By Michael Scasserra
[Photos: “Crazy Love” – Magnolia, “Fido” – Lionsgate, “The Savages” – Fox Searchlight, “Broken English” – HDNet, “The Signal” – Magnolia, “Teeth” – Weinstein Co./Lionsgate, “Grace is Gone” – Weinstein Co., 2007]
Ah, love and romance in Park City. This year’s Sundance hosted “Once,” a whimsical musical from Ireland about a guitar-playing vacuum cleaner repairman who falls for a rose-peddling Czech immigrant; “Expired,” in which a mild-mannered meter maid (wonderful Samantha Morton) gets intimate with a deeply troubled fellow parking officer; “Angel-A,” Luc Besson’s black-and-white ode to Paris, which provides a playground for two potential suicides who take a fancy to each other; and, of course, “Zoo,” the buzzed-about documentary that examines the special love between a man and his horse, which ended up being (of all things) a bore.
But nothing topped the brazen-faced romantic dysfunction of “Crazy Love,” a documentary that chronicles the nearly five-decade relationship between New Yorkers Burt Pugach and Linda Riss. Pugach, an egomaniacal, high-profile attorney with a taste for glitz, and Riss, a younger, vivacious beauty whose looks were often compared to Elizabeth Taylor, first met in the late 1950s. He fell madly in love and pulled out all of the stops in an effort to get her into bed. She was flattered by his extravagance, but refused to do the dirty until they were married. Their whirlwind romance ended, though, when he finally proposed and she found out that he was already married. So Riss left him, reentered the dating game, and got engaged to a more handsome, less glamorous guy. But Pugach wasn’t having it. If he couldn’t possess Linda, no one would so he hired three thugs to throw lye in her face, seriously impairing her sight for the rest of her life.
Wait, it gets better. Apparently, that acid ruined not only Riss’s vision, but her judgment as well. When Pugach gets released after serving a 14-year prison sentence, she finally caves and marries the guy. In this strangely compelling portrait of romantic obsession and serious co-dependence, Pugach and Riss come across as a pair of loopy trailblazers the first couple to air their icky laundry in the tabloids, decades before the advent of Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer. This weird love story is all the more unsettling because, in the end, we’re still not sure what motivated Riss to marry this creep. Did the incident wreck her emotionally? Did she consider herself damaged goods? Was she addicted to a misguided notion of celebrity? Or is it possible that she simply (gulp) loves the guy?
Set to a soundtrack of vintage love songs by the likes of Elvis Presley, Smokey Robinson, Jay Hawkins, and Johnny Mathis, “Crazy Love” is a surprisingly absorbing portrait of twisted passion pasted together from old photos, 16mm footage, newspaper headlines and talking-head interviews with the happy couple today (he’s 79, she’s 68) as well as a coterie of their old friends and associates. Watching them is like watching a gallery full of Diane Arbus grotesques come to life. Director Dan Klores (“Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story”) and co-director Fisher Stevens (yes, that Fisher Stevens) take a refreshingly straightforward approach to the material by inviting these shameless loons to speak for themselves. The filmmakers never disrespect their subjects or the confounding emotions they express, never establish an ironic distance from which to mock these misguided folks. And why should they bother? Pugach and Riss do a terrific job all by themselves.
“Crazy Love” is small-scale filmmaking, but it’s nonetheless oddly involving and I’d like to send out my sincerest thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Pugach, for making my own romantic life seem as quaint as a Meg Ryan movie.
Magnolia Pictures bought North American rights for “Crazy Love” and plans to release it theatrically in the spring. Could this become the date movie of the year?
The Zombie Next Door.
As part of its Midnight series, Sundance hosted the U.S. premiere of “Fido,” a new zombie comedy picked up by Lionsgate at last year’s Toronto fest (despite failing to generate much buzz). Directed by Andrew Currie (“Zero Mile”) from a script he co-wrote with Robert Chomiak and Dennis Heaton, “Fido” opens with black-and-white news reel footage that summarizes how a cloud of space dust caused the dead to rise with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. We learn that, following a devastating war with the monsters, the alarming situation was finally brought under control by ZomCon, an all-powerful mega-corporation that patented domestication collars to control the worst impulses of the undead allowing them to be recycled, so to speak, as servants and pets.
Though grade-schooler Tommy Robinson (K’Sun Ray) and his mom Helen (the lovely Carrie Anne-Moss) want to keep up with the Joneses by getting a zombie of their very own, uptight husband and dad Bill (Dylan Baker, who we’ll always remember as the pedophile in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness”) won’t allow it. It seems that during his own childhood, Bill’s parents were afflicted with the zombie plague, causing him no end of emotional trauma.
Against Dad’s wishes, Mom gets Tommy his first zombie (Billy Connelly), a sensitive, Lassie-like monster called “Fido.” Things start out okay, but when Fido’s collar goes on the fritz, he gnaws off the arm of a cranky old lady and, on Tommy’s orders, buries her body in the park. That, of course, raises the dead, as well as the suspicions of Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny), a decorated war hero and zombie-control specialist at ZomCon who launches a formal investigation.
“Fido” is set in an idyllic, Technicolor version of the 1950s, where dads go off to work in hats and moms wear frilly daytime dresses while rotting, docile zombies deliver the mail and do the gardening. If you’re into retro chic and mid-century design, the movie’s flawless, hyper-realistic depiction of the era, neatly photographed by Jan Kiesser (whose previous credits include everything from memorable schlock like “Fright Night” to memorable arthouse titles like “Choose Me”), will send you out of the theater and into the nearest thrift shop. Even when it lags, “Fido” is great fun to look at it’s George Romero meets Douglas Sirk and lead players Moss and Baker (who was really born to parody the bland, suburban family man) provide a picture-perfect parody of the American dream.
Unfortunately, most of the time, I wasn’t sure what the script was getting at… That the living are more programmed than the dead? That the dead are more sensitive than the living? Currie keeps the zombie gore to a minimum, opting instead to focus on the shifting family dynamics. Occasionally, the concept is funny. Helen, standing up to her controlling husband: “Just because your father tried to eat you, does that mean that we all have to be unhappy forever?” But “Fido” seems content to remain nothing more than mildly amusing eye-candy. Currie’s intentions are mystifying, yet his film isn’t even particularly weird. By the end, it’s all bark and no bite.
In the production notes, Currie explains that “‘Fido’ is about the human heart and what it means to be alive, to be a human being in this world.” Later, he classifies his zombies as “a non-specific metaphor.” Frankly, I think his movie would have benefited from a little more specificity and a lot more organ chomping. Regardless, Lionsgate plans to set “Fido” off its leash and into theaters on March 9.
Sundance Hall of Famers.
While Helen Mirren’s Queen continues to kick the ass of every actress from L.A. to Manhattan and Peter O’Toole tries to grab the Oscar from Forest Whitaker’s firm grasp, let’s take a moment to celebrate the American film actor well represented, as always, at this year’s Sundance.
Case in point: the increasingly marvelous Laura Linney. In “The Savages” (screening out of competition), she and Philip Seymour Hoffman join forces in the best brother-sister act since…well, since Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in the 2000 Sundance discovery, “You Can Count on Me.”
By this point, no one expects anything less that brilliance from Hoffman, an everyman-as-leading-man who can make even the most stilted dialogue sound honest. And these days, Linney is doing the same for the distaff side. During the last few years, she’s bounced with ease from pretty, perky blonde to common frump and back again in indies like “P.S.,” “Kinsey” and “The Squid and the Whale.” This year, she officially enters the Sundance Hall of Fame.
“The Savages,” written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”), casts a keen eye on the way we live today. Hoffman and Linney play the hell out of John and Wendy Savage, quarrelsome but affectionate siblings (he’s a lit professor working on a book on Brecht, she’s an office temp who fancies herself a playwright) forced to deal with their elderly father (Philip Bosco), a craggy curmudgeon suffering from dementia who hasn’t bothered with them since they were kids. These are intelligent, fucked-up folks, self-involved and self-deluded, trying to do as close to the right thing as they can, just like you and me confused by life’s twists and turns, hoping for something better, and more than willing to pop a Percocet to make it through a tough day.
Jenkins’ sharp script packs an emotional punch without histrionics; it’s stuffed with smart dialogue, with astutely observed details, with scenes that are both hilarious and deeply moving. Hoffman to Linney, when she tells him they have to fly to Arizona to find their ailing dad: “We’re not in a Sam Shepherd play.” Linney to Hoffman, when she sees his messy, paper-filled apartment: “It looks like the Unabomber lives here.”
Best of all, this beautifully acted drama is actually about something other than a director’s pained and pimply youth, or some L.A. screenwriter’s misguided idea of what’s hip. “The Savages” is about death and dying, about middle-age ennui, about familial responsibility, the appalling way we treat our elderly and a whole lot more. Virtually every scene is infused with the kind of nuance and unexpected humor one expects from a good novel here condensed into a tidy 113 minutes.
So what if Hoffman and Linney occasionally stray into studio fodder like his “Mission: Impossible 3” or her “Exorcism of Emily Rose”? If that kind of crap helps them pay the bills so they can continue to lend their talent to modestly budgeted projects like this, then so be it. They’re the newest members of the American indie’s own acting royalty.
The return of the queen.
It’s 14 years since I first laid eyes on her in “Dazed and Confused” and I’d still kill for a date with Parker Posey.
The original indie queen returns to Sundance yet again (she ought to have regular digs in Park City by now), this time doing double-duty in two leading roles. I’m still waiting to see “Fay Grim,” Hal Hartley’s follow-up to “Henry Fool,” in which she stars as the title character a neurotic mom from Queens who gets entangled with spies and terrorists. But I did manage to see Posey bloom in her other Sundance title, “Broken English,” a first feature written and directed by Zoe Cassavetes daughter of late indie guru John, who now joins her brother Nick on the festival circuit. (He was at Sundance last year with “Alpha Dog,” just now seeing the light of day at a theater near you.)
“Broken English” has just enough steam to keep the Cassavetes engine running but barely. To its credit, the film unfolds in a real Manhattan, and it has a breezy, casual air that keeps it from imploding. It’s a romantic comedy (sorry, there’s no other way to classify it) that’s a bit edgier than the ones Hollywood usually provides, but I suspect that the only folks who are going to enjoy it are Posey nuts like me.
Here, she plays Nora Wilder, a dissatisfied 30-something hotel manager with man troubles. Played out in three acts, “Broken English” begins with Nora’s humiliating encounter with a two-timing film actor. Though Gena Rowlands shows up for a few blah scenes as Nora’s nagging mother (anything that keeps her on the screen is okay by me), the first third is your basic whiney-single-girl-in-Manhattan comedy think “Sex and the City,” if Sarah Jessica Parker had no friends.
The middle section gets much livelier when Nora embarks on a romantic fling with Julian (Melvil Poupaud), a free-spirited Frenchman who’s chased his disinterested girlfriend to the U.S. and has a few days to kill before his flight back to Paris. For a while, Cassavetes captures the heady buzz of tentative romance that unexpected hook-up that just might be the real thing. But then Nora has a panic attack, and Julian heads back to France. Things really jump the track in act three, which sends Nora off to the City of Lights with a married buddy (Drea de Matteo, winner of Sundance Sidekick of the Year Award), where she searches, quite aimlessly, for her cute Frenchman.
One of the biggest problems with “Broken English” is a matter of…well, casting. To my eye, Posey is still the Party Girl. She’s reason enough to buy a ticket to anything (I even forgave her “Superman Returns”), but she’s still the same bitchy, adorable goofball she’s always been. I still blush at her sarcastic glances, melt at her wicked grins so not for one moment did I believe she’d really give a shit if she didn’t have a date for Saturday night. I mean, what’s happening here? Last year, in the lamentable “OH in Ohio,” Posey was cast as an unhappy, non-orgasmic suburban wife. As if.
Attention, independent filmmakers: Do me a favor and stop pushing the still-reigning “Queen of the Indies” into mid-life crisis. She’s not ready and neither am I. Can’t we all agree that 40 is the new 30?
This year’s “Blair Witch”?
At least once each Sundance, I stay up late and make my way over to Main Street’s Egyptian Theatre for one of the festival’s Midnight screenings a series that attracts Park City’s most pumped-up audiences and provides a premiere showcase for potential horror hits and cult film wannabes of every variety. This is the birthplace of “The Blair Witch Project,” “Wolf Creek” and the first “Saw,” among others.
The highlight of this year’s Midnight series has to be “The Signal.” Most filmmakers will concur that scary movies are serious business arguably the only genre in which a big budget guarantees nothing. But “The Signal,” an underground-ish indie that comes screaming out of Atlanta, grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let go for 99 furiously entertaining minutes. Written and directed by a collective of Atlanta-based writer-directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry “The Signal” is way scarier than any flick released theatrically in the last year.
Set in a contemporary city called Terminus, this high-octane horror show dramatizes what happens when mysterious signals invade every cell phone, radio and television transforming the entire population into deranged, murderous psychotics. Suddenly, the world is literally kill or be killed and everything changes (very bloodily) overnight. In its own demented way, “The Signal” is also a pretty effective love story, with a single narrative line focused on two illicit lovers trying desperately to reunite in the midst of madness.
Logic need not apply here. Riveting and relentless from start to finish, “The Signal” thrusts you headfirst into its own chaotic, distinctly hellish vision. Played out in three segments (titled “Transmissions”), each is directed from a different point-of-view; the second, for example, is set almost entirely in a single apartment and is decidedly comedic yet it’s no less terrifying than the other chapters. Tossing the ball back and forth with impressive cinematic dexterity, these three filmmakers managed to sent me back into the cold Utah night, freaked out and scared shitless. Kudos, too, to the entire cast for keeping the intensity level at code red from first scene to last.
Somebody smart at Magnolia Pictures just nabbed North American distribution rights. Here’s hoping they usher “The Signal” into theaters rather than onto the DVD shelf.
Ever hear of vagina dentata?
When I landed in Park City a few days ago, neither had I. But after seeing “Teeth,” screening as part of the Dramatic Competition at Sundance, I’ll never forget it.
Written by sometime actor and first-time director Mitchell Lichtenstein, this comedic, feminist horror flick (not for the squeamish) is inspired by the myth of the “toothed vagina” a deadly, fanged female genitalia which legend has it can only be conquered by a male hero. According to the press notes, vagina dentata is present in a variety of world cultures, both ancient and modern. Who knew?
In “Teeth,” Lichtenstein uses that myth to spin the strange tale of pretty, all-American Dawn (Jess Weixler), a golden blonde, shiny-faced teen who leads her high school’s sexual abstinence program. While many of her peers surrender their virginity without a second thought, Dawn is determined to hold out for true love and a wedding ring. She spends her nights at home, decorating t-shirts with sequined slogans like “I’m Waiting” and fending off the advances of her creepy, over-sexed stepbrother (John Hensley of “Nip/Tuck”). But during one fateful date, her impatient boyfriend loses his cool and forces himself on Dawn, and finds out the painful truth: that his girlfriend’s vagina hides potentially lethal teeth with a will of their own.
His is the first of several severed penises that punctuate the gruesomely amusing sex scenes in this sharp (literally) satire. “Teeth” raises gynophobia to new heights and takes a nasty bite out of the male psyche. Alternately gross and funny, Lichtenstein’s vision is bold and in-your-face, but by the midway point, it starts to feel pretty juvenile.
Fortunately, there’s nothing juvenile about Jess Weixler’s performance as Dawn. A Juilliard graduate whose background includes classical theater as well as sporadic work on daytime soaps and episodic television, Weixler is pretty to the extreme a heavenly composite of Winona Ryder, Heather Graham and Keira Knightley. Her multi-faceted characterization moves from wide-eyed innocent to confused adolescent to femme fatale without missing a beat. Not since Sissy Spacek’s classic turn as “Carrie” has a portrait of burgeoning female sexuality been taken to such terrifying, hyperbolic heights.
Whether or not the movie-going public will bite when “Teeth” reaches audiences (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company just joined forces to secure worldwide distribution rights) is anyone’s guess. Skillful and original as the movie is, it feels like a cult-baiting, straight-to-DVD proposition and might require some shrewd editing to make it past the ratings board. But even if “Teeth” eventually gets pulled, my guess is that Weixler is going places.
Politics or a lack thereof.
The first big bit of acquisition news at Sundance 2007 has been the purchase of “Grace is Gone,” writer-director James C. Strouse’s sentimental, small-scale drama starring a toned-down John Cusack as Stanley Phillips a patriotic, middle-class American dad who has to figure out how to tell his two young daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq. Stunned by grief, he responds by taking the girls on an impromptu road trip to their favorite amusement park. En route, he makes instinctive efforts to mature the girls (he allows them to get their ears pierced and lets one smoke a cigarette) before breaking the tragic news on (where else?) the beach after a painfully repetitive, dramatically wan 90 minutes. This is politics made palatable, but it’s unimpressive filmmaking.
“Grace is Gone” is an all-to-easy pill to swallow and as politically potent as a Lifetime weepie-of-the-week. The Sundance catalog describes it as “the freshest and best anti-war movie of this troubled time,” but Strouse’s drama is as non-committal as the current Democratic party vaguely pro-military, vaguely anti-war and unwilling to take a stand. There’s not a lot of complexity to “Grace,” in the script or in the performances, save a brief visit with Stanley’s leftist brother. Shélan O’Keefe and Gracie Bdenarczyk give the film a welcome touch of realism as bickering sisters, but Cusack (complete with nerdy eyeglasses) spends most of the movie channeling mid-career Dustin Hoffman.
As a tribute to the families of U.S. military casualties, “Grace” is a cinematic balm that is likely to move an undemanding audience more willing to mourn than protest which probably explains why The Weinstein Company purchased it for a cool four million bucks. After inking the deal, Harvey Weinstein told Daily Variety that partisan politics would not find their way into the movie’s marketing plan that “Grace is Gone” “will work better as an antiwar film if we leave politics out of it.” That won’t be difficult, since Strouse already left politics out of it.
Thankfully, more radical views are (as always) represented in the impressive line-up of Sundance documentaries that take on the incompetence of the Bush administration. The festival’s opening night selection, Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10,” is a highly stylized study of the Chicago Seven trial that combines animation and archival footage as well as voice work by the likes of Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright and Mark Ruffalo, among others. A boldly contemporary look at that legendary opposition to the Vietnam War, “Chicago 10” might be a harbinger of things to come as Bush sets his myopic sights on Iran and Syria. Rory Kennedy’s fierce “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” constructed from candid interviews with victims, witnesses and perpetrators, provides the most penetrating examination to date of the United States’ embarrassing prisoner abuse scandal. And still to come is Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” described as “the first film to examine comprehensively how the Bush administration constructed the Iraq war and subsequent occupation,” promising to “expose a chain of critical errors, denial, and incompetence that has galvanize a violent quagmire.”