Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sundance: So Much Drama

[Film Fest] In a number of ways, the American Dramatic Competition is the centerpiece of the Sundance Film Festival. It is here that we find the new filmmaking discoveries. It is at these screenings where we see anxious agents, buyers and studio executives hoping to be the first ones to say to Filmmaker X, “We want to be in the [Filmmaker X] business.” This is something people in the movie industry actually have said, apparently. I don’t know how anybody does anything in Hollywood with a straight face.

Many of these Dramatic Competition films are “small” and “intimate,” by which we actually mean “artistically interesting but you can bet nobody will make a dime off of them.” Ballast, from writer-director Lance Hammer, comes from that school of minimalist Americana that prominently features non-professional actors, rural locations and semi-improvised dialogue. The connection between the main characters – Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Sr.), a 35-year-old man traumatized by the suicide of his twin brother; and Marlee (Tarra Riggs), the working single mother of 12-year-old James – is only gradually revealed, and watching their mutual dependence develop is always at least somewhat engaging. It simply never makes the leap to fully engrossing, a problem that might have been more easily overcome if the muttered dialogue weren’t borderline inaudible half the time. Note to directors: If you’re cutting costs by hiring amateur actors, splurge on a boom mic or two.

Like Ballast, Neil Abramson’s American Son deals with African-American main characters, and the limited opportunities available in a bleak town. In this case, however, the bleak town took on a particular resonance, because it happened to be the bleak town in which I grew up: Bakersfield, California. The main character, Mike (Nick Cannon), has just completed Marines boot camp, and is on Thanksgiving weekend leave in “Bako” before a deployment to Iraq – a fact he has chosen to keep hidden from his family and friends. Abramson and screenwriter Eric Schmid hit a little close to home in their portrayal of Central Valley tedium, which captivated me more than stuff like the tense relationship between Mike and his white best friend. I just know that American Son understands what it’s like to be in a place where it feels like driving around and getting high are the only recreational opportunities. Come to think of it, I guess co-star Tom Sizemore – who was arrested while shooting the movie there – understands that pretty well, too.

The Last Word is at least nominally more of a comedy than a drama, though how funny you find it may depend a lot on how much less contrived the whole thing seems to you than it did to me. Evan Merck (Wes Bentley) is a struggling writer who (get this!) makes a living writing profound suicide notes for other people. Then while attending the funeral of one of his clients, he meets the guy’s sister Charlotte (Winona Ryder), who immediately (get this!) decides she’s crazy about this anonymous stranger who claims to have been a college friend of her dead, long-estranged brother. Ray Romano provides a surprisingly effective supporting performance as a depressive composer who befriends Evan, and there are some individually spot-on moments (like the puzzled look on loner Evan’s face when he actually hears his phone ring). But so much of the plotting subsequently starts to hinge on ridiculous coincidences, and the performances are too mannered to allow the subject matter’s real sadness to come through. “It’s execution-driven,” Evan improvises when Charlotte discovers a note-in-progress than he claims to be a screenplay with a lame undercover-cop plot. When you’re trying to make a feel-good suicide comedy, that’s true in spades. (Scott Renshaw)

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