Screenings, 01-21/22-08

Anvil: The Story Of Anvil
(dir. Sascha Gervasi)

Headline: Rockers persevere

Indie Type: Rock doc

Soundtrack: Plaintive piano (plus fuckin' Anvil, dude)

Report: Who would've guessed that the second movie to move me to tears at Sundance–following Stranded, way back on day two–would be a documentary about an obscure Canadian heavy metal band, still grinding it out after 30 years? The hook for Anvil: The Story Of Anvil is that the band is a "real life Spinal Tap," stumbling haplessly through under-attended tours while hanging onto dreams that should've died in the '80s. The band visits Stonehenge, they play in Tokyo, they have a drummer named Robb Reiner…seriously, it's spooky. But while Anvil is frequently funny, it would be a mistake to call the band a joke. Along with Reiner, singer-guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow has kept Anvil together for so long both because they're a decent metal act–not as innovative as they were in the early '80s, but still spirited–and because they haven't burned any bridges with fans, businessfolk or family. Again and again, we see people come through for them: the producer they worked with in their heyday, the older sister who loans money so they can record their 13th album properly, and so on. And within the portrait of Anvil's endurance, we may see why they never became big stars: They're too nice. The most significant relationship in the movie is between Lips and Robb, who bicker like brothers and bond like soldiers. Robb loves Lips too much to abandon him, even though both of them could've given up Anvil and become successes elsewhere long ago. Because while Lips' messianic fervor can be hard to live with, what good is a dream if you give up on it before giving it every conceivable chance to come true? More importantly: If life is about working hard so that we can do what we want on our own time, then what would you call a group of musicians who've toured the world for three decades, making music for appreciative fans? (I believe the word is "success.") Anvil glosses over any mistakes Lips and company may have made at the crucial moment when they were poised to be stars, but it shows in sometimes painful detail what it takes, year after year, to play dingy Canadian and European clubs for a crowd of dozens. And to rock their heads off.

Grade: A-

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Patti Smith: Dream Of Life (dir. Steven Sebring)

Headline: Poet-rocker leads life poetic, rocking

Indie Type: Rock doc (sort of)

Soundtrack: "Do you know how to twist? It goes like this."

Report: Steven Sebring spent 10 years on this fans-only document of rock's premier poetess, and though he gained amazing access to Patti Smith's world tours and family life, there's very little about the finished product that suggests it should've taken a decade to get made. Patti Smith: Dream Of Life is loose to a fault, dropping a little biography and a little–too little–concert footage in between long scenes of Smith hanging around her apartment, talking about pop and literature. The movie suggests a context for Smith's life and work, as she talks about carrying the torch of Walt Whitman and William Burroughs and passing it on to the next generation, and as she sits in cluttered rooms filled with all the accumulated artifacts that continue to define and inspire her. But aside from some down-to-earth scenes with Smith's parents and her kids, the film never penetrates beyond how Smith chooses to define herself. And the paltry amount of live performances in Dream Of Life is a crime. I'm a Smith fan with some major reservations (explored in a piece I wrote for The A.V. Club a couple of years ago), but I've never had any qualms about what the woman can do on stage. In some ways, Smith singing "Gloria" live is all the context anyone ever needs.

Grade: B-

Additional comment: I have to share this exchange I had with my pal Jim Ridley, who forwarded me an invitation he'd received to a Sundance brunch sponsored by the makers of this film. In a lame attempt at humor, I wrote to Jim, "Will the food be Patti Smith-themed? Can I get some Piss Factory Potatoes?" To which Jim replied, "Patti Smith…will be serving you…courses, courses, courses, COURSES…coming in all directions." (And if that joke wasn't enough, Jim added, "Because the night belongs to nachos!" God I love Jim.)

Be Kind Rewind (dir. Michel Gondry)

Headline: Homemade videos superior to Hollywood product

Indie Type: Gondry-esque

Soundtrack: As all over the map as the movie

Report: There's a lot to like about Be Kind Rewind, from the inventively lo-fi recreations of blockbuster movies–necessitated when a magnetized Jack Black erases the complete stock of a Passaic, NJ video store–to the overriding message that the quirks of an individual community are rarely served well by corporate franchises. But boy howdy is this movie ever a mess, with a plot that takes forever to get going–and to explain, frankly–and with an improvisatory style that thuds as often as it connects. Though its special effects are adorably cheap, Be Kind Rewind is still as ill-proportioned in its way as any action blockbuster: Basically, I was waiting throughout for Gondry's $1.98 versions of Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2, and whenever his gimmickry wasn't part of a scene, I shrugged. Appropriately enough, this is the kind of movie that's going to play best on home video–digital or analog.

Grade: B-

Smart People (dir. Noam Murro)

Headline: Uptight academic family learns to loosen

Indie Type: Quippy comedy about superficially broken people

Soundtrack: Muted acoustic indie-pop

Report: Here's another indie that feels like it's been workshopped into inertness, featuring a cast of famous faces who seem to be quietly congratulating themselves for appearing in a movie that "really says something," even though it's only speaking to a rarified circle of Hollywood types who confuse clichés with meaning. Dennis Quaid plays a literature professor: not the "frustrated stand-up comic" kind that appears in 80% of movies, but the "stuffed shirt" kind that appears in the other 20%. (All that's missing is the portrait of Rasputin and the beard down to his knee.) Ellen Page plays his young Republican daughter–more an Alex P. Keaton right-winger than someone with recognizable political convictions–and Ashton Holmes his pissy son. (The mother, reportedly loved by all, died years ago.) It's a measure of how miserable these miserable pricks are that it takes two disruptive characters to snap them to life: Quaid's layabout adopted brother, played by Thomas Haden Church, gets Page to smoke pot and drink beer and let go of the past; while Sarah Jessica Parker plays a former Quaid student (now an ER doctor) who convinces him that it's okay to listen to other people once in a while. But since they're all caricatures to begin with, the transition to human warmth is hardly moving, anymore than it's inspiring to watch an accountant fill out a ledger.

Grade: D+

Phoebe In Wonderland (dir. Daniel Barnz)

Headline: Emotionally disturbed schoolgirl gets role in play, discovers new focus

Indie Type: Unduly simplified study of disorder

Soundtrack: Twinkly chimes and moaning violins

Report: It's frustrating to see a movie come so close to articulating something specific and important about being the parent of a special needs child–or any child, really–and then retreat into broad strokes, out of fear of losing the audience. Nevertheless, I'll take Phoebe In Wonderland any day over the rote "how to be a better person" bullshit of Smart People, if only because the problems it depicts are real problems, not overcooked reactions to past trauma. Elle Fanning plays a precocious 11-year-old with an obvious social disorder. (It's either OCD, schizophrenia, Tourette's or Asperger's, but the movie withholds the final diagnosis until the final 10 minutes.) When touchy-feely drama teacher Patricia Clarkson casts Fanning as Alice in a school production of Alice In Wonderland, Fanning finally finds something to focus on, even as her behavior outside of the play becomes even more erratic–worrying her academic parents Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman. It's Huffman's reactions to her problematic daughter that drive what Phoebe In Wonderland is really about: how an educated woman who believes that "kids should be kids" deals with having a child who may need medication or therapy (and at the very least is keeping her from finishing turning her dissertation into a book). Unfortunately, Huffman deals with her dissatisfaction by delivering a few on-the-nose speeches to Pullman; and writer-director Daniel Barnz accentuates the "specialness" of Fanning and Clarkson by setting them against a backdrop of officious edu-crats. The excessive orderliness and doublespeak of Fanning's teachers, therapist and principal is meant to be a riff on Lewis Carroll, but mainly it detracts from the legitimately harrowing scenes of Fanning washing her hands until they bleed, or walking up and down steps while counting an elaborate pattern. There's too much "Problem, Solution" to Phoebe, although its anxieties are believable enough to earns the moments of uplift. The film may be too crowd-pleaser-y, but it least it makes the crowd ache a little along the way.

Grade: B

Incendiary (dir. Sharon Maguire)

Headline: Dissatisfied London housewife has world rocked by sexy reporter, suicide bombers

Indie Type: Aftermath of a tragedy

Soundtrack: Syrupy strings and piano

Report: It would be hard for any movie to overcome an opening narration that begins, "Dear Osama…," and if Incendiary ever does overcome it, I wouldn't know, since I bailed after 30 minutes to go get some dinner. (Props to whatever reader suggested I try the Teryaki Grill…cheap and delicious.) After 10 minutes or so of Michelle Williams moping around her flat, bickering with her husband, I was praying for their "mirror selves" to smash the glass and get to murderin'. (That's a callback to yesterday's screenings, gang.) Then Williams hooks up with Ewan McGregor in a pub, and since I like McGregor, I perked up. Then a little bit later, during an afternoon tryst between the two stars, the football stadium where Williams' husband and son are seeing an Arsenal match gets blown up. While rushing to the scene, Williams gets conked on the head by some debris, and when she wakes up, she finds out her son is dead by seeing his picture on one of the giant dirigibles that the British government floats above London to honor the victims. And that's the point at which the call of spicy chicken and rice overwhelmed by desire to see what happened next. Grief blimps? Seriously? (Aside to our UK readers: This is the fourth film from your fair region that I've seen this fest in which a character says, "I'm not being funny," an expression I don't recall hearing in a Britfilm before. How long has this been a thing people say?)

Grade: W/O

Assassination Of A High School President (dir. Brett Simon)

Headline: High school journalist uncovers scandal

Indie Type: Teen noir

Soundtrack: Indie rock

Report: For people who thought that Brick was too slangy and obscure, and Veronica Mars too…well, too awesome, I guess…Assassination Of A High School President offers a shallower, more cliché-ridden gloss on the adolescent detective concept. Reece Thompson plays a dorky school reporter–the kind intimately familiar with the concept of the "swirly," as only dorks in movies ever are–who writes a muckraking story about the student body president's attempt to steal the SATs, and then realizes that he may have gotten the facts wrong. The movie has nothing original or significant to say about high school, politics, journalism or genre conventions, but you know what? As a mystery story, it's actually pretty good. If this were the pilot for a TV series, I don't know that I'd want to watch it every week, because the characters never break out of their boxes marked "rich kid," "jock," "punk," et cetera. But as a puzzle, it kept me guessing. Mark this one "for entertainment purposes only."

Grade: B

Festival Notes…

I'm off to the airport now, leaving Park City behind, and to be honest, my first experience with Sundance was a little disappointing. I made a decision early on to steer clear of the action on Main Street, because there didn't seem to be much point in filing yet another report about how crowded the parties are, and how at Sundance celebrities walk among us mere parka-ed mortals. But without the glitz and booziness, the only thing to talk about are the movies, and from my experience this year, Sundance isn't really an ideal festival for people who like movies.

I want to tread lightly here, because nothing's worse than a journalist complaining about the press accommodations. (I remember having a great time at the '96 Olympics in Atlanta, and being annoyed because the international media spent all their column inches bitching that their shuttles didn't run on time.) Besides, in the abstract, the press are treated just fine here. Press screenings start on time, they all take place at three theaters no more than 100 yards apart from each other, and the volunteers are friendly and helpful. On the ground, everything runs smoothly. It's at a higher level where some mistakes have been made. Unlike Toronto, where nearly every film screens twice for critics, and scoring tickets for public screenings isn't that difficult, Sundance only screens movies for critics once–parceling out the big titles like war rations–and getting into a public screening is a complex ordeal that can eat up hours better spent watching movies. That's not even taking into account travel time. It's probably no coincidence that even high-profile critics with "golden ticket" passes only see two or three movies a day. (Although some of them spend the time between screenings doing interviews.)

Whether they ultimately turn out to be good or not, I still wish I'd been able to file reports on Choke, Sugar, Funny Games, Made In America and Hell Ride–none of which had screened for critics by the time I left–and I wish I hadn't been shut out of American Teen, which was stuck in a dinky room unable to accommodate the press interest. I also wish that The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh and American Son hadn't played opposite movies I wanted to see more. There were plenty of slots in my schedule in which there was nothing especially sexy to see, while the "name" movies laid in wait, inaccessible to me. (The relative mediocrity of the "name" movies that I did catch is a whole other issue, to be addressed in a moment.)

Some of this is just The Way Things Have To Be, due to the location of the festival. There are only so many places to show movies, and so much space on the buses, and so many rooms to sleep in, and so many restaurants to eat in, and so everything is too expensive, the lines too long, the transportation time unduly extended, and so on. Ultimately, you have to take these things in stride. Any anyway, Park City is so beautiful–with its quaint lodges and gorgeous ski slopes and rustic atmosphere–that I wish I could come back here when it's easier to get around and cheaper to live. A lot of cinephilia is a byproduct of voyeurism, and I confess I could've spent hours just riding around the Park City buses, imagining what it would be like to grow up in one of the hillside mini-mansions, going to the local schools and snowboarding on weekends. I've spent a large chunk of my life living nowhere, and this place feels like somewhere…which is undeniably appealing.

At times though, riding around Park City felt more real than anything I was seeing on the screen. If I had to come up with a way of encapsulating the Sundance sensibility, I'd say that the festival organizers–like the people who run the Sundance institute–value story construction over aesthetics. There were a handful of art-for-art's-sake films here, but far more common were movies where the camerawork merely gets the job done, while screenplays that had been worked and re-worked–and frankly overthought–take center stage. Instead of memorable images, more often than not the high-profile films this year feature contrived plots and characters with overly detailed, fundamentally ludicrous motivations for their actions.

In that atmosphere, it's easy to see why a movie like Ballast–which largely eschews dialogue, to an almost ridiculous degree–would become a darling of the more art-minded critics, because it looks like a serious film, and not a TV show. And it's easy to see why the rank-and-file critics would go with the flow and applaud the likes of Sunshine Cleaning and The Wackness (neither of which I saw, and neither of which have exactly drawn raves so much as a general chorus of, "Hooray, these movies don't suck!") Grumbling about everything gets old, so when a movie gets past the defenses and makes critics laugh–or when they watch it with an audience that's laughing–they can become convinced that they've found something worth celebrating.

Me, I'm not a naysayer by nature; I'm an enthusiast. I can usually find something to like about movies that my colleagues walk out on after 15 minutes. But even though I like more stuff than most, I'm very selective about what I love. At this fest, I loved exactly one movie: Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. It's personal, unexpected, emotionally involving and real–my idea of a great film. The question I asked myself over and over at Sundance '08 was whether I was watching something that needed to be made, needed to be seen, and will stand the test of time. I found a few films intense and deeply felt enough to meet the first criteria (Savage Grace, Recycle, Be Like Others, Stranded), and a few films entertaining enough or informed enough to meet the second (Timecrimes, Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired, Secrecy, Assassination Of A High School President). But in the third category? Only the one.

Independent filmmakers? You can do better.