Sundance Film Festival 2010: Opening night and day one

Happythankyoumoreplease, Restrepo, Last Train Home and Hesher

by Nick Da Costa and Amber Wilkinson

Enemies Of The People

Enemies Of The People

Nick Da Costa writes... Where are the films Robert, where are the films? Is it me? My reply was the ice-cold winds of Park City as I arrived to the first day of Sundance with no actual films to see. Thanks to a lackadaisical shuttle service that rebuffed me twice while I waited to be picked up from the Hyatt hotel, three miles away, I arrived a little dazed and disappointed that I’d missed the opening press conference that could have put me several rows and cameras away from Sundance himself.

A minor obstacle, at best, and so press pass nabbed (thank you, Elizabeth, for the welcome greeting), an ice-blasted tutorial outside the Eccles theater in the ways of procuring tickets when you have none (thank you Dora for spotting my ears were turning purple) - pig-stupid-ignorance as to the cold-weather dress-etiquette put an end to that - and finally a rather confused nap - for some reason a rather persistent draft had decided it wanted to insert itself into my spine - brought Day 1 to a close. And no, I’m not a pensioner/And yes, I do have my own teeth, thank you very much.

With something approximating sleep and an icy hob nail boot of wind to the rear helping me correct my rather dazed course, so began Day 2 - my first day proper of this fascinating festival. My initial jet-lag confusion is fading, my enthusiasm building, as I marvel at the well-oiled machine that is Sundance. Geographically retarded as I am, the frequent shuttle buses with their helpful drivers pointing out every aspect of your journey are a godsend. The friendly volunteers beavering away at their desks and computers, ever patient, no matter how many times they might have heard the request. The unique screening venues where locals of all ages rub shoulders with press, cinephile and filmmaker alike. Any of these things incentive enough to kick it into gear and get on with exactly what you’re there for: watching movies.

So. No longer a Sundance Virgin. And what a movie to be deflowered by. Any examination of the terrible rule of the Khmer Rouge, one of the darkest periods in any history, is not going to be an easy ride - and that's certainly true of Enemies Of The People. I have an affinity with Cambodia, after spending close to a month traversing its cities, temples and beaches. The one thing that caught my attention and touched me most was the beaming smiles you were often greeted with. How could such vigour and positivism exist in the aftermath of such horror? Does this generation even understand what actually happened?

Unravelling with a chilling matter-of-factness co-directors Lemkin and Sambath take us through a years in the making series of interviews building up to the arrest of Pol Pot’s right hand man, Brother Number Two. Set against the seemingly benign and often beautiful landscape of the Killing Fields and other execution sites, we’re presented with footage of an unsettling friendship formed with a man who could be bouncing a baby on his nap one moment before dismissing the people as "infections" to be solved with brutal expediency, the next. We see first hand the effect of his belief as testimonies from Khmer Rouge foot soldiers reveal them to be not men, and in one case, a woman, fuelled by violence or malice. They were simply following orders. Whether out of fear or a the effect of an irresistible controlling force, one thing is certain. As Brother Number Two is lead away to the helicopter that will ferry him to face charges, Sambath admits to feeling a certain sadness. Not because he is a good man, undeserving of this fate, but because of the bond he has formed over these revelatory and powerful interviews.

Happythankyoumoreplease
Happythankyoumoreplease

After sitting inside the mind of a mass murderer for an hour and a half, some much needed levity was in order. Thanks to a magnetic central story Happythankyoumoreplease delivers. It’s not perfect. The ensemble cast telling tales of New York love and friendship boasts some strong female performances - Malin Ackerman a standout - but their tales are often burdened by a rote examination of social ennui and whimsy.

Hesher starts off very promisingly, building on a, literally, incendiary performance from Joseph Gordon Levitt, who thankfully recovers from his neutered sap in (500) Days of Summer and is back channelling the confidence and verbal virility that he displayed so potently in Brick. He’s the raging ID that invades the home of a boy wracked by grief over the death of his mother, and left to practically fend for himself, as his father - a comedically subdued and bearded Rainn Wilson - sits in a sofa coma and pops pills. There’s a kind of Grimm Rebel Without A Cause riff going on, all from the Sal Mineo perspective as the boy crushes on an uglified Natalie Portman and Hesher starts to take a destructive interest. Add a massive dose of guitar power riffs and hilariously explicit humour and you should have yourself a potential Audience Award winner. Alas, the ending is a little too neat, the metaphors exposed for a testicle gag and a walk along with a coffin that emotes in slo-mo, but ends up a little goofy. Something Hesher, the character, most certainly is not.

Amber Wilkinson writes... this half of the Eye For Film Sundance squad arrived sometime after midnight last night, around 24 hours after I left Scotland. Thank the film gods then for the timezone difference between Utah and Edinburgh which meant that despite the jet lag - or, rather, because of it - I was awake at 7am this morning. It is a bit odd not to have been at the opening press conference this year - I would have been interested to see how the dynamic between Robert Redford and newly installed festival director John Cooper is working out, although since they have been working together for years, I'm guessing it was more of the same.

This year, sloganwise, Sundance seems to have come over distinctly Terminator with its ditching of the staid but sensible suggestion to 'Focus on Film' in favour of the more edgy(?) “Reborn. Rebellion. Rebirth. Rebel. Renewed. Rebooted”. So is that just a lot of old Rs? Well, time will tell, but certainly the decision to jetison the opening night film in favour of showing three that highlight different aspects of the festival is a good one, not least because the opening nighters (with the exception of last year's excellent Mary & Max) have been rather lacklustre of late.

Certainly that theme of kicking out the old is present in the festival onscreen 'branding' this year, with its messages including: "This is the renewed rebellion."

Restrepo packs a punch
Restrepo packs a punch

It's too early to say whether this rebel yell is going to pay off, but my Sundance certainly got off to a great start, with the powerfully moving Afghanistan documentary Restrepo. It's fair to say that Afghanistan has been coming increasingly into the spotlight over the past few years - in the public and political arenas but also on film. Doubtless there are still many documentaries to emerge from the troubled region but this - featuring moving and extremely clear-sighted footage from filmmakers embedded with a US battallion in the Taliban stronghold of the Korengal Valley - will live long in the memory.

Tim Hetherington (who was cinematographer on the almost as powerful Rwanda documentary The Devil Came On Horseback) and Sebastian Junger get what appears to be almost unfettered access as the soldiers go about their lives (and deaths) in this cockpit of violence. Read the full review here.

Lixin Fan's Last Train Home
Lixin Fan's Last Train Home

I stuck with the documentary theme for my second film of the day - Last Train Home, directed by Lixin Fan, who provided sound recording and translation on Up The Yangtze, so is no stranger to the subject matter of the effect that industrialisation is having on families in China. The title refers to the yearly pilgrimage made by the country's millions of migrant workers, to be back with their families for Chinese New Year - often the only time that they return home. The result of the Last Train Home is chaos at the station mirrored by the chaos in the families who spend months apart as a result of the migration. Fan focuses on the emotional impact on one couple, whose two children live with their grandmother while they work in a factory sewing garments day and night and living in tiny, down-at-heel quarters at the plant. Read the full review.

I finished up the day with Happythankyoumoreplease, which despite sounding like the breathless response of a 12-year-old for whom English is not a first language, is as Nick said, a gentle tale of love and friendship in New York. Laugh out loud funny in places, the central plot plank, concerning a freelance writer who ends up looking after a kid who gets lost on a subway. This is less contrived than it sounds and makes for some good humour, but subplots about his alopecia-afflicted best pal and a couple agonising over a move to LA are much less engaging and suffer badly from cliche. Still, it's a promising debut, the performances are good and there is enough humour and poignancy here to win over a crowd.

Not much to report in the star-spotting department, apart from seeing Todd Haynes from afar in the Marriot bar, so I leave you with this bit of Americana... as I was being brought by shuttle bus to my lodging last night, I spotted the best plumber's van ever. On the back, in addition to talk of pipe fixing at your convenience, was a list of his other services, namely hypnotism and astrology. One wonders if, when he cannot fix a boiler, he just instructs people to be warm. If so, I might get in touch with him as it is, as ever, bloody chilly here.

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