Buzz builds for controversial Sundance films
PARK CITY, Utah — Buzz for various films is beginning to pick up at this year's Sundance Film Festival, sending audiences into a frenzy for tickets and distributors into bidding wars for the chance to put their name on the next "Like Crazy" or "Martha Marcy May Marlene." But the films aren't the only things making news. From angry Q&As to the loss of a beloved industry veteran, emotions have been running high in the past few days.
"Compliance," directed by Craig Zobel, has enjoyed solid word-of-mouth with the added bonus of contentious Q&As, suggesting that the film will be a sure-fire conversation starter. When a man claiming to be a police officer calls a local fast-food restaurant and demands that the manager, Sandra, detain her young female employee, Becky, Sandra follows his orders. As the film progresses, Sandra continues to do what the man says, with horrific results for Becky.
The film examines how quickly we can bow to authority and how dangerous it can be to do so without question. "Compliance" is tense and terrifying, and after its world premiere, some audience members who felt that the film had gone too far loudly voiced their opinions. One film-goer took offense to the violence against women depicted in the film, arguing that it was exploitative, and the argument is certainly valid. "Compliance" is anything but tame and conservative, and it will surely elicit strong responses from its audience. Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy star.
Spike Lee was in Park City for the premiere of his new film "Red Hook Summer," and his Q&A was also somewhat contentious. The film itself has received mixed reviews, but, as a fan of Lee's films, I enjoyed it and think others will, too. You'll find the unmistakable writing and visual style that has been his strength, particularly since the film is a sequel of sorts to "Do the Right Thing." But don't tell Lee that.
Using words that can't be printed here, Lee asserted that the film is absolutely not a sequel and went on to claim that major studios "know nothing about black people." As usual with Lee, the spectacle of his rant has overshadowed his good points. But Lee puts a lot of thought and heart into his films, and it doesn't seem so crazy that he would want his latest to stand on its merits, rather than being aggressively marketed as "Do the Right Thing 2."
Lee's dissatisfaction with the studio experience underlined the importance of indie film champions like Bingham Ray, who died in Park City early Monday morning. The independent film community has profited from Ray's ambition and foresight for years; he played a significant role in the careers of indie masters like Mike Leigh, Lars von Trier, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. It is clear, based on the mood in industry parties, that he will be greatly missed, even by those who never got to know the generous and genuine man .
Strong emotions were also felt at the screenings for two films that depict families struggling to cope when a loved one is sentenced to several years in prison. "Middle of Nowhere" follows a young woman with remarkable patience who finds herself waiting for five years for her drug-dealing husband to be released.
Director Ava DuVernay wrote the screenplay after having conversations with several women dealing with an incarcerated spouse or partner, and she drew memorable performances from her lead Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lorraine Toussaint as a mother concerned that her daughter is throwing her life away, and the unceasingly charming David Oyelowo as a man who offers our heroine a second chance.
DuVernay is a talent to keep an eye on, as is Gina Rodriguez, who portrays the title character in the pulsating "Filly Brown." This is an astonishing, star-making turn for Rodriguez, who plays an aspiring hip-hop artist trying to make the money she needs to bail her addict mom out of prison.
The actress handles a difficult role with aplomb, and is an incredible musician, leading several people in the audience to beg for the soundtrack. With great supporting performances from Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward James Olmos and the rest of this amazing cast, the film is so much more than an "8 Mile for Girls."
After the screening, "Filly Brown" received a standing ovation from the 1,000 people filling Sundance's largest venue, bringing Rodriguez to tears. She took a bow and thanked everyone. At that moment, I couldn't help but think about Bingham Ray. Those are the kind of moments that people like Ray spend their lives fighting for. We have lost another fighter.
Other notable movies include:
• "The Queen of Versailles," an opening-night documentary that follows multibillionaire real estate mogul David Siegel and his family as their fortunes are lost to the 2008 economic disaster. "The Queen of Versailles" made such an impression that Magnolia Pictures bought the film.
• The director of "Buried," Rodrigo Cortes, returned to Sundance this year with "Red Lights," starring Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver as psychologists who work to debunk psychics and their belief in the paranormal. Their greatest adversary is Robert De Niro's world-renowned telekinetic healer, a character that gives De Niro an increasingly rare opportunity to impress. At the end of this nerve-wracking thriller, the veteran actor delivers a monologue that is devoid of the usual De Niro posturing that has plagued so many of his recent performances, and those few moments alone are worth the price of admission.
• Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights" made its U.S. premiere here, and anyone who has seen "Red Road" or "Fish Tank" will recognize her unique style in this invigorating take on the classic novel. By shooting the film in a square 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the usual widescreen approach, Arnold eschews the usual David Lean approach to literary adaptation, choosing to focus our attention on the beautifully expressive faces of her non-professional actors rather than the blustery vistas of the English landscape. This film joins Cary Fukunaga's recent "Jane Eyre" as encouraging examples of what can be done with too often told tales.
• Bruce Willis was in town for the premiere of "Lay the Favorite," the new film from director Stephen Frears. The shining light of the film, as she so often is, was Rebecca Hall, the consistently impressive actress who here leaves behind her usual classiness to play a naive stripper from Florida. When she goes to Vegas with dreams of being a cocktail waitress, she runs into Willis' professional gambler, who helps her realize a hidden talent for numbers. The film benefits from a light-hearted tone that fits the Vegas setting perfectly, and writer D.V. DeVincentis creates a refreshingly mature relationship between Willis' character and his wife, played with great confidence and nobility by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
• One of my festival favorites is "Safety Not Guaranteed," which generated rapturous applause at Sunday's world premiere before the credits even started rolling. The film is perfectly cast, starring Aubrey Plaza as Darius, a depressed magazine intern in need of a bit of excitement. She finds more excitement than she bargained for in Mark Duplass's Kenneth Calloway, who has placed an ad in the local paper claiming that he needs a partner to travel back in time with him. Darius joins two of her fellow magazine writers (played with great humor and poignancy by Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni) in investigating Kenneth's life, resulting in an unexpectedly moving examination of loss, regret and our nostalgic desire to return to happier times.
• And then there's Austinite Kat Candler's short film "Hellion," which premiered over the weekend, leaving a boisterous audience in laughter and tears. In just a few short moments, Candler paints an exhilarating portrait of childhood, with its rapturous highs and heartbreaking lows in equal measure. I've had the distinct honor of spending time with the cast and crew of "Hellion" here in Park City, and I couldn't be happier for these wonderful people and their wonderful film.
Stephen Jannise, the film program director for the Austin Film Festival, is attending the Sundance Film Festival and is filing reports at Austin360.com.