My understanding of Charlie Sheen‘s sad and tedious situation is that eventually (five, ten years down the road) he’ll understand where his life is going, wake up and change course, or eventually (five, ten years down the road) he’ll be found dead. And no one will be the least bit surprised.
I’ll never been able to understand how cocaine use goes along with enjoying the company of prostitutes. Because in my experience with this idiotic substance (I dabbled in the early ’80s), it was clear early on that doing lines “interferes,” so to speak. An old Robin Williams coke joke — “makes me paranoid and impotent…aahh, give me more of that!” — pretty much summed it up.
Because he’s a heavy-cat artiste drawn to an “off” visual style, Filmmaker magazine’s Jamie Stuart (i.e., the New York blizzard short-film guy) has shot interviews with Martha Marcy May Marlene costars Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes in a way that obscures their faces in amber-rosey shadows.
Remember that early scene in Reds when patrons of a Portland art gallery call Diane Keaton/Louise Bryant‘s photographs “blurry,” and how Warren Beatty/John Reed makes the same remark when he visits her studio?
Susanne Bier‘s In A Better World, winner of the 2010 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Feature, was the last film I saw in Park City. Within a half hour I knew I’d be putting it at the top of my Best of Sundance list. This is an emotionally vivid, sharply written drama about forgiveness and revenge, and how their coexistence can cause conflict and distress. In this sense In A Better World is like a moralistic cousin of Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven.
What’s especially strong about Bier’s film is that she shows us how the latter option can sometimes feel better and more “right” than gentleness and compassion and turning the other cheek.
The wise and compassionate wimp, if you will, is a Danish doctor named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) who spends half his time working in some kind of awful Darfurian refugee camp and the other half living in Denmark with his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and their two sons, the eldest of which, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is the victim of constant bullying at school.
In the same town a widowed businessman, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), has just moved from London with his steely-eyed son Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) who’s furious over the recent death of his mother from cancer.
The inciting incident happens when Christian defends Elias from the lead bully, a much bigger kid, by clubbing him with a bicycle air pump and threatening to stab him in the neck with a knife. It feels wonderful, trust me, when the bully gets his. But it doesn’t feel so good when Anton, back in Africa, treats a series of victims of a brutal gangster who cuts pregnant women for amusement, and then he treats the gangster himself for a leg wound. It feels satisfying, however, when the family and friends of the gangster’s victims seize this evil man and beat him to death.
Anton keeps the wimp thing going when, back in Denmark, a belligerent mechanic (Kim Bodnia) slaps him in front of Elias and Christian, and Anton, determined not to descend to the mechanic’s level, does nothing and backs off.
Christian, however, is determined to make the mechanic suffer. He comes up with a revenge scheme that is excessive and not commensuate with the original slapping offense. And the overkill tragically results in an innocent party being hurt. Struck with despair and depression, Christian is suddenly teetering on the edge of suicide. But then Anton finally mans up and…well, see the film.
By the finale Bier has shown us the upsides and downsides of gentleness and patience, and of angry brutality and push-back action. She’s clearly saying that we need to be strong and wise enough to not surrender to violent impulses, but she doesn’t make it an easy choice. Sometimes the Clint Eastwood blow-em-away approach is the right (or at least the understandable) thing to do, and sometimes not.
For me a great or very good ending is almost half the game. The rest is covered by (a) the famous Howard Hawks dictum about a good film needing “three great scenes and no bad ones,” and (b) the HE rule that a lead character can’t irritate or alienate or piss you off. But a great ending can persuade you to forgive a film for an awful lot of things.
It’s understood that most Sundance films either don’t get or are unable to subscribe to the great ending rule. And I realize, of course, that people would completely reject any Sundance film that tries to imitate the finale of Billy Wilder‘s The Apartment. We all understand that it worked back then, couldn’t work now. And yet this 1960 dramedy ends superbly according to its own terms and standards.
The fact is that none of the Sundance 2011 films I saw between 1.20 and 1.27 had the first clue about how to end their films even half as effectively. Most of them seemed to just stop or wind down or run out of gas.
I didn’t see everything I needed to see in Park City, as noted, but I saw six Sundance 2011 acquisitions that had weak or nonexistent endings, or no great scenes, or a major character who was profoundly irritating.
Gavin Wiesen‘s Homework (Fox Searchlight). Problem: The lead, Freddie Highmore , delivers each and every line and emotion exactly the same way with the same faintly self-amused expression, the same faint intellectual-hipster smile, the same space cadet/distracted-artist vibe, the same glassy-eyed expression. I wanted to see Highmore get hit by an MTA bus.
Sean Durkin‘s Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight). Problem: The mildly creepy finale hints at what might be happening — maybe, sorta kinda, probably — but it leaves you up in the air and scratching your head. I walked out saying to myself, “Wait…what happened…?”
Lee Tamahori‘s The Devil’s Double (Roadside). Problem: [Spoiler Warning] Any story about the demonic Uday Hussein is going to create a longing to see him “get his” at the end. And he doesn’t. He just gets shot in the groin area but survives to murder and torture another day until finally getting killed by U.S. troops in 2003. And his double is said to be off in Ireland somewhere. The ending leaves you with nothing.
J.C. Chandor‘s Margin Call (Lionsgate). Problem: It tells a very realistic but highly cynical story about some very smart and selfish Wall Street pricks (including Kevin Spacey‘s half sympathetic character). It ends in a pit of despair, shadows and defeatism.
Jacob Aaron Estes‘ The Details (Weinstein Co.). The ending — or rather a confession scene between Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks — is probably the best thing about this film. But it leaves you convinced of the likelihood that God or fate or whatever is going to drop another piano on Maguire’s head any second.
Drake Doremus‘s Like Crazy (Paramount). Problem [Spoiler Warning]: A film about a very tender and trusting romantic relationship loses more and more energy during the third act. By the time it’s over you’re wishing you’d left at the halfway point. On top of which the middle-aged actors portraying Felicity Jones‘ parents don’t even faintly resemble her. They don’t even look like cousins.
I posted nearly 50 times during my eight-day Sundance stay — riffs, photos, reviews, video clips, complaints, praisings, interviews — and saw about 22 films, give or take. I was up at 6:30 or 7 am every day and usually quit around 1 am, and despite this I couldn’t cover what I wanted to cover and deliver decent HE material.
No one-man-band can beat that festival. You can only go there, work your fingers to the bone, do your best and not nail it. Every year my Sundance experience is about a win-lose ratio of 40-60, if that. You’re always missing two or three or four things in order to do one thing, and then the next day you’re seeing stuff that you missed a day or two earlier, but that means missing more new stuff. You tell yourself that you’re going to work harder than ever before, and it doesn’t effing matter.
It didn’t help that I was given a schlub-level press pass, despite pleas to the press office to please grant me the same kind of first-class, easy-access pass that i’ve been given for the last three years in Cannes. I got into several public screenings by the good graces of several publicist pals (thanks, guys!), but the schlub pass meant I had to spend at least two hours each day inside the Holiday Village press & industry cattle tent. Add that to the usual bus-and-taxi transportation time and that’s a big portion of the daily schedule.
Boo-hoo and poor me, right? I realize, of course, that several other press and industry persons were dealing with similar if not heavier pressures than mine, and that I’m nothing special. But you can’t cover what you need to cover at Sundance and write five or six stories per day — I know that. It’s just not possible.
For the last three years my pink-with-a-yellow-pastille pass at Cannes has allowed me to see most of the films at that festival and bang out fast-crack appraisals of most of them plus photos and whatnot, and I can’t really do that at Sundance. I can maybe see and attend and write about half of what’s doing, if that. I realize that Sundance lost the use of the Racquet Club this year, and that this has led to too many movies showing at too few venues.
Sundancing has always been like this. I’m glad I went. I got a lot done, saw a lot, moved around and dug in here and there. I love the beautiful snowfalls and speed-walking down Kearns Blvd. and the chit-chats on the free Park City bus service, and I felt gratified that I stuck to my decision to cut back on the parties. I basically avoided talking to pretty ladies because that only leads to pointless distraction and downtime. I’m not saying it was an unhappy or terrible experience, but it’s grueling as hell — brutal — and I’m just glad it’s over.
Thanks very much to the Sundance press office for their tireless efforts (I can only imagine what they have to deal with), but please guys….please consider giving me a slicker Anthony Breznican-level press pass next time. Thank you.
“Anyone who has worked at the N.Y. Times understands that it is a uniquely complicated organism…the hubris, the institutional arrogance, the rigidity, the arena of court politics,” says TheWrap‘s Sharon Waxman. “[But still] a vital contribution to democratic society that we can hardly afford to lose.”
And yet Andrew Rossi‘s Page One, she says, “gives a rather superficial assessment of what everybody really wants to know: Will the Times make it, or not? Can the newspaper of record change fast enough, dramatically enough, to adjust to an upside-down business model? That Rossi doesn’t answer.
“In 2008, the Times cut 100 jobs, borrowed $250 million and re-leased its building. In 2009, it cut another 100 jobs. It is distinctly odd to hear someone say on film exactly what I felt at that time: ‘The mood is funereal.’ And, I might have added, not conductive to doing great journalism.”
The standout factor, for me, isn’t the violent conflict between young Egyptian militants and police in Cairo, or the economic factors driving the fury. It’s that none of this would be happening if it hadn’t been for the recent government overthrow in Tunisia. Political rage can ignite very suddenly. Why did many Eastern European socialist governments all topple within months of each other in 1989? All it takes is a flash of a match.
It’s too bad in a sense because Hosni Mubarak, autocratic dictator that he is, has been essentially pro-Israel and a force for political moderation and stablization for the last three decades. If he goes Egypt could become a Muslim brotherhood state, and that, of course, would threaten Israel. I wonder how many other dictatorial governments in the Middle East and northern Africa are going to come under siege?
There’s an almost romantic exhilaration that comes from joining mass street protests and yelling “throw the bums out.” Primal, primitive, decisive. “Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.” — Malcolm McDowell‘s Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson‘s If…. But once this or that government has toppled and the thrill has subsided, that’s when the heartache begins.
This is very good, but the best repeated-slap of all (starting at 1:21) is self-administered. Anyone can slap anyone else, but when you whack yourself in a fit of self-loathing…watch out. Name the actress and the film. Hint: The self-slapper is being honored tonight at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
My personal favorite isn’t included. That would be James Cagney‘s one-two-three slap of a bartender in William Wellman ‘s Public Enemy (’31) — choreographed as carefullly as one of Cagney’s dance steps in Yankee Doodle Dandy. First a backhand, then open-handed and downward, and then an upwards backhand on the chin. It starts at 1:15: