The Complete Sundance Reports #5 – “You either Joseph Gordon Love-it, or you Hate it.”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on February 22, 2010

Sundance – Day #5

Sometimes films at Sundance can either completely miss the mark compared to the expectations people have built up or be so genuinely wrongheaded in their eyes that they literally inspire rage. Such as it was that while waiting with the press to go into my first screening of the morning that I was surrounded by people trying to one-up each other on how bad they believed 3 BACKYARDS to be. They were just mad at it. Mad, it was so bad.

Which, of course, in a film going perverse kind of way made me want to see it so I could get my hate on too.

Fortunately, my Sundance morning was about to start me off on a great day…

HIGH SCHOOL

From the opening scene of a spelling bee champion completely losing it while at the mike thanks to some potent marijuana, John Stahlberg Jr.’s HIGH SCHOOL delivers everything you could possibly want in a stoner comedy and most assuredly much, much more.

The story is simple (as it should be): After the opening incident, the school’s smarmy principal institutes a zero-tolerance policy AND a school-wide screening for the very next day, which just happens to coincide with the school’s valedictorian-to-be lighting up for the first time with his estranged boyhood friend who is now the school’s most notorious pothead. The solution the two reunited by necessity friends come up with is to get the entire school stoned on brownies so that EVERYONE will fail the screening test therefore invalidating the entire thing.

Of course, you’re asked to accept A LOT (the typical stoner kids living seemingly without supervision kinda stuff) and humor is mined from the obvious sources; the fallen spelling bee champion’s last name (‘Phuc’), to Michael Chiklis’ giddy portrayal of the tight-assed principal complete with classic fright wig, and Adrien Brody’s “Psycho Ed” baked genius lawyer/drug dealer character.

But all of this soars because ‘Henry,’ the valedictorian and ‘Travis,” the pothead are both legitimately smart guys. Applied differently to be sure and not immune to making wrongheaded strategic moves, but still smart. So as they deal with dilemma upon hurdle upon impossible situation, we never have to fall back on someone being more stupid that the other guy to get out of a sticky situation. This may be a newsflash to some, but apparently just because you smoke marijuana doesn’t mean you’re dumb and just because you’re a “bad guy” in a high (ignoring that pun) concept comedy, also doesn’t mean you have to be a buffoon.

And even though it’s simple stuff at the core, the stakes keep getting ratcheted up and hurdles keep escalating so those arguably cliché deux ex machina moments that routinely sink a comedy like this for anyone that didn’t just love PAUL BLART: MALL COP, are fun and not eye-rolling.

SUNDANCE FEVER: One of the few films offered that everyone can laugh out loud at and enjoy unabashedly before they step into the next film portraying human tragedy or angst.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: I think this will happen. I also think people will wonder which character that ‘Mackey’ guy from The Shield was.

FROZEN

Adam Green’s FROZEN is about as straightforward as it gets in horror-land: A snowboarding/skiing threesome (Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell and Kevin Zegers) find themselves left and abandoned on a chairlift with the prospect of no one discovering their predicament for a week. And yes, the obvious comparison is to OPEN WATER.

On the surface, the one-note nature of the threat (they’ll freeze to death up there if they don’t get down) would give one good reason to be dubious about the prospects of spending an hour and a half watching young people on ice. Or to be more precise – getting iced.

But Green does more than a few things right here. He parses out back story and conflicts between the threesome (a couple and the guy’s best friend) which spares us a ponderous exposition heavy opening and he gives us something else to worry about that’s worse than freezing. In a word: wolves.

So just figuring out a way down before frostbite, etc. claims them isn’t the only challenge for the trio since the wolves have taken the baton from OPEN WATER’s sharks. And again, I’ll stress here that what you think this is going in is likely what you’ll get. And that is more than fine since the tension is built solidly, the inter-relationship crises aren’t overdone, the moments of horror pay off quite well, and above all – no one overreaches. And what a relief that is. I also had great appreciation for the way the ending was handled (which I can’t state here due to spoiler concerns).

SUNDANCE FEVER: I think it is likely satisfying without sending people through the roof.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: It should have a shot – maybe brief – but a shot at it for people wanting some simple chills (couldn’t help that one).

Apparently I have a nemesis. Because, you know, because sometimes the film festival community’s set and subsets rub each other the wrong way and sometimes a film rep might really get worked up over you to the point that they’re solidly NOT in your camp. But to be clear, as MSN’s James Rocchi was nice enough to school me: This person is clearly not an “arch-enemy” otherwise he’d be trying to destroy me. No, he must be a nemesis because he needs me around to fuel his dark hatred of all things…me. Because that’s fun? I’m definitely getting the full film festival experience this go-round.

Rocchi also offered this about the polarizing buzz over HESHER, saying, You either Joseph Gordon Love-it or Hate it.” That’s James Rocchi, ladies and gentlemen; He’s here all week.

12TH & DELAWARE

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 12TH & DELAWARE takes a heads on view of the abortion debate by focusing its cameras on the title location, a street corner located in Fort Pierce, Florida which is the home to an abortion clinic as well as a Pro-Life pregnancy clinic right across the street.

It’s a simple exercise, but beyond riveting as Ewing and Grady simply let the people (literally on both sides of the street) speak for themselves via their words and actions. We begin by seeing Pro-Life activists up before dawn trying to talk to people at the abortion clinic through he windows, blocking the driveway as much as they are allowed to and carrying signs and posters with graphic depictions of aborted fetuses.

Across the street, teenage girls are “counseled” by being told that having by having an abortion they are likely to get breast cancer, bleed to death, etc. And if that doesn’t change their mind, then maybe typing “Hi, Mommy!” onto a print out of their ultrasound will do the trick.

It’s a remarkable process to watch as a mother of two contemplating having an abortion because her boyfriend is abusive is told, “For all you know, the baby will change him.” Meanwhile, across the street the women entering the clinic are bombarded with please not to abort, and promises of financial support, etc., if they change their minds. Inside, the husband and wife that own and operate the clinic patiently go about their business, counseling the women and literally “minding the store.” And that takes a moment-to-moment diligence, as they have to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the women and the doctors (who are driven in to the facility covered by a sheet to protect their identity).

We follow a particularly threatening Pro-lifer as he does some investigating work, locating the drop off point and discovering who the doctor is. He then follows by all but admitting that they’ll do anything they can to stop that doctor from continuing to perform abortions. And you know that we are talking about the potential of another Dr. George Tiller-type shooting. Across the street, the woman running the clinic shakes her head at the protesters explaining they don’t reciprocate (protesting and trespassing on the grounds of the Pregnancy Center) because they have families to get home to and lives to lead.

But 12TH & DELAWARE is careful not to get pulled into histrionics. Rather, it takes care to allow both sides to speak their piece, calmly, in their own environment. Unfortunately, for the Pro-Life side, that means seeing them misrepresent facts, outright lie to woman after woman, and harass the abortion clinic with the conviction of zealotry. As a group of Hispanic Pro-Lifers convinces a young woman with 6 children to not abort the 7th with promises of financial support, you shake your head as you overhear her being offered a stuffed toy inside their clinic.

Yeah, she should be able to feed that to one of her kids.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Oh boy, this one will inspire a lot of talking. Not debating, mind you. More like “Where can I contribute to Planned Parenthood?” kind of stuff.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: No, this one is going to have a nice run on HBO.

I arrived at the Library Theatre for a photo shoot for a project I’m working on and found Tiffany Shepis outside ready for the premiere of her film THE VIOLENT KIND, smoking. As she explained, she decided to go ahead and smoke for the day so she could relax and actually enjoy it all on her terms without the pressure of “being good.”

And if that keeps her from being the title of her film, then I believe that was some good thinking there…

Finishing the night was a midnight screening of SPLICE. Another theatre manager friend escorts me in early. Having the right friends is KEY here. The music guy from FROZEN is sitting in my row complaining about fan boys knocking the film for its implausibility. His friend’s (a producer) response, “And AVATAR is plausible?!” The producer follows, “I just had the most expensive calzone in my life at Main St. Pizza & Noodle. It was like, 25 bucks for that and a drink!”

Oh, Sundance…

SPLICE

Directed by Vincenzo Natali, SPLICE is a gonzo horror treatment of the “Frankenstein” story. Starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as two young, brilliant and ambitious genetic engineers, the film follows the results of their decision to include some human DNA into a new life form they’re creating.

The inspiration has some typical genre movie standards: The nameless, ominous and cash rich corporate company that they created another kitchen sink life form for (let’s just say it has both fish and fowl in it) so they could harvest all kinds of organic and bio-wondrous material from is ready to make them rich and famous. And the desire of Polley’s ‘Elsa’ character to produce a child new jack style (not so much on the whole birthing thing) so she can deal with her parent/child abuse issues adds to the predictably combustible nature of what will transpire.

And what transpires is ‘Dren,’ a Heinz 57 of animal/human hybrid with a lethal stinger of a tail that gives them much more than they can handle. But, of course they do. They begin to raise Dren in secret, torn between treating her like their child or like the freak result of their experimenting gone off the reservation.

Naturally, I want to steer clear of spoilers. However, if my stating that things go horribly, horribly wrong is a stunner for you then…you’re adorable. But I will say that they go horribly, horribly wrong in wild, freaky town ways that would warm the heart of David Cronenberg. And again, without giving details I will say that (by design) Dren is an exotically beautiful (if really fascinatingly bizarre) creature-woman. And if a horror sci-fi film introduces a character like that, then the immediate question is “Will someone have sex with it/her?” Hmmmm…

So – does the movie work. Ultimately, for me – no. But I also think that depends on your expectations. People want (and I know this because I’m one of them) a really, really cool and very, very scary monster movie. And this one has got ambition to spare, but for me it also took things to a point where scares ceased to be the priority versus the craziness of the vision. A lot of people in my audience laughed at a key point in the film that wasn’t meant to be comic relief. And that laughter said, we’ve now turned off the road from scared-shitless-land and now we’re racing toward “I-can’t-believe-they-just-did-that-ville.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Those that want to be really scared – not liking it. Those that want to see the trippy and crazy – all over it.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: With Brody and Polley – possible. But no sure thing – at all. However, the Syfy channel could chop it up and make a series out of it. It’s the kind of thing they dream about.

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