Well, the award winners were announced yesterday at the Sundance Film Festival Awards Ceremony and all were worthy choices. Great to see FRUITVALE and BLOOD BROTHER win both grand jury and audience awards respectively. Like I said before, this was one of the most solid lineups at Sundance in years. Part 1 of my film wrap-up can be read here.
Moving forward, here’s another round-up of films that I saw at the Festival:
STOKER – This was probably my most highly anticipated film at Sundance. The first American film from Korean master filmmaker Park Chan-wook, he of such classics like JSA, OLDBOY, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, and THIRST (just to name a few), I wanted to see his patented gothic and macabre look and feel in an American setting.
A young woman named India (Mia Wasikowska) gets an unexpected visit from her uncle (Matthew Goode) soon after her father passes away. Nicole Kidman continues her recent run of portraying “hot mess crazy ladies” as India’s unhinged and very lonely mother, who has her eyes on her brother-in-law, who also harbors a deep, dark secret.
The cinematography, production design and overall look of the film is top-notch. The acting is solid too, as director Park creates an unsettling Hitchcockian atmosphere with tinges of the supernatural, especially when it comes to the surroundings of the forest and all its dark energy. There were also some scenes that are just brilliant, perhaps some of Park’s best work in conveying sexual awakening and the animus.
But in the end, STOKER was uneven, plodding in plot and the “twist ending” was not only easily forecast in the very beginning of the film, it was not even fleshed out enough to make it believable. The apparent “hot property” script was written by Wentworth Miller (the main dude who whisper talks in hushed tones from the TV show PRISON BREAK), was flawed and in the end, so on the nose, that Park’s visuals and usual agile storytelling tropes can’t elevate this ode to Dracula (Stoker, get it, get it?) and Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN, to the level of Park’s previous films.
I also wondered to myself, when watching the film, what if STOKER was shot in Korea with an all Korean cast? Would I have appreciated it more? Would the small moments of cultural ignorance that took me out of the film (India’s bullies in high school are a hodge podge of teen villains from ’80s films ranging from THE KARATE KID to THE LOST BOYS) disappear and Park could’ve fully parlayed his imprimatur? I wonder….
COMPUTER CHESS – This was, by far, the most inventive film I saw at the Festival. The fourth feature from Andrew Bujalski (begrudgingly one of the founders of the mumblecore movement with his first and second features, FUNNY HA HA and MUTUAL APPRECIATION), COMPUTER CHESS is the geekiest, most profound and perhaps even the most spiritual film to come out in years. And it’s all set during a computer chess tournament in a run down motel circa 1980.
Bujalski, who is anathema to shooting on digital video (his previous films have all been on 16mm) embraces video in this film, by purchasing 3 Sony video cameras from 1969 to shoot his film. The look is very old school and reminds me of old black and white BBC shows. He even uses the same effects like split screen and title cards that give it a charming, retro feel. The story is essentially about a bunch of sweaty computer programmers who congregate, compete, smoke out and pontificate, while they work on their computer programs providing the initial building blocks to artificial intelligence or A.I.
Bujalski’s storytelling is very natural, using non-actors and has a free flowing narrative, similar to early Richard Linklater or Robert Altman. With chess strategy, algorithms and math formulas spouted left and right, the film captures the mundane to a tee, but also goes into more metaphysical and philosophical when exploring man, machine and consciousness. The ending is a big head trip!
IN A WORLD – Carol (played by Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed) is a voice coach in Hollywood who aspires to be the voice over trailers like the great and late Don Lafontaine who coined the famous trailer phrase, “In a world…” (The film, in fact, opens with news footage of Lafontaine being interviewed and also news of his death to cancer and surmises that those magical three words are never muttered again). Her hopes are repeatedly crushed by her self-centered father Sam (Ken Melamed), who is a veteran of the voiceover business, and ever since Lafontaine’s death, has become the grand poobah of the voiceover industry. In fact, instead of supporting his daughter, he would rather mentor rising voice over star, Gustav (Ken Marino from PARTY DOWN and VERONICA MARS). When an opportunity arises to do the voice over for the trailer of the potentially biggest franchise ever, an adaptation of the YA book smash THE AMAZONIAN GAMES (a riff on THE HUNGER GAMES), all three must compete for this job and resurrect “In a world..” back into the zeitgeist.
Even though it has many flaws (too many characters, slow pacing, and no real conflict or denouement), the film won me over with its charm and inside look at the mundane cast of characters operating in the voice over and sound design industry. Bell, who usually plays lawyers or art collector who are hot babes, is charming as a slacker schlub, crashing on her older sister’s couch, and just floats around from gig to gig in the San Fernando Valley. But the conceit of the film (the ultimate voice over gig) makes the scenes where the characters are in the sound booth and going their all in movie trailer voice over mode, makes the film so fun and so innocent, that one cannot smile throughout IN A WORLD…
AUSTENLAND – Light hearted and hilarious, AUSTENLAND stars Keri Russell as a woman named Jane who is so fanatical about the “Pride and Prejudice” author’s fiction that she blows her life savings to visit an Austen-themed British resort. Jane is so fixated on finding her own Austen-style suitor that she has a life-size cut-out of Colin Firth as aloof suitor Mr. Darcy in a BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice.” Hoping to have a cordial experience that will end in stuffy Austen-esque courtship, Jane instead goes through a roller coaster ride of emotions as she tries to navigate through this simulacrum inhabited by other women looking for Victorian love and the actors who are employed to give them that Austen-esque ending.
Jennifer Coolidge aka Stifler’s mom from AMERICAN PIE, is so effin’ hilarious, as another Austenland attendee with the name ‘Miss Elizabeth Charming’, has the best lines in the film. Directed by Jerusha Hess (1/2 of the NAPOLEON DYNAMITE team) and produced by TWILIGHT author Stephenie Meyer (who knows a thing or two about obsessed fans), AUSTENLAND is usually laugh out loud funny, pleasant and quirky. This may sound all generic, but that’s the best way to describe this film. It’s fun!
A RIVER CHANGES COURSE – Three young Cambodians struggle to overcome the crushing effects of deforestation, overfishing, and debt in this devastating and beautiful story of an ancient culture ravaged by globalization. The debut film from Kaylanee Mam (who shot the Oscar winning THE INSIDE JOB), who returns to her native Cambodia to craft a compelling work of cinema verite, following her subjects for over two years, as these rural people no longer can provide for their family and must seek out work in emerging urban centers.
Intimate, heartbreaking and educational, A RIVER CHANGES COURSE is a snapshot of Southeast Asian modernity as traditions and cultures disappear and a new migrant working class emerges, causing pain and struggle to a still healing country from a dark and war torn past.
The film also won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary category, so make sure to catch this film at a film festival near you.
This ends Part 2 of my Sundance Film Wrap-Up Report. Part 1 can be read here. Part 3 will be posted shortly.