As the 2007 Park City festival nears the end and Slamdance prepares to depart from the Treasure Mountain Inn, we look back through the memories of the crowded lobbies, late running times, projection problems and home cooked atmosphere to reflect upon some of the best and the worst of this year's Slamdance programming.
The narrative competition selections were all over the place. Unlike a slew of recent low budget drug movies, Nick Gaglia's "Over the GW" actually has a twist. A pair of siblings are checked into a cult-like rehab program by their unsuspecting mother and are subjected to a series of grueling psychological tortures that eventually turn into a two year stay when the brother and sister are lead to believe that the only thing keeping them clean is being in the "clinic". Based on a shocking phenomenon of real drug clinics cum cults during America's War on Drugs in the 80s and 90s, "Over the GW" may not quite deliver, but it does make a valiant attempt to step up to the level of disturbing films like "Mouth to Mouth" and "Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple".
The festival contains a midnight section called 21+ screenings, but there seems to be some spillover into competition with films like Grace Lee's "American Zombie", a mockumentary about the presence of zombies in America, and Jeremy Saulnier's "Murder Party", a slapstick romp about a group of morbid freaks who lure a stranger to a party in a warehouse in order to kill him. Two well produced horror comedies, but "Zombie" and "Party" can be faulted in the mediocre scripts, lack of real craftsmanship and a reliance on conceptual humor to hold up the film.
Then there is Colin Drobins' bizarrely under-realized "Bangkok," which follows its protagonist deep into Southeast Asia as he discovers the truth about his father's death during the Vietnam war. He and the petty thief he has befriended along the way head towards Cambodia in this film that will leave your eyes seeped with culture and your ears confused by the modern Western soundtrack.
The shining moment of the narrative competition selection is Baran bo Odar's "Under the Sun". This German featurette follows a young boy and his weekend vacation to his aunt's house where he develops a sexual fascination with his older cousin while simultaneously tormented by nightmares of being attacked by his neighbor's dogs a few years prior. Without giving too much away, I will say that while the film is understated to a point, it packs quite the sucker punch by luring you in, getting you right where it wants you, then popping a surprise that will leave you with an uncomfortable feeling your stomach, all within its sixty minute running time.
And what would a Park City festival season be without another dork comedy from producer Jeremy Coon ("Napoleon Dynamite", "The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang")? This year's offering, "American Fork", about an overweight grocery store clerk who is trying to make it in the acting world while mentoring his loser, skater-punk best friend, holds up a little bit better than some of the recent clones, but still falls flat rounding the third act.
On the doc side, the Special Screenings section of the festival boasts solid second efforts from seasoned filmmakers such as Andrew Neel and Arturo Perez Torres. Changes of pace for both filmmakers - particularly for Neel, who's 2006 "Darkon" brought the idea of the stylized documentary to a whole new level - Neel's "Alice Neel" and Torres' "Super Amigos" drive home their subjects with a level of intelligence not present in most of the documentary competition films.
That is not to say that there isn't some good conceptual work going on here, at least on the surface. For example, among the strongest competition doc subjects is Jeremy Stulberg and Randy Stulberg's "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa", Jeremy Stulberg, who edited and associate produced the 2005 Sundance hit "The Education of Shelby Knox". Though pointedly haphazard and a somewhat unresolved, "Off the Grid" is a look at the American Southwest that will still send chills down your spine. Also, Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills and Todd Sills' "Red Without Blue", which follows a set of identical twins as they struggle to maintain their familial identity through their own personal relationships, might not contain the most polished filmmaking ever, but certainly carries through with the powerful impact of a story that left the audience in tears.
Though it can't quite be called a new film, Casey Suchan and Denis Henry Hennley's "Rock the Bells" still holds up over six months after it premiered in the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006. Following concert promoter Chang Weisberg, "Rock the Bells" tells the story of creating the famous 2004 rap festival that reunited The Wu-Tang Clan. Perhaps not as full of as much music as one would hope, "Bells" still delivers on the drama and ends up being a very different, though equally entertaining, documentary than one would expect.
The weaker offerings include Luke Wolbach's frustratingly personal "Row Harder No Excuses" which trips over its inspiring story and stumbles into a deep depression as its characters grow more and more irritated with their race to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Also in this category is Tiller Russell and Loren Mendell's "The Bad Boys of Summer", which tells the story of the San Quentin baseball team who, unfortunately, may be the most uncharismatic or cinematic group of inmates out there. In both cases, however, the flaw is in the subject matter and not in the direction itself and all three directors, especially Wolbach, show promise for future projects.
Two docs about obsession offer in-depth looks into their respective subjects and the nature of their psychotic fascinations. The intriguing and innovative "The Ballad of AJ Weberman" utilizes scrap books of footage, old sound recording paired with animation, and enlightening contemporary interviews to paint a portrait of its titular character and his neurotic fixation on and dysfunctional relationship with Bob Dylan. Unfocused but always entertaining, "The Ballad of AJ Weberman" is a comprehensive study of one man's fascination with knowing everything about a celebrity.
On the lighter side of obsession, the best doc in competition this year at Slamdance is Seth Gordon's "The King of Kong". Tempers fly, questions arise and egos go haywire as Gordon follows two men in an epic battle to win the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest score in a classic arcade game, Donkey Kong. Far exceeding the bloated Sundance video game documentary this year, "Chasing Ghosts", "King of Kong" tiptoes across the line of mockery so carefully that the result is a surprisingly universal battle of the brawn that even the biggest Nintendo cynic would find hard it hard not to be engaged in. For this, "King of Kong" not only stands up there with the most inspiring competition docs of the past few years, including "Blue Blood" and "The Heart of the Game", but also brings the entire festival to a level it has not reached for a few years, from just containing some solid films to premiering truly strong pieces that will be remembered long after the snow melts.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Michael Lerman is a freelance writer and programmer for the Woodstock Film Festival and Philadelphia Film Festival.
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