The Movie Review: Sundance Edition

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The first thing you notice about Park City, Utah, in January is that it's really cold. This is also the second thing you notice. But after you've noticed it a few more times, you realize that there's some kind of commotion going on. Everywhere.

I was in Park City for two days of the Sundance Film Festival last week. The trip began with a lost wallet and a missed flight, ended with a nasty bout of flu, and featured a mild case of frostbite (frostnibble might be a more apt description) somewhere in the middle, but I still managed to squeeze in eight screenings. (I'd hoped to get in one more, Larry Bishop's Tarantino-presented, neo-biker flick Hell Ride, but I had a raging fever by then, and it seemed like a poor venue in which to flirt with delirium.) Given my short visit, the films are a somewhat haphazard collection, but here goes:

The Good

Easily the best movie I saw was The Escapist, a throwback prison-break film starring the great Brian Cox. After an unforgettable early turn as the original Hannibal Lecter in 1986's Manhunter, Cox has made himself one of Hollywood's irreplaceable character actors with robust scene-chewing in such films as Adaptation, X2, and the first two Bourne movies. In The Escapist, he dials back the bombast, finding a quieter, sadder key for the character of Frank Perry, a veteran con man whose only advantage on the inside is that he's "too old to die young." Frank has made his peace with incarceration, but when he receives news that his young daughter has become an overdose-prone junkie, he decides he's getting out, and soon. The film, by first-time director Rupert Wyatt, alternates between the breakout itself and the fraught preparations for it--among them, the difficult placation of "Rizza," a violent hood who essentially runs the prison and who is played by Damian Lewis with a cold, quiet charisma that may be the closest thing to Steve McQueen since Steve McQueen. (Keep your eyes on this one.) The film concludes, unexpectedly, with a gimmicky ending of a kind I generally abhor, but it is so movingly executed that it is all but impossible not to forgive. The Escapist doesn't yet have an American release date, but it's a film worth waiting for.

Actor Paul Schneider had a strong fall, with a good supporting performance in Lars and the Real Girl (as Gus) and a great one in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (as Dick Liddil). With his directorial debut, Pretty Bird, he proves himself equally adept on the other side of the lens. Small but extremely well-crafted, the film tells the story of a goofball entrepreneur (Billy Crudup) who dreams of manufacturing and marketing "rocket belts" (like the one James Bond flew in the opening of Thunderball) and of the partners he enlists in his enterprise: a gullible buddy (David Hornsby) who can supply the capital, and a bitter, unemployed engineer (Paul Giamatti) who can (hopefully) build a working prototype. The film soon evolves into a study of Crudup's and Giamatti's conflicting characters, a portrait of the collision between sales and engineering, enthusiasm and competence, genial stupidity and irritable intelligence.

The Assassination of a High School President, set to be released in August, is the latest entrant in the adult-genre-movies-set-in-high-school field. The most interesting to date was 2005's Brick, a Chandleresque noir that took place among teenagers; opening later this month will be Charlie Bartlett, whose titular character opens a psychiatric practice in the school lavatory. The Assassination of a High School President, as the title suggests, is a politico-journalistic thriller (with a healthy dose of comedy) set among a population too young to actually vote. Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson) is a sophomore on the school paper with delusions of investigative grandeur. When SATs are stolen from the office of the principal (Bruce Willis, in full-on hardass mode), Bobby follows the case into the corridors of (adolescent) power, unraveling the machinations of the school's golden-boy president (Patrick Taylor) and a Gestapo-like student council. Despite some clever riffs on the grown-up movies it's aping, as when Bobby bribes a hall monitor for five minutes alone with a kid serving detention or conducts a high-speed chase while taking his driver's test, the film misses nearly as often as it hits--in particular with the goofy "assassination" attempt that supplies the title. In all, not the best an ironic subgenre has to offer, but a perfectly amiable B-grade distraction.

The sole documentary I saw was Tanaz Eshaghian's unique and disturbing Be Like Others, which unpacks a fascinating peculiarity of Iran's sexual culture wars: Though homosexuality is punishable by death under Islamic law, sex-change operations are considered acceptable for "diagnosed homosexuals." (An edict to this effect was published by none other than Ayatollah Khomeini more than 20 years ago, drawing on the comical rationale that anything not explicitly banned by the Koran cannot be a sin.) Eshaghian follows a few patients of Tehran doctor Bahram Mir-Jalali, who claims that he has performed more than 450 gender-reassignment surgeries in the last 12 years--ten times as many, he claims, as he would have performed were he working in a European country. The film's production values are somewhat amateurish (though the version I saw was evidently not final) but the individual stories are moving and unexpected: 20-year-old Anoosh, whose decision to become a woman causes her boyfriend to become distant, but results in a closer relationship with her mother; Vida, the compassionate post-op who gives saintly aid to Dr. Mir-Jalali's patients throughout the process but nonetheless looks down on "gays"; Mir-Jalali himself, who at first appears to be a revolutionary figure but is gradually revealed to be an unexpected cog in Iran's repressive state machinery.

The Bad

The greatest disappointment among my Sundance viewings was The Deal, starring and co-written by William H. Macy. The movie begins as a sharp but goofy Hollywood satire--a less caustic cousin of The Player, featuring Macy as an amiable asshole named Charlie Berns. A failed writer and producer, he's in the process of monoxiding himself into the next world when his nephew turns up with an earnest, arty screenplay about Benjamin Disraeli. Between CO2 inhalations, Charlie notices in the trades that a major black action star who recently converted to Judaism (LL Cool J) has been looking for some "Jewish" material--and decides life is worth living at least long enough to try to put together a $100 million deal on a script he hasn't read for a film that can't be made. But after this promising start, The Deal soon slips into an over-broad parody of action-moviemaking, its knowing industry dialogue gradually displaced by lame gags about a car that won't start, a woman who throws like a girl, a kidnapping that turns into an act of war, etc. Worst of all is the soggy romance the movie tries to kindle between Charlie and a studio exec played by a disappointingly plasticized Meg Ryan. Macy and Ryan have about as much sexual chemistry as Affleck and J-Lo in Gigli, and The Deal, which started out with a real snap in its step, stumbles to a limp, sappy conclusion.

Choke begins with a bravura tour of carnal depravity, as sex addict Victor Mancini (a typically terrific Sam Rockwell) catalogs the sundry proclivities of his fellow twelve-steppers: the chronic masturbators, the autoerotic asphyxiators, the hamster- and lightbulb- and champagne-bottle-inserters. When he's not busy having compulsive sexual encounters--often with people he's sponsored in the program or the staff of his mother's rest home--Victor works as a serf (sorry, "historical re-enactor") at a colonial theme park with his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke). There's a lot to like here, including Rockwell, Henke, and a small but hilarious cameo by Joel Grey. But actor-turned-writer/director Clark Gregg tries to cram far too many competing Freudian storylines (featuring, among others, Angelica Huston and Kelly MacDonald) into his debut feature, and ultimately Choke is just too much to swallow whole; next time, perhaps, he'll try more manageable portions.

I really wanted to like Adventures of Power. For much of its runtime, I persuaded myself I did like it. But in the end, there just wasn't enough there there. (This is a movie that might usefully have borrowed a plotline or two from Choke.) Ari Gold's underdog tale of a young man, Power (played by Gold himself), who leaves behind a hardscrabble life in the copper mines of New Mexico to scale the heights of air-drumming celebrity (yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: air-guitar, but with drums) is aggressively sweet but only intermittently funny. Despite the presence of comic vets Michael McKean and Jane Lynch and a witty cameo by "Entourage"'s Adrian Grenier, there's a little too much dead air even for a movie about musicians who don't make any sound.

The Ugly

I've written before about the peculiar but prevalent belief that films that display unremitting selfishness, cruelty, and deception are not merely brave, but somehow an accurate portrayal of reality. This idea, which has adhered to the early work of Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz as well as films such as Closer and We Don't Live Here Anymore, was presumably what inspired a Sundance volunteer to introduce Downloading Nancy with praise for "the depth of its psychological understanding" and its "truthfulness." In its defense, Downloading Nancy, unlike many examples of this Cinema of Pain, recognizes that its characters are aberrations, rather than the secret selves lurking within all our friends and neighbors. But that hardly makes it any less unpleasant a viewing experience. Nancy (Maria Bello), a victim of extensive sexual abuse when she was a child, cannot disentangle love and pain, and so scores her arms and legs with a razor just so she can "feel something." Her cruel, distant husband (Rufus Sewell, drawing on his wealth of experience playing onscreen assholes) ignores both her despair and her fumbling attempts at intimacy--until the day she disappears, having left him for Louis (Jason Patric), a sadist she met online who promises first, to grant her suffering and then, to end her suffering. Suffice it to say that many of the people at this screening fled the theatre before it was over, and I envied them.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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