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Category: January 2010

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Sundance 2010: New Zealand comedy 'Boy,' the son of 'Son of Rambow'

January 31, 2010 |  3:01 pm


At film festivals, as with stand-up comedy and sniper fire, timing is everything. Three years ago at Sundance, a 1980s coming-of-age story out of Britain about a pop culture-enthralled young boy from a broken home was one of the most pursued and buzzed-about films of the festival. The picture, "Son of Rambow," was coveted by studio specialty divisions that saw in it an awards contender and a commercial hit, and wound up being bought for $8 million. (It then ran into rights issues, was seen by about 14 people and contributed to the demise of Paramount Vantage.)

Three years later, another 1980s coming-of-age-story about a pop culture-enthralled young boy from a broken home (this time out of New Zealand) came riding into Park City, Utah. It's titled, less fancifully, "Boy," and it's made by and stars the comic hyphenate Taika Waititi (who's worked on "Flight of the Conchords" and wrote and directed another New Zealand coming-of-age movie that came through Sundance, "Eagle vs. Shark"). The sweet but never cloying "Boy" concerns the adventures of an at once precocious and naive Maori 11-year-old whose ex-con father shows up one day, generating comedic and dramatic havoc for him and his family.

Unlike the preoccupation in "Rambow" with the titular, deliberately misspelled 80s action franchise, the boy here (named simply Boy) is obsessed with Michael Jackson. But the King of Pop basically serves the same purpose as Sylvester Stallone did in the earlier film: He's a link to a larger world for someone trapped, in many ways without even knowing it, in his own small one.

Waititi, who in person displays a stand-up performer's sensibility, fires in "Boy" a spear of social comment that he tips with comedy. Asked at the post-screening Q&A about how he wanted to depict the Maoris in his film, he responded, "We get portrayed two ways, like the [goons] in [the 1994 New Zealand family epic] 'Once Were Warriors.' Or we get shown as the blue people in 'Avatar.' I wanted to show that we are normal, awkward people -- indigenous geeks."

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Sundance 2010: The awards show, the winners and the wrap-up

January 30, 2010 |  8:43 pm


Sundance's awards have a bit of that Golden Globes feel. Everyone knows everyone else. Winners in their acceptance speeches pour on the thank-yous to the body that handed them the awards. And, maybe most important, tongues loosen up as the alcohol flows freely.

Here are some of the more choice bits from the floor of the Racquet Club in Park City, where the awards were given out tonight.

* You know you're at an informal ceremony when the evening's emcee first appears doing a rap parody. David Hyde Pierce came out to name-check titles from the festival, as well as dropping names of actors like Ryan Gosling, Mark Ruffalo, James Franco and Kristen Stewart. He was then joined by festival director John Cooper, who also rapped and danced to huge cheers. Like we said, it's informal.

* Don't expect Mark Ruffalo to be invited to guest-host "At the Movies " anytime soon. The bearded hyphenate was given a special jury prize for his directorial debut "Sympathy for Delicious" despite poor critical response. "We've got our (butts) handed to us by the reviewers," he said, "and still we're here."

* Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming a Sundance darling. After breaking out last year with "(500) Days of Summer," he was back this year with a notable role in the unremarkable "Hesher." Hyde Pierce gave Gordon-Levitt, presenting an award to "Homewrecker" for best film in the Next section, a shout-out for playing his young son in a short-lived sitcom called "The Powers That Be," saying it was "living proof that the flower of independent film blooms in the fertilizer of network television."

* Later, accepting the audience prize for the U.S. Dramatic section, debut filmmaker Josh Radnor, better known as the star of TV's "How I Met Your Mother," quipped back by thanking, "the people at my day job, for giving me time to do this. I come from the fertilizer of network television."

* After Lucy Walker's "Wasteland" was announced as winner of the world cinema documentary audience prize, she ran from the back of the room to the stage. Visibly winded as she took the stage, she said "I was actually at the bar. I really was."

* The evening took the most political turn when Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington took the stage to accept the grand jury prize for U.S. documentary for their Afghanistan picture "Restrepo." Hetherington dedicated the award to "the Restrepo generation," to the "men and women who come back to this country and become invisible." Junger added: "If our movie helped this country understand, we'd be incredibly honored by it."

* Introducing the directing prize in U.S. documentary, presenter Morgan Spurlock noted, "Six years ago I won this prize and it changed my life forever. Hopefully it will do the same for this young man," before presenting the award to the gray-haired, veteran director Leon Gast for "Smash His Camera." "There must have been a mistake," said Gast as he took the stage.

* Introducing the final presenter of the night, Hyde Pierce tried to quiet the increasingly restless crowd by saying, "To those back at the bar, there is nothing you can get there that is as intoxicating as Parker Posey." The actress, presenting the grand jury prize for U.S. dramatic film, then said if the winner doesn't find an audience, "I'm gonna' stab myself," before announcing the winner as "Winter's Bone."

* "3 Backyards" director Eric Mendelsohn, accepting a special directing prize, may not have been kidding when he said that last time he took the stage he had "so much Xanax" in his system, adding "I promised myself I'd try to be more present" this time. But he didn't exactly go on to show himself to be a shrinking violet with his next remarks. "A lot of people in the press take potshots" at Sundance for being either too big or small. "You go make your own festival and then bring it here. Robert Redford is singlehandedly doing work other governments do for filmmakers."

-- Steven Zeitchik and Mark Olsen

For the complete list of winners, click past the jump.

Photo: Actor David Hyde Pierce (left) and director of Sundance John Cooper dance on stage during the 2010 Sundance awards. Credit: EPA/George Frey.

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Sundance 2010: Satire and smarts in 'The Red Chapel' and 'The Imperialists Are Still Alive!'

January 30, 2010 |  5:27 pm


Friday night saw one of the festival's unlikeliest standing ovations. "The Red Chapel," part of the World Documentary competition, follows two young Danish Korean comedians on an oddly staged trip to North Korea. Director Mads Brügger hatched a scheme to take Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell directly into North Korea on a flimsy pretext of performing a cross-cultural comedy show while his real intention was to dig up dirt on the North Korean regime.

Every night Brügger had to hand his footage over to be approved by the secret police, so he couldn't actually do much snooping. But he discovered that though they had handlers with them everywhere they went communicating in English, the trio was able to speak Danish without translation, so they could comment amongst themselves on everything around them. The results are shocking, funny and wildly outrageous.

The film plays as part performance stunt, part investigative piece and, surprising even to Brügger, becomes a moving look at the difficulties of living with disabilities.

Nossell, who is developmentally disabled and refers to himself as "spastic," was treated with kid gloves by the North Koreans and is also shown growing increasingly frustrated by both their treatment of him and the level of pretense involved in Brügger's plan. Comedic, subversive and oddly moving, "The Red Chapel" has been kicking around the festival circuit for more than a year, but its appearance in Park City seems to have finally garnered it some attention. It's a real find.

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Sundance 2010: IFC gets in touch with its inner 'Killer'

January 30, 2010 |  1:22 pm


After a feverish week of debate over the violence in Michael Winterbottom's difficult and provocative "The Killer Inside Me," the movie has been picked up by IFC, distributor of the difficult and the provocative (among other types of movies).

Few films have generated the love-hate relationship that "Killer" has (on this blog, Mark Olsen yesterday offered his reasons for loving it). Winterbottom, the director of "Wonderland" and "Welcome to Sarajevo" (as well as another film at this festival, the documentary "The Shock Doctrine"), adapted Jim Thompson's noirish novel, with Casey Affleck portraying a small-town West Texas sheriff with sociopathic urges (visited on, among other people, a prostitute he's sleeping with played by Jessica Alba).

The deal for North American rights marks IFC's first purchase of the festival, a place where it's typically very active. (The company was also in the running for "Blue Valentine," the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams marital drama just bought by the Weinstein Co.). IFC, which will probably buy at least one more film by the time all wraps up in Park City, has a penchant for taking art house films and employing a particular strategy that mixes a small theatrical release, a video on-demand push and exposure on other platforms, controlling its costs so that it can take on films with niche audiences. Expect the press over moviegoer reaction to be a key part of its publicity gambit.

It's the second time this year that IFC will work with Winterbottom, who produced the "Red Riding Trilogy" crime epic that the company will be distributing in the U.S. And it's the second time in the last year the distributor has taken the most polarizing movie of a festival and made a go of it. After Cannes, the firm bought "Antichrist," Lars Von Trier's bereaved-parents story that featured plenty of provocative violence of its own, and then worked the North American fall-festival circuit before putting it into release. "Killer" will go in the opposite direction on the circuit, heading to Berlin after premiering in the U.S. Can't wait to see how the Euros feel about it....

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Kate Hudson and Casey Affleck in "The Killer Inside Me." Credit: The Sundance Film Festival.

Some Oscar hopefuls aren't up to the gold standards of their past

January 30, 2010 |  9:00 am

SherlockHolmes5Story In Sunday's Los Angeles Times Calendar section, freelance writer Stephen Farber compares the quality of this year's Oscar contenders with similar works from the past. Farber is a critic for the Hollywood Reporter and the Daily Beast:

Box office revenues are sky high, and this year's Oscar race is expanding to 10 best picture nominees for the first time since 1943, a move that has stimulated reams of breathless commentary. Some pundits might be tempted to conclude that the movie business is healthier than ever.

Take a closer look. The quality of movies has not kept pace with the soaring grosses, to put it mildly. Many critics have cast a skeptical eye at the releases of 2009. For example, in a recent article lamenting the paltry offerings in the fall awards season, Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern attacked the "compromised, bloated and misshapen" movies of the season.

Even when these new movies are adapted from highbrow literary works, they cry out for better writing. Older movies were smart to employ many novelists and playwrights who honed their craft in other art forms. Perhaps today's producers need to cast a wider net in luring more gifted writers to try their hand at screenwriting. These 21st century film technicians are more wizardly than ever, but the art of graceful, light-fingered storytelling has been lost on the road to a 3-D, digitized Oz.

FilmComparePromo Consider 10 high-profile movies -- all eagerly anticipated, some likely to be in the Oscar race when nominations are announced Tuesday -- that are strikingly reminiscent of better movies from the past. In some instances these new pictures pale in comparison to classics from Hollywood's golden age. But in other cases, today's movies falter when placed against films from just a few years ago.

For an in-depth look at our 10 comparisons, click the photo of "Nine's" Kate Hudson and "Chicago's" Catherine Zeta-Jones on the right.

Photos: Top, Robert Downey Jr., left, and Jude Law in "Sherlock Holmes." Credit: Warner Bros. Bottom, Kate Hudson, left, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Credits: Weinstein Company and AFP.

Preview review: 'Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps'

January 29, 2010 |  5:13 pm

Ever since it was announced that Oliver Stone was finally ready to tackle a sequel to the classic 1987 film "Wall Street," film fans have questioned how the director will handle a new and arguably more challenging economic climate. While a newly released trailer for "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps" doesn't give much away, it does drop us right back into the fast-paced, "Greed is good" world of executive Gordon Gekko.

As seen in the trailer, Michael Douglas' character -- reprising the role that scored him an Oscar -- emerges  from a long stint behind bars. He's eager to return to his old ways, but the trailer makes clear that it's not going to be easy for Gekko to immediately get back into the swing of things: As he exits jail, he's handed his clunky old mobile phone and there's no limo ready to pick him up.

Other than flashy aerial shots of New York City, we don't get to see much of the film's other players: Gekko's daughter (Carey Mulligan), whom he's trying to reconnect with, and her fiance (Shia LaBeouf), whom he befriends. We see the least of Mulligan, who is only shown in a flimsy oversized boyfriend shirt, typing away at a laptop in her swanky apartment. LaBeouf, who plays a character named Jacob, is shown dressed in expensive-looking tailored suits, riding through the city streets on a motorcycle or flying above them in a helicopter. We get the sense LaBeouf''s character will attempt to serve as some type of moral compass for Gekko, or at least a worthy adversary: "No matter how much money you make, Mr. Gekko, you'll never be rich," he tells his soon-to-be father-in-law in the trailer.

By comparison, it's pretty amusing to watch the trailer for the original 1987 film starring Charlie Sheen, who makes a cameo in the new film. (Check out the old school cellphones and computers!)

So, do you think the new film will be able to live up to the original? Is Shia LaBeouf as charming a leading man as Charlie Sheen was over two decades ago? Will a film about the greed on Wall Street prove to be timely or didactic? Weigh in in our poll below.

-- Amy Kaufman

Sundance 2010: In defense of 'The Killer Inside Me'

January 29, 2010 |  5:10 pm


The first weekend of the Sundance Film Festival is a live-or-die, high-stakes game for many of the movies that premiere there looking for a distribution deal or simple promotional hype, but there is undoubtedly something askew about the reactions some films get during those first few days. The pressure on filmmakers, audiences, buyers and journalists alike tend to push reactions to extreme ends of the spectrum, as the desire to be dazzled makes everything play at a higher pitch. Maybe it's the elevation?

The positive buzz Thursday to Sunday on films like "Catfish" and "Winter's Bone" was overwhelming, tempered by backlash cries of "overrated" on Monday and Tuesday. One film certainly damaged by its weekend reception was the new film by Michael Winterbottom, "The Killer Inside Me," an adaptation of the novel by the influential pulp writer Jim Thompson. When the film premiered on Sunday at the Eccles theater, the biggest and most high-profile venue at the festival, it was received harshly, reportedly inspiring numerous walk-outs due to its graphic depictions of violence against women. During a post-show Q&A one woman asked "How dare you?" of Winterbottom and even the festival itself for showing it.

The first wave of reviews and reactions seemed somehow tinged with the aftertaste of that evening, running mixed-to-negative. On Thursday morning the film was shown as a last-minute press and industry screening at the smaller Holiday Village theater to a half-full room of folks who were sticking it out to the end of the festival. Among the crowd were numerous critics and distribution representatives, and the film seemed to play much better to that room. It is one of the great mysteries of Sundance, what the differences of a few days and a different venue can make.

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Sundance 2010: How (and why) Harvey Weinstein got back in the festival game

January 29, 2010 |  2:29 pm


The Weinstein Co. made one of the smarter plays at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, picking up two films that are pretty much right in its sweet spot (and which happen to pretty good too).

"Blue Valentine," the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams marital drama that's been dazzling many, now sits in the house of Harvey, as does "The Tillman Story," Amir Bar-Lev's damning account of the U.S military's exploitation of the Pat Tillman death. (The Weinstein Co. bought theatrical rights in North America and satellite rights in Asia for "Blue Valentine"; the rights situation on "Tillman" hasn't yet been disclosed). It's the first time the company has made deals for multiple movies at the same festival since the 2007 edition of Sundance.

Pat-tillman There are certainly back-story reasons behind the moves. For one thing, the Weinstein Co.'s acquisitions division has been charged up now that Peter Lawson, the executive who made some sharp buys for the new (now old) Miramax these last few years, has come on board, working with Harvey and the company's David Glasser. And after the usual lag as profits have been spread around, the studio has collected its "Inglourious Basterds" windfall (not that either of these pick-ups will necessarily demand huge marketing spends -- they're both word-of-mouth- and press-driven campaigns).

But there's also a savvy strategic endgame here. "Blue Valentine" is the consummate awards contender -- it offers the possibility of pitching both a lead male and female, as well as the filmmakers, particularly director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance, who developed the script for years and is said to have written more than 60 drafts of the script before the Incentive film fund and WME kick-started it last spring. With the low seven-figure purchase, Harvey's able to get in the awards game relatively cheaply -- a lot more cheaply than he would making an awards movie from scratch.

As for "Tillman," it seems pretty clear what the campaign will be for Weinstein, the architect of the "Fahrenheit 9/11" bonanza  -- work the political angle. The film doles out plenty of blame across many levels of the U.S. military (though it's also a touching and complex portrait of a misunderstood man and soldier). Longtime Harvey collaborator Michael Moore was present at the premiere last Saturday, telling us it was "one of the most important films you'll ever see about the U.S. military." We wouldn't be surprised to see Moore out there flogging the film.

Elsewhere, the sales climate seemed to pick up at the more micro-budget and service-deal end of the spectrum in the last few days. A book publisher called Hannover House picked up Joel Schumacher's young-people-partying feature, "Twelve," which it will release with the help of indie veteran Tom Ortenberg, while Newmarket will distribute offbeat Joseph Gordon-Levitt dramedy "Hesher." Paradoxically, the indie buyers who have been most active amid the doldrums of the last few festivals -- particularly IFC and Sony Pictures Classics -- have yet to make a purchase at this year's Sundance, though "Catfish," "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "The Romantics" could be among the movies they and others of their ilk pick up in the coming days.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photos: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine," and Pat Tillman in "The Tillman Story." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2010: Sympathy for Ruffalo? How to go from zero to hero at the same festival

January 29, 2010 |  1:19 pm

Exactly 10 years ago, Mark Ruffalo became the toast of Sundance when "You Can Count on Me" won the Grand Jury Prize for drama and went on to become one of the year's biggest indie hits. His career took off from there, with roles in indie classics such as  "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" to go along with the occasional studio paycheck (including this February's "Shutter Island" directed by Martin Scorsese).

Ruffalo A decade later, the actor was again back in Park City as a lion of the festival -- and, briefly, as its punching bag.

Sundance fortunes rise and fall, but rarely do they rise and fall so quickly. Last Saturday, "Sympathy for Delicious," Ruffalo's passion project and directorial debut involving a rock band and paraplegic faith healer -- a movie that ran a gantlet of obstacles even to get made, including production delays due to the death of Ruffalo's brother -- premiered to some of the festival's most tepid responses. 

"There's a lot of spirit of rock 'n' roll in it," Ruffalo said in a interview at the Bing Bar in conjunction with the movie's premiere. But many moviegoers heard only elevator music. Several people we spoke to who saw "Sympathy" found the band aspects inert, and were also put off by the strange premise and unconvincingly dour tone. So far, the film (in which Ruffalo also costars) hasn't found any buyers. It could sit on the shelf for a while, actually, especially as some of even the better-received titles still search for distribution.

But barely 48 hours later, Ruffalo went from zero to hero when "The Kids Are All Right" played to some of the warmest responses of the festival. Ruffalo's turn in Lisa Cholodenko's dramedy, as a sperm donor for a lesbian couple who comes back into the lives of the pair and their now-teenage offspring, drew immediate award talk and was one of the key reasons buyers chased the film.

"What he does that's so extraordinary is he makes the character so sympathetic," says Mandalay Vision executive Celine Rattray, a producer on "Kids." "He's an outsider and you're not supposed to root for him. But you totally do."

"Kids" offered a bookend of sorts to "You Can Count on Me" that was hard to ignore. Here, as in that movie, Ruffalo was playing a likable drifter who, after years away, arrives back on the scene to see what he'd sowed (and create a few new problems).

Ruffalo declined through a representative to comment for this piece. But the ability to find redemption with "Kids" had to feel a little weird, for a simple reason: He nearly didn't star in the film. The actor turned down the role several times -- because, of all things, he was editing "Sympathy." (He was finally persuaded just a short time before production started this past July. (In another moment of star alignment, the film wasn't even supposed to come to Sundance -- it arrived as a last-minute, uncataloged addition after organizers coaxed filmmakers to finish it in time.)

For all of its drama, Ruffalo's phoenix act may say more about the unique micro-climate of Sundance than it does about him. The cool response to "Sympathy" points up the strict standards of the indie crowd, unwilling to forgive artifice even -- or especially -- when it come with a movie that sits in Sundance's quirky-drama wheelhouse.

But the reception Ruffalo drew for "Kids" shows that the Sundance audience is also a comeback-loving group. You can commit a sin with with them, but return with a good performance several days later, and that same audience will tell you that it's all, well, all right.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Mark Ruffalo. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Sundance 2010: 'Catfish' reels them in

January 28, 2010 |  9:40 pm

How big a Sundance phenomenon has "Catfish" become? So big that a teenager who looked very much like Joshua Hutcherson, the co-star of the other Sundance phenomenon, "The Kids Are All Right," was getting in line with hoi polloi Thursday afternoon in the lobby of the Prospector Theater, hoping to land a rare rush ticket to the screening.

Ca It's easy to see why. As our colleague Tim Swanson described earlier in the festival, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost's documentary is a powerful and startling work. Following the journey of a young New York photographer (Nev Schulman, the director's brother), as he begins an online relationship with a Michigan family, it soon veers into strange and suspenseful territory as he discovers that the family is not what it appears to be.

The movie, which questions the nature of truth in an online world, doesn't really take a position on Facebook and MySpace and ambient intimacy and all that, at least not beyond the implied observation that social media can complicate human interactions as much as it can facilitate them. (At the screening, Ariel Schulman said, "We've reached out to Facebook but they haven't reached out to us. But YouTube's into it." Whatever studio winds up with this film will have a field day marketing it via social media sites.)

In some ways, "Catfish" is more of  an amazing story than an amazing movie (The Big Picture's Patrick Goldstein astutely notes  that the film represents a breakthrough by showing how great documentaries can be made from the stuff of everyday experience). But the turns it takes and the questions it raises -- not to mention the emotional payoff it ultimately offers -- makes it so that you're not really bothered by the lack of classic filmic virtue. It's our own favorite movie of the festival so (and by) far, and by the time this thing wraps up, we suspect plenty of others will make the same declaration.

The post-screening Q&A did get a little squishy when one questioner accused the filmmakers of faking the entire movie. The directors seemed startled at first, then Ariel Schulman said, "So he [Nev] is the best actor? He's the next Marlon Brando?" His voice dripped sarcasm. "And we're the best writers in Hollywood?"

It's preposterous, based on everything one sees in the film, to believe anything here was staged or faked. But after watching a movie that so persuasively exposes how few things in the modern world are as they  appear to be, it's hard to blame someone for letting their paranoia and conspiracy theories get the better of them.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Nev Schulman. Credit: The Sundance Film Festival.


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