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2006 Sundance & Slamdance Festival Report Part 1

It's hard to believe Sundance is here again. It feels like almost yesterday that I was walking out of the screening of Me And You And Everyone We Know , hearing people buzz about Hustle and Flow and hearing raves about Mad Hot Ballroom. The graduating class of 2005 did so well this past year that the 2006 fests have even more importance and attention being paid to them. So I'm excited to bring you coverage again of both the Sundance and Slamdance Film Fests. This time around, I'm in Park City for a full week, so I'll be bringing you coverage of even more films.

Here is the first batch of films I've seen. I'll be posting a second installment with another round of reviews soon. I've stack ranked these films in order of preference and noted the films which played at the Slamdance film fest.

The Descent - I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of horror films. After having kids I found I've lost my enjoyment of seeing people hacked apart on screen. Generally I don't seek these kinds of films out, but after a tremendous amount of buzz from trusted friends I decided that I would make an exception and seek out The Descent. I can't tell you how glad I am. The Descent is one of the most suspenseful horror flicks I've seen in a long time. It follows the story of a group of women who come together for a weekend of fun and adventure. A day hike to a notable cave and a spelunking adventure soon go bad as cave passages begin to collapse, maps and supplies get left behind, and then the depths and darkness of the caves reveal something truly dark and ugly. The thing that impresses me about The Descent is just how expertly crafted it is. Scenes where characters make their way through tight passages had me holding my breath and squirming in my seat, and then when things go horribly wrong the tension never lets up. As I said I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre, but The Decent has definitely gotten me to seriously reconsider that. Lion's Gate has picked up The Descent for US distribution, and it's also available in a Region 2 DVD. (Listen to our Interview with Neil Marshall)

Adams Æbler (Adams Apple) - One of the best Danish films I've seen, Adams Apple explores the concepts of good and evil, faith and destiny in a way so unique and inventive it demands to be seen. Ulrich Thomsen plays Adam, a neo-nazi sent to live in a halfway house. He sees himself as a bad man, resolving every conflict with violence, almost reveling and unapologetic in his badness. Adam's view of himself and the world around him is challenged by Ivan, the priest in charge of the halfway house. The two lock horns both conceptually and physically as they almost literally tear each other apart. Surrounding these two are a cast of odd characters and bizarre events that keep you on your toes and prevent you from second guessing exactly where the film will go. Adams Apple is smart, creative and extremely well done. It's been released on a Region 2 DVD and hopefully will find distribution in the US theatrically. It's a film simply not to be missed.

The Tribe (Short) - A jazz-like riff on the history of Barbie, the history of Jews, and Jewish Identity, The Tribe is an extremely entertaining and insightful film. Narrated expertly by Peter Coyote, The Tribe makes spiderweb-like connections between Barbie, the dolls inventor Ruth Handler (who was Jewish) and Jewish culture and identity. Both humorous and thought provoking, The Tribe successfully tackles an entire history of the Jewish culture in 18 minutes and poses the question "What does really it mean to be a member of a tribe?" Short films typically give you a glance into the talent and capabilities of a filmmaker, and based on The Tribe, I'd say Director Tiffany Shlain is definitely one to watch. This film can be seen online as part of the Sundance Online Film Fest.

Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon - Perhaps better titled "Clearly Divided", Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon documents a battle in a small rural Oregon town between the descendents of the old timber industry, with their more traditional values, and a new infusion of urban transplants with their more progressive culture. Done in an Errol Morrisesque style, Clear Cut is an extremely poignant look at the battle between faith and secularism, conservative values and liberal ideology. The central question posed in the film is "Whose values should a community and its schools reflect?" Unfortunately for Philomath, the answer to this isn't clear cut, and both sides might find themselves the loser in a battle which looks like a microcosm of the conflict between liberalism and conservatism in the United States. In all, a very well done documentary.

Neo Ned (Slamdance) - The premise of Neo Ned sounds pretty fantastical - a neo nazi falls in love with a black woman who believes she's the reincarnate of Hitler. But don't let this fairly insane premise fool you, Neo Ned is really an indie romantic comedy with the kind of depth, character development and exploration you'd expect from a quality independent film. Featuring a solid cast, including Jeremy Renner as Ned and Gabrielle Union as Rachel, Neo Ned is one of the more enjoyable indie love stories I've seen in a while. Renner is simply fantastic in playing the duality of a skinhead in love with a black woman, and Union shows that she's got the chops to play much meatier roles than she's been given so far. Also of note are strong supporting performances from Sally Kirkland, Cary Elwes and Ethan Suplee who does much better playing a character with some intelligence and heart rather than the dolts he usually plays. Neo Ned succeeds because it focuses on the relationships between people and their path to self discovery and healing; it isn't a message movie about racial tolerance or bathed in political messaging, it's just a charming and heartfelt film that is definitely worth checking out.

Battle in Heaven - Director Carlos Reygadas has a very specific vision for Battle in Heaven; in a city of millions of people, he isolates three interconnected characters (played exclusively by non-actors) and strips them naked (literally) to tell a story of secrets, sins and redemption. Reygadas' style is definitely something to behold. Along with cinematographer Diego Martinez, he paints a truly unique portrait of the beauty and ugliness of Mexico City and the people living in it. But Battle in Heaven isn't a film that's very likeable; it's unflinching in its ugliness and is one of the few films I've seen recently to make sex anything but erotic. One of Reygadas' choices was to start and finish the film with an explicit blowjob, something that does work with the context of the film, but I fear will be the only thing that people really talk about. Battle in Heaven will surely be known as 'that blowjob movie'. That's a real shame because although I don't like the film, Carlos Reygadas is extremely talented and his vision here is inventive and exceptional. That's reason enough to check this one out.

Call of Cthulhu (Slamdance) - When I first heard that a group of independent film makers were going to try to make a modern silent version of H.P. Lovecraft's classic story, I had a really hard time imagining how it could possibly be any good. Call of Cthulhu is considered by most to be the one Lovecraft film that is simply unfilmable. Don't tell that to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who managed to create an exceedingly entertaining adaptation of the story. Call of The Cthulu is a silent film, shot on digital video. The film embraces the silent format as an essential element in telling the story. Done poorly, the style could have turned into a lampoon of silent films, but here it's a complete homage. While there's no mistaking that Call of The Cthulhu is a micro-budget indie, I did find myself getting quite drawn in to the characters and the story. But what I enjoyed the most was the wonderful atmosphere of the film, a canvas which is used quite well to deal with the fact that it's more concepts than the actual monster that gives the real terror here. Call of Cthulhu is available on DVD.

We Go Way Back (Slamdance) - Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton directs a story about a woman forced to confront the image of herself that she had when she was young. Every year on her birthday, she opens a note from younger self - this year it's 'Dear Kate on your 23rd Birthday' from Kate at 13. Kate at 23 isn't a happy camper. She numbly moves through her life and a series of men who want to either control her or have sex with her. As she moves from bad situation to bad situation she's haunted by the words of her younger self, ultimately being forced to confront the question "Am I the person I wanted myself to be?" First time actress Amber Hubert is excellent as Kate, an extremely complex and subtle role. Lynn Shelton does a strong writing and directing job and is extremely patient with her story. Shelton is best with her one or two person scenes where the film is at its strongest. Some of the party scenes and group scenes don't have the same level of precision in directing. One of the key aspects to the success of We Go Way back is that Shelton delays the use of a narrative 'device' in the film until late in the third act. I had expected this device to be done much earlier in the film and the result of delaying it really enabled a stronger connection with character of Kate at 23. Also of note is a lot of fantastic music by Colin Meloy and Lara Meirs.

Love is A Drug (Slamdance) - The first thing that struck me about Love is A Drug was how fantastic the soundtrack is. While I'm sure the filmmakers would appreciate this fact, I don't think they'd want the soundtrack to be the top thing you come away with from this film. Unfortunately, it's the film's strongest element. I honestly wanted to like Love is A Drug - it's full of solid performances including stand-out work by Lizzy Caplan as a teenager lost on the journey to adulthood and unprepared for the tragic events she experiences. I also really liked John Patrick Amedori, a geeky teen breaking out of his shell and finding himself surrounded by people he'd never imagine spending time with let alone even talk to. Love is A Drug has some nice moments, but it never really ventures outside its comfort zone. It's a film that has clear influences and similarities to dozens of Hollywood films, and while it struggles to find its own voice, it never quite finds it. Still, Love is A Drug is the perfect kind of indie film to discover on DVD and enjoy for the performances and kickass soundtrack.

Kinky Boots - A sweet but painfully predictable film inspired by the true story of a small northern UK shoe factory who turned to making boots for drag queens in order to survive. Kinky Boots has all the charm you'd expect from a British romantic comedy and much of the heart, but very little depth or complexity. It is not a particularity bad movie, but it doesn't really offer anything new or cover any territory that hasn't been well traveled by this genre of film. One of the weakest aspects of the film is that even though it deals with transgender issues it never seems willing to take any risks. Highlights include a standout performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor (who was also strong in Serenity) and supporting role by Nick Frost (from Shaun of the Dead fame). Kinky Boots comes to Region 2 DVD on February 6th, and will roll into US theaters shortly after the Sundance Film Fest. This is definitely the kind of film that you should wait for DVD.

Listen to our Interview with Neil Marshall - Director of The Descent
Listen to our Interview with Chris Gorak - Director of Right at Your Door

Geoffrey Kleinman

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