Sundance and Slamdance #8 – The Lost Interviews

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on March 2, 2010

Following are a few interviews that I wasn’t able to complete in time to include with my other coverage during Sundance and Slamdance.

First up is Emma Bell, who along with Shawn Ashmore and Kevin Zegers, stars in Adam Green’s chiller, FROZEN. I really liked the film – thought it was a straight-up tension and suspense-fest and aside from Adam Green’s leap forward as a writer/director on the project, he chose wisely (as they say) with the casting of that threesome.

After making the film, are you now permanently a “warm weather person”?

Emma: Absolutely. I told the producers the next film they want me to do has to be in Hawaii.


Seeing as how FROZEN was actually filmed in the mountains and not on a sound stage, how much did your snowboarding or skiing skills improve over the course of the shoot?

Emma: I went from atrocious to awful! I had never done either before and had about a two hour training session. My incompetence is pretty apparent in the film. I hope it at least makes people laugh.

Between you, Kevin Zegers, and Shawn Ashmore, who was the “iron man or woman” and who had to come down off the chairlift for more pee breaks? Or was it actually Adam Green?

Emma: Shawn had a few brutal days in a harness, so maybe him. And there were no pee breaks. We all held it, including Adam!

You’ve been a TV force to be reckoned with over the past couple of years (“Dollhouse”, “Ghost Whisperer”, “Law & Order”). Any difference in approach as an actress in doing episodic TV versus a feature film?

Emma: Wow, thank you. I don’t know about being a “force” in TV, but I have been very lucky over the years. Episodic TV is interesting because if you come on to a pre-existing show, like all of the above mentioned, there are already relationships developed between people, and a lot of times you are only coming on for one or two episodes. So it can be challenging to connect and for me, therefore, more of a challenge to create a character. When you are a lead on a film, you become part of that family from the get-go, and in my experience, have a say in the over-all creation of the film and character you are portraying. Acting in both forms are pretty amazing experiences though.

I also asked her what was scarier, wolves or sharks, but she didn’t answer that one – possibly still traumatized from the shoot more than a year later. I didn’t ask but my guess is that the publicists decided they would omit that question so we wouldn’t know the movie has wolves in it. But I do know the movie has wolves in it. So, there. If you didn’t know before you do now. And they’re scary. So go see the movie and see the scary mystery wolves already.

Next up are the two directors of the Slamdance comedy DRONES. I enjoyed the film quite a bit and was curious about the directing dynamic between Amber Benson and Adam Busch. They seemed to have distinct personality differences during the Q&A following the film and I’m always curious as how that stuff shakes out and settles in on the set and in the editing suite.

You both have been acting for quite sometime and Amber has directed solo a few times, so why team up on this particular project at this particular time?

Amber: We had been working on a couple of music videos together (for David Garland and Sufjan Stevens) and really enjoyed collaborating. When DRONES came along, we felt it would be the perfect feature to co-direct together. We felt our disparate strengths would lend well to the very specific tone that the story needed in order to be told correctly.

Adam: Amber had a very specific vision of how the thing should look and I felt very strongly about what kind of cast we would need and how the comedy should play out. Jordan Kessler had seen the mopey lil’ music videos Amber and I had done. He felt if we could apply the sadness and somber tone of our music videos to Acker & Blacker’s script the story would come alive.

During the Q&A at the Slamdance screening I saw, you described a pretty clear separation in directing responsibilities. Can you repeat that here and explain how it turned out to be that way?

Amber: I love working with the crew, drawing storyboards, framing shots and bossing our DP, David McFarland, around. Adam is an ace at directing actors. He casts really well, knows what approach best suits each individual actor and works really hard to create a safe environment so the actors feel free to experiment without judgment. I think our two styles intermesh really well together – and when you’re shooting a film in 14 days, two heads are always better than one.

Adam: We wanted to make it clear that “aliens” could be anything or anyone “different”. Anything that would keep people apart. Whether it’s religion or sexual preference or ethnicity. Saying “I love you but my parents don’t approve of you” is the same as saying, “I love you but I’m going to destroy your planet.” It feels the same when you’re on the receiving end.

There is a madcap arch tone to the film that pretty much flaunts its ridiculousness for the audience. Is it more or less difficult to do something with that kind of high style?

Amber: Creating the highly stylized world of DRONES was a true collaboration between Adam, me and the entire cast and crew. We used costume, acting style and a muted-color scheme in the production design to begin creating the world then our DP incorporated the same theme into the visuals via the lighting design and shot composition. We chose to do a lot of moving masters reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s rather than relying on heavy coverage, giving the film more of a timeless quality. In the edit process we focused on performance and letting the drama/comedy within the dialogue play out in its own time.

Adam: The dialogue is very clever and I think it’s important that none of the characters acknowledge that in any way. Sometimes when people work together or are in a small space for a long period of time speech patterns develop. Cadences and songs and nicknames become part of your vernacular and you can’t place how they started or when. I think you’ll find unique little sub cultures in offices and factories all over the world.

Was there a particular actor that brought something to their part that either of you hadn’t really planned on, but were thrilled to incorporate (and then take credit for after it was all said and done)?

Amber: Unlike most of the other actors, Tangi Miller had never worked with the writers, Acker & Blacker, before, so she had no idea what she was getting into. They have a very stylized way of writing dialogue that can be difficult for an actor to wrap his/her head around. I’ve seen it throw even the most accomplished of actors. But Tangi came in and just brought a real humanness to the role of ‘Miryam’, something that was a real achievement, in my mind, because that character had the propensity to become a caricature if it had not been handled correctly.

Adam: Marc Evan Jackson felt the most comfortable improvising. He knows how to make an entrance and exit. He knows how to stay memorable. He is a true comedy star in the classic sense. I remember hearing how in scripts for “The Carol Burnett Show” it would just say, “Tim Conway does something funny.” Then he would. That’s how Marc Evan Jackson operates.

Okay, look in the mirror and be honest here: Who would manage better if directed by the other on a future project? And who would be the bigger on-set diva?

Amber: Adam takes direction better than I do, so he’d probably easier to direct. As far as divas go, I think we both just love being on sets so much that we err too much on the humble side of the spectrum. We just love what we’re doing and are happy to have the opportunity to do it.

Adam: Amber’s right. I handle the process of receiving direction better than her but she can deliver what the director wants with a deliberateness that can only be described as athletic. She has a much better batting average than I do.

Suck ups. But they make a great team (going by what they pulled off with DRONES), and I would easily be coerced into the theater to watch their next one. As well as encourage anyone that enjoys the silly and won’t get hung up on budget issues to seek it out.

Next are some questions I sent to Laura Silverman, who starred in CUMMINGS FARM which also screened at Slamdance. I wasn’t the greatest fan of the film but really liked what Laura did. She gave a very nice performance of the kind of character that usually gets a few joke lines written at their expense during a sit-com – the non-ambitious, maybe not-so-bright young mom. And she actually made that person real and sympathetic.

How did you become involved with the project?

Laura: My manager called me with the offer. It was at the slowest time of the year and I was going crazy not working, so I pretty much said “yes” based on getting to go to Louisiana for a couple weeks and have some kind of new experience with new people. Then, I looked at the script and got really excited- I just don’t expect things to be great like that.  Oh- and, of course, the money.  I framed it, actually- it’s adorable!

Did your perception of what it would be like to participate in an orgy change due to working on CUMMINGS FARM?

Laura: No, not really.  I mean, I didn’t even try to understand wanting to do that, I just have a hard time believing that that could be a good time. I mean, sex for me is about a person- someone with whom you know you have at least above average chemistry- maybe a little light spanking if you want to go nuts. But any kind of group sex- swinging parties, whatever, I just don’t get the appeal. To me it’s just a lot of spit and strange skin and unpredictable smells made by glands and things. I mean, we’re people- we’re pretty gross- so it takes having that rare thing where you just aren’t at all icky to each other for it to really be enjoyable.

What would be more frightening to you personally: Being a mother or being in an orgy?

Laura: I think being a mother would be great- but, I mean, if either were to go horribly wrong, you’d want it to be the one that was over in one night and that you could be super high for- you know, and not have people look down upon you for it.  Being the orgy baby sitter would be a nice compromise, I guess.

Was there a fair amount of improvisation involved or was everything pretty much in the script?

Laura: It’s pretty much all scripted. A couple things were improvised and you can sort of tell what they are- the part where I say all the things that are wrong with me, and this little bit- kind of in the background where I’m all high and yammering about high school chorus… I liked that when I saw it, I forgot about doing it and I was glad they put it in- just kind of makes me laugh. People are so boring when they’re high!

Before filming, did you know how to make a proper mojito?

Laura: Neither before or after. I know there’s rum in there, and mint. I learned that at catechism.

I’ll just say here that not many things make me happier when someone turns out to be as fun and delightful or at the very least possessing a personality in person or in print as they were onscreen or via their directing. So, thank you Laura Silverman. Whew.

Because sometimes it can go horribly wrong and you ask these questions and you think to yourself, “Did your Amish Mom answer these for you? Or do you just have the latest in self-serious technology at your disposal to suck the very life out of me as I read your answers?”

At least that’s what I do.

However, in this last little interview. Not a problem. AT ALL. Clark and Cassidy Freeman are a brother and sister team that have so much personality that for years they were banished to the wide open spaces of Montana because heavily populated urban centers couldn’t handle them. At least not together. So they were Executive Producers and in the cast of a cool little F-with-your-brain-fest called YELLOWBRICKROAD, that also played at Slamdance (because apparently all the cool kids were there this year). Anyway, I tried to adopt these two years ago in a maneuver very similar to what those Idaho people tried to scam on Haiti. Same result, save for me skirting the whole incarceration thing…..

Knowing your mutual sordid pasts with The Sight Unseen Theatre Company, and knowing how YELLOWBRICKROAD easily falls within the style and themes frequently explored in the stage productions that company has been responsible for, what were your first impressions when the idea for the story was presented to each of you.
Cassidy: I’ve been acting Andy’s words since my first show at Middlebury College when I was 18. And before then, I’d gone to visit Middlebury to see Clark in shows Andy had written. I’ve always been enamored by his writing and maybe more so, by his storytelling. When he and Jesse teamed up, it was like yin and yang. I loved the influence that they gave/continue to give each other and when I first read the script, I was very impressed. It was a screenplay that didn’t really read like your normal screenplay. I didn’t immediately think about the brother/ sister team, but once it was discussed, I was really excited to be able to work with Clark. It’s not often that siblings love each other because they have to AND because they want to. All three of us are close, and I will always jump at an opportunity to work with Clark or (my brother) Crispin. The fact that everyone else connected to the project thus far were artists that I had worked with before and respected immensely was even more icing on the cake.

Clark: Well, it’s true that Andy, Jesse and I have been working together for quite some time. Andy and I actually founded The Sight Unseen Theatre Group, so needless to say, as a writer/director, I like his style. I had read a bunch of the earlier drafts of YELLOWBRICKROAD, and was just excited to give my input and thoughts as a friend. It wasn’t until a year and a half into the script process before we even started thinking about Cass and I playing ‘Daryl’ and ‘Erin.’ At that point, I had fallen so in love with the script, and Andy and Jesse’s ability to be open to every and all ideas without losing their sense of story-telling or aesthetic, that I was nothing but excited. They have an amazing talent at taking two disparate ideas (woods and 30s music), tying them together, and making a whole so much greater than it’s parts.

You mentioned during the Q&A at the Slamdance premiere that it was the first time the two of you had co-starred in a production together since a school mounting of “The Wizard of Oz”. What did you each play in that production? And how much did you draw upon that experience for this one?
Cassidy: Clark was the cat’s meow his senior year in high school, and so he was The Illustrious Wizard…though I thought he could have played the lion, too. He has a great singing voice. I was the Munchkin Lawyer. I was also in 5th grade. I bet you didn’t remember that there was a Munchkin Lawyer…I didn’t either. But I played it with gusto. I don’t think that the role of ‘Erin’ had much to do with Munchkin lawyers, but I did realize that my bro has my back, no matter what. It’s a blessing to be able to share this kind of stuff with a sibling.

Clark: It’s crazy how things come full circle, isn’t it? In that production I played the Wizard, and Cass played the Munchkin Lawyer. She was tall even when she was young, so they definitely had to put her on a stool to roll around with on stage. I was also definitely probably one of the largest Wizards that that show has ever seen. . .I kinda wanted to be the Lion, to be completely honest. I wouldn’t say I drew upon that production for the movie. I think we were just lucky enough to be so close in real life that we have a wealth of experiences to draw on together, and also professional enough that, during tougher scenes, we didn’t bring any of that animosity home. Honestly, it was a dream experience for me.

You both share executive producer credits as well as being co-stars in the film. What exactly did you do as executive producers beyond writing a check? And, had you not written those checks, do you believe the film would have been made?
Cassidy: Before this, I hadn’t had much experience producing things, except as Clark’s wingman. And it was something that I was pretty excited about doing.  The part I think I liked the most was being a bit of a den mother, and making sure that people were being heard and that all sides of the production communicated well. I’m still learning how to do this, and I hope I get more chances. I believe this movie would have been made with or without me, I’m just glad I get to be a part of it.

Clark: Executive Producer is one of those credits that can mean a variety of things. In this case, I’d say, our investment in the picture was probably the most mundane thing. Like I said before, Cass and I were tapped by Andy and Jesse early in the process as trusted friends to read many of the iterations of the script, and give thoughts and notes. I got to watch them work out each draft, and we even got to do a reading of it up in Vancouver, all together. Having produced a bunch of other short films and theatre with them, I’d say at the beginning I was much more another producer than an “executive”. Once we got to set, Cass really stepped it up as a producer as well. Andy and Jesse had such a strong drive and clear intent in making this movie that it would have been made with or without us. I just consider myself lucky to have been a part of it.

What was more irritating or the set, bickering between your co-directors, Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland? Or the black flies?
Cassidy: Black flies for sure. But MORE irritating was the corn syrup blood PLUS black flies. Ewwww!

Clark: This question is easy. The black flies. Andy and Jesse shared a brain for the entire process. There was no bickering.

What is your favorite horror film?
Cassidy: Probably THE SHINING. Horror films really scare me though. Clark taught me this great trick where when a scary scene comes on, you don’t close your eyes…you cover your ears. The scariest part is the sound. I’ll tell you what is NOT my favorite horror film…all those Chucky movies. Gave me nightmares for years. No dolls for this girl’s birthdays.

Clark: Ooohhh. I have to throw ALIEN in there, but that’s not your average horror movie. THE EXORCIST is fairly quintessential, but I also have to say THE SHINING. That’s three. Deal with it.

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The Complete Sundance Reports #7 – “It was weird. But I knocked (on the bathroom door). I think that was a sign that I was polite.”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on February 22, 2010

Sundance – Day #7

As I was sitting in the theatre waiting for my first screening of the day to begin, my new indie film community nemesis approached me saying, “Hey man, you know I was kidding, right? I was just kidding.”

Hmmm… Kidding about chanting “Fuck John Wildman” repeatedly during some Hate Karaoke (which, frankly I had never heard of, but in a big picture sense kind of admire, actually). Or kidding when he said that he didn’t want to move on, let bygones be bygone, blah, blah, blah, indie film non-partisans, blah because “It was more fun.” not to do so?

Curious. An interesting move obviously to soften me up enough to buy time for him to concoct some elaborate plan of nefarious doings – like trying to convince the Artistic Director of the DALLAS International Film Festival that having me be their PR guy is a mistake again.

And so the dance between adversaries continues…

COUNTDOWN TO ZERO

Lucy Walker’s COUNTDOWN TO ZERO takes up the cause regarding an issue that gets very little play in politics or the public’s consciousness today because frankly one side of the political spectrum (Republicans/Conservatives) can’t make any great hay about it since the other side, led by President Obama has long held this as a major concern and directive. And that is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose if they get in the wrong hands.

But, to be fair to Walker’s very comprehensive and impressive documentary (produced by Lawrence Bender by the way), the film not only lays out the history leading to our current situation, but provides some truly frightening historical footnotes that are not public knowledge as well as illustrating quite simply and clearly what a nuclear blast really WOULD do and how far the destruction would spread.

Talking heads like Valerie Plame Wilson, Howard Baker, the late Robert McNamera and President Carter all give the soundbites you would expect along the lines of nuclear weapons being bad and scary and we really need to get rid of them. In fact, the most significant thing about this part of the film is the number of people and the caliber of the people willing to go before Walker’s camera.

Among the stuff that really gets you are the details of how lax security is in Russia when it comes to guarding the highly enriched uranium which is the key building block for the bombs, or the sheer impossibility to guard against the import of the stuff 100% (there are suggestions that the best way to sneak it in is to hide it in either a shipment of kitty litter or marijuana – think about that one awhile). Then there are the accidents and near misses; a bomb that fell on South Carolina in the early 60’s (five out of six safeguards failed with one standing in the way of catastrophe), a very near miss in 1995 (the world’s collective ass was saved by Boris Yeltsin not being trigger happy), etc.

Throughout, Walker gives us a birds’ eye view of what a five mile radius of destruction would cover in cities like Paris, New York, Moscow, London and throws in details of how that blast would do its damage on both the landscape of the city as well as the landscape of the human body.

I will admit (and I can’t think that I am unique in the least in this regard) that I went into this viewing with a pre-conceived notion that the topic and necessity of nuclear disarmament was somewhat also ran. Consider that opinion corrected. Whew.

SUNDANCE FEVER: It’s a call to action documentary. Always good here.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not a “sexy” doc per se, but it’s a slickly produced one. I think it could see some play.

Next up were a couple of interviews. The first one being with the star and director of ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS, Angela Bettis and Tim Rutili as well as Angela’s co-sat and boyfriend Kevin Ford (who also served as one of the film’s editors). And the interview turned up some facts that may have surpassed the fun strangeness of the film itself.

JW: Let’s start with the obvious question. What comes first, the music or the movie?

Tim: The music. By that much (holding his fingers very close together). Most of it was song that we had completed; we recorded the album about a month prior to filming.

JW: You’ve done music videos and smaller projects before. Why a feature at this point?

Tim: It just seemed like the right batch of songs and the right story.

JW: Angela is such a key for this film, the fulcrum for the story. How did you convince her to become involved?

Tim: I went to her house and Kevin (her boyfriend) was there and he wouldn’t let me talk to her. So then I sat outside the house. I was in a rented car and I sat outside for three days straight. I had juice, I had cigarettes…

JW: So you were on a stakeout?

Tim: And I just waited. And I waited for Kevin to leave and he never leaves. But once he left, there was a basement window that I managed to get open. I crawled in through the basement and went upstairs, looked around but didn’t see her anywhere. I found the bathroom and knocked on the door and she was in the bathroom. I was like, “I’ve got this movie idea.” And she was cool about it.

JW: And this was because you’ve never heard of what they call a “casting director”?

Tim: We did not have a casting director. I think we’re heading for a period of time when casting directors won’t be…an issue.

JW: Obviously, if you are willing to do a stakeout at an actress’ home and hen break into the place, it really is all about her. Why were you so inspired that it had to be Angela?

Tim: There was no one else that could do it.

JW: I would agree with that, actually. And Angela, you were convinced.

Angela: Yes.

JW: Why?

Angela: His eyes. He has kind eyes.

Tim: It was weird. But I knocked (on the bathroom door). I think that was a sign that I was polite. It’s weird because most people are dying to do me a favor…

JW: But it was reversed here.

(They both nod.)

JW: Angela, you also have DRONES playing at Slamdance. You have a distinctive persona and presence onscreen. As far as the roles that you choose or end up playing, do you find yourself being sought out? Because, frankly, I don’t know who else falls in your camp, an “Angela Bettis type”. In fact, let’s use DRONES as an example. How did you become involved with that film as opposed to this one?

Angela: It was very similar, actually. They kinda sought me out. So, I guess the answer to your question is that yes, I am sought out.

JW: And Kevin, do you keep her from doing these roles because you’re like her bodyguard too?

Kevin: Yeah, I get really uncomfortable when she’s out of my sight. But Tim wormed his way in and the DRONES people wormed their way in. Because if it was up to me, she’d just not do anything.

Angela: (smiles) He’d just keep me in that bathroom.

Kevin: Tim made up for it. He convinced me that if I played her boyfriend in the movie that it would be alright.

Tim: Kevin also edited the film.

JW: Well, that was good politics right there.

Kevin: He basically bought my permission. That sounds bad, huh?

JW: Angela, besides Tim’s kind eyes there was also a role to play. What about that role got to you?

Angela: First of all, the music. But secondly, there is a universal issue or theme of “letting go” that I felt I could do a little therapy with Tim and these people and myself. Which I did. It kinda worked. With the other people as well.

JW: And there is a different approach to presenting the film. Tim, can you explain what you’re planning to do with it after this?

Tim: Well, the band has been touring and on the tour we play the film and perform a live soundtrack. We’ve been doing that at museums, theaters, and a couple clubs.

After an interview with Lucy Walker, the director of both COUNTDOWN TO ZERO and WASTE LAND (that I’ll add to the next posting) was my attempt to get into a screening of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT. Unfortunately, this one had quite the line. I had heard stories of various press peeps getting bounced from the (relatively) tiny confines of the Holiday Village Theatres but it hadn’t happened to ME yet.

In fact, the guy in front of me complained A LOT to the volunteers about his prior misfortunes. This time, the combination of his haughty accent and indignation worked their magic on the poor volunteer he had singled out for haranguing. He got in.

And he was the last one so I got….shut out. Damn.

But the wait gave me some time to notice one of the volunteers wearing a “Vida” hat. Now, it is most definitely a staple of Sundance to hand out the knit caps promoting your movie or product. For example, the place I’m staying at has one for THE VIOLENT KIND and another that says “I (heart) Café’ Bustelo ” sitting on the dining table right now. But something tells me that the guy wearing his “Vida” hat has no idea that Vida is a high-end sex toy line. My guess is that if he knew, then he’d rather have received one of their products from the pretty street team girls I met earlier this week. Or more to the point, his girlfriend would.

Speaking of THE VIOLENT KIND…  Midnight at the Egyptian (which incidently is my favorite Maria Muldaur song) has always been good luck for me. OLD BOY (the couples movie for my wife and I), 28 DAYS LATER and GRACE were all witnessed for the very first time at this spot, so I was hoping that lightning would strike once again.

However, first was a short titled STILL BIRDS.

STILL BIRDS

Sara Eliassen’s STILL BIRDS was introduced (by her) as “a dance horror movie.” Okay, go for it, I thought. I’m primed and ready for whatever your crazy little Norwegian mind can come up with.

Well, that is unless what transpires is a mélange of industrial based dread and choreographed nonsense with pale and creepy kids and teens working their way up and down a concrete labyrinth in the service of getting the one kid (a pre-teen girl) to talk into a machine to do some kind of thing to either start something or stop it. I don’t know. I was rooting for her to speak into the machine to say something like, “The End.”

Honestly, the only “horror” I was experiencing was the fact I had to sit through it. When it, indeed, was over, someone seated behind me said, “Seriously, what the fuck?”

THE VIOLENT KIND

The Butcher Brothers’ film THE VIOLENT KIND follows the strange and horrific events that happen following a rough and tumble bikers’ party at a secluded cabin in the woods including some kind of bloody possession of a biker’s girlfriend played by the always reliable Tiffany Shepis. Well, that’s what you would be thinking had you seen or read any of the promo materials and info heading into this screening.

But it’s much more than that. Said bikers and biker babes are “visited” by some eerie/creepy 50s types as well as some kind of Northern Lights shit-storm that would likely be literally tossing everyone to hell in a hand basket if only bikers routinely kept hand baskets in their homes.

Now I can’t say much more than that for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t want to give away any more than I already have. Two, I honestly don’t know or understand exactly what it was that was happening to everyone. I do know that it was all kinds of crazy and weird and bad.

But I do want to take a moment to talk about expectations. Because THE VIOLENT KIND has a whole lot of David Lynchian-style Sci-Fi at its core. So much so that I was almost expecting a Dean Stockwell cameo performance of another Roy Orbison chestnut to be sprung on us at any given moment. My point being that if someone went in expecting a “Who will get out alive?” gore fest, I could easily see them being disappointed. However, if they’re putting their money down for a horror stew of violence, gore, science fiction, and biker movies with some 50s flare, then they’d be exiting with big dazed grins afterward.

SUNDANCE FEVER: It’s all about expectations. And this one is more than just a rough and tumble midnight movie.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Selective. But handled properly people could really get into it and trip out on it on some midnight-type screens.

The Complete Sundance Reports #6 – “I should’ve known that if a guy like me talked to a girl like that, someone would end up dead.”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on February 22, 2010

Sundance – Day #6

Before I start with today’s films, here are my thoughts about GONE TO THE DOGS and ARMLESS which I saw a few days ago but never got around to writing about for one reason or another.

GONE TO THE DOGS

Liz Tuccillo’s GONE TO THE DOGS is a short film that follows two tried and true approaches to a short film: Deal with a very specific social “issue” and do it at a dinner table, lunch table, breakfast – whatever – just keep all the action at the one table and no one gets hurt, nor spends a lot of money making the damn thing.

And this one does very well for itself. The “issue” is the importance some people place on their pet dogs; treating them like people, spending exorbitant amounts of money on their medical problems, and emotionally substituting them for the children they can’t or haven’t had.

In this case, a small dinner party of friends is disrupted when one of the guests (played by Martha Plympton) insists on bringing her little lap dog with her and to the table AND proceeds to let it eat off her plate. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, but when she is asked to put the dog in another room, she sulks and inspires everyone else to bring their issues to the table.

It’s a thorough and fun treatment that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Nice.

ARMLESS

Habib Azar’s ARMLESS is a film about a man who has finally gathered enough courage to act on his desire to have his arms chopped off in order to (so-to-speak) feel complete. Starring Daniel London as the man and Janel Maloney as his wife who is forced to deal with this sudden revelation and realization, ARMLESS is a comedy that isn’t funny or a drama that isn’t compelling – you make the call.

As I was watching the excruciatingly drawn out machinations (I mean, it seemed like it was going to take the entire film for London’s character to just say out loud that he wanted to have his arms cut off), you could feel the audience becoming more and more frustrated with the proceedings. And what is meant to be a funny admission, “I want nubbins.” just doesn’t cut it. (And yes, I meant that.)

Anyway, he goes to the city to find a doctor that a chat room discussion has led him to believe will do the surgery (since among other hurdles, it would be illegal to do). Maloney’s character finds out where he has gone and enlists his “colorful” mother character to help her find him and confront him after he has left her a message saying he’s never coming back home. The doctor turns out to be a plastic surgeon that simply shares the same name as the doctor he is looking for, who also happens to have a very sassy receptionist….and hilarity ensues? No. How about light whimsical farce? No, not that either. A fascinating look at a very real condition (body integrity identity disorder)? I’ll have to pass on that as well.

Can I say something nice? As a matter of fact I can. Zoe Lister Jones, who plays the sassy receptionist, does her level best to add some snap to this thing. Unfortunately, I think that’s because she believed she was in a different movie than the one Azar was directing. I would have much rather have seen THAT movie. Because you couldn’t even say this one was “unfunny”. You’d have to describe it as “undroll”. In fact, the best way to describe it would be to say it plays like an interminably bad scene in an acting class: earnest performances misfiring in the service of ill-wrought material.

SUNDANCE FEVER: I think it’s one of those cross off the list experiences you get here.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not a chance in the world. As a curiosity, it could hit cable at some point.

And (as they would say on Monty Python) now for something completely different…

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL

Eli Craig’s TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL is about as one-note, high concept as it gets: Two hillbillies heading to their “fixer-upper” cabin for a getaway encounter a group of vacationing college kids. The kids stereotyping them as backwoods lunatics manage to start killing themselves off one by one in an effort to attack Tucker and Dale and rescue one of their own.

This one starts off great, pulling off a pitch perfect homage to the iconic EASY RIDER drive by and doesn’t let up. Tucker and Dale’s cabin was obviously home to a lunatic that actually did murder several people years ago (complete with newspaper clippings of the missing that the guys are oblivious of since they also spy one that has a fast food discount on it). And yes, the entire thing could not be more obvious or telegraphed (Tucker cuts into a tree stump with a bees nest and in running away from the scene with his chainsaw…well, I think you probably get it). Each misunderstanding leads to a gory conclusion.

But the thing making this work beyond a basic string of set-piece gags are Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. As Tucker and Dale, they don’t just give us characters whose reality as “nice” and “sweet” guys that can speak in complete sentences runs counter to the stereotype. They (and great credit to Craig’s script and direction as well) score with the oftentimes hilarious (given the setting) emotional support and friendship they display toward one another. It’s nice to watch a comedy where the players know what they need to work hard at for the funny versus what will easily take care of itself (I’m looking at you, any film called “Something Movie”).

SUNDANCE FEVER: Laughs are hard to come by at Sundance. But not with this movie.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Oh yeah. It should be out there. Easily.

My final screening of the evening was to be one of the New Frontiers “experimental” screenings. And this was a film that not only had been required viewing according to a good friend of mine, but it also would include a live music performance. So – c’mon, you don’t get that everyday – and it didn’t disappoint.

ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS

Directed by Tim Rutili, the principal songwriter and singer for Red Red Meat and Califone, ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS stars Angela Bettis as a psychic advisor facing an upheaval in her life when the numerous ghosts and spirits that reside under her roof demand to leave and go to their final resting place.

Those ghosts also happen to include the members of Rutili’s band, Califone and the music that dominates the film doesn’t just add a soundtrack, it frequently acts as a driving force or counterpoint to the dramatic actions of the characters.

The other central focus is Bettis herself. An actress that is so distinctive that she defines the term “focus pull,” the film’s energy rides with her character’s moods and takes its cues not just from her actions but also seemingly from her intentions. It’s kinda like she’s a next generation ‘Carrie’ with no need for that overwrought telekinesis nonsense.

Now, to be sure, this movie won’t be for everyone. It is an experience. It is not an Adam Sandler movie or a mad dad played by Mel Gibson getting revenge on bad guys that done his daughter wrong movie. So, if you need your shit spelled out for you – then steer clear. However, if you want to try something very much by design off the beaten path then by all means check this out. AND if it happens to come to town with the band playing live, so much the better – because that just multiplies the immediacy and energy the film gives off.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Even at Sundance, it’s a personal taste thing. So people that want to see it will seek it out and enjoy it. The others won’t understand the fuss.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: No, this one is an event kind of experience. They’ll likely do some kind of special tour combining performances by the band with the film.

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.

The Complete Sundance Reports #4 – “This is an early picture of Michael Jackson. When he was black.”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on February 22, 2010

Sundance – Day #4

Ran into Ella Taylor as I was finding my seat and she was all about the doc, LONG TRAIN HOME. And when a critic like Ella is all over a film to that extent, I have to take notice.

PHOTOGRAPH OF JESUS

Laurie Hill’s film short PHOTOGRAPH OF JESUS is a fun illustration via cut-and-paste animation (that I’m sure has another more respectful term) about the sometimes very strange and fanciful requests the keepers at a photo archive get. Hence the title. People actually request pictures of Jesus. Other fun requests: Hitler at the 1948 Olympics (think about it) and Neil Armstrong and all the other astronauts in a group photo. On the moon. And all of it plays that much funnier because the guy being interviewed is British. Can’t beat that accent for silliness like this.

SMASH HIS CAMERA

Leon Gast’s SMASH HIS CAMERA is a profile of the original paparazzo, Ron Galella. For more than 40 years, Galella has photographed celebrities (and stalked them in the pursuit of those photos according to many) paving the way for the behavior of paparazzi and much of the feverish demand for raw celebrity images that tabloid journalism feeds on today.

Gast takes us both on a chronological tour through Galella’s life and career as he shadows him on a few current outings (an event with Robert Redford, a red carpet appearance by Angelina Jolie, etc.) with particular focus on two key events. The first being a court case brought against Galella by Jackie Kennedy Onassis and the second being an incident when Marlon Brando punched him, knocking out several teeth.

The Jackie O section is telling for many reasons, as Galella built much of his career and reputation on the photos he got of her (he describes the moment he got the “windblown Jackie” shot as his great day. He also puts forth the idea to anyone that will listen that they had a “relationship” through the lens of his camera. And, naturally, the trial between the two wasn’t just all encompassing for the two principals – it was genuinely precedent setting.

In a similar vein, the Brando incident marked another step (infamous as it was) in the celebrity/paparazzi “dance.” Even if you buy in to the explanation of how it all went down and accept that Galella was “innocent of trying to provoke Brando, you can easily see how that was clearly a precursor for the TMZ-style of baiting a celebrity to incite a reaction and create an incident for the cameras.

There is the expected look at the personal side: His romance with his wife, their New Jersey Sopranos-esque house, and his unabashed love for rabbits and bunnies. And there are the dizzying array of photographs through the years with Galella sometimes offering expectedly crass commentary – “This is an early picture of Michael Jackson. Back when he was black.” But Gast also uses his subject as inspiration for a couple bigger picture talking points. A series of talking heads debate the value of what he and his fellow celeb photographers do and discuss their legitimacy as “art. And three of the lawyers that faced off against one another are still ready to start sparring again over the 1st Amendment issues raised by that case. At one point one of them says, “Ron Galella is the price tag for the 1st Amendment.”

This is a “fun” documentary – diverting. It’s like a film version of one of the coffee table books that Galella creates by “harvesting” the 3 million plus images in his archives. Regardless of who you are, it’s damn near impossible not to be compelled to flip through a few of the pages of those things to see what movie star or celebrity images are there. But I also could see the film going through some retooling before it sees a mass audience (if that happens). There is some confusing editing: The Jackie O trial seems to be done, but then it is revived after an extended section having nothing to do with it. But then again, they had a relationship.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Hardcores will probably dismiss it as lightweight. First timers and movie fans will appreciate the counter programming.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: It’s possible. A Leon Gast film that is somewhat light entertainment about movie stars and Jackie O. I could see someone giving it a shot around the country.

Sundance went on pause while I watched the football playoffs with journalist turned producer Don Lewis (THE VIOLENT KIND) and journalist just returned from self-imposed New Zealand exile, Mark Bell. There were also countless other filmmakers and film festival-types coming and going (I’m staying at THAT kind of house), but I couldn’t keep track of what films they were here with and Peyton Manning’s duel with Mark Sanchez AND Brett Favre vs. Drew Brees.

Next up was a party for Lewis’ THE VIOLENT KIND. Organized by the agency repping the film, it was typical: Free beer, toothpicky things with meatballs on them, and lots of photo ops with the film’s publicist doing yeoman’s work both wrangling and posing the stars and the directors in the thick of celebrating making the finish line and being told over and over again how great they were and how much that particular person loved them. That sort of thing.

After being attending several years now and having gone to numerous parties like these, it’s still a lot of fun to see someone like Lewis get to enjoy that part of the film festival experience. Especially at the Sundance level.

One of the stars, Tiffany Shepis was offering disclaimers about potential strange behavior since this was the first event like this for her since quitting smoking 20 days ago. One of her co-stars, Mackenzie Firgens, returning to Sundance with a film for the first time since GROOVE (in 2000) was marveling that the festival has red carpets now.

TIFFANY: Are WE having a red carpet?

ME and MACKENZIE: (silently nodding)

Instantly, you could see the wheels begin to turn as Tiffany was obviously rethinking the next day’s clothing choice…

CLIMATE REFUGEES

“The Human Face of Climate Change” Directed by Michael Nash, CLIMATE REFUGEES is the latest in a series of films imploring us to wake up and smell the incoming tide. The film offers the next logical conclusions and issues that face our world if we accept that global warming does in fact exist. And that is the potential for mind boggling large scale human displacement and migration from lands that will either be under water or uninhabitable due to the lack of water.

Actually, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t just hang its activist hat on the science of global warming. It also throws a bone to those theorists that believe that this is just a cyclical thing – out of our control. And the message to those people is pretty simple: Well, if that’s the case, then we’re screwed that much more because it’ll be harder to correct or fix.

What the film does well is to present in simple terms how the math works: “Climate Change is a threat multiplier. It puts more pressure on areas that are already stressed.” It illustrates this by showing situations that are already dire in areas like Bangladesh and Indonesia and then follows up with a handy map and arrows showing us the likely destinations of those displaced peoples (for those of us dependent on USA Today-style pie charts). And if that doesn’t get the message across, then maybe a little visit to the Island of Tulalu (which is damn near already completely submerged) or a trip back in recent memory lane to the aftermath of Katrina is in order.

Where I believe the film misses the boat (so to speak) is when it resorts to close ups of threatened or displaced people in the style of one of those Sally Struthers plea for help ads or Sarah Mclachlan animal shelter spots. I don’t think the corporate conservatives, nor the isolationists in our country can be made to care any more just because they see a few sad music close ups of suffering big eyed Africans or Tulaluans with nowhere to go. I have to believe it’ll play like annoying do-gooder liberal muzak to them.

If you are onboard with a film like CLIMATE REFUGEES you hope that the right messages resonate with its audiences the way it has with you. And one of the final messages within the film is that the likely result of all this displacement and impossible living conditions (if nothing is done to counter where the world is headed in terms of global warming) is that the number of desperate people will increase dramatically, and they will likely fall prey to or under the influence of evil people. Then it becomes an even larger problem that potentially affects us all. It’s tough stuff and ultimately the movie gives some think locally, act globally-type solutions, but it thankfully doesn’t let the viewer off the hook or downplay the difficulty of righting the ship.

SUNDANCE FEVER: This is the kind of doc that always hits a happy spot in Sundance.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: This goes directly to PBS. Not enough of a gimmick to send it to theaters. It’s just straight message/call to action stuff.

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.

The Complete Sundance Reports #2 – “Can we just follow the spandex?!”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on February 22, 2010

Sundance – Day #2

Fueled by my daily film festival shots of Airborne and Emergen – C (yes, I know they’re both basically placebos high in vitamin C. But it reassures me; therefore it’s doing its placebo best for me). Anyway, I get a quick start to…watch a screener of DOUCHEBAG.

DOUCHEBAG

Drake Doremus’ DOUCHEBAG is another entry in the tried and true film festival “go-tos”: The Road Movie. ‘Sam’ is a week away from getting married when his fiancée’ ‘Steph’ decides to take it upon herself and surprise him by fetching his estranged younger brother, who previously was not planning on attending. The reunion is unpleasant at best, but the brothers try to put a happy face on it for her sake. With the younger brother, ‘Tom’ suffering he slings and arrows of Sam’s opinions regarding practically every thing that he does. Boorish, controlling, and rude, Sam is a prize to be sure.

That is until Tom reveals he has only had one true love in his life – in 5th grade. Hearing this news Sam makes it his mission to help his younger brother find the girl again. And thus, the road part of our road movie begins as the brothers seek out women that share the same name of Tom’s flame with the hope of find romance in a haystack.

Meanwhile, Steph, already holding the bag for the wedding prep is discovering clues that maybe somebody she’s engaged to isn’t quite ready for the big step. And on the road, his older brother’s acting out more and more appalls Tom.

DOUCHEBAG is the kind of film that fills you with increasing dread as it builds to likely obvious conclusions. The kind where you watch people make mistakes and sabotage themselves in real time. What Doremus gets right is not overdoing the melodrama. Just because it’s intimate, doesn’t mean it isn’t devastating – and he obviously gets that. But, at the same time, this is a cautionary recommend because I think you have to really be up for a movie like this to appreciate it. It’s not an automatic on the enjoyment front. But then again, I don’t think it’s meant to be either.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Rather than love, this is the kind of film you “appreciate.” Even at Sundance.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not so much. A definite mainstay on cable though where people will stumble upon it and find themselves unable to turn it off.

Okay. So after that, I finally ventured forth out into a heavy snowfall to do my first walk up Main Street. Working my way around L.A. types as they scoot gingerly through the slushy sidewalks like geishas in Ugg boots (and no, we’re not just talking about the women either). But the snow can’t stop the fun. Wait a minute – I mean “the fun.” Small packs of promo girls all dressed in identical perky colored parkas hand out everything from hand sanitizer to stocking caps to something that may or may not get you a free room at a cool-ass hotel in Miami (but certainly will give some more e-mail spam you can count on). Event P.A.s strategize how to get mountains of pizza boxes across the street and into their party. Pretty actress types do the eye contact “Do you recognize me? Please don’t recognize me. I can’t believe you didn’t recognize me!” thing all in a split second. Somewhere on the street a guy says with exasperation, ”Can we just follow the spandex?!” And there is an army of bouncers shipped in from Samoa (apparently they corner the market on that and offensive linemen) guarding various doors to various parties.

One of those parties was my next stop on the map as I hit the DOUCHBAG pre-screening cocktail party. Crowded. But not gross crowded. While there I ran into Marguerite Moreau. I think she is one of those constantly working, but under the radar actors that I’m always happy to see onscreen so I seized the opportunity to ask her a couple of questions:

JW: How did you become a part of the film?

Marguerite Moreau: They called me a few days before filming and said we remember you from an audition six months ago; do you want to do this thing with us? And I was like, “Sure, what do I have to do?”

JW: Three early projects of yours: WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, EASY, and QUEEN OF THE DAMNED are all pretty much variations of the same film, right?

Marguerite Moreau: How are they the same?

JW: I was kidding. Anyway, Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Director of EASIER WITH PRACTICE) was full of praise for you and said you were a godsend to have on the set. Do you feel a particular responsibility on behalf of the production when you do an indie film like that or DOUCHEBAG?

Marguerite Moreau: I think with smaller films, you actually feel less responsibility because it feels more like a team. I feel a bigger sense of responsibility with bigger films, but that may be my own psychosis.

JW: And you’ve been doing A LOT of television (MAD MEN, LOST, MONK, BROTHERS & SISTERS to name a few), so do you just approach them all the same – a role is a role, a job is a job?:

Marguerite Moreau: Yes, absolutely. A role is a role, a story is a story. What story will we tell this week, what are my opportunities?

JW: We’ll finish with the required question. Were there any “douchbags” in your past that you were able to reference for this role – boyfriends or otherwise?

Marguerite Moreau: No comment.

Next stop on the map was the Eccles Theater to see the premiere of John Wells’ THE COMPANY MEN. After the fun film festival “Where’s Waldo?” game to find the publicists with my ticket – easy, came the sequel, “Where do we get to sit, because we’re special AND we know the theater manager?” – great, and finally, “What the hell?! Tommy Lee Jones actually showed up AND decided to sit right behind us?!” moments – and let’s face it, that stuff is fun sport. Anyway, the review…

THE COMPANY MEN

A film about the effects of corporate downsizing on the men and women being downsized, John Wells does almost everything right. Almost. THE COMPANY MEN stars Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones as the men at three very heady levels of corporate success suddenly body slammed back down to recession earth.

Affleck’s character is the first to be let go and goes through the traditional stages of facing death (Denial, Anger, Acceptance, etc.) as he joins the sea of humanity discarded by their companies. Cooper’s character, despite hanging by his fingernails, is next. He wrestles with the shame and loss of the situation, exasperated by ageism. Jones’ character is the highest up in the food chain, the one fighting to preserve the lives of those around him, let alone trying to retain a shred of dignity during a near-hopeless time. And even he is placed on the chopping block.

Wells’ ace in the hole with all of this is an absolute sincerity in his approach to the subject matter. This isn’t about inconvenience, it is about real suffering. On many, many levels. And it IS harsh. Putting your “best face on” for job interview after job interview, having details of your work history casually dismissed, time marching on with severance pay and savings rapidly disappearing. It’s all there.

Wells knows that in the real world things don’t get fixed quickly because someone comes up with a genius out-of-the-box idea and then one snappy montage later, everyone is back on easy street. Nope. In the real world, the genius out-of-the-box solution is made for you when you’re forced to sell the house and move in with your parents.

But I did say he almost gets everything right. Because even Wells can’t entirely escape the “sometimes poor people are actually better off” thinking. Apparently being poor can be better because poor people build things with their hands, and play with their kids and best yet, actually have sex with their wives.

And yes, this is the kind of movie that is colored greatly by your own personal experiences. I have never had the level of wealth these “company men” enjoy, so the film had a chore ahead of itself to convince me to give a rat’s ass about their predicament. But I think Wells is smart enough not to expect outright sympathy for these guys, but rather understanding. Regardless of what heights you had attained and gained, when the unemployment rug is pulled out from under you, everyone is equal. Or, as someone tells Affleck’s character, “You are just another asshole with a resume’.”

SUNDANCE FEVER: Let’s face it, if you are at Sundance then you likely were able to afford coming to Sundance. So losing those “privileges” should speak to a lot of people here. I bet a lot of folks will reflect deeply on it as they hang out at their condo parties.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Has to. Despite being somewhat of a marketing challenge (UP IN THE AIR without the romantic sheen?) there are too many movie stars in a top-of-the-line production to deny it. But when? End of the year kind of thing…?

At the Q&A afterwards, Cooper emotionally explained his own personal connection with the storyline having seen the parallels with the struggle his own brother has experienced due to the recession. But it was Jones, who begrudgingly took the microphone then spoke of the “vanity of materialism” and the “drama about losing things”. So, as life imitates art, Tommy Lee Jones cut to the chase for the benefit of a movie-watching crowd.

The Complete Sundance Reports #1 – Naomi Klein takes out Milton Friedman with a TKO.

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on February 22, 2010

Sundance – Day #1

I drive to Sundance. From L.A. It’s an eleven hour drive that I have become very accustomed to and even when it takes me through crazy rain and snow (and that was just between L.A. and Las Vegas) or the dreaded black ice threatens to send me careening into a snow bank somewhere outside of Provo, it is more than worth it. And not just because that way I can bring my snowboarding gear. Because – for me – the films are worth it. I’m not saying they are all brilliant cinematic masterpieces. Of course not. And you could argue that they all aren’t even good – eye of the beholder and all that.

But as I watched the first two films before I even began the trip, I couldn’t wait to get here and get started. Couldn’t wait to jump right in and start the movie marathons – squeezing every screening I possibly could out of each day. See, my expectations of what studios are delivering to us have been so lowered that more and more, even the previews strike me as unintentional parodies from the old Ben Stiller Show. The trailer for ROBIN HOOD which might as well include a voiceover along the lines of “It’s just like GLADIATOR – but with bows and arrows!” or “He steals from the rich and gives to the poor! AND KICKS ASS!” Or the new Tom Cruise movie, where Tom is desperately trying to convince us that Cruise is still “the guy” – to the point where he literally declares to Cameron Diaz (but seriously, he’s talking directly to us, imploring) “I’m the guy! Remember? Not the Oprah couch jumpin’, psychiatry hatin’, Matt Lauer beratin’ guy! Not that one. I’m the spy dangling from a bungee cord, shootin’ two guys in two different directions at the same time and still charmin’ the ladies guy! I’m THAT guy!”

No you’re not. Not anymore.

So, yeah… Sundance, I need you. We need you.

However, I am also well aware that I and others that feel like I do to one degree or another can become so enraptured with this experience and so wrapped up in these films that we can attribute greatness to them and heap the praise in larger and larger piles of gush (and gush can be hell to clean up) to the point where the hype has far outdistanced the reality of the film’s accomplishments and set up ridiculous expectations for its post Sundance life.

So, I’m going to try something a little different here. With every review, I’m going to include a Sundance Fever rating and a Multiplex rating. The idea being that beyond the simple review of the film, I’m going to offer an assessment of how I think it plays to the Sundance crowd versus what I think its prospects will be to reach the hallowed ground of the Multiplex so it can enjoy some hearty mass consumption.

So let’s get started.

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE

The new documentary from Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross is based on Naomi Klein’s bestselling book of the same name. And the film basically goes back and forth between Naomi herself laying out her case (through speeches and interviews) and using file footage, etc. to illustrate her points of how free market policies (in general) and Milton Friedman (specifically) have done their best to send the entire world to hell in a broken down hand basket.

Basically, THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, as Klein sees it, is the systematic and dedicated effort to dominate the world through its economies through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and their countries.

I know what you’re thinking. And yes, it will royally piss off everyone at FOX News. Well, everyone there that chooses to watch this to get some insight into his or her world, as opposed to uhmmm…SHREK in 3-D.

Anyway, depending on what color you call your state, you may be shocked, SHOCKED, I TELL YOU! To find out that Nixon helped overthrow Chile because AT&T was going to take a header on their investment thanks to a new socialist regime. And everyone else may yawn as they hear about the shenanigans of Reagan and Thatcher and others leading up to and through Afghanistan and Iraq.

Make no mistake; this is a straight-down-the-line view of the past and present. It makes a definitive, compelling argument, and it connects all the dots for you. And, as is often the case with a film like this, there is no room for dissent onscreen. Which always disappoints me. While Winterbottom and Whitecross don’t tip the sales to the extent a Michael Moore does, they also don’t have any talking heads extolling the virtues of Friedman and the Chicago economics boys that were responsible (in their view) for bad times after bad times. So you will likely see it as the real unvarnished truth as you look over you’re struggling to recover 401K or you’ll pass it off as revisionist ravings as you escort you’re dressed to the nines significant other to the latest exclusive society shindig.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Everyone here have to be all over this thing politically. Some mild critical carping over no “fair and balanced”.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Don’t think so. Smells like PBS fare – where it can be appreciated.

HOMEWRECKER

Courtesy of Sundance’s new NEXT section, that features films made for $500,000 or less (and we are going to assume that in most cases, it is MUCH less), HOMEWRECKER is an absolute delight. And maybe for the first or second time (I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt), I am saying that phrase without a hint of irony. Directed by Todd Barnes and Brad Barnes, HOMEWRECKER introduces us to ‘Mike’, a locksmith on work release that has the misfortune of unknowingly helping a distraught ‘Margo’ break into her boyfriend’s apartment because she suspects he is cheating on her.

After discovering her ruse and wary of her potential “crazy”, he beats a hasty retreat from the scene. But she jumps in his van and the kind and accommodating to a fault Mike can’t shake her. And we are off to the awkward, quirky and sweet romantic races with these two as Margo coerces Mike into one borderline disastrous scenario after another.

Is there anything new with this story of two mismatched people discovering something about themselves and maybe even finding love with someone they don’t want to be with in the first place? Not really. But is it fresh? Yes, for me it was. And all because of the lead twosome. Anselm Richardson and Ana Reeder are fantastic as ‘Mike’ and ‘Margo’ and Stephen Rannazzisi also scores as Margo’s boyfriend. None of them are obvious as they deliver performances that draw you in seemingly without effort. And to their credit, the Barnes Brothers are assured enough to not try to set the world on fire with their little romance as they manage all of this without a hint of sit-com cliché or smarmy.

SUNDANCE FEVER: You can’t get much more “Sundancy” than this. A great date movie for the away-from-home hook-ups.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Doubt it. Which sucks. If you aren’t here, my guess is you’ll have to hunt this one down at another film festival or on VOD or something. But it would be worth that effort, for sure.