Extreme Sundance

T&A and the ol' Ultra-V make for the ideal American film festival

Park City, Utah--

Everything was up this year at the Sundance Film Festival, including moviegoer attendance, volunteer support, indie purchase prices ($9 million for the pimp-turned-rapper opus Hustle & Flow!), and Harry Reems's member. As always, there were great movies to be found at this premiere showcase for low- and medium-budget cinema, but there was also a greater sense of excess--even by recent Sundance standards, and often for its own sake. A featured documentary about the Enron atrocity--a tale of "pride, arrogance, intolerance, and greed" (that is, the story of our times)--quite literally hammers its narrative home, with shots of fingers on adding machines, bags of money hitting the floor, even a light bulb going off. One high-ranking Enron executive was known to favor strip clubs--so there's some illuminating T&A in the documentary as well. Is this movie a critique of more-is-better American culture or another product of it? Could it be both at once? Wouldn't that be even better?

On opening night, festival director Geoffrey Gilmore acknowledged from the stage that there had already been lots of talk about the "corporate presence" at the 21st annual edition of this once-independent event. "But the most important corporate presence," he proclaimed in the very next breath, "is that of our three presenting sponsors." Yes, indeed: Let's hear it for Entertainment Weekly, Hewlett-Packard, and Volkswagen.

The Austrailian Outback Massacre: Cassandra Magrath in 'Wolf Creek'
Dimension Films
The Austrailian Outback Massacre: Cassandra Magrath in 'Wolf Creek'

Okay, enough of my sarcasm. I told myself I wasn't going to rant about Sundance hypocrisy this year, and I won't. Instead, in the spirit of the times, let me get you all excited about a handful of products that are bound to push envelopes from here to everywhere and beyond. Forcing myself to make do with a mere half-dozen Sundance extremities below, I'll skip the filthiest-joke-in-the-world movie (The Aristocrats), the quadriplegics-bash-each-other-with-wheelchairs movie (Murderball), the kill-a-kid-or-cut-off-your-pianist-wife's-fingers movie (Three...Extremes), and the seven-year-old-types-lewd-symbols-to-an-internet-porn-partner movie (Me and You and Everyone We Know). In a gesture of truly admirable restraint, I'll start with the doc about the movie whose heroine's clit is in her mouth and go from there.

 

Inside Deep Throat

Welcome to Sundance, where a studio's ode to a porno auteur's independent vision earns thunderous applause at a world premiere stuffed with industry execs and billed in the festival program as an example of "bravery and courage." (Not just bravery, mind you, but bravery and courage.) Perhaps what tipped the scale of the discerning programmers in this case is the fact that Reems--well-hung star of the '70s sucker to which this doc pays dutiful lip service--now works in Park City as a real estate agent. ("He'd get an erection at the sound of a camera motor," remembers his director.) The opposite trajectory of Reems's equally gifted costar Linda Lovelace is charted not as a tragic fall from "grace" so much as the inevitable result of others' fiscal prowess; what may well have turned the Sundance crowd on most is the fantasy of a $600 million return on a $25,000 investment. Universal will open Inside Deep Throat--wide, of course--later this month.

 

Hard Candy

Following their success with SAW, the schlock-lovers at Lions Gate forked over $4 million for this lurid DV Disclosure in which a suspected pedophile (Patrick Wilson) gets sexually harassed--and much, much more--by the flirtatious 14-year-old (Ellen Page) whom he thought he had seduced online. Careful, guys. Our little darling may be two candles shy of a Molly Ringwald, but she sure means business: "Preventative maintenance" (a.k.a. preemptive war?) is this kid's playful term for an elaborate procedure that involves sleeping pills, thick rope, a hospital gurney, a bag of ice, and...a pair of scissors. In place of his own cutting, director David Slade slickly pans across the bloodred walls in the home of Wilson's magazine-photographer victim, the better to implicate a culture that makes fashion of the sickest fantasies--and to incriminate those of us who consume it like candy.

 

What Is It?

Hell if I know what it is, although I can say that writer-director and oddball extraordinaire Crispin Glover seems to have spent the last 10 years on an ugly joke of a movie that even Ed Wood might've disowned. On a Plan 9 graveyard set filled with dry ice and Styrofoam tombstones, a longhaired, fur coat-clad Glover sits atop a swastika-emblazoned throne playing a racist Johnny Rebel single on a portable turntable while naked women in animal masks bump and grind to the beat. Let me tell you, this isn't nearly as compelling as it sounds. An endurance test even at 72 minutes, Glover's pathetically lame and puerile prefab cult film--the first part of a proposed trilogy, no less--should've sent me packing at the halfway mark. But then I wouldn't have been able to report that the movie's jig-dancing young gent in blackface climactically provokes his own assault at the hands of developmentally disabled ruffians by claiming to be...the King of Pop. Now there's a weirdo.

 

Dear Wendy

Former Dogme disciple Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) dutifully delivers screenwriter Lars von Trier's latest "anti-American" message--a love letter from a good ol' boy to his gun. Wendy, as she's known, is a pistol shapely enough to seduce even the pacifist Dick (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell), who forms a teenage gun club called the Dandies in his brutal mining town of Estherslope. Here the youth of America think justice comes from the barrel of a gun that never leaves its holster. Or so it seems until Dick and his Dandies decide to help a desperate fugitive--the violent African American maid Miss Clarabelle (Novella Nelson)--procure her all-important morning coffee. The apparent logic: Why should a black housekeeper--even one with an itchy trigger finger--be denied a good cup o' joe? Like von Trier's Dogville, Dear Wendy is an allegory of aptly absurdist proportions. Put it this way: If the Wild Bunch denouement doesn't pump your 12-gauge, I don't know Dick.

 

Wolf Creek

If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre went 30 years without a buzz-worthy heir (never mind the remake), it's only because the world hadn't yet produced a work of horror as bleak and ferocious as 1974. Not to suggest that we should want a real nightmare to get a scarier movie--but if you've got the former already, you might as well have the latter as well. Basing his own screenplay on a notorious true-crime case, director Greg Mclean plops an attractive trio of twentysomething hikers--two girls (Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi) and a guy (Nathan Phillips)--in the middle of the Australian outback, drains their car battery at dusk, and sends an unkempt, abrasively gregarious, and volatile mechanic (John Jarratt) down a dark path to "help." Notice I've made Mclean the subject of the previous sentence--in order to emphasize that Wolf Creek is one of those horror movies in which you're never sure who's the bigger sadist, the killer or the director. In this case, both men ply their trades with ingenuity and flair. You do prefer your sadists to work ingeniously, right?

 

Rize

Extreme Documentary, this--enough to compel director David LaChapelle to issue a prefatory note that none of its footage has been "sped up or altered in any way." The movie's lightning-fast subjects are young residents of south central L.A., whose seemingly endless history of gang violence has compelled them to form healthier rivalries around the practice of similar but distinct forms of high-energy hip-hop dance: clowning and krumping. Granted, I'm no dance critic, but the crazy-quick moves of Dragon, El Niño, Baby Tight Eyez, Tommy the Clown, and Miss Prissy--"ghetto ballet" dancers whose cathartic kicks and jabs timed to hard, hard beats manage to clear space and draw crowds at once--look to me like the purest genius. (And to others, too: The audience at the first Sundance screening gave a 10-minute standing ovation to the dancers in attendance.) To be blunt: Rize is the work of a rich, white fashion photographer turning his gaze on a poor, black subculture; it's also the most infectiously energetic and inspiring documentary in years. LaChapelle begins with footage of L.A. ablaze in '65 and '92, and ends, after several terribly sad turns, with a Maya Angelou poem. In between, the dancers pretty much direct themselves, their heads held high despite myriad pressures, their toes pointed up and out.

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