Fantasy and science fiction have broadened the scope of this week's Sundance premieres, in a welcome departure from the gritty personal realism that is the festival's stock in trade. Most radical of these is the surrealist amour fou of Michel Gondry's warmly received love story "The Science of Sleep," an acquisition score for Warner Independent Pictures and a Gaumont-funded French film with mostly English dialogue that will be addressed more thoroughly in tomorrow's international column by Anthony Kaufman.
In dramatic competition, two films use the sci-fi/fantasy conceit to refreshingly intriguing, if mixed, results. Goran Dukic's "Wristcutters: A Love Story" had acquisitions execs asking themselves about the potential commercial suicide of releasing a romantic comedy about a desert limbo populated by folks who killed themselves. Starring Patrick Fugit as a young man who, after taking his life, discovers that his beautiful ex-girlfriend did the same and is somewhere on the other side, "Wristcutters" portrays this afterlife as a amusingly mundane parallel universe of tumbleweed highways, greasy spoons, and jaded average Joes. The quirky comedy spends much of its time as a philosophical road trip, where quick run-ins with other self-destructive souls add a strange, dreamlike mix of sentiment and sarcasm - and even counts Tom Waits among its endearing eccentrics. By the end, though, its narrative pattern becomes almost disappointingly conventional and even predictable, thereby somewhat squandering the boldness of Dukic's original vision (from Etgar Keret's novella).
Chris Gorak's post-9/11 paranoia thriller "Right at Your Door," though, had distributors salivating over the marketing appeal of a movie showing what happens when terrorist dirty bombs explode in Los Angeles. Its go-for-the-jugular premise had crowds buzzing, and the film's first reel, in which a husband desperately tries to track down his wife, was among the most tense and terrifying of its kind, painting a canvas of panic and civil chaos with deft, knowing skill. But as the city is blanketed in toxins and the wife reunites with her husband, the script eventually fails to capitalize on, let alone maintain, the emotional momentum built up at the beginning, becoming instead a trite parable about self-preservation that relies on a twist to give its ending a jolt.
In the Premieres section, Neil Burger used fantasy and science to weave his enjoyably diverting con-man drama "The Illusionist." In it, Ed Norton plays a 19th-century magician whose childhood romance with a duchess comes back to complicate his life when she is betrothed to wed a morally repugnant crown prince. Playing a corrupt chief of police is Paul Giamatti, whose encounters with Norton and attempts to crack his astounding tricks give the film its best moments. Suffused with an incredibly evocative sense of time and place, the Viennese period piece is impressively sumptuous (especially for an independent film) and marks a giant leap forward from Burger's previous and markedly modest mock-doc thriller "Interview with the Assassin." Though trading heartily in mysticism, spiritual ambiguity and philosophical conundums throughout, "The Illusionist" settles into a far more earthbound plot by its end, reducing its ambitions from the profound to the merely clever.
The non-fictions films at Sundance always bring a heady dose of reality to the festival's carnival atmosphere, and this year is no different. In the documentary competition, two films in particular almost seem like companion pieces: Lauren Greenfield's "Thin," which focuses on women with eating disorders, and Alan Berliner's "Wide Awake," an account of his own lifelong struggle with insomnia. Their portraits of chronic frustration are equally haunting in their own ways.
Greenfield bases her film almost entirely at a facility in Florida devoted to rehabilitating young women who have developed their own unique patterns of anorexia. Constantly fighting their own mental resistance to nourishment while navigating the petty politics of dorm life with the other residents, Greenfield's subjects show a rainbow of emotions and behavior that prove just how intertwined their psychosis is with so many other emotional factors, and just how difficult it is to isolate and cure anorexic behavior.
Berliner's "Wide Awake," on the other hand, examines just how singularly unique and enigmatic insomnia can be - in interviews with family members and reflections on cultural relationships with sleep, the filmmaker reveals the extent to which his affliction seems so impervious to any form of treatment. His quest for a full night of rest, synchronized to fit his wife's and newborn baby's far more normal cycles, seems beyond quixotic - it's downright Sisyphusian.
Two documentaries also made their debut in the Premieres section, including Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," a delightfully acerbic skewering of the Motion Picture Association of America and its ratings system. Using interviews with bitter filmmakers burnt by the ratings board and putting virtually indistinguishable shots from both R- and NC-17-rated movies side-by-side for comparison, Dick builds a convincing case for re-evaluating the MPAA's methods - among them having an anonymous nine-member group that answers only to itself and uses its star chamber status to decide the commercial fate of multi-million-dollar works of artistic expressions by globally recognized film auteurs. He also hires a private detective to unmask the famously secretive members and even submits the movie itself for a rating. Hilariously entertaining and gleefully subversive, "Rated" is a delicious expose of the endemic hypocrisy that infests Hollywood's most famous organization.
Joining "Rated" as the only other documentary in the Premieres section is Jonathan Demme's vibrant, tender-hearted concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold." Filmed last August in Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, the movie spotlights Young's latest album, "Prairie Wind," as well as ten other classic songs from the folksy rock legend. Having survived a brain aneurysm and the death of his father, Young is clearly in an elegiac mood, and his riveting performance maps out a lifetime's worth of joy, loss, success and regret. And Demme, working with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, is in fine form, capturing every moment in rich, supple detail and allowing the songs to breath without suffocating them in cinematic pyrotechnics.
[Stephen Garrett is a freelance journalist and film editor based in New York.]
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