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January 25, 2007 |

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | January 25, 2007 |

It’s 2 a.m. and I lost feeling in my ass around four hours ago. Such is the joy of Sundance. The first full-day marathon of films began, appropriately enough, with Starting out the Evening, from Andrew Wagner, who apparently made a huge splash here in 2005 with a film I’ve never heard of. Likewise, if I hadn’t have attended this year’s fest, and been lured in by the prospect of Lili Taylor and Lauren Ambrose in the same film, a year from now, I’d have never heard of Evening, either. There’s been a decent amount of positive buzz here for the film, but I think it’s got something to do with subliminal messaging. The movie is about an old, widowed, washed-up author/retired professor named Schiller (Frank Langella) who is attempting to write his final novel before escaping into the afterlife. Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) is a doctoral student at Brown who’s decided to write her thesis about Professor Schiller, which she thinks will somehow revive his long dormant star — a notion that Schiller is all too willing to buy into, especially if it means procuring the affections of Heather (who has her own schoolgirl crush on him). And Ariel (Taylor) is the professor’s daughter, who is approaching 40 and wants desperately to have children but is hopelessly attached to a man who refuses to start a family.

Eveningis your basic aimless, wandering indie feature, and sort of the kind of film I’d expected to see a lot of here. In the Q & A, Wagner noted that it was filmed in only 18 days, and it sort of shows. While Langella turns in a terrific performance, Ambrose and Taylor just smile a lot, which is kind of jarring at first, given both of their histories portraying sullen, moody, or psychotic characters. Mostly though, Starting out the Evening feels like a badly translated novel — you can almost feel the characters reading excerpts from the book aloud. It’s pretentious as hell, which is fine and dandy — I’m all about the pretentious — but this pretentiousness doesn’t even come off as genuine. This is the kind of film that strives to be highfalutin, but comes off as kind of empty, like when people try to impress you by using long words when they really don’t have a fucking clue what they mean.

Anyway, the second film I saw today was Snow Angels, based on the Stewart O’Nan novel. It’s directed by David Gordon Green, who wrote and directed All the Real Girls which made our Best Movies You’ve Never Seen list last year. With Snow Angels, Green tops himself and then some; in fact, I’d be surprised this week if I see a better movie than this one, which stars Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, and Michael Angarano (the kid from Sky High!). I don’t want to say too much about the narrative right now; I’ll just say that it’s littered with tragedies, but somehow Green finds both levity and humanity in events that other directors might milk for all the despair they’re worth. It’s a freakin’ beautiful film, one that even features a high-school marching band playing Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer and a newcomer, Olivia Thirlby, who I expect to see in a lot of films in the next few decades. Sam Rockwell is also amazing, playing a character that’s the complete opposite of the smooth-talking, hustling charmer he’s sort of made his reputation on. Both he and Beckinsale play minimum-wage schlubs, and it’s refreshing to see both of them slum it down for substantive roles like these — it was the first time I ever noticed that Beckinsale has a modicum of acting ability. My fondness for Angels is not hurt, either, by Amy Sedaris, who has a plum role as the sort of Chinese-restaurant waitress you’d expect in one of her brother’s books, if David had grown up completely impoverished.

I suspect I could write at length about Snow Angels, but I’ll save the full review for its theatrical release — I assume it’ll be bought up by some studio soon (c’mon ThinkFilm). At the night’s end, I also saw director Mike Cahill’s writing and directing debut, King of California which was a nice way to end the evening — a light, whimsical comedy about a father (Michael Douglas) who returns from a mental institution only to get his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) involved a wild, half-crazed treasure hunt for actual 17th century doubloons buried beneath a Costco. It’s not a particularly deep or philosophical film, but it does offer escapism for folks who’d rather not endure dick and fart jokes for 90 minutes. Evan Rachel Wood is superb, as she seemingly always is, and Michael Douglas continues to do well in these weird, late-career roles playing against type.

Finally, I also saw the world premiere of Black Snake Moan, which is scheduled for wide release soon, so I’ll save most of my rancor for the full Pajiba treatment then. I’ll just say, for now, that Craig Brewer’s follow up to Hustle and Flow was terribly disappointing, that it mostly amounted to bad Ricci-porn (and really, if you’re going to do an exploitative flick, at least have the decency to get someone better to ogle than Christina Ricci), and the only thing more embarrassing than Justin Timberlake’s performance in the film was his performance in the Q & A afterwards, in which he ran across stage to draw as much attention to himself as possible and then stuttered and flubbed on the one question he was given. The film itself was, well … miserable. You’d think there’d at least be a few bits of unintentional comedy involved in a film where a typical Sam Jackson character (an older, rural Jules Winfeld) chained Christina Ricci to a heater, but Brewer takes the whole film so goddamn seriously that even otherwise so-absurd-they’re-hilarious moments are sapped of their humor.

Before I sign off for the night, I’ll say this about attending my first premiere: It’s no freakin’ wonder so many celebrities have such huge egos — if they’re in the audience, crowds will laugh and applaud at fucking any and everything. Sam Jackson could’ve clipped his nails for two hours in the film, and when it was over, he still would’ve gotten a standing ovation. It’s kind of ridiculous, but as much as I disliked Black Snake Moan I still stood up myself. It’s just good manners.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

Black Snake Dumb

Daily Dispatches from Sundance / Dustin Rowles

Miscellaneous | January 25, 2007 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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