FILMS GONE WILD: SUNDANCE 2011 – THE OPENING ROUND

Being that I am writing this opening report on Sundance at 2:30AM and I have a screening tomorrow…oh, wait – I mean this morning at 8:30AM, we’ll do something different with the Sundance reports. Basically, I think it’s more important to get the observations and first impressions out there so we’ll just go where the thoughts lead, either with quick hits or more in-depth. We’ll see. So, here goes…

This was the first time in a decade that I flew into Sundance as opposed to driving. What a difference New York makes. However, I am staying with the people from DALLAS IFF. They are still my second family and first movie family, and it wouldn’t be the same going through this and not hashing things out in the film fest war room.

My first experience with Sundance was as one of 18 people, only three of which I knew under a single roof. That experience sealed the deal for me for this film festival and pretty much all the others that followed. And that joy of movies movies movies is still big-time with Team Dallas.

Ranking just behind movie strategy at Sundance is food strategy. The “we just hit town” grocery shop is one of my favorite opening ceremonies. This year, my made an instant fan of the check-out girl because my anal retentive Tetris default had lined up my grocery purchases in perfectly coordinated strata of boxes and cartons to bottles to frozen to baggy to fruity/veggie to alcohol. Maybe a new videogame…?

Went to the Sundance store and bought the required and equally ceremonial shirt and hat for my wife. It is very important to me (for reasons that I don’t completely understand) that she always have something from the film fest trips. This tradition also makes me very aware of the coolness of the film fest’s shirts. Sundance usually comes through pretty decently and this year is no exception. It’s all about the snowflake and I like it.

In addition to covering the film festival for this column, I’m also here on behalf of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and as part of that FSLC is throwing a party tomorrow at the Stella Artois Lounge on Main Street. So today I had to do a walk-through of the space and check it out. There was another party going on so I got to see it “in action”.

Immediately, this very perky “Stella girl” starts talking me up. She is way too interested in where I came from…and what I’m doing…and…me. This will be great for other guys at our party tomorrow but it freaks me out. I excuse myself with a swift sidestep and I’m free. Whew. The space is not huge which I like. This isn’t meant to be a big bash where people can be there for hours and not have any eye contact with several other people that are also there for hours. Mission accomplished and I’m out.

The sun goes down and suddenly it is freezing again. Back to the house and quick. After strategizing with the housemates on who is seeing what and when, everyone is off again. First stop is a small gathering of film fest writers and publicists and industry-types. James Rocchi of MSN Movies is among them and as always he lands the first funny groaner of the fest. Upon learning I was going to see James Marsh’s PROJECT NIM tonight, he offers up the possibility of having the film screen at Film Society with the idea that (based on everyone’s favorite chimp flinging habit) that following the screening, rather than a Q&A, we could have a Poo & A. And yes, James Rocchi will be here all week. Remember to tip your waitress.

So, off I go with Movie City News’ Kim Voynar and Disney/ABC’s John Bernstein to go see our first screening of the film fest. After we’re seated, the very nice Sundance lady announces to the crowd that there is a bar outside and we are now allowed to bring our drinks back in with us. Alcoholic drinks. That we can drink while we’re watching the movie. If we want. Because that bar is right outside the door. And they’ll totally let us.

She makes this announcement three different times before the movie starts.

A Sundance staffer I met for the first time yesterday sits down next to me. This isn’t her first film of the night. BEING ELMO made her laugh and cry. And convinced her to sport a BEING ELMO button. She’s off to a quick start with her Sundance flare.  She offers me a crow, which is a black licorice candy. I take one even though I really don’t like licorice because I don’t want her to cry again. At least for the wrong reasons.

PROJECT NIM

PROJECT NIM starts. The film is a documentary about the effort to raise a chimpanzee as a human and teach it sign language to see if true communication could be achieved and if a bridge could be built between people and chimps. Cool idea and worthy project in theory. However, this occurred in the 70s with a succession of needy, immature or borderline morally bankrupt people steering things along or being put in charge of the project and the caring of Nim, the chimpanzee.

A lot of hippee goes a long way, even for a chimp. Even when the hearts were in the right place, human frailties and weaknesses not only doomed the project but exploited and hurt Nim over and over again. My favorite quote was from one of Nim’s most dedicated caretakers speaking of his time with Nim, “I’d rather be with Nim than Jerry (Garcia). And that’s saying something.”

PROJECT NIM will be playing on HBO in a matter of weeks, I believe so you’ll have an opportunity to see it soon. And I definitely recommend it. Animal person or not, the documentary works – either affecting due to the empathy you have for Nim’s plight or simply as an entertaining study of human hubris 70s style.

Sundance audiences vs. Real world audiences: As much as I like this movie, I think it will fare better with the Sundance crowd than it will with the real world viewers. Then again, it will be on TV immediately so it won’t even be in play on the big screen. And on TV, it will find plenty of people happy to give it a shot.

Next up was my first midnight movie of the festival….SILENT HOUSE. But before the lights go down, the first Harvey Weinstein sighting as he sits in the row in front of me. So now the film fest is official.

SILENT HOUSE

Directed by Chris Kentis and written by Laura Lau who were responsible for OPEN WATER, SILENT HOUSE is a fun movie thriller experiment that gives you your horror in real time and in one continuous shot like Hitchcock’s ROPE. A young woman helps her father and her uncle finish cleaning up their old place so it can be sold.

There’s some mold issues and the place has clearly had a problem with squatters but we soon learn that there are more issues with this place and much bigger problems percolating under its roof. The unexplained sounds upstairs start the fun and the tension ratchets up and up and up.

Now, a film like SILENT HOUSE always has to deal with the typical carping that anyone skeptical of a thriller or looking for plot holes or stupid human tricks that lead to unnecessary bad things. And one of my favorite things about the film is how it seems to embrace what some would call hoary conceits and has fun doing them to a T.

However, the film also shares the big hurdle that filmmakers making thrillers or horror often have: How do we end the film? Or more specifically: How do we explain everything we just showed you as we end the film? And that’s were my curiosity lies with this one. There is an obvious film to compare it to which I won’t reveal here because that would give up the ghost, so-to-speak. But that film’s ending actually made people angry. Now, it did so because the first part of the film was so effective. And I see great similarities here. So, while I thoroughly enjoyed SILENT HOUSE, I can easily see people trashing the whole enterprise because of the letdown they’ll feel with that ending. But to be fair, there will also potentially be a strong segment energized by that ending.

Sundance audiences vs. Real world audiences: I can see Sundance audiences loving this rollercoaster ride. I can also see the real world moviegoers eating it up with a shaking spoon. BUT – the genre fanboy audience could easily dismiss it or make it their business to discredit it thanks to the way it ends.

Okay, I get 4 hours to sleep…




Posted on January 21, 2011 in Features, Films Gone Wild by
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