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Sundance Film Festival 2001
Sundance Film Festival 2001 - by Geoffrey Kleinman

Over the past few years, the Sundance Film Festival has taken on more and more importance in the motion picture industry. This year we decided to check it out, see some movies and bring you our thoughts on some of the independent films that will be making their way to theaters near you and ultimately of course to DVD.

By far my favorite film from the Sundance Film Festival was Memento. Starring Guy Pierce (who also did LA Confidential and Priscilla Queen of the Desert), Carrie Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano (both from The Matrix), Memento tells the masterfully crafted story of a man who loses his short term memory from an injury incurred while trying to stop the rape and murder of his wife. Now, without the ability to remember anything after the event he must stumble blindly through his life in his unending search for the man who killed his wife. Memento is a masterfully woven film that is so gripping and compelling that you'll want to see it more than once. Guy Pierce, who is in every frame of the movie, does an amazing job playing a man with no memory. Carrie Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano both put in complex and captivating performances. Memento won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance and the writer/director Christopher Nolan is certainly one to watch. Memento is scheduled for limited theatrical release in March. Additionally the short story that Memento was based on will appear in the March edition of Esquire magazine.

One of the most talked about movies at Sundance was the rock opera Hedwig and The Angry Inch. Based on the critically acclaimed Off Broadway musical, Hedwig and The Angry Inch is one of the most fun and energetic films I've seen in a long, long time. Quite possibly the first movie to give Rocky Horror Picture Show a run for its money, Hedwig and The Angry Inch tells the somewhat bizarre story of a castrated transsexual from East Berlin who comes to America and almost becomes a rock star. It sounds strange but it's simply fantastic. The music for Hedwig and The Angry Inch is top quality, with many songs that harken back to some of the great Queen ballads. One of the songs actually has a sing-along and almost everyone in the Sundance theater was singing along. Hedwig and The Angry Inch will be released in a few months by New Line Cinemas and the writer/director John Cameron Mitchell is already talking about scenes which were cut from the movie and should be on the DVD. If you're looking for an absolute blast, take a few friends and go see Hedwig. Not surprisingly Hedwig and The Angry Inch took both the Sundance Dramatic Directors Award and also the Sundance Audience Award at this year's festival. When I saw it, everyone in the theater gave it a standing ovation.

One film that took me completely off guard was Donnie Darko. Produced by Drew Barrymore's production company, Donnie Darko looked like it was going to be a quirky teen love story, but it was so much more. Almost as difficult to describe as Hedwig, Donnie Darko is a complex film centered around a sixteen year old boy who sees an imaginary rabbit. Unlike Harvey, the film that it pays homage to, this rabbit Frank is an evil rabbit, and it tells Donnie to do terrible things. Certainly left of center, Donnie is convinced that Frank is involved with some sort of time travel and is driven to figure out why he is there. If that all isn't complex enough, Donnie Darko is also a story about life in suburbia at the end of the eighties, about relationships between parents and their children, and is in fact an nice teen age love story. The only thing I can really say is SEE THIS FILM! Donnie Darko is so original and intriguing that you really have to see it. I was shocked to find out that Richard Kelly was a first time director and that they made the film for under 5 million dollars (it looks like it was made for 10 times that)! As of this week Donnie Darko is still looking for a distributor (hey Dreamworks are you paying attention?? You should be talking to this director) so its theatrical release is still not set.

One of the films I was really looking forward to seeing at Sundance was The Road Home - directed by Yimou Zhang who also did Not One Less and Raise The Red Lantern. The Road Home tells the story of a son who returns from the city to the countryside to bury his father. His mother insists that they follow the old and long forgotten tradition of carrying the body from where he died (hundreds of miles away) back home to his village. This is the context from which the story of the love affair of his mother and father is told. The Road Home is one of the most beautiful love stories, it's so poignantly done and so touching that many of the people in the theater were in tears. Yimou Zhang is such a fantastic director and he does a masterful job directing non-actors who are so real that you can't help feeling for them. The Road Home is endowed by Sony Pictures Classics, so expect it in theaters soon.

Often independent films can deal with unconformable topics, and at this year's festival the film L.I.E. did just that. Short for 'Long Island Expressway' L.I.E. deals with pedophilia. Unlike some other notable films, the issue of pedophilia in L.I.E. is really a red herring which is used as a jumping off point to explore the dimensionality of the relationship between a young boy and and older man. LIE is as much about fatherhood, role modeling and how men communicate as is it about the disturbing desire of one of the main characters. Expertly directed by Michael Cuesta, LIE is truly a fantastic movie with all around great performances. L.I.E. doesn't have distribution yet so its release date is still unknown.

One of the most creative movies I've seen since Brazil was The American Astronaut - a musically driven space western that is so creative and unique it's almost impossible to describe. Shot on black and white and with a shoe string budget, The American Astronaut reminded me at times of Brazil, Flash Gordon, Close Encounters, Evil Dead, Pulp Fiction, and Star Wars. With songs like "Hey You", "A" and "The Girl With The Glass Vagina," The American Astronaut is indeed a musical but not in the traditional sense. Loosely, the story is about a Space Cowboy who has to run a complicated mission involving several steps to ultimately make a ship load of money. Hot on his tail is a bizarre rival who is out to forgive and then kill him (as "The Professor" can only kill without reason and if he has a reason to kill, he can't). Since it's really impossible to describe, I encourage you to see the trailer at http://www.americanastronaut.com . I can only hope that this film will make it in to theaters one day so more people can experience this dazzlingly creative film.

I kept thinking of it as In The Company of Women, but The Business of Strangers really does hold its own. The Business of Strangers tells the story of an executive woman and the technical assistant she fires, who through chance find themselves both unexpectedly stranded at the same hotel with more in common than they thought. Stockard Channing (someone who I do not normally like) does a fantastic job as the executive woman who trades her life for her job, and Julia Stiles proves again that she is definitely one to watch. The Business of Strangers is well written and excellently acted, a great showcase for all involved. The Business of Strangers currently is not scheduled for theatrical release.

I've seen a ton of film adaptations of many Shakespeare plays but it's hard to think of one which is so faithful to the story, yet so divergent from the text as Scotland, PA. Set mostly in a diner in the little town of Scotland, Pennsylvania, this movie takes us on a MacBeth joyride. Unfortunately, although fun Scotland, PA really doesn't stand well on its own, so people who have studied MacBeth will probably get a lot more out of the movie than people who haven't. Part of its weakness comes from a fairly dismal performance from James LeGros as Joe "Mac"Beth and poor writing and acting for the part of the three witches - played by Amy Smart, Timothy Levitch, and Andy Dick. On the plus side, Maura Tierney (who also happens to be the wife of director Billy Morrissette) does a fantastic job as Lady MacBeth and Christopher Walken is a riot as "Lt." McDuff - almost enough to save the picture. Scotland, PA will surely find its way into theaters but I'd recommend you wait and rent it when it comes to DVD sometime probably early next year.

Aside from the films competing in the Dramatic category, I also had a chance to see several 'Premiere' films. In general I found the Premiere films to be much less edgy and much more 'main stream' than the films in the Dramatic Category. One upside of going to the Premiere films was that many of them were the World Premiere of the film, so the associated actors turned out to support the film.

By far I was most excited to see Don Cheadle who came to support the Allison Anders' film Things Behind The Sun. I've been following Don Cheadle's career since his break out role in Devil in a Blue Dress and I truly think he is going to be one of the next great American actors! While Things Behind The Sun wasn't my favorite movie at Sundance, Don's performance in the film was one of the best of all that I saw in my week at Sundance.

Things Behind The Sun is an extremely uncomfortable movie about a journalist who returns to his home town to interview an emerging rock star. The star, played disturbingly by Kim Dickens, is haunted by the fact that when she was young, she was brutally raped. The Journalist, played by Gabriel Mann, holds the key to unlocking the star's clouded memory of the event. Sound like a evening of fun? It isn't, and my less than enthusiastic reaction to the film turned into heebeegeeby space when in the Q & A, director Allison Anders revealed that the movie was shot in the same town, in the same house, in the same room that she herself was raped in... Thank you for sharing, Allison. All that aside there is one scene in which Don Cheadle's character confronts the rapist that is simply amazing.... Oscar material!

On a much brighter note, I really enjoyed the incredibly daring and inventive send up of the fashion industry - Perfume. Directed by Michael Rymer (whose Angel Baby has been a film fest favorite) and written by the actors.... Yep, that's right, Perfume was shot without a script - all the dialog was supplied by the actors! Given its experimental nature it's not surprising that Perfume is a little fractured, but there are some real moments of magic that make it worth seeing. Paul Sorvino is fantastic as the old guard fashion mogul, and Rita Wilson delivers an excellent performance. It's exciting to see a film take such huge risks (like not have a script) and even more to see when it works - for Perfume it does just work.

At Sundance, when watching a film, I'd often think about it in two ways - how I liked the movie, and what kind of indication the movie was of the talent and capability of those involved with making the film. With American Astronaut, Donnie Darko, Memento, and Hedwig it was blazingly clear that despite how these films may do at the box office, the people behind them are going places! Although it wasn't my favorite film, while watching 3AM it clear that director Lee Davis has what it takes to be a truly significant director. Starring Danny Glover and Pam Grier, 3AM tells the multinational day-in-the-life story of a New York cab company. What makes 3am so interesting (aside from the strong performances of Glover and Grier) is Davis' ability to capture a group of characters and their individual struggles. Produced by Showtime, 3AM is probably destined for cable and DVD, but that's less an indication of Davis' talent and more that 3AM has the rough edges of a first time effort.

One film I saw that finds its way to theatrical release as I write this was Invisible Circus. Starring Cameron Diaz and Jordana Brewster, Invisible Circus tells the 'coming of age' story of a teenager and her search to find the answer about the mysterious suicide of her older sister. Invisible Circus starts off well but where it goes, I don't recommend you follow. I sat through the whole third act thinking how off track the movie got.

Speaking of movies I didn't love, the worst film I saw at Sundance this year was Julie Johnson, directed by Bob Gosse (whose film Niagara, Niagara I really did like), and starring Lili Taylor and Courtney Love. Julie Johnson tries to be somewhere between Good Will Hunting and a lesbian Odd Couple but fails miserably at both. Half way through the movie I got the instinct to walk out, but decided against it when I realized that getting to the exit would require crawling past BOTH Bob Gosse AND Courtney Love, who both happened to be sitting at the end of my row. I typically like Lili Taylor, and Courtney Love can be very interesting in the right part, but in Julie Johnson their talents are wasted and the film is a real mess.

The Other Dances! Sundance isn't the only game in town, and a flood of film festivals have sprung up to help support the amazing number of independent films made each year. Although I am sure there were more, I personally spotted Slamdance, NoDance, Digidance, ScamDance, LapDance, NoName, Tromadance and The Lost Film Festival. In addition to the other 'Dances' many film makers rented the restaurants along main street to show their films. I was amazed at the number of films you could see on any given day. While I did not make all the other Dances I did make a few of them:

SlamDance is by far the most developed of the 'other Dances'. This year they set up camp at the Silver Mine Museum and had a strong line up of films and short features. The best thing I saw at Slamdance was a short film called White Face which mockumented the racism in America against clowns. Like any good satire White Face didn't beat you over the head with the message and never took itself too seriously. One of my favorite moments is when a professor in clown-ology explains "you'd never go in to work and call your boss a clown.... hey you clown.... or he'd punch your lights out". I hope White Face makes its way on to one of the short film DVDs like IndieDVDs Fusion!

In addition to White Face I also saw an entertaining German film called Paul is Dead. Set just before the time that John Lennon was killed, Paul is Dead is the story of a boy who believes the story an older friend tells him that Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash near his 27th birthday and that he was replaced by the band by a stand-in. Paul is Dead is immensely entertaining and is filled to the brim with fantastic music. I particularity liked how the little boy walked through the conspiracy step by step. Unfortunately Paul is Dead may never reach American theaters because of the immense amount of music that would need to be cleared for American Release.

NoDance is a film fest where they show all the films from DVD! Unfortunately this doesn't mean the films are available on DVD, just that they were transferred to DVD-R's for the showing. In any case, I did see an extremely enjoyable film at NoDance called Loop Dreams - the making of a low budget movie. Centered around the never ending production of the low budget movie "Blackmale," Loop Dreams gives an extremely insightful look into the world of movie making, which turns out to me much more insane than you can probably imagine. Loop Dreams was extremely well done and I'd be surprised if it doesn't find its way on to DVD.

TromaDance - From the brain of Lloyd Kaufman (king of Troma) came Tromadance www.tromadance.com, by far the most independent spirited film fest in Park City. Troma has a strong philosophy not to charge entry fees for film makers to submit their films, or for people to attend the film fest or after party (yeah, a party that I didn't have to be on the list for!!!). The result is a collection of films and videos that are extremely creative, often disgusting, and always pushing at the boundaries. Of the films and videos I saw at Tromadance, one of the more interesting was H.R. Pukenshette, a sick and disgusting parody of HR Puffnstuff, this film follows the trials and tribulations of a guy who has been dumped and what happens when his puke comes to life to keep him company (hey I warned you the stuff at Tromadance was edgy!). TromaDance was much more an event than a showing of films and I found it refreshing to speak with many of the people involved with Troma and hear their views on independent films and DVD!

So I did it, I finally made my way to the Sundance Film Fest! It was a very enjoyable experience. Yes, I did ski one day and it was nice, and yes, I did make it to a few parties including one at Nodance and TromaDance. But what made Sundance a really incredible experience was the ability to see so many exceptional films and then listen to the people who made those films talk (in a Q&A) about the process of bringing their vision to screen. For me it's some of the very same reasons why I love DVD, I love to sit and listen to the Audio Commentaries, see the Making-Of-Documentaries and get the story behind the story and see how movies tick. If you love movies, and you can swing a visit to Park City next January I highly recommend it - it truly is a movie lover's playground.

Geoffrey Kleinman

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