Some really late Sundance reviews, including Kung Fu Hustle, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and The Jacket

It's been almost two and a half months since my trip to Sundance, but some of the movies I saw there have yet to reach theaters so perhaps these impressions from memory will still be of use. Filmmakers continue to go to Sundance to spread the word about their movies, despite all the media attention focused on stars partying and receiving swag from the various sponsors. Many directors and actors journey out for their ten or fifteen minutes of Q&A after each screening, and many will fade back into obscurity. I've seen a lot of movies in the past year but have been terrible about recording my impressions here. When I see the movies at Sundance and other film festivals, I feel like I owe it to the filmmakers to spread the word. Fortunately, many of the movies I saw this year did get picked up for distribution and will reach a broad audience.

These are my thoughts on movies I saw my first two days at Sundance, listed in the order I saw them. By chance, the list includes one movie that came and went, one that is out in theaters now, one that opens in LA/NY tomorrow, and one that may not see big screen distribution.


Saturday morning, our entire gang went out for our first movie of Sundance at Eccles Auditorium. Ellie Parker stars Naomi Watts as a struggling actress in Los Angeles, attending audition after audition, fighting to maintain her identity and her integrity while navigating the de-humanizing profession of acting in Los Angeles. Like the new HBO series Unscripted, Ellie Parker de-glamorizes the lives of actors, reminding us that for every Hollywood star are hundreds of dreamers whose souls wither from year after over year of being treated like human cattle.

Scott Coffey, an old acting classmate of Watts, wrote and directed. They began shooting five years ago, when Watts actually was struggling to make it as an actress in Los Angeles. Of course, in the ensuing five years, she became one of Hollywood's A-list actresses. That's fortunate for Watts, but a development that blunts the impact of the movie's message.

The movie opens strong. Naomi Watts rushes from one audition to the next, and the shots of her in the car, preparing for the audition, changing outfits while driving, shouting at other L.A. drivers, and bopping to techno music are genuinely funny. Her lines for one audition in a Brooklyn-based drug movie are too profane to print here, but none of us could stop reciting those lines the rest of the weekend (get me on the phone sometime after a few drinks and I'll do my impression of Aussie Watts doing Brooklyn mob floozy). From there we get a glimpse into Watts' chaotic personal and emotional lives. Keanu Reeves and his band Dogstar make a cameo, with Watts as a blathering groupie, jacked up on drugs. I wondered if they shot that scene before or after Watts did Mulholland Drive.

Ellie Parker was originally a short, but after a solid reception at Sundance, Coffey decided to stretch it into a full-length feature. Unfortunately, the narrative suffers for it. Parts of the movie feel like padding, like a sequence when Watts goes to a zoo and stares wistfully at gorillas running about. It's meant to reveal her inner turmoil. Everyone knows, however, that Watts is starring in Peter Jackson's version of King Kong this summer. From staring at gorillas at a zoo to co-starring next to the biggest gorilla of them all; it's an unfortunate coincidence that just reminds the audience that Watts is no longer the unknown she plays in this movie. With some more aggressive editing, Ellie Parker would work as well as a one hour special for television. I don't believe Ellie Parker was picked up, but hopefully it will make it to the Sundance Channel or DVD.

The movie was shot on a 1-chip Sony consumer camcorder, so blown up to movie theater screen size, it looks awful. The shoddy cinematography contributes to the documentary/verite feel, though, and that's part of the movie's charm. And Watts is excellent. Perhaps because of all her years fighting to make it as an actress, she has little to no vanity. She's willing to turn herself inside-out on camera, to be emotionally naked on screen. The adjective brave is overused in describing actors, but it comes to mind when she's on screen.

One of the funniest moments at the screening occurred during Q&A. No one was asking any questions of Chevy Chase, and so at one point he grabbed the mike and said, "I'm not going to answer any questions." Finally someone bit and asked how Chase got involved.

"My agent sent me the script, said I should do it. So here I am in Sundance. I don't know anyone. I have no friends. It's very lonely."

We had no other movies on Saturday, so we spent the afternoon on the slopes of Park City. Sundance Film Fest inflates prices of lodging in Park City, but the benefit for those who attend is one empty ski run after another. Utah had a fantastic winter for skiing, and we treated Park City as our personal playground. In the evening, we cooked a huge feast back at our lodge, grilling steak on our deck and soaking in the hot tub. Even Karen's old friend Cortney drove out from her home in Utah to spend the evening with us. Good times.

After dinner, we fought off food coma and went to the Amazon/UTA Party. It was fun to catch up with old work colleagues, discuss movies with Jeff when he wasn't besieged by movie stars, and to take in the scene. Half of Sundance is like a high school dance, everyone checking everyone else out to see who is worth talking to. Everyone wants to talk up the food chain. You can be disgusted by it all and reminisce about the good old days of Sundance, or you can laugh at it all while enjoying a few free drinks.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt (left) and Lukas Haas in Brick

Sunday we had a four movies with only a break for lunch. It's the type of day I have no problem with but feel guilty subjecting others to. Mike, Joannie, Karen, and Arya were good sports and put up with my film nerd itinerary.

Rian Johnson's Brick is a modern high school drama cast as a film noir. Brendan Fry (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the cool-on-the-outside, wounded-on-the-inside bleeding heart hero, investigating the murder of his ex-girlfriend, willing to risk life and limb to unravel the dark and mysterious entanglements that she couldn't escape. Old film noir characters all appear, albeit played by familiar high school social archetypes. The cruel sex vixen is the high school drama queen, the hero's well-informed sidekick is a computer nerd, the femme fatale is the head cheerleader, and a mob boss is played by Lukas Haas as a drug dealer living in his mom's basement (until I read Freakonomics, written by another Levitt, not related to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I didn't realize why it was that so many gang members live with their mothers).

The dialogue is straight film-noir, delivered at an ear-blistering pace. Director Rian Johnson is clearly a film noir buff, and his rendition of film noir dialogue and cinematography is exacting and faithful. Old film noir movie dialogue, though stylized, has a certain snap and sting that is lacking in modern movies. And there's a certain pleasure in seeing how seriously each of the actors takes his or her film noir archetype. However, the conceit at the heart of this movie, high school drama cast as film noir, doesn't transcend stylish experiement. It's an intriguing choice but doesn't provide any deep insight into either film noir or high school dramas. We've all been guilty of exaggerating the import of our high school social and emotional dramas, but everyone in the movie takes themselves so seriously that by movie's end it comes off as vanity. The movie feels a bit like a creative exercise, albeit one with high production values and a consistently nervous and sinister atmosphere.

The mystery itself is complex, and it took a van ride home of conversation for all of us to lay out the story clearly in our own heads. I seem to recall Sony Pictures Classics picking up Brick for $1 million, so most of America should have an opportunity to see the movie on the big screen. Rian Johnson seemed like an extremely affable and appreciative young guy during Q&A. Hopefully he'll find more work in Hollywood; he has talent.


Everybody was kung-fu fighting...hee-ya

There's usually one movie every year that just leaves me grinning ear to ear, a movie that's pure fun. I didn't expect to find that movie for 2005 as early as January, but as soon as the end credit for Kung Fu Hustle appeared on screen, I knew I'd be unlikely to have as much fun at any other movie this year. Stephen Chow's follow-up to Shaolin Soccer is a gem in its genre; I'm just not sure what genre that is.

As with many Hong Kong movies, Kung Fu Hustle defies easy categorization because it embodies more genres than you'd expect to see mixed in one movie. The joy of Kung Fu Hustle is that it spans them so effortlessly. One minute the movie is an action flick, the next it's a dance scene from a musical. One scene will have the pathos of a tragedy, and the next scene will be a slapstick comedy with the physical genius of a Keaton or Jackie Chan. Stephen Chow, who wrote, produced, and directed, loves Hollywood movies, and he pays tribute to at least a dozen Hollywood movies and directors, from West Side Story to The Matrix to The Untouchables to The Shining to Batman to the Road Runner.

Sing (Stephen Chow), a bumbling thief, tries to shake down some of the residents of Pig Sty Alley for some money. As has been the case most of his life, he fails miserably, but in the process, he attracts the murderous Axe Gang. The residents of Pig Sty Alley look like a motley bunch, but they have a few surprises up their sleeves, and when the two groups clash, a delirious mayhem ensues.

The landlord (Wah Yuen) and landlady (Yuen Qiu) of Pig Sty Alley steal this movie. They reminded me of a couple of next door neighbors from my childhood, and they'll be familiar to old school martial arts fans. Bruce Lee cleaned Wah Yuen's clock in The Chinese Connection, and Yuen Qiu is a former martial arts actress who hasn't been on screen in years. Their appearance, and their identities in this movie, pay homage to their past in Chinese cinema. They aren't the only screen legends on display; Leung Siu Lung plays the Beast. Quentin Tarantino, for one, casts many of his favorite actors growing up in his movie as his way of paying tribute to their influence on him. Many people find this type of inside circle back-slapping annoying, but it happens in every field, and it doesn't feel forced here. Most people won't even notice.

Stephen Chow has a certain understated manner about him that distinguishes him from other slapstick martial arts comedians (there are many) that have come before him. He doesn't overact, instead surrounding himself with more exaggerated physical comedians, in contrast to someone like Jackie Chan whose dorky Uncle personality and cartoonish facial expressions center his movies around him. The low-key approach works for Chow, also serving as a counterbalance to some of the gaudy special effects. Think Cartoon Laws of Physics depicted in live action and you'll be in the right ballpark.

Though I still can't pin it to one genre, Kung Fu Hustle is most certainly a genre movie. If you had to weight it, it's 50% martial arts, 35% comedy, 10% drama, 5% romance. Seen att a film festival, and among film geeks, especially devotees of martial arts, it's joyride. I know I would never take some people to see it; they'd find it silly and a waste of celluloid, but then I wouldn't take other people to see a French New Wave retrospective either. Some people don't like chocolate, some don't even like watching movies. That's fine, but they're missing out.

Stephen Chow came out after the movie to a standing ovation, the only one I saw at Sundance this year. Kung Fu Hustle had distribution even before Sundance, and joy of joys, it hits theaters in NY/LA April 8 (tomorrow) and nationwide April 22. Catch it with a group; it's one of those movies best enjoyed in the company of others.


Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur Miller, is married to Daniel Day-Lewis. I don't think she had to fly to Italy where he was cobbling shoes to convince him to act in her movie The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Day-Lewis plays Jack, the last of a hippie commune who lives with his teenage daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) on an island away from civilization. They live in harmony with the environment, or at least according to Jack's ideals, and they wage a war with developers building properties near their house. Jack and Rose live alone, both literally, in this outpost away from civilization, and figuratively, in their idealism. When Jack brings his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her sons back from the mainland to stay with him and Rose, expected and unexpected clashes and connections follow.

The movie examines and questions the healthiness and sustainability of strict idealism in any form. To adhere to such standards not only sets up painful and inevitable losses of innocence but may not be sustainable. Miller employs a snake in one sequence, its escape coinciding with one such loss of innocence, and it's not nearly as heavy-handed or forced a symbolic moment as it sounds. When Day-Lewis confronts his nemesis, a land developer played by Beau Bridges, Day-Lewis, Keener, Belle, and Ryan McDonald as Keener's son Rodney are excellent. This was the best-acted movie I saw at Sundance.

The subject matter is touching and intelligent but also serious about its ideas. It won't win a huge mainstream audience but should appeal to moviegoers who seek something original and thought-provoking amidst the more predictable fare at the cineplex.

Miller spent years and years working on the script, and the characters of Jack and Rose are based in part on two female characters from a short she screened several years back at Sundance. Day-Lewis came on stage for Q&A looking like he'd just come off the slopes, dressed head-to-toe in ski gear and sporting a mountain-man beard. There's no art about him; he answers questions in such a direct manner it's disarming, almost intimidating. He's also a brilliant, serious actor, and I can imagine no other actor today who would be as appropriate to play the part of a man so committed to his ideals.


Our fourth and final movie screening on Sunday was John Maybury's The Jacket, out in theaters just a short while ago. The theater was all abuzz before the screening began as celebs strolled in and fought through adoring crowds armed with digital cameras. Chevy Chase. Kevin Bacon. Keira Knightley and her boyfriend. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adrien Brody and a woman I assumed was his girlfriend. Even Tobey Maguire and Steven Soderbergh (representing Section Eight, I think) dropped in.

The Jacket reminded me of The Machinist. I saw both at Sundance, and both were mysteries, visual puzzles. The movie begins with U.S. Marine Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) apparently getting killed as a soldier in the Gulf War in Iraq. The movie then cuts to Vermont, where Starks, apparently having survived, but with no memory of the incident, hitchhiking along a Vermont road in the middle of winter. He helps a woman and her daughter whose car has broken down, and then a stranger gives him a lift. A policeman flags the car down, and one more blackout later, and Starks finds himself on trial for the policeman's murder.

Found insane, Starks ends up in a mental institution. There, Kris Kristofferson subjects Starks to a brutal experimental treatment in which Starks is drugged, tied down with straps, and slid into one of those metal drawers where they store corpses in the morgue. I think I saw something similar on an episode of Fear Factor once. Surprisingly, Kristofferson is not a patient at this mental institution but a doctor. If Kristofferson were my psychological doctor, that alone would give me nightmares, without the drugs and solitary confinement.

In the drawer, Starks begins experiencing visions. Or are they visions? In one such "dream," he encounters a young waitress named Jackie (Keira Knightley doing a Marlene Dietrich smoky voice) at a rest stop. It's Christmas Eve, and taking pity on Starks, Jackie offers him her sofa for the night. I've had the same dream numerous times, and I know it's a vision, but if being drugged, shackled, and locked in the morgue for the evening is the price to pay to shack up with Keira Knightley, consider me patient zero. Starks doesn't think it's a fantasy, though, and begins to believe that these visions are the key to his salvation.

I'm willing to hang in there with a convoluted plot if there's a piece of cheese at the end of the maze (especially if it's from Murray's Cheese Shop, mmm), but some movies need clarity (e.g., did Sharon Stone kill those guys in Basic Instinct? It matters, and c'mon, she and Michael Douglas are obviously not doing the sequel anymore, so someone needs to come clean). I'm willing to tolerate abstraction if it serves a purpose or is intended to simulate the subconscious (David Lynch, for example, or perhaps Bunuel). But the open-ended and complex mystery in The Jacket just left my eyes rolling because it feels like lazy plotting.

I thought I saw a clue in The Jacket, a little string of beads that two different characters were twirling around their fingers. It was subtle, and I thought it might mean the two were the same person. In Q&A, Maybury revealed that he had both actors holding that trinket solely to mess with the audience's mind, that it was meaningless. At that point I gave up on the movie. Jack Starks sees his tombstone, and on it we see that he is born on Christmas Day. Does that mean he's Christ? After Maybury's admission that the string of beads was merely random and unimportant, I didn't care anymore.

When people asked what the movie meant, Maybury replied, "What does it mean to you?" It's a common response at Sundance; directors hate to explain what their movies mean. If a magician explains how a trick works, the magic is gone, right? Well, sometimes the spectator doesn't care how the trick was done because it wasn't all that magical in the first place.

What, you wanted a picture of Kris Kristofferson?