Sundance Diary: Opening night and day one

Mary and Max best opener in years, Brit sci-fi Moon, Iran doc The Glass House and Lee Daniels' Push.

by Amber Wilkinson

It's tempting to say that you should hit the ground running if you want success at Sundance, were it not for the fact that such rash manoeuvres would leave you hitting the ground, backside first, in the snow, like as not. Mentally, it's pretty tough to prepare, too, the potential of a banana skin is ever-present, from the logistics of getting from one end of town to the other to trying to work out what on earth the Sundance programme writers are driving at in their programme notes. Best then, to approach the avalanche of viewing opportunity in laidback fashion, letting it carry you where it will, rather than adopting a stubborn stance and getting buried.

This year, however, the change that was in the air at the opening press conference (read about that here) has rubbed off on the weather. There doesn't seem to have been snow for days and the sun is shining brightly, while the streets are the clearest I've ever seen them. There's been changes to the press side of things, too. Gone are the millions of water bottles from the previous sponsor and in come more environmentally friendly drinking bottles to be filled at stations situated up and down Park City. It's a great idea in theory, although I haven't seen too many of them being put to use, yet. Still, it's early days.

Change was also afoot in the press screening room at The Yarrow Hotel. This has always been something of an adhoc venue. Being a hotel, screens were bunged into a couple of largish conference rooms and conference chairs of the most ungiving kind, supplied. This year, the screening rooms have been combined and a plush bank of proper cinema style seating greeted our jetlagged behinds as we settled in for the opening night premiere press screening of Aussie "clayography" (that's claymation to you and me) Mary And Max.

It also proves a huge change for the better as far as opening night films go, which have often proved to be exceptionally disappointing and destined to never receive a release in the UK, in fact, the worthy but lacklustre 2006 opening, Chicago 10, didn't even get a cinema release Stateside. It's a pleasure to report, then, that if there is any justice in the world, Adam Elliot's Mary And Max should live long and prosper. The story of an unlikely penfriendship that blossoms between a middle-aged Asperger's Syndrome sufferer in New York and a lonely Aussie eight-year-old girl is a fine mix of black comedy and emotional punch. It has a wonderfully distinctive visual style and a script that puts many non-animated features to shame.

The run of good cinema continues on day one proper, when after reading the synopsis for Rory Culkin starrer Lymelife, which makes it sound like yet another nerdy bullied boy comes of age indie - sadly 10 a penny these days - I plump instead for Moon. The main draw is Sam Rockwell, a fine actor who is surely due a hit, plus the very idea of a British science-fiction film set in space is intriguing.

Good choice, then, for while Lymelife may well be a very well made film, I doubt it will be as engaging as Duncan Jones' feature debut. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut at the end of a three-year solo mission to harvest Helium-3 energy from the moon, who begins to think he may be losing it just as he is on the verge of being sent home to his family - but soon he becomes convinced that his paymasters may have a more sinister agenda. It is hard to talk too much about Rockwell's performance without spoiling a key element of the plot, but he is terrific, able to show the full extent of his acting range. Although the film has a British sensibility, by which I mean, there is a focus on plot rather than explosive bells and whistles, it looks as good as anything Hollywood might produce. The special effects - of which there are plenty but which, again, I won't go into for fear of wrecking the surprises in store - are seamless.

Exiting the press screening, it's clear the British press are a lot keener on the film than the American. It's true, there are a couple of plotholes and the pacing is a little off in the early segment of the film, but overall Jones is to be applauded for trying something different and putting together an accomplished sci-fi with enough nods to other films to keep fanboys on their own little space odyssey from here until 2010 (look out, in particular, for Bell's plants, all of whom are named after sci-fi directors).

Determined to pack in a few screenings today, I then head to see The Glass House - a documentary about women on the margins in modern Tehran. The film, directed by Hamid Rahmanian, focuses on a day centre which aims to help the girls - many of whom suffer addictions, beatings at home or worse - to build up their skillset and their self-esteem. There is no doubt that these young women's stories are heartbreaking but they are hindered rather than helped by the direction, which seems to thrust a camera in their faces at every opportunity. The editing is rough and ready and the camera movements frequently sweeping and erratic, which detracts from the testimony. Treading similar ground to Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway, it doesn't measure up in terms of filmmaking technique, although the situations it documents deserve to reach an audience.

Women in trouble is also the subject of my last film of the day, the public world premiere of the not-very-catchily titled Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire, as opposed to Push: The Film Starring Dakota Fanning. Directed by Lee Daniels, whose last film, Shadowboxer, was savaged both by critics and the box office, it tells the story of Precious Jones, whose life has precious little to celebrate. Morbidly obese and pregnant, for the second time, with her father's baby, she is illiterate and picked upon at school and emotionally and physically abused by her overbearing mother (Mo'Nique).

Sent to an education programme, Each One Teach One, with other damaged young women, she begins to find a strength to pull herself beyond her mother's expectations. Mixing a good dose of humour with some very poignant emotional scenes, there are certainly things to praise about Daniel's film. Not least, his cast, with the episodes between newcomer Gabourney Sidibe, who plays Precious, and Mo'Nique, particularly impressive and, dare I say it, award-worthy. That said, the film is an odd mishmash of genre, combining the cliche of downtrodden kids do good with an incest plotline and 'dream' sequences which feel somewhat incongruous. Although the actors pull off the key emotional scenes, it is a testimony to their ability, rather than the script, which feels stilted in places.

The film will doubtless play much better to a US audience - particularly a northern, urban demographic - than overseas. The audience at the premiere certainly lapped it up, giving the film and cast a standing ovation, and the assembled crowd weren't disappointed when it came to star quality either. Just about all the cast and crew were in attendance - and, in what has got to be both the longest introduction to a film I've seen at Sundance and longest wait for the Q&A, Daniels went on to thank them all. I agree, it's good to thank folk, but getting everyone from the producer to the chief cook at bottle washer to stand up while everyone claps is taking things a little too far. Still, it was good to see so many of the cast had been able to come, and the author Sapphire was literally jumping up and down with excitement as Daniels talked about the making of the film.

All the Each One Teach One actresses were in attendance - all looking impossibly glamorous, although the chilly climate at Sundance always gives you an urge to tell those in slinky outfits to put on a pulley. He then got the main part players - Mo'Nique and Gabourney Sidbile, along with Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, who put in strong supporting performances, up on stage. In fact, the only major member of the cast not in attendance was Lenny Kravitz ("He's a rock star so he don't take planes, trains and such... but he sends his love," said Daniels).

Taking questions, Mo'Nique was asked "what she is going to wear to the Oscars." Her declaration of: "Absolutely nothing", went down a storm.

Asked about the inspiration for her book, Sapphire said: "It's a real composite character. I had a student who was illiterate, another who was very heavy so I put all of those part together to make this one empathic, powerful character."

Daniels went on to talk about his "bold casting" of Mo'Nique and Mariah and the importance of "taking a chance all the way".

The cast went on to talk about key "magical" scenes, with Mo'Nique revealing that all the press want to know is: "How was Mariah Carey?" She added: "She was so briliant."

Finally, and somewhat improbably, Daniels went on to talk about being "banged up". He said: "I was banged up by my first movie when it made history and won the Oscar. With my second movie I was banged up with Cannes. My third movie was banged up critically." He went on to add that he created a world with Shadowboxer that people didn't relate to. He added it was very hard to come back "to please people like you," referring to the questioner.

Mariah Carey added: "I was so grateful that he took a chance on me as an actress. We really clicked as individuals.

"It pushed me to go to a place that surprised me and it allowed me to strip away layers of, kind of, preconceived notions of..."

Daniels interrupts: "Diva" amid much laugher from the audience and Carey, who added: "It forced me to really deal with myself as not anything else as coming to work and really being able to try to serve the material and really being part of such wonderful casting and such an incredible team."

You'll have noticed we haven't mentioned anything about food today, largely because, after breakfast, it was off the agenda. All of which meant that industrial quantities of pizza were called for before heading home. No change there then.

Tony, meanwhile, saw Taking Chance, his diary will follow shortly.

Oh, and for my column today, I'd like to thank my hairdresser, my cat and my mum...

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