MIKE S. RYAN AT SUNDANCE ‘10: DAY TWO

I saw six films Saturday the 23rd. Actually I walked out on Boy since I don t like films that rely on cute kids and/or cute animals. Boy is directed with punchy quirky energy by Taika Waititi, who made Eagle Vs. Shark. It seems to work for people and I am sure it will be at a theater near you at some point. I also attended the new version of MTV’s Five Dollar Cover. The series was launched by Craig Brewer in Memphis, but has now been franchised and Lynn Shelton (Humpday) has done her take on Seattle. I saw two more dissapointing NEXT section films (Homewrecker and One Too Many Mornings). I saw the doc Sins of the Father on Pablo Escobar made by his son as he tries to make peace with the sons of his father’s political assassinations. But my favorite film of the day was Debra Granik’s (Down to the Bone) return with Winter’s Bone.

I don ‘t want to get overly negative over this NEXT section but when you are constantly bombarded with the Sundance Mavericky ‘we are so Rogue’ branding it becomes really frustrating to sit through one film after another in NEXT that is uninspired, banal, generic and as far as possible from a true radical, new vision. The programmers really missed the boat on this section. I hope they all plan to attend SXSW this year so they can see all that they missed. Again, I don’t want to blame anyone, I know there are always politics involved in the Sundance selections and as always most of the limpest films in the festival are Sundance Lab films, but it’s just frustrating watching these same banal films year after year. You want to shake the filmmaker and say, “Why should we care about a couple of boring uninteresting young adults who do nothing special?

In the case of One Too Many Mornings, a story about a drunk, the characters don’t even abuse themselves with any real energy or originality. Homewrecker follows a locksmith as his day gets screwed up by a wacky broad. I am not sure why it was filmed, it felt like a stage play and had absolutely no visual energy. I think we are starting to see the negative effects of mumblecore’s slack visual aesthetics seep down into generic low budget filmmaking. Despite the fact that many core films like Humpday are visually sloppy, they at least have interesting characters pursuing original, true outsider perspectives. A film like One Too Many Mornings is about boring, dumb 30-somethings who do nothing except drink and watch TV. Why should I care? Why was it at Sundance? Why was it shot in limp black-and-white?

Winter’s Bone, on the other hand, reminded me of old school Sundance, way back in the early days when the Sundance mission was quite specific, not generic mavericky. Back in the early days that mission was to celebrate well made, small scale, character driven American films that sprung organically from a specific American region. Winter’s Bone is also from another time in that the casting is not star driven. Every role in the film, besides the male lead of the character Teardrop, played by an unrecognizable John Hawkes, is filled by a face that we have never seen up on the screen before. The featured extras are weathered real people whose rural struggle is etched in every wrinkle. Kudos to local casting director Heather Laird for this amazing job. The casting, combined with the remote rural Missouri locations, make for a visual experience that has always been American Indie’s strongest attribute. Recent Sundance entries Ballast and Frozen River aspired toward this type of authenticity but we have it in spades in Winter’s Bone. I predict for sure an award, or two. A longer review will follow post festival.

I raved last year about Craig Brewer’s MTV series Five Dollar Cover, a web series in eight-minute segments that entwines real local bands in both mini-scripted dramas and a performance. Brewer’s Memphis episodes blew me away with their tight jam-packed narratives that revealed a specific struggle of the indie rock life. Watching Brewer’s episodes I was utterly shocked that they were only around eight minutes because each one was a rich, mini three act movie. Lynn Shelton only showed two of her episodes but I got no such economy or specificity. In one episode she just cuts back and forth between an African American performance in one space and two rock characters holding hands while a very slow song plays. There is no narrative velocity and nothing new is said about these characters and the scene. In one episode we watch band members drink in a small tiny bar for around five minutes before they play an in-store show. In the Q&A Shelton revealed that the bar was actually a band member’s back garage that he had converted into a bar. An interesting detail, but unfortunately it wasn’t shot in a way that revealed that fact. Brewer would have created a whole story just about that location. I really like the concept of the series: specific regional identities revealed through the local music scene. I’ve heard that there are plans to keep the series moving to other cities. I hope the directors that are picked are up to the difficult challenge of the format because Brewer set the bar pretty high. A good eight-minute drama is a really hard thing to do well. It’s not a format for the slack.

— Mike S. Ryan

HTN Tool Belt:

Leave a Reply