While the Sundance 2008 comes to close and the air clears around the buzz for the big sales out of the premiere and competition sections, the often wrongly overlooked New Frontiers and Midnight programs float to the surface as some of the year's most interesting offerings.
The highlight of the New Frontiers program is easily Jennifer Phang's refreshingly entertaining and original film, "Half Life," a mixed media narrative that combines live action and animation to tell the story of a single mom, her children and the people that surround her, all trying to hold on to their positivity while the earth around them falls apart - a bi-product of global and manmade disasters. Though Phang's film attempts to cover a lot of ground and is, without a doubt, experimental in structure, she manages to never force feed you with the issues, trying to keep the dialog at somewhat of an even keel while the realism of the characters is played out purposefully. The animation, instead of weighing the film down, creates a sort of magical realism, almost as if it holds the key to success of the characters. "Half Life" is beautifully audacious, taking hold of all its risks and letting them run free to flourishing ends.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Mia Trachinger's "Reversion," an obnoxiously divisive, exceptionally masturbatory exercise on existentialism poorly disguised as a drama about an African American woman in Los Angeles, holding together her destiny and taking a deep look at her past, present and future. Not only is the whole film seeped in pretentious, heavy-handed philosophical dialog, the abrasively in-your-face cutting makes it hard to miss the point within the early minutes. What's worse is that beyond the point is nothing but a series of disconnected loose ends, leaving the audience both baffled and frustrated.
Also on the blunt tip is Michelange Quay's "Eat, for This Is My Body," an extremely expressionistic study of the relationship between blacks and whites in Haiti, a relationship that dates back to colonialism. Though pretty thin thematically, "Eat" boasts some beautifully imagery as Quay manages to capture his country on film in a series of captivating sequences. (He turns the extreme close-up of an elderly woman's face into as vast a landscape as any in "Brokeback Mountain").
First up on the Midnight side of things is "The Broken". Any viewers hesitant to see Sean Ellis' sophomore effort can breathe a sigh of relief. A follow-up to his unfocused (and unfunny) romantic comedy, "Cashback," "Broken" is a moody, atmospheric ghost story about woman who's life is turned upside down after she is injured in a car accident with what appears to be her clone. As a writer, Ellis' is dragging behind cinematically, striving to piece together a story out of pieces of terror that are ultimately disconnected from the plot. However, Ellis, as a director, clearly displays a good deal of talent here, almost as if, given the right tools, he could wield them masterfully. "Broken" might not be necessarily be putting his talent to good use, but it's definitely a gigantic step in the right direction.
The US studio-produced midnight selections left a lot to be desired. With the meticulous shot for shot recreation of its original and sub par acting to boot, Michael Haneke's "Funny Games U.S." (a remake of his 1997 German-made film "Funny Games") is the definition of futility. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino defined self-indulgence when he convinced the Weinstein Company to resurrect his favorite b-biker flick director Larry Bishop to make homage to a cinema that Tarantino was one of only five fans of in the first place. The result is Bishop's "Hell Ride" a sloppy, silly, schlock-fest who's charms wear thin after shortly after the credits roll when the over-the-top bravado becomes tedious.
But nothing could be worse than Ari Gold's "The Adventures of Power," an annoyingly pandering, unpleasant, failed comedic exercise about an "air drummer" who leaves home and tries to make it big in the city. His outrageously stupid misadventures play off missing one note at a time. "Power" is poorly conceived, poorly executed, slightly offensive but, worst of all, it attempts to be derivative, especially of Jared Hess' "Napoleon Dynamite," and fails on every count accept to appear as a dime store knockoff.
And, rounding off the Midnight premieres is Olly Blackburn's "Donkey Punch", a stiff jab to the gut of a film centering around a group of young women who, on vacation, shack up with four upper class guys for a fun filled night on their yacht in the Mediterranean. When the titular sex move that is performed on one of the girls out of peer pressure proves fatal, the film turns into a deadly battle of the sexes as the girls scramble to fend off the panicked men that will stop at nothing to cover up their mistake. Though lacking a little bit in visual clarity, the film works on most levels it attempts, homegrown for audience reactions and boasting strong writing and performances.
On a last positive note, it should be mentioned that Sundance's midnight program had a significant quality bump this year, due in part to their concession to showing two non-world premieres, Nacho Vigalondo's "Time Crimes" and "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead", that represent the best of what the current midnight festival circuit has to offer. Both films, which screened previously in the US at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, are two of the best Midnight offerings Park City has seen in years.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.