Cover Story: Bigger, Louder, Faster, Better

As the Sundance Film Festival goes more commercial, the films themselves are still worthwhile and exciting

Jan 31, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Sundance Film Festival

Chasing Ghosts

PARK CITY, UTAH — When I covered my first Sundance Film Festival nine years ago, the old-timers all talked about how big it had gotten since Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took over the struggling, almost-quaint U.S. Film Festival in 1985.

Now I talk about how big Sundance has gotten since 1998: the number and type of films shown; the amount of 24/7 international press coverage (thanks to blogs); the glamorous sponsors and their hospitality suites on Main Street; the increased number of screening venues that draw ever-bigger crowds; the prices for lodging, food and parking; and the text-messaging lights that flash on and off in darkened theaters. The year 1998 seems quaint by comparison.

Fortunately, the films make it all worthwhile and exciting.

The festival, presided over by co-director Geoff Gilmore, has remained committed in its prestigious (American) Dramatic and Documentary Film competitions to showing movies that introduce new directorial/screenwriting talent and take chances both in form and content. Especially content. This year's documentary competition featured Zoo, a movie about men who have sex with horses, while the dramatic entry Teeth was a gender-studies-influenced horror comedy about a naive teen discovering she has a toothed vagina.

In these juried competitions, the festival has grown committed to multiculturalism and political engagement by encouraging American films that address the world at large in their subject matter and are about people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and languages at home.

This year's Grand Jury Awards in both categories reflected that multiculturalism: dramatic film winner Padre Nuestro and documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet).

Dramatic films had teeth
Director/writer Christopher Zalla's Padre Nuestro was set almost entirely in a New York City populated by the Spanish-speaking working-class, including undocumented Mexicans.

It was filmed with a tough-minded, sometimes-grimy naturalism that shows the influence of both tragic Italian neo-realism and the parallel-narrative worldview of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros. (It also owes a debt to another recent Sundance film, Maria Full of Grace.)

Jesus Ochoa, a star in Mexico, is imposingly memorable as Diego, a hard-bitten and defiant loner who works as a restaurant dishwasher and lives in a squalid apartment that looks like something out of the Middle Ages with its barren walls and wood-slat floor. His isolation is challenged when a son he never knew arrives from Mexico, but the youth is actually an imposter named Juan (Armando Hernandez) who has stolen his son's identity and some key possessions. The actual son, Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), who also has snuck in from Mexico, is wandering the Brooklyn streets with a junkie hooker trying to find his father.

Good as Padre Nuestro often is and as masterful as Ochoa's performance could be, the film ultimately suffers trying to bring the two young men's stories together in a sufficiently tragic enough way to suit the film's dark vision. And Pedro's experiences with the junkie hooker (Paola Mendoza wonderfully channeling Patti Smith) seem modeled on other down-and-out movies like Leaving Las Vegas. Overall, though, this is an impressive feature debut from Zalla (a Kenyan-born New Yorker) and could net acting-award nominations for Ochoa.

It was also a far more thought-provoking story than the stylish but sensationalistic non-competition Latin American-themed Trade, directed by Germany's Marco Kreuzpaintner and based on a New York Times Magazine story about sex slaves smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. Trade did feature an interesting performance by Kevin Kline, of all people, as a Texas cop chasing a criminal ring planning to auction off a kidnapped virginal Mexican girl to pedophiles in New Jersey.

Of the competition dramatic films I saw — and I didn't see that many, concentrating instead on documentaries — Andrew Wagner's sophisticated, melancholy and restrained Starting Out in the Evening struck me as most deserving of the top award. A great actors' movie as well as a nice companion to the current Venus, it features Frank Langella as an aging perfectionist of a novelist being studied by a brilliant graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) with a crush on him. Meanwhile, his restlessly unhappy daughter (Lili Taylor) struggles with her love life.

Adapted from Brian Morton's novel by Wagner and Fred Parnes, this movie lamentably didn't win awards at Sundance. But I can't imagine its themes about relationships between old and young, father and daughter, author and critic, high art and pop culture not resonating with the art-house crowd when theatrically released.

As for Mitchell Lichtenstein's Teeth, much chewed over in Sundance's informal discussion groups, the satiric cleverness of the concept wore out amid the repetitious, schematic plotting and the gross-out scenes of amputated penises and fingers. But a star was born in the luminous Jess Weixler, whose blonde looks and plainspoken sweetness recall a young Laura Dern. For playing Dawn, an abstinent Christian discovering her scary sexuality, she won a special acting award.

Actually, the dramatic film that got the most rapturous reception at Sundance was in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, which is for all practical purposes a sidebar event. Once, by Irish director/writer John Carney, is an intimate film about a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) who falls for a lovely Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) who helps him record an album. I got tired of hearing Hansard's Waterboys-like Folk Rock balladry played over and over, but I understand why so many others found this small film deeply romantic. It won the World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic.

Documentaries stand out
The top documentary winner, Jason Kohn's quirky Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), was long on conceptual ambition but short on emotional or intellectual impact. The young New York director, who has apprenticed with Errol Morris, went to Brazil to try to weave together an overriding theme among disparate interviews with such subjects as a dangerous kidnapper, a gentle kidnap victim, a plastic surgeon, a corrupt politician and a frog-farm owner. He thinks he's found it: Rich-screw-the-poor-while-the-poor-kidnap-the-rich.

But that point felt glib and underreported. Still, the film looked great with its richly colorful cinematography and nimble editing, and it had a fantastic score of Brazilian music. One could see the influence of Morris' Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

Incidentally, this film's alternate title could be Friends, Countrymen, Brazilians, Lend Me Your Ear, so extensively — and fetishistically — does Kohn focus on the nasty habit by kidnappers of sending their victims' amputated ears to families along with ransom demands.

Truthfully, I found at least a half dozen competition documentaries more worthy of the top award. (One of this category's jurors was Ohio documentarian Julia Reichert, whose A Lion in the House was in competition last year.)

Dan Klores' Crazy Love was more traditional in form — a lot of talking-head interviews breaking up the retro footage and punctuated with Pop hits — but told an amazing tale about a man capable of behavioral extremes. In the 1950s, lawyer and New York nightlife habitué Burt Pugach couldn't bear to lose his mistress Linda Riss to another man, so he hired two thugs to throw acid in her eyes and blind her.

After a tabloid-headline trial, he went to jail for more than a decade, even being at Attica during its riots. When he came out, he resumed courting her. The story kept taking as many surprising twists and turns as a page-turning novel or maybe a Greek tragedy.

While not the most elegantly shot documentary in the competition, Lincoln Ruchti's Chasing Ghosts did for the video-game buffs of the early 1980s (think Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Centipede) what Dogtown and Z-Boys did for the skateboarders of the late 1970s: It related them sociologically to their times. It also was hilarious — these guys are characters extraordinaire.

Sundance has a long tradition of favoring political documentaries. Last year it launched the Oscar-nominated An Inconvenient Truth and Iraq in Fragments. This year continued that tradition.

Charles Ferguson's strong competition documentary No End in Sight convincingly posited, quite simply and with damning blow-by-blow analysis, that we can't win the Iraq War because stupid President Bush and his arrogantly malfeasant advisers have royally screwed it up.

Maybe this is no longer a daringly minority viewpoint after the 2006 Congressional elections, but this tight, well-researched documentary presented the evidence like a criminal prosecution. And it left Sundance audiences angry and shaking their heads in disgust. It ought to be screened at a special joint session of Congress — with Bush forced to watch.

Another powerful competition documentary about Iraq was Ghosts of Abu Ghraib by Rory Kennedy, daughter of the assassinated Sen. Robert Kennedy and an accomplished documentarian in her own right (American Hollow). Her film offered some powerful investigative reporting about what was really behind those famous 2003 photos of Iraqi prisoners being abused by American military police guards.

Through interviews with some of those MPs as well as with some former Iraqi prisoners and others, the film with increasing gravitas offered troubling evidence that the MPs were scapegoats meant to take the fall for the Bush administration's secret sanctioning of torture against suspected terrorists.

During an interview at a hotel here, I asked Kennedy how she'd respond to critics who say torture of terrorists is warranted if it prevents horrific acts like another 9/11 or worse.

"I think when people are thinking about torture, they're thinking the ticking-bomb scenario or a situation where there are 20 kids on a bus or we can prevent a 9/11," Kennedy said. "We base this on movies or TV shows like 24. That's just not the scenario that occurs out there in the world. If you talk to interrogators, none of them is familiar with that kind of scenario. That's fiction and fantasy."

Instead, she said, information is painstakingly garnered piecemeal.

"Studies have shown that the best way to get information is relationship building," she said. "That is a technique that the FBI has used and has had very, very positive results."

Spotlight on war and anti-war films
This year featured other fine documentaries about wars and anti-war movements. In competition were Bill Guttentag's and Dan Sturman's elegiac, sobering Nanking, about the sickening war atrocities committed by the Japanese in that Chinese city in 1937, and Sean Fine's and Andrea Nix Fine's touching War/Dance, about an attempt through music therapy to help Ugandan children abducted by rebels and forced to become soldiers. One gentle boy's impromptu confession that he was forced to commit murder by the rebels was as heartrending as anything I saw at Sundance this year. Maybe ever.

The opening night premiere was Brett Morgen's imaginative hybrid of documentary and animated feature, Chicago 10, about the famously chaotic Chicago Conspiracy trial of radicals like Abbie Hoffman and Cincinnati native Jerry Rubin following the police-initiated riots during anti-war demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) should lose the blaring, incessant score that featured Rage Against the Machine, among others, in a transparently forced attempt to be hip and relevant to a young audience. But the archival footage of the demonstrations was transfixing.

Since there was no footage of the actual trial, Morgan has turned the courtroom scenes into a celluloid version of a graphic novel with engaging voice work provided by Hank Azaria (Abbie Hoffman/Allen Ginsberg), Roy Scheider (Judge Julius Hoffman), Nick Nolte (prosecutor Thomas Foran), Jeffrey Wright (Bobby Seale) and others.

And, yes, the prosecutor does look a lot like President Bush.

"After seeing the film, Nick Nolte did say, 'I didn't know you were going to put President Bush's face on my body,' " Morgen said in his best Nolte impression to an audience after a screening.

Overall, Bush didn't have a very good festival. But a lot of those who attended certainly did.

FIND MORE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE from Jason Gargano and Steven Rosen at CityBeat's arts blog: