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SUNDANCE: DAY 8 w. MORIARTY: THE ISLE, JULIE JOHNSON, & The Worst Film Of The Fest, JACK THE DOG!!

Published at: Feb. 7, 2001, 3:40 a.m. CST

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

If you read about day seven, then you'll understand why the morning of day eight just didn't happen. Robie's told me vague rumors about things he may or may not have done during those hours, but I certainly couldn't swear to it. I was passed out cold. When I finally struggled my way to consciousness, it was only because Robie was hitting me in the head with my own size 11 Doc Marten. He said something about Texas Red's. Oh, yeah... that's the way you lure a fat man out of bed. Promise him barbecue.

We had one detour to make before we had food, though. We went to the condo that Mark Ebner and his crew had rented, and we did an appearance on Ebner's radio show. Originally part of the Comedy World internet package, Ebner's show is now syndicated around the country. It was a real hit-and-run appearance, and I'm curious how it played. There's supposed to be an archive of it at some point. I hope so, because I'd like to hear Ebner grilling Billy Corben, director of the UF rape case documentary RAW DEAL. Ebner evidently asked hard questions of the filmmaker, which is only fair. I found the film manipulative despite the natural power of the footage at the heart of it, and I'm glad someone had the nerve to call Corben on what seemed like fundamental mistakes in judgement. Ebner and his eccentric crew hustled us through with no fuss, and we were on the steps on the way back down from their condo before we knew what hit us.

So it was we found ourselves on Main Street again, sitting in the same booth at Texas Red's that we'd already had once before, enjoying another great lunch as we worked on our reviews. Afterwards, we went looking for Chris Gore or David Poland or any of a half-dozen other people on our list, armed with snowballs and a video camera. We saw Poland, but he was with a group of innocent bystanders, so we spared him. Robie went wandering around with his DV camera, while I checked out the Electronic Village that had been erected inside Harry-O's. By the time we finally regrouped, it was late in the afternoon, and we had just enough time to head over to the Yarrow for a screening of THE ISLE, a Korean film that had been building some really crazy word of mouth over the week. We couldn't wait to see if what we'd heard about the film was true.

It's true. THE ISLE is the sickest freakshow I saw at Sundance, and my first reaction after the screening was disgust, annoyance, irritation that I'd sat through the whole thing. In the days since, though, I have grown to have a grudging respect for the accomplishment of director Ki-Duk KIM, as it's printed in all the press materials. What he's made here is obviously allegorical, and it's presented with a distinct, if brutal, visual style that finds some middle ground between poetry and perversion. The fun part of talking the film over with other writers after the screening was hearing everyone's interpretations of what they'd just seen. One person waxed at some length about how the film was an indictment of the cruelty of fishing. Another talked about how it illustrated the relationship between man and God. Yet another tried to bend it to be an illustration of the futility of relationships between men and women. All of these cases were made passionately, articulately. You would think that with this many different interpretations that it must be a complex film, but it's the exact opposite. The film is so simple it's almost a still life. Very little happens, and what does happen takes its own sweet time. It's precisely because of the simplicity of the thing that I think the meaning is so slippery.

Jung Suh plays Hee-Jin, a woman who operates a small business on a secluded fishing lake. She maintains a cluster of miniature fishing houses that she rents out to people. She takes them out to the houses in her boat and leaves them there, occasionally bringing out food or other amenities. We see her sleep with some of the fishermen for money, and we also see her bring out other prostitutes for the men as well. She's not all helpful, though. We also see her playing spiteful, even dangerous pranks on the fisherman. There's a strange feral malevolence about her. The actress is beautiful, if severe, and there's a carnal undercurrent to everything she does. When Hyun-Shik (Yoo-Suk Kim) shows up on the lake, Hee-Jin becomes fascinated by him. She interrupts his first suicide attempt by stabbing him in the thigh and distracting him. When he tries it again, he gets creative, swallowing a fishing lure with six hooks on it, then trying to yank it back it up. Hee-Jin rescues him, cutting the hooks loose and nursing him back to health. For a brief time, it looks like the two of them have found peace in one another, and they start restoring some of the houses on the lake. He grows tired of her dependence on him, though, and tries to leave her. She makes a matching gesture, attempting suicide with the same fishing lure, but she doesn't swallow it. No, in the image that will single-handedly keep this film out of American theaters, she jams the lure up her most intimate of orifices, then starts dragging it out.

Listening to a roomful of supposedly jaded critics watch this scene was one of the funniest moments of the festival for me. Actual cries of "Jesus Christ!" Moans. Slightly hysterical laughter. And, yes, walk-outs. Even in the midst of such a filthy image, though, there was a grace note from director Kim. As Hyun-Shik cuts the hooks free from Hee-Jin and sets them aside, two of them, placed seemingly at random, form a perfect classic heart. It's so absurd, so insane, that I found myself admiring this lunatic. Reading over his horrifically translated director's statement in the press notes won me over even further. How can you not like a director who "polishes his writing spirit like a gemstone which is waiting to be smelted"? I haven't been able to forget THE ISLE in the weeks since I've seen it, and that's a good sign. It's stuck with me, and there's things in it that I've found impossible to shake. There's a disturbing level of cruelty to animals, all of it seemingly real, and I don't really see much artistic merit in smashing a frog's head open against a log or skinning a fish halfway, then releasing it back into a lake. Kim seems fully aware of the shock value of each image, and he does pay off a fair amount of what we see. Hell, just trying to organize my thoughts about this film is like riding a see-saw. Did I like it? Did I hate it? I honestly couldn't tell you, and maybe that's recommendation enough.

After the film, Robie decided he was going back to Main Street to shoot more material with the DV and to try and get into the Everclear concert at Harry-O's. We'd been given All Access passes for the music series at the venue, and Robie seemed anxious to try the pass out. I felt guilty about only seeing one film for the day, though, so I begged off and stayed there at the Yarrow to see whatever else was playing at the press screening room. I wasn't sure what was playing, and I really didn't care. I just decided I was going to fit in a few more films, no matter what. I signed in for the next screening and was given press notes for JULIE JOHNSON. The first thing I noticed was the Shooting Gallery logo in the upper corner of the front page. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am in the process of working with Shooting Gallery to set up a film at one of the studios, an original by me and Harry Lime. Having said that, none of that was on my mind as the lights went down in the press room that Friday night. I just wanted to see something else good before leaving town, and director Bob Gosse delivered with a sweet, sincere little fable about a woman waking up to her own potential, one of the true surprises I had at Sundance.

I've always liked Lili Taylor, and she seems perfecly suited to play the title role in this adaptation of Wendy Hammond's play. Julie is a New Jersey housewife, married to Rick (Noah Emmerich), a cop. They've got two kids, Franky (Gideon Jacobs) and Lisa (Mischa Barton), and Julie's life is basically just keeping up with the chaos caused by her family, doing her best to manage schedules and meals and shopping and hating every moment of it. Julie's got a secret, an addiction that she's never discussed with anyone, and one day it finally gets to be too much for her. She snaps and reveals the truth to her best friend, Claire (Courtney Love): she's a loony for science magazines. She doesn't understand most of what she reads in them, but she's practically autistic about it. She buys them and hides them all over the house, never sharing her feelings or thoughts about them with Rick or Franky or Lisa, afraid to. Claire has no idea what Julie's raving about, and she sort of accidentally encourages Julie to take a computer class at a local adult education program. Rick's dead-set against it, and Julie ends up going behind his back to take the class. She drags Claire along for support, but from the moment Mr. Miranda (Spalding Gray) begins his first lecture, Julie is mesmerized. She demonstrates a real knack for the classwork and Mr. Miranda encourages her to take her equivalency test so she can apply to college. When Julie tries to talk the idea over with Rick, he forbids it, ordering her to drop the entire idea. Julie finds herself torn, but for the first time in her life, she makes a choice based on her own happiness, and she throws Rick out of the house.

This is basically all the press notes will tell you about the film, all that any synopsis that was available told you. It's interesting that Shooting Gallery seems so skittish about the film's biggest plot point, because it's what won me over to the movie. Julie's aptitude for math is what allows her to start her journey towards this new version of herself, but it's just a device. Claire sees what Julie does and takes it as inspiration to leave her own husband. Together, the two of them share Julie's house and share the bills and find themselves both helping out with the kids. Gradually, Julie realizes something about herself, something that she's not prepared for. She's in love with Claire. When she works up the nerve to tell Claire about it, Claire's freaked out at first, but a long late-night conversation reveals complex feelings between the two, and they end up in bed. The next day, they meet in a park to talk about it, and in the film's best scene, they generate an incredibly sweet sort of heat between them. They sit there, watching friends pass by, unable to touch each other or betray the slightest tenderness, playing back the moments from the night before, and this one digression turns into something deeper right in front of our eyes. It's lovely work by both Taylor and Love.

Yes, that's right. Courtney Love is darn good in the film. It's a strong piece of character work, and she's completely at home in this character's skin. She and Taylor have a great chemistry as friends first, then as lovers, and when Claire realizes that Julie is outgrowing her, Love is really heartbreaking. She needs the friends she grew up with. She's not looking to go to college and get a new career and move to the city and just leave everything familiar behind. Julie can't help but transform completely. Once she starts, there's no stopping her. As she follows her interests, it's like she's become untethered from the Earth, like she's floating away. Claire holds on as long as she can, but it eventually becomes too much for her. She has to cut Julie loose, for both their sakes. Claire does what she does out of an equal measure of fear and love, and it's that weakness that makes the character resonate so strongly.

Bob Gosse, who directed the film, has a slight visual style that compliments his film without ever becoming obtrusive. The film was shot by David Dunlap, who's worked under Michael Balhaus (GOODFELLAS, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, Coppola's DRACULA) as a camera op for years. The strong design of the film is given able support by Angelo Badalamenti's score. I like this guy's work a lot, and credits like BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS, and THE STRAIGHT STORY all indicate just how striking and original he can be, time after time. This is a totally different sound for him again, warm and gentle, and he's worked with Liz Phair on four songs that punctuate the picture perfectly, bringing to mind the collaboration between Jon Brion and Aimee Mann on MAGNOLIA. There's a lot of great music used specifically in the film to great effect, like Sinead O'Connor's "Hold Back The Night" over the closing credits. "Do you want to be/my dying day/my darkest hour/my overdose?" she sings over a coda of surprising power, a simple moment with Lili that becomes more moving because of the restraint it demonstrates. In a lot of ways, the gentle quality of the storytelling here reminds me of BIG NIGHT, a film I dearly love. JULIE JOHNSON never overplays the story it's telling, never tries to make it something big or broad or phony. This is the kind of film that a studio would have ruined if they'd made it, a script that would have been sandblasted into mediocrity if it had been a big-budget star vehicle. The size of the film, the obvious reality of the locations, it all enhances the story being told.

I'll admit, I may have been predisposed towards liking this film. One of my favorite people in the world is an aunt of mine, one of my father's sisters. When I was young, she represented freedom to me. She lived in California, on the other side of the country from the rest of the family. Accounts of what she was up to were always filled with change and exciting business ventures and it all sounded exotic to my young ears. What I didn't know at that age was that the reports I was given were censored, creatively edited to hide the fact that my aunt was a lesbian. It's not that my parents had a problem with it; it's just that it wasn't something they were ready to explain. I remember the family reunion where I finally put things together, when I met my aunt's partner and saw the way they were together, the affection between them. Once I learned the truth, I was given more background, and I heard about her marriage, the terrible first relationship she was in, and how she went through a process of reinvention. And I finally understood why she seemed like such a symbol of freedom to me. She was living the life she wanted to live. I was bitten by the filmmaking bug very early in life, and most of my childhood was spent listening to people explain why no one ever really succeeds if they go into show business. My aunt had confronted far more difficulty in her evolution than I could imagine, and she is happy and strong and gifted with an amazing immediate family today, and I took strength from that. She was inspirational, and so is JULIE JOHNSON. Be sure to check it out.

After JULIE JOHNSON, there was only one more film scheduled to play the Yarrow's press screening room, and that was it. There would be Eccles screenings on Saturday, but the Yarrow was finished. Realizing that cemented it for me; Sundance was ending. It felt like I'd just gotten comfortable, adjusted, like I was finally figuring out how to do it. And it was ending. Figures. I decided I was going to stay for whatever the final film was, and I couldn't be more delighted by the decision. What I saw set the entire week in perspective for me. After seeing JACK THE DOG, I had both ends of the scale locked firmly in place. If HEDWIG and WAKING LIFE were the very best of what I saw at Sundance, then JACK THE DOG was the worst by leaps and bounds, an abomination, rancid in ways I didn't know films could be rancid. If you made a film that didn't get into Sundance this year, and it's even remotely watchable, then you owe director Bobby Roth a beating, 'cuz you was robbed.

When I stumbled out of the screening with Andrew, a writer from Zap2It.com, both of us struggled to maintain our composure as we took the press notes from the publicist standing there. I was dying to read the notes, aching to get a glimpse of the genius behind this assault. Normally, I would try to be nice about my violent dislike for this film, figuring the director had to be some guy who decided he HAD to make a film, and he was going to put everything on the line, and this was his one shot, and his lack of experience got in the way of his admirable ambition, and the thing just didn't work. I've seen little films like that, and I just can't beat them up. It feels unfair. But Bobby Roth, a "veteran filmmaker" with 26 features to his credit before this, god bless him, gives us full permission to point and laugh with the staggering pretension of the press notes coupled with the truly hateful nature of the movie.

Remember... sitting down to watch the film, I had no idea what it was. I had no agenda, no baggage whatsoever. I didn't know who was in it. I didn't know if it was a comedy or a drama. The most immediate problem with the film is that Bobby Roth seems to have the same confusion about the film's nature. Comedy? Drama? Who knows? Who cares? This guy's gonna do it all. The film, in a hypothetical sense only, belongs in the same sort of confessional dramatic comedy category as Woody Allen's work or imitators like Henry Jaglom and Ed Burns. As much as I dislike those guys, they stand head and shoulders above Bobby Roth. Hell, Eric Schaffer makes better movies than this guy, and he's the independent world's answer to Vogon poetry. Roth's telling the story here of Jack (Nestor Carbonell), a photographer whose nickname is... well, take a freakin' guess. And why is he called Jack the Dog? This is going to seem wild or even hard to believe because of how risky and uncharted the territory is, but try and hang with me. They call him Jack the Dog because he likes to fuck women. CRAZY, huh?! Can you imagine that? Can you imagine such a novel idea for a movie? Get this, though... it gets even crazier. He meets this one woman, and he falls in love with her. I mean, how the heck is Jack the Dog gonna handle marriage? He's a dog! Named Jack! Get it?!

I'm terrified by the idea that Bobby Roth's script is about himself, but that's what the press notes suggest. If that's true, then he's a woman-hating monster, because his script is one of the most angry, openly hostile films about relationships I've ever seen. And not the kind of hostile that makes Albert Brooks' MODERN ROMANCE a work of sublime perfection, either. We're talking about the kind of hostile that should seek professional help and the privacy of the therapist's couch, ego-driven and self-delusional. Jack gets married, tries to be a good husband, learns that his wife Faith(Barbara Williams) is a ball-busting sex-hating ice bitch, and immediately decides to have an affair, leading to the demise of his marriage when his wife and his mistress Hope (Elizabeth Barondes), both play horrible life-ruining games with him despite the fact that he just wants to be loved. Jack's a saint, the poor bastard who fate conspires against, which is why he deserves to raise his son Sam (Andrew J. Ferchland) on his own when Faith decides to remarry and move to London. It would be madness to suggest anything else, Roth illustrates, since all women are obviously cruel whores who simply use men for sex and who reveal their true natures whenever they use their mouths for anything other than blow jobs. Roth couldn't be more clear in the way he characterizes every single woman in the film, including Jack's mother, who seems to have sexual boundary issues, constantly groping her son in the film's most repulsive pointless subplot.

Let me make one thing very clear: Andrew J. Ferchland, who also appeared in THE DOE BOY as the younger version of the main character, is a very capable young actor who does exactly what he was hired to do in JACK THE DOG. None of what went wrong is his fault. I just want to make sure it's apparent that I think he is truly an innocent in all this. Having said that, every other person associated with JACK THE DOG failed utterly at their jobs, resulting in a film that is as ugly visually and aurally as it is spiritually. There's nothing appealing about the film. There's not one scene that works. There's not one idea that's honest or well communicated. There's not one character that's appealing. It's a giant ball of ugly and unpleasant, and if this is the best Bobby Roth can do after 26 films to warm up with, then I'd say he's got nothing to offer an audience. I'm glad I saw a film this bad at Sundance, because it made me appreciate the work and the craft and the luck and the heart that went into everything else I saw, all of which are absent completely in the cataclysmic disaster JACK THE DOG. It's like the goatee-wearing evil twin of JULIE JOHNSON, as phony as that was honest, as empty as that was rich, and I dare anyone to make it through unscathed.

A little post-movie decompression at the Park City Denny's, the only place open after midnight, a near-fight with some slack-jawed locals who were throwing food, and a speeding ticket on the way back into Heber City later, Robie and I crashed, knowing our next morning would be our last morning in Utah. But more on that later...

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback

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  • Feb. 7, 2001, 4 a.m. CST

    Now I know there must be something Deadly wrong with me...I read

    by GEEKBASHER 3.0

    Honestly I think I will pass on the ISLE...It's got Don't go there written all over it... My question is after she jammed the fishook up her Twat, Did she catch anything?

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 4:03 a.m. CST

    EVERYONE GO RENT CHERRY FALLS AND THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE if you

    by GEEKBASHER 3.0

    Totally fabulous fucking movies to get stoned too, and I don't even get high!

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 7:03 a.m. CST

    Isle - Most Horrible Film I have Ever Seen

    by Mentalist

    Is it just me, or does this film get more credit simply because it is: A) In another language. B) Playing at film festivals. I was honestly disgusted by this film. The director may have an impressive resume, but this film had the quality of a direct to video 'B'grade horror film. If a North American director made this film it would be quickly trashed and never seen again (that is if he could avoid all the outraged animal rights activists).

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 7:52 a.m. CST

    Didn't The Band sing a song about 'Jack the Dog'....

    by Uncle Jay

    .....oh wait thats Jack My Dog, a verse from "The Weight". Sorry guys!

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 7:56 a.m. CST

    Maybe I'm Sick, But...

    by Elaine

    ... I LOVED "The Isle." It's one of only two films this year (the other being "The Goddess of 1967") that have given me goose bumps, made me cry with horror AND made me laugh out loud all within ten seconds. Despite all the terror it inspires, "The Isle" is actually a surprisingly funny film, with an entirely unique brand of humour and a beauty and an atmosphere you're not likely to forget. I recommend everybody who finds himself in its vicinity to see it. It's an experience you won't forget - and not just because of the fish hooks.

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 8:22 a.m. CST

    This Guy's *Worse* Than Eric Schaeffer?

    by mrbeaks

    Mein Gott In Himmel! The Prince of Darkness walks the Earth!

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 10:21 a.m. CST

    "Eric Schaffer is the independent world's answer to Vogon poetry

    by Cervaise

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Put THAT on the video boxes, you assholes! Ha! Totally, completely, hilarious. Made me spit my Welch's 100% Orange Juice (from concentrate) at the monitor. Genius. I say again, Ha!

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 2:12 p.m. CST

    I'm afraid now.

    by Shrevie

    Man, much to disturb me in this report. Thanks for the recommendation/warning of The Isle. I'm looking forward to standing for an hour outside the box office, money in hand, debating with myself. Ouch! And was Jack The Dog really worse than 3am? Or last year's Urbania? And thank you for that Henry Jaglom slam. I don't like Ed Burns either but at least he doesn't contemptuously trash greater filmmakers than himself like that no-talent-huge-chip-on-his-shoulder Jaglom. As a matter of fact, Burns went out and worked for one. Maybe he learned something from the bearded one.

  • Feb. 7, 2001, 6:35 p.m. CST

    Andrew J Ferchland!

    by epitone

    Andrew J Ferchland played the Annointed One in the first season of Buffy. Just FYI.