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Notes From Opening Night: Four Films Kick Off Sundance 2012

Notes From Opening Night: Four Films Kick Off Sundance 2012

The 2012 Sundance Film Festival kicked off last night with four films from each of the four competition programs: Todd Louiso’s “Hello I Must Be Going” (U.S. Narrative), Lauren Greenfield’s “Queen of Versailles” (U.S. Documentary), Kieran Darcy-Smith’s “Wish You Were Here” (World Narrative) and Malik Bendjelloul’s ““Searching For Sugar Man” (U.S. Documentary).

Indiewire was on the scene at all four screenings, which were expectedly met with varied responses, though both docs seemed to substantially impress Park City audiences.

Here’s a rundown of all four screenings:

‘Hello I Must Be Going’: Melanie Lynskey Steals The Show

“Love Liza” director Todd Louiso returned last night to Park City to premiere “Hello I Must Be Going,” a finely etched character study featuring a strong lead performance from Melanie Lynskey (“Win Win”).

In the drama, Lynskey stars as Amy Minsky, a 35 year-old living with her parents (led by a scene stealing Blythe Danner), after getting dumped by her husband. Things appear to be bleak for Amy, but her life takes a turn for the better when she embarks on a sex fueled affair with a 19 year-old struggling actor (played by newcomer Christopher Abbott).

The supporting players are all uniformly strong, but Louiso has an MVP in Lynskey. The New Zealander got her start alongside Kate Winslet in “Heavenly Creatures” and has never stopped working since. The past five years have seen her profile rise with stellar supporting turns in “Up in the Air,” “Away We Go,” “The Informant!” and “Win Win.” In “Hello I Must Be Going,” the bit player finally gets to take on lead duties and she more than acquits herself. A Sundance win for Best Actress wouldn’t be out of the question.

All eyes were pegged on the demure actress during the Q&A following the warmly received screening. She earned big laughs after addressing an Australian audience member she couldn’t see with: “I can’t see you and I’m from New Zealand, so I’m naturally afraid.” Of her character, Lynskey said she was “a gift,” one “so fully realized.” She said she considered herself very fortunate to be part of this ensemble. “If this was the worst film of all time,” she continued, “at least I made it with these people. But I think it turned out well.” [Nigel M. Smith]

‘Queen of Versailles’: Investigating The Lives of the 1%

In what was the first of four opening night screenings at Sundance, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary “Queen of Versailles” got major laughs from the audience while providing an excellent kick-off to the fest. The film, it seems, may be the film that most directly addresses the political framing of Occupy Wall Street; it is, in effect, an investigation of the lives of the 1% (imagine that phrase rolling off the tongue of Robin Leach).  Jackie and David Siegel had decided to build a house inspired by Versailles.  When all their plans were figured in, the house as planned was prepared to be America’s largest. And then the markets collapsed.  Their house was sent into foreclosure, but David has been able to stall, for the moment, the sale of his property.

Last week, the festival was sued by David Siegel for originally releasing a film description that described the couple’s journey as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags story.”  At the point of the lawsuit, no one had seen the film.  With a dozen or so minutes to go in the film, Siegel describes his story as “almost like a riches to rags story.”  In the defamation suit he filed, he claims this offending language as the festival’s main assault against his reputation.  Oy vey!

While Festival Director John Cooper seemed eager to move the Q&A session along (the lawsuit is still going through the system), Greenfield was able to take the questions on head on.  Only one question, directly related to the case, provoked an answer that sounded a lot like “No comment.”  Curiously, Jackie Siegel was in the audience seeing the film for the first time.  Dressed in a tight leopard print suit, Ms. Siegel stood up to acknowledge the audience, displaying the wave she perfected as Mrs. Florida 1993.  She sat down quickly, assumedly unable to take questions with the lawsuit pending. Several biz people came out of the screening casting the film off as a “TV flick,” but it kept the audience enraptured — and utterly unsure of what to do with the pin-up subject stuck in this bizarre situation sitting in their midst. [Bryce J. Renninger]

‘Searching For Sugar Land’: Sundance’s First ‘Wow Moment’?

The first wow moment of Sundance 2012 occurred opening night when a packed house at the Library Center Theatre met elusive musician Rodriguez, the subject of director Malik Bendjelloul’s World Cinema Documentary entry, “Searching For Sugar Man.”

Bendjelloul’s documentary, which took four years to complete, follows the little- known musician who released two albums in the States to zero notice in the ‘70s but later become a phenomenal success in South Africa, highlighted by the elaborate rumors of his death ranging from suicide to lighting himself on fire on stage and burning to death.

In 1998 Rodriguez was tracked down by two South Africans – a man named “Sugar,” who had become obsessed with Rodriguez, and an investigative journalist – and they invited him to tour South Africa, launching a rebirth for the musician.

At the Q&A, the Swedish director fumbled through introductions of the producers, crew and other key players. Then finally, after getting the high sign from someone in the back of the theater, Bendjelloul took a deep breath and introduced Rodriguez, along with one of his daughters, who flew in from Detroit.

The crowd gave the two a standing ovation as Rodriguez gingerly walked toward the front of the theater wearing a black suit and trademark dark sunglasses.

Still living in the same Detroit home where he’s lived the last 40 years, Rodriguez seemed very humbled by the reaction. He was also playful, asking Bendjelloul to speak in his native tongue because Rodriguez loves the language so much.

Most of Rodriguez’s lyrics refer to the working man’s plight and, for most of his life, he’s made a living in construction work. When an audience member told him he epitomizes the blue-collar American, he leaned into the mic and calmly replied, “Poor doesn’t mean dirty or stupid.”

“Music is inside all our own lives,” said Bendjelloul. “We try to portray that [in this movie].”  

Rodriguez will perform at the ASCAP Music Café on Monday at 4:40.

“Searching For Sugar Man” appears to be the first breakout hit of the festival, as reaction on Twitter was extremely positive. [Jason Guerrasio]

‘Wish You Were Here’: An Indie Australian ‘Hangover Part 2’?

“Sundance has a very rich history with Australian films,” Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Trevor Groth said upon introducing Kieran Darcy-Smith’s “Wish You Were Here,” the opening night selection from the World Narrative Competition. “Going back to ‘Shine’ and most recently ‘Animal Kingdom.’ And I think this film is going to join their ranks.”

Groth’s proclaimation might not quite prove accurate. Though occasionally quite suspenseful and full of accomplished performances, “Wish You Were Here” works as a sort of Australian indie version of “The Hangover Part 2” – and not in a good way (if there is such a thing).

Two couples — Alice (Felicity Price, who also co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Darcy-Smith) and Dave (Joel Edgerton), and Steph (Teresa Palmer) and Jeremy (Antony Starr) — head to Cambodia for an impromptu getaway that culminates in one drug and alcohol fueled night.  The narrative crosses back and forth between that night and its aftermath, which sees one of the four mysteriously disappearing. Revelations slowly make their way to the forefront as “Wish You Were Here” builds admirable tension. But in the end what comes together falls short of particularly interesting.

Being that it was Darcy-Smith’s first feature film, the director was endearingly nervous at the film’s Q&A.

“That was excruciating,” he said as he took the stage.

Darcy-Smith then went onto introduce his cast and crew, including his wife/co-screenwriter Price (who gives perhaps the film’s most impressive performance). An audience member asked if they would be up for pursuing future projects together.

“Aside from our kids,” he joked. “We’re both writing and prepping and writing other stuff at the moment. But, yeah, I’d jump into bed with her again in a heartbeat. Figuratively! But I’ll tell you one thing, it’s a great process. Because you’re living and breathing the film the whole time that you’re writing it. Rather than turning up at preordained meetings and so forth. You’re changing diapers and going for walks and driving in the car and talking about the script the whole time. It’s extraordinary.” [Peter Knegt]

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