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Home / Articles / Movies & TV / Film Festival /  2006 Sundance Film Festival Feature-Film Capsules
Film Festival

2006 Sundance Film Festival Feature-Film Capsules

By Scott Renshaw & Mike D'Angelo
Posted // June 11,2007 -

ADAM’S APPLES ** (Spectrum)

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For a little while, the outright weirdness of the characters in Anders Thomas Jensen’s dark comedy trumps the overwhelming predictability of its redemption narrative. Skinhead parolee Adam (Ulrich Thomsen) comes to stay at a Danish halfway house run by minister Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), whose impossible optimism constantly irritates Adam. You’ve gotta love supporting roles like the brutally insensitive doctor, but not so much tired signifiers like Adam taking down the cross in his room to put up a photo of Adolf Hitler'which then repeatedly falls to the floor. Kind of like the movie itself. (SR)

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ANGRY MONK ** (World Documentary)

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Sure, it’s ironic that Tibetan dissident Gendun Choephel argued in favor of a less superstitious Tibet, while the images captured by Swiss filmmaker Luc Schaedler 50 years after Choephel’s death show a country barely changed. But Schaedler too often wanders away from his compelling subject'an ex-monk, essayist, historian, artist and bon vivant'to dwell on the present, and his own need to use Choephel as a “key” to understand contemporary Tibet. While the bits and pieces of Choephel’s story prove intriguing, the subtitle'”Reflections on Tibet”'keeps getting in the way of the title. (SR)

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ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL ** (Premieres)

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For anybody who saw the sublime Ghost World, this second collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes has to rank among the year’s most anticipated titles. Alas, Art School Confidential'essentially a feature-length expansion of the art-class scenes from the earlier movie, with John Malkovich taking over from Illeana Douglas as the pretentious instructor'embodies precisely the smug cynicism and sense of superiority that Ghost World so movingly revealed to be an emotional dead end. Matter of fact, this film is so dispiritingly spiteful that it could quite plausibly have been made by Enid Coleslaw, pre-epiphany. A real heartbreaker. (MD’A)

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BATTLE IN HEAVEN *.5 (Spectrum)

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Carlos Reygadas’ overwrought tale of a kidnapping gone horribly awry opens and closes with unsimulated oral sex, which prompted comparisons to The Brown Bunny at its Cannes premiere last spring. In fact, Vincent Gallo’s forthright sincerity is the exact opposite of Reygadas’ grandiose pretensions. Every element of suffocating cinematic self-importance is presented and accounted for: Physically repulsive actors engaging in strenuously unerotic sex; looka-here virtuoso tracking shots; a pointless, climactic act of sudden violence. If only this guy cared half as much about connecting with the audience as he clearly does about creating and maintaining a certain kind of aesthetic self-image. (MD’A)

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BEYOND BEATS AND RHYMES ** (Spectrum)

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Byron Hurt takes a bit of a risk as a hip-hop fan challenging the misogyny, violence and homophobia in the genre'but his film breaks little new ground. In interviews with sociologists, scholars and the likes of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, he reveals that young black men are expressing their powerlessness in the rest of society through an exaggerated machismo. Is that news to anyone? He finds more fertile ground in the way white music industry execs are pushing black gangsta-ism to suburban white kids, but ultimately Hurt’s study seems more about assuaging his own guilt. (SR)

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THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS ** (World Dramatic)

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Flamboyantly swishy 12-year-old Maximo (Nathan Lopez) is the kind of character festival films love to celebrate. But Auraeus Solito’s film'about motherless Maximo being torn between his family of small-time criminals and the clean-cut young cop (JR Valentin) he develops a crush on'skates by on its portrayal of a Manila slum filled with actual and metaphorical trash. The performances and the filmmaking do little to create a sense of real consequence, and Solito can’t sidestep the icky ambiguity of the cop’s attentions towards Maximo. (SR)

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CINNAMON *** (Frontier)

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Erin works as a bank loan officer by day, moonlighting at drag racing'but one of the neat tricks of Kevin Jerome Everson’s film is that he’s playing with how the latter involves just as much mundane detail as the former. He also weaves back and forth between something akin to documentary'tales told by members of the drag-racing Bowles family'and scenes that only reveal themselves obliquely as scripted. Add a great sound mix that combines roaring engines with dead silence, and you’ve got a study in routine that somehow also works as a visceral experience. (SR)

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CLEARCUT: THE STORY OF PHILOMATH, OREGON *** (Spectrum)

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Steve Lowther is the kind of guy who’d look at the way he comes off in Peter Richardson’s Clearcut and blame the liberal-media conspiracy. A first-class ideological bully, Lowther uses the scholarship foundation created by his logging baron grandfather as a wedge in a 2003 clash over the “values” taught in Philomath public schools. In part it’s just a typical case study of progressive-vs.-conservative clashes in 21st-century America, but Lowther’s such a terrific character'a tangle of professed religiosity and barely disguised rage'that it feels like more than a talking-heads essay. (SR)

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CROSSING ARIZONA **.5 (Documentary Competition)

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Joseph Mathew takes the hot-button issue of illegal immigration and attempts to push as many of those hot buttons as possible. His exploration touches on Mexican migrants making the deadly trek through the Sonora Desert, on Arizona’s 2004 ballot initiative, on activists working to protect those who risk their lives to come here and on Minutemen and others who want to guard the borders. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and the film’s omnibus approach ends up detracting from its most compelling stories. As a microcosm for this thorny subject, it ends up being more of a macrocosm. (SR)

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A DARKNESS SWALLOWED ** (Frontier)

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If you groove on abstract, non-narrative filmmaking, Betzy Bromberg’s image-o-rama could be your cup of tea. But while this experiment begins with the intriguing idea of memory being stimulated by things unrelated to the actual event, the rest of it feels more like a game of “can you guess what you’re looking at.” The oblique extreme close-ups, light-blasted time-lapse shots and the equally weird soundtrack (ultrasounds, primitive percussion, backward choral voices, vaguely Middle Eastern wind instruments) ultimately seem so alien that they might only have meaning for the filmmaker. (SR)

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DENADIE **.5 (World Documentary)

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In this year of Latino immigrant horror stories (see also: Crossing Arizona, La Tragedía de Macario), Tin Tirdamal’s documentary shows it’s not just Mexicans suffering for an economic second chance. He talks to several South Americans who have to cross borders before they can even reach the U.S./Mexico border'and survive corrupt cops and brutal gangs in the process. It’s uneven filmmaking, but the immigrants’ stories are undeniably harrowing. It may be even harder watching one Honduran woman’s family weep over her departure for America to find work'which makes one wonder how many divided families she represents. (SR)

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DON’T COME KNOCKING **(Premieres)

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Not unless you can act, that is. The combination of director Wim Wenders and writer Sam Shepard resulted in one of the most acclaimed films of the 1980s (Paris, Texas), but their long-awaited reunion'in which Shepard plays a movie star who abruptly flees the set of his latest production and returns to the small town where he’d romanced a local beauty (Jessica Lange) while on location two decades earlier'offers scarcely a single credible moment in two self-consciously mythic hours. As the actor’s abandoned son, Gabriel Mann indulges in a showy surliness that’s only upstaged by the shrill histrionics of Fairuza Balk. (MD’A)

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EVE & THE FIRE HORSE ** (World Dramatic)

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What Danny Boyle did in Millions seems even more impressive after observing this tale of an imaginative kid’s fanciful spirituality. Writer/director Julia Kwan tells of Canada’s Eng family, and a run of bad luck that leads young Karena (Hollie Lo) to convert from Buddhism to Catholicism, while younger sister Eve (Phoebe Jojo Kut) sees wacky visions. The conspicuous quirkiness'a goddess working on the plumbing, human levitations'never meshes with the more tragic elements, creating a clunky narrative experience. Kudos, though, for a brown-and-orange production design that screams “mid-1970s” more than any onscreen caption. (SR)

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FACTOTUM **.5 (Spectrum)

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Dramatizing a writer’s life is always tricky business, but Charles Bukowski'who was generally slumped on a barstool whenever he wasn’t parked in front of the typewriter'presents more formidable filmmaking challenges than your average scribe. Adapted from Bukowski’s second novel, about alter ego Henry Chinaski’s attempt to launch an artistic career while negotiating a series of dead-end McJobs, Factotum benefits from a fine, deadpan performance by Matt Dillon (playing Chinaski less romantically than Mickey Rourke did in Barfly). The film as a whole is frustratingly anecdotal, though, and director Bent Hamer seems incapable of much more than mild drollery. (MD’A)

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FRIENDS WITH MONEY **.5 (Premieres)

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If you can buy Jennifer Aniston as an impoverished maid willing to engage in quickies in her clients’ beds'and then pay her lunkheaded boyfriend (Scott Caan) for sticking around and dusting a few knickknacks'then maybe Nicole Holofcener’s latest ensemble dramedy will possess some kind of real-world relevance for you. Granted, it’s refreshing to see an American filmmaker acknowledge the mere existence of the class struggle without getting self-righteously John Sayles on our asses. Too much of the film operates at sitcom level, though, and Catherine Keener plus Frances McDormand plus Joan Cusack entails way too much brittle neurosis for a single movie. (MD’A)

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THE GIANT BUDDHAS **.5 (World Documentary)

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Zemaryalai Tarzi'the Afghan-born archaeologist whose quest for an almost mythical 300-meter-long statue of a reclining Buddha makes up a portion of Christian Frei’s film'is a fascinating character. Too bad Frei felt the need to send his documentary'about the giant Buddha statues of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001'in so many other directions. He could have captured all the same issues of a plundered culture through Tarzi’s explorations alone, without a fragmented approach that seems determined to cover everything from Seventh-century China through 3-D computer reconstructions. (SR)

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THE HOUSE OF SAND ***(World Dramatic)

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Andrucha Waddington crafts a decades-spanning epic that’s more about its sense of place than anything else'and that’s OK. In 1910, a man drags his pregnant wife Áurea (Fernanda Torres) and Áurea’s mother (Fernanda Montenegro) to his newly purchased land in a remote section of Brazil'but when he dies in an accident, the two women are left mostly alone. The time shifts are occasionally disorienting until it’s clear that the two actresses play multiple roles across 60 years. But Waddington employs silence and darkness to create a unique portrait of isolation. (SR)

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IN THE PIT **.5 (World Documentary)

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Juan Carlos Rulfo does an exemplary job of finding unique personalities among the workers constructing the massive second level of Mexico City’s Periférico Freeway and letting them philosophize their hearts out about God, love and politics. But there’s a sense that Rulfo was aiming for something more, a metaphor for how we prefer those who give us our conveniences to remain hidden from view. And that’s the part of this documentary that never quite comes into focus. Like the sweeping closing helicopter shot of the Periférico project, it’s impressive in scope but mostly seems to go around in a circle. (SR)

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INTO GREAT SILENCE **.5 (World Documentary)

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On the one hand, Philip Groening’s film'following the lives of cloistered monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps'clearly displays artistry at immersing viewers in a world of austerity and contemplation. On the other hand, zzzzzzzzzzz. For 164 minutes, Groening observes ritual, reflection, menial chores and the occasional blessed opportunity for interaction. He also observes clouds, flickering candles, repeated quotations and empty hallways in a manner that invests shots with Significance but rarely genuine fascination. If the goal was to make our return to the secular world a relief, mission accomplished. (SR)

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IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS *** (Documentary Competition)

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Director James Longley does not attempt to make a grand statement about Iraq. Indeed, his three-part documentary'set in Baghdad, the Shiite province of Naseriyah and Kurd country, respectively'makes it clear that the country is far too complex a place for any one grand statement to make much sense. He keeps a tight focus on specific individuals in each of his three segments, allowing their stories to provide the human focus. The anti-American rhetoric flies, to be sure, but the southern zealots come off no better in a film that shows more understanding of Iraq than any administration speech. (SR)

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JOURNEY FROM THE FALL **.5 (Spectrum)

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Ham Tran’s film proves to be unusually on-target in dealing with the Vietnamese immigrant experience'it, too, has trouble adapting to an American setting. The first half of the film sets up the lives of Long (Long Nguyen) and Mai (Kieu Chinh), a husband and wife separated after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Their parallel experiences'Long in re-education camps, Mai trying to save the rest of the family'initially create a tense climate to match the epic scope. But once events settle in the states, the culture-shock drama can’t match the painful journeys that preceded it. (SR)

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KINKY BOOTS **.5 (Premieres)

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There’s a doctoral thesis just waiting to be written on the subgenre of dramedies about uptight Brits forced by financial difficulty into some risqué businesses: The Full Monty, Saving Grace, Calendar Girls, Mrs. Henderson Presents and now this equally formulaic, moderately appealing entry. Joel Edgerton plays Charlie, the reluctant heir to his family shoemaking business, who decides to save the cash-strapped factory by serving an untapped market: extra-sturdy thigh-highs for hulking drag queens. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers another magnetic performance as Charlie’s cross-dressing muse, but the pre-packaged messages of tolerance aren’t as enlightening as that hypothetical thesis would be. (SR)

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KZ ***.5 (World Documentary)

The title comes from the German abbreviation for “concentration camp”'but don’t tune out at the thought of yet another Holocaust-themed documentary. Rex Bloomstein’s sublime work does center around Mauthausen, a small Austrian town where the site of a former concentration camp has become a tourist attraction. But while there are graphic descriptions of wartime horrors, the film is less about atrocities than about how people deal with the awareness that they occurred, with full comprehension becoming a liability. KZ becomes a fascinating study of the way minds work when confronted with the inconceivable. (SR)

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LA TRAGEDÍA DE MACARIO ** (Spectrum)

“Yes this immigrant story is tragic/ Told with realism and magic/ Of Macario, a poor worker with a wife/ Who heads north to find a better life/ At the end are some scenes from a newscast/ So the film doesn’t seem to end too fast/ And remind it’s inspired by a true story/ So that viewers can feel even more sorry/ The entire plot is told in a folk song/ Just in case you couldn’t follow along/ So while the atmosphere is abundant/ The film itself starts to feel a bit … redundant.” (SR)

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A LITTLE TRIP TO HEAVEN ** (Premieres)

Forest Whitaker, while a terrific actor, should never under any circumstances attempt a foreign accent. Frankly, I’m not sure where his insurance investigator in this movie is supposed to be from'the film itself is set in Minnesota, though it was shot mostly in director Baltasar Kormákur’s native Iceland'but I’d estimate that roughly 30 percent of the character’s dialogue is unintelligible. Which may be just as well, since the story, about a sinister insurance scam perpetuated by a young woman (Julia Stiles) and someone who may or may not be her husband (Jeremy Renner), starts off convoluted and winds up simple-minded. (MD’A)

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MAN PUSH CART *** (Spectrum)

Widowed Pakistani immigrant Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) physically drags his catering cart to his Manhattan street corner every morning, the repeated task taking on the quality of a penance. It’s true that Ramin Bahrani may push the Sisyphean metaphor nearly as far in his tale of Ahmad, a famous singer in his own country but a menial laborer in America. Fortunately, the film takes care to keep its attention on the psychic toll paid by people who surrender their own dreams for those they love. Terrifically atmospheric and keenly observed, even if a couple of the performances feel less than inspired. (SR)

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THE PETER PAN FORMULA ***.5 (World Dramatic)

Cho Chang-ho has apparently learned a few things about formal mastery and emotional isolation from his mentor, Kim Ki-duk. His debut features centers around Hansoo (On Ju-wan), a high school student forced to grow up fast when his single mother attempts suicide, leaving her in a vegetative state. There’s an astonishing confidence to Cho’s visual storytelling, leading to shots that could leave a cinephile giddy with the recognition of a true talent in the making. He spins into some odd realms of fantasy and psychodrama, but there’s a terrific emotional core here that makes the style all the more satisfying. (SR)

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SONGBIRDS *** (World Documentary)

Brian Hill’s portrait of female inmates at England’s Downview Prison boasts one of the most improbable concepts since Cop Rock: a “documentary musical” telling the women’s stories through original songs'created by lyricist Simon Armitage and composer Simon Boswell'and music video-style staging. It works because the songs are terrific, ranging from haunting to jaunty, in styles from reggae and rap to waltz-time folk. The only thing missing, really, is full commitment to the concept. Conventional interview segments with the inmates ultimately just repeat tales told with more power when they get to sing about their tragic lives. (SR)

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THANK YOU FOR SMOKING **.5 (Premieres)

Aaron Eckhart is in top charming-sleazeball form as a tobacco lobbyist torn between his profession’s necessary “moral flexibility” and his desire to impart something vaguely approaching values to his young son. Sharp and funny when it sticks to the Big Tobacco world; broad and tired when it stoops to satirizing Hollywood narcissism or generic corporate backstabbing. The scene in which our “hero” explains his job to his son via an argument about the merits of chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream, subtly but decisively changing the terms of debate to put the kid on the defensive, ranks alongside Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the annals of doubletalk. (MD’A)

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THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT *** (Documentary Competition)

The basic premise is depressingly familiar from other docs about wrongly accused, unjustly convicted minorities, but Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg still deliver a powerful narrative. Their film follows the saga of Darryl Hunt, an African-American man imprisoned for the 1984 rape and murder of a white woman in North Carolina, beginning a 20-year fight to clear his name. While the usual suspects are on display'overzealous prosecutors, lazy police work, dogged defense attorneys'the filmmakers get terrific access to moments on an emotional rollercoaster. It may not be groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be heartbreaking. (SR)

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