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SUNDANCE: Jay Berg Reviews 24 Sundance Titles!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I think Jay Berg may be the guy who puts Sundance to bed for us each year, and we’re pleased to have him doing it again this year. 24 reviews here... so dig in:

Well Harry/Moriarty, another Sundance has come to another successful conclusion. It has been my 5th in 7 years (including the last 4) where I attended the last 5 days of the 10 day festival, and, for me, it was a 3.29 star festival. It seemed less crowded than last year (they actually had souvenirs still available at the end). Despite the nightmare this year of purchasing tickets via registration (where they gauged everyone $5 just to sign up for a random lottery), tickets “miraculously” reappeared online after the festival began. Also, the wait list lines, for the most part, were quite workable. Maybe, more people were turned off from the huge crowds of 2004. Whatever the reason, those who attended saw some great films! Even the weather cooperated: occasional snow showers & daytime temps in the 30’s (we missed the over 100 inches of snow that fell starting New Year’s Eve!).

After surviving the "emergency light in the cockpit problem" (possible rudder problem) and the subsequent landing "20 MPH faster than normal", the plane landed safely in Salt Lake City on Wednesday the 26th (day 5 of the festival) around 11:00 am. By 3:00 pm I was at Park City’s newest screening venue: The Racquet Club (annual site of the Awards ceremony) to start the marathon of 24 movies in 4 1/2 days! Here is the capsule rundown of my screenings:

“BRICK” (***)

Co-winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, this is an original take on, and homage to, the noir films of the 40’s & 50’s (think Dashell Hammett on speed), updated for high schoolers. What makes this flick especially interesting was the dialogue. Director/screenwriter Rian Johnson creates a language all his own to tell the story of a loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to solve the mystery of who killed his girlfriend. Great characters (including a delicious turn by Lucas Haas as a drug kingpin) and snappy dialogue makes this a fun excursion into a strange noir universe. Keep your eyes out for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This dude is a star in the making! He also stars in “Mysterious Skin” (see review below). This guy is going to be huge!!!


Interesting film written, directed, and starring first timer, John D. Harkrider. In real life a lawyer by day (!), John plays a corporate lawyer who examines his life while undergoing a routine psychiatric examination for his new firm. Stylishly formulated and presented, the filmmaker takes you with him on his personal discovery as well as that of a flute instructor (the lessons were bequeathed to him by his mom on her deathbed on his 11th birthday.) Dreamy and beautifully presented by the filmmaker (with a wonderful jazz score) this is a perfect example of what indie films are all about!


One of the two shorts programs that I screened, it included the Jury Prize for International Short Filmmaking, “Wasp” by Andrea Arnold from the United Kingdom. Also nominated for an Academy Award, it told the story of a single working class mother whose evening night out results in tragedy. Other gems included a strong film about the psychological causes of overeating (“Eating”), as well as a hilarious short involving Dick Cheny at the RNC (“America’s Biggest Dick”). Hopefully, they will eventually appear on the Sundance Channel.



Wow! What an unexpected surprise this one turned out to be. Directed by Jay Duplass who co-wrote the script with his brother, Mark (who starred), this little gem blew me away!! A road film in which Josh (Mark) hopes to deliver a lazy boy chair to his dad for his birthday, the script involves us with his relationship with his tag along girlfriend and his Zen-like “brother”. Anyone who has had a relationship where one party refuses to commit will immediately identify with these characters. Funny, sad, and, ultimately enlightening, this flick, which also included Mark & Jay’s real parents playing Josh’s parents, hits all the marks. In the Q & A that followed, it was revealed that Josh’s girlfriend (Kathryn Aselton) is Mark’s girlfriend of 3 years. Talk about life imitating art, the session was quite interesting as most of the questions started focusing on the real life relationship of the leads and Mark’s level of commitment. Great fun!

“BEWEEN” (** ½)

I kept hearing bad things about this metaphysical thriller but decided to check it out anyway based on the story line of a woman in search of her lost sister in Tijuana. Not as bad as I was led to believe (one person said it was the worst movie he had ever seen), it nevertheless failed to totally involve me. However, smartly shot & edited with interesting cinematography, this one will probably end up in the video store &/or on cable.


This was Craig Lucas’ (author of “The Secret Lives of Dentists”) latest. He wrote the screenplay based on his play and he also directed. I loved this story about a Hollywood executive (the great Campbell Scott) who buys a play from a gay playwright (Peter Sasrsgaard). At first what looks and feels like a brilliant biting satire on the Hollywood scene turns in an entirely different direction when Scott’s wife (indie star Patricia Clarkson) discovers that there is more of a business relationship between the two men. Totally engrossing and intelligent with phenomenal acting, this film completely involved me. Most of the people I spoke with who weren’t as crazy about the film had a problem with the last reel. Interestingly, during the Q & A, Lucas discussed using an alternate ending with the audience and asked for comments & suggestions. It looks like the ending will be changed (and for the better). How neat it was to be a part of the decision making experience. One of the many pluses of attending advance screenings at Sundance!


Evan Rachael Wood’s (“Thirteen”) latest turn is another in the long line of films satirizing the high school/teenage girl experience. Woods plays a manipulative teenager who, in order to achieve her objectives, sets in motion a plan which involves her and two of her "buddies" accusing a teacher of sexual harassment. No ethnic group escapes unharmed in this totally off the wall work. Add to this one of the most outrageous performances you will ever see by James Woods (who eats ALL the scenery) and you’ll end up having one hellacious good time-i.e. unless you are easily offended.


The latest directorial feature from Steve Buscemi, this is another film in the style of his “Trees Lounge”. This is a quiet, humorous story about a guy (Casey Affleck) who tries to return to his Indiana hometown and discovers why he left in the first place. His dysfunctional family includes mom (Mary Kay Place), dad (Seymous Cassel), and his depressed brother. Add to this his budding relationship with a nurse (Liv Tyler) and you have a film full of smart dialogue and interesting characters and situations.

“WHAT IS IT?” (**)

Hard to describe this one! It took Crispin Hellion Glover 10 years to finally get this on the screen. Quoting Trevor Groth in the program guide:

“The film (which contains graphic sexuality) flows between controversial imagery and story lines: a minstrel in blackface who aspires to be an invertebrate by injecting snail enzymes into his cheek; a Shirley Temple dictator in Nazi garb; a naked man with cerebral palsy lying on a giant seashell, being fondled by a naked woman wearing a monkey mask; talking snails getting repeatedly salted; and watching over all, an enthroned Glover in a full-length fur coat. . . What Is It? will shock, intrigue, confound, disturb, and amaze even the most jaded viewers.”

Dadaist and experimental to the core, Glover revealed it was his desire to bring back the ‘70’s cult movies and that it was Part I of the series he hopes to eventually complete. I’m not sure where you’ll be able to screen this baby! What a way to end the viewing of 6 straight movies today!!



What can I say? This movie not only got the most buzz the 5 days I was there, it ended up winning 2 major awards for director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach: The Dramatic Directing Award and The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Yet, I didn’t love this movie the way that I “should” have. The story of divorce and the effects it has on the children, it stars Jeff Daniels and the great Laura Linney. Daniels plays an annoying demanding father whose lack of literary success affects everyone that orbits around him. The script seemed very clichéd to me (and if Billy Baldwin’s character said “Bro” one more time, I was going to throw-up). I know I’m probably in the minority on this one, but it just didn’t grab me.


The second best documentary I screened, this was the winner of the American Documentary Audience and a Special Jury Prize for Editing, and the awards are richly deserved! In general, this is the story of the Team USA quad rugby team as it prepared for, and played in, the Paralympics (NOT the Special Olympics-whose participants are mentally challenged) in the 2004 games in Athens. In particular, this is the story of Joe Soares-the Babe Ruth of the sport. After he was kicked off the 1996 USA team (too old and slow), he then became Team Canada’s coach. At this point, his only purpose in life was to defeat team USA. Although primarily a sports oriented movie, this is one amazing human drama that is incredibly uplifting and which unfolds in unexpected ways. This amazing work will have you thinking and feeling differently about physically disabled human beings for the rest of your life!


Multimedia performance artist Miranda July now tries her hand in filmmaking as she writes, directs, and stars in this interesting, quirky story about people who try to connect with one another in an increasingly isolated world. Co-winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, this was another film that generated a lot of buzz at the festival. A beautiful piece about people trying to make life more enjoyable while coping with, at times, their mundane lives.


Hands down, the best shorts program I have ever screened at a film festival. Each short (6 in all) were great: “Among Thieves”, “In The Morning”, “In Time”, “Oh My God”, “Spelling Bee”, & “Staring At The Sun” were all mini-masterpieces! Look for these titles wherever shorts may screen (Sundance Channel, IFC channel, film festivals, etc.).


Another of the excellent documentaries I screened at this year’s festival. This one takes you through the entire rise and fall of the infamous corporation and details the history of the criminals who built it. Disgustingly thorough in its examination, it will totally enrage anyone with any semblance of decent morality, while making you thankful that your life savings weren’t blown away by these low lifes. This cautionary tale has new revelations as it takes you behind the headlines. Greed has never been this engrossing!


After that last one, I needed a good laugh and got it in this amazingly unique film. The title refers to the “punch line” of a famous vaudeville (very) dirty in-joke whose brilliance lies in its set-up. After describing its history, what follows are the various interpretations/telling of the “joke” in its crudest forms. The result is one of the funniest 92 minutes you will ever experience in a theater as the brilliance of over 100 comedians tell this “joke” over 100 different ways. This one must be heard to be believed! As Geoffrey Gilmore aptly stated in the program guide:

“While there is no nudity, no sex, and no violence in The Aristocrats, this is one of the most shocking and, perhaps for some, offensive films you will ever see. But its provocativeness is never gratuitous; it creates in its own singular fashion an absolutely arresting portrait of comic art.”

Comedian & co-director Paul Provenza revealed during the Q & A that this idea, created by himself and Penn Jillette (Penn & Teller), was meant to go straight to DVD. Instead, it has already been picked up for distribution, so look for it probably in your local art house in the near future.


“SUGAR (**)

An experimental film in the Frontier series. Described as a gothic horror, this sparsely told tale of a woman who finds herself in a one-room filthy apartment is at times creepy and provocative. However, despite its interesting cinematography, spending 80 minutes in this place feels like 800 by the time it finishes. Not to mention that you’ll feel like you need a long shower when all is said and done. Not a great way to start the day in Park City.


The creepiness continues in this cautionary tale of what may happen when young boys are sexually molested and abused by those they trust. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (see “Brick” above) in a brilliantly brave and mind-bending role as a male hustler, and directed & written by Gregg Araki (his 6th Sundance feature film!), this story (from a novel by Scott Heim) of desperate teens will stay with you long after the final credits. An amazingly honest portrayal of a segment of society that most of us too easily ignore.


An amazing documentary on the yearly life cycle of Antarctica’s emperor penguins. Spending an incredible 13 months in the Antarctic winter without the benefit of sea or air transportation, filmmaker Luc Jacquet even captured never-before seen underwater footage of their winter activities. A totally engrossing, hauntingly beautiful, epic that will have you spellbound.

“MIRROR MASK” (****)

This one knocked my socks off! Director Dave McKean has created one of the most original fantasies that you will ever see on screen. With the Jim Henson company, they have created a brilliant visual masterpiece which must be seen to be believed! Combining live action with computer animation, it tells the universal story of good vs. evil in the forms of competing kingdoms in an alternate universe occupied by stunningly beautiful and terrifying creatures. And this doesn’t even begin to describe what this film is all about. A masterpiece of independent filmmaking that I predict will become an instant classic!!

“OLD BOY” (***)

I kept hearing good things about this Korean movie, so I went to a midnight showing and I wasn’t disappointed! This is one wild ride of a movie about a businessman who is mysteriously locked in a room and then suddenly released 15 years later. The rest of the movie is about his search for the protagonists and discovering the reason for his captivity. A complex puzzle ensues as each bazaar piece is revealed along the way. Incredibly ingenious in its presentation (think Tarentino on acid), you will not be bored along the way. Although it includes some unwatchable violent scenes, I still recommend it for its amazing visual and literary style. The director, Chon-wook Park, was a former philosophy student. Need I say more?!


“BROTHERS” (****)

This was the first year that the festival honored World (foreign) cinema. The winner of the first World Cinema Dramatic Audience award went to this masterpiece of Danish filmmaking. Director/co-screenwriter Susanne Bier (“Open Hearts”) has created an absolutely stunning movie about sibling rivalry. Jannik is the black sheep ex-con. His older brother, Michael, is the upstanding citizen with a beautiful family. He is about to go off and fight in the war in Afghanistan. When Michael’s helicopter is downed and he is presumed dead, what ensues is a series of events which forever alters the lives of everyone involved. Great acting and story combine to produce one of the most emotionally powerful films I have ever seen.

“WHY WE FIGHT” (****)

The winner of the American Documentary Grand Jury prize this was the best documentary I screened at the festival. Eugene Jarecki (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger”; his brother Andrew directed last year’s phenomenal “Capturing the Friedmans”) has created a startling thesis as to why the U.S. has continuously fought/invaded countries since the 1950’s. The film was shown in the sold-out 1200+ seat Eccles Center. I have never seen the award winning director present on the final screening day of the festival-except today. After receiving a well deserved standing ovation, Eugene mentioned that he purposely finished the movie after the election so as not to bias the election. Neither past Democratic nor Republicans administrations come away unscathed in this debate. When it comes to how the U.S. is perceived in the world, who would have thought that Dwight D. Eisenhower would be such a visionary when he warned of a runaway industrial military complex a half century ago! Intelligently non-biased in its presentation, this powerful shattering work will produce proactive dialogue among everyone who sees it.

“3-IRON” (***)

An interesting visual work by Korean director Kim Ki-duk (“Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring”) about a lonely dude who breaks into temporarily vacant homes. Instead of robbing them, he returns their unintended hospitality by doing their laundry and repairs. The pattern is broken when he enters the home of a beautiful abused housewife, who happens to witness his presence in her house. What results is the emergence of a strange love story between 2 lonely fated people. Kim tells the story using little dialogue (in fact, the 2 principles never speak!) and relies solely on visuals and circumstances to convey this poetic fable.


Made by director and screenwriter Craig Brewer, this flick was the winner of the American Dramatic Audience Award, while Amelia Vincent won the American Excellence in Cinematography Award. I never thought I would like, much less see a movie about a pimp who is having a mid-life crisis and who wants to become a rapper. However, I heard nothing but raves about it the entire week, and when it got picked up by Viacom for a Sundance record 16 million, I figured it would win a major award. The last movie of the festival was an utter delight! A sure crossover hit, this baby has everything from an infectious hip-hop score (yes-I never though I would say infectious and hip-hop in the same sentence!), charismatic lead character (a breakout role by Terrence Howard-who appears in 2 other films at the festival), and likeable supporting characters including a white nerdy keyboard player and a sympathetic white ‘ho. Even a supporting role by rapper Ludicrous was dead-on! This one has everything and it was a spectacular way to end the marathon that is Sundance.

By the way, I passed up the American Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner for the second year in a row (last year it was “Primer”) after hearing how mediocre it was. At least “40 Shades of Blue” got better buzz than “Primer” did, but what I heard about it didn’t excite me enough to screen it.


Jay Berg

Fantastic work, Jay. I’m pleased to see that you reviewed both THE ARISTOCRATS and HUSTLE & FLOW, two films that we had a ton of curious e-mail about. I’ve decided, though, that no one saw STRANGERS WITH CANDY. In fact, it may not even exist.

"Moriarty" out.

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