Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sundance Roundup, Part One: Dramatic Competition

Here is the first of six (I'd guess) installments about my Sundance Film Festival 2007 experience, complete with links to the reviews I wrote and what not.

Let's start with the category from which I saw every film despite it being among the weakest categories: the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Once you get past the halfway point of this list, you'll see a lot of lousy films. These aren't meant to be in-depth reviews, and I reserve the right to refine my opinion after rewatching these titles while not in a five-film-a-day haze.

Rocket Science (Jeffrey Blitz) (Winner: Best Director) - One of the best high school movies ever to hit Sundance, this delightfully droll tale of a stutterer who joins the debate team cuts to the pain and hilarious obsurdity of youth.

Snow Angels (David Gordon Green) - Green delivers another poetic and insightful tale of discovering love and disappointing love, loaded with great performances.

Padre Nuestro (Christopher Zalla) (Winner: Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) - A gripping and well made—if occasionally contrived—account of immigrant life in New York City.

The Pool (Chris Smith) (Winner: Special Jury Prize for singularity of vision) - Smith returns to dramatic filmmaking with a stately, well-constructed tale shot on location in India.

Never Forever (Gina Kim) - Vera Farmiga gave strong performances in two films in Dramatic Competition, one about post-partum depression and one about infertility. The latter, "Never Forever," is the better of the two, mainly thanks to assured direction from Kim. (Some problems in the screenplay kept the film from greatness.)

Grace is Gone (James C. Strouse) (Winner: Audience Award, Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) - A great performance from John Cusack anchors this story of a father dealing with the news that his soldier wife died in Iraq.

Four Sheets to the Wind (Sterlin Harjo) (Winner: Special Jury Prize for acress Tamara Podemski) - Not everyone can make like Shane Carruth and direct a no-budget movie that still works visually on its own terms. Harjo has some great (and some not so great) actors and a solid screenplay, but awkward HD cinematography and editing hinder the work. A lot of the other Sundance directors might not be better than Harjo, but they could afford a better crew.

Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner) - Decent performances and characters, but a film meant to be this stately shouldn't be shot on HD with weird skin tones.

Broken English (Zoe Cassavetes) - Parker Posey stars in this romantic comedy that basically achieves its simple task.

Adrift in Manhattan (Alfredo De Villa) - About what you'd expect from the title.

The Good Life (Steve Berra) - Good performances by Mark Webber, Zooey Deschanel and Patrick Fugit can't save the film from a horribly manipulative opening scene and bad narration.

Hounddog (Deborah Kempmeier) - Controversy over Dakota Fanning's rape turned this into a must-see movie. But a misshapen structure and overwrought metaphors turned it into the biggest disappointment of the festival.

Joshua (George Ratliff) (Winner: Best Cinematography) - Vera Farmiga turns in a good performance of a mother suffering postpartum depression. But there's no sense of character or perspective in the general story arch. Maddening.

Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein) (Winner: Special Jury Prize for actress Jess Weixler) - Proof that a clever concept alone—in this case "vagina dentata is real"—does not make a movie. Some actual ideas would have helped.

Weapons (Adam Bhala Lough) - Trying to turn an intriguing opening shot into an 85 minute film isn't easy. "Weapons" wants the kick of "Irreversible," but also wants every possible dramatic moment related to violence, even it it sacrifices the characters.

On the Road with Judas (JJ Lask) - Lask directs his book with the pretentious art-film equivalent of bad narration.

Additional commentary on the category can be found in my In Utah This Week columns:
Sundance column 1 (1/24/07)
Sundance column 2 (2/1/07)


Unknown said...

Is your review of "On the Road with Judas" real... or not real?

Jeremy Mathews said...

The real me reviewed it for real (really), and the fake me talked about how impressed he was with my succinct prose.

Anonymous said...

JJ Lask's book was not really 'published'. He paid vanity press Xlibris Corp (basically a fancy print and bind shop online) to 'publish it'. He also wrote his own wikipedia entry and his own amazon reviews (using different people/friends). He is a fraud but a legend in his own mind.