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by Eric Kohn
January 31, 2011 4:26 AM
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Critics Notebook | At Slamdance, "Superheroes" and "Silver Tongues" Impress

A scene from Michael Barnett's Slamdance doc competition feature, "Superheroes." Image courtesy of Slamdance Film Festival.

"The more the merrier," Robert Redford told a roomful of journalists at the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival this year. He was responding to a question about the Slamdance Film Festival, as he often must. Started in 1995 in response to Sundance's ultra-competitive submission pile, Slamdance initially served as an angry rebuke to the larger festival, but now it appears to pick up some of its slack.

The recently concluded Slamdance provides a unique contrast between the two events. While many consider the 2010 edition of Sundance historic for its eruption of sales, Slamdance concluded with hardly a single distribution deal -- even though a number of movies deserved as much attention as many of the heavily publicized Sundance breakouts.

Michael Barnett's fascinating documentary "Superheroes" was unquestionably the highlight of the Slamdance movies I managed to see in between dozens of Sundance screenings. Barnett's gorgeously-shot survey (featuring his own camerawork) of "real life superheroes" around the country delves into the psychology that drives certain eccentric individuals to dress up in costume and proclaim themselves bonafide crime fighters. In recent years, American cinema has been oversaturated with fictional movies about bumbling wannabe superheroes, from "Kick-Ass" to "Defendor," but Barnett delves deeper into the fantasy by profiling actual people compelled to wear masks and save the needy.

Chatting with those colorful characters in major cities ranging from San Diego to New York, he withholds judgement, managing to avoid viewing their exploits as utter psychotic behavior or mental derangement. "This is me just acting out a need I feel," says one crime fighter, a man equally willing to track down muggers and hand out food to the homeless. Barnett takes the unorthodox view that these people can actually do some good (the legitimate non-profit group Team Justice functions like community activism), and proves it by looking past the presumably crazy exterior of their outfits—but still maintaining the mystery of their identities, and letting the mystique stand.

Another Slamdance movie dealing with identity problems, audience award winner " Silver Tongues" features a devious couple (Lee Tergesen and Enid Graham) traveling from place to place and inventing new characters to play. First, they trick a young couple into deciding to try a foursome, before fleeing the room and leaving their victims to contemplate their newfound sexual boundaries. Then, they're going head to head in a church, leading an entire congregation to believe their leader has swindled them. At an old folk's home, they convince a senile man that they're his long lost children. The intrigue surrounding their motives builds exponentially with each of these instances.

Director Simon Arthur develops a curiously eerie atmosphere that questions the motives of his enigmatic characters, who never seem intent on stealing or otherwise breaking the law; part of their trick involves how much they can create out of nothing while leaving no trace behind. Although some scenes hold together better than others, Arthur's compelling screenplay moves forward with an unconventional rhythm that forces viewers to do the detective work. By the end, it's impossible to know if the gig is up or just beginning.

"Silver Tongues" hasn't found distribution yet, but both it and "Superhero" could at least perform well on VOD or in limited theatrical release with the right approach. Since neither one was picked up during the festival ("Superhero" landed a deal right at the end), it seems likely that talk about the healthy surge of sales in Park City this year says less about the general marketplace for independent productions than it does about the specific marketplace at Sundance. Maybe next year it can share the love.

criticWIRE grades:

"Superheroes": A-

"Silver Tongues": B

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3 Comments

  • PJ Christie | February 22, 2011 6:58 AMReply

    Why did this article not include "Bhopali" winner of both the Jury award and the Audience award in the documentary category? This film is both enlightening and heart breaking!

  • Bob Giovanelli | February 2, 2011 2:03 AMReply

    And I still have yet to see the Sundance programmers do an annual rhyming poem in their catalog that Sondheim himself would admire!

  • Dan Mirvish | January 31, 2011 8:14 AMReply

    Eric - thanks for the Slamdance coverage, and glad you liked both those movies!

    Sometimes the big deals aren't in distribution per se, but rather in getting the next film made. For example, it might be worth noting that Sundance big winner Drake Doremus ("Like Crazy") had his Park City debut in 2009 with his Slamdance feature "Spooner." Or that Sundance World Jury member Bong Joon-Ho first came to Park City at Slamdance with his debut feature "Barking Dogs Never Bite." From Kent Osborne to Aza Jacobs to Tiffany Schlain, it was hard to throw a snowball at Sundance this year without hitting some Slamdance alumni. And we're very happy for all of them!

    Also, for the record, Slamdance had its first edition in 1995. Which means we've been around well over half the lifetime of Sundance.

    thanks,
    Dan Mirvish (filmmaker / Slamdance Co-Founder-at-Large)