Sundance 2008: Day Five

The terrific Towelhead, Spurlock's search for Bin Laden, filmmakers' panel on black filmmaking and more.

by Amber Wilkinson and Tony Sullivan

The coldest day of the festival so far, I discovered an interesting phenomema after leaving the motel with damp hair - it froze en route to the car - fortunately, on defrosting, there seems to be no lasting damage but I have made a note to self not to repeat the experience. On a day when I'm planning to watch the latest Morgan Spurlock film, it seems somewhat ironic that we find ourselves in McDonalds for breakfast. Not somewhere we'd normally go but given the fact that finding time to eat is almost impossible in between screenings, I doubt one trip will Super Size Me.

Before I watch Spurlock go in search of Bin Laden, I catch what turns out to be my favourite film of the festival so far. Towelhead - previously screened at Toronto under the less catchy title Nothing Is Private - is the directorial debut of Alan (American Beauty) Ball - and it lives up to expectations.

It tells the story of Jasira (a luminous performance by newcomer Summer Bishill). A precocious 13-year-old, she finds herself dumped on her father and his anger management issues by her indifferent mum. As she begins to experience a sexual awakening with her black boyfriend, of whom her father disapproves, there's also trouble of a sexual nature brewing for her courtesy of her white-bread, right-wing neighbour (Aaron Eckhart).

There is no denying that the material here is very difficult. The film deals with sexual and physical abuse issues, which some may find tough. However, the subject matter is handled with care and attention and the result is never salacious. Ball also mines a deep vein of dark humour throughout, using it to offset the darker themes, although he never lets things become frivolous. This is a carefully crafted and thought-provoking piece of cinema that asks meaningful questions of almost all sections of society. It is to be hoped that distributors don't brand it too hot to handle.

Next up was Morgan Spurlock's Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? Bringing his brand of Diet Michael Moore to the Middle East issues, Spurlock again proves to be a personable and inventive documentarian. An opening sequence of an animated Bin Laden dancing all over the world to MC Hammer's U Can't Touch This is inspired, although things don't really live up to the early promise. Your average British adult will not find anything they haven't seen before in this romp through the Middle East, which sees Spurlock visit everywhere from Egypt and Israel to Pakistan in search of the al-Qaeda leader. What he discovers along the way is that 'it's a small world after all' and that 'people are people'. Reservations aside, however, for those who don't pay much attention to the politics of the Middle East - and younger people who may well be put off drier documentary offerings - this does represent a pretty good round up of the state things are in. I could easily see it becoming a useful teaching tool - although why Spurlock chooses to frame his travels in the context of his wife's pregnancy is anybody's guess.

Tony had a busy morning too, he writes...First up an interview with composer Christopher Young, who has scored the Charlize Theron starrer, Sleepwalking. I haven't seen the film, so he tells me it is a mood piece. An extremely prolific fellow, he has scored everything from Hellraiser through to Species and the recent Exorcism Of Emily Rose. I mention guilty pleasure film Barbarian Queen, and he tells me that originally the score was written for a film called Wheels Of Fire produced by the infamous penny-pinching Roger Corman, who reused the score for the Barbarian Queen opus. He said he has enjoyed collaborating with Brit director, Jon Amiel, on The Core, Entrapment and Copycat.

Time for a film next - The Year of Getting to Know Us. Jimmy Fallon plays Chris Rocket, a NY based writer, and his significant other, Anne (Lucy Liu). Chris has to return to his old home town, Arcade, Florida, when his golf-obsessed father (Tom Arnold) has a stroke. Chris has to revisit childhood demons, meets up with an old sweetheart and his best school buddy. Most scary is the reunion with his mother, who is clearly on another planet, a deliriously wacky performance from Sharon Stone of all people. Chris has to work out his own relationships too despite impediments. Dead on in it's examination of the dysfunctional American family the whole needs a bit more oomph to make it memorable. Ileanna Douglas steals the flick as the family's next door neighbor.

Finally I took in one of the Filmmakers' panel discussions. This one concerned the subject of Black in America. The panel moderated by former NY Times critic, Elvis Mitchell, comprised Exec. Vice President of the Center for American Progress Melody Barnes, writer/director Orlando Bagwell, white filmmaker Katrina Browne - whose film Traces Of Trade concerns her family's part in the slave trade - and actors Danny Glover and Nick Cannon. Danny Glover noted that "it is not enough to create reality it is important to create reality we want". Nick Cannon was asked if he was worried as to how his image as portrayed across the world, to which he responded that he was worried about how his image was portrayed to his grandmother.

Then it was time to sit and write - finding time to do this is pretty damn tricky.

Meanwhile, back in the press screening rooms, Amber was settling down to watch Choke.

She writes... I think I've been spoiled by David Fincher's Fight Club. It was such an accomplished and multi-faceted realising of Chuck Palahniuk that my expectations may have been unfairly high for Clark Gregg's debut feature. I should confess, I have not read the book on which the film is based, so can't comment on the pluses and minuses of the adaptation, just on the film itself.

Sam Rockwell is a med school dropout who works as part of an historical enactment town during the day while running a choking scam in restaurants by night. He chokes himself in order to raise cash to keep his dementia-stricken mother in hospital, as he tries to find out the truth about his father. Throw in sex addicts anonymous meetings and a doctor (Kelly Macdonald) who has come up with an unusual - and sexual - way of helping his mum and it's a busy little plotline. And yet, all in all very little happens.

This plays mostly like a pedestrian indie romance, with some underlying black comedy. The characters feel too flat to be engaging and despite good performances by Rockwell and Anjelica Huston as his mum, it is rather forgettable. Despite this, within hours of being screened it had picked up a $5million deal with Fox Searchlight, so clearly they are convinced of its merits.

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