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The Stars are Out at Sundance

I Smile Back

Sundance has gained a well-deserved reputation for showcasing American independent film. Once upon a time, this meant extremely low budget films (almost no-budget) with cast and crew at the very beginning of their careers. But “indie” has become a term so cool, and independent film the road to bigger budget movies for their directors, that big stars can be found in many of the US Dramatic Competition section, as well as the Spotlight and Premiere sections.

For some, linking up with an interested star has become an imperative to try to get financing. Sometimes this can backfire, with big names in roles they’re really not right for. But independent productions can give stars an opportunity to try out roles for which they might otherwise not be cast.  In fact, many bold face names look for such projects; the work can be very interesting, and with the right mix of director and actor, the performances can be revelatory.

nasty babyThis year, Jason Segel was just such a revelation. Normally known for comedy (especially the television series “How I Met Your Mother”), he gives an affecting performance as the late novelist David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour. Playing against Jesse Eisenberg as Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, Segel is the epitome of a man at once removed from social beings and craving some kind of human contact.

While not going in an entirely new direction, Irish actor Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish character for the first time in Brooklyn, John Crowley’s film of Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s novel. As a mid-last century immigrant to New York, Ronan is compelling as Eilis, who grows from girl to woman as she stakes her life in the old world and the new.

Comedienne Sarah Silverman takes a rare trip to the dark side in I Smile Back, Adam Salky’s entry in the U.S. dramatic competition. She plays a suburban wife and mother who can’t keep away from drugs and drink. The film is a perfect vehicle for Silverman to explore a dramatic character, a huge change from her comedy work.

zachariah posterKristen Wiig has straddled the indie/Hollywood and comedy/drama lines for a while. Last year she showed her indie dramatic chops off in Craig Johnson’s Skeleton Twins, an entry in the 2014 dramatic competition.  This year Wiig showed up in two Sundance titles. She was a hedonistic mother in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and a neo Brooklyn boho mother-to-wannabe in Nasty Baby, alongside the film’s writer/director/star Sebastián Silva.

Nasty Baby is a comedy-drama, as are most of these films, which can have the most meat on the cinematic bone, since they do reflect how most of our lives actually transpire. Nasty Baby didn’t appear in any of the mainstream sections, but in Sundance’s edgier Next section. After seeing the film, it’s easy to understand why.

For years Chiwetel Ejiofor has appeared as part of the ensemble in films by iconic filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, Spike Lee, and has continued to work with them in supporting roles since his star turn in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which garnered him an Academy Award™ nomination.

But he has always worked with independent filmmakers throughout his career (Kasi Lemmons, Stephen Frears, Joss Whedon) and this year he showed up in Park City as one of a trio of post-apocalypse survivors in Craig Zobel’s U.S. dramatic competition entry Z for Zachariah. Nothing new for Ejiofor, who can play any kind of character at any time, it seems.

tomlin grandmaPaul Weitz’ feature Grandma was the closing night film at Sundance. It features Lily Tomlin – who can still make movies with the best of them – as a caustic grandmother off to help her granddaughter raise the money for an abortion. Tomlin has always been able to play the serio-comic role and Grandma is no exception. Hers is a subtle, yet brash performance as an estranged mother who is able to make a connection across generations.

Other stars – large and not so much – festoon the Sundance landscape. And while for years filmmakers saw stars as a way to get attention for their films, nowadays it’s the stars who see big acting opportunities in the indie Sundance scene.

Cinema in the Snow

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

If you’re not a skier, the fact that the Sundance Film Festival takes place near the slopes of Park City, Utah is not a problem. In fact, not having to buy a lift ticket or wait on line for the ski lift gives one more time to watch films. Which, yes, you could do anywhere.

But if you want to watch the first batch of new American Indie films (the second batch is cultivated in Austin, Texas at SXSW later in the season), you better go to Park City and fight for a seat on the shuttle bus with the skiers (who will also be fighting with you for tickets to screenings). For those who do both, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City is a winter paradise of sport and culture, of indoor and outdoor activities.

As for me, I’m not a skier, and so the more time I have to watch films, the better. All of the films screening at Sundance are organized according to sections (all the better for award-giving), which include both US films and the so-called World Cinema sections for both narrative, or dramatic, features and documentaries. Or we can call those films non-fiction, a better appellation for much moving image these days. Of course, the Next and New Frontiers sections take care of many of these hybrid-like films.

diary teenageThe competition films vied for some prize or another. Needless to say, the Sundance Film Festival attracts an impressive roster of jurors, who, in addition to the four competitive sections mentioned above, also populate juries for short films and the jury for the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, a science award.

After ten days of intense viewing from the current crop of contendors in the U.S. dramatic competition, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon won the Grand Prize for U.S. dramatic films for his feature Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, beating out 16 other American films for the honor. The film also took the audience award, who don’t need a jury to tell them what they like.

But the other films were not totally cut out of the action. The Stanford Prison Experiment writer Tim Talbott won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, an annual prize. The film, about an infamous psychology experiement at the fabled institution, also won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for its emphasis on science. Robert Eggers won the directing award for his creepily unsettling The Witch, while Director of Photography Brandon Trost won the cinematography prize for his work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

stanford prison experiment posterRounding out the U.S. dramatic competition honors, Lee Haugen won for his editing of Rick Famuylwa’s feature Dope, and screenwriter Jacqueline Kim and screenwriter/director Jennifer Phang shared a special jury prize for “collaborative vision” for their film Advantageous. Not in the competition, Josh Mond’s first directorial effort, James White, won the Next section’s audience award, giving edgier work an opportunity to shine.

As much as I am a glutton for the movies, it is imperative, when at Sundance, to nourish oneself. Park City does not lack for fine dining establishments, many of them lining Main Street, which looks like a set from a Hollywood western, but it must be real, since 64 of the Victorian buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places (Park City was, in its day, a silver mining town, and according to Wikipedia is one of the wealthiest towns in the U.S.).

It can be difficult to get reservations: these hip eateries are venues for the many parties that take place during the festival. But if you can squeeze in, there are some worth waiting for. Most are expensive, but it is Park City, after all, and it’s in the middle of the Sundance Film Festival to boot.

A short list of Main Street restos have to include Zoom. Owned by Robert Redford and located in a converted train station at the bottom of Main Street, Zoom serves hearty American cuisine that has a slightly urban taste to it. Moving up the hill (this is when you realize how high up you are!), Café Terigo serves contemporary Italian in a café setting; there’s an outdoor terrace for visitors during the warmer months. As its name suggests, Purple Sage’s menu is American West with a contemporary spin. The rooms (one upstairs, one downstairs) are small and intimate.

WitchChimayo is a high-end Southwestern restaurant; pricey, but well worth it. Not on Main Street but a block away on Park Avenue is High West Distillery and Saloon. They call themselves the first ski-in distillery in the country. I’ve never seen that part of this gastro-pub in action, but the idea of skiing in for a few drinks and then going back on the slopes makes me a bit nervous. An all-organic American menu, though, is pretty much on point for any meal.

Movies, good food, and good skiing are winning combinations in the hills of Utah.

Fassbinder Returns to Film Society

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s ambitious retrospective, Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist, is a near complete survey of the great filmmaker's work, including all of the theatrical features that he directed, along with many of television films, as well as films influenced by him or featuring him as an actor. The series concludes with the works of the second half of Fassbinder’s career — these screen from November 7th through the 26th — a phase which contains several of his most impressive masterpieces.

fearofearOne of the most remarkable and underrated films of this period is the rarely screened, well-written tele-film, the 1975 Fear of Fear, a study of the mental discrimination of a beautiful housewife, played by the fascinating Fassbinder muse, Margit Carstensen. The director’s mise-en-scène here — despite a few infelicities involving zooms — is at its most sophisticated, stylistically alluding to the baroque flourishes of Hollywood melodramas and films noir from the 1950s and late 1940s (Fear of Fear was photographed by the distinguished Jürgen Jürges, one of Fassbinder’s frequent collaborators).

The excellent supporting cast is drawn from the panoply of the director’s celebrated stock company, featuring Brigitte Mira, Irm Hermann, Adrian Hoven, Armin Meier, Kurt Raab, Ingrid Caven, Lilo Pempeit, and Hark Bohm, among others. Fassbinder’s regular composer, Peer Raben contributed a score that memorably evokes the neo-Romantic soundtracks of the American films that inspired Fear of Fear.

The 35-millimeter print being screened by the Film Society, despite some dirt and wear, still has much of the attractive gleam of a new copy, but blown up from the original 16-millimeter format, it is much too grainy.

Fear of Fear screens twice on Thursday, November 13th and once on Sunday, November 16th.


NY Film Fest '14 Sidebar

As one of its sidebars this year, the New York Film Festival is presenting a near-complete retrospective of the features helmed by the great Hollywood writer-director, Joseph Mankiewicz. Unfortunately, many of the films are being presented in digital versions while some of the 35-millimeter films are being presented in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center where, to my knowledge, the projection is inadequate, and, to add insult to injury, it's impossible to see all the films anyway since some titles are being projected simultaneously on different screens.
contessaposterHappily, one film, the magnificent, moving The Barefoot Contessa, the tragic story of a beautiful dancer — played by screen-goddess, Ava Gardner — who becomes a Hollywood star, was screened at the excellent Walter Reade Theatre in 35-millimeter. This work boasts an impressive cast, including Humphrey Bogart, above all, supported by Edmond O'Brien, Marius Goring, Rossano Brazzi, Valentina Cortese and Franco Interlenghi. The print was a UCLA restoration although it was inadequate as a reproduction of the original Technicolor process which must have looked extraordinary in initial release, given that the film was photographed by the legendary Jack Cardiff.
A few premieres of new feature films by major directors are being screened outside of the main slate of the festival — one that is as beautiful as almost any work in the main slate is the unexpectedly affecting For Queen and Country by the masterly John Boorman. A sequel to his celebrated autobiographical film, Hope and Glory, this new work picks up the story a few years later with his protagonist conscripted into the army in the early 1950s. The visionary streak and exalted high romanticism of some of Boorman’s earlier features is absent here, with the filmmaker working in a more nostalgic, largely comic vein. If For Queen and Country does not quite reach the pinnacle of the director’s oeuvre —it is not of the eminence of, say, Point Blank, Deliverance, or Beyond Rangoon —it is nonetheless an entrancing film. The cast here is outstanding, including Caleb Landry Jones (in a bravura performance), David Thewlis, Richard E Grant, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Sinead Cusack, among others. Boorman’s handling of the digital format is beyond criticism.

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