Sundance 2008: Day Seven

A kick out of Donkey Punch, excellent doc Man On Wire... plus gay porn zombies.

by Amber Wilkinson and Tony Sullivan

We've clearly been watching far too many films this year, since comic anecdotes seem to be thin on the ground. Still, I suppose this means we've listened and obeyed the Sundance request to 'Focus On Film'.

In the realm of interesting facts, however, we offer you this thought. Each year 50,000 people descend on this little skiing resort for the film festival, yet the population is only in the region of around 8,000. Thanks to them, then, for their extreme tolerance and thanks also to the hordes of volunteers who look after everything from the press office to the filmmakers' venues. Special mention, as always, must go to those hardy souls who man the bus stops. A shift may be only four hours long but in sub-zero temperatures it's a big ask - some days four minutes outside is more than enough.

There was good news on the British film front this morning. After the disappointing Incendiary and atmospheric but plot-light The Broken, Donkey Punch had a lot more kick.

Directed by debut helmer Olly Blackburn it is a clever horror film that deserves more than to be just shoved into late-night and frightfest programmes. I'd go so far as to stick my neck out and say it could be a real hit with the horror crowd. It concerns a trio of Yorkshire lasses who go for a weekend away to Mallorca. The moral of the tale, if you can call it that, seems to be don't have drugged up lesbian group sex on the yacht of young, good looking strangers... it will only end in tears. The script by Blackburn and David Bloom is constantly inventive. People are killed in ways you least expect and you're never quite sure who will turn murderous next. A genre film, sure, and one which does take a little while to get going, but an accomplished one nonetheless.

Sadly, Donkey Punch was the highlight of the day for me, with Death In Love straining the bounds of tolerance to breaking point. It's hard to know where to start with this mess of a movie, so I guess it is probably best to begin with the one very clever piece of direction it contains. At the beginning, a Jewish PoW camp inmate is seduced/seducing a Nazi experimenter - we know this as she has just walked through a chamber of horrors, including blinded people and half torsos to reach his office. As they have sex, the screen is filled with scenes of a sexual nature, intercut with images of torture. Deeply disturbing. Yet the rest of the film fails to live up to this momentary promise.

We cut to the mid-90s, now the inmate is a mum of two dysfunctional sons. What transpires is an incredibly talkative and snoozingly dull film. I suppose there is supposed to be some sense of sins of the mothers being visited on the sons but it is mostly lost in a pointless side plot about a scam model agency and sadomasochistic sex.

If that wasn't bad enough, Baghead finished me off completely. I don't walk out of films as a rule, I really don't, but I had the distinct feeling of being in an alien land as I watched the opening 15 minutes of this film by the Duplass brothers. I and a fellow Brit sat at the front of the screening room as gales of laughter washed over us, despite there being no obvious humour onscreen. Maybe the film improved markedly - after all, plenty of people liked their previous outing The Puffy Chair. To be fair, it was off to a bad start due to the subject matter - a group of actors desperate to make a hit film. Ever since Living In Oblivion, this has been a perennial favourite for Indie filmmakers and this year is no exception - The Deal and What Just Happened? are also industry navel-gazing. So, I didn't like it, but for the sake of balance - especially since I didn't go the distance - I leave you with the programme note: "There is a deep, engaged brilliance to Baghead - that is, if you can call a film brilliant when it is bascially about a group of dumb actors, a bag... and a head." I shall say no more.

Tony also had a mixed bag of a day, he writes...

First up was Man On Wire. This BBC Storyville documentary concerns the activities of Philippe Petit, daredevil and wire walker and his ambition to practice his art on a wire across the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Petit’s story is told in flash backs, and features interviews with he and his fellow conspirators as they plan the subterfuge necessary to get themselves and the necessary equipment into the WTC in 1974. The film comes across as an ode to the free spirit, a courageous if quite possibly insane individual and the strange beauty of the buildings that now represent something entirely different. It is overlaid by Michael Nyman’s beautiful score culled and re-orchestrated from his back catalogue. A total delight. Petit himself was lurking in the Yarrow bar in the evening looking unexpectedly like a normal human being for someone capable of extraordinary feats. This film has been generating an awful lot of buzz around the bars of Park City, so look out for it when it hits the Beeb.

Next I caught an audience screening of Sleep Dealer, a science fiction tale set in Mexico which takes as its premise the idea that migrant workers won’t have to physically migrate in the future in order to work in the US, courtesy of virtual reality and robot drones. Water is managed and sold by corporations which make life difficult for the farming community. The action centres on the son of such a farmer, Memo, a young fellow whose own illicit computer activity may have resulted in a personal tragedy. A film enriched by good ideas that needs a little more punch.

Last up was Otto; Or Up With Dead People, a delirious tale of gay sex and zombies which may very well be the best gay porn zombie movie I have ever seen (although it is, admittedly, in a field of one). The action focuses on the recently re-animated Otto who falls in with an avant garde film maker who has an open casting call for zombies. The movie is occasionally funny and touching but way, way out there. The makers should perhaps collaborate on the next Crispin Glover feature.

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