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Chris Orr at Sundance

The first thing you notice about Park City, Utah, in January is that it’s really cold. That’s also the second thing you notice. But after you’ve noticed it a few more times, you’re struck by how beautiful the town is. Flying into Salt Lake City, thirty-odd miles away, it’s hard not to be awed by the majestic peaks that surround the city’s wide basin. But Park City is far more intimate, with the mountains nestled in snugly around the town like spectators at a hockey game.

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 while there. (I’d really 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 of the films 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 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 a junkie and already suffered two nearly fatal overdoses, he decides he’s getting out, and soon. It’s a simple enough setup, but director Rupert Wyatt, in his feature debut, manages to throw in plenty of complications. The film 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 ending is a tad rushed and unsatisfying, but Pretty Bird is nonetheless an impressive debut for Schneider and a terrific opportunity to watch two very gifted performers go at one another.

The Assassination of a High School President, which is set to be released in August, is the latest entrant in a relatively recent subgenre that I think of as adult-genre-movies-set-in-high-school. The most interesting to date was 2005’s Brick, a Chandleresque noir that took place among teenagers; opening next 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 made up of date-rapists and bedwetters. The movie is diverting enough, and has some clever riffs on the grown-up movies it’s aping, as when Bobby bribes a hall monitor to give him five minutes alone with a kid serving detention, or conducts a high-speed chase while taking his driver’s test. (There’s also a likeable Chinatown reference at the conclusion.) But the film misses nearly as often as it hits, in particular with the goofy “assassination” attempt that supplies the title and a half-hearted performance by “The O.C.”’s Mischa Barton, who as the requisite femme fatale does little to suggest anything lurks beneath her loveliness. In all, not the best an ironic subgenre has to offer, but a perfectly amiable B-grade distraction.

The sole documentary I saw while at Sundance was Tanaz Eshaghian’s 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, who had initially opposed the surgery; 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 also an unexpected cog in Iran’s repressive state machinery. Unique and disturbing, Be Like Others is a portrait of a society at war with modernity and trying to establish an impossible truce.

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 movie that can’t be made. But, title notwithstanding, the “deal” is done perhaps half-an-hour in, and the movie soon slips into an over-broad parody of action-moviemaking, its knowing industry dialogue gradually displaced by lame gags about a car the won’t start, a woman who throws like a girl, a kidnapping that turns into an act of war, etc. (There is a funny bit about the heartless Canadian overlords who take over the movie studio, though...) Worst of all is the soggy romance the movie tries to kindle between Charlie and a studio exec played by Meg Ryan, who was presumably brought on in a bid for box office. The transition Ryan is trying to make, from America’s sweetheart to feisty older gal, is a tough one--though I can’t help but think it might’ve been easier if she’d followed the lead of Diane Keaton (who made the transition better than anyone) and abstained from extensive cosmetic surgery. 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 (who played amiable amputee Tony Tucci in the first season of “Dexter”), and a small but hilarious cameo by Joel Grey. But actor-turned-writer/director Clark Gregg tries to cram far too much into his debut feature: Victor’s con-artist sideline as a professional choking victim; his awkward relationship (and all-too-Freudian backstory) with his mentally declining mother (Angelica Huston); an improbable romance with her doctor (Kelly MacDonald, stuck somewhere between Scottish and American accents); the revelation that Victor may, in fact, be Jesus’ clone, etc. In the end, Choke is just too much to swallow whole; next time, perhaps, Gregg will attempt more manageable portions. A side note: Choke was one of a fistful of Sundance offerings about grown men working through their parental issues. (Diminished Capacity, The Year of Getting to Know Us, Birds of America, and Momma’s Man were others.) Prepare for this to be the next big thing in indie film.

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. The good bits are good: supporting roles by Chris Guest repertory players Michael McKean and Jane Lynch; Gold’s emphatic pounding of imaginary skins; a foppish foil played by Entourage’s Adrian Grenier; a soundtrack so awful it’s magnificent (“Kyrie,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Let It Whip,” “In the Air Tonight,” etc.). But in the end, 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 (though for the time being it’s lost in the archives) 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.