There aren't many places in the world where you can exchange cocktail party chatter with a star-struck Hungarian journalist and a long-haired, impeccably turned out twentysomething Japanese radio hipster semi-crushed that he can't finagle face time with happy go lucky go-go famous American movie actress Jennifer Aniston while trying not to stare at Police drummer/documentarian Stewart Copeland as he works the room. For that matter it's not every day that a festival bigwig gives a disarmingly sincere off-the-cuff speech about the glory of documentary filmmaking that quotes John Cage, Bertolt Brecht, and Robert Redford in rapid succession. But at the Filmmaker Lounge at the Sundance House all that shit went down in roughly 15 minutes or so, not to mention me and my trusty companion (who will heretofore be referred to as Mr. Firefox) scoring our very first appetizers and complimentary alcoholic beverages of the entire festival. Ah, life's rich pageant!
But if it's easy to be cynical about Sundance–the only place on Earth where it's not all that surprising to see someone sporting a knit cap with a Chumscrubber logo on it–there's also something infectious about the guileless enthusiasm of its unfailingly nice and helpful staff and volunteers. Even when delivering bad news–for example the dispiriting fact that Entourage dreamboat Adrien Grenier's Starbucks-sponsored musical showcase was sold out, a crushing blow that sent me into a near-suicidal depression–they do so with a cheerfulness not often seen outside various bliss cults.
Sometimes folks are almost too gregarious, as when a guy behind me on the bus said, "Excuse me, I hate to bother you or anything but I'm having a reading tomorrow I think you might be interested in" before handing me–and only me, not Mr. Firefox–a flier for his book 101 Movies Every Gay Man Should See. It was an uncanny case of life imitating art, as one of the funniest running gags in yesterday's stellar Friends With Money involves everyone thinking Frances McDormand's clotheshorse, metrosexual husband is gay. Either the author's gaydar was malfunctioning or incredibly highly attuned, as I'm fairly certain I'm not gay (I'll have to check in with my pastor on the matter to be 100 percent sure). Who knows, maybe this fellow knows me better than I know myself? I'll have to take it up with him at the John Waters-hosted Queer brunch I'm super-duper-extra-psyched about attending on Sunday. O.K, I'm realizing now that that last sentence made me seem kinda gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But enough about me and my high-altitude tomfoolery. Onto the films! Or at least the ones I could get into.
Lucky Number Slevin
Quentin Tarantino's influence thankfully seems to be waning–he's one of those great artists who inspire a staggering amount of utter horseshit–but you'd never know it from
Lucky Number Slevin, a slickly empty exercise in glib adolescent nihilism chockablock with repetitive, staccato dialogue, pop culture references, fetishized bloodshed and A-list thespians slumming in B-grade pulp. Bruce Willis, Sir Ben Kingsley (who is billed, sure enough as "Sir Ben Kingsley," though he might have his knighthood revoked should the Queen ever suffer through a double feature of this and Suspect Zero), Morgan Freeman, Stanley Tucci, Lucy Liu, Josh Hartnett, Mykelti Williamson, and Robert Forster are just some of the big names prostituting themselves here, apparently under the delusion that they're making the next Usual Suspects or Pulp Fiction. Lucky Number Slevin is a slick piece of work but even its plastic, superficial virtues–an occasionally glibly amusing script, a confident visual style, Byzantine plotting, an amazingly over-qualified cast–have become severely degraded commodities in this type of stridently hip pulp crime comedy. What halfway decent Tarantino knockoff doesn't boast at least a few familiar faces, some flashy stylistic flourishes and an insanely convoluted plot? It's pretty much par for the course. Lucky Number Slevin is the kind of film where every aspect calls attention to itself, from the gaudy production design to the scenery chewing of Kingsley as a gangster nicknamed The Rabbi because, you know, he's also Rabbi. It's as if the screenwriter did a touchdown-style victory dance celebrating his cleverness after finishing every scene. Nevertheless a good percentage of the folks in the audience seemed to dig it. Could Lucky Number Slevin be the inexplicably overrated Layer Cake of 2006? I wouldn't bet against it.
Iraq In Fragments
As befits a film with its title,
Iraq In Fragments boasts some incredibly haunting moments–like a parade of religious self-flagellation in which devout young men whip themselves with metal chains until their torsos are covered in blood–but doesn't quite congeal as a whole. A ground-level, multi-part look at post-invasion Iraq as seen by children, old men and other collateral damage of their country's never-ending bloodshed and warfare, the film paints a grim picture of an Iraq where the fall of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship has given way to chaos and the rise of Islamic fundamentalists eager to transform the country into a Taliban-like theocracy. The subjects of Iraq In Fragments don't seem to have much of an idea of what the future might bring, but seem to share a dispiriting certainty that it's sure to be awful.
Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner
Or, as I like to call it,
Tony Kushner: What a Guy! As a special feature on an Angels In America DVD this feature-length documentary about controversial playwright Tony Kushner would be pretty nifty. But as a stand-alone feature it's way, way, way too worshipful. I had pretty much the same problem with this that I did with How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy It the recent documentary about Melvin Van Peebles. Both are fundamentally engaging hagiographies about fascinating, complicated personalities that inexplicably gloss over the most controversial aspects of their subject's career. Making a film that touches extensively on Kushner's Judaism and political activism, as Angels does, without dealing with the contempt his writing has provoked within some segments of the Jewish community–a sizable contingent of which views Kushner as a self-loathing Jew–seems fundamentally dishonest. A dead ringer for Barton Fink, Kushner comes off as a funny, passionate, and intensely verbal guy, a true believer willing to go to the mat for his beliefs. The film depicts Kushner as a brave artist unafraid to explore the most important, emotionally charged issues of the day. But the great irony of the film's overbearing reverence is that Kushner's dogged faith in his political convictions in the face of vitriolic, deeply personal attacks from Zionists and the Jewish Right makes him much more courageous, not less.
Your Man on The Ground,