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Sundance 2009 Review: In the Loop

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in-the-loop

If you want to take the temperature of a culture’s tolerance for dissent (or its sense of humor), take a look at its TV programming. Despite some high watermarks on film (Dr. Strangelove, The Candidate, Wag the Dog, Bob Roberts, Bulworth), televisual political satire has a spotty, uneven history in the States, where our hallowed myths of origin and reverence for the highest office in the land tends to diminish our razzy sense of humor. In the Bush years, the popularity of faux-news programs The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Stephen Colbert Report at least signaled a healthy flourishing of intelligent, no-holds-barred Beltway mockery among a hipper demographic, a much-needed corrective to the fawning reverence of Aaron Sorkin’s earnest, long-running series, The West Wing, which epitomized the genuflecting American attitude toward the Oval Office and made the corridors of Washington power seethe with the angsty, sanctimonious aura of empyrean moral authority. The Brits, however, have always had a keener sense of the quotidian absurdity at the heart of Whitehall and Windsor Palace, as well as a robust tradition of lampooning their bewigged and powdered heads of state, dating all the way back to Jonathan Swift, the master of satire in English. Wit, moreover, is a bedrock trait in everyday English conversation, media chatter, and the deliberations of their spirited, often raucous Houses of Parliament, which make our blandly courteous, dull-as-paste Congressional confabs look as wack as an insurance-salesmen’s trade conference.

Sharp, savage, cynical, frenetically paced, and uproariously on the mark, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop fits squarely in this Britannic mold, and was easily the most entertaining film I saw at Sundance. It’s also one of the smartest political farces I can recall in years, pitting nasty, ambitious office moles and bureaucratic boneheads from Downing Street and Capitol Hill against each other in a caustic game of vulgar insults, backstabbing, double-dealing, and macho oneupmanship on the road to an unnamed, U.S.-led war in the Middle East. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is a flip-flopping U.K. cabinet minister whose incautious remark to the media about war being “unforeseeable” sets bullying Scottish Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (the incredibly arch Peter Capaldi) into a tizzy. As the prime minister’s relentlessly condescending, foul-mouthed bulldog and spin doctor, he wants Foster to toe the line and get behind the administration’s support for engagement. Foster, meanwhile, barred from all future media appearances, embarks on a fact-finding mission to Washington, with newbie advisor Toby (Chris Addison) in tow. Stateside, Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy Mary Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) is engaged in a tussle with hawkish boss Linton Barwick (David Rasche), pressing the oily assistant secretary for details on the secret war committee he insists does not exist. General Miller (James Gandolfini), her ursine anti-war ally at the Pentagon, thinks they can use the hapless, putatively peace-loving Foster as a wedge to gum up the proceedings at the euphemistically named, not-so-clandestine “Future Planning Committee.” But he’s not the most reliable type. It all devolves into a comical roundelay of press leaks, physical threats, cross-continental bed hopping, and egg-in-the-face humiliation.

An offshoot of the award-winning TV series The Thick of It, which co-writer/director Iannucci developed for the BBC, In the Loop has a freewheeling, documentary-style aesthetic and a rabidly funny conversational idiom that link it closely to The Office, though with obviously more pointed targets in mind. Capaldi’s bilious character is one of the only holdovers from the original series, and he is in many ways the star of the film, firing off a fusillade of angry, aggressively impudent putdowns in nearly every scene he’s in. But this is an Altman-esque ensemble production, and the cast of players—especially Kennedy and Gandolfini, who finally gets a choice role that buries any lingering memories of Tony Soprano—are clearly at ease improvising dialogue and reactions for maximal comic effect. Peppered with tart throwaway lines (“Fuckity bye, then”) and a few Rumsfeld-esque aphorisms (“In the land of truth, the man with one fact is king”), In the Loop takes the piss out of Bush/Blair-era governance, making the avalanche of equivocations and half-truths that define those administrations, perhaps more than any other, every bit as absurd and contemptible as they sounded to rational people during their tenure. An update on the classic screwball comedy with razor-sharp teeth—think Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, for starters—In the Loop is a sprawling farce mined with sarcastic, over-the-top one-liners. See it when IFC releases the film later this year. You’ll thank me after you snot yourself laughing.

The Biggest Mistake I Made at Sundance This Year

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pushprodrep1

Yes, I was busy. And sure, I got to see 25 films and conduct about the same number of interviews with filmmakers in eight days. But why did I pass up two chances to see Lee Daniels’s Push: Based on the Novel By Sapphire? Exhaustion maybe. Besides, I couldn’t fit the premiere into my schedule without shuffling around a lot of appointments. Whatever. I knew I was missing something worth seeing. After the first press screening, plenty of my acquaintances raved about the film’s harrowing power. And I was generally intrigued to see how well Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey would come across in their raw supporting roles. Far from upbeat, Push tells the story of an obese, illiterate Harlem teen who lives with an abusive mother and is now pregnant—for the second time—by her father, and has just been placed at a new alternative school. Hard-hitting stuff, but the film went on to win a Grand Jury prize, an audience award, and a Special Jury Prize for actor Mo’Nique. Now the big news: Lionsgate, with the financial support of Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s respective movie companies, 34th Street and Harpo Films, has just acquired North American rights to Push for $5.5 million, making it the biggest deal at Sundance 2009.

That’s exciting news for Daniels, who produced The Woodsman and Monster’s Ball, among other indie-film projects, but only previously helmed a feature called Shadowboxer (I didn’t see it). He’s clearly a talent to watch. Now that Push will be getting a wide theatrical release, I don’t have to feel so bad about missing it in Park City. But I’d still like to have been on the vanguard for this one.

Sundance 2009 Review: Bronson

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bronson

The oddest thing at Sundance this year, apart from the yawning absence of filmgoers and tourist-revelers, was the rain, mudslicks, and balmy weather. (Back in New York, the temperature dipped into the low 20s and an ice-heaving storm buffeted the Eastern seaboard.) Remember: We’re talking about Utah in mid-January. The Wasatch Range. West of the Rockies. Rain? How appropriate, then, that Sundance was heavy on enviro-conscious films this year, including the Closing Night presentation of Robert Stone’s Earth Days, an historical look at the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Also on tap were docs like The Cove, an activist surveillance thriller about Taiji, Japan, site of the world’s largest mass dolphin slaughter, and Joe Berlinger’s Crude, a doc on the still unresolved “Amazon Chernobyl” court case pitting indigenous Ecuadorean villagers against legal representatives of oil-drilling behemoth Chevron.

Somber topics, to be sure, but all too fitting for the weather, the low-key mood, the sense of big things (climate, economy, film industry) shifting underfoot.

Yet, despite my dour description of the tonal environment at this year’s festival, some people actually enjoyed the slump in attendance, and thought the mellow mood a bit more in tune with the festival’s original spirit. Certainly, a lot more local film lovers gained entrance to movies, and no one, as far as I know, got shut out of press screenings. So there’s a silver lining, if you’re looking for one. The upside for me was the quality of the movies I was finally able to see (the first two days were not so promising), and the engaging conversations I was privileged to have with a number of filmmakers whose work I admire, including James Toback, Nicholas Winding Refn, Joe Berlinger, and Cary Fukunaga. Now onto the first micro review of my favorite Sundance ’09 films.

Bronson made me a believer in the twisted imagination and stylistic bravado of Nicholas Winding Refn, who has specialized in brainy, ultraviolent mayhem (The Pusher Trilogy, Bleeder) since he was tossed out of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In this garishly funny treatment of real-life convict Charlie Bronson, née Michael Peterson, Britain’s most violent prisoner, Refn sends us on a hellishly frenzied amusement ride into the brutal, attention-craving mindset of his notoriously disturbed subject, who has spent 30 of the past 34 years in solitary confinement, scribbling bestselling memoirs and poetry and making gallery-grade art. More a black-comic concept film than a biopic, Bronson skirts surreal fabulism with its art-damaged gene splice of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, presenting us with a man who embraces isolation, revels in criminal celebrity, and stars in his own self-mythologizing theater of the absurd. In recurrent scenes unrelated to the staggered, episodic storyline, Bronson appears as a burlesque Al Jolson-y showman narrating the grand themes of his life for an appreciative, but unseen crowd. Whether they’re meant to be understood as psychic fantasy or stylistic amusement, the bits work as expressive totems of Bronson’s megalomaniacal mindset.

Apart from Refn’s indisputable formal wizardry—the Verdi-inflected bravura opening sequence will either stake a claim in your racing heart or turn you out of the theater post-haste—British actor Tom Hardy’s unwavering commitment to the role is astonishing and even a bit frightening, considering how drastically he’s transformed himself since his appearance last year in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla: With his slick bald pate, comic-book-size WWF muscles, and Hercule Poirot–style moustaches, he is a devilish analogue to Chopper, but even more charismatic and intimidating than Eric Bana’s Aussie psycho. In two jaw-droppingly ballsy scenes, Hardy nabs a hostage, doffs his clothes, slicks his naked body with oil, and waits like a hungry animal for the advance of a squadron of goon guards in riot gear. He’s a sporting type, you see, having cut his teeth on the bare-knuckle fighting circuit on one of his ill-advised prison releases. His life outside the penitentiary is a trail of botched robberies and senseless assaults; his life inside “the hotel,” as he cheekily calls it, a riot of unpredictably explosive behavior. No wonder the authorities finally ship him off to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, pump him full of antipsychotics, and wait for the beast within to dwindle to a salivating vegetable. Nothing doing. Amazingly, the real-life Charlie Bronson never killed anyone, but his intense lust for violence has kept him out of the general population for years, even though he is productive and certifiably sane. Refn’s biggest gamble in the film is to suggest that Bronson, nicknamed by a gay acquaintance after the Lithuanian Death Wish star and ’70s screen vigilante, is a frustrated artist “searching for his canvas.” An interesting premise, and the arc of the film takes that idea to an extreme. But might this also be a classic case of projection, as Refn has discovered the metaphor that best describes his own creative process and mad-dog approach to making movies? Good thing no one has put the Danish wunderkind behind bars. Yet.

Sundance 2009 Review: Five Minutes of Heaven

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neesonqe11

Although the number of dispatches I was able to pop off during my stay in Park City this year dwindled considerably from last year’s dossier (10 to 2: ouch!), I was at least able to squeeze in a few more hours of sleep and actually tuck away a few square meals. The logy feel at Sundance this year, I decided after ruminating about it over my ten-day stay and checking in with a few other festival veterans, had as much to do with the excitement over President Obama’s inauguration ceremony as it did the joy-killing economic climate. In fact, the coincidence between these two tectonic shifts in American life could not have been better illustrated than on Main Street last Tuesday morning. JumboTron screens carried Obama’s message of hope and renewal to a bulbous clutch of cheering onlookers, perhaps two hundred in number, some of whom wiped teary eyes or burst into spontaneous applause at the rosier, rapturous turns of phrase embedded within the former senator’s impressive Ciceronian oratory. I’d have lingered longer, and listened more attentively, had I a few minutes to spare. Instead, I squeezed through the crowd, pinned in mass solidarity to their sidewalk positions, on my way to the Stanfield Art Gallery, where I was to interview Irish actors Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt about Five Minutes of Heaven, a tale of truth and reconciliation in the wake of political conflict, appropriately enough, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment), who I was also expecting to chat with at the same location. Once Obama’s speech ended, and the screens cleared to make way for some lesser event scheduled for the indie-music showcase, so did the high-spirited throng. When I emerged from my interviews a half hour later, Main Street was eerily unpopulated again, just as it had been all week long. The ski lifts looked especially forlorn, mechanically circling the too-warm slopes in one useless loop after another.

Speaking of meaningless cycles, Hirschbiegel’s film deals with a nasty one: the legacy of violence that has engulfed Northern Ireland for generations. Uneven but affecting at its extremities, Five Minutes of Heaven is a very personal film, not so much for Hirschbiegel, but for the writer, Guy Hibbert, who devoted two years of research to the real-life story of two men, a victim and a perpetrator on opposite sides of the political divide, who he interviewed extensively in preparing the final script, which is largely fiction. Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little, a former convict turned anti-violence counselor who, 33 years earlier, assassinates a Belfast local in front of his youngest sibling, Joe Griffin (Nesbitt), for no apparent reason than to beef up his gutsy, streetwise reputation among Protestant loyalists. (The film opens in 1975, with young actors playing Joe and a teenage Alistair, tracks the events leading up to the crime, then shifts into the present.) In the spirit of reconciliation, a BBC producer has asked the two men to meet for the cameras, hoping the emotional confrontation will lead to truth and forgiveness. Both men agree to the reality-TV-like confab, although for entirely different reasons: Alistair seeks to face his guilt head-on, and perhaps in some way offer closure to the man whose life he has scarred since childhood. Joe, for his part, wants revenge, and intends on having it, damn the consequences.

Five Minutes of Heaven, which screened in the World Dramatic Competition, is scrupulously lean and minimal, feeling at times like a filmed version of a stage production. Hibbert’s script, while intelligent and economical, doesn’t explicate Ulster politics or delve deeply into the history of the Troubles; instead, it focuses on the aftermath of a single act and the psychology of blame and forgiveness, sin and redemption that bring Alistair and Joe into each other’s orbit, leaving in suspenseful tension the question of how that conflict will be resolved. Neeson and Nesbitt are both dedicated performers, and each brings gravitas to his respective role—a somber thoughtfulness for the former, and an itchy, irritable, pained restlessness for the latter. The narrative arc of the film is the drama of their two encounters, the first life-defining and weirdly intimate, the second a tumultuous clash, yet one wishes for more impactful exchanges along the way, like the brief one between Nesbitt and Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), an East European production assistant who, in an unguarded moment, he divulges his plan to. Obviously, this was a labor of love for everyone involved, but it hardly sustains the viewer’s interest in the way that other films about the Irish conflict—Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, Steve McQueen’s Hunger—have, with an equally stripped-down aesthetic and a decidedly solemn tone. Heaven beckons, on some level, but never quite musters the drive to hook us on its twin poles of haunted human casualty.

Sundance ’09 Review: Tyson, Humpday

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Mike Tyson, reflecting

It’s Sunday, and the tourists have arrived. Thank God, because it was a little eerie walking around town and seeing so few people on the streets. Lots of the new arrivals are badgeless ski bunnies and goateed snowboarders heading for the lifts, but that’s fine. At least there are slow-moving clusters of North Face–attired gawkers to steer clear of on the sidewalks and, like always, little-to-no elbow room at the Main Street pubs. Time for a quick bite? Forget it. It almost feels like a film festival again! Seriously, though, there are noticeably fewer journalists and industry professionals here this year, as I noted in an earlier entry, and the downtempo feel here seems keyed to the country’s gloomy economic state of mind, even if my inbox is still flagrantly stuffed with decadent-party invites (e.g. “Graphic Sexual Horror Hits Main Street!”) and breathless promotionals.

At least we have the movies. But here again, my samplings have not made much of an impression. Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, one of the most buzzed-about films here, was an entertaining dude-on-dude romp that pushed the boundaries of Seth Rogen-style bromance comedies into comically uncomfortable territory. Two friends, married Seattle traffic analyst Ben (Mark Duplass) and globe-hopping boho wild card Andrew (Joshua Leonard), reunite and decide, on a drunkenly competitive lark, to make an artsy gay-male porno starring two straight men: themselves. In essence, Shelton has remade Old Joy by invoking the doofus-y vernacular and hapless male sensibility of The Puffy Chair. The film is genuinely funny, but once the yuks subside, there’s not much left to carry you home. In fact, of the eight films I’ve seen over the past two days, only a couple have resonated with me. Should I be surprised that they’re all documentaries?

Let me home in on my favorite: Tyson. I don’t mind saying right out of the gate that a) my interest in sports is limited, for the most part, to cultural history and b) the idea of seeing a documentary about controversial heavyweight Mike Tyson at 8:30 in the morning left me stone cold, even though I sensed the director, James Toback (Fingers), an intimate friend of the former champion for over 20 years, would bring some of his own raw energy to the boxer’s reflections. Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I found myself marveling at this stylized, incredibly intimate portrait of the troubled boxer when I attended a public screening Friday at The Racquet Club here in Park City. Sure, Tyson is candid and movingly eloquent about his stints in juvie detention centers and his close relationship with trainer Cus D’Amato, who vested trust in the wayward young man, took him into his home as a surrogate son, and built the scared teenage street brawler into an intimidating, world-class fighter. (He chokes up and barely restrains himself from bawling while reminiscing about ol’ Cus.)

What I found so disarming, though, was not Tyson’s willingness to discuss his bumpy road to triumph or the sordid details of his well-known personal travails in and out of the ring, though he has plenty to say about his fraught marriage to Robin Givens, his rape conviction, and the life-long anger problem that led him, quite infamously, to bite a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s earlobe in a title bout and viciously beat promoter Don King (“He doesn’t know how to love anybody”) in front of a swank hotel on his long, lonely spiral downward. Revelations like these should be a given for a film that purports to scrutinize a public figure. The only talking head in the film is Tyson himself, and Toback craftily blends rich archival footage with split-screen images of his subject’s poignant, funny, and audacious testimonial. What took me by surprise, though, was Tyson’s curious and irresolveably complex outlook on the darker corners of his psyche, because Toback’s vibrant film is, at its core, not a portrait, per se, but an extended self-interrogation. Mike Tyson is a man who has stared into the abyss and is still staring, unable to peel his eyes away from the turbulence at the core of his being, the “madness…the chaos of the brain,” as he puts it, and he doesn’t blame anyone but himself for his failures.

Tyson is proto-Kierkegaardian in grappling with the slippery nature of his identity (reflected in Toback’s conscientiously fragmented shots of his subject), and he has a poetic expressiveness that belies his brute strength as an athlete. His sole motivation in pummeling challengers, he tell us, was to avoid the feeling of humiliation he had as a bullied kid on the streets of 1970s Brooklyn. And he makes a convincing argument for why that primal fear has never left him, even at the Olympian height of his repute. (“No one will ever fuck with me again.”) When he tells a reporter at the end of his last ignominious fight, “I don’t have the ferocity … Boxing is not in my heart anymore,” you can’t help feeling relieved for Tyson, who seems, at this point, to have tempered his demons and reached a place of spiritual well-being. But it’s not easy watching a legend fall to his knees.

Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 7:23 pm

A Chill in the Air? Sundance 2009, Day One

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Egyptian Theater, Main Street

Getting into the swing of a festival is always a challenge, especially when you’re contending with jet lag or, in the case of Sundance, a wee bit of altitude sickness. (Nearly everyone I ran into today was complaining of headache.) The weather is milder than usual (40 degrees, as opposed to the nine-below-zero readings in Chicago, where we were marooned for seven hours yesterday), and oddly, so is the energy at the Press and Filmmaker Lounge at the Marriott, where many reps and publicists are stationed. Last night, the festival opened with a stop-motion-animated feature, Mary and Max, and later in the week honcho Geoff Gilmore will screen archival prints of two groundbreaking indies that debuted at Sundance—Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street and Steven Soderbergh’s breakout hit sex, lies and videotape—to honor the fest’s 25th anniversary. But the feeling here, at least on Day One, seems far from festive.

The crowds on Main Street seem thinner than usual, and I was surprised to find the press office so calm and logy this morning. Is it the economic slump? Fallout from the Proposition 8 controversy in November, when some loudly called for a boycott of Sundance to hurt Mormon businesses in Utah? Perhaps. But the L.A. Weekly’s Scott Foundas has an alternate theory: indie-film fatigue. While I certainly take his point that a lot of bad “voodoo” has overshadowed the indie-film world of late, especially with the sudden shuttering of so many arthouse distributors, I’m not sure the future of Sundance and smaller-budget filmmaking is so bleak. And by what measure are “critics and audiences—indeed, the entire industry” feeling “undeniable fatigue” about “American indie films, and Sundance films in particular”? Citing box-office grosses and a single critics’ poll is specious at best when it comes to spectator psychology. More people than ever are finding and watching films online. Some save their dollars for better home-entertainment systems or simply stream what they want to see on their computer. Yes, meritorious festival films will have a harder time than ever finding a broad audience through the traditional route, whether they star Uma Thurman, Sam Rockwell, and 50 Cent or dramatize the hand-to-mouth lives and aspirations of Inuit hunters. These are lean times, and the hypertrophic bidding wars are, at least for now, a thing of the past. Only so many films can go the way of Hamlet 2 and Choke (two big losers last year purchased for outrageous sums) before buyers wise up and start taking into account whether the films they’re acquiring are actually any good. For filmmakers, new vistas are opening all the time, via craftier self-distribution stategies and thanks to advances in digital technology; the field is changing quickly and so are the rules of play. If the entire way we watch films changes the way we understand what a film is, then so will our notions of what a festival is (or can be) change, too. I don’t want to mourn the future before it arrives. Do you?

Coming up: Reviews of Tyson, You Won’t Miss Me, Moon, and Burma VJ

Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 7:19 pm

Posted in Sundance 2009