Saturday, January 19, 2008

Sundance: It's the Filmmaking, Stupid

[Film Fest] People have a hard time distinguishing a good idea from a good movie.

It's easy for a professional film critic to knock the acumen of laypeople; it's like bashing a tax attorney for not knowing how to perform a hysterectomy. The difference is that average moviegoers think they can perform that metaphorical surgery. They know what they like, and they mistake that affection for a measure of filmmaking quality.

Young@Heart director Stephen Walker has a great subject: A Massachusetts-based choral group made up of senior citizens, whose repertoire consists entirely of punk, rock and blues songs. It’s also a subject that practically directs itself if you let it: You point your camera at a bunch of spunky septua-/octo-/nonagenarians belting out “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and let the “isn’t that cute” factor do all the heavy lifting. Everything the story has to offer – the shift in meaning of certain songs when performed by those facing mortality; the saucy energy of 92-year-old expatriate Brit Eileen Hall – has nothing to do with Walker’s facility with the material. And it’s hard not to look at the whole project as vaguely condescending, since with the exception of returning member Fred Knittle – who delivers a haunting version of Coldplay’s “Fix You” while hooked up to oxygen – no one really can sing a lick. They’re all full of life and fun, and that’s terrific, and there are some sad events, and that might make you cry. And the movie says nothing but that.

Compare that to what Marina Zenovich does with Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Admittedly, she has the kind of subject that packed an early-morning press screening with movie writers: Revisiting the 1977-78 statutory rape case that sent the celebrated director into exile in France. But she’s done some hardcore reporting, and made stylistic choices that give her every revelation an added punch, whether of drama or (sometimes) comedy. Zenovich turns in not just a fascinating piece of talking-head cinematic journalism, but a real piece of filmmaking. (Scott Renshaw)

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