Dan Casper’s Sundance 2009 Recap

My friend Dan Casper sends his Sundance reviews every February and I always find them an excellent guide to movie choices for the rest of the year. Here they are.

1 / Mary and Max

The first fully animated film to be selected as the opening night feature at Sundance,

this endlessly inventive, heartfelt Claymation semi-documentary (yes, really) is

about an unlikely long-distance friendship between two unusual souls. Mary is a

child living in a small Australian town, and Max is an obese, Jewish middle-aged New

Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. Mary randomly selects Max to be her pen pal,

thanks to a phone directory on the shelf in her local post office, and what starts off

as an innocent correspondence between two lonely people soon evolves into a deeply

moving exploration of how each one of us, no matter how damaged or alone we feel

in the world, has the capacity to help someone live a more satisfying life.

Claymation turns out to be the perfect medium for telling this story, and Mary and

Max, voiced perfectly by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, was, for me, a

triumphant start to a great festival. While there were many other great films this

year, this one stands out as one of the few that feels like something unique and

brand new.

2 / The Cove

A rousing call-to-action and a damn powerful film, The Cove documents the practice

of dolphin farming in Japan and goes to great lengths to expose corruption, injustice,

and ecological homicide. When filmmaker Louie Psihoyos learns that there is a

remote town in Japan where dolphins are secretly slaughtered and turned into

lunchmeat for the local schools, he gathers together a team of scientists, engineers,

divers, and even special effects artists to reveal the secrets of The Cove. The

mission itself is fascinating, the results are horrifying, and never before have I seen

such a compelling case for filmmaker-as-activist, where the tools of the craft become

the machinery for change. The film works on so many levels, and when the

filmmakers finally succeed in their mission, you can’t help but be thrilled and moved

at their accomplishment. Winner of the Audience Award (US Documentary).

3 / Humpday

Last year, I championed the modest but appealing achievements of a film called

Baghead, a well-conceived indie comedy/suspense film. Well, this year, the scrappy

talkfest genre has been perfected by director Lynn Shelton in Humpday, which even

stars one of the writer/director/actors of Baghead, Mark Duplass. Humpday is about

two childhood friends who reunite – one is now an artist and vagabond, the other a

married corporate-type – and when they learn about an amateur porn contest called

Humpfest, they decide to make a gay porn film together, convinced that, as straight

men, they can’t lose with such a bold artistic statement. Of course, it’s not as simple

as that, and their spontaneous decision becomes the lightning rod for a series of

perfectly observed conversations and confrontations. I was consistently surprised by

the intelligence and honesty of Humpday, and several times when I thought the film

had just about said everything it could, the stakes are raised, and the characters are

faced with new dilemmas to manage through. Humpday reinvigorates

improvisational cinema, creating a scenario for our times that is resonant and

thought-provoking, but it’s also hilarious and completely entertaining. Winner of the

Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence.

4 / Good Hair

In Good Hair, Chris Rock, our host and guide through the history and culture of black

hairstyles over the years, singularly proves that just about anything can be the

subject of a good documentary if it’s presented well and with the right tone and

spirit. The film is great fun and is more informative than so many documentaries

I’ve seen on the so-called important issues of our time. Though lighthearted in

spirit, the film does probe some interesting questions while revealing a fascinating

subculture that is visible to most of us only on the heads of those who live within it.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize (US Documentary).

5 / Push (Based on the novel by Sapphire)

The big winner at this year’s festival – the film took home the Grand Jury Prize (US

Dramatic), the Audience Award (US Dramatic), and a Special Jury Prize for Acting –

Push is a brutal but rewarding experience. Based on a composite of stories of

teenage girls growing up fast in Harlem, Push tells the heartbreaking story of

Precious Jones, who, at the start of the film, has become pregnant with a second

child by her father. It all goes way downhill from there, and despite the awful things

that happen to Precious, the brilliant performances in this film (and urban poetry of

Precious’ voiceover) kept me engaged and compelled me to stick with the disturbing

material. Keep an eye on newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, as Precious, and don’t be

surprised if Mo’Nique, playing Precious’ abusive mother, gets recognized at Oscar

time next year – that is, if the film is even released in theaters. It’s a tough sell –

and a tough film.

6 / The Greatest

It’s hard to believe that Shana Feste’s film The Greatest is her first feature. With its

fully realized script, superior production values, sure-footed performances from a

top-notch cast (including Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan), and even a stunning

debut by a promising newcomer (Carey Mulligan, who also appears in the next film

on this list), The Greatest has all of the ingredients for a recipe that only the most

seasoned chef could master, but Feste has pulled it off brilliantly. Despite its

unquestionable commercial aspirations, however, the film is undeniably the work of

an auteur, and Feste brings enough unique directorial and dramaturgical touches to

her story of a family dealing with the loss of a son to make this quite a calling card

for her certain career. What I found most impressive in The Greatest was its

presentation of four individuals’ distinct approaches to the grieving process – and its

relative lack of sentimentality in presenting such a moving portrait of one family’s

journey through a difficult time.

7 / An Education

This delightful British comedy is everything you expect it to be, and yet still manages

to be a fully satisfying coming-of-age tale of the highest order. Acted to the hilt by a

top-flight British cast and, well, anchored with a stunning debut by a promising

newcomer (yes, it’s Carey Mulligan again), An Education is carried away by Mulligan

to a place far beyond the expected. Superior production values recreate the heady

world of London in the 1960s, where a schoolgirl must choose between the

temptations of an older man (Peter Sarsgaard, excellent), who introduces her to a

life of excitement and culture, and the pragmatic urgings of her father (Alfred Molina,

also excellent), who urges her to consider an education at Oxford that lies just on

the horizon. Screenplay by Nick Hornby. Winner of the World Cinema Audience

Award (Dramatic) and World Cinema Cinematography Award (Dramatic).

8 / Paper Heart

I’m not quite sure whether to call this a documentary, a personal essay, a dramatic

feature, or a delightful comedy, but the Sundance programmers put this unique film

in the US Narrative Feature competition, so I suppose we are expected to consider it

a work of fiction. Whatever it is, it is thoroughly charming, as we follow

actress/comedian/musician/puppeteer Charlyne Yi as she searches for the meaning

of love in contemporary Los Angeles. Yi asks a diverse set of couples what love

means to them, then recreates some of their most special moments with adorably

cheap-looking puppets. It’s all very charming, and as we follow Charlyne through

her journey, we realize that she may, in fact, be falling in love herself when she is

introduced to actor Michael Cera at a party. The arc of their relationship turns into

the arc of the film – at least until it becomes clear to Charlyne that her relationship

with Michael is being ‘directed.’ If the film (and Charlyne and Michael) weren’t so

adorable, it might all be a bit pretentious, but the film goes down easy thanks to the

charisma of its leads and the intriguing uncertainty of what, exactly, we are


9 / We Live in Public

Billed as the story of the most famous Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of (or

something along those lines), We Live in Public profiles one Josh Harris, who was

responsible for bringing chat rooms and video streaming to the forefront during the

early days of the Internet boom. Perhaps most provocative about Josh’s story is an

‘experiment’ he ran, called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” an installation of sorts where

artists, writers, and other New York downtown-types lived in an underground bunker

for 30 days at the turn of the millennium, with webcams installed everywhere so that

privacy of any kind was impossible. Josh’s story is a fascinating and provocative

one, and it is well-documented by director Ondi Timoner, who was rewarded by the

Sundance jury simply because she culled through hours and hours of what must

have been just glorified surveillance videos to find the nuggets of gold for her film.

While I have a lot of respect for this film and found its subject to be interesting

(albeit disturbing), I just can’t accept the filmmaker’s premise that Josh was a

visionary. He was a mentally disturbed individual for sure, but since the film leaves

his madness unexplained and doesn’t seem to create a plausible case for Josh’s

impact on the world we now live in, the film left me cold and empty at the end.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize (US Documentary).

10 / World’s Greatest Dad

In one of his very best roles, Robin Williams plays the father of a dreadful teenager

who, in a curious turn of events, becomes transformed from deadbeat kid into

lauded saint overnight. While at first I didn’t care for this film, it gathered great

momentum as it moved along, and in the end, turned into a surprisingly deep and

thoughtful black comedy about the nature of human behavior in the face of tragedy.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to say much more about the film, except to say that it is a

totally original work, scripted and directed by (believe it or not) the comedian Bobcat

Goldthwait. Hey, any film that can make some great jokes at the expense of the

nearly-forgotten musician Bruce Hornsby can’t be all that bad, right?

11 / Helen

The most depressing film at this year’s festival, Helen also turns out to be one of the

best, thanks to a magnificent lead performance by Ashley Judd, who plays a young

music professor battling bipolar disorder. The film has a very European feel to it,

thanks to director Sandra Nettelbeck’s sharp direction and gloss-free approach to the

material. This is Judd’s film all the way, however, and her portrayal of a woman in

deep pain and turmoil is masterful and heartbreaking.

12 / Over the Hills and Far Away

A fascinating documentary about one family’s search for healing in the world of

Eastern medicine. When Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristin learn that their son

Rowan is autistic, they search high and low for answers and solutions. Then, one

day, Rowan is taken with his father to a nearby stable, and Rupert discovers that his

son not only has a calming influence on the horses, but that he is also calmed by

them. So begins a journey on horseback to the outer reaches of Mongolia, where

the family attends healing rituals with the shamans of the region. Miraculously,

something amazing does happen, and while Rowan’s autism remains a part of this

family’s life, their experiences on this unusual journey raise important questions

about the effectiveness of Western medicine, the depth of a family’s bond, and the

healing powers of simply leaving a familiar environment and searching for answers in

an unfamiliar place.

13 / Sin Nombre

A stunningly visual debut feature from director Cary Joji Fukunaga, Sin Nombre

tracks several characters on a train journey through the Mexican countryside as they

make their way to the US to escape the gang violence of contemporary Mexico.

Honestly, this just wasn’t a film for me – violent, sordid, bleak, and claustrophobic –

but I can’t deny the great filmmaking skill that went into making this most

impressive-looking feature. Director Fukunaga has a long career ahead of him.

Winner of the Directing Award (US Dramatic) and the Excellence in Cinematography

Award (US Dramatic).

14 / The Yes Men Fix the World

Near the end of last year, I was offered a free New York Times one morning as I

entered the subway on my way to work, and even in my not-fully-caffeinated state,

it struck me as an odd gesture in this town at this time. I should have taken one of

those papers, though, since they contained not a single line of negativity, or, for that

matter, a single news story with anything but the best possible news you can

imagine. This ‘fake’ New York Times was the work of The Yes Men, a pair of

corporate pranksters who create elaborate stunts to highlight the greed, corruption,

and overall bad behavior of large American corporations. The Yes Men Fix the World

is the second film documenting their pranks, and while more entertaining and

accomplished than their first feature, the film is still basically a record of a bunch of

masterfully planned and executed stunts. The stakes are higher for The Yes Men this

time around, but ultimately it just feels like these guys are out to have fun at

corporate America’s expense rather than having a true activist impact on their


15 / No Impact Man

An entertaining film that documents writer Colin Beavan’s efforts to live in New York

City for an entire year while having zero to minimal impact on the environment, No

Impact Man gives us food for thought about our current environmental crisis. The

film works equally well as a profile of family dynamics in the face of exceptional

circumstances, but ultimately the film is about what it takes to make an impact by

making no impact at all.

16 / Big River Man

A strange little film about a strange little (?) man, one Martin Strel, a paunchy

middle-aged Romanian who also happens to be the most accomplished long-distance

swimmer in the world. Strel and his manager/spokesperson son narrate their

journey down the Amazon river, and if you didn’t know this film was a documentary,

you might mistake it for a Christopher Guest parody, since Strel and his entourage

are almost too odd to believe. Winner of the World Cinema Cinematography Award


17 / The September Issue

When I ran into one of my Sundance friends late in the festival and asked her about

The September Issue, a documentary that follows Anna Wintour and her editorial

team as they prepare for the September issue of Vogue, her response was exactly

what mine would have been – “I mean, who cares really?” Indeed, I could not care

less about what it takes to put together a fashion magazine, or even what the

fashion industry is about at all, so I came to this film with a challenge that I bring to

a lot of documentaries about topics that just don’t really interest me – show me why

I should care. Well, The September Issue was partly successful, but mostly not. It’s

an entirely well-made film, it’s relatively fun to watch, and its coverage of its subject

matter is entirely sufficient, but really, who cares? No disrespect to those of you

who do, but I don’t, though I was willing to have this film prove to me otherwise.

Winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award (US Documentary).

18 / Prom Night in Mississippi

A film that benefits greatly from its nearly perfect timing, Prom Night in Mississippi

documents the first integrated senior prom at a high school in Mississippi – in 2008!

When actor Morgan Freeman, a resident of Charleston, Mississippi learns that the

town holds two separate proms for its white and black students, Freeman offers to

pay for the prom himself if the school will agree to hold one dance for everyone. The

students are totally fine with that idea, but the parents and school board are scared,

and while the filmmakers don’t get close enough to their subjects to really burrow

deeply into the racism at the core of the issue, documenting the prom itself and the

students who attend (including a brave interracial couple) are still powerful enough

to make this a solid documentary worth seeing.

19 / Afghan Star

The Afghan version of American Idol is the subject of a straightforward but very

interesting documentary. While ostensibly about the show and its popularity in

Afghanistan, the film puts an interesting lens on an entire culture and manages to

share a great deal of information about Afghanistan, the role of women in Afghan

society, and the importance of song to the local culture. Winner of the World Cinema

Directing Award (Documentary).

20 / Sergio

Sergio Vieira de Mello was a United Nations ambassador who was known as much for

his charisma as for his superior negotiation and leadership skills. This biography of

Sergio was interesting to me for its portrait of a life and career that I was entirely

unfamiliar with (despite the popularity of the film’s source material, Samantha

Power’s book Chasing the Flame). The film is framed around an inquiry into Sergio’s

untimely death in an explosion at the UN headquarters building in Baghdad, which

left him trapped in the rubble for many hours. While there was much attention

placed on the dramatic recreations in the film of Sergio’s attempted rescue, I found

these scenes to be murky and hardly worth the painstaking effort that must have

gone into recreating the harrowing scenario. Sergio’s life was undeniably interesting

and engaging, but the details of his death and rescue didn’t add much to the power

of the film for me. Winner of the US Documentary Editing Award.

21 / Boy Interrupted

Filmmaker Dana Perry turns her lens on a very personal story in Boy Interrupted. A

profile of her son Evan, who committed suicide at the age of 15, the film captures his

troubled life throughout the years through home movies and family reminiscences.

It’s a painfully intimate film, and a very sad one too, and Perry is to be admired for

having the strength to put this story onto the screen. In Evan’s suicide note, he

specifically requests that the nature of his death not be shared with others at his

school and elsewhere and that his funeral be a private family affair. I can’t help but

wonder if Perry has really respected her son’s wishes by making this film, but if this

helps other families deal with childhood depression and suicide, then I suppose the

film has served a noble purpose.

22 / Amreeka

This film comes straight from the Sundance takeout menu school of filmmaking. It’s

the tale of (select genre) a fish out of water, a (select culture) Palestinian immigrant,

coming to America and finding her way though a maze of complications. She and

her son stay with (select secondary characters) members of her extended family,

become friendly with (select character for audience to relate to) her son’s school

principal, works in a (select unfortunate yet comical situation) White Castle burger

shop, and generally spends the run of the film adjusting to her new life. Film ends

on an upbeat note, with a (select closing scene of family unity) – well, I don’t want

to spoil the film for you entirely. Despite all of this, Amreeka boasts a strong title

performance by Nisreen Faour, who creates a winning character even though the film

feels entirely familiar and predictable. Not such a bad film after all, but it breaks no

new ground.

23 / Children of Invention

If you’re not in the mood for hummus tonight (see above), perhaps you’d like to

order Chinese food instead? Another thoroughly predictable yet competent entry in

this year’s festival was Children of Invention, an entirely charming film about a single

Chinese-American mother of two, who loses her job and her home, hides out in a

model apartment in a new housing development, and takes a job as a salesperson

for a Ponzi-like scheme that takes advantage of new Chinese immigrants. Like

Amreeka, this film benefits from some strong performances and a somewhat topical

storyline, but we’re in deeply familiar Sundance territory here.

24 / The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle

A wild ride that, while not entirely successful, had enough quirkiness and cleverness

to carry me through its 98 minute running time. Don’t mistake Little Dizzle for

anything more than the fun midnight movie that it is – this strange film can probably

only be appreciated in the wee hours of the evening – and probably plays even

better under the influence of something not quite legal. Imagine a world where men

can become pregnant and give birth to small creatures called ‘dizzles,’ and you’ll

begin to understand.

25 / Lymelife

The big winner at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Lymelife had several exhibition

screenings at Sundance this year, and I was looking forward to seeing this comingof-

age drama about brothers (played by a couple of the Culkin clan) growing up on

Long Island during the Lyme disease scare of the late 1970s. A strong cast – led by

Timothy Hutton, Alec Baldwin, and Cynthia Nixon – does fine, but this film is all

about character and atmosphere, and in the end, I found myself pretty unsatisfied by

this relatively inconsequential film.

26 / Adam

Adam is one of several films at Sundance this year featuring characters with

Asperger’s syndrome. Hugh Dancy is wonderful as the title character, a socially

awkward loner who grabs the attention of Rose Byrne and ultimately endears himself

to her and her family. I’ve already forgotten most of what happens in Adam, but I

did enjoy Dancy and Byrne’s performances, though I can’t help but wonder why

director Max Mayer had to cross the Atlantic to find his admittedly winning leads.

Stretching the boundaries of how ‘science’ is defined, this light romantic comedy won

the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a dramatic feature focused on science or technology,

beating out a film called Cold Souls, which I was hoping to see, which featured Paul

Giamatti as an actor freezing his soul so that it could be used by another actor in a

production of The Cherry Orchard (or something like that).

27 / Spread

Another inconsequential film with strong (but far from likeable) performances,

Spread features Ashton Kutcher as a gigolo who seduces and lives off the wealth of

successful women in Los Angeles. Anne Heche (nearly unrecognizable to me)

brilliantly (but unpleasantly) plays the cold-hearted attorney who is his latest target.

Kutcher, who produced the film, claims that he wanted to bring films like Shampoo

and American Gigolo up to date in this piece, and he is not unsuccessful at doing just


28 / Against the Current

An ill-conceived and pedestrian film that was at least watchable due to the charisma

of its lead actor (Joseph Fiennes) and a strong supporting turn by the alwaysinteresting

Justin Kirk. Against the Current maps the story of a man who wishes to

kill himself, but before he goes, he chooses to swim the length of the Hudson River,

for no real reason other than to give the supporting characters ample time to talk

him out of his suicide plan and for us to learn the motivation behind his death wish.

One detour to visit the mother of one of the characters (played by Mary Tyler Moore)

was comical and fun – but the whole tone of the film changed, and I found this

jarring, regardless of how much I was enjoying myself in this section of the film. I

suppose director Peter Callahan wants to give us a good cry, but by the time this

long journey reaches its end, I just wanted Fiennes to kill himself – or not.

29 / Art & Copy

This documentary about the history of advertising covers a broad landscape –

perhaps too broad, since the film feels like it’s only scratching the surface of its

subject. While the film is interesting throughout, it is so anecdotal and episodic that

I couldn’t help but feel I was just getting snapshots rather than a well thought out

history. It left me with so many questions, and plants so many seeds that never

blossom into a compelling landscape. A major disappointment – and one of the films

that I was most looking forward to seeing.

30 / Cliente: A French Gigolo

This film, which (no surprise) comes to us from France, was OK I guess, but I was

just never drawn into its world of middle-aged career women searching (and paying)

for love in their limited free time. Two sisters (played by Nathalie Baye and director

Josiane Balasko) have different ways of coping with their unmarried middle age, and

while I can’t quite put my finger on why this film didn’t work, I think perhaps its

lighthearted tone was the first mistake. As I am writing this, I am thinking of

another, more serious French film on similar themes, called Heading South. In that

film, Charlotte Rampling did a great job creating a character also negotiating middle

age while on vacation at a beach resort in Haiti. Take a look at Heading South,

directed by Laurent Cantent (who made this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner The

Class) instead.

31 / Wounded Knee

This straightforward documentary about the Native American standoff at Wounded

Knee, South Dakota in 1973 does a fine job taking us back in time through film

footage that has not been seen in a long time and through interviewed recollections

by key characters in its unfolding drama. I was looking forward to this film mostly

because its director Stanley Nelson made a magnificent documentary a couple of

years back about Jonestown (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple),

and Nelson does bring his rigorous technique to this film as well, but at a short 74

minutes, this film doesn’t quite resonate the way Jonestown did – to be fair, the

situation at Wounded Knee was not nearly as complex and engaging to me, though it

remains an important chapter in modern Native American history.

32 / Peter and Vandy

A gimmicky film that charts the evolution and dissolution of a fairly uneventful

relationship between young urbanites (played by Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler),

Peter and Vandy presents its many scenes in a scattered chronology that frustrates

and never pays off. Ritter and Weixler are fine, but this stagebound film (based on a

play by writer/director Jay DiPietro) isn’t smart enough to calculate out its plan in

advance, which is crucial, I think, to a film with such a seemingly clever conceit.

33 / The Killing Room

A flashy, attention-grabbing thriller about social experimentation, starring a first-rate

cast (including Chloe Sevigny and Timothy Hutton), that is quite compelling to watch

for the first hour or so, but once its secrets are untangled, I found myself asking

questions that gave me a headache of frustration for the last half hour of its running

time (OK, maybe all of the loud noises and unnecessary shocks gave me a headache

too). Four strangers are locked in a room with a series of challenges that are

intended to test their killing instincts. By the time the film was over, I realized the

entire scenario made absolutely no sense at all, and the implications the film tries to

draw to the nature of modern terrorism are completely ridiculous.

34 / Passing Strange

Passing Strange was one of the highlights of my New York theatergoing in the last

year, and director Spike Lee was there to capture the show’s final performance at

the Belasco Theater on Broadway. While the film is nothing more than a video

record of that performance, Lee manages to suck the life entirely out of this great

show with his frenetic handheld camerawork and ill-advised focus on closeups of the

cast throughout. I left this film concluding that Passing Strange is one of those

shows that can really only be experienced live, but the Sundance audience seemed

to really enjoy itself, and maybe I might have too had I not seen the show in New

York. If you didn’t catch Passing Strange, I suppose you should see this, but if you

have seen it, suffice it to say that you have seen it, and Lee’s film will not recapture

the joy of that experience for you.

35 / Arlen Faber

Jeff Daniels stars as reclusive author Arlen Faber whose bestseller of 20 years prior,

Me and God, made him legendary. A great premise for a character, and a promising

start for the film (which features one of the best – and funniest – credit sequences

I’ve seen in a long time), but unfortunately, Arlen Faber gets it all wrong, creating a

wacky slapstick-heavy scenario for its subject, sticking him in the middle of a

ridiculously quirky love story, and surrounding him with supporting characters who

are caricatures at best. There’s a terrific film somewhere in the premise of Arlen

Faber, but this isn’t it.

36 / One Day in a Life

Attractive young Italians spend a day at the beach. They talk, they walk, they talk

some more, then they leave. This, in a nutshell, is One Day in a Life, which at best

cannot be accused of false advertising, and at worst, just isn’t really about anything

at all.

37 / I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris opens with a reminder that this film is based on a true story.

And then it reminds you again that it really is. That reminder is important, because

what happens in this film is pretty unbelievable. Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor play

convicts who fall in love in prison and go to great extremes to be together. Their

tricks and cons are somewhat clever, somewhat disturbing, and somewhat

unbelievable (but true). The big problem I had with this film is that its tone (which

one might call Farrelly Brothers lite) didn’t help me to buy into the veracity of the

material, and I ended up finding the film more offensive than intriguing. Carrey is

Carrey here, but McGregor comes out (pun intended) unscathed, creating a

believable and three-dimensional character in the midst of all the insanity.

38 / Louise-Michel

This one baffled me. When I first read about Louise-Michel in the Sundance catalog,

I immediately dismissed it because it was the creation of filmmakers whose work I

have never enjoyed. But after this film won the World Cinema Special Jury Prize for

Originality award, I thought I would give them another chance. I probably should

have stuck with my instincts, since Louise-Michel lives entirely in a world that I can’t

grasp at all. Its characters are relentlessly strange but live in a very realistic

scenario, and their actions just don’t make any sense to me. When workers in a

small town in France are laid off as their factory shuts down, they hire a bumbling hit

man to kill off the factory boss. Seems like it could be interesting, no? No, it’s not.

39 / Stay the Same Never Change

If I thought the characters in Louise-Michel were odd, I had no idea what I was in for

with Stay the Same Never Change, a fairly incompetent feature set in Kansas City

about (I think) teenage girls living a pretty mundane existence. This film reminded

me in some ways of last year’s quirky Sundance find Anywhere USA, but filmmaker

Laurel Nakadate shows none of the talent that was on display in spades in that film.

40 / Spring Breakdown

Another major disappointment this year, Spring Breakdown corrals together a great

cast – Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and Parker Posey – and squanders their

abundant talents completely. Poehler, Dratch, and Posey are a trio of women

approaching 40 who, through a set of circumstances that are not interesting enough

to describe here, end up going on spring break on the Gulf of Mexico and getting in

touch with their juvenile side. The potential for fun is there, but the film goes for

cheap laughs rather than humor that is grounded in the complex struggles of these

likeable ladies. I almost placed this at the bottom of my list this year, but then I

realized that a few other films were just a little bit worse than Spring Breakdown.

Read on.

41 / Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

The literarti will be drawn to this adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book, and they

may enjoy seeing its large and starry cast speak the poetic words of the recently

deceased Wallace. All of the rest of us will be hopelessly bored watching this film

drone on and on with absolutely no reason for existing in its chosen medium. I could

imagine this as a spoken word performance, perhaps as a benefit for something or

other, but as it stands, the likeable John Krasinski’s directorial debut is about as

static as can be.

42 / The Clone Returns Home

My interest in Japanese cinema waffles back and forth all the time, and it’s always

with skepticism that I go to see a Japanese film. Some of them enthrall me –

Takashi Miike’s Audition, for example, or last year’s Megane (which you must add to

your Netflix queue, and which is a great film to watch on a day when you need to

relax!) – but just as many mystify or bore me, and I’m afraid The Clone Returns

Home is one of those. This formally structured, slow and measured science-fiction

film, with a pretentious concept and very little dramatic momentum, is, I suppose,

nice to look at in all of its spare beauty, but the film itself had nothing in it for me.

43 / Adventureland

Well, I’m sorry to report that our tour de Sundance has come to end, but not without

a few words about the single worst film I saw this year. In a year that really, in

retrospect, wasn’t bad at all (though perhaps you wouldn’t know it from reading my

notes on the last 20 or so films), Adventureland is at the bottom of this list not

because it’s all that awful (in fact, many enjoyed it), but because it holds the

distinction of being the one comedy I saw this year that I didn’t laugh at even once.

OK, I did laugh once thanks to a single throwaway gag that tickled me, but really,

this film just isn’t funny at all. On top of that, Adventureland tried to capture the

spirit of last year’s Superbad in its tale of a college graduate (played by the

appealing Jesse Eisenberg) who works at an amusement park (and doesn’t have a

single amusing moment) during his last summer before graduate school. With some

of the same creative team as Superbad in place, one might expect some success

here, but Adventureland is just a sloppy, ugly, and completely unfunny film.

Dan Casper’s Sundance 2008 Recap

I can’t say this was really a great year at Sundance. The weather was terribly cold and the snow was abundant, but I’ve got 3 great films at the top of my list to recommend to you, and a bunch of others that may interest you as well.
Here they are from favorite to least favorite – your comments, questions, and feedback are welcome. Thanks to those who joined me on the journey this year, and happy moviegoing to all!
Dan Casper
1 – Young @ Heart
An inspiring, life-affirming, and hilarious documentary that was possibly the only film at Sundance this year that approached perfection. The film profiles the Young @ Heart chorus, a group of senior citizens in Massachusetts who travel the world performing popular music – and when I say popular, I don’t mean show tunes or standards – think Coldplay or Sonic Youth, for example. The film works on so many levels and defied every expectation I had about a film which is ultimately about some salty seniors who grow old but keep their youthful spirit alive. Sure, the film goes everywhere you know it will go, but it’s so well-crafted and innovative that it earns every single one of its laughs and tears. See this one with an audience – it’s an experience you will want to share.
2 – The Visitor
This pitch-perfect drama about a lonely university professor who returns to New York after a long absence to find illegal immigrants living in his apartment is subtle and understated and beautifully acted. This is a great leap forward for director Tom McCarthy, whose Sundance favorite The Station Agent was a pleasant diversion but gave no indication of his ability to write and direct a film of such weight and resonance as this one. Award-worthy performances across the board, especially from Richard Jenkins, who is best known for his role as the father on Six Feet Under. At the end, I found myself thinking a lot about the film, and I must admit that initially I didn’t feel entirely satisfied at how the drama played out, but ultimately I decided that this is a film that wants you to think and question and challenge it, and for that I recognize it as the most intelligent and accomplished dramatic feature I saw at the festival this year.
3 – Man on Wire
A triumph of both style and substance, Man on Wire is that rare documentary that takes a seemingly straightforward subject – a profile of Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who traversed a wire he set up between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the 1970s – and turns it into a suspenseful and ultimately moving account of a person, a time, and a place that will never again converge in this world. The film is chock full of jaw-dropping details, footage of the event and of the twin towers that has never before been seen, and first-person accounts of what Petit described as his ‘coup.’ Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize (Documentary) and the World Cinema Audience Award (Documentary).
4 – Bigger Stronger Faster *
A terrific and entertaining documentary about steroid use in America is also full of style and substance – one might be tempted to call it a film on steroids – but filmmaker Chris Bell gives us a guided tour of our performance-oriented culture that somehow veers off in a million directions but never loses sight of its agenda. This is much more than the investigative journalism it first seems to be, and the personal dimension that Bell brings to the film (he has been struggling with his own decision to use steroids) really adds credibility. Bell was clearly inspired by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me), but unlike Spurlock, who misfired this year in his attempt to bring a personal dimension to his Sundance entry Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (read on for details), Bell succeeds in creating an engaging and provocative portrait of what our country has become.
5 – Baghead
The Duplass brothers, who first hit Sundance with their feature The Puffy Chair in 2005, are often attached to the ‘mumblecore’ movement of filmmaking – a group of films where inarticulate twentysomethings mumble their way through their friendships and relationships. Unlike their contemporaries, however, I think the Duplass kids are truly gifted, with a keen ear for dialogue, naturalistic performances from their ensemble of unknowns, and an intimate style that sucks you into their characters’ lives. They are masters at getting so much out of so little – and now, two films into their career, they’ve created a curious hybrid of mumblecore and slasher flick that risks being thoroughly ridiculous and emerges as a winner. I don’t want to oversell this modest film – it ultimately deserves a place on your Netflix queue more than anything – but I applaud these guys for making a film so original and unpredictable and fresh.
6 – Transsiberian
Director Brad Anderson has had a diverse indie film career, but I suspect no film will have as much commercial appeal as his terrific new thriller Transsiberian. Set on a cross-continental train ride on the Transsiberian railroad, Anderson spins a compelling yarn of drug trafficking and marital infidelity, casts Ben Kingsley as a dastardly villain you can’t help but love to hate, and films breathtaking train-bound sequences that are stunning to watch. What made this film stand out for me in its genre, though, was its unexpected protagonist – if Hitchcock had made this film, there’s no doubt in my mind that Woody Harrelson’s everyman character would have been the focal point, but in Anderson and Will Conroy’s deft screenplay, Harrelson’s wife, played by Emily Mortimer, becomes the focal point of the action.
7 – Anywhere USA
An oddball triumph that defies description, Anywhere USA, winner of the Special Jury Prize (Dramatic), The Spirit of Independence, delivers a triptych of morality tales that are never short of interesting and are frequently inspired. I guess I would call this a more gentle Pulp Fiction of sorts, but really, I can’t even begin to describe this film, so let me just throw out some of the random ideas this ensemble drama explores. Is the pistachio the official nut of the jihad? Is the tooth fairly really a man named Jay Lucas? What would happen if your child ate a plate of hash brownies by mistake? What would you do if you woke up one day and decided you had never met a black person? Let’s just call this film a wild card, and if you’re an adventurous filmgoer who is willing to let a film fail as much as it succeeds, I encourage you to check it out.
8 – Sleep Dealer
You know, except for a few of the films at the top of my list, I feel like this year I am recognizing a lot of films that are not entirely successful but that are bold enough to take chances that pay off to some extent, and Sleep Dealer is one of them. I’m not a great fan of science fiction, but this is that rare sci-fi film that engaged my mind because it creates a plausible and compelling scenario of what our world might become. The film tackles issues of globalization of our work force, cross-border relations between the US and Mexico, the future of virtual reality, and more – and does so in an engaging and intriguing way. My main regret about Sleep Dealer is that, for a film with a technical crew of over 100, it looks as if it was made by 3 guys in a garage. Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize.
9 – Quid Pro Quo
My neighbor, who has a small role in Quid Pro Quo, encouraged me to see it, calling it a “very… (pause)… interesting film,” and I have to say, I agree with her. In this intriguing little thriller, a handicapped correspondent for NPR (clearly modeled after John Hockenberry) investigates a strange subculture of able-bodied individuals who wish to be handicapped. It’s a fascinating exploration of a strange and disturbing idea, and it’s buoyed by strong and dedicated performances by Nick Stahl (as the reporter) and Vera Farmiga as a handicapped-wannabe with very… (pause)… interesting motives. Farmiga’s performance teeters on the brink of ridiculousness at times, but she reigns herself in just enough to pull it off. Definitely not a film for everyone.
10 – Sugar
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck follow up their Sundance feature debut Half-Nelson with another finely-etched character study. This one’s about a minor league baseball player from the Dominican Republic who is brought to the US to begin to launch a major league career. Despite its context in the world of baseball, this is not a sports film at all – its straightforward, though not entirely predictable, narrative about a fish out of water finding his way in the world works because it is so finely acted, especially by Algenis Perez Soto, who, as Sugar, brings a genuine warmth and natural quality to the role that keeps you on his side throughout. An admirable sophomore effort from a couple of promising filmmakers.
11 – The Great Buck Howard
John Malkovich has a field day playing the title character, an aging mentalist who has appeared on The Tonight Show (starring Johnny Carson, he is quick to point out) many times, and who plunges forward with his life oblivious to the fact that he is no longer in favor. Told from the perspective of his new assistant, played by Colin Hanks, the film is filled with abundant humor, and by the end, creates a portrait of fame and longevity that, for a brief moment, is even a bit touching. The film ends, and it all evaporates, but this is a pleasant trifle that ultimately hinges on Malkovich’s go-for-broke performance.
12 – The Last Word
A quirky little comedy about a young writer who ghostwrites suicide notes, this film is better than you think it’s going to be at the start but stays close to the Sundance mold throughout. It’s a well-cast affair, however, with a brooding and introverted Wes Bentley as the writer, Ray Romano in a rare dramatic role as one of his clients, and Winona Ryder in a very unusual performance as the sister of a former client. Ultimately a life-affirming film, but I guess I expected a bit more from such an intriguing premise.
13 – Phoebe in Wonderland
A film that alternately moved and frustrated me, Phoebe in Wonderland is a beautifully made film about a troubled girl who is cast in her school production of Alice in Wonderland and emerges from the experience much more in touch with herself and her problems. The film is attractive to watch and boasts strong performances from Elle Fanning (yes, really!) and also Patricia Clarkson as her drama teacher. I’m on the fence about Felicity Huffman’s performance as a mother coping with her child’s challenges in school while denying the real problems at hand. At the same time, I admire the film for its effective and sensitive treatment of Phoebe’s condition, though I can’t help but to sum up this film as nothing more than a Hallmark card that says, “I’m sorry your child has Tourette Syndrome.”
14 – Be Like Others
A difficult documentary that explores the disturbing practice of men undergoing sex change operations in Iran so that they can pursue relationships with other men legally. The film feels almost surreal at times and its scenes in the office and operating room of the country’s leading sex reassignment surgeon reminded me of some of the visits I made to physician’s offices in Turkey and India during my trips to these countries for work. The film is heartbreaking at times, yet leaves some questions unanswered – though it works well as a lens into how medicine, religion, and politics converge in some societies. Perhaps most telling to me was when the Paris-trained surgeon explained that he believes only those who really want their sex reassigned will move forward with the procedure when the graphic details of the process are explained to them – his Western training no doubt has contributed to this view, but in Iran, there’s much more at stake.
15 – Frozen River
This film crept up on me. It starts out as a fairly straightforward (though interesting) character study about a single mother in upstate New York trying to make ends meet by assisting a Native American woman who smuggles illegal immigrants from Canada into the US, but once things go horribly awry, the film turns into an intense drama that builds quite a bit of suspense and power in its final act. Melissa Leo and Misty Upham are both terrific, and the film is quiet and lyrical, though I felt in retrospect that the film was just a bit too gentle for its frequently operatic intentions. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic).
16 – Sunshine Cleaning
Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are two of the most charming actresses working today, and Sunshine Cleaning is a perfect vehicle for their abundant talents. The film may not add up to much, and it may pitch itself squarely to fill this year’s Little Miss Sunshine slot (heck, even Alan Arkin shows up as the father), but it’s a pleasant diversion that’s awfully hard to say anything bad about. If you like these actresses, you’ll adore this film.
17 – Trouble the Water
We’ve seen our share of Katrina documentaries in the last few years, but Trouble the Water, winner of this year’s Grand Jury Prize (Documentary), puts a very personal spin on the situation by focusing on one family’s journey before, during, and after the storm. What’s miraculous about this film is its seamlessness – working with footage taken by its subjects before the storm and by the filmmakers during and after, it seems to be more about a family’s journey through poverty that was interrupted by a storm, rather than a film about the storm itself. Once Katrina hits, the family relocates to another state, which, in an odd way, empowers them to take their lives forward in unexpected directions. The one reason I didn’t love this film, as much as I respect it, is that at times it felt somewhat self-promotional to me, intended to help the film’s primary subject launch her music career rather than simply documenting the family’s journey, but still, this is a respectable effort, though, in my mind, far from deserving of the accolades bestowed upon it by the Sundance jury.
18 – I.O.U.S.A.
This documentary tries to explain and illustrate the problem of our national debt in ways that will resonate for the common American, and I must say, I did walk away from the film with more of a clear understanding of the financial crisis our country is in. But like many documentary films these days, I.O.U.S.A. presents lots of problems and suggests solutions that we can take as a nation, but does little to lay out what each of us can do to help. I was entertained, though, and the film’s multimedia approach to its content was certainly clever.
19 – The Recruiter (An American Soldier)
A portrait of the US Army’s recruiting machine, this film is less interesting than it should be. I was not surprised at all by any of the recruiting techniques shared in the film, and the film’s subject, a recruiter named Clay Usie, is far less compelling a presence than you’d expect him to be. He cares about what he does, and he goes the extra mile for his recruits – that’s for sure – but he is far from the charismatic presence you’d expect. A bit more than halfway through, the film’s attention turns away from the recruiting process and begins to follow the new recruits in their first months of service – predictable stuff that really belongs in another film entirely.
20 – The Wackness
The life and times of a high school drug dealer, circa 1994, are presented nostalgically and stylishly in The Wackness. Unfortunately, the great Ben Kingsley hijacks the proceedings and turns in a supporting performance that trumps everything else in this stew of a film. Playing a pot-smoking therapist (not unlike the Brian Cox character in Running with Scissors), Kingsley chews the scenery with style, throwing things entirely off-balance, and leaving the rest of the film to evaporate in a puff of hallucinogenic smoke. Winner of the Audience Award (Dramatic), proving yet again that the altitude is not the only thing that’s high at Sundance.
21 – In Bruges
Playwright Martin McDonagh makes his feature film debut with In Bruges, a film that feels very much like a McDonagh play but falls flat because what works on the stage doesn’t always work so well on film. Though Colin Farrell is, for a change, terrific – and Ralph Fiennes is interesting as well – the film aims for the same mix of comedy and brutality that is McDonagh’s trademark, and unfortunately the tension that builds on stage as McDonagh’s characters teeter on the brink of violence just doesn’t work here. There’s a lot of talk of the scenery in Bruges, and without the picturesque backdrop, I could easily envision this piece as a stage work instead of a film.
22 – Good Dick
An interesting, though not entirely successful, take on sex comedy, Good Dick pits two losers who meet in a video store against each other, and unfortunately it’s awfully hard to sympathize with either of them since the guy is a stalker and the gal is a porn-addicted hermit. There’s some witty dialogue here, and there’s no doubt that writer/director Marianna Palka has some talent, but this film just didn’t speak to the stalker, hermit, or porn addict in me.
23 – American Teen
There is clearly a lot of craft that went into putting together the documentary American Teen, which follows a group of teenagers in Indiana through their final year of high school, but for me, the stylistic flourishes and clever manipulation of footage in the film put the authenticity of the material into question. According to a friend who attended a different screening of the film where director Nanette Burstein was present to speak with the audience, nothing in the film has been manipulated in an inauthentic way, but I wonder if these kids were really as stereotypical as they appeared to be, or maybe I am just out of touch with the youth of today. Four years from now, we’ll probably see all of these kids on The Real World – I hope by then, their characters have emerged and grown to become the real people I know they must be. Winner of the Directing Award (Documentary).
24 – Ballast
Lance Hammer’s debut film Ballast is an admirable effort but just isn’t a film I’d really want to see. If you’re a fan of the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, you might appreciate this uncomfortable portrait of a family (if you can call it that) in the Mississippi Delta, but I just wasn’t up to the task of working so hard to figure out the family dynamic and layers of relationship that are slowly revealed in this film. The critics are certain to call Ballast spare and haunting, but really this film reminded me a lot of a Sundance snoozer from several years back called Forty Shades of Blue. That film was applauded by the Sundance jury but is uniformly considered one of the least audience-friendly films to come out of the festival in years. I wish you luck with Ballast – I can’t say I didn’t respect it, and I certainly wasn’t bored by it, but it’s not a film I would choose to see. Winner of the Directing Award (Dramatic).
25 – Be Kind Rewind
Michel Gondry, the virtuoso talent behind films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, and the underrated Human Nature returns to Sundance with his latest gimmicky film, Be Kind Rewind. Jack Black (terrific, as always) and Mos Def play video store clerks who, through a strange set of circumstances, end up erasing every VHS tape in their store and race to recreate the lost films on the fast and cheap. It’s a cute concept, and most of the fun of the film comes in watching their ridiculous ‘Sweded’ recreations of classic films, but when the film veers off into sentimental love-of-filmmaking save-the-video-store territory, it just doesn’t work. Gondry’s earlier films were more successful collaborations with the wildly original Charlie Kaufman, and Gondry would be wise to stick with directing and leave the writing to someone else.
26 – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
This adaptation of Michael Chabon’s early novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has taken a long time to get to the screen, and it’s easy to see why. From what I recall about it, this would seem to be a nearly impossible novel to adapt, and sure enough, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber made many adjustments to the basic framework of the novel to accommodate. Unfortunately what results still doesn’t feel cinematic enough, and despite a strong performance from the always-good Peter Sarsgaard in a supporting role as a free-spirited hipster, the film just doesn’t really work. Curtis Hanson’s terrific adaptation of
Chabon’s Wonder Boys remains the gold standard here, but even a film half as good as that one would have been nice.
27 – Documentary Spotlight
For the first time this year, I branched out of the feature film program to check out some of the short films featured at Sundance, and this set of documentary shorts was a great place to start, though ultimately it confirmed my preference for feature-length filmmaking – documentary or otherwise. There were several films in this program that looked promising to me, and two of them proved to be strong entries.
In Lauren Greenfield’s kids + money, teenagers across the Los Angeles area talk about what money means to them, and the responses, though in some ways predictable, are jaw-dropping when you hear them straight from the horses’ mouths.
In Tadashi Nakamura’s Pilgrimage, we chart the history of a WWII Japanese internment camp in California. The film is powerful and moving and tells you more than you ever thought you could learn about one place during its short 22 minute running time.
Unfortunately, the film that actually convinced me to select this program in the first place, the now-Oscar-nominated La Corona (The Crown), is a predictable film about an unpredictable subject – a beauty pageant held in a women’s prison in South America. It’s not a bad film at all, but at 40 minutes, it’s twice as long as it needs to be.
28 – Fields of Fuel
A 90 minute infomercial, albeit one with an important message, Fields of Fuel, directed by its subject, Josh Tickell, chronicles one energy activist’s efforts to find and champion alternative fuel sources. Focusing mostly on biodiesel (a vegetable oil-based fuel), the film actually does offer solutions and paints a credible picture of an environmentally-sound future – one that some of our allies in Europe have already started to implement. Undeniably uplifting and energetic, the film is entirely a call to action, and on that dimension alone, it succeeds, but from a filmmaking standpoint, it’s pretty basic and at times even sloppy (somebody should tell Tickell how to spell ‘Minesota’). I prefer a more subtle approach to my propaganda, but maybe that’s just me.
29 – August
A film that was outdated long before it was even made, August looks back at the halcyon days of the dot-com era and spins a generic tale of ego and persistence. It works just fine as a character study of an entrepreneur, played by Josh Hartnett, who is all, well, ego and persistence – but as a period piece, or even as a morality tale told from within the Internet bubble, it’s a big hand-waving misfire. Though I appreciated how the film drew out the distinctions between two brothers in business together – one the financial whiz and relationship builder, and the other the technical guru – the film also throws technical and financial concepts around as if they were yanked randomly out of a textbook, and as a dot-com refugee myself, this was beyond frustrating. I might have been part of the pre-9/11, August 2001 New York Silicon Alley crowd, but this film didn’t ring true to me for a minute.
30 – Funny Games
Michael Haneke remakes his notorious Austrian film Funny Games with an English-speaking cast in an American setting, and I can’t help but ask myself why. Probably so we don’t have to read subtitles, I guess, but after watching this more or less frame-by-frame remake, I can’t see what this version adds to the equation. The original film was harrowing, disturbing, and shocking in its way, but it’s also an obtuse commentary on the responsibility of those who ignore all the acts of violence happening around them in the world. Now we have the same film in English, and I can’t imagine what more Haneke might want to say or have us think.
Still, if you haven’t seen the original, I suppose this version will suffice if you forgot to bring your glasses to the theatre or have reached your reading quota for the day.
31 – Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?
Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) returns to Sundance with a film that brings some insight into our friends in the Middle East and even more insight into their perceptions of us – and it does so in a stylish way – but ultimately, this is a pretty thin effort overall. Unfortunately, Spurlock explains at the start of the film that he is going on a journey to find Bin Laden to make the world safe for his new baby, which is due in several months, and I couldn’t help but feel that instead of traipsing around the desert, Morgan should have been home taking care of his wife and chronicling their pregnancy instead (God knows, we get to see the baby’s birth in graphic detail anyway). I can sort of understand that Spurlock wanted to raise the stakes for his journey to find the most wanted man on earth, but framing the film in this way was a poor choice that really turned me off.
32 – Choke
This film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke is all over the place, but I suspect Palahniuk’s book is too. Sam Rockwell is terrific as Victor, a sex-addicted history-theme-park worker who chokes himself in fine restaurants and whose mother (Angelica Huston) is a bit wacko too. Despite some truly inspired and hilarious scenes of Victor’s anonymous sexual encounters with a woman from his sex addicts’ support group, this film was only sporadically interesting to me. Winner of the Special Jury Prize (Dramatic), Work by an Ensemble Cast.
33 – Downloading Nancy
Brutal, unpleasant, dark, bleak, disturbing, ugly, and awfully uncomfortable to watch, Downloading Nancy has one asset worth noting – Maria Bello. In a brave performance, Bello plays a woman who goes online to find a man who will help her to play out her deepest fantasy and finds a willing partner in Jason Patric’s Louis. I can’t say much more about the film, in case you are actually interested in seeing it, but I can guarantee you will be in a really bad mood after seeing this one. I am certain this film would be lost in oblivion somewhere if it weren’t for the first-rate actors who agreed to take part in it.
34 – Pretty Bird
The history of the ‘rocket belt’ (that jet-pack thing you used to see those guys fly around the Super Bowl in) is the subject of this offbeat film, which succeeds in much the same way August did in laying out the roles of the individuals who helped to bring a business idea to fruition. The film starts off as a comedy, which is pleasant though unexceptional, but turns dramatic about halfway through and becomes much less engaging as a result. I can’t fault the actors though – Billy Crudup is terrific as the rainmaker, Paul Giamatti shines in a role with his name all over it, and David Hornsby has an interesting take on perhaps the most complex of the three. Still, by the end, Pretty Bird had long since flown the coop.
35 – The Wave
This German film, about a schoolteacher who teaches fascism to his class by running an immersive experiment in his classroom, is interesting at first, but it just doesn’t go deep enough into the characters to make their actions entirely convincing. At the same time, there is a certain power to the film, solely on the events that transpired, but the film’s violent ending not only didn’t really happen (the film is based on a true story) but is entirely unnecessary to bring home the film’s message persuasively.
36 – The Escapist
The loudest film I saw at Sundance this year but one that couldn’t keep me awake at its midnight screening. This nearly incomprehensible British-made prison break drama toggles back and forth in time but isn’t tightly plotted enough to make it worth the effort to try to follow. There’s some sort of metaphysical element to all of it, but I didn’t quite get it, or maybe I was just trying to sleep and was constantly interrupted by the shouting and screaming and clanging of metal that never seems to stop.
37 – Smart People
Eh, not so smart really. Essentially this is the stuff of standard romantic comedy, but the main characters in the film have advanced degrees, so on paper, each appears to be smarter than the average movie character – in reality, they’re not. Sure, they talk a lot about being tenure-track professors or doctors on-call, but there’s not much going on here that you haven’t heard before. Perhaps worst of all is that each of the actors is typecast based on roles they’ve played before – the spunky single career girl (Sarah Jessica Parker), the aging slacker (Thomas Haden Church), the snarky teenager (Ellen Page) – you get the idea.
38 – Blind Date
A married couple coping with the loss of their child decides to go out on a series of ‘blind’ dates with each other to help reinvigorate their marriage. Their role playing becomes more and more strange as the dates proceed, and I pretty much lost interest in this pretentious crap during the bumper car sequence (don’t ask). Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are terrific actors, and they pretty much emerge from this mess unscathed, but this second film in a series of American remakes of the films of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh went either over my head or right around me.
39 – STRANDED: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains
If you’re interested in every last detail – and I mean every… last… detail… – of the famous plane crash that left a group of college students on their way to a football match stranded in the Andes with only each other for nourishment, then this is the film for you. It’s well-made, and its dramatic reenactments are well-done, but it’s so damn repetitive and specific, I wanted to start eating my own flesh to keep my sanity. “I couldn’t move my foot because the snow had buried it. Then the wind blew, and I could move my foot one centimeter.” Dramatic reenactment. Next survivor: “I couldn’t move my foot because the snow had buried it. Then the wind blew, and I could move my foot one centimeter.” Dramatic reenactment. Repeat for remaining survivors (16). Help!
40 – Secrecy
This documentary about America’s information security practices could have been interesting, but I fear that no one wanted to reveal any secrets, so the film (made by two Harvard professors) becomes a philosophical exercise in why secrecy is important and why some think secrecy is wrong. Unfortunately, the arguments presented are so abstract and arcane, I found myself scratching my head during much of the film trying to make sense of it all. A frustrating film for sure.
41 – Birds of America
Craig Lucas’ film is an indie misfire that is full of characters I couldn’t have cared less about and a muddled plot that made no sense to me at all. At one point, all of the main characters collide into each other from different directions in a park, and this pretty much summed up the movie for me – everyone seems to be coming at this film from all different directions. Is this a screwball comedy? A quirky indie? A vehicle for Matthew Perry and his castmates (including Hilary Swank in a baffling supporting role)? And then there’s the scatological humor, which comes out of left field and sits there on the front lawn stinking up the whole affair. And then they call it Birds of America? What does that have to do with anything? Don’t mind me – I’m just confused by it all.
42 – Savage Grace
Though truly awful, Savage Grace might have been an interesting film, but as it is, it’s both awful and uninteresting. Julianne Moore, who will have a hard time digging herself out of this one, plays a society woman who embarks on some interesting sexcapades with her, ahem, son. The film tries to pass itself off as art by being attractive to look at, by globetrotting its characters among locations in the US and Europe, and by casting top-tier talent, but alas, it’s a hopeless case. After the film, director Tom Kalin explained that the source material for his film was actually a series of journalistic essays about this woman as told through the reminiscences of people who knew her, and it occurred to me that these lenses on her life might have made for an interesting Rashomon-like piece, but as it stands, Savage Grace has no grace at all.
43 – King of Ping Pong
Watching a game of Ping Pong would be more interesting than sitting through this overly quirky Swedish coming-of-age drama about a quirky kid and his quirky family in their quirky town. To add to the quirk factor, this film is not about Ping Pong at all – in fact, I’m not quite sure what it’s about, except it’s about two hours long, and rambles and meanders all over its frozen landscape without a care in the world. Films like this baffle me completely, and I can’t imagine what the Sundance jury found to love in this World Cinema Jury Prize (Dramatic) and World Cinema Cinematography Award (Dramatic)-winning film. Did they pretend that this was an uplifting tale of an underdog Ping Pong player bursting out of his adolescent shell to win the world championship and emerge a stronger, more mature, self-aware person as a result? No such luck. Put this film on the shelf with Whale Rider, an earlier overrated Sundance World Cinema award winner. The king of Ping Pong can go learn to ride whales with the Aborigines, and we can send cute little (pregnant) Keisha Castle-Hughes to freeze with the quirky Swedes.

Report from The 2007 Sundance Film Festival

Here is this year's Sundance Film Festival report from my friend Dan Casper.

1 – The Savages 
Easily the best dramatic feature at the festival this year, Tamara Jenkins’ film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as adult siblings who are asked to make important decisions about their aging father’s long term care and somehow stumble their way through it all.  This is a tough film, but it’s not just about what it means to grow old in America today – it’s also about sibling rivalry, middle age, and the disappointments that drive families apart – and at the heart of it all are magnificent performances by two of our finest actors.  Watch for this film at Oscar time next year.

2 – Manda Bala
The documentary revelation of this year’s festival, Manda Bala is a riveting portrait of contemporary Brazil.  Director Jason Kohn uses the food chain as a metaphor to show how seemingly unrelated circumstances all feed into the cycle of violence that is at the heart of Brazil’s current economic and social problems, but he does so in a way that is vital, engaging, and wholly original.  I guess I would describe Kohn’s technique as Errol Morris meets Quentin Tarantino, but Kohn is really in a class by himself, bringing the documentary form forward into a new and exciting place.  I can’t wait to see what he does next.  Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary Filmmaking.

3 – In the Shadow of the Moon
A sentimental favorite, this film is simple, elegant, and a supremely moving experience.  In the Shadow of the Moon documents the Apollo space missions of the 1960s and 70s, but brings a new perspective to this well-documented era by allowing the men who traveled to the moon speak about their experiences in their own words.  Filled with glorious images of the moon, Earth, and space, this film will look splendid on your plasma TV when it airs someday on the Discovery Channel (HD, of course!).  There’s no ponderous narration, no scientific lecturing – just the faces and words of the men who traveled in space, looking back on what clearly are the defining moments of their lives.  Winner of the World Documentary Audience Award.

4 – Hear and Now
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s parents have been hearing impaired for all of their 60+ years, and now they have decided to have cochlear implant surgery to restore their hearing.  This is an inspiring film that, at its heart, is more about two people sharing their lives together than it is about this controversial medical procedure and its outcome.  The Taylors have an entirely unpredictable journey into the world of sound, but it’s a journey that somehow, despite its difficulties, in my mind, makes sense.  Winner of the Documentary Audience Award.

5 – War/Dance 
Stunningly filmed documentary about children living in the middle of the Ugandan civil war zone who travel to Kampala to participate in the country’s annual student music and dance competition.  Every single frame of War/Dance would make a beautiful still photo for a coffee table companion book for this film, and I admit that I was thoroughly engaged in the beauty and poetry of the images filmmakers Sean and Andrea Nix Fine created.  The moving narrative is a familiar treatise on the healing power of art in times of peril, and though the film did work for me, its impact was diminished a bit for a reason I can’t quite articulate.  My friends observed that the film actually felt entirely ‘staged’ to them and that there is nothing honorable about having these children recount their tales of torture and horror.  I respect that view, but I can’t deny that for some, the techniques used in this film will go a long way towards bringing attention to its agenda.  I give the film high marks for its artistry, but I admit that its intent and execution are a bit of a mismatch.  Winner of the Documentary Directing Award.

6 – Strange Culture
An intriguing film that explores the strange case of Steve Kurtz, an artist who was arrested on evidence of suspected terrorism when it was found that his home contained scientific equipment and other materials for an art installation he was working on about genetically-modified food products.  Not only is this a fascinating and thought-provoking case, but the film is presented in a fascinating and thought- provoking way.  Not content to simply document the case, director Lynn Hershman Leeson uses actors to recreate scenes that Kurtz’s lawyers will not allow him to talk about publicly since his case is still awaiting trial.  I was fascinated by the many layers to Kurtz’s story – and by the many layers of Leeson’s film.  Strange culture, indeed.

7 – Never Forever
I’ll admit it – I love a good melodrama – and Never Forever is, simply put, a highly- polished melodrama.  Elevated by a strong performance from Sundance’s woman-of- the-year, Vera Farmiga, this somewhat sordid tale of a woman married to an infertile Korean businessman who pays another Korean man who she meets at her fertility clinic to impregnate her, is riveting despite itself.  Yes, at times it feels like it’s headed down a rabbit hole, never to return to sanity, but Farmiga carries the film, keeping it grounded, and keeping me engaged during its twists and turns.

8 – Girl 27
Back in 1937, a Hollywood chorus girl, Patricia Douglas, then 17, was invited to perform at an MGM sales meeting and became a victim of rape and abuse by one of the salesmen attending the convention.  Very little was reported about this incident, and over 60 years later, director and investigative reporter David Stenn went in search of answers.  Why the cover-up?  What happened to Douglas?  Why was she never heard from again?  Stenn finds lots to chew on in this story, but ultimately his film (and its accompanying Vanity Fair article) is a lucid account of abuse and its ramifications on one person’s life up until the day she died.  Heartbreaking and tragic.

9 – Crazy Love
A jaw-droppingly unbelievable tale of obsession and madness, this film documents the unusual love affair between two unforgettable New Yorkers – Burt Pugatch and Linda Riss – who have spent the better part of the last 45 years falling in and out of love with each other.  Saying more about their relationship wouldn’t be fair to filmmakers Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens, who reveal the details of their complex relationship beautifully in this textured and strangely compassionate film.  Pugatch and Riss sat near me on my flight out to Sundance, and though I did not know who they were at the time, I knew they were one-of-a-kind characters – had they been near me on my flight back, I just might have asked to change my seat.

10 – Broken English
It doesn’t bring anything new to the romantic comedy genre, but Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English sparkles with witty dialogue and appealing situations – and, hey, with Parker Posey leading the band as the film’s unlucky-in-love heroine, how can you go wrong?  A pleasant diversion for a rainy afternoon.

11 – Waitress
Filmmaker Adrienne Shelly’s recent murder brought an extra layer of sentimentality to her already sentimental film Waitress, but even if Shelly had been with us, I would have applauded this film’s good-natured warmth and charm, its entirely convincing performances, and its often surprising wit.  The setup is straight out of the 70s sitcom Alice, but the film sneaks up on you and gains surprising depth as it works up to its wholly expected and entirely feminist resolution.  A chick flick of the highest order.

12 – My Kid Could Paint
That Is 4 year old Marla Olmstead an art prodigy or just a kid playing with her paint set?  Or is Marla’s seemingly charming fam
ily pulling the wool over the eyes of the art world and making buckets of money off their kid?  Or maybe something else entirely is going on here.  One thing I do know is that filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev raises a lot of questions, throws out a lot of ideas, and ultimately shrugs his shoulders at the Olmsteads, eventually turning the camera on himself and his journalistic responsibility over his subject.  This was frustrating to me by the end of this film, but I still respect a lot of My Kid Could Paint That for its intriguing dissection of a family thrust into fame by their child’s precociousness.  Less successful in its assessment of the art world than last year’s raucously entertaining Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, but worthwhile nonetheless.

13 – Starting Out in the Evening
A gentle character study of an aging writer, his daughter, and the young graduate student who comes into their lives, director Andrew Wagner’s follow-up to his very different The Talent Given Us is a nice piece of writing and acting, with Frank Langella’s reliable performance at its core.  This is a modest film, quiet and at times slow, but a rewarding one. 

14 – Away from Her
Another quiet film at the festival this year, Sarah Polley’s Away from Her tells the gentle story of a woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s with grace and poise.  Featuring a central performance by the great Julie Christie, the film has a mesmerizing quality to it that serves as a kindler, gentler counterpoint to the biting wit and complexity of another strong film at Sundance this year, The Savages.

15 – Chasing Ghosts
Not quiet at all, Chasing Ghosts documents the history of the video game revolution of the 1980s with all of the wit and vitality you would expect.  A slick portrait of geekdom and its birthplace (the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa), the film is never less than entertaining but becomes even more than that when we check in with the men (and yes, they are all men) who were the reigning Pac Man and Asteroids champions of their day.

16 – Grace is Gone
John Cusack’s fully-realized performance is at the heart of this film, which appears to be a well-researched and believable study of a man’s journey to acceptance of the death of his wife in the Iraq war and the inevitable, though difficult, discussion he has with his daughters about their loss.  Unfortunately, I just couldn’t fully get myself inside the head of Cusack’s character and couldn’t quite connect with the daughters either, and I guess the script and direction ended up keeping me at enough of a distance from this film to really be moved by it.  Not a bad film, and one that many will respond to more than I did, but watching Grace is Gone just wasn’t quite the experience I might have expected.  Winner of the Dramatic Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

17 – Trade
A guilty pleasure (if pleasure is the right word), this film is a Bruckheimer-style thriller about the global abduction and auctioning of young children into sexual slavery.  It’s hardly an expose, and doesn’t have all that much of a social conscience, but damn if it doesn’t create a tense scenario and deliver on its promise to keep you on the edge of your seat and disturb you.  It seems at first that Trade is going to be another Babel-style triptych, riffing this time on the human rights of underage children, but it quickly turns into a strong thriller that really didn’t sell me on itself until its final half hour, which was riveting and intensely disturbing.  Featuring a chilling performance from Mexican actress Kate DelCastillo as the villainous Laura.

18 – Joshua
Clearly inspired by Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, director George Ratliff has created a spooky, witty film and cast terrific actors to creep us out with his tale of one very odd child who feels very threatened by the arrival of his new sibling.  Vera Farmiga (again) plays the mother who is thrown into post-partum depression by her son, while Sam Rockwell is the father driven to paranoia.  This film had no trouble keeping me awake at its midnite screening, but when it was all over, I couldn’t help thinking the film was more of an exercise in style over substance.

19 – Rocket Science
Director Jeffrey Blitz, who made the terrific documentary Spellbound, creates another promising underdog scenario with his fictional tale of a socially awkward teen with a stutter who is recruited for the debate squad at his school, and I can’t remember a more entertaining time at the festival for me than the first 45 minutes or so of Rocket Science.  Its setup is terrific, the writing sparkles, the central performance by newcomer Reece Daniel Thompson is spot-on (he won a special acting award from the Sundance jury), and the voice-over narration by Alec Baldwin adds the perfect touch.  Unfortunately, the film is all setup and no payoff, with a second half that loses a lot of steam before sputtering out and ending.  Too bad, but I give the film credit for trying.

20 – An American Crime
This is a lurid tale about a very disturbed woman in Indiana who takes in her neighbor’s children and tortures and abuses them to no end.  This film was most unpleasant to watch, but I can’t deny that Catherine Keener and Ellen Page give brilliant performances that probably not too many will want to see.  Brave choices on their part, and a brave choice on yours if you choose to see this film.

21 – Smiley Face
Let me just say up front that I have never smoked pot, so I’m not sure I am the target audience for this stoner comedy that spends a day in the life of a young woman who has smoked way too much of it, but damn if I didn’t find Anna Faris’ performance in Smiley Face one of the most inspired comic performances I have seen this year.  Sure, this movie is pure silliness, but Faris carries the day, and director Gregg Araki (who made a great leap forward in his skill as a director a couple of years back with Mysterious Skin) gets things just right.  Opens in your local theatre on 4/20 (think about it).

22 – Once
A wee tiny small little miniscule musical, this charming Irish film fulfills its modest ambitions, but I guess I wanted it to be more.  A street performer meets a woman on the Dublin streets, wanders around with her, regaling her with songs on his guitar, and at one point, on a piano in a music store they pass by.  It’s kind of a love story, and then it kind of isn’t, but it’s hard to say a bad word about a film that aims to charm and has no pretensions about doing anything more than that.  Winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s because of the film, or because the film’s stars came up after each screening and performed a few songs live for the Sundance audience before they voted.

23 – Year of the Dog
I love Mike White’s view of the world in films like Chuck & Buck and, to a lesser extent, The Good Girl, and Year of the Dog clearly has White stamped all over it.  Molly Shannon is perfectly cast as a dog lover who goes over the edge when her dog Pretzel (or was it Pencil?) dies, becoming an aggressive (and annoying) animal rights activist.  Because this is a comedy, the dark side of Shannon’s character is played more for laughs, so it’s hard to argue that she really could have benefited from a few visits to a good therapist to help cope with her grief.  Nonetheless, the supporting cast is strong and makes the most of a not-so-great script, but I couldn’t help but think that you really have to be a major animal lover to understand how this character could have gone so far off the deep end.

24 – Red Road
Here’s one that really baffled me, since it kept me in the dark for most of its nearly 2 hour running time, then walloped me at the end with some ve
ry fast plot twists that made sense of all that came before them.  Overall, I guess that means this was a tightly constructed, well-thought-out film, but as my friend and I discussed, it just needed to give me a bit more as it went along so that I wasn’t so put off by some of the main character’s actions – such as stalking and eventually having intense, violent sex with an ex-convict who she spies on through the surveillance system at the security firm she works at.  A resourceful film for sure, but one I’m not sure I really appreciated all that much.

25 – Padre Nuestro
Here’s another film that baffled me.  For much of its short running time, I thought this film’s two main characters, who are very similar-looking Mexican boys who have come across the border, were actually one person.  Something happens early in the film that led me to believe that one of the boys was out of the picture, but alas, he was not, and all I can do is blame the director and editor for their lack of clarity in telling their story.  Somehow, once my head was on straight about what was going on, I got back into the film, which so far had played like standard scrappy urban indie fare to me, and I found the film’s final 20 minutes or so to be compelling enough to not entirely dismiss it.  Winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, but in my mind, an accolade not earned.

26 – Snow Angels
I’ve always felt David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow) was an extraordinarily talented filmmaker who had yet to make a good movie, and unfortunately Snow Angels hasn’t done much to change his track record.  This bleak tale about the loss of a child and the impact it has on a small town is sad indeed, and the miscasting of Kate Beckinsale in the lead role (she seems to be miscast a lot these days – another case in point, Laurel Canyon) is unfortunately fatal to the film.  I was never bored by it (unlike George Washington, which is a great film to fall asleep to), but it didn’t add up to much for me either.

27 – For the Bible Tells Me So
This documentary on Christianity’s views on homosexuality does itself a service by focusing on several families’ experiences and personal stories rather than on the Bible-thumpers who dismiss it all as sin, but the film also goes off on quite a few tangents that seem geared towards making this a definitive film on homosexuality rather than a specific film about one aspect of the debate on religion and sexual preference.  The cartoon segment on what it means to be gay really didn’t add much, but it sure was entertaining.  Director Daniel Karslake is a first-time filmmaker, and that shows, but he’s a filmmaker with clear passion for his subject, and for that I give him credit.

28 – Four Sheets to the Wind
A slight, well-acted slice-of-life in a Native American community in the Southwest, Four Sheets to the Wind doesn’t make much of a film, but it introduces several appealing Native American actors who should have bright futures ahead of them.  Actress Tamara Podemski was awarded a special acting prize by the Sundance jury, but I would have made a point of recognizing the strong work of Cody Lightning and Jeri Arredondo as a son and mother coping with the loss of their father and husband.

29 – Everything’s Cool
Somewhat of a companion piece to last year’s An Inconvenient Truth, this film brings several additional layers of information to the global warming debate but is not nearly as tightly focused or as strong in its delivery as the Gore documentary.  Filmmakers Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold made one of my favorite Sundance docs a few years ago (Blue Vinyl), and I had high expectations of their film this year, but unfortunately, this one’s a bit of a mess.  I get the sense that they rushed to complete Everything’s Cool and in the process forgot to use their great storytelling gifts, so evident in Blue Vinyl, to really suck their audience into this important issue.  Helfand and Gold started this film long before An Inconvenient Truth, and I think the pressure created by that film’s success has really had an impact here.

30 – Year of the Fish
Director David Kaplan tries to make his film look more mythic and important than it is by rotoscoping over his modest digitally-shot feature to give it a unique animated look that is intriguing at times but grows tiresome since not every moment of this Cinderella-set-in-Chinatown tale has quite the resonance he would like to believe that it does.  The film is entirely watchable, however, and has its entertaining stretches.

31 – Chicago 10
The opening night film at the festival this year, Chicago 10 is a real mess but has some brilliant ideas that unfortunately aren’t well-executed.  I was excited to learn all about the Chicago 7, their protest at the Democratic National Convention in  1968, and their subsequent trial, but because this film is resolutely committed to its stylistic flourishes and its big, loud, busy mises-en-scenes, I can’t say I learned all that much.  Most confusing to me is why a film about the Chicago 7 is called Chicago 10.   

32 – The Pool
A trend at this year’s festival was films by filmmakers not native to the cultures they made their films about.  Chris Smith’s The Pool is set in Goa (off the western coast of India) and is a character portrait of a young man trying to make something of his life.  I can’t say all that much happens, or that the film is all that interesting, or beautiful, or much of anything.  In fact, I was pretty bored throughout much of it, but I guess I’m supposed to give Smith credit for making a film that seems to be an homage to the work of the Indian master Satyajit Ray – though that doesn’t make it a film I’d really want to see.  Winner of a Special Jury Award for Originality of Vision.

33 – Chapter 27
This film purports to be a serious character assessment of Mark David Chapman, who was John Lennon’s assassin, during the final days leading up to Lennon’s shooting, but really this film is a shameless vehicle for Jared Leto, who put on 60 pounds and much vocal affectation to pull off this stunt that not for a minute feels like a genuine piece of acting.  OK, I give the guy credit for trying, and the script itself isn’t terrible, but I think I walked into this film with a bit of a grudge against Leto, since I had heard some Hollywood bigwig at dinner the night before complain on his cell phone to somebody that Leto wanted the stage “all to himself” during the Q&A session after the film’s screening. 

34 – The Go-Getter
I’ve already pretty much forgotten this film, which is pretty standard road trip fare about a guy who steals a car and develops some kind of relationship over the phone with the stranger whose car he has stolen.  An appealing cast, led by Lou Taylor Pucci and Zooey Deschanel helps, but there’s not much to say about this unmemorable film.

35 – Ghosts
I’ve been a fan of Nick Broomfield’s documentaries about Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and Aileen Wuornos, but Broomfield makes a rocky transition to dramatic filmmaking with Ghosts, which brings a distinct verite sensibility to its tale of a Chinese immigrant who comes to Britain, works a series of menial jobs, and eventually gets swept up by the tides while on a cockle farming expedition in Northern England.  Broomfield has something to say about the plight of illegal immigrants in his country, and some of the film (particularly the cockle expedition) is impressively filmed, but other films have tackled a similar subject much more effectively (my favorite is probably a film called Last Resort, which has more to say in 75 minutes about illegal immigrants than just about any film I’ve seen).

36 – The Monastery:  Mr. Vig and the Nun The Sund
ance programmer instructed us, “Don’t be afraid to laugh!” before our screening of this film, but alas, I did not laugh once.  Sure, Mr. Vig and the Russian nun who comes to his family home to accept his generous offer to turn it into a Russian Orthodox monastery are quirky and hard-headed, but I just didn’t find them to be all that funny – just a bit old and cranky.  This film tries so hard to mine these two kind souls for entertainment value, but there’s not much to be found.

37 – Sweet Mud
Mud indeed.  This film is about life on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s, but unfortunately it’s muddied up with strange subplots about a mother’s mental illness, a visitor from Switzerland, an older man in love with a younger woman, a child coming of age on the kibbutz, and more.  Somewhere there’s a good film to be made about the kibbutz movement, its communal living and politics, and that film could be nicely framed by a story of a child’s coming of age or a visitor’s reaction to the dynamics of the kibbutz lifestyle, but instead Sweet Mud meanders along and never satisfies.  Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema.

38 – Reprise
The divergent/convergent trajectories of 2 young writers in Norway is the focus of Reprise, and unfortunately, this is another film that starts out with great promise and then goes nowhere.  Director Joachim Trier has some visual flair, but I couldn’t help thinking I’ve seen every technique he uses in this film before.  Not really much to say on this one.

39 – Protaganist
Academy Award-winning documentarian Jessica Yu tries too hard to apply the structures of classical Greek tragedy to the lives of 4 tragic men, and the result is an intellectual curiosity at best.  I think Yu was a bit constrained by her chosen hypothesis, and this film is a perfect example of making data fit a theory rather than the other way around.  An interesting idea, but not an interesting film.

40 – Zoo
Several years ago, a man in the Pacific Northwest was rushed to a hospital, and upon investigating the cause of his unusual injury, investigators discovered a farm in Washington State that was a sexual playground for those who were into, ahem, bestiality.  Filmmaker Robinson Devor went to investigate this strange incident, and in the process, found lots of people who wouldn’t talk about it.  No surprise there, but Devor’s decision to make a documentary anyway leads to one of the most obtuse, unsatisfying films at the festival this year.  A ‘meditation’ on zoophilia, Zoo tries to create a mesmerizing cinematic experience, but unfortunately it provides virtually no information and no insight into its subject.  For a more satisfying investigation into an odd sexual subculture, see Kirby Dick’s film Sick instead.

41 – Miss Navajo
Here’s my problem with Miss Navajo: despite its political correctness, the Miss Navajo Pageant, which showcases the ancestry, talents, and dreams of young women across the Navajo nation, just isn’t very interesting, and this film’s decision to profile one aspiring contestant on her journey through the pageant process doesn’t work, mainly because she just isn’t very interesting either.  Everybody in this film seems perfectly lovely, and I did get a kick out of the sheep slaughtering portion of the competition, but I just wish there were more to say about Miss Navajo – the pageant, its contestants, or this film.

42 – Save Me
This film about a gay reformation ministry is full of good intentions but in bad need of a script.  It’s hard to figure out exactly what the message is here, since the film traffics in every gay film stereotype you can think of and is clouded by characters with inconsistent motives and actions.  Judith Light comes away unscathed and turns in a respectable performance, though I’m not quite sure even she understands what her character is really about.  I’m as confused about this film as some of its characters are about their sexual preference.

43 – Fido
I laughed a couple of times during Fido, a silly comedy about a day in the future when the flesh-eating tendencies of zombies can be regulated so that the undead can work simple jobs, like becoming the titular domestic help played by Billy Connolly here.  The film looks great, and it has a great cast, but I just didn’t feel like I wanted to go along for the ride.

44 – The Legacy
A man and his grandson travel to a small town carrying a coffin.  The grandfather is to be shot when he reaches his destination as part of a long-standing feud between families, and the grandson is to carry the coffin home afterwards.  This film is an allegory for something, but I have no idea what.  I think something got lost in translation (the film comes from France and Georgia, as in the former Soviet Union not the Peach State), and I just don’t have the energy to figure out what.  I sat mystified by this film, at times feeling like an intricate joke was being played on me (if you’ve ever seen the Ingmar Bergman parody De Duva, you’ll know what I mean).

45 – Dark Matter
Let us discuss the dark matter of Dark Matter, the second worst film I saw at the festival this year, and if it weren’t for #46 below, well, I guess it would be the worst.  A Chinese exchange student in mathematics comes to an American university, works with his mentor, and then when academic politics turn against him, goes on a crazy shooting spree.  I am flabbergasted that the great Meryl Streep would choose to participate in this film, especially since I can’t imagine any reason why she would have found the thankless role of a college professor’s wife who serves as hostess to the exchange students remotely interesting.  On top of that, the film itself doesn’t even try to explain or create any sense of inclusion with its audience about any of the mathematical or scientific concepts discussed – sure, dark matter and string theory can be challenging to understand, but there are ways to handle this subject matter without resorting to pointless hand-waving and big words.   This film won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a narrative film with scientific or technological subject matter, but probably because it was the only film at the festival this year to go anywhere near the world of science.

46 – Teeth
OK, here it is, the film you have been waiting for.  The worst film I saw at Sundance this year, without a doubt, was Teeth, an embarrassing horror-comedy about a teenage girl who discovers that she has teeth in her (are you sitting down?) vagina.  Everything you can imagine that would happen does, and then some, and it’s all incredibly distasteful.  Newcomer Jess Weixler was awarded a special jury prize for acting, probably for her bravery in taking a role that will probably prevent her from ever having a normal date with a boy ever again.  What’s especially offensive to me about this film is that the Sundance programmers decided to put this film in competition instead of scheduling it as an out-of-competition midnite film, a spot on the schedule that probably wouldn’t have bothered me one bit.  To call this film one of the few films this year that advances the art of independent cinema is abominable, and to punish the Sundance jury by making them take this dreck seriously is unforgivable.  So that I don’t end on such a sour note, I did overhear one amusing comment as I left the theatre after the screening – “I wonder how she flosses down there.”


Report from The 2006 Sundance Film Festival

My friend Dan Casper attends the Sundance Film Festival every year, sees everything and writes thumbnail reviews that I thoroughly enjoy. Here's his report for 2006.

Greetings friends!

Let me just get this out of the way first – 2006 was not a good year for the Sundance Film Festival.

Sure, there were plenty of films to see, and plenty of good ones at that (particularly some of the documentaries), but there just weren't any truly great films. No revelations, no films that I must urge you to run out to see, no performances that bring forward an emerging talent.

It was just an average year at best – perfectly enjoyable but not a great festival.

So with that out of the way, here’s my annual recap of the films I saw, in order of preference (best ones first), so that you can plan your moviegoing year, or not, or at least start to fill up your Netflix queue with some films that, admittedly, may be nice to see at home on a rainy day.

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1. An Inconvenient Truth

Powerful and compelling documentary about former Vice President Al Gore’s advocacy of environmental issues and his grass roots campaign to build awareness of the global warming crisis that is now upon us. At the heart of this film is one of the most compelling slide presentations I’ve ever seen, a presentation which Gore gives on college campuses around the country, and one which is a model for all leaders in how to organize and deliver a message. Gore came to the festival and spoke to our audience after the screening, but even if he hadn’t, this film would have stood on its own as a compelling case study in leadership, grass roots activism, and above all, a call to action.

2. Wordplay

An entertaining, insightful, and unexpectedly layered profile of NY Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and his ‘puzzling’ community. Of course, the prototypes for this study lie in films like ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Word Wars’ – but somehow ‘Wordplay’ finds ways to tread new ground, bringing new insights into the world of geekdom, and profiling some truly interesting, creative, and clever individuals who are at the heart of the would-be crossword zeitgeist.

3. The World According to Sesame Street

Fascinating film about Sesame Workshop’s efforts to export their titular TV series to developing nations around the globe. The development of the show for viewers in Kosovo, Bangladesh, and South Africa is profiled, and along the way, we learn about Sesame’s educational approach, the impact of cultural differences, and the challenges of globalization.

4. All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise

Heartfelt documentary chronicling Rosie O’Donnell’s first gay and lesbian family cruise. The film does a nice job showing what it might be like to live in a world that is totally accepting of everyone’s differences, and the warmth and love on this boat of idealism are genuinely moving. A few curmudgeonly types described this as a horror film – 500 gays are imprisoned on a boat with Rosie for a week – but I say phooey to them all.

5. Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner

Interesting portrait of playwright Tony Kushner, tracking his life and his projects over a 4 year period from just after 9/11 though the 2004 presidential election. This film is beautifully constructed and does a nice job chronicling Kushner’s life and work but somehow doesn’t bring an insider’s view that would have made this an even stronger film. Credit to director Freida Lee Mock for creating such a strong film about a subject she admitted to knowing little about, but shame on her for not getting closer to her subject or even acknowledging the many influences that no doubt have contributed to Kushner’s success as a playwright and activist.

6. 13 Tzameti

The best dramatic feature at the festival, and that’s not saying much, this stylish suspense film from France takes Hitchcock, Tarantino, and pretty much all of film noir as its inspirations and comes up with something pretty darn original. Filmed in glorious black and white, this story of a man who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time is always compelling to watch, but the film itself is a bit more style than substance and is really nothing more than a calling card for up-and-coming director Gela Babluani.

7. Stay

A powder keg of a film that audiences will either love or hate, this laser-sharp relationship comedy takes the most obscene premise imaginable and somehow spins an insightful exploration of relationships and the secrets we keep, or don’t keep, from those we love. Though acted within an inch of its life by the lovely Melinda Page Hamilton, Bryce Johnson, and others, this was without question the most original film I saw at the festival.

8. So Much So Fast

Sad, moving portrait of a young man with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) tracks his disease in depth but seems to be even more about the incredible family that takes care of him. This is a profile of a terrible tragedy that has affected beautiful, privileged people, but each member of this family is a true hero in their own way, showing for once how rare and special a loving, supportive family can be.

9. Puccini for Beginners

Sparkling film that is a screwball romantic comedy for our time, director Maria Maggenti delivered the most joyful 90 minutes I spent at the festival this year. Sure, it all evaporates as soon as you leave the theatre, but the film is sharply written, keenly observed, and deeply funny – what more can you ask for?

10. Kinky Boots

The latest Britcom to come ashore, ‘Kinky Boots’ is a film that actually avoids most of the obvious clichés and delivers something that is fresh and original (and beautifully filmed). The heir to a shoe factory in Northern England struggles to revive business after the death of his father and turns to a flamboyant man who convinces him that boots for drag queens could be a market niche worth exploring. The film features a wonderful performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (of ‘Dirty Pretty Things’) as the drag diva with a heart of gold and a business sense to boot.

11. Little Miss Sunshine

This is the film that had the most buzz this year and was a huge hit with audiences and studio executives alike. It’s a perfectly adorable film about a dysfunctional family on a road trip to take their young daughter to compete in a children’s beauty pageant. With scenes that are truly inspired and hysterically funny, and a cast that is a pitch-perfect ensemble entirely in tune with the piece, there’s really no reason not to like this film. At the end, I couldn’t help thinking that this film was written backwards – that its destination (the beauty pageant) was somehow more important than its starting point, but I can’t deny that I had a lot of fun all along the way.

12. God Grew Tired of Us

Awarded both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for documentary film this year, ‘God Grew Tired of Us’ is a moving and triumphant film about young Sudanese men escaping the endless civil war in their country and coming to America for a fresh start. Filled with insights about cultural dislocation, this is a humane and sensitive portrait of 3 men who have lived tough lives who find a home and freedom and compassion in our country. My only criticism about this film is that it covers exactly the same ground as an admittedly less polished film from last year called ‘The Lost Boys of Sudan.’

13. Friends with Money

The opening film of the festival this year, Nicole Holofcener’s ensemble dramedy is a nice piece of writing, but unfortunately Jennifer Aniston is miscast as an aimless woman well into her 30s whose older friends have had much more success in their lives than she has. It’s hard to understand why Aniston’s character would have been friendly with these women in the first place, but fortunately they are all played by amazing actresses – Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener – and the film succeeds because they are just so damn good.

14. A Lion in the House

A very long film (nearly 4 hours), but a very compelling one, that chronicles the experiences of 3 families with children who are cancer patients at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. This is a strong film that comprehensively covers nearly all aspects of its topic and in a strange way still left me wanting to learn more (well, maybe after a bathroom break).

15. Quinceanera

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for dramatic feature this year, ‘Quinceanera’ chronicles the dynamics of a Mexican family preparing for their daughter’s 15th birthday celebration. I must say my impression of this film grew in retrospect, but unfortunately the film is marred by a terribly realized subplot about a young gay cousin and the predatory gay couple who invites him into their relationship. This subplot felt so out of place to me in a film that celebrates family, tackles the subject of gentrification of our ethnic neighborhoods, and rejoices in the celebrations that make America’s melting pot of cultures so unique.

16. Sherrybaby

Maggie Gyllenhaal can do no wrong in my book, and sure enough, in this film, she is wonderful as a woman just released from prison struggling to reclaim her life, especially the young daughter who she barely knows. Without Gyllenhaal’s performance, this film wouldn’t be much, but Gyllenhaal lifts up this kitchen sink drama and turns it into a character portrait worth remembering.

17. The Trials of Darryl Hunt

Absorbing though traditionally-realized documentary about the efforts to exonerate North Carolina convict Darryl Hunt from death row. You can’t help but be moved by Hunt’s story of a wrongful, racially-driven conviction and his lengthy journey to bring forward justice, and the film does a nice job building suspense and conveying the feelings of exhaustion and determination that no doubt faced Hunt and his advocates.

18. Who Killed the Electric Car?

A nice companion piece to ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ this film explores another side of the environmental issue by delivering an entertaining and probing investigation of why we are not further developing and manufacturing the electric-powered vehicle, a car whose time has come (as the film mentions several times) – and unfortunately one whose time has already passed. At its heart, this is really just an extended ‘20/20’ or ‘Dateline’ piece, but it’s done well, and it’s tale is an interesting one.

19. The Illusionist

A film with the gloss and shine of an expensive Hollywood period piece and with high-profile (and wonderful) performances by Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. Its tricky script demands patience at times, but the payoff is interesting though perhaps a bit confusing. Nonetheless, with its piercing Philip Glass score and handsome production values, the film works well and is worth keeping an eye out for.

20. Thin

Verite documentary profiling the journeys of 3 women with eating disorders undergoing treatment at a residential center in Florida. Hard to watch at times, this film raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer about both the disease and its treatment. Though filmed with a degree of honesty that its verite approach facilitates, I can’t help thinking that a more orchestrated treatment of the subject might go further in helping us learn about a disease that perhaps many of us don’t really understand.

21. The Night Listener

Straightforward suspense thriller adapted faithfully from Armistead Maupin’s novel (and why not, since the book reads like a screenplay anyway?), ‘The Night Listener’ is about a mysterious child and the writer he develops a friendship with. Unfortunately the film makes the mistake of revealing its cards a bit too soon (unlike the novel), but despite this, Robin Williams is terrific and terrifically convincing in the lead role, as is Toni Collette as the woman who may or may not be behind the mystery.

22. Flannel Pajamas

Overlong and overwrought relationship drama that gets things right about 50% of the time and gets things totally wrong otherwise. Not entirely without merit, the film really cracks along when it’s good, but when it’s not, it’s a real clunker. It was interesting to note that the friend I saw this film with sympathized with one of the main characters in the relationship portrayed in the film, while I sympathized with the other. I guess relationships really do have two sides to them, and I do give the film credit for showing this, but unfortunately some of the film is just totally wrongheaded and not in the least convincing.

23. This Film is Not Yet Rated

Expose of the motion picture association film ratings board and their lack of consistency in rating films, this piece clearly has an agenda that just doesn’t feel all that important to the average moviegoer. Not without its flashes of brilliance (showing sex scenes from 2 films side by side to highlight the inconsistency of ratings, for example), overall this film didn’t resonate for me and its focus on the mechanics of its undercover investigation, though entertaining, just didn’t seem all that relevant to the proceedings.

24. Man Push Cart

Small, scrappy little film cut from the immigrant experience cloth, ‘Man Push Cart’ was better than most small, scrappy little films are, but its story is familiar and offers nothing fresh or surprising. It’s the kind of film you want to feel good about but ultimately walk away from feeling a bit undernourished.

25. Art School Confidential

Though it starts off well, this film goes downhill pretty quickly and never really recovers from it. Brought to us by the same creative team that made the delightfully dark ‘Ghost World’ a few years back, ‘Art School Confidential’ bursts with promise, has some fun moments and nice performances, but loses steam about halfway through and gets bogged down in the pulp of a hard-boiled detective yarn that is a bit incongruous with its subject (though no worse than last year’s ‘Brick,’ I suppose, which spun its hard-boiled detective yarn around life in high school).

26. Songbirds

A film about women in prison in the UK writing and performing in music videos, these songbirds don’t quite sing well enough to make them all that noteworthy. More interesting than the women and their performances is the story behind the film – the seed of its idea, the therapeutic aspect of it for the women, and the logistics of its making. There’s an interesting documentary in there somewhere – one that is much more interesting than this film.

27. Stephanie Daley

Though this was one of the first films I saw at the festival this year, my friends saw it late in the festival, and when we discussed it afterwards, I was embarrassed to admit that I remembered very little about it. What I do remember is that Tilda Swinton was really good in it (when isn’t she good?), and that it was a pretty serious affair about a lawyer defending a teenage girl accused of killing her baby.

28. TV Junkie

Now we’re moving into the self-indulgent films on this list. The first of several films that spend way too much time with people who just aren’t all that interesting, ‘TV Junkie’ edits down over 3000 hours of home movies to create a disturbing portrait of a TV reporter who also happens to be a crack addict. Tedious and way too long, some credit (and sympathy) must be given to the director and editor for watching all of the footage so we don’t have to.

29. Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst

Not quite self-indulgent, but definitely a film about someone who just isn’t that interesting. Florence Broadhurst, the pre-eminent wallpaper designer of Australia, purportedly led a colorful life, but all of the color is missing from this overly gimmicky and annoyingly inventive documentary about her life. Teeming with animation, re-enactments, and interviews in rooms wallpapered with Florence’s work (yawn), this film does show some creativity on the part of esteemed Australian director Gillian Armstrong.

30. The Hawk is Dying

Paul Giamatti stars in this downbeat tale of a man who adopts dying hawks and then keeps them in captivity and starves them to death. A strange film that lands with a thud and also happens to be the darkest (meaning least lit) film I’ve ever seen (did someone forget to pay the electric bill?). With that said, Giamatti comes out of this mess relatively unscathed and actually, despite how unpleasant his character is, turns in a good performance. Unfortunately, director Julian Goldberger probably won’t see the light of day after this, the second unexpected failure of his career.

31. Come Early Morning

Ashley Judd is wonderful in this character study of a troubled woman, but there’s practically nothing interesting about this film, which chronicles a young woman’s journey from a world of one night stands to a world of, well, what will likely be more one night stands.

32. No. 2

I’m afraid this film was setting itself up to be the butt (pun intended) of bad jokes with its title, and I’m sorry to report that the title is not far off from what this film is. OK, it’s not all that bad, and it does offer an intermittently interesting and deft performance from the great Ruby Dee as a Fijian woman bringing her family together for a final party before handing over her house to one of her progeny. But other than that, it’s a curiously uneven film that just doesn’t ever find its rhythm.

33. Right At Your Door

Possibly the first film since ‘The Blair Witch Project’ to create a sense of terror and dread with virtually no budget, but this film that speculates about a dirty bomb attack on Los Angeles ends up being just plain silly. Full of characters making stupid choices, this film did prove, if nothing else, that it is possible to create a doomsday thriller without big budget special effects – unfortunately, this just isn’t a good one.

34. Destricted

Filmmakers from around the world (including Gaspar Noe, Matthew Barney, Larry Clark and others) were challenged to create a series of short, explicitly sexual films, and the results are pretty mixed. Far and away the best film in the lot is Clark’s, a nearly 40 minute piece about his search for a regular guy to have sex with a porn star for his section of the film. Clark’s film is witty and entertaining, which is more than can be said for the rest of ‘Destricted’ – and thankfully, Clark’s film is also the longest, almost making ‘Destricted’ worth a gander.

35. Who Needs Sleep?

The first of 2 films about sleep deprivation at the festival this year, and while neither one was very good, at least this one had something to say. Famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler authored this entry about sleep deprivation among professionals in the film industry, and like ‘This Film is Not Yet Rated,’ this film also has an agenda, one that few outside the industry will care to hear about for 90 minutes.

36. KZ

In case you can’t make it to the Mauthausen concentration camp site on your next trip to Germany, this film fills in what you missed with a ponderous, serious, and ultimately not very interesting tour. I do feel badly about dismissing a film about the Holocaust, but this noble effort just doesn’t educate or illuminate – it just sits there and watches groups of tourists get upset at sites that are barely explained or contextualized by the guides. Send this one immediately off to the vaults of Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.

37. Wide Awake

You guessed it – film #2 in the sleep deprivation film sub-festival. Unfortunately, this one smacks of self-indulgence as the filmmaker drones on endlessly about his insomnia and his family sits around telling him he should get some sleep. Brief attempts are made to visit specialists to understand the nature of sleep deprivation, but the film stops short of providing any insight and instead fills out its time with quickly edited footage of alarm clocks going off and people yawning – enough to put me to sleep at the midnite screening I attended.

38. Wild Tigers I Have Known

Pretentious and virtually incomprehensible, this film gets points only for its occasional visual brilliance. I can’t even begin to tell you what this one was about, but it had something to do with a high school student who is attracted to his best friend and then dreams of tigers or something. Whatever.

39. Cargo

Another mess of a film, this one was about a German student who loses his passport while in Africa and stows away on a cargo ship to get home. Strange and unusual things start to happen, but I don’t really understand them – they lost me when the slaves in cages start speaking to the ship’s crew in their native tongue. Well, actually, that was one of the more understandable scenes in this movie.

40. In Between Days

Ugh. This is a ‘naturalistic’ (meaning boring) tale of a teenage girl who comes from Korea to a small town in America with her mother and has a friendship/flirtation with a boy also from Korea who never takes off his ugly ski hat for almost the entire film. That really bugged me – but nearly everything about this acclaimed film (what were they thinking?) drove me batty.

41. small town gay bar

The worst documentary at the festival this year, this film makes exactly one point, then repeats it over and over for more than 90 minutes. It’s hard to be gay in Mississippi, this film continuously reminds us, but it helps if you have a place to go. I’ve already written the first verse of a country-western song that I think should go over the credits for this film (“Oh it’s hard to be gay in Mississippi…”). Perhaps Reese Witherspoon (in June Carter Cash mode) will grace us by singing it, then we can all leave the theatre when she’s done.

42. Forgiven

A completely misguided and at times offensive drama about a political candidate who once sent a man to death row and who must face him when he is pardoned and released from prison. Not much more to say here.

43. Wristcutters: A Love Story

A comedy, I think, about suicide. It would be bad enough if this film were about a suicide support group or something, but this one has the gall to set itself in the afterlife, where everyone who has ever committed suicide is sitting around having a grand old time. Where did this film come from? And how is it possible that so many people at the festival told me they enjoyed it?

44. The Darwin Awards

A big, high-profile, star-studded mess that will be coming to a theatre near you simply because so many noteworthy actors agreed to be in it – including Winona Ryder, Joseph Fiennes, and others. I sat through this entire film with my mouth wide open at the horror of it all. Not a single laugh in this raucous stink bomb of a comedy that I can’t even begin to describe. My friend walked out, but I was too entranced looking at the accident on the freeway to join her.

Here’s hoping for a better festival in 2007!

Yours in moviegoing,



The movie Laurel Canyon left me frustrated. Everytime the dialogue got to a crucial moment the scene ended. It was as if the writer decided that when the writing got difficult it was time to move on. Compare that to something like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Kathleen Gilroy who loved the movie and saw it twice called it “atmospheric.” The last movie I saw that qualified as atmospheric was Lost in Translation and with that one I felt strangely unsatisfied as well. Nice to look at but left me wanting much more and better writing. So, is making an “atmospheric” movie just an excuse not to write the hard parts? I'm asking Chip Phillips, an expert in film criticism to weigh in here.