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Suicide, Cults, And Religious Persecution: A Week At Sundance 2011 (Part 1-of-2)
by Erik Childress

Perhaps Sundance was a more prescient festival than it could ever have imagined this year. With a fair share of East Coasters around and at least one humble Chicagoan a week away from some of the strongest blizzards in years in our hometowns, maybe we should have been paying a little closer to its visions of the apocalypse. That was one of the more prevalent themes in Park City this January, both real and imagined, peppered with such other flowery storylines involving suicide and religious cults. Sometimes they would even co-mingle into the kind of anti-climactic stew that outsiders perceive of the annual gathering of independent filmmaking. The festival is certainly what you make of it though. Depending on what you choose to mark on your schedule, an audience favorite might slip by while you watch a film destined to hit DVD in maybe three years. With a culmination of 32 films seen by yours truly over the course of six days going from theater-to-theater and tent-to-heated-tent, my experience was looking up after the first three days. But in following the themes set forth in the features I chose, things were quick to take a turn for the worst.

My festival began on a positive note with The Music Never Stopped, the unofficial completion of the Oliver Sacks case study trilogy that began in 1990 with Awakenings and continued with 1995's At First Sight. Basically stories where false hope is offered for a little while before its subjects regress to their previous mental and physical states. Jim Kohlberg's film is a bit more uplifting though. It is the story of a couple (J.K. Simmons & Cara Seymour) rediscovering their prodigal son (Lou Taylor Pucci) when he is found wandering the streets. A brain tumor has given him a case of the Mementos and he is unable to form any short-term memories. The only thing he has is the music he remembers, taught to him first in a classical sense by his father and then his discoveries into the rock of the '60s as a teenager. Dad had trouble understanding during this period, especially over differences of patriotism and Vietnam, but he is making the effort now hiring a therapist (Julia Ormond) who specializes in this form of musical rehabilitation. It sounds pretty ludicrous, but the film does manage to transcend its disease-of-the-week trappings and fall squarely between TV-movie and Oscar-baiting. As the film progresses, Gwyn Lurie & Gary Marks' screenplay becomes a rather solid father/son tale as their relationship becomes an ultimately very moving center. J.K. Simmons is especially good, getting a chance to shine in his first leading role after years of scene-stealing supporting work. Simmons' performance would also prove to be the closest thing to an Oscar contender that this year's festival would offer. At least on my schedule.
(out of 4)

One of the can't miss films for me this year was Ji-woon Kim's I Saw The Devil. Missed last September at Toronto where I was told it was "the best serial killer film since Seven" I could not wait to see what the director of The Good, The Bad, The Weird (my fifth best film of 2010) still had up his horror sleeve. It is the story of a Korean law officer (GBW's "bad" Byung-hun Lee) who begins a quest for revenge against the man (Yoon-seo Kim) who killed his fiancee. This is not your standard revenge tale though as Kim's film taps into our darkest recesses of vengeance as its hero is not intent on merely catching the bad guy but punishing him. Over...and over...and over again. At 141 minutes, this is not a film leading up to the ultimate showdown, but a series of recurring ones where the killer must now face his own worst enemy and jail or death would actually be a relief. This is not the masterpiece prescribed to me that I had hoped for. The early hunt for suspects and the role of other officers in this pursuit leave us to fill in a few too many pieces. Plus the climax does not quite live up to the symbiotic relationship between the two men with a little too much spelled out for the audience. But holding them together are some wonderfully sadistic moments of violence and set pieces that remind us the guy pulling the strings is the same one who brought us some of the best action scenes in years with G.B.W. Seven is certainly not a class I would put it in, nor Oldboy which makes for some fun irony with that film's vengeance seeker now taking the role of villain. It is a bit too long for its own good, but with the state of the genres it wades in, it is easy to understand why this is a standout.
(out of 4)

Moving over to another guy looking for justice, we have Rutger Hauer as the titular Hobo With A Shotgun. Back in 2007, the South by Southwest Film Festival held a competition in honor of the forthcoming Grindhouse to create the best fake exploitation trailer. Jason Eisener won with a two-minute bit of awesome that, nearly four years later, would turn out to be a full length feature under his guidance. As the trailer (and the title) promises, we get a homeless man saving his nickels and dimes to buy a lawnmower and better his life. But in the scumbag-laden city he walks through, life is not easy for the citizens or the homeless due to a maniacal crime boss (Lexx's Brian Downey) and his two insane sons. So he buys a shotgun, teams up with a local hooker and begins laying waste to the bad guys. Sounds fun, right? For a little while at least. It is one thing to find peace with the over-the-top style of carnage, skin and general amoral attitude attached to justice. We do it all the time. When it is happening to the bad guys. It is another thing entirely when the same sort of "quality" vengeance is occurring to the "good" guys and the innocent. Once a whole bus of grade school children is terrorized and then torched before our very eyes as hobo payback and a hacksaw literally slices into the neck of a woman, the fun factor begins to wear off quick. (And for those who believe this to be some sudden moral high ground on my part, note that just before the screening of this film, a wonderful short entitled The Legend of Beaver Dam was shown that also featured the slaughter of very young children. And it was creative, ironic and hilarious.) Not that there are not some very creative kill scenes in Hobo, but Eisener's vision worked better as a satiric two-minute trailer and his subsequent 16-minute short, Treevenge.
(out of 4)

Which brings to another gun-crazy psychopath, Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, as portrayed by Dominic Cooper in the kind of scenery-chewing performance that made Tony Montana legendary. Only when Al Pacino played him, he was surrounded by Brian DePalma, Oliver Stone, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. In The Devil's Double, Dominic Cooper is surrounded by...Dominic Cooper. That is because he also plays Latif Yahia, a schoolmate of Uday's whom he calls upon to be his body double around town. While enjoying all the pleasures of Uday's lavish lifestyle (aside from touching any willing gal whom Uday has already marked for himself), Latif is also miserable being held captive under threats to his family. So without any insight into the day-to-day pressures of potential assassinations and being simultaneously pampered and hated, we are left to watch the morose, low-voiced Cooper watch as the other Cooper bounces his Uday performance off the wall to such extremes that it is impossible to take seriously. Imagine watching Scarface as intentional comedy. There is already some ludicrous suggestion that Cooper's work will be on the watch list come Oscar season next year. But if Armie Hammer could not garner that kind of recognition for the more sublime work he gave to distinguishing the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, the only award Cooper should be in line for is next year's Razzie. Director Lee Tamahori clearly falls in love with the more extremist angles of the story, providing plenty of skin and even moments of violence worthy of Hobo With A Shotgun. The two films could even play on a double-bill about iron fist dictators with a pair of psychotic sons who shoot first and laugh just as quickly. You might have trouble deciphering which is supposed to be the ironic one though.
(out of 4)

Onto what very well could have been the worst film I had to sit through this year, Iwai Shunji's Vampire. What might have been a semi-interesting short if it had ended after the first 15 minutes, turns into a full two-hour slog of a half-baked idea cooked into a stew of nearly unconnected vignettes that seem to go on for just as long. Kevin Zegers plays Simon, a guy who connects with young girls on a suicide website. He convinces them that they are going to die together, but what he really wants is their blood through a "painless" transfusion process that satisfies both parties. Is he really a vampire though? You might believe that if you are a Twi-tard who subscribe to the overcast theory of being allowed out in the daytime. But this guy also can't hold down his blood. After offing the Whale Rider to kick off things, Shunji than serves up any number of pointlessly shifty camera angles and one frustratingly annoying character after another. These include in no order: Trevor Morgan as a goth vampire wannabe who takes things too far ("you're a rapist", says the blood taker), Amanda Plummer as Simon's dementia-laden mom confined to her room by a cadre of giant balloons and Rachael Leigh Cook as the sister of a cop who almost arrested Simon (and subsequently setup by) who gives pushy, clingy girlfriends a really bad name. Only Adelaide Clemens proves to be a likable presence as a potential victim who may just be Simon's salvation. If Shunji had concentrated the film on these two characters or found a way to satirize the rise in popularity of vampire culture, his story may have been more tolerable. As is, Vampire is an agonizing bore, traipsing along on the assumption that just because it is trying to be different, that does not make it special.
(out of 4)

Let me tell you what is special though. Lucky McKee's The Woman. Continuing the theme of males with psychotic tendencies, this one takes on a uniquely feminist point of view. In a frighteningly terrific portrait of a domestic monster, Sean Bridgers (Deadwood's Johnny Burns) plays a family man out in the country suburbs who comes across a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) living in the woods. The hunter that he is, he decides to bag this animal, string her up in the family cellar and enlist them to go about the task of domestication, if you will. Just like dear ol' dad has done with his. The teenage daughter (Lauren Ashley Carter) has withdrawn into a near catatonic state at school. The adolescent son (Zach Rand) is crossing that bridge into puberty and may be bringing a little of that pull-their-hair playground mentality with him. And mom (Angela Bettis) is more than a bit confused with this new "pet." Is it because she sees a bit of herself in this woman or frozen in fear at the thought of crossing the man in her life? The unchecked hypocrisy of a less-than-perfect family trying to fix another human being of any sex, race or persuasion blankets the film's dark comic subtext. But this is most assuredly horror in the sense of everyday monsters masked in a neighborly smile and Bridgers, arguably, gives Terry O'Quinn's Stepfather a run for his money. The Woman created quite a stir at Sundance when one of the public attendees voiced his opposition of the film as one that degrades women. Sure, if all you see is the image of a dirty, voiceless, naked woman chained up. This is far from your atypical woman-in-peril film though, nor is it simply a revenge fantasy from the I Spit On Your Grave school. This is dark, challenging stuff with a dead-eye for satire and a fantastically out-of-control final act that will equally please the horror fan inside as well as the part that understands what is going on beneath the violence. Co-written by McKee and novelist Jack Ketchum, this is my kind of horror. Insane enough to rev our primal instincts and intelligent enough to stimulate the shades of grey matter that yearns for something to talk about afterwards. The Woman is most assuredly a film to be celebrated, whether you are a man or a woman.
(out of 4)

In a hybrid of bad men and female independence, you could do a lot worse than To.get.her. If you were in hell, that is. We're told up front that five girls went away for a weekend and only one of them was to return; murdered by "a man." What transpires is how that weekend came together and the ensuing tragedy. Oh, joy. The girl narrating this setup (and seen walking alone on the pier as some potential foreshadowing) is Ana (Joss Stone lookalike, Jazzy De Lisser). She has orchestrated this beach house weekend with her friends using her stepfather's credit card, convincing him and mom that she's going off to bond with mommy's fiancee and then telling him she has other plans in a manner that should have him asking "Who am I here?" Ana and her four friends spend their first day getting drunk, getting high, going dancing and flirting with boys. Meanwhile, mom is having an affair on the side with another man who is carrying around some mysterious envelope and looking all ominous about it. What is he hiding? How bad is stepdaddy? Who is this man killing off the girls? Actually, who cares? By the time we get to the big reveal (and it is a more insulting doozy than anything found in The Woman), the only process of elimination we are engaged in is who is actually the worst actor on screen. Seriously, it is as if there was some side bet as to whom could out-act the others into the most abysmally unconvincing performance in the film.
(out of 4)

The way people were talking about Matthew Chapman's The Ledge, you would have thought they had actually seen the worst film Sundance has ever programmed. That's a little harsh. Especially since the film is more laughably silly than downright anger-inducing. Charlie Hunnam stars as a guy who, as the film opens, walks out onto a literal ledge. Called in to talk him down is officer Terrence Howard who has just found out that he's sterile, despite having a couple of kids and one on the way. OK, so they are both having a bad day. What a way to bond. Hunnam soon reveals that he has ulterior motivations for being out on that ledge and begins to spin the tale of how his fundamentalist neighbor (Patrick Wilson) insulted his gay roommate (and the homosexual population at large) which then began a series of arguments over the Bible and common decency so infuriating that he just had to kill himself. OK, not exactly. There's also the matter of the neighbor's cute wife (Liv Tyler) whom he falls in love with. No chained-up women in cellars here. Just some good old-fashioned religious debate (especially the 7th commandment) that leads one penitent man to force another to make a leap of faith. There's no holy grail at the end of this path though. Nor is there any great twist or reversal. Just a gigantic anti-climax that might prove to be Chapman's embracement of irony in the whole "this is all there is" slant towards atheism.
(out of 4)

More Sundance reviews coming soon including: Another Earth, Bellflower, The Catechism Cataclysm, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, The Future, Happy Happy, Higher Ground, Homework, I Melt With You, The Lie, Like Crazy, Little Birds, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Idiot Brother, The Off Hours, The Oregonian, Perfect Sense, Red State, Septien, Submarine, Take Shelter, The Troll Hunter, and Win Win.

And listen to my LIVE Sundance report on WGN Radio and my WRAP-UP upon my return.

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originally posted: 02/04/11 04:01:23
last updated: 10/04/11 04:19:22
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