Two hit-or-miss comedies, two uneven horror ventures, one brutal thrill-ride, one memorable thriller and what is already destined to become the most outstanding doc of 2009 make-up the veritable independent menu that is this year’s Sundance Film Festival Park City at Midnight section.
Year after year, Sundance leans more towards non-traditional midnight programming, featuring adult comedies as a standard alternative to genre cinema. With the inclusion of Scott Sanders’ “Black Dynamite” and Dan Eckman’s “Mystery Team,” this year is no exception. However, dirty, cheap and fun is not always the most winning combination, even at the witching hour and both films end up feeling a bit clunky. “Dynamite” a painstakingly detailed period comedy about a Shaft-esque character and his quest to take down “The Man” and uncover the conspiracy behind a secret weapon being placed into Anaconda Malt Liquor, falls, unfortunately, to the waste side with its serious identity issues. Sanders’ can’t seem to decide if he wants the film to be an homage or a parody – a pity because the former in pitch-perfect while the latter seems wholly unnecessary and annoying given the over-the-top nature of the source material.
Meanwhile, “Mystery Team” makes the best of its terrible conceit: a hyper-stylized small town in which a group of immature teenagers desperately tries to hold on to their ten-year-old dreams of being the crime fighters while everyone else sees them as growth stunted, bothersome nerds. Derrick, the NYC based sketch comedy group that helmed the project together, are clearly talented joke writers, but they don’t quite seem to be able to make a flawless transition into the world of feature length work, presenting us with characters that eventually become tedious and tiresome. Both Sanders and Eckman come off as filmmakers to watch, with compelling first features that fail at the goals they’ve set for themselves this time around, but who will ultimately find their way into making great long-form comedy.
Also disappointingly uneven were two darker, more intense selections from the “scary” side of the program. Jonathan Liebesman’s star driven “The Killing Room,” begins on an extremely promising level, building tension and gripping the audience to the edge of their seats as four innocent experiment volunteers are placed in a locked room in a mysterious governmental facility and subjected to a terrifying series of deadly mind games. The slick camerawork, appropriately over-the-top score, razor sharp pacing and strong acting (Nick Cannon gives will undoubtedly will be the performance of his career) all work together to sustain the excitement over the first thirty minutes, but as the mystery starts to unfold, the tension falls apart through the distraction of blunt political statements and a weak subplot centered around the emotional state of Ms. Reilly, a military psychologist played by Chloe Sevigny who is being forced to watch the sadistic experiments from a nearby control room.
Where “The Killing Room” succeeds, Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi zombie splatterfest “Dead Snow” fails and vice versa. “Snow,” the story of seven sexy twenty-somethings who head to cabin in the middle of the woods for a weekend away and are quickly terrorized by the undead of WWII, is drawn from a script that promises so many good things it can’t deliver on. While “Killing Room” makes one wince with schizozendric shame every time it mentions 9/11, “Dead Snow” leaves you wishing more creative work was done with the Nazi concept instead of just simply dressing zombies up in uniforms with swastikas. On the other hand, the tension built up in Liebesman’s film is nowhere to be found in Wirkola’s, a series of poorly edited deaths that desperately try to cover up a small effects budget and end up not hitting the audience with any force. One is all concept and no heart while the other is all brawn and no brain.
Facing a completely different set of challenges is Dominic Murphy’s “White Lightnin’.” In what can only be described as extreme filmmaking, Murphy aggressively tells the story of Jesco White, West Virginia’s most renowned clog dancer. Jesco, made famous by a thirty minute local TV documentary “Dancin’ Outlaw” that has achieved cult status as it’s reached far and wide, is an irrational soul, a glue addict, a wife-beater and a great admirer/imitator of Elvis. Oozing with style – a gut-punching combination of fast-paced Jean Pierre-Jeunet-type compositions and immensely accurate, gritty, West Virginia trailer trash sensibility – “Lightnin'” barely leaves your senses room to breath between assaults, desperately trying to compensate for a plot that can’t sustain itself for 90 minutes. Loaded with good elements (including a heavyset Carrie Fisher as the love of White’s life), Murphy’s onslaught leaves one with a very clear understanding with why White is best presented in short form.
So, between the shocking and the disappointing, it’s not hard to say that the strongest of the horror films in the program is Paul Solet’s “Grace.” Solet’s film is a slow burn thriller about Madeline, a recently windowed new parent, who, much to the chagrin of her mother in-law, Vivian, seeks the help of Patricia, a freelance midwife who also happens to be Madeline’s ex-girlfriend, in raising her infant, Grace, in the most natural ways possible. Conflict erupts as Vivian tries to force doctors upon Madeline while Patricia falls victim to the jealousy of her new lover. To make matters worse, Grace, previously believed to be stillborn, enters into the world with a taste for a special brand of natural nourishment. Though the film does not reek of originality, drawing from elements of Ryuhei Kitamura’s “The Midnight Meat Train,” Pieter Van Hoes’ “Left Bank” and, of course, Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” it does hit all the right notes, shocking the audience with gore when we least expecting it and otherwise letting their imaginations run wild. Thinning out a little bit towards the middle, it picks right back up again for a climax that will not soon by forgotten by most viewers.
But, far and away the crowning jewel of the Midnight section, albeit the most out of place one, was Adam Bhala Lough’s “The Carter,” a documentary portrait of prolific rap artist Lil’ Wayne. Favoring more an experiential tone than an informational one, Lough transcends even the most accomplished cinema verite documentaries to put you right inside the mind of his subject, an eccentric codeine and marijuana addict who has completely given his life over to making and promoting his music 24/7. (Wayne even admits in one poignant interview that he’s too busy making music to have sex.) Because of this, the film runs with a relentlessly repetitious pattern, one that rings of the vigorous construction of greatly crafted filmmaking. Yet, it still manages to deliver on a purely entertaining level as Lough treats us to hilarious interview footage, never before released daily freestyles (Wayne records two songs a day, every day of the year, and never writes down a single lyric) and backgrounds on the most important people in his life, including his daughter Reginae, who Lough brilliant uses as the symbol of naive innocence in the film, the only person who is willing to directly address Wayne as a strong presence and persona as she coyly smiles and admits to the camera that the best gift he’s ever given her is “him being there.”
Much like Margaret Brown’s “The Order of Myths” was to Sundance 2008, “The Carter” is the most experimental, most ambitious and most rewarding documentary screening in Park City this year, making it not only the strongest of the midnight section, but also the best film in Sundance 2009.