The continuing adventure of one critic's first trip to the Sundance Film Festival....
* Day 2 dawned with the previous night's snow storm gone, replaced by blue sky and a big yellow sun. It was so darn picturesque I walked to the shuttle stop feeling like I had stepped into a tourist brochure for Park City. Gazing at the snow-capped mountains and plunging ski runs, I contemplated skipping the film festival altogether and hitting the slopes. But that was just a brief flight of fancy, seeing as how 1.) I don't own skis and 2.) I haven't "hit the slopes" in well over 20 years, and back then I was just doing kiddie runs. So back to the screening grind I went, starting with...
* Arbitrage, which is essentially the Bernie Madoff story crossed with an episode of Law & Order. Richard Gere plays billionaire businessman Robert Miller, who seems to have everything a man could possibly want: a lovely wife (Susan Sarandon), a respected business, a beautiful family and a hot mistress on the side. But cracks start to appear in his perfect life: for one thing, a bad business decision has left his company poised on the edge of bankruptcy (a secret he's kept hidden from his employees and the business world at large, natch) and his only way out of this mess is to sell the whole operation to a larger corporation before word leaks out. Things get even more complicated when he's involved in a late night car accident that claims the life of his gal pal. While he flees the scene and attempts to cover his tracks, a dogged NYPD detective (Tim Roth) is convinced of his guilt and devotes himself to taking down one of Manhattan's elite. With its all-star cast and solid, if formulaic, story, Arbitrage is the kind of adult-oriented thriller that a big studio would have greenlit without any hesitation back in the '90s and even the early part of the aughts. That it had to be financed independently and is at Sundance to find distribution just further goes to show you how hard it is to get a movie that's not a sequel/comic book property/sequel to a comic book property made in Hollywood right now. There's no doubt in my mind that Arbitrage will eventually find its way to a theater near you, which is a far more natural setting for a film like this than Sundance.
* After the screening, Arbitrage director Nicholas Jarecki (of the prolific Jarecki clan that includes filmmaker brothers -- and Sundance favorites -- Andrew and Eugene) took the stage and discussed the film's timely connection to Occupy Wall Street. "The movement in its current form didn't exist when I wrote the script a year and a half ago. I took a lot of inspiration from a series of Vanity Fair articles and it was some of the best financial journalism I'd read. Being from New York, I've also met these guys and they're a fascinating group." As for securing Gere's involvement, Jarecki remembered that 24 hours after receiving the script, the actor's agent called saying, "He read it, digs it, he's not so into the first time director thing, but he'd like to meet you tomorrow. Within 15 minutes [of meeting], we had already started to rehearse. At one point, he grabbed me and threw me up against the wall and we had this big argument and then he looked very dramatically into my eyes and stared at me seductively. I said, 'I would kiss you right now.' After that, he was in. He said, 'Okay, you're crazy, I think, but I hope it's the good crazy, so let's go for it." Additional fun fact from Jarecki: when he's not acting, Gere operates his own boutique inn in upstate New York, The Bedford Post Inn. If you can afford the $700 sticker price of an overnight stay (plus chef's tasting menu), you might be able to catch a glimpse of the American Gigolo star in his natural habitat.
* Up until this point, I'd been seeing movies either at specially designated press screenings or public showings that I'd been able to secure a ticket for. But now I decided to take a chance and join the famous Sundance wait-list lines, where people queue up hoping to score leftover tickets to a popular movie. The film I hoped to get into was Nobody Walks, a romantic dramedy co-written by Sundance phenom Lena Dunham (whose Tiny Furniture was a big hit here two years ago) and starring John Krasinski and Olivia Thirlby. Because the screening was being held at Sundance's biggest theater -- the Eccles, which seats upwards of 1,000 people -- I thought I had a good chance at getting in. Even when I turned out to be the 168th person in the wait-list line, I still held out hope. But as the start time approached and the line barely budged, the situation looked increasingly bleak. And, indeed, I was turned away, along with the bulk of the line, destined to have to catch up with Nobody Walks during its inevitable IFC on VOD run. Disappointed as I was, standing in line does afford you lots of time for fun conversations with other festivalgoers. I discussed that night's Giants vs. 49ers game with a die-hard San Francisco fan, sang the praises of my favorite 2011 film, Take Shelter, to anyone who would listen and chatted about Melancholia and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with an enthusiastic young film student. It was a nice reminder that the next best thing to watching movies is talking about them.
* With Nobody Walks a no-go, I decided to repeat my Perception of Moving Targets experiment from the previous day and pick a screening to attend at random, which is how I ended up at the intriguingly titled The Comedy. It was only when I was already in the theater that I learned this was a production of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim or, as they're better known, Tim and Eric of the cult Adult Swim series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. I probably should've just bailed then, as I've never been a big fan of that series and purposefully avoided the movie version, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, which was also playing at the festival. But it sounded like the guys were trying something a little different with this one, so I decided to keep an open mind and give them another shot. Having now seen The Comedy, I can say that I'm just destined never to "get" Tim and Eric. Basically a series of loosely connected vignettes in which Heidecker wanders around L.A. being an asshole to various people, the movie swapped out the aggressive surrealism I find so off-putting about their series for a deadpan meanness that was equally unpleasant. (The Comedy proved to be another popular movie to walk out on; a good three-quarters of the audience had vanished by the end.) I will say that The Comedy is quite clearly the movie the duo set out to make; it has a distinct and purposeful style and sensibility. It's just not a creative vision that resonated with me in any way at all..
* I followed up my first Sundance dud with another one, Rodrigo Cortés's Red Lights, about a pair of scientists who put their paranormal activity-debunking skills to the test against a seemingly all-powerful mentalist. I'd been hearing mixed-to-negative things about the film, but the cast -- Cillian Murphy! Sigourney Weaver! Robert De Niro! Elizabeth Olsen -- wound up luring me in. The experience wound up confirming that, sometimes, you've gotta trust the buzz. Red Lights is a terrible, terrible movie and, to be honest, I'm baffled why the programmers included it, beyond the obvious hope that its cast would show up to walk the red carpet. Boasting a ludicrous, overwrought script, artless direction and a tone that's always unintentionally one step away from parody, this is a movie that deserves to languish in obscurity for the sake of all concerned.
* After those two body blows, I was desperately in need of a good movie to end Day 2 on a high note. And I found it in the form of Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger's documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon's seminal South African-influenced pop album, Graceland. Since that's one of my all-time favorite records, I would likely have been satisfied had the film just been a static shot of the album cover while all 11 songs played on the soundtrack. Fortunately, for the rest of the viewing public, Berlinger wisely decided to make something more complex and interesting. In his typically probing style, the director tracks the album's origins and production while also placing it in a larger political context that got Simon into trouble at the time. (Short version: at the time Simon made Graceland, there was a UN-mandated cultural boycott in effect against the then-apartheid government of South Africa. By visiting the country to record an album -- and later taking some of those musicians on a world tour -- Simon inspired a number of protests by prominent activists and political figures.) Some fascinating details are revealed in the course of the film, including the fact that producer Roy Halee pieced many of the tracks out of odds and ends recorded in the studio and that Simon wrote his lyrics after the musical tracks were complete rather than before. There's also footage of Simon returning to South African after 25 years for a reunion concert with the Graceland musicians and sitting down for a memorable interview with Dali Tambo, the founder of the group Artists Against Apartheid, who had criticized Simon's actions back in the day. Financed by A&E, Under African Skies will air on the network later this year, following a limited theatrical release. It will also be packed as a bonus feature on an extras-packed anniversary box set of Graceland coming this spring, which any self-respecting Paul Simon fan will have to own.
* Simon himself was in the house for the movie's world premiere and shared the spotlight with Berlinger at a half-hour Q&A. "My first impulse was to go to where the music was and the musicians were that I wanted to play with. I didn't know how it was going to come out," he remembered. "When I went there and during the time I was recording, nobody was listening to township music. They were listening to Parliament-Funkadelic. What happened when Graceland became a worldwide hit is that the music of South Africa became a hit all over the world and South Africa began to take pride in what was a musical form that they considered old hat. Of course, the politics that surrounded it, those politics would never had been articulated had the record not been a big hit. There was a lot of time between when I recorded it and when it was released when anyone from the African National Congress could have come and said, 'We don't want you to do this' or 'We want you to do this in some other way.' Once there was a lot of attention being paid, anyone who attacked it also had a lot of opportunity to be heard."
* Since there was no way to top grooving to Graceland and then being five rows back from one of my favorite artists in the flesh, I called it a night movie-wise and paid an overdue visit to Park City's Main Street, which was hopping with private parties, roving celebrities and lots of hangers-on. This was the side of Sundance I hadn't had a chance to see due to my movie-hopping habits and it was fun to gawk at for a little while. Before heading home, I wandered by the Egyptian Theater, where a big crowd was already forming for the midnight premiere of Shut Up and Play the Hits, the official film version of LCD Soundsystem's final concert at Madison Square Garden last year. (Apparently, it was a musical day in Park City -- Ice-T's new documentary, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, had screened earlier in the afternoon as well, and both he and Coco were spotted around town.) Hopefully those folks were as satisfied with their favorite band's rock doc as I was with Under African Skies.
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