Sundance Film Festival 2010: Days Seven and Eight

Lovers Of Hate, High School, Cyrus, Son Of Babylon, Red Chapel, Please Give, Howl and The Kids Are All Right.

by Amber Wilkinson

Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei and John C Reilly in Cyrus

Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei and John C Reilly in Cyrus

Something weird happens to time at Sundance. It's almost like the first part of the week gets stuck in a snowdrift as the stars hit town and do their thing and journalists who've forgotten just how knackering it is to run around town in sub-zero temperatures while eating nothing but triangular shaped food covered in cheese, start to show the strain. Then, when Wednesday arrives, it's as though the time begins to melt away, hacks realise they've spent far too long chasing down interviews and not enough time sitting in cinemas, while stars remember there's something really important in LA that they must get back for.

So, I decided to spend my last couple of days at Sundance doing some serious screen hugging - leading me to the inevitable conclusion that 2010 has been a pretty good year for the festival.

Those familiar with my diary rumblings will know that Baghead has become like a stain on my soul. It holds the dubious honour of being the last film that I walked out of and I've always suspected that that had a lot less to do with anything the Duplass brothers put up on screen, than with the fact that it was my fifth film of the day way back at Sundance 2008 and I simply couldn't face it.

With this in mind, I was somewhat nervous about Cyrus. What if I hated it? Even if I did I would have to sit through it. Good news all round then, since the Duplass bros first work within the studio system is a sweet film - I doubt it if will linger long in the mind, but there is a sugar-coated acidity to it that is pretty compelling.

HIGH School also relishes in the absurd and is the latest in the increasingly long string of Eighties nostalgia films, heavily influenced by John Hughes (cf Bart Got A Room, Stay Cool). This time around debut director John Stalberg creates the sort of mash-up that might happen if Cheech and Chong ran headlong into Ferris Bueller's Day Off - and I predict it will be one of the breakout hits from Sundance this year.

HIGH School director John Stalberg
HIGH School director John Stalberg

Despite its stoner credentials, High School thrives on speed, read the full review here.

Also sure to get a decent run at the box office is The Kids Are All Right - already sold to Focus Features and yet another comedy making a virtue out of its established cast members. Here it is Julianne Moore and Annette Bening who prove there's life in characters past the age of 40, as two lesbians who have a happy family courtesy of artificial insemination. But the teenage kids Joni (Mia Wasikowska, soon to be seen in the upcoming Alice In Wonderland) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are keen to find out more about dad. When they first track down sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) all seems to be well, but it isn't long before his presence begins to upset the family dynamic.

Very funny in places and with a premise that feels fresh, even by indie film standards there is lots to enjoy here, although like many Sundance films it doesn't quite manage to sustain the laughs to the end of the runtime.

Red Chapel director Mads Brügger and Jacob Nossell
Red Chapel director Mads Brügger and Jacob Nossell

The humour, meanwhile, is of a much edgier variety in The Red Chapel - a documentary set in North Korea - which should have a happy future life on a TV channel near you. Mads Brügger's film sees him take two comics - one a spastic (a term he uses himself) - to North Korea. Both of the comedians were born in South Korea but have lived virtually their whole lives in Denmark. The end result is an eye-opening look at the mechanics within the closed down country. What is most important about this documentary, however, is the self-awareness of Brügger - providing the sort of deadpan narration Werner Herzog has latterly become famous for - as he becomes aware that if the North Koreans are using the comics for propaganda purposes, in a bizarre way, so is he. A compelling and thought-provoking portrait.

Son Of Babylon director Mohamed Al Daradji and producer Isabelle Stead
Son Of Babylon director Mohamed Al Daradji and producer Isabelle Stead

Also compelling, although in a much more heartrending way, is Son Of Babylon, the latest film from Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradji, which continues his examination of the aftermath of the fall of Saddam. It tells the story of a Kurdish grandmother who travels with her grandson across Iraq to try to find out what happened to her long-vanished son. Beautifully acted by non-professionals, this film lifts the lid on the very real plight of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had members of their family 'disappear' during Hussein's Anfal extermination. This, however, is not an angry film, but rather one which concerns itself with themes of reconcilliation and forgiveness. Fully deserving of being seen outside of the festival circuit. Read the full review here.

Of the films I saw in my last two days at Sundance, the least successful was Nicole Holofcener's latest Please Give. It is yet another of the director's sprawling comedy dramas and I'm increasingly find that they are succumbing to the law of diminishing returns. This time around the action focuses on a family headed by Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) and their uneasy relationship with the grandaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall) of the elderly lady who lives in the apartment next door (and which Alex and Kate own). Sporadically funny but periodically unbelievable, the shifting tone of the film means it never really settles into a groove. Holofcener fans will doubtless lap it up but most people will find it becomes tiresome.

The directors of Howl
The directors of Howl

Howl is also likely to be divisive in terms of audience reaction. Certainly several critics I know claimed to find it dull. In fact, I begin to wonder if I saw the same film they did, since the flick I caught was a commendably experimental take on a biopic.

This is certainly no ordinary portrait of poet Allen Ginsberg, focussing as it does on the specific period during which his poem Howl was taken to trial for obscenity. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman recreate the coutroom drama, intercutting it with Ginsberg (James Franco) talking about the inspiration that led to the writing of Howl and with animated segments bringing some of the poetry to life. The depth of the research is impressive - the animation, for example, is based on drawings by a contemporary of Ginsberg who originally illustrated one of the poems in howl - and Franco is excellent in the central role. Surprisingly accessible even for those who are new to Ginsberg's life and work.

Zach Green, Alex Karpovsky, Chris Doubek and Heather Kafka looking somewhat scandalised (can't for the life of me remember why)
Zach Green, Alex Karpovsky, Chris Doubek and Heather Kafka looking somewhat scandalised (can't for the life of me remember why)

And finally, it is time to sing the praises of Lovers Of Hate, which I caught on the last day of my Sundance 2010 adventure. Written and directed by Bryan Poyser (Dear Pillow) it's a slickly dark tale of torn loyalty and love gone bad. Rudy (Chris Doubek) and Paul (Alex Karpovsky) are like chalk and cheese - one a failure whose marriage to Diana (Heather Kafka) has crumbled, the other a hotshot children's author, whose books just happen to be based on Rudy's stories to him as a child.

When some serious opportunism from Paul - leads to Diana spending a sultry weekend in a Utah condo with him, fate intervenes as, unbeknownst to the two lovebirds, Rudy is also in the house. This sounds like a long set up but really it isn't and the presence of the sibling rivals and the object of their affection under one roof makes for some excellent black comedy. Doubek, in particular, is excellent - especially given that he barely speaks at all in the latter part of the movie. Yet another film in the US Dramatic Competition that shows Sundance have picked well this year.

That's the end of the capsule reviews - and most of my sanity - for this year's Sundance, assessment of the winners and losers coming soon.

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