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As usual, there was no shortage of star-filled movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And though the first big deal to be closed included some of today’s biggest names, there were a few outstanding pictures involving less familiar actors as well. Here are some of the festival’s biggest winners and biggest disappointments, side by side, for your perusal.


Little Miss Sunshine
It’s a pretty safe bet you’ve got a winner when a major distributor purchases your film for ten million the day after its world premiere. That’s just what Fox Searchlight did with Little Miss Sunshine, the story of the dysfunctional Hoover family which takes a pitfall-laden journey to California in a run-down VW van so seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant. Unsuccessful motivational speaker Dad (Greg Kinnear), anxiety ridden Mom (Toni Collette), failed-suicide victim and brother Frank (Steve Carell), Nietzsche-worshipping son Dwayne (Paul Dano) who has taken a vow of silence, and heroin-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin) complete the dysfunctional family.


If the cast and storyline aren’t enough to hook you, there’s the beautifully hilarious and sometimes touching screenplay by newcomer Michael Arndt. And to complete the package, first-time feature film directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have taken a huge leap from their already successful careers as two of the best music video creators around. Set for release this summer, the film’s first two showings drew standing O’s and included the attendance of the entire starring cast.


The improbable resolution of the Hoover family’s conflicts is what gives Little Miss Sunshine its heart. While there may be some mild comparisons to National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sunshine probes deeper into a family’s psyche, breaks it down, and then builds it back up in a most unlikely way.



Friends with Money

Friends with Money
Friends with Money is a simple story about a group of LA friends and their relationships. In spite of its simplistic conceit, director Nicole Holofcener (known for her TV work-Six Feet Under, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City) pulls some strong performances out of a terrific cast that includes Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack.


Simon McBurney—with his uncanny resemblance to a younger Roman Polanski—gives a memorable performance as McDormand’s gay-but-not-gay husband. Aniston (as Olivia) plays the only friend without a significant other. While everyone else revels in their affluence, Olivia cleans houses for a living and lets the world walk all over her. Her primary goals are calling her ex-boyfriend and hanging up and acquiring large amounts of face cream-quite different from the “friend” Aniston played on the tube.


Aniston continues to master the skill of speaking with her face without saying a word. If she ever plays opposite Bill Murray, there may be no need for dialogue at all. The normally hilarious Cusack plays it straight here, and does it well. And McDormand shines (like always) as she deals with a mid-life crisis by trying hard to rip off the head of everyone she encounters. Holofcener’s screenplay, though full of rapid-fire witticisms, fails to match the level of the performances however. There’s a feeling of incompleteness-not unlike the film’s characters-that’s leaves one wanting something more.



Half Nelson

Half Nelson
The downside of film festivals: too many bad meals, too little sleep, too much partying, and too heavy hangovers. It’s all worthwhile, though, when you see that a film that truly represents what festivals like Sundance are all about. This year, that film is Half Nelson. Directed by Ryan Fleck and co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, this story of a crack-dependent high school teacher and his tenuous but crucial bond with one of his students takes us by surprise with its depiction of real, inner-city issues exploring their effects on a young girl who is valiantly trying to get a handle on what’s right and wrong. The teacher, played by Ryan Gosling (Stay, The Notebook), thinks he knows right and wrong and in one of the best scenes of the film he tries to persuade a drug dealer (Anthony Mackie, Million Dollar Baby) to stay out of his student’s life because the pusher is a bad influence-the same dealer sells drugs to the teacher. These ironies demonstrate the complexity of the problem. The student, powerfully portrayed by newcomer Shareeka Epps, copes well given the tools she has to deal with the situation. All three of these actors provide marvelous performances that should give their street values a hefty boost.



The Hawk is Dying

The Hawk is Dying
While running into a fellow critic at the press screening of Paul Giamatti’s The Hawk is Dying, the critic expressed what seemed to be universal sentiment: “I’ll see anything with Giamatti in it.” And why not? His recent string of award-worthy performances in films like American Splendor, Sideways, and Cinderella Man has earned our devotion. Unfortunately, streaks have a way of ending. In Hawk Giamatti plays George, a man frustrated with his life and his failure to tame wild hawks - they keep dying on him. Living with his weight-challenged sister Precious (Rusty Schwimmer) and her mentally-challenged son Fred (Michael Pitt), George is determined to train a beautiful, red-tail hawk with help from Fred. Just as she did in The Perfect Storm, Schwimmer proves her ability as one of our strongest character actors around. The relationship between the hawk and the family—plus George’s strange sexual relationship with a pothead named Betty (Michelle Williams)—gives impetus to the picture and leads to some tragic happenings. But watching George’s torment becomes almost as hard for us to endure as it is for George to go through almost half the film with a hawk attached to his arm. It just goes to show that there can be too much of a good thing-even if it’s coming from a talent like Giamatti.



Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin
A mafia murder-mystery in the vein of Pulp Fiction and Layer Cake, Lucky Number Slevin comes up a winner. In one of his strongest performances to date, Josh Hartnett plays the victim of a mistaken identity that results in his life being threatened by two warring crime lords, played by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley. With frequent twists and clever turns, the film never lets up, though it does eventually come to a satisfying conclusion. Bruce Willis gives his usually acerbic, tough-guy performance and Lucy Liu is refreshingly charming as a playful coroner and Hartnett’s romantic interest.


Solo Dios Sabe
Mexican director Carlos Bolado has given us a beautiful travel film disguised as a love story, or maybe a love story disguised as a travel film. Along with a cultural expedition covering the North and South America, the two themes feed off each other. When a Brazilian art student (Alice Braga, City of God) studying in America is stuck in Tijuana without her green card, a stranger from Mexico (Diego Luna) agrees to drive her to Mexico City to acquire a new one. But they both find they’re searching for something more as they face their own spirituality. Though longer than it needed to be, the film is worth the journey.



Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!

Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!
The Beastie Boys were always one of those bands I admired for their creativity Of course I rarely took the time to go beyond their hits (“Brass Monkey”, “Fight For Your Right”, “Hey Ladies”) in spite of 20 years of ground-breaking hip hop and rave performances. However, their Sundance premiere of Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That! was intriguing for reasons other than the tunes. For a 2004 October performance in Madison Square Garden, the band gave 50 digital video cameras to 50 lucky fans and asked them to film the show. The only condition was that the fans keep the cameras rolling no matter what. The result is a unique look at the Beastie Boys phenomenon through a high-energy, bass-heavy concert film. While Beastie fans will love it, the average movie fan may find it only mildly entertaining. Multiple, often shaky, views of the performance wear thin after the first 30 minutes, but it does demonstrate the incredible versatility of the band: they do a lounge act in the middle of the show wherein they all play their own instruments in place of their usual stage-roaming rapping. And, if nothing else, pioneers such as the Beastie Boys deserve to have a film celebrating their role in one of the most innovative forms in American music history.



Allegro

Allegro
This strange and moody film from Denmark had its moments. A concert pianist (Ulrich Thomsen) who has left his memories behind him is forced to look back when he returns home to Copenhagen for a performance. Before he arrives an extensive force field envelops a portion of the city that becomes known as “The Zone”. No one gets in, no one gets out. However, the pianist is invited into The Zone and when he RSVPs he’s reunited with his memories. Yes, I thought it was a little weird, too. It almost works, except for some very stiff and sterile dialogue. Thomsen, though, gives a commendable performance.


SLAMDANCE
I also had the chance to see three films from that “other” festival, all winners with me.


Find Love
Writer/director Erica Dunton has done what few, budget-straining, indie filmmakers are able to do-make a feature worthy of distribution. Find Love is an enjoyable film about a man (Christian Camargo) and a woman (Alexie Gilmore) who meet while waiting for the same flight and find romance despite each being committed to someone else. Over the next 24 hours their relationship forces them to make some major decisions that could change both their lives. Camargo and Gilmore make a good script even better with outstanding performances.



Motorcycle

Motorcycle
With an even lower budget, director/writer Paul Gordon gives us Motorcycle where the star of the film is the bike as it falls into the hands of various people on their way to who-knows-where. Gordon directs his actors through subtle and witty performances that provide a voyeuristic motorway experience.


Still Life (short)
This nine-minute film blew me away. After driving with too little sleep, a pill-popping traveler enters a town where everyone appears as mannequins. I can’t really say more than that for fear of giving the ending away.


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