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Category: January 2010

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Sundance 2010: Screening a low-budget road trip

January 28, 2010 |  8:49 pm


"I've been waiting a long time to say this -- Welcome to 'Douchebag.' " So began Trevor Groth, Sundance's director of programming, before the screening of the competition entry on Wednesday night

"Douchebag" is ostensibly the story of two estranged brothers, but the debut performance of Andrew Dickler as the more outrageously difficult of the two (he of the film's title) tends to overwhelm his co-star,  Ben York Jones. Dickler's character Sam is set to be married in a few days, and after his fiance (Marquerite Moreau) surprises him with the appearance of his brother Tom (Jones), Sam hatches a plan to find Tom's fifth-grade girlfriend. The two brothers set out on an impromptu road trip together, leaving Sam's fiance to complete the wedding plans and freeing Sam to do some last-minute womanizing.

It is difficult to discern what differentiates "Douchebag" from many of the films in this year's low-budget Next section, or from other films of this kind. The performance by Dickler, with his prodigious beard and difficult demeanor, is of interest at moments, but the character is too schematically drawn to sustain our interest.

One way it does differ from other low-budget movies at the festival: its look. Just because a film is made on a small budget does not mean that it must look ramshackle or haphazard. Many other films at Sundance this year, including "Lovers of Hate," "Obselidia," "One Too Many Mornings," "Daddy Longlegs" and more, have gotten by on just as little without looking as cheap.

After the screening, writer Drake Doremus invited up a number of collaborators, many of whom walked onstage wearing bushy fake beards to emulate the title character's sizable crop of facial hair. Doremus noted that the film was shot in less than 20 days, but spread out over a year and a half. During the breaks he and his team continued to craft characters and story. (The screenplay is credited to Doremus, co-producer Lindsay Stidham, producer Jonathan Schwartz and Dickler.)

As to what he thought when Doremus asked him to star in a movie while the pair were editing "Spooner" (which played at Slamdance last year), Dickler responded, "If he had asked me to shoot the movie I would have said yes to that too. It was that random."

Doremus jumped in to say, "The whole thing was Andrew. The whole movie was because of Andrew. When we were editing 'Spooner' I was like, 'I can't do anything else until I make this movie with you.' "

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Andrew Dickler and Ben York Jones. Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Mel Gibson reminisces over some old pictures: 'Braveheart,' 'Lethal Weapon' and more

January 28, 2010 |  5:32 pm


Mel Gibson nodded toward a DVD copy of “Braveheart,” which was perched atop a stack of movies from the Oscar winner’s three-decade career. “It doesn’t always end well for the guys I play, does it? They get their guts cut out or it gets nasty at the end. This new guy, he’s like that too.”

The new guy is Thomas Craven, the main character in “Edge of Darkness,” which marks Gibson’s first leading-man job since 2002. The Craven role is fairly familiar character territory for Gibson — he’s a desperate father, a cop on the edge, a man looking for revenge — but the 54-year-old is on uncertain ground with moviegoers after a career calamity with the worldwide press coverage of his anti-Semitic rant while in police custody for a 2006 DUI.

MelGibsonPromoThe trajectory of Gibson’s career has been startling in its left turns — when People magazine put the actor on the cover of its first “sexiest man alive” issue in 1985, who would have suspected that he would go on almost two decades later to direct, produce and co-write a film that would become a flash point in contemporary American religious life?

Last week, Gibson sat down to reflect on some mile markers in his own cinematic journey by watching scenes from past films. “I don’t revisit, it’s not something I do,” he said, studying his youthful visage from “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” the high-octane film that kicked off a decade that saw Gibson go from an unknown Australian actor to one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. “Look at him, I’m not sure I even know this guy.”

For Gibson's thoughts on "Lethal Weapon," "The Passion of the Christ" and more, click on the image of "Braveheart" above.

-- Geoff Boucher


Mel Gibson: The shadow in his smile

Movie Review: 'Edge of Darkness'

Photo: Mel Gibson. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Sundance 2010: With 'The Taqwacores,' festival continues to get punked

January 28, 2010 |  2:45 pm

Earlier this week, L.A. Times film critic Betsy Sharkey characterized the collective artistic vision coming out of this year’s Sundance competition as one that paints punks as society’s saviors. Sharkey predicted that people would look back on the festival as ground zero of a bigger conversation that would continue to cast "the rebels, the misfits, the outcasts" as the solution to a "desperately floundering mainstream America." In her column, Sharkey specifically mentioned three films: "Welcome to the Rileys," "Sympathy for Delicious" and "Hesher." But there’s another group of potential punk saviors that have garnered attention in Park City this year: the Taqwacores.

"The Taqwacores," Eyad Zahra’s first feature film, premiered this week as part of Sundance’s new low-budget section Next. Based on Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 novel by the same name, the film follows the journey of a first-generation Pakistani Muslim student who moves into what can only be described as the ultimate punk house, smoldering with a ragtag collection of marginalized misfits who coexist in a fragile stasis on the outer edges of Islam.


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Sundance 2010: Will the kids be all right?

January 28, 2010 |  1:22 pm


There's nothing that gets people offering opinions -- or "opinions" -- at a film festival faster than an imminent or a recently completed sale. It basically goes down like this: First, a well-received screening gets a sales agent spinning about a film's upside and sales interest. Then, when it does sell, the buyer that lands it touts its greatness -- while the studios that didn't get or want the film whisper how the movie isn't that good in the first place.

"The Kids Are All Right," Lisa Cholodenko's domestic dramedy about a lesbian couple, their two teenage kids and the drifter/sperm-donor who comes into their lives, has been on that kind of trip at Sundance all week.

The film's premiere screening on Monday at the Library Theater had the markings of a classic Sundance breakout, though some buyers complained that some of the enthusiasm of the entourage-heavy audience felt a little staged.  (It's a time-honored Sundance tradition for filmmakers and their representatives to paper the house with people whom they ask to/hope will laugh loudly to give buyers a more favorable impression. It was something that happened, very evidently, at the premiere screenings of "The Romantics" on Wednesday and, one can't help pointing out, at "Hamlet 2," the "Kids Are All Right"-esque blockbuster sale of two years ago. Screenings for all three films took place in the cheek-by-jowl confines of the Library Center Theater, where every laugh is magnified -- a "hot room," as festival director John Cooper calls it.

The magic carpet ride for "Kids" continued the next day as the sales negotiations became the buzz of the festival, even as some studios were labeling the film as a niche play that wasn't nearly as commercial as some of the early reports had it. The noise level then ratcheted up further when Focus Features anted up about $5 million for various rights to the movie, suggesting one of the largest specialty divisions around was betting big on the picture.

(On Thursday the company officially announced the deal, which was for U.S., U.K., German and Australian rights, and which prompted Focus CEO James Schamus, who called the movie "the best in American independent film making," to note in an interview that Cholodenko is a former student of his at Columbia University "but I didn't teach her one possible thing that could have led to this movie.")

But a new twist came with the second screening Wednesday night, where it played to a press-and-industry audience for the first time. The film was coming in high on a cloud of hype, which usually means that a room could be primed for over-the-top excitement -- or for disappointment. And while the screening certainly went over well enough, with laughter at the comedic moments and intent faces during the dramatic ones, the overall response from people in the room was more muted than what was reported from the premiere.

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Sundance 2010: Katie Holmes, newly minted dramatic star?

January 27, 2010 |  5:39 pm

It's been a long time since Katie Holmes has had a lead film role, let alone a noteworthy one. She last appeared on the big screen as a co-lead in the critically eviscerated "Mad Money" two years ago, and before that had a respectable but small supporting part in the cigarette-lobby satire "Thank You for Smoking," a movie that began shooting exactly five years ago and came to Sundance four years back.

Katieholmes Which makes it all the more striking that she's back at the festival this year with not one but two films, the Kevin Kline-Paul Dano vehicle "The Extra Man" and the blue-blood dramedy "The Romantics." It's the latter film in which she does her most, and best, work in a long time, earning her the right to a second look from anyone who's written her off as so much tabloid fodder.

"Romantics" examines a group of seven longtime friends somewhere past the carefree part of their 20s but not quite at the point of actual responsibility. All of them gather for a wedding of two of their own -- a monied, uptight woman named Lila (Anna Paquin) who's marrying Tom (Josh Duhamel, a great catch to the women in the film but boringly milquetoast to those of us sitting in the audience watching it), having essentially grabbed him from under the nose of Holmes' Laura. Now they're at this wedding, and old grudges and desires flare up, particularly for Laura, who alternates between spurning Tom and opening herself up to him again.

The film, with its depiction of a group of poetry-quoting young aristocrats, channels some of Whit Stillman's less enjoyable impulses. And the set-up of a tight-knit group with complicated dynamics gathering for a weekend wedding at a remote estate won't win any originality points.

But what prevents the movie -- the directorial debut of an indie producer named Galt Niederhoffer, who's adapting her own novel -- from going down a tedious path is a great climactic scene in which Paquin and Holmes eloquently and angrily trade emotional zingers. And what really saves it is the performance of Holmes, perfecting the likable-but-still-complicated persona she began honing on "Dawson's Creek" a decade ago.

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Sundance 2010: Kenneth Turan's documentary pick

January 27, 2010 |  4:57 pm

The Times film critic discusses one of the best documentaries he's seen at the festival: "Secrets of the Tribe."


'Kids Are All Right' comes into Focus

'Winter's Bone' takes audiences into the Ozarks

Photos: Sundance sightings

Sundance 2010: '3 Backyards' peeks behind suburban homes

January 27, 2010 |  4:44 pm


"I'm from New York... I don't have anything to follow that," said writer-director Eric Mendelsohn before Wednesday morning's screening of his Sundance competition entry "3 Backyards."

Pleasantly awkward and sincere in his introduction, Mendelsohn was previously at Sundance in 1999 with his film "Judy Berlin," and this marks his first feature since then. In reference to his fellow filmmakers at the festival this year, he noted, "I'm older than lots of the other people." Getting ready to start the screening, he said he looked forward to the Q&A afterward so "we can just talk about where you're from and where I'm from. Noting that his cellphone was going off, he reminded the audience to turn off their phones, and while leaving the podium he added, "Nice to meet all of you."

The film itself is perhaps a traditional Sundance film in the best sense of the term. Enigmatic and deliberate, the film takes places in a sort of Long Island of the Mind, a place where power lines cut through woody glens and warehouse districts and empty diners have a De Chirico spookiness and sense of remove. Though "3 Backyards" may seem outwardly uncommerical -- for some probably the worst slur one can throw at a film at Sundance these days -- that also makes it exactly the kind of film all the rhetoric of renewal and rebellion is meant to support. A film of quiet boldness guided by a deep regard for humanity, "3 Backyards" is rich, personal filmmaking.

The film has three non-intersecting storylines set amid a sleepy, leafy Long Island suburb. A housewife (Edie Falco) is excited that the actress (Embeth Davidtz) renting a beach house down the block has asked for a lift to the local ferry. A young girl (Rachel Resheff) missed her school bus, which sets off a series of adventures. A businessman (Elias Kotas) has a flight delayed and must kill time in an unfamiliar part of town.

Though this may not sound like the stuff of great drama, Mendelsohn is able to find the beats that are emotionally compelling in mundane moments, drawing out profound feelings from simple situations. He frequently uses interludes of nature scenes, beautifully shot by cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, to place these small concerns within a bigger world, such as a remarkable rack-focus from a spider within its delicate web to the indelicate rumble of a parking lot of school buses.

Most of the questions in the post-screening Q&A had to do with the score by Michael Nicholas as well as the sound mix. That score, a bracing modernist blast of flutes and woodwinds, jolts the viewer, a welcome device given the film's otherwise low-key pacing. Not everyone was so enamored, however; one questioner declared it "an assault on the audience."

Mendelsohn seemed to really enjoy interacting with the audience even as they were criticizing his work. He cheerfully asked one questioner where he was from (Buffalo, it turns out) or wanted a woman to tell him her take on why a character was crying before he gave his answer. "Don't worry," he said calmingly, "It's up there, but it's not said."

Wrapping up, Mendelsohn said plainly, "Thank you all. I'm glad to have met you in this way."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo of Embeth Davidtz and Edie Faclo in "3 Backyards" is courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2010: Attack of the cane toads. In 3-D!

January 27, 2010 |  2:56 pm

Unless you're Australian, or have a long memory for short films, you've likely never heard of cane toads. But be prepared, they're coming at you. And in 3-D no less.

"Cane Toads: The Conquest" had its world premiere at Sundance on Tuesday night before an audience that roared with delight at the amphibians' antics. The reception fulfilled the expectations of filmmaker Mark Lewis, who called it "just like 'Avatar,' except with toads."

Toad An Australian with a lively and playful sense of humor, Lewis has been to Sundance before, with the irreverent "The Natural History of the Chicken." He's also dealt with the bizarre-looking toad before, in a droll 1988 short called "Cane Toads: An Unnatural History," which related how the toad had been imported to Australia in 1935 when "some bright spark" suggested it could control a beetle infestation. The problem was, nothing could control the toad.

With numbers estimated as high as 1.5 billion, the toad has now crossed one third of Australia and will inevitably cover the rest. "We've tried poison, fences, traps, biological controls, genetically modified organisms and spent huge amounts of money," Lewis reports. "We can send a man to the moon but we can't stop the toad."

The filmmaker, however, is not here to bury the toad but to give it some respect, to create "a little bit of a celebration." After all, Lewis says, "there's some kind of weird curiosity these things generate. If World War III started it might be on Page 26 of the newspaper, but if a big toad is found it's the main story on Page 1. So why is it that people jump up and down when baby seals are clubbed but have no hesitation about going out and knocking these things over the head? I think its sad."

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Sundance 2010: Audiences discover the grisly, goofy 'It's a Wonderful Afterlife'

January 27, 2010 | 11:39 am

It's not spoiling anything to reveal that in the opening moments of "It's a Wonderful Afterlife," the latest comedy from "Bend It Like Beckham" director-co-writer Gurinder Chadha, a man's stomach explodes in violent fashion. We're talking buckets upon buckets of spicy curry rocketing up and over the faces of the emergency room doctors surrounding him. Chadha, it seems, is venturing into the tricky terrain of horror-comedy.

The movie, set in London's Indian community, deals with a doting mother (Shabana Azmi) whose worries that her overweight daughter (Goldy Notay) will never find a husband cause her to begin murdering anyone who spurns her. The spirits of the deceased take offense and begin haunting the mother, urging her to commit suicide to set their spirits free. The mother, of course, refuses to go until she sees her daughter married.

The crowd at the Tuesday night premiere at the Eccles Theatre was a little older than the usual Sundance crowd and the film seemed to play well for them. Especially a well-timed "Carrie" parody with "Happy-Go-Lucky's" Sally Hawkins that Chadha claimed is the scene the entire movie was built around. As one man said after the screening, "I read the description of this film and I was really nervous it would be a horrible misfire. But she pulled it off."

During the Q&A following the screening, an audience member demanded to know how the exploding stomach gag was done. Chadha responded, "I don't know if I should tell you the secret of the exploding stomach. Someone like James Cameron may pinch my special effects."

We polled a few people in the lobby after the screening to get their reactions, and most echoed the sentiments of this woman:

--Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: Sundance Film Festival


'Kids Are All Right' comes into Focus

'Winter's Bone' takes audiences into the Ozarks

Photos: Sundance sightings

Sundance 2010: Video report (Day 6)

January 27, 2010 | 11:10 am

John Horn and Steven Zeitchik talk about the sale of "The Kids Are All Right" and more.


'Kids Are All Right' comes into Focus

'Winter's Bone' takes audiences into the Ozarks

Photos: Sundance sightings


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