I do not know if this stems from filmmakers’ growing desire for more money or a general lack of experimental programming, but the best films at Sundance this year have also been some of the most commercial. This is probably one of the reasons there has been such a buying frenzy among distributors. First it was the American features being scooped up, but the latter half of the week proved that the international titles could compete just as well. Buy or no buy, much of the less accessible world cinema such as “Ghosts” and “On a Tightrope” pales in comparison to what can best be described as big, bold crowd pleasers exhibiting some talent smarter than our Hollywood.
Along the lines of big budget, crowd pleasing productions comes two moving world premieres out of competition in the festival. “Son of Rambow“, reminiscent of Danny Boyle‘s “Millions” but with more gusto, is the perfect kids’ film, capturing a fun, childlike and energetic spirit while simultaneously discussing issues of leadership, popularity and, to a surprising degree, religious choice. Like the best of kids’ films from the last few years such as “The Incredibles” and “The Iron Giant“, “Rambow” doesn’t condescend to children in order to reach them, nor does it have a fear of exposing them to extreme conditions within its hyper reality.
Also, Antonio Banderas’ second directorial outing, “Summer Rain“, marks a much needed improvement over his haphazard “Crazy in Alabama“. Returning to his native language and country, Banderas’ sexy, atmospheric adaptation of his childhood friend Antonio Soler‘s autobiographical screenplay is a coming-of-age film so personal that it might as well have been made of Banderas’ memories.
The foreign docs began to run a little thin after a few days. Petr Lorn‘s disappointing “On a Tightrope” paints a portrait of a group of orphans in Uighur, part of China’s largest Muslim minority, who are trying to uphold the great tradition of tightrope walking. The film, originally shot for TV and needing to allow for commercial breaks, is divided into the stories of a few different children, each with their own chapter. Reeking of a botched opportunity, “Tightrope” suffers from acute repetition. The stories of the children all feel very similar and many of the interviews contain startlingly like content. The late addition of a former tightrope walker adds a little change of pace, but the film could have easily been paired down to a five minute portrait of one child to make for one of the most interesting shorts in the festival.
My award for the most frustrating exercise in the festival goes to Cao Guimaraes and Pablo Lobato‘s “Acidente“. Billed as a visual poem, this seventy-four minute doc features twenty short vignettes meant to capture the vitality of twenty different cities in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Suffering from many of the same mistakes as last year’s Sundance hit “Into Great Silence“, “Acidente” fails to realize the careful consideration that must be taken when trying to make a film based solely upon image and sound – namely that said image and sound must be painstakingly well constructed. A mishmash of shaky digital video and cheap, twangy sound turns what could have been a beautiful, visceral exercise a la the work of landscape filmmaker Peter Hutton instead feels like a screening of somebody’s homemade vacation footage.
Only one doc was left of real merit. A critical favorite from earlier on, Donal Mac Intyre‘s “A Very British Gangster” features a plethora of pop songs and enough classy DV cinematography to look like a narrative. “Gangster” is a gritty memoir piece about the crimes, trials and good deeds of Dominic Noonan, aka Lattlay Fottfoy, a homosexual top Mafioso who acts as both an enforcer and a community protector. Perhaps it is the misplaced Up Series style voiceover that makes this film feel so much like a television program that you are exhausted with what was an exhilarating subject up to the sixty minute mark.
One of the surprising highlights of the world competition was Canadian director Ian Iqbal Rashid‘s (“Touch of Pink“) second feature “How She Move” closely resembles a big budget studio picture. Canadian director Ian Iqbal Rashid‘s (“Touch of Pink“) second feature “How She Move” closely resembles a big budget studio picture. In fact, currently one would only have to go to their local Cineplex and see an MTV movie entitled “Stomp the Yard” to approximate the plot of “Move,” in which a black teenage girl, Raya, joins a local step-dancing team in order to win the money to send herself back to the private school she used to attend and can no longer afford. The audience is treated to some great dancing, as well as a standard series of trials and tribulations and in the end everything wraps up nicely with a sweet little love story along the way.
The whole affair might seem like your average Nick Cannon vehicle, but “How She Move” has a few crucial differences that I think place it a notch above the average Hollywood movie. Firstly, the characters in “Move” are Caribbean Canadian, not African American, and many of the parental figures are first generation immigrants. Adding this level of complexity to the familial relationships approximates the mother-daughter interplay of a film like Barry Levinson‘s “Avalon“. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the protagonist is a female.
In 2006 alone, the closest thing to a studio movie targeted towards the African American demographic with a female lead are protagonists in drag such as Martin Lawrence in “Big Momma’s House 2” or Tyler Perry in “Medea’s Family Reunion“, other than “Dreamgirls“, a period piece, and any Queen Latifah affair, in which she is the usually the only African American person appearing on screen. Screenwriter Annmarie Morais‘ choice to make Raya a female character adds not only a refreshing change of perspective to what is an incredibly stock story, but also an intelligent element of female empowerment and equality that seems to have been lacking in black cinema since “Waiting To Exhale” left theaters back in 1995. In a year when Sundance contains African American content that is either misogynistic (“Black Snake Moan“) or racist (“Hounddog“), this little difference goes a long way. And let’s not forget that with this standard plot comes all of the fun of a grandiose studio finale, done cheaply but with skill and class.
Finally, one of the last world premieres of the week was Taika Waititi‘s narrative “Eagle vs. Shark” Taika Waititi‘s “Eagle vs. Shark.” Waititi, a graduate of the Sundance Institute and a Sundance alum with his shorts “Tama tu” and “Two Cars, One Night,” returns with his directorial debut, a “Napoleon Dynamite” infused romantic comedy about the awkward love between a lonely fast food worker, Lily, and a self-involved computer geek, Jarrod. Sweet, saccharine and stiltedly hilarious, “Eagle vs. Shark”, though downbeat, hits many of the right notes to reach a wide audience and still feel charmingly small in scale despite the fact that it is co-funded by Miramax. Director Waititi has a promising future, and it may just take the experience of a few more projects for him to find a voice that isn’t so reminiscent of previous Sundance projects. Luckily, this is good enough for right now and a perfectly fun conclusion to a week of international cinema.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Michael Lerman is a freelance writer and programmer for the Woodstock Film Festival and Philadelphia Film Festival.
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