Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sundance 2011 (Day 1)

01/26/2010 - Try spending 15 hours of your day all around Park City and up and down main street--from the Eccles to the Egyptian Theater--and then you'll get an idea of how I'm feeling. Exhilerated, ecstatic, and... exhausted. Four films/events in one day. I might have seen even more had I not done so much walking, but it did me good. I'm familiar enough with the layout of Park City to be able to navigate it freely for the next three days.

Margin Call, the debut film by filmmaker J.C. Chandor, was the first film I saw this morning (and my first film at the festival). It's already catching a lot of fuss as one of the hottest news films premiering at Sundance. Revolving around a firm that is being forced to cut several of its employees or else it runs the risk of collapsing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as a movie it's somewhere in between Up in the Air and Glengarry Glen Ross. While a superior effort in comparison to the former film, it lacks the character depth of the latter--Chandor becomes so caught up in crafting a "financial thriller" that he keeps the people in the story at a strange emotional distance; and he lacks the snappy dialogue of Glengarry Glen Ross because his language is devoid of life (he's no David Mamet). Some of the actors in the A-list cast perform admirably (Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany), while others don't do nearly as well (Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto). By far the most effective sequence in the film is the introduction of Jeremy Irons as the head executive who can make or break careers at the drop of a hat.

This year's TimesTalks seminar was hosted by Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Vera Farmiga, all of whom were interviewed onstage by New York Times columnist Melena Ryzik. It was entertaining to see them up close and in-person, and one enjoyed seeing them make fun of each other--although many of their replies to Ryzik's thoughtful questions came across as impatient and snide. They often complained that they didn't understand the purpose of her questions (Liotta and Kinnear were particularly hard-pressed in responding to a question by Ryzik as to how seriously they take the concept of promoting the films they star in--since, unlike Farmiga, neither one has ever directed a film and thus held responsibility over financial costs). When asked about his method of acting, Liotta had a habit of consistently replying, "We're actors! It's fun to pretend!" and seemed unwilling to go further than that. Farmiga reacted like a deer caught in the headlights when an audience member recalled her Up in the Air performance from last year: "Is that a queestion, or a comment?" she replied to the audience member. "Because... well, I agree with you." Kinnear didn't seem to be as hostile, though his constant insistence on turning the harder questions over to Farmiga and Liotta had an air of uncertainty to it. Was he just kidding, or was he honestly uncomfortable with the questions?

If A Tree Falls is my choice for the best documentary being entered in Sundance. This is an absolutely engrossing film about the life and times of Daniel McGovern, an "eco-terrorist" responsible for arson attacks that led to the destruction of dozens of American log factories and artificial tree markets. Though nobody was in fact killed during his attacks, McGovern was eventually tried by the government as a terrorist and sentenced to life in prison. The film also documents McGovern's allies in the far-left "Earth Liberation Front" and reveals how they were able to dodge harsh prison sentences after they had caved in to plea bargaining. We also get to hear the story from the perspectives of the businessmen who lost their companies to McGovern's acts of arson, and the film takes an unbiased view in deciding whether or not McGovern's crimes were acts of terrorism.

What we know for sure, after seeing the film, is that McGovern's crimes are undeniably serious, but so are the ruthless acts of the National Guardsmen who took disgusting measures against the non-violent environmentalists who were protesting alongside McGovern and his accomplices. During the Q & A at the end of the film, I told director Marshall Curry that I found it to be the best documentary of its kind since Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, and then asked him if he'd like to interview McGovern after he gets out of prison. Curry told me he hopes he can conduct such an interview and then include it on a future DVD.

Something tells me that few films at the festival are going to be superior to Vampire, which is already my favorite movie at Sundance by a mile. I'm not familiar with the previous work of director Iwai Shunji, but now I know for sure that he is a filmmaker to look out for. Vampire is a masterful piece of filmmaking from beginning to end: not only did Shunji write and direct the piece, but he also edited it, photographed it and even composed the musical score; as a result, everything about the film is gorgeous. It's a splendidly-acted film, too, with Kevin Zegers' Simon Williams being by far the most likable movie vampire in a long time, in part because he doesn't kill his victims in the old-fashioned way, in part because his intent is not to murder but to put willfully suicidal souls out of their misery. Other impressive cast members include a surprising comeback by Keisha Castle-Hughes (what happened to her after Whale Rider?), as well as another by Trevor Morgan (the bratty kid from Jurassic Park III) as a rapist vampire with homosexual fetishes. The most radiant performance in the film is by Adelaide Clemens as a young, glacial blonde who may very well be the key to rescuing Simon from his dreadful existence.

The movie is extremely gory (I saw a couple of squeamish moviegoers flee the Yarrow auditorium in a panic), but never to an exploitive degree. It's a lovely, poetic film that takes its material very seriously. If there's a flaw, it's that it doesn't quite know when to end: Shunji treats several shots as if they're meant to be the final shot of the film, and a concluding scene with Smallville star Kristen Kreuk feels superfluous. Still, I'm probably just missing something essential about Shubji's approach, and when this movie hits theaters nationwide I'm DEFINITELY seeing it again. You should, too.

Took some pictures today that will be uploaded once the trip is over. Regarding celebrities on the streets, I didn't see any famous actors or actresses walking around (excepting Liotta, Kinnear and Farmiga inside the Egyptian Theatre), although I did spot a famous film critic: when I was walking towards the Library Centre in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get in line for the new Elmo documentary, Elvis Mitchell came out of nowhere crossing the street. I literally froze in my tracks as the ticket salesmen greeted him with a pleasant, "Hello again, Elvis!"

I think I may have also passed Kenneth Turan on the sidewalk up on Main Street, but I can't be too sure.


  1. Thanks for the dispatch. It must be nice to see movies without any advance notice, pro or con. It seems I'm forming less of my own impression these days than reacting to the consensus one way or another.

  2. The problem is that I have to wake up super-early in order to buy tickets in advance, and once they're sold out I have to go through the Wait List process in hopes of getting an extra ticket to a show I might want to see at the last minute. There's a lot of line-waiting at Sundance! Although I get to see movies in the morning and at midnight for free due to my Film School Pass... that will allow me to get into Miranda July's movie on Friday morning with ease!


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