Movie folk from around the globe have been invading Park City, Utah over the last few days, as Sundance 2010 gets underway. Sadly Indie Movies cannot be there in person due to the outstanding arrest warrants in our name in the Beehive State, but we can bring you the news from the festival thus far, including the critical word on Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin-thriller Buried, rock biopic The Runaways, and jihad satire Four Lions.
We brought you the trailer for Buried last Thursday, and the Rodrigo Cortés-directed taphophobic drama looks to have been the first hit of this year's Sundance, with it pulling in positive critical notices and – far more significantly – securing that all-important studio distribution deal. The Hollywood Reporter reckons Lionsgate have coughed up just shy of $4m for the Iraq-set flick, beating out rival bids from Screen Gems and Fox Searchlight, and Buried's backers can also feel exceedingly pleased about glowing reviews for their film from the likes of Slash Film ('not only an amazing example of what minimalistic filmmaking can accomplish, but it is a great film in its own right') and Ain't It Cool News '(Buried is kind of a complete package. It's fresh, it's new, there's a great lead performance, inventive directing, tight script and some genuine tension that builds and builds until you don't think you can take it anymore'). That last remark is rather spooky because Indie Movies has found such prior Ryan Reynolds vehicles as Van Wilder and Just Friends also trigger the sensation that 'you don't think you can take it anymore'.
Praise too has been shovelled in the direction of comedy Cyrus, which represents a first dip in mainstream waters for indie film-makers Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair. Whaddya mean you didn't see it?!). The movie sees John C. Reilly falling for Marisa Tomei, only to find out that she has a fully-grown jerk of a son still living at home with her (the titular Cyrus, played by Jonah Hill). Shades of Reilly's earlier Step Brothers, but told from the parents' perspective? Anyway Slash Film dug the silliness, with particular kudos being reserved for 'John C. Reilly's funniest performance since Boogie Nights'.
Seeing as we seem to have kicked off this round-up with some of the starrier Sundance offerings this year, let's continue in that vein for a moment with The Company Men, a corporate downsizing drama starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner and Chris Cooper. The first feature to be written and directed by West Wing and ER producing bigwig John Wells, the zeitgeist-grasping-at movie elicited major approval from Dark Horizons: 'Superbly and elegantly crafted, this directorial debut is an impressive achievement as it combines intricate characterization with narrative depth and cohesion.'
An atypical Sundance offering to be sure, Splice is a science fiction curiosity from Cube director Vincenzo Natali. Starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, and featuring the name of Guillermo Del Toro amongst its producers, Splice centres on two lab boffins who cook up a test tube mutant named Dren, before chaos and hilarity intervene. Possibly. Amongst the - fairly restrained - praise dished out to the flick by Ain't It Cool News was the observation that, 'you can say a lot about Vincenzo's movie, but a trainwreck of pretentious boredom it is not.' So beats the knickers off of Atonement, then?
One of the most heavily-trailed films to take its bow at Sundance has been The Runaways, the Floria Sigismondi-helmed, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart-starring biopic of the 70s all-girl teen punk band. Dark Horizons was certainly not left disappointed either, calling The Runaways 'a sharply observed study of character, epoch and the purity of rock 'n' roll'. Fanning and Stewart were objects of unfailing admiration as well, with the former being deemed 'an utter revelation', and the latter cited as 'phenomenal, a powerhouse proving how incredibly talented and multi-faceted she is'.
And good lord, if you thought the DH/KS love-in was finished there, then you would be as mistaken as someone who bought a ticket for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls expecting a expertly-staged, brilliantly-plotted blend of action and adventure. In addition to playing Joan Jett in The Runaways, Stewart features as a (COLOSSAL FILM CLICHE ALERT!!!) teen prostitute in drama Welcome to the Rileys, with Dark Horizons calling her 'magnificent at every turn'. Headlined by James Gandolfini as a grieving father, Rileys is directed by Jake Scott, the helmer of Plunkett and MacLeane and son of Sir Ridley. It seems this precise second is an especially febrile creative window for the new generation of the Scott film-making bloodline, with Jake's sister Jordan having also recently delivered her debut feature, the Eva Green-starring drama Cracks.
Welcome to the Rileys is competing in the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance, where one of its rivals is Spencer Susser's Hesher. The ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the title figure (according to Urban Dictionary a Hesher is a 'Reebock-wearing, mulleted person in acid-washed jeans and a Judas Priest T-shirt who, at the age of 28, still lives in his/her parents' basement and swears that he/she can really rock out on his/her Ibanez Stratocaster copy guitar and probably owns a Nova that hasn't run in 5 years but you just wait, that fucker is gonna smoke those fuckin Japanese rice burners once I put a new head gasket on it.' So now you know), who secretes himself into the home life of an impressionable young boy (Devin Brochu). Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson also crop up, but while Ain't It Cool 'flat out loved Hesher', there was less ardour for the movie emanating from Slash Film, who remarked that 'unfortunately the story feels more like a first draft than something that had been brewing in Susser's head for nearly half a decade.'
Two of the odder sounding offerings to have surfaced thus far at Sundance 2010 are 7 Days, a French Canadian revenge tale from Daniel Grou, and Bran Nue Dae, a comic 60s-set Australian musical, featuring Geoffrey Rush in full-on panto mode as a villainous German priest. 7 Days sounds monumentally dreadful, being about a surgeon who spends the week leading up to what would have been his daughter's eighth birthday torturing the man who murdered her. The ever-enthusiastic Ain't It Cool News approved, calling it 'a top notch movie with great character performances that you shouldn't miss', and you can only suppose that there exists there faintest sliver of a possibility that 7 Days might have something genuinely perceptive and interesting to say about its lurid subject matter, instead of just being a threadbare excuse to wallow in the extremely unpleasant behaviour of the tiniest micro-percentage of the world's population. Bran Nue Dae seems equally unpromising, albeit in a diametrically opposite way. Even Ain't It Cool's largely positive review concedes that 'if you don't like musicals this movie is going to make you want you to jam pens in your ears and staple your eyes shut', and the trailer does strongly suggest that it could prove to be a horrific hotpotch of awful tunes and cruddy child acting.
From the World Dramatic category at Sundance comes Boy, courtesy of Flight of the Conchords cohort and Eagle vs. Shark writer-director Taika Waititi. This New Zealand-set tale revolves around two young brothers who begin to reassess their idealised absentee father when he finally returns home after years away. Slash Film was less than enchanted, remarking that 'Boy starts off feeling like a mix between a Wes Anderson film and a kiwi Son of Rambow, but quickly becomes a Waititi film – something much more original than Eagle vs. Shark, a more personal film, but ultimately, less entertaining.'
One of the hits from last year's Sundance was In the Loop, the feature debut from British TV comedian Armando Iannucci. And another UK satire from an established small-screen funny dude is looking for similar acclaim at Sundance 2010, as Brass Eye and Nathan Barley creator Chris Morris makes his cinematic debut with Four Lions. Written in conjunction with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (scripters of Peep Show and the former of whom worked on the In the Loop screenplay), Four Lions tackles tricky subject matter, being about four dim-witted British-born Islamist terrorists who ineptly plot to carry out a major atrocity. While Ain't It Cool took it pretty much on face value, simply remarking 'ultimately it's a good comedy, not a great comedy', the reaction in UK newspaper The Observer was more one of mild bewilderment: 'To say that I found Morris's film disquieting would be an understatement. I wondered whether it was funny, even when I did laugh... the characters look and behave like real people, but they have no depth. All his research notwithstanding, Morris cannot show us how or why they got where they are. This is why their exploits seem not humorous, or indeed serious, but just stupid.' The clips to have thus far surfaced have drawn yuks from this corner of the Indie Movies office mind.
Speaking ahead of this year's Sundance, festival founder and figurehead Robert Redford was vocal in his desire that the event recover its sense of purpose. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Redford remarked that “I felt we were sliding and we needed to get fresh again.” An ever-admirable sentiment, whether it be coming from from a multi-millionaire star trying to give his own film festival a spruce-up or a middle-aged accountant attempting to inject some spice into his moribund marriage. Whether the line-up for this year's event – being laden as it is with the familiar quirk comedies, liberal concern documentaries, and middle-America dramas – is a fulfilment of Uncle Bob's mission statement is open to debate. Yet while it has been increasingly easy to knock Redford and the increasingly star-and-deals-driven make-up of his Sundance brainchild over recent years, at least the festival represents a game attempt by the old feller to give independent film-makers a boost. Yes, when he says things like, “It's always been hard. Independent film has always been a bit of a battleground”, as he did on Friday, it somewhat resembles Zeus languidly gazing down from his golden chaise lounge on Mount Olympus and telling the plague-infested peasants that he has got their backs - but y'know, what do you want from the man? His secret to such great-looking skin? 'cause that a secret you ain't gonna get outta Uncle Bob, nosirree.