Sundance 2011: Day Four

Red State, Perfect Sense, Life In A Day and a drama of my own making.

by Amber Wilkinson

One of the many stunning images in Life In A Day

One of the many stunning images in Life In A Day

"Just let me hold your leg and try to relax."

Easier said than done when you find yourself sporting a dodgy pair of paper shorts and your naked leg in the arms of an incredibly cute, young doctor. This is not the plot of one of today's films, but rather a slice of my own personal drama, which saw me slip on a rather nasty patch of black ice and twist my knee until it made a sound that knees are not normally wont to make. I daresay there was a element of comedy to the pratfall which saw my banana spin out of my hand as my leg went in the other direction but it was, sadly, no laughing matter once I got to my feet.

Still, reassured that I could still bend it - the knee, that is, the banana was not so lucky - I was determined to make the first movie of Day Four, if only to see what all the fuss regarding Kevin Smith's Red State was all about. Smith has been carefully constructing a three-ring circus around his film for weeks, or so it seems.

Firstly, the subject matter comes with a whiff of controversy, since it holds up extreme Christian fundamentalism for criticism, leading some to protest. Although, having seen the film, the sect depicted within it is so outrageously crazy, it feels like a missed opportunity for more subtle satire. Then there is the circus surrounding the issue of tickets, with only a handful made available to critics. Then there is the distribution of the film itself. It was hotly rumoured that Smith would auction rights to the highest bidder but, in the event, he announced at the premiere on Sunday that he's going self-distribute the film as a way of circumventing what he describes as "obscene" marketing costs. It will go on a roadshow tour of the US in March, although it will doubtless have more traditional distribution when it makes it across the Pond to the UK.

So, what of the film itself? To put it bluntly, it is most certainly not worth all this fuss. Smith uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut as he explores fundamentalism - both of the religious and State-run sort. Billed as something of a horror movie, the shifting sands of its tone make it neither fish nor fowl, as Smith flirts with comedy, action and horror without carrying of any of them particularly convincingly. The story sees three teenagers heading out to get their rocks off with a woman who has promised, via the internet, to do all three of them at once. Little do they realise it is a deadly honeytrap set up by fundamentalist preacher (Michael C Parks), who is heaven-bent on irradicating gays from the world, even if he has to do it one by one.

A chance accident en route to the liaison, however, sees the local sheriff get involved and it isn't long before a SWAT team is sent to take control of the church compound with deadly force, unaware of the boys being held within.

Smith, normally known for snappy dialogue, seems to have let his opportunity for a soap box get to him as the movie is frequently slowed to a snail's pace by unwieldy and unecessary monologues. An early rant by the preacher - though Parks does his best - is particularly overplayed and where more capable horror directors would ratchet tension from the contrast of his fire and brimstone message given to beaming children with the sight of a boy cling-filmed to a cross, here the action feels curiously flat. Smith doesn't let us care enough about the kids and frequently seems willing to let the tension of scenes drain away just so that he can move on to his next polemic.

John Goodman - as the man in charge of the government response to the group - also suffers from monologue monotony. Overall, the lack of subtlety blunts the film's ability to wound its targets.

Much more fascinating and realistic is Kevin Macdonald's Life In A Day - a Youtube project which is probably as true a document as you are likely to get. The website's visitors were asked to submit footage capturing something of their lives on 24 July 2010. The resulting 80,000 submissions - comprising more than 4500 hours of videos - have been beautifully edited down to a 90 minute cracker of a film, which poetically explores what it means to be human.

The idea of a Youtube film put me in mind of kittens chasing balls of wool and young teenagers punking one another, but this film is as far removed from that as it could possibly be. Macdonald makes a virtue of the everyday richness of life, weaving together stories from across the globe to build a picture of happiness, sadness, birth and death. He finds rhythms in the videos and shared themes, which allow images from one to run into another, from the percussion of breakfast to the sound of women somewhere in Africa singing as they grind meal.

The film moves from the simplicity of a man filming his son's first shave and a cow being slaughtered, to more complex considerations of what love and fear mean. Interestingly, the film doesn't shy away from the more grim aspects of life - footage from the tragic Duisberg Love Parade where 19 were crushed to death is included, for example - but it blends the emotions of the films in a subtle and organic way that means the overall film becomes a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It is streaming on Youtube tonight (January 27) and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read the full interview with Macdonald here

After that, it was time for my own life to take over the day for a few hours as I headed to the local clinic to get that knee checked out. Two X-rays, two cute doctors, one brace and $186 later, I was back on the pavement and ready for the final film of the day - David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense.

Mixing a sci-fi set up with a romance plot, it tells the story of a chef (Ewan McGregor) who finds himself falling for an epidemiologist (Eva Green) just as the world is hit by a plague, which begins to deprive the populace of their senses. There are good things about the film, not least the physicality of life emphasised by Mackenzie's direction and the film's generally upbeat tone concerning humanity's reaction to impending doom - this is a world where people adapt to survive, rather than tearing one another limb from limb. Still, it is hampered by a rather unecessary voice-over and a set up using a lot of still photography which gives the first 10 minutes the unfortunate air of an M&S advert.

The scenes that work best concern the plague and people's reaction to it but the tonal shifts between that and the romance between McGregor and Green never quite come off. It is also encumbered by a syrupy and heavy score that serves to diminish emotion rather than heighten it.

More on what David Mackenzie and Ewen Bremner, who co-stars, said about the film, later...

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