Friday, January 19, 2007

Sundance the second batch

The Sundance film festival has begun and I'm totally pissed off (more on that later.) There are two opening galas: one in Salt Lake city and one in Park City. We begin this batch with those:

River Road Entertainment
95mins, PG-13

Written and Directed
by Brett Morgen

This is something really strange, an animated documentary. Brett Morgan, who directed “The Kid Stays in the Picture” came up with an interesting idea, use archive footage, when possible, and two different styles of animation when such footage is unavailable. The effect actually works, and is reminiscent of some of the recent work of Richard Linklater. What it does is successfully recreate the chaos of 1968 and the farce of the trial that followed.

In the late fall of 1967, a group of left-wing activists decided to protest the Vietnam war by holding a “non-violent” direct action at the National Democratic convention the following August. Never has something gone so wrong and backfired so spectacularly, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Ruben, et al., gave us Nixon, Watergate, five more years of Vietnam, the Cambodian genocide, not to mention millions refugees. Of course, these were the good guys.

The film begins with archive footage of Lyndon Johnson giving a speech on the escalation of the Vietnam war, and Mayor Daley of Chicago announcing that his city was going to host the Convention and everything would be joy and fun. Yeah, right.

We then go to the court room, where Judge Julius Hoffman(voice Roy Scheider) calls to order the farce of the century. The defendants are eight men: Bobby Seale(Jeffrey Wright) Jerry Rubin(Mark Ruffalo), Abbie Hoffman(Hank Azaria), David Dellinger(Dylan Baker), John Froines(James Urbaniak), Lee Weiner (Chuck Montgomery), Tom Haden(Reg Rogers), and Rennie Davis(), who were accused of conspiring to start the riots that pretty much destroyed the Democratic party and gave us six years of Nixon. They were represented by William Kunstler (Liev Schreiber) and Leonard Weinglass(Himself), who are the other two numbered in the title.

The prosecutor, Thomas Foran(Nick Nolte), had a strong case against the defendants, but not on the charges being tried. The Judge appeared to be senile and declined to have a fair trial, which led to gentle retaliation by the defendants and the whole thing devolved into a circus.

Morgen and his crew at Curius pictures then go back and forth between the archival stuff, which is mostly from the convention itself, and the “Chicago 8's” many personal appearances (they had to pay the lawyers somehow) during the trial, and the animated sequences. The whole thing actually works, and this is actually very educational. Disney it ain't.

Away from Her
Lionsgate, 110mins, TBA

Written and directed
by Sarah Polley

The term senility is now deemed pejorative for some reason, and the condition is now called “Alzheimer's.” But that doesn't change anything. It still robs the mind of itself, and the wasting away of the victim is hard to watch whatever it's called. This expansion of Alice Munro's short story, The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” makes this quite plain.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson(Julie Christie) have been married for decades and are still in love. Unfortunately, the early signs of Alzheimer's has set in, and Fiona knows that eventually she has to be sent away to a nursing home, and so does Grant, who fears the possibility far more than his wife.

The place, is in fact, very nice, as are the administrator(Kristen Thompson) and head nurse(Wendy Crewson). The problem is that there's a no visitors for the first 30 Days rule” and at the end of that time, she's forgotten all about him and is hanging out with another patient named Aubrey (Michael Murphy).

Most of the film is framed by a conversation between Grant and Aubrey's wife Marian(Olympia Dukakis). The exact reason for this isn't exactly made clear for much of the film, but it's actually rather touching. Aside from this, and a few grainy flashbacks, which are momentary illustrations, the film's structure is entirely straightforward beginning to end. This is Sarah Polley's first film as a director, and she's not really taking any chances here.

Julie Christie is as lovely as ever, and this may be a bit of a snag, as she doesn't really look old enough for the part, but she does a hell of a job, and Pinsent spends the entire film with an air of quiet desperation, which is just perfect. Unfortunately, Alzheimer's isn't that cinematic topic for film. This and older fare such as “I Never Sang for My Father” and “The Notebook” don't get all that engaging in the drama department. Still, it's a worthy effort.

First Look 92mins, R

Directed and co-written
by Tommy O'Haver

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it is, and the atrocities that have occurred in the unlikeliest of places, in this case suburban Indiana. The banality of evil has rarely been shown in as graphic a manor as it is here. This is one heck of a scary movie.

The framing device is the murder trial of Gertrude Baniszewski(Catherine Keener), who is accused of one of the most notorious crimes of the 1960s, the torture and murder of one Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page). The prosecutor(Bradley Whitford) interrogates various witnesses, which dissolve into flashback.

Sylvia and her sister Jennie Fae(Hayley McFarland) were carnies traveling with their parents(Nick Searcy and Romy Rosemont) throughout the mid-west, when they meet the Baniszewski family on their way back from church. When we first meet Paula(Ari Graynor), Shirley(Hannah Leigh Dworkin), Stephanie(Scout Taylor-Compton) and Marie(Carlie Westerman) they seem to be very nice people. Only baby brother Johnny(Tristan Jarred) seems a little off.

Mom and Dad have to go on the road for a number of months, so Mrs.Baniszewski offers to take them in for a while, (and a fee). We begin to wait with a morbid anticipation, while the sisters integrate themselves into their new family. Then it happens, but this is only forshadowing of the horror to come, as Sylvia accidently betrays a confidence, and by telling the truth, she is the victim of a horrible vengence. This is reminiscent of the notorious Kitty Genovese case, where nobody did anything while a woman was raped and murdered. No one seems to sympathize with poor Sylvia and neighbors Ricky(Evan Peters) and Teddy(Michael Welch), not to mention half the high school, actually join in, in this sick exercise in depravity.

This isn't an easy film to watch. Rarely has a crime drama gotten my dander up in such a way. Tommy O'Haver, who has specialized in fluffy teen romances (both gay and straight), has done the polar opposite of one. This is a true horror film.

Red Road
Tartan Films, 113mins, TBA

Written and Directed
by Andrea Arnold

1984 came late this year. One of the horrors of George Orwell's novel was that everyone was under surveillance all the time, 24 hours a day. Well, this prediction has come true, well not exactly, In Britain, many major cities have cameras everywhere, and just about every neighborhood is monitored by the cops, who only have the best of intentions, right?

Jackie(Kate Dickie) spends her working days monitoring the a vast bank of TV screens looking for crime. She spends her off hours doing nothing in particular, [like having causal sex with a coworker (Paul Higgins)] and is still in mourning for her lost family, who died a number of years before in circumstances that aren't revealed until the end. This tragedy has estranged her from her in-laws, who are pleased and shocked that she's accepted an invitation to a wedding.

But as the banality of Jackie's life continues, she spots Clyde(Tony Curran) walking along the streets of the titular neighborhood she monitors and the plot begins in earnest, as he had something to do with Jackie's personal tragedy. So she begins stalking him, befriending his roommates Stevie(Martin Compston) and April(Natalie Press), and having hot sex in order to frame Clyde for a crime he didn't commit.

The problem with this “thriller” is that it's boring. For much of the film, we just have Jackie doing nothing, arguing with her father-in-Law (Andrew Armour), and watching the monitors in her office. The stalking is slightly better, especially as the relationship between her and Clyde turns slightly kinky. This is the first of a series of films called “the Advance Party concept,” in which the same characters will be in different stories. While the first episode is rather good, I'm not exactly sure whether or not the rest of the series will keep the standards up, although that might not be so hard, all told.

Wait until it comes to cable.

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