Live from Sundance 2010: Day 4

January 25, 2010

Sunday was a miserable day, football-wise, if you were rooting for the Jets and the Vikings, as I was.


And, filmwise at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, it ended on a weak note, because the last film of the day I saw was the dramatic-competition entry, “Lovers of Hate.” It almost broke my record this year for not having walked out of any festival films this year (I had to leave “Nowhere Boy” to see another film). On the other hand, if I hadn’t watched “Obselidia” and “Bass Ackwards” on DVD, I would have walked out of them – and, as it was, I bailed on both of those films before the end.


I didn’t walk out of “Lovers of Hate” but people around me did and the urge for flight was strong. Thankfully, this turgid comedy eventually developed a modicum of suspense. The story of a jobless, bitter man, thrown out by his wife and suffering endless jealousy of his super-successful younger brother, the film spins its wheels for almost an hour, until writer-director Bryan Poyser creates a watchable situation.


He essentially creates a scenario in which the younger brother takes the older brother’s wife as his lover at a mountain retreat (in Park City – talk about self-reflexive), unaware that the older brother has dropped in on him as a surprise. So you have three people in a sprawling house, but two are unaware of the presence of the third, who alternately hides from and messes with them.


That makes it sound much better than it is, a frequent trait of films in Sundance’s dramatic competition. So let’s focus on positive vibrations, as the title character in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Jack Goes Boating” likes to say.


Hoffman’s directing debut – in which he costars with Amy Ryan, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega – is an assured and deeply felt film about inarticulate people seeking a connection, based on a play (and showing its stage roots at times). Funny and touching, it stars Hoffman and Ryan as a pair of lonely people who are fixed up by their married friends, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega. But even as Jack and Connie take tentative steps toward learning about each other, they are watching the married couple, Clyde and Lucy, as that marriage implodes.


Hoffman’s Jack is a cliche – the thoughtful, isolated man who learns to plunge into life (an idea reinforced by his learning to swim, under the tutelage of his pal, Clyde). Yet Hoffman, wearing a head of dreadful dreadlocks, gives this lumbering character a soul and a heart, which Ryan’s Connie – a bit of a chatterbox who only occasionally finds the right thing to say – responds to in her quiet way. Ryan is a touchingly vulnerable actress, so when she and the equally reticent Hoffman click together, it creates an understated but heartfelt sense of surprise.


Leon Gast’s “Smash His Camera” is an entertaining if slightly overblown documentary about legendary New York paparazzo Ron Galella. A joyous self-promoter, the almost-80-year-old Galella happily works it for Gast’s camera, whether he’s giving a tour of his massive photo archive or his lavishly nouveau-riche house in New Jersey. The film touches on the Galella career highlights: his long-time court battle with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the night Marlon Brando broke his jaw. In between, Galella offers tips on how he does his job, as well as a look inside his backyard cemetery for what apparently are scores of dead pet rabbits.


“Smash His Camera” is a fascinating complement to Adrian Grenier’s “Teen-age Paparazzo,” which focuses on a 14-year-old Hollywood pap who Grenier befriended. Both films include footage from “La Dolce Vita,” in which a street photographer named Paparazzo (Italian for mosquito) is part of a pack of shutterbugs who chase Anita Ekberg.


Both films have a moment when it becomes apparent just how little connection there is between the hyper-adrenalized papparazzo milieu and the real world. In Grenier’s film, it’s his subject, looking at the most famous photo of the Kent State massacre and deeming it uninteresting as a photograph; in the Galella film, it’s Gast following a post-collegiate-age young woman, walking through a gallery of Galella’s photos, unsure who the once-famous faces in these images might be, whether it’s Richard Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor, (“Hmm, Taylor Burton – I think I’ve heard of him”), Henry Kissinger (“I have no idea”) or Steve McQueen (“He was, like, a director, right?”).


And both films go back and forth on the issue of the seemingly symbiotic relationship between celebrities and celebrity photographers. Each needs the other; each resents the other for their part in the relationship. The two films would make a terrific double feature.


I also was dazzled by Alex Gibney’s “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” a comprehensive dissection of the massively corrupt lobbying practices of right-wing influence peddler Jack Abramoff. Abramoff had a long, sordid history, filled with a variety of dazzlingly illegal or outrageous schemes – often both at once. This was a guy who connected people with money to the politicians – particularly “Dancing with the Stars” doofus Tom DeLay and Karl Rove – who would take “political contributions” in exchange for solving problems. Pay to play; never mind that it was against the law and smacked of bribery – that was the Abramoff way.


Gibney’s film does a clear job of tying it all together, providing details and even charts to pull together the massive spiderweb of influence-peddling that was Abramoff’s stock in trade. It’s a sad, shocking commentary on a Washington culture that continues to play out, whether in the health-insurance debate or the struggle to stem global warming.


One last doc I’d like to mention that had its Sundance premiere Sunday morning: Dan Klores’ “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks.” In keeping his focus on a brief span of time when Miller and the Indiana Pacers and Pat Riley’s New York Knicks played several mind-blowingly close games, Klores captures a rivalry that is operatic in the emotions it elicits – from fans and players alike.


The film is exciting but, above all else, it is funny. Klores gets virtually all of the principals to talk candidly and has great archival footage that captures, in particular, a pair of miraculous Miller performances (a game in which he scored 25 points in one quarter to bring his team from way behind to win; another game in which he scored eight points in 11 seconds to also bring them from defeat to victory). They are the film’s centerpieces and Klores captures the outsized quality of the accomplishment, as well as the head-spinning Miller persona that constantly messed with the Knicks’ minds.


You don’t have to be a sports fan to find the humor and the thrill of Klores’ film. And, if you’re a Knicks fan who still smarts from the memory of those moments, well, they’re 15 years in the past – and they still sting.



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