The Sundance Film Festival is a thrilling, exhausting, surprising experience. Hundreds of films play, many for the first time, from 8:30am until midnight every day. Whether you go for the full 10 days or just a portion of it, you’re bound to come back with at least a handful of films you’ll be talking about for the rest of the year. But with SXSW soon approaching and Sundance ‘11 firmly in the rear view, we thought it best to wrap up our Sundance coverage with some brief thoughts on the other films we saw at the festival this year.
“Circumstance” is yet another coming-of-age drama, this one set in Iran as a wealthy family deals with their rebellious daughter Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and her friend Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) along with their recently out-of-rehab son Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai). The film starts promisingly, showing the teenagers’ contrasting lives, repression in school and at home and liberation amongst their friends and at parties. But the premise and exotic setting can’t save it from the fact that the film fails to build any momentum. Boosheri is extremely charismatic onscreen and Kazemy also seems to be capable of more, but spends too many scenes crying to herself. Story threads disappear, there are too many scenes of slo-mo and the film really just runs out of steam. Curiously the film won the Audience Award for Dramatic feature though this writer suspects that may have had more to do with the film’s sympathetic backstory. [C-]
“Another Happy Day,” winner of the Waldo Scott Screenwriting Award and written and directed by first-timer Sam Levinson (son of filmmaker Barry Levinson), is bound to be one of the more divisive films to play at Sundance this year. The film, like several others as of late (“Margot At the Wedding,” “Rachel Getting Married”), focuses on a highly dysfunctional family getting together for a wedding while any number of outbursts, revelations and reunions occur. The film stars an impressive cast including Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Thomas Hayden Church, Demi Moore, Kate Bosworth and George Kennedy among others, and is undeniably full of indie cliches but done with total sincerity. The film would almost be unbearable with Barkin breaking down in nearly every scene, but Levinson balances the weighty subject matter with character based comedy. Ezra Miller delivers a breakout performance as older son Elliot and has great chemistry with younger brother Ben (Daniel Yelsky). Special props go to Jeffrey DeMunn who steals the show every time he’s onscreen. Levinson, who is only 25 years old, dropped out of film school and high school, and nearly broke down in tears just introducing the film. As a filmmaker, he’s got some learning to do (too many of the shots in the beginning are played out in a master, some of the acting is a little stagey and he seems not to know when to say “enough” regarding Barkin’s histrionics), but he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve and shows real promise. Though the film has still not received a distribution deal, it was easily the most well received film this writer saw at the entire fest in terms of audience reaction and one of the most interesting. [C+]
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” wasn’t playing in competition but was one of the best films at the fest. This great documentary is a long overdue record of legendary film producer/director Roger Corman. As a producer he has nearly 400 credits to his name and has been making films for over five decades. Despite being driven out of the multiplexes by higher budget versions of the kinds of films he used to make, he continues to produce films today including fun schlock like “Dinoshark” and “Dinocrock vs. Supergator” for SyFy. But the film, and his career, is not a celebration of “bad movies,” it’s a look at how hugely influential he has been in the industry. With his low budget, independently made films, he’s been responsible for starting the careers of a laundry list of amazing filmmakers and actors. Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Robert De Niro, Joe Dante, Ron Howard and many more all show up in the film to sing his praises. These revealing interviews along with a wealth of footage from his films make this a must-see for cinephiles everywhere. [B]
“Another Earth” won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, given to a film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, and was one of 30+ films bought during festival. The story takes place in the near future as mankind learns of a duplicate planet Earth in our solar system which is supposedly an identical planet to our own including another “you.” The question of what to do if you met your other self, or in what ways they might be different is idea that strings you along through the film. Frustratingly, this philosophical idea and most of the science and technology hangs mostly in the background of the picture. The bulk of the film centers on the relationship between a guilt ridden young woman (Brit Marling) and a man who has been struck by tragedy (William Mapother). Much of the film is a slow moving grief drama, with the carrot of science fiction dangled just out of frame. Marling, who co-wrote the script, is good in the film but Mapother, (best known for playing creepy Ethan on “Lost”) doesn’t quite have the range for this character. Anyone frustrated by last year’s bait-and-switch “Monsters” will likely find themselves feeling the same way here. [C]