The Complete Sundance/Slamdance Reports #3 – “Brian, you’re project manager. You’re saving the earth.”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on February 22, 2010

Sundance/Slamdance – Day #3

Sometimes, in the spirit of “things happen,” a day here will take on its own theme. You miss one screening and have to duck into another one, you run into someone at a party or on Main Street and they steer you in another direction, and so on.

As it happened, today turned out to be Slamdance Day. It began as I watched a screener of the comedy, CUMMINGS FARM. Because, let’s face it, what better way is there to start your morning than by watching a movie about an orgy.

CUMMINGS FARM

Andrew Drazek’s CUMMINGS FARM is supposed to be a dark comedy fueled by one awkward situation piled upon an embarrassing revelation after another awkward situation. Supposed to be. The story of three troubled couples prepping for and trying to take part in an orgy is labored at best. The film wants to give us characters that are barely able to coexist in their own relationships let alone play well with others, but it strains to leave not a single stone unturned when it comes to ladling on the dysfunctional.

And for a film that seems to pride itself on defying expectations, there is A LOT of convenience on the scene. The guys are the ones saddled with all the issues: One couple is dealing with HIS alcoholism, another couple has lost the relationship’s spark due to HIS relentless nebbish ness, and the host couple is plagued by HIS borderline sociopathic behavior. Characters condemn one another or give each other more allowance than elite Hollywood gives Roman Polanski depending on what’s necessary to move along a plot point. But wait, there’s more: conveniently, the members of each couple have focused their desires on a single member of one of the other couples and not one of them has designs on the same person. Great! Glad no one has to choose straws.

Now to give credit where credit is due, the cast is not filled with GOSSIP GIRL or THE NEW MELROSE PLACE types. These aren’t Ready For US Magazine tabloid pretty people. I mean, I’m not saying they’re not attractive enough to be allowed to procreate and stuff by a jury of their peers. I’m just saying they’re “real”. And did I mention the part about the black drug dealer coming to crash the party with dreams of horny white women primed for the taking? And there’s ecstasy! Because people are hilarious when they’ve had the ecstasy!

CUMMINGS FARM does have its moments and I enjoyed Laura Silverman’s performance as the accepting and submissive mom hosting the orgy and blithely supporting her bizarro husband. Ultimately, though, it struck me as something that likely plays as roll-on-the-floor funny to the people involved in the production yet doesn’t translate easily to the general public.

SLAMDANCE FEVER: Great Slamdance movie. It’s “outrageous” and edgy and done on the cheap.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: No.

Next up was a trip to the Treasure Mountain Inn to see DRONES. I’ll state right now that I LOVE Slamdance. I love the idea of it and love the reality of it. First time I did the Sundance thing ten years ago; Slamdance was actually the place that I immediately felt  “okay” at. Like I could walk around the premises unescorted (if you know what I mean). The first screening I saw there had issues with the projector forcing us to watch a photo negative of the film for a good 30 minutes – and no one walked. It made it that much more weird and fun.

There is an enforced simplicity and rejection of the formal that just puts you at ease and prepares you for the films you’re about to see. And you forgive the fact they still haven’t conquered that air conditioning issue.

So, the fun bonus was that the film’s publicist sat me down next to animation legend Bill Plympton. And after chatting him up and talking about past film festivals, we got started. My first thought was that Slamdance wins the trailer contest by a landslide with its “Sweet 16” spot. A feverish Latina teen literally dancing an animatronics bird out of its egg/shell almost dares the film following to step up its game.

HORSEFINGERS 2: BUT I AM THE TIGER

Kirsten Kearse’s HORSEFINGERS 2: BUT I AM THE TIGER is the second in a trilogy of HORSEFINGERS films, following last year’s HORSEFINGERS 3: STARF***ER. This one is a silent trip following the “life cycle” of the mythical Horsefingers (which is Kearse with two large hooves instead of hands. We follow Horsefingers as she goes on some sort of treasure hunt through the woods, the treasure apparently being a nice pantsuit and a cup of coffee. Then she finds her way to the city and an office and naturally a lot of secretarial work ensues and an instant pregnancy, until she returns to the woods, gives birth and the whole thing starts again.

It is kind of cute, somewhat inventive, and quirky to a T. And I would’ve been fine with it all had she not insisted (twice) during the brief Q&A afterwards that she couldn’t hold the mike because of her “horsefingers”. And no she wasn’t wearing the hooves. And yes, it was irritating. The cutesy, quirky routine quickly dissipated any goodwill I had for the film.

DRONES

Directed by Adam Busch and Amber Benson, DRONES is comedy with equal parts silly and droll mixed up in a story about an office worker, ‘Brian’ who is happily whistling his life away in a cubicle when the discovery that his best friend, ‘Clark’ is an alien followed by the discovery that his office girlfriend, ‘Amy’ is also an alien throws his life – which is his work routine – into chaos.

To say that everyone takes everyone else’s (literally) out-of-this world revelations in stride would be to state the obvious. Actually, make that beyond obvious. Brian deals with the plans their respective planets have for our planet like most people would deal with changing dinner plans. That is until things with Amy hit a snag (and let’s just say that negotiation would be tough enough without bringing potential interplanetary war to the table).

DRONES is the kind of arch comedy where characters speak in strange cadences, behave strangely with casual nonchalance and have as much concern about the reality they’re presenting as a high school play would. Because it’s just for fun. And if you’re asking for more, then maybe you’re having a low sugar moment. Top-to-bottom, the cast is game for all of it. Jonathan M. Woodward, Samm Levine and Angela Bettis are solid as Brian, Clark and Amy. And if James Urbaniak (their boss who has more natural “alien” to him than the real thing – according to this movie) isn’t “money-in-the-bank” then no one gets to claim that compliment. Few actors can deliver the line, “Brian, you’re project manager. You’re saving the earth.” with the style and aplomb that guy can.

SLAMDANCE FEVER: Again – fun. And sitting in the conference rooms made into makeshift screening rooms, no one begrudges and slight production design limitations.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: I don’t think so. Which is too bad. Cable could give it a lot of play though.

For the next screening, I found myself sitting next to the sister of the director of the short film preceding the feature. Which meant that she was also a production member and the head of his street team. Because that’s how you do things in Sundance/Slamdance land. Family IS staff. I think it’s a law in Park City or something. She tells me his name is S. Vollie Osborn, but his real name is Sam. He’s just highlighting the Vollie (his middle name) because that adds to the coolness factor. Okay, we can dance with that.

Again, I LOVE the “Sweet 16” trailer.

MONSTERS DOWN THE HALL

S. Vollie Osborn’s short film, MONSTERS DOWN THE HALL is a creepy, scary exercise in perception. A little black boy lives in squalor with his heroin addict white mother. And in his world, the hallway becomes a frightening path to a forbidden door his mother tells him never to enter.

Which means, of course, after he draws a picture of a monster next to his “ABC’s”, that’s exactly what we must do. And that little trip down horror lane doesn’t disappoint with scary imps and monsters and horrific images take us where you’re supposed to take us when your title says there is a monster down the hall.

The connection made between mom’s heroin use and the visions of madness aren’t groundbreaking but that gooey-scary imagery is well done.

Not a bad lead in to set the table for the feature-length scary.

YELLOWBRICKROAD

Directed by Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland, YELLOWBRICKROAD follows the descent into the unknown and a special kind of hell a small group of book researchers and map specialists undertake as they seek to solve a decades old mystery as to what happened to an entire town’s population that left all of their belongings behind and ultimately their lost their lives as they hiked up a trail into the wilderness.

Sounds like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT? Of course, it does. Send some people into the woods without backup, and with a not-so-healthy lack of respect or fear for the potential of evil. To their credit, we are spared the shaky cam video “real” footage. This is a movie movie. So there’s that. And that IS appreciated, to be sure.

The roster is made up of a married researcher, their psychologist friend, a brother/sister map team, a forestry ranger guy, an intern and a local gal that knows some history. Things start predictably enough after some initial hurdles. The coordinates they’re given for the trail deliver them to the doorstep of a spooky old theatre house, but before they all can turn around and ditch the project, the girl behind the counter agrees to take them to the real start of the trail if she can go along with them.

The slow burn or build that follows establishes the personalities via the psychologist’s “brain test” video interviews (you know, so we’ll know when they’re going crazy later) and their prep time bonding moments as well. That is until 30’s music starts coming from somewhere within the woods. Then, it starts getting interesting. And the horror ensues.

At the interest of not spoiling things, I don’t want to offer more details than that. So – the central question is, of course, is the film scary. The simple answer would be, “Yes, it is.” But just as I believe that the funny has many styles and shades that need to be specified, horror also needs to properly characterized. And simply, this isn’t a “monster” movie, and it’s not a “slasher” movie, it’s more ambitious than that. Mitton and Holland are aiming for the horror that potentially lies within everyone’s cerebral cortex. They don’t want to just scare you, they want you to think and ponder and ruminate on the horror of it all. They don’t completely get there and arguably, the fate of the various victims can get repetitive, but if you care about having some horror film choices that don’t start with the word “saw” or are retooled versions of a handful of 80s franchise baddies then you’ll give this one a shot.

SLAMDANCE FEVER: Ambition. Scares. Films without easy conclusions, but with scenes that people can talk about and a theme that people can argue about in the lounge. This is what they come to Slamdance for.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not really. A Syfy channel staple potentially. Although they’d have to provide enough space between Syfy’s CGI giant mosquito movie or Raptor Family movie and this film. You’ll probably have to look for it in the DVD horror/genre section.

“I haven’t fallen in love yet, but I would sleep with PAPER HEART”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on January 20, 2009

Back at Sundance – Day #1

After two years away due to the initial AFI DALLAS launch and scheduling issues the second year, I’m back in Park City to get a head start working on the films we’ll be picking up, get some face time with the journalists in town and possibly help Artistic Director Michael Cain and the programming dynamic Dallas duo of James Faust and Sarah Harris maybe find a couple more must haves that they somehow didn’t catch in their exhaustive non-stop movie search. Oh – and I’m also doing a Sundance story for Envy Magazine as they continue to stretch the boundaries of the “local social/ entertainment” magazine.

First impression – the reminder that you can’t park a car in Park City. Unless of course, you have a roll of bills like a mobster at hand to pay or you won the parking lottery. Point is – they don’t want you to park here. They don’t want you to have even owned a car. Ever. It’s understandable why. I mean, of course, I get it. And the public transpo is great. But there’s kind of an angry aggressiveness about the parking moratorium. And the tow trucks? Like sharks. Trolling for cars left behind by the weak-willed and desperate to make a movie or a meeting.

Scary. If you happen to have a car here – like me.

Anyway, if you’ve been here before then you know the drill and if you haven’t, you’ll learn fast. And ultimately, you won’t care because it’s all about the movies. Because if you’re here, even if it is for work, you likely view movies a little differently than the general public. At my first press screening, I asked a guy what he had seen that he had loved. He said, “I haven’t fallen in love yet, but I would sleep with PAPER HEART.” He also said he would have a one-night stand with LYMELIFE. Which leads me to think he would also buy PAPER HEART dinner a couple times as well.

The first film I saw was BIG FAN. The film follows a sad sack parking lot attendant who loves his New York Football Giants like no other. Until a disastrous incident occurs during a flukish meeting with his all-time favorite player, that is. I’m interviewing Patton Oswalt, the star of the film, tomorrow – AND I had insider info that it was gonna be a good one so I was looking forward to it. And it didn’t disappoint. It’s funny in a “real” way and it’s not afraid to go to some serious places you wouldn’t expect of Mr. Oswalt. But not earnest Oscar grab kind of going to those places. Probably because that sort of play would never enter Patton’s head in the first place. Written and directed by Robert Siegel with the same unflinching look at both the humor and you have to say it – pathos, that he brought to the script for THE WRESTLER. There’s also a nice understated turn by Kevin Corrigan as Oswalt’s character’s partner in fandom. The film draws conclusions that may not be the best on paper for all concerned, but (and I’m going to hate myself as I write this) that’s why they play the game. Finally, BIG FAN has, hands down, one of the best payoffs I have seen in a very long time.

Nice start, huh?

Film number two was THE COVE. Again, I was looking forward to this one from the moment I heard about it. The film is an expose’ on the dolphin industry and in particular the wholesale slaughter of dolphins that takes place in a little cove in Taiji, Japan. And it is as riveting as it gets as we follow a group of activists who hatch and execute an elaborate OCEAN’S 11-type operation for the express purpose of filming and documenting what goes on there. Led by Ric O’Barry who has been on a crusade for some 35 years to thwart an industry he feels greatly responsible for inspiring due to his work as a dolphin trainer on the original FLIPPER TV series, the group and the film work toward unmasking the many wrongs – animal cruelty to the nth degree and the willful spread of mercury poisoning to the entire country (with an emphasis on their children) among them. THE COVE invites immediate comparisons to SHARKWATER, which we had at AFI DALLAS in 2007 and which won the prize for Best HD Feature. And that comparison weighs very heavily in THE COVE’s favor. While SHARKWATER’s campaign against the illegal shark finning industry was easily just as genuine, it was burdened by the weighty ego of its filmmaker and “star.” O’Barry and the principals involved with THE COVE never waver on where their focus and concern lies –with a species with an intelligence and self awareness that could possibly exceed our own. And our kind’s typical bent to destroy that. Don’t miss this film when you get the chance to see it.

Number three? Chris Rock’s documentary, GOOD HAIR. This was an eye opener. Black women’s (and some men’s) love affair with relaxer (or “creamy crack”) and weaves is equal parts hilarious and frightening. Not surprising, mind you. Not when, as Nia Long describes the desire for “white hair” – there has long been a steady drumbeat for generations of black women to seek “the lighter, the brighter, the better,” as she says. To see what the principal chemical component in relaxer can do to a coke can in 3 or 4 hours is bad enough. Realizing that same stuff is being put on the heads of children after hearing the horror stories of the scalp burn from people like Ice T (yes, that Ice T), places it in a whole other arena. And then there are the secret societies of women with weaves, descriptions of how they pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for those weaves and how women in India literally have their hair “stolen” – cut off while they’re asleep or watching a movie in a theater – to fulfill that demand/obsession. It’s a lot to take in. And while I laughed throughout, I actually have gained much empathy for the men who must negotiate their way around their woman’s weave. Because, Rock makes it very clear – she may be worth it, but that’s some heavy lifting.

Finally, it was off to Slamdance to see a film we are romancing to bring to AFI DALLAS – ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD. First off, there was a gift bag on the seat for everyone attending the premiere with a poster, fangs, t-shirt, etc. Thoughtful. Vampire thoughtful. And the film was proceeded by a short film – bonus, right? Entitled HORSEFINGERS 3: STARFUCKER, it was everything you would hope from a twisted bizzaro little short about romance and tough it is already to date without also having to work around having two giant hooves (or “horsefingers”) on your hands.
While describing the film, the director (Kirsten Kearse) had the second best quote of the day, “People are boring. But put them in animal outfit…”

As far as the feature presentation is concerned, what can you say about a film that follows a theater director’s struggles as he finds himself caught in the middle of a two thousand year out conspiracy involving Shakespeare, the Holy Grail and vampires? It was funny, it was silly, it was inventive. That’s what you can say. You can also say it starred Jake Hoffman (displaying some natural dead pan talent), Devon Aoki, Ralph Macchio and Jeremy Sisto among an eclectic cast. And music by Sean Lennon. Mind you, I saw the film during its world premiere which might have doubled as a cast and crew screening so it was a mad house and a very happy, giddy mad house. But Jordan Galland’s dead little valentine would have held its own regardless and brought the funny. This will be a fun movie to have in Dallas and a great cast to have on a red carpet.