Sundance 2007 | Wrapup

As of this writing, Snow Angels has yet to be picked up for theatrical distribution in the United States, which makes me sad for the state of American cinema.

 

Usually my film festival routine is hectic and unrelenting: see 40 to 45 movies in 10 or 11 days, write stupid, long, rambly festival diary entries every day possible (which is usually almost all of them), and finally write a (hopefully) more cohesive wrap-up inside of a week of getting home. This kind of immersion lends itself to critical analysis of trends displayed in the festival, comparing the best and the worst movies, other festivals, etc. But now, here I am a month to the day of returning home from Sundance 2007, finally getting around to writing the wrap-up, and feeling disconnected from the whole thing due to the amount of time that has elapsed in the interim, especially as compared to the usual. If it eases your mind any, I'm generally not one to procrastinate, but have held off this long on writing the final wrap-up due to having to have some emergency, film festival-related surgery immediately upon my return home. If I had written this piece sooner, I would have been zonked out on pain medication, and the whole goal of this thing is to hopefully make more sense than I do in the daily diary entries. Sorry you had to wait.

I don't see a great amount of purpose in writing about the failures and near-misses of the festival, since I am operating on a limited word count here, so I'll focus on the films that I really liked a lot, of which there were four. My favorite film of the festival surely comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me or my taste – it is David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, and I have been completely stuck up the ass of DGG since his debut, 2000's George Washington (his 2003 sophomore effort, All the Real Girls, remains one of my five favorite films of the new millennium). Snow Angels aside, I was greatly amused by the awkward New Zealander comedy Eagle vs. Shark, the $8,000,000-selling Son of Rambow, and Gregg Araki's stoner comedy Smiley Face.

The only drama of my four favorite films at Sundance (odd that 75% of my favorites are full-on comedies, as I'm usually too much of a dickhead to like comedies too much), Snow Angels is a fragmented, two-and-a-half part story about 16-year-old Arthur (Michael Angarano) who starts a tentative relationship with a new, arty girl in his school named Lila (relative newcomer Olivia Thirlby, who is a real find); Arthur's co-worker Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and her ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and their feeble attempted reconciliations and squabbles over their four-year-old daughter Tara (Grace Hudson); and then a little bit about Arthur's parents that never really gets as fleshed out as the other two stories. The Arthur and the Annie storylines are equally engrossing, though, and both share DGG's great ability to mix dry humor with his drama, and making things affecting without ever really seeming to try to hard. In addition to the main cast, Snow Angels finds a lot of meat in its secondary roles, most notably in making a great character actress out of Amy Sedaris (who plays a waitress alongside Beckinsale) and the too-underused dominant male monkey motherfucker Nicky Katt, who is mercifully given some great Katt dialogue ("I'll suck you right up my tailpipe, bro!"). As of this writing, Snow Angels has yet to be picked up for theatrical distribution in the United States, which makes me sad for the state of American cinema (although there is no doubt in my mind that it will be picked up sooner or later).

Speaking of being picked up, the recipient of the second-to-most ink at Sundance (behind the so-called "Dakota Fanning rape movie," Hounddog) was Garth Jennings' Son of Rambow, which I am pleased to have seen before it was carried away by a river of hype. Jennings is the guy who directed the widely dismissed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 2005, and Rambow is his first feature not based on material favored by a large, unpleasable cult audience. Rambow's jumping off point is in England in the 1980s, where two young boys, Will (Bill Milner) and Carter (Will Poulter), see a pirated copy of Rambo: First Blood and try to make a Rambo film on home video with rudimentary special effects. While the overall sense of humor and mischief is what really carries Rambow, these special effects add great punctuation to Jennings' odd staging of things (the kids look like they are being hurt (in a slapstick sense) in long, unflinching takes). Imagine Rushmore as directed by Michel Gondry, and you're getting close.

People were saying of Paramount Vantage's $8 million acquisition of Son of Rambow that the buyers were sent to Sundance to "find the new Little Miss Sunshine," which probably isn't too far off from the truth. Funny, then, the finding the new Napoleon Dynamite wasn't also pressed upon them, as it surely was back at 2005's festival. Not being a huge fan of Dynamite myself, I can say that Taika Cohen's Eagle vs. Shark will most certainly and more accurately be called the new Napoleon Dynamite more than Son of Rambow will be called the new Little Miss Sunshine now that the festival's all said and done. Maybe why people weren't talking about it in this capacity is because Miramax had the rights to it already going into the festival, so I'm guessing most buyers didn't even bother to see it (it's coming out in the U.S. in June). Anyway, EvS is a reference to the film's two leads, Jarrod (Jermaine Clement, looking like the mulleted character from Ghost World) and Lily (Loren Horsley), who, at the beginning of the film, show up at a party where they are supposed to dress up as their favorite animal, which is the respective animals of the title. At this point, Lily has long been infatuated with Jarrod (he's a regular at the fast food joint she works at), but Jarrod has his sights set on Lily's unattainably attractive co-worker, until he is wowed by Lily's vide game-playing skills. One of the more awkward courtships ever committed to film follows, as Lily and Jarrod go on a trip to exact revenge on Jarrod's high school bully. I feel obligated to say at this point that while the comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite are real and valid, it is a disservice to Eagle vs. Shark to harp on them (as I have), as EvS is a much superior film.

Finally, a film that distressingly got almost no press (perhaps because of its very late press screening; I was lucky enough to have gotten into the first public screening, which was on the third day of the festival) was Gregg Araki's departure from his usual soul crushery into the stoner comedy genre, Smiley Face. I am not usually much a fan of either Araki's (Mysterious Skin, The Doom Generation) nor stoner comedies, but Smiley Face is an instant classic of the genre, thanks almost exclusively to its lead, the irreplaceable Anna Faris. As the pre-credit sequence sets up (and this sequence is equaled only by the pre-credit sequence in Raising Arizona), Faris' Jane has a busy day ahead of her-paying bills before her electricity is cut off, auditioning for a good role (Jane's a struggling actress), etc.-and begins said day by getting really high. While high, she finds and eats a plate of cupcakes made by her roommate (an unrecognizable Danny Masterson) for his sci-fi party later that night, only to realize later that the cupcakes had pot in them as well, rendering her completely useless for the important tasks at hand. The rest of the film has her struggling to get through the day without screwing things up too much. What sets Smiley Face apart is that the script is a lot smarter than any other stoner comedy I've ever seen (Jane's actions are always believable given her situation, and the results of these actions realistic), it is rounded out by a great, odd supporting cast (Masterson aside, there's a great role for The Office's John Krasinski, playing the most un-Jim-like role of his career, as Masterson's nerdy friend), and, of course, Faris. The Academy is known for not recognizing comedies or actors in comedies, but Faris' slack-jawed performance here certainly warrants it. I doubt I'll see a better lead performance this year, and I'm pretty sure that Faris should be in every comedy from now on. As should not be too surprising, Smiley Face is set to go to limited release in the U.S. on 4/20.

To focus on those four films is not to say that they were the only ones salvageable of the 43 that I saw, though. I was also quite pleased by Crispin Glover's second in his planned trilogy, It is Fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE., as well as the odd, drifty Japanese film How Is Your Fish Today?, Mike White's Year of the Dog, the horror/comedy portmanteau The Signal, the late Adrienne Shelly's Waitress, and Christoffer Boe's Offscreen. In short, it was a festival that I was happy to get surgery to attend. | Pete Timmermann

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