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In today’s Sundance Live, Peter Knegt reports from the the world premiere of “I Love You Phillip Morris,” film critic Eric Kohn offers quick takes on “Good Hair,” Robin Williams’ latest, “World’s Greatest Dad,” and “I Love You Phillip Morris,” James Israel is on hand for the premiere of “Don’t Let Me Drown,” and Andy Lauer reports on the premiere of Joe Berlinger’s documentary “Crude.”
SNAPSHOT REVIEW: “Adventureland”
Nobody really expected Greg Mottola to screw this one up. The “Superbad” director makes a triumphant return to Park City (his debut, “Daytrippers,” played at Slamdance a decade ago) with one of the sharpest coming of age movies in years. No hyperbole there; despite the implications of his resume, Mottola is something of an antithesis to the Judd Apatow oeuvre, creating smart comedies where the humor emerges from the naturalism of his highly complex characters.
Set in 1987, “Adventureland” centers on a broke college graduate (Jesse Eisenberg) in need of a summer job to pay for grad school. Winding up at the eponymous theme park, he develops a fragile relationship with one of his troubled coworkers (Kristen Stewart). Conventional relationship issues eventually emerge, but Mottola refrains from overplaying the drama or hammering down on the formula. With a gentle, almost Altmaneque touch, Mottola guides a talented ensemble cast through his undeniably sharp script. The score by Yo La Tengo, coupled with a delicious soundtrack of classic eighties hits, provide a nifty supplement to this infectious romance. Mottola doesn’t simply enjoy teenage angst — he gets it (even the awkward makeout scenes are well-choreographed).
Stewart, now basking in the monumental success of “Twilight,” finally reaches her understated potential, while Eisenberg remains his predictably klutzy self. A supporting cast, including Bill Hader and the delightfully geeky Martin Starr, keep the side stories in check. It’s impossible to disregard the charm of “Adventureland,” despite its extreme overexposure. Now that Mottola has the limelight, he should get the chance to soak it in. [Eric Kohn]
SNAPSHOT REVIEW: “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”
An actor’s playground, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” demonstrates John Krasinski’s willingness to take a distinctly non-commercial route for his directorial debut. “The Office” star can’t quite energize the disjointed series of character sketches from the late David Foster Wallace’s original book, but there are enough engaging monologues peppered throughout the brief seventy-seven minutes to prevent the project from becoming entirely dismissable.
To help structure the story, Krasinski invented the character of solitary academic Sara (Julianne Nicholson), whose experience with her estranged boyfriend (Krasinski) leads her to conduct a series of candid interviews with various male subjects as she comes to grips with her romantic frustration. The fragmented narrative, which moves between these one-sided conversations and Sara’s personal life, never quite finds a coherent rhythm. Fortunately, the actors — including “Death Cab for Cutie” frontman Ben Gibbard and Will Arnette — get plenty of space to dominate the screen. Jon Brion’s chilled out score helps fix the uneasy transitions, but “Hideous Men” lacks consistent emotional resonance, and doesn’t exactly aim to please impatient audiences. Then again, neither did Wallace. [Eric Kohn]
SNAPSHOT REVIEW: “I Love You Phillip Morris”
“I Love You Philip Morris” is the “Brokeback Mountain” of American movie comedies, but that alone doesn’t make it especially good. Taking cues from the true story of gay con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and his prison lover Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), co-directors Jon Requa and Glenn Ficara assemble a crass, tonally uneven romantic dramedy that undulates in quality with nearly every scene change. Steven’s early years as a married closet case play like deadpan satire of American conservatism; when the character winds up in jail for his fraudulent behavior, the script shifts to raunchy lowbrow jokes, as if hailing from the universe of the Farrelly brothers. Then, for a few brief moments, it’s a quiet tragedy — with elements of “The Shawshank Redemption” oddly turning up — and, finally, it pulls together the whole package for a mess of moods in the final minutes.
But the finale of “Phillip Morris” vastly improves on the earlier sections for precisely this reason. Both darkly comic and vaguely humorous, it finally hits a unique note — not to mention a familiar one: Requa and Ficarra, making their directorial debut, co-wrote the brilliantly downbeat holiday comedy “Bad Santa,” and elements of that movie’s gritty humor exist in certain parts of “Phillip Morris.” Unfortunately, Carrey seems miscast as the slick anti-hero, which deals a serious blow to the believability factor in several key scenes — particularly the ones requiring him to cuddle with McGregor. Their intimacy plays for simplistic jokes that lend an unrealistic quality to the relationship. The time has arrived where a project like this shouldn’t necessarily represent a bold move for contemporary movie stars — which is why they shouldn’t feel pressured to do it. [Eric Kohn]
Young Love in Brooklyn: “Don’t Let Me Drown”
Cruz Angeles “Don’t Let Me Drown” explores a growing teenage romance in Brooklyn, NY admidst the September 11 terrorist attacks as the city reels from the horrific events following the destruction of the twin towers. At the crowded Eccles premiere of the film this past Sunday (where “Drown” received a warm reception) the filmmaker and actors shared some thoughts on the process of making “Drown” and where the inspiration came from to make this touching film.
“It felt really stressful, people were on edge and during that time I think people wanted escape. People wanted to not really think about what’s going on,” said director Cruz Angeles when asked about setting his film during the months after September 11. “Maria (Cruz’s wife and screenwriter of “Drown”) and I, we both grew up in pretty rough neighborhoods and we just started talking about how you know sometimes when it is that rough you find things to entertain you, to escape and one of those was falling in love. You fall in love with a girl you have a crush on, your on the phone with her, you know and that stuff helped you to at least cope if not survive the elements and so during that time Maria and I got closer and closer it felt like it was a different world.”
This is exactly what happens in “Drown” as two teenagers (played by E.J. Bonilla and Gleendilys Inoa) seek solace in each other as the aftermath of the terrorist attacks causes chaos in their own families.
When asked about how they related to their characters, Bonilla said, “When I first read the script I immediately was drawn to it because I thought it was so real. The fact that we lived in a similar neighborhood helped a lot because we didn’t have to fake that brooklyn flavor which i think is important to have to go and have it be really true.”
Inoa was drawn to her character due to similarities to her own life. “She (Stephanie) has this attitude and guard which I have as well and Cruz knows that when we first started rehearsals and stuff i had this like armor and i’m not letting you in at all and Stephanie is almost the same way and i related to her so much.” Noting a huge difference, Inoa said, “I never really experienced losing someone so close like Stephanie lost her sister in 9/11 and i never experience that yet so it was hard for me to understand what she was going through and I think Cruz helped us a lot and prepare for the roles.”
“Young people inspire me,” said Cruz. “We’ve always been involved with youth in our work. You realize how true it is that they are the future and they are not going to give up.” [James Israel]
Carrey, McGregor On Hand For “Morris” Premiere
“We have no distributor as of yet,” Glenn Ficarra and John Requa said on stage after the world premiere of “I Love You Phillip Morris” at Park City’s Eccles Center. “Who’s buying?”
So far, no one. Though that is expected to change quite quickly. It was obviously enjoyed by many audience members (“We loved it,” one man shouted out as the Q & A came to an end), even if critical responses have been much more tepid.
Based on a true story, “Phillip Morris” follows Steve Russell (Jim Carrey), a con man who meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) while in prison for insurance fraud. Russell devotes the rest of his life to ensuring that he and Morris will remain together forever, which leads to some pretty extraordinary feats. It also marks the directorial debut of “Bad Santa” scribes Ficarra and Requa.
Unfortunately, most of the Q & A was devoted to awkward and dated questions pertaining to the gay elements of the film. One man shouted out: “What was it like playing a gay man?”
McGregor answered the question as eloquently as it allowed. “Its the same as playing any other kind of man,” he said. “It was never unpleasant or awkward to kiss or cuddle.” The directors responded by noting that “the whole point when we got into this was just to portray them as two people in love. Gay had nothing to do with it. It was just incidental.”
Carrey was asked specifically what it was like kissing McGregor. “A dream come true,” he said. “I mean, look at the guy.”
Apparently, though, the film wasn’t quite as gay as it could have been. “There’s also a scene, maybe it’ll be on the DVD, between Rodrigo and Jim which broke our hearts to cut because its fucking brilliant,” Requa said. “And it was like a super hot, hot, hot scene. Everybody on the set was fanning themselves.”
“Phillip Morris” screens again later this week in Salt Lake City and at the Sundance Resort. [Peter Knegt]
SNAPSHOT REVIEW: “Good Hair”
Chris Rock smoothly navigates the complex cultural forces behind African American hairstyles in “Good Hair,” a documentary directed by Jeff Stilson and co-written by the topical comedian. Rock opens the movie by declaring his need to explore the extensive relationship black women tend to form with their hair, so he can give his young daughters proper guidance. The movie, although obviously witty in tone, follows up on the underlying seriousness of Rock’s mission by broadly surveying the African American hair industry — which, as it turns out, mostly belongs to white people.
Based around the highly regarded Bronner Brothers Hair Show, “Good Hair” features a series of diverse talking heads, including a hilariously candid Al Sharpton, waxing poetic on the significance of hairstyles in their lives. The strongest sequence, however, ventures beyond American borders to the main source of the country’s hair source: India, a place where a few strands can amount to a worth greater than gold. Avoiding his conventional stand-up routine, Rock doesn’t spend the movie ranting about the paradoxes of the issue, choosing instead to step back and let facts speak for themselves. The final third mainly takes place at the aforementioned hair show, and it’s here that “Good Hair” veers into derivative reality competition territory. However, Rock manages to set forth a compelling thesis — that much of the distinctiveness of black hair stems from an unspoken desire to look white. [Eric Kohn]
SNAPSHOT REVIEW: World’s Greatest Dad
One of the oddest comedic star vehicles since Jim Carrey reached his outer limits in “The Cable Guy,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad” provides Robin Williams with his best role in years. Obscene in concept and execution, the movie functions as a highly subversive anti-morality tale disguised as a mainstream laughfest. Williams plays single father Lance, who teaches at the high school where his universally unliked son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) attends — until Kyle’s apparent suicide. In a moment of uncalculated fury, Williams’s character — a talented writer — composes a suicide note for his late offspring to make him look better. The ruse works, and Kyle becomes a posthumous hero for the scholastic community that originally rejected him. Goldthwait, building on the edgy turf he first explored with his previous Sundance entry, “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” excels at accomplishing his exceedingly naughty intentions.
Goldthwait’s script takes several plot twists to arrive at its central premise, and the journey there feels awfully derivative. But that’s the point: “World’s Greatest Dad” works wonderfully as a rich black comedy willing to reach into virtually unprecedented territory to both offend, enrage and finally entertain its theoretical audience. The only question is whether that audience exists. Either way, Williams does penance for his lesser studio comedies (“This isn’t ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,'” Goldthwait joked at the premiere) and it would benefit him to go this far again. [Eric Kohn]
Sundance veteran Joe Berlinger (his previous documentaries “Brother’s Keeper,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” have all played at the festival) returned to Park City Sunday night for the premiere of his latest film, “Crude.”
Three years in the making, “Crude” shines light on an ongoing lawsuit being filed by a small group of lawyers, led by Pablo Fajardo and Steven Donziger, on behalf of five Ecuadoran tribes living in the Amazon rainforest who claim that oil giant Texaco dumped billions of gallons of oil waste into their river, threatening their livelihood and causing a host of illnesses. With the odds stacked against them, Berlinger frames “Crude” as a sort of David vs. Goliath story that reveals the inner-workings of a convoluted and often less-than-transparent legal process.
Donziger, Fajardo, and Trudie Styler (who, with husband Sting–also at the screening–co-founded the Amazon Foundation Fund and worked to bring global attention to the issue) joined Berlinger for the Q&A following the premiere (which, incidentally, Sundance founder Robert Redford also quietly attended).
Donziger spoke about his commitment to “taking standards of the developed world regarding oil production and applying them to developing countries” and expressed confidence that, ultimately, his clients would prevail, while Styler called on the audience–which seemed genuinely roused by the issues the film raised–to get involved by making donations to the cause.
Berlinger, who called the film “a very sad story,” also admitted that, in it, “it’s very clear where our sympathies are,” referring to how the documentary sides heavily with the Ecuadoran plaintiffs struggling to reclaim their land from environmental ruin.
Fajardo, the relatively inexperienced but determined Ecuadoran attorney, was, it seemed, the man of the hour, receiving a standing ovation from the audience. With Donziger translating, he described the challenges and details of the case, which has dragged on for over a decade. About the film he said: “I really think this is a very important documentary.” [Andy Lauer]