor to get the factory built on the island. Having none on the island, they go about trying to seduce one from Montreal and have him commit to living on the dreary island for 5 years. A great ensemble cast with a great script. You will not have a better time at the movies!!!

“DIG!” (*** ½)

The winner of the Documentary Grand Jury prize is a wild journey which explores the rise of The Dandy Warhols, & the rise and fall of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, two 90’s bands that were connected by the 2 leaders of the bands. Shot over 7 years (!), it’s a little slow to get started but once you get to know the personalities of Courtney Taylor (of the DW-who brilliantly narrates) & Anton Newcombe (of BJM) you are off and running on this totally engrossing study of 2 of the more interesting rock bands and musicians of the 90’s.

“BORN INTO BROTHELS” (****)

An HBO Films production, the Documentary Audience Award winner is a beautiful work detailing the efforts to “save” the lives of children of Calcutta prostitutes. The film concentrates solely on the efforts of photographer/co-director Zana Briski to try and take these children from the dead-end environment of the red-light district to boarding schools and to have them transform their lives through photography. You will be amazed at the intelligence of these children and will get caught up in the successes and failures of the filmmakers to achieve these goals. Beautifully done and totally enlightening!

“MARIA FULL OF GRACE” (*** ½)

The Dramatic Audience Award Winner, this HBO Films production tells the story of a 17 year old girl from Bogota who becomes a ”mule” (swallowing Heroin pellets and transporting them to the U.S.) in order to escape her mundane life. Screenwriter/director Joshua Marston has constructed a terrifying narrative of a situation which is generally based on reality. Great performance by Catlina Sandino Moreno.

Well, that’s about it Harry. By the way, I passed up the Grand Jury Prize and Alfred P. Sloan Prize winner, “Primer”, after hearing how awful it was. Made for $7,000, everyone I spoke with said the last 30 minutes are unintelligible and totally confusing. With sooo many other wonderful flicks, one wonders what the jury is thinking when they vote for the top award! They got it right last year with “American Splendor”. “Primer” appears to be this year’s “Sunday” (which won a couple of years ago and never got distribution).

Jay Berg

Excellent write-up, man. I appreciate you taking the time, and I hope you write again next year.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 28, 2004, 7:11 a.m. CST

    "ex-girl friend (Monica Bellucci!)"

    by eraser_x

    Wow! Is that a sad phrase or what?!

  • Jan. 28, 2004, 9:32 a.m. CST

    Seducing Dr. Lewis

    by no-no

    Saw it at the Director's Fortnight in Cannes last year... 4 stars for that really broad, farcical, tedious "comedy"? Once again, to each his own...(but Dogville is such a good movie in my world!)

  • Jan. 28, 2004, 11:08 a.m. CST

    the best film at sundance was at slamdance!

    by scottclone

    Very sad that this poser website is overlooking what many folks are considering a festival BETTER or rivaling Sundance...SLAMDANCE. BIG CITY DICK: RICHARD PETERSON`S FIRST MOVIE was the best film screened at Slamdance and better or equal to many of the "independent" films that screened at Sundance. Go to www.slamdance.com to get the details. I found it amusing that a lot of the celebrities would come over to the slamdance hub to hang out. Kevin Bacon and Benjamin Bratt brought a platter of sushi for us all to eat and stunk up the place! Some of the great films that screened besides the above mentioned, GRAVEYARD ALIVE! Eat your heart out George Romero! MONSTER ROAD, this will be released soon...a great doc on morbid animator Bruce Bickford. Sundance is about as independent as Jerry Seinfeld is Catholic!

  • Jan. 28, 2004, 11:57 a.m. CST

    Why Primer won...

    by Batutta

    I think the Sundance Institute was reeling from Peter Biskind's blistering potrayal and decided (or was coerced) into giving the award to a movie like Primer to re-establish it's street cred. "See, we haven't sold out to commercial interests! This guy came from nowhere, with no stars, and only 7,000 dollars (which I've heard is a total fabrication) and won the Grandd Prize! Sundance still has THE INDY SPIRIT!"