PARK CITY - What makes a great action filmmaker truly great?
Is it just the ability to orchestrate and shoot mayhem? If so, then David Ellis would have to be considered one of the greats simply for the highway crash sequence in "Final Destination 2," and pretty much every other scene he ever shot would negate that idea. And if pure mayhem is what makes you great overall, then the destruction of Chicago means that none of Michael Bay's weaknesses as a filmmaker matter, right?
There are a number of directors out there right now who deserve more credit than they get as action filmmakers. Isaac Florentine does fantastic work in conjunction with various great fight choreographers like Larnell Stovall and Tim Man and working with action stars like Scott Adkins, for example, and I love the films that Ernesto Diaz Espinoza made with Marko Zaror, who should be a gigantic star just based on his physical presence and both the fun and the elegance of the way he fights.
PARK CITY - What makes a great action filmmaker truly great?
At this point, there are several familiar stages in the life-cycle of a new film by Quentin Tarantino. There's the part the general public is part of, involving the trailers, the press screenings, and the eventual release. But well before that, another cycle has become somewhat set in stone, starting with the moment that each screenplay leaks.
It happened on "Kill Bill." It happened on "Inglorious Basterds." And it happened on "Django Unchained" at a speed that seemed to shock even Tarantino.
Now word has broken that the cycle was accelerated to a point that has infuriated the filmmaker, and as a result, it appears that "The Hateful Eight" will no longer be his next film. Right now, fingers are being pointed, and I can't wait to see how this story unfolds because someone is going to end up being blamed for this film going down in flames before it even set a cast in stone.
PARK CITY - When you attend a festival like Sundance, one of the great things about it is the diversity of voices and styles and stories that you'll experience over the course of your stay. I love discovering filmmakers here, I love stumbling into small movies that I might otherwise never have seen, and I love the sheer range of human experience on display.
So of course the film I'm most excited to see while I'm here is about Indonesian guys kicking the holy hell out of each other.
I haven't exactly been shy about expressing just how excited I am for "The Raid 2" tonight at the Eccles theater. It was the first ticket I booked for the festival, and I built my entire schedule around it. Absolutely nothing is going to stand in the way of me being there for what I hope is a very special evening. They even announced a secret screening for tonight of what Sundance is calling a "major motion picture" that is coming out in theaters later this year from "a major filmmaker," and I didn't consider for a moment skipping tonight's "Raid 2" premiere. Hell, it could be my first movie premiering in that spot, and I'd still be at "The Raid 2."
PARK CITY - Going from the bruised beauty of Ana Lily Amirpour's "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night" to the brutally silly majesty of the mockumentary vampires of "What We Do In The Shadows" only points up just how easy it is to start from similar places and still end up with very different movies.
Before the film began at the Egyptian, co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi took the stage to talk about how the film came together. They said they were approached by the New Zealand Documentary Board about making this in 2010, asking them to look into the vampire population of Wellington. Sure enough, the opening logo for the film is for the NZDB, and they play the film as a fairly straight-faced documentary, but let's be clear: this is one of the silliest comedies I've seen in a while, and it is so packed with laughs that before they even got to the opening titles, my face was already sore.
PARK CITY - Elijah Wood has become a mainstay on the festival circuit, but not because he has a film playing every festival. Instead, he's one of those guys who I see showing up at an event like Fantastic Fest simply because he genuinely lives and breathes movies. He is a fan first, and I've had so many great conversations with him over the years after staggering out of something, flattened by what I saw, seeing that same love of movies reflected back in his own response.
As a result, I knew he was one of the people I had to sit down with at Sundance this year to discuss the various films playing here that he's involved with, along with his producing partners. Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller are listed alongside Elijah on both "Cooties" and "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night," and so it seemed perfectly natural for them to join him to talk about developing those two very different films.
In both cases, whether you like the films or not, you can't help but be struck by how strong the voices of the filmmakers are, and that's a real testament to what Noah, Waller, and Wood set out to do as a production team. They are all about supporting the filmmakers they choose to work with, giving them room to try to come up with something singular, and they don't seem to be afraid of challenging or even shattering formula in the process.
PARK CITY - The easy joke is to call this film "the best Iranian vampire film I've ever seen," but that's reductive and unfair to this gorgeous, sad, haunting accomplishment by writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour.
Why do we make so many movies about monsters? What do they tell us about ourselves? At this point, if someone's making a film about a vampire, they have to be doing something else at the same time or there's no point. Amirpour draws on the traditions of the genre, but by setting her story in Bad City, an Iranian town on the edge of an oil field, she is also telling us about the dreams and frustrations and fears of being a woman in this society, powerless by definition, empowered by this fantasy. The Girl (Sheila Vand) rarely speaks, but we know what she wants and how she feels based on who she makes victims and who she spares.
Fans of "Let The Right One In" may get a similar vibe from some scenes in this movie, but The Girl is no child, nor is Arash (Arash Marandi), a gardener struggling with his feelings about his junkie father Hossein (Marshall Manesh). Hossein keeps buying heroin long past his ability to pay for it, leaving Arash to pick up his mess and deal with Saeed (Dominic Rains), a drug dealing pimp who proves that every society has its own variation on the Guido. One night, Saeed makes the mistake of inviting The Girl into his home, taking her silence as a sort of cowed obedience. Once she feeds on him, she leaves, and when Arash arrives a few moments later, he realizes that he has an opportunity. He takes Saeed's briefcase full of drugs and money and sets himself up as the new Saeed, dealing drugs to anyone except his father, who is trapped in their apartment, grappling with withdrawal.
PARK CITY - Well, at least now I know why smooth jazz exists.
It's uncommon to see more than one good horror-comedy in a year, much less two within 24 hours, but "Life After Beth" proved to be a fascinating follow-up to "Cooties," both films ostensibly building off of the current fascination with zombies in pop culture, but each approaching the subject in totally different ways.
"Cooties" really does want to scare you and freak you out, and the humor is mainly from watching those particular characters handle an otherwise not particularly funny situation. "Life After Beth," on the other hand, is a comedy first and foremost, and it showcases a great cast, including two leads who both seem to be stretching here in ways that are exciting to see.
PARK CITY - Ten years to the day after "Saw" made its midnight premiere at the Egyptian Theater as part of Sundance's midnight lineup, co-writer Leigh Whannell showed up with a whole different team of collaborators to premiere "Cooties," a horror-comedy that manages the very difficult trick of fulfilling both halves of that equation with equal skill.
Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion (collectively known as "Honest" when they co-direct) and written by Ian Brennan & Leigh Whannell, "Cooties" tells the story of a rapdily-spreading infection that turns all the kids at an elementary school into rabid little flesh-eating monsters, and what happens on the day the situation spins out of control. Clint (Elijah Wood) is a substitute who actually went to that same elementary school when he was a kid. He's only teaching for a little while as he works on his first novel, "Keel Them All," a story about a haunted boat. He's delighted to see that one of his childhood friends Lucy (Allison Pill) is also teaching at the school, but slightly less delighted when he meets her current boyfriend, PE coach Wade (Rainn Wilson). For the first twenty minutes or so, "Cooties" is basically just a comedy about a guy who isn't where he wants to be in his life trying to cope with returning to his elementary school, but in a new role, while also trying to navigate the bizarre social hierarchy of the teachers who are there full-time.
PARK CITY - It's hard to believe it was 2009 when Mike Cahill was here with "Another Earth," one of the two films that put Brit Marling on the map during that year's Sundance. I'm not sure I ever got around to reviewing "Another Earth," a film that just didn't work for me. I thought there were some interesting ideas in the movie, but almost all of them were pushed to the background in favor of a familiar story about guilt and grief, which left me frustrated more than anything.
After seeing his new film, "I Origins," I think it's time for me to admit that I'm simply not on the same storytelling wavelength as Cahill at all. This time, he's once again using what is ostensibly a science-fiction hook to tell what is ultimately a story about emotional states, and I have no problem with that in theory. My biggest problem with "I Origins" is that it telegraphs its ending a good hour earlier, and then spends that hour spinning its wheels through slow-motion plot mechanics to get to what could have been a fairly powerful moment in the right context. This is a film that wants you to be rocked when that final piece falls into place at the end, but it's one of the least surprising surprises I've seen in a movie.
PARK CITY - Certain films show up at festivals or in theaters with targets painted on them.
The best example of that this year at Sundance is Zach Braff's long-awaited follow-up to "Garden State," and I can understand why. After all, this is the film that he took to Kickstarter, even as people complained about the idea of a millionaire asking people for hand-outs. Beyond that, though, hating "Garden State" has become a cottage industry. The only thing Braff could possibly do to counter all of the naysayers would be to make a genuinely great movie.
Which, thankfully, is exactly what he did.