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January 26, 2007 |

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | January 26, 2007 |

Obviously, I’m not an expert on Sundance; this is my first year, and it’s kind of sobering to meet people who have been coming here for five, 10, or 15 years — people who reflect fondly on years past when it was easy to park and the celebrity factor wasn’t so much a part of it. Having been here a couple of days now, I feel absolutely unqualified to speak to the culture now, though from my limited experience, it seems like audiences are comprised primarily three groups: schmoozy industry types with cell phones attached to their ears carrying around copies of Variety, celebrity watchers who like anything with an A-lister in it no matter how bad the film actually is, and the volunteers — people who work here in exchange for entrance into the films (at least, that’s my understanding of the arrangement). It’s the latter category that actually seems most able to speak honestly to the quality of the films here. Outside of the press, who are squirreled away at the press screenings, the volunteers come the closest, categorically, to what I expected to find at Sundance: a bunch of film geeks who seemingly have 75 percent of the IMDb memorized. I love these people, and thanks to them and, increasingly, the quality of films, Sundance has become more of what I’d hoped it would be: a dream vacation that might allow me to ride on a bus standing next to David Gordon Green or sit a row in front of a director’s parents during a screening of his (amazing) film.

Whatever; I’m sure most Pajiba readers have little interest in my opinions on the culture here. So, I turn to the flicks: Today, I saw four more, starting with Grace is Gone (picked up by the Weinsteins last week), which, along with yesterday’s Snow Angels is the best I’ve seen here. It features John Cusack as Stanley Phillips, a stodgy, emotionally closed-off Midwestern father. In the opening scenes, he’s informed that his wife, a soldier stationed in Iraq, had been killed in action. Phillips can’t bring himself to tell his two daughters, so he decides instead to take them on a trip to an amusement park several thousand miles away. It’s really just a simple road flick, but every event is infused with the secret Phillips is keeping from his daughters, which takes the seemingly benign and makes it utterly heartbreaking. Cusack is flat-out phenomenal — for maybe the first time in his career, he’s playing someone who is not any sort of variation of himself. He’s thick, almost chinless, and awkward; it’s a pitch-perfect performance, though the two children (both first-time actors) hold their own estimably. It’s a beautiful film and emotionally effective , but more than that, it manages to deal with the war in a confrontational and deep way, without being polemical. I was completely floored by it.

I next saw Hounddog, which is one of the “hot tickets” in town, mostly because of the controversy it has stirred surrounding a scene in which Dakota Fanning is raped. That controversy, really, is the only thing going for the film — it is otherwise a miserable experience. Aside from Fanning’s somewhat remarkable turn as a lower-class, barefoot Southern girl with a fondness for Elvis, Hounddog is completely irredeemable. I hated it, maybe even more than Black Snake Moan. It’s also an incredibly irresponsible film to boot — yet another narrative that depicts black people as healers of whites. In fact, many of the themes and motifs are strikingly similar to Black Snake Moan, right down to the snake imagery and the redemptive powers of blues music for white people; Hounddog very well could’ve been a prequel to Moan. And despite being written by Southerners, both films seem to lack any understanding of race and class in the South, which makes it all the more obnoxious when they cite their southern roots as a way to justify their material.

Joshua was the second film I’ve seen this week featuring Sam Rockwell, who turns in another kickass performance here. Joshua is an old-school horror film, sort of a combination of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, about a nine-year-old who psychologically tortures his parents until he drives them batshit insane. I don’t even remember the last time I saw a bloodless horror film that actually succeeds based on pacing, suspense, and atmospherics instead of gore and a body count. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) is also outstanding, as she slowly devolves into madness — at one point, she cuts her foot on a piece of glass and rubs the blood up and down her leg and calmly offers, “I used to have a pair of red boots.” It’s spine tingling. The entire experience may fuck you up and — trust me folks — it’s not a great film to drag your pregnant wife to.

At the end of the night, I endured another premiere, Good Night, directed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother Jake, and starring Gwyneth, Martin Freeman, and Simon Pegg. It was a sweet romantic comedy, which largely rehashes ideas from The Science of Sleep and Abre Los Ojos and makes them more mainstream and accessible. Basically, it’s about a guy, Gary (Martin Freeman), who is in an unhappy relationship with his girlfriend, Dora (Gwyneth Paltrow). Gary then falls in love with Anna, who is a woman in his lucid dreams, and then Anna sort of informs his relationship with Dora. Danny Devito plays the dream guru, who helps Gary navigate his unconscious life. It doesn’t seem like it’d work, but thanks to exceptional performances from the entire cast (especially Freeman), Jake manages to pull it off, though the entire film was terribly derivative — and note to directors: If you’re going to borrow from Abre Los Ojos, don’t cast Penelope Cruz in what is, essentially, the same role (unless you’re Cameron Crowe remaking the film).

Still, the film’s dedication, to Bruce Paltrow, offered sort of a sweet moment, too, when Gwyneth came on stage afterwards and went into full-on weepy Oscar speech mode, while DeVito later delivered a tongue-in-cheek nod to Steven Spielberg, who was in the audience. But that was about as much celebrity bullshit as I could handle for one night, deciding to skip out on the next premiere, Chapter 27, mostly because I couldn’t deal with sitting through two hours of an overweight Jared Leto pondering the assassination of John Lennon, followed by another insufferable Q & A featuring Leto in thick mascara, probably answering stupid questions about Lindsay Lohan’s role in the film.

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.

Dakota Fanning Gets Raped and Other Exciting Tales from Sundance

Daily Dispatches from Sundance / Dustin Rowles

Miscellaneous | January 26, 2007 |

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

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