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January 29, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | | January 29, 2008 |

Seth: After ridding a bar of their whiskey the night before, Ted decided to stay back in the condo Saturday morning while Dustin and I went out to hopefully score some tickets to Hamlet 2 in place of the movie we were supposed to see. We wanted to see Hamlet 2 both because the film’s premise was intriguing (a high school drama group decides to put on a sequel to “Hamlet”) and because it was the big seller of the festival, going for a cool $10 million. Having now seen the film, it’s obvious why it sold for that amount. But the same reasons it sold actually make it a bit surprising that the film got into Sundance in the first place, because the comedy is as broad as can be, relying on very base and campy humor. That’s not to say it isn’t funny, because it is. I laughed throughout the movie, and can never speak truly ill of a flick that makes repeated use of the expression “raped in the face,” features the lovely Elisabeth Shue playing herself in a fun role, and gives us an extended musical number starring sexy Jesus and his swimmer’s bod. But it’s a movie I only need to see once and, more importantly, I’ve seen more than enough of Steve Coogan, who plays the drama teacher and author of “Hamlet 2.” A fun movie for what it is, and something which will pull in some decent box office if it’s not facing stiff competition. But a month later, it will be utterly forgotten, which is probably for the best.

Dustin: Agreed. While I didn’t feel the commercial viability of Choke should’ve disqualified it from Sundance competition, I did shake my head a little wondering what Hamlet 2 was doing at the festival. It could’ve easily been an early Jim Carrey film — aside from a bit of humor that won’t play well in Omaha, it’s as mainstream as Ace Ventura, though Steve Coogan may be the most obnoxious English personality this side of Graham Norton. There were a fair amount of laughs, but the only thing that made Hamlet 2 “indie” was the presence of Catherine Keener, which was immediately offset by the inclusion of David Arquette. There’s a certain joy in seeing a Hamlet sequel that includes time travel and a sexy Jesus, but overall, the film’s over the topness was just too over the top.

Ted: Okay, Seth, I didn’t stay in because of the whiskey … I just knew you and Dustin needed some alone time. Anyway, drumroll, please, while I mentally pleasure myself with something other than a Patricia Clarkson fantasy. Allow me to quote myself from Day One of our journey:

Frozen River … is a tiny indie film with a huge heart; a grim, micro-budgeted parable about the desperate strength of motherhood and of two mothers’ unlikely regard for each other. Frozen River is the antidote for Hollywood nonsense.”

Man, it’s hard being right all the time. As it turns out, Frozen River won the Sundance Grand Jury Award for Best Dramatic Film, a film for which we got blind waiting-line tickets Saturday night, not knowing what the actual winner would be. Frozen River’s win was serendipitous for us: When I saw the film earlier in the week, Dustin and Seth had split off to see Mischa Barton give herself a breast exam in Assassination of a High School President while I high-mindedly saved myself for Melissa Leo (of “Homicide” non-fame).

The film’s victory accomplished several good ends, such as Dustin’s and Seth’s being able to see it and my being able to obnoxiously brag about my earlier shout-out. Yet while I really admired Frozen River, as further explained below, the only Grand Jury that should be convened at Sundance is one to bring charges against the nutjobs on these panels. Frozen River was not the best dramatic film I saw this week — The Wackness, as stupid as that title is, absolutely owned every other film we saw, and among the three of us, we saw several films that were better than Frozen River. Having said that, Frozen River is in fact what Sundance is all about. Despite the fact that it cost almost nothing to make this film, it was conceptually original and rich, well-acted, well-written, subtle, moving, and timely in its themes. It had no major names attached and no beautiful starlets or dashing leading men; no sex and very little violence, and believe me, I was really looking. People around us were crying during this film, and not because I had declined to bathe that morning.

In a word: Sundancery.

Seth: After Ted’s raving about Frozen River, I was pretty psyched when it turned out to be our Saturday night treat, because nothing says Saturday night party like poverty-stricken single-mom families, decrepit Indian reservations and brutal immigrant smuggling. Everything Ted said in his original write-up, and up above, holds true — while the movie looks to have been put together on a pretty tight budget, writer/director Courtney Hunt gets a helluva lot for that money, hitting us with an engrossing story supported by great performances. This is one of those flicks that I would probably never see of my own volition, no matter how good others told me it is, because certain movies just don’t pull me in. And while I’ve surely let many good movies pass me by as a result of this silly obstinacy, I’m glad that the fates intervened by giving this one the Grand Jury Prize, forcing me to see it. Much like Ted, I would’ve personally given the award to another film (either Sugar or The Wackness), but it’s not really an undeserving candidate. Besides, motherfucking Sleep Dealer won a motherfucking award for screenwriting, so I’m not really putting a whole lot of merit in these jury awards.

I mean, seriously. I know you guys have nothing to base this on except what we already told you about Sleep Dealer, but it deserves a screenplay award like I deserve a million bucks for having charming good looks and a winning personality.

Dustin: Here’s what I’ll say about Frozen River: It’s precisely the kind of movie that Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate would browbeat me into watching after weeks and weeks of reluctance. And, because I’m an asshole, for the first 20 minutes I’d sigh loudly and pretend not to be interested (God bless pride), but after half an hour, I’d be completely absorbed and then I’d have to concede in the end that I loved the film and that she was right and I was wrong and, because she was right, I’d end up spending the next Friday night watching a genocide documentary marathon. Damn you, Frozen River! My advice: If you have one of those intellectual types with a predilection for art house films that look like art house films, beat him/her to the punch and suggest Frozen River first. That way you can spend your next Friday night as it should be spent: Watching a Coen Brothers marathon.

We ended the festival with the fifth film in George Romero’s Dead series, and it’s easily the worst. Diary of the Dead might have been interesting a decade ago or more, but there are so many other writers and directors that have surpassed Romero in a genre he created that I feel slightly embarrassed for him — the zombie world has, regretfully, passed him by. Romero’s brand of zombies have been the object of parody so many times at this point that it’s hard to take them too seriously, and there was certainly nothing terrifying or frightening about Diary of the Dead, though, the movie (much like a recent comment thread) would inspire a ridiculously lengthy and earnest conversation among the three of us on who we’d rather face personally: Fast zombies or slow zombies. After learning that Ted has six months’ worth of food, two guns and 1000 rounds of ammunition, as well as three cases of whiskey in his basement, we all agreed that his would be the ideal place to hunker down in case of a zombie invasion (and perhaps the worst place to visit on Halloween). Anyway, Romero’s film was in the form of a homemade movie put together by a group of film students who basically felt compelled to film the zombie apocalypse, even as they were being picked off themselves. They travel around in an RV, along with their professor, and upload portions of the film when they can because it’s the only way to get around the distorted version of events that the mainstream media was telling. The underlying strain of social commentary was kind of suffocating, heavy-handed, and obvious, while the film itself was fairly generic, aside from a few decent head explosions. The cast, however, was comprised of the sort of bland, obnoxious 20-somethings that make up the majority of the slasher remakes filling the multiplexes, so it was the sort of movie where you enjoyed seeing the main characters buy the farm zombie-style.

Seth: Damn it, it’s been a long trip, and this has been a long write-up. Let’s cut to the chase. Diary of the Dead wasn’t a particularly bad zombie flick - it was entertaining enough, in fact - but as Dustin says, it weren’t any step forward for the genre of zombies. It tried to have braaaaaaaaaains by giving us an extended discourse on the media and the YouTube generation, but whatever with all that. I want gore and braaaaaaaaaains splattering all over the place in increasingly fun and original ways. The gore splattering was certainly fun, but didn’t feel like anything we haven’t seen before. Still, this was a perfectly fine way to end my first Sundance experience, and I can only hope that future trips will include more zombies. Because you really can’t ever go wrong with zombies.

Ted: It was little sad that Diary of the Dead frequently relied on cheap slasher tricks for its scares, e.g., a group of college students getting picked off one by one, people lurching out from behind doorways to create cheap scares, and so on. The whole we-are-all-voyeurs thing is pretty played out at this point, and there just wasn’t much originality in this film. It was entertaining enough to sit through but ultimately disappointing.

And obviously, full-speed zombies, a la 28 Days Later, are far more terrifying than slow zombies.

On our way to the airport, Seth read through the award winners, and this truly is a The Wisdom of Crowds situation. The audience awards showed a deep appreciation of film while avoiding the plunge into pretentious douchebaggery that often characterizes the Grand Jury awards. For example, let us take a moment to recognize Alex Rivera and David Riker, who won Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for outstanding achievement in writing for their original screenplay for Sleep Dealer, which we saw on Day 2. Here’s your recognition: Sleep Dealer was capital-B boring, to the point where we took turns whispering to each other “Maria Bello has asked to inspect your trouser-trout in the private lounge” just to stay awake. The only outstanding achievement of Sleep Dealer was apparently causing a simultaneous aneurysm among its entire review panel.

Speaking of the wisdom of crowds, let me also take a moment to commend the folks attending the Sundance Film Festival. We avoided opening weekend, and the result was that we spent four-plus days around several thousand people who love movies while also knowing how not to act like a fuck-knuckle (thank you Phillip!) in a theatre. Almost to the last person, festival-goers queued well, behaved politely, were quiet during movies, turned their cell phones off, and did not push and shove to get on the shuttle — generally speaking, they did not require an examination of their duodenums with my boot, and when they had to have one, they handled it maturely and without protest. Likewise, the all-volunteer army of helpers that takes tickets, directs parking activities, and stands out in the freezing cold to answer all manner of stupid questions … well, they were generously courteous and helpful beyond any reasonable expectation. You could not drag me there for opening weekend, unless you promised me a shared twin bed with a drunken, handsy Sienna Miller and an indiscriminate but determined Peter Saarsgaard. But once all the celebrity shitheads and starfuckers leave, this is a great event.

Viva Sundance! Viva Pajiba!

Just Shoot Them in the Head

Sundance Dispatches / Dustin Rowles, Seth Freilich, and Ted Boynton

January 29, 2008 |

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

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