Dispatch from Park City (Part 4)

by Peter Wong on February 5, 2010

Last in a series of reports from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Can one successfully mix War On Terror paranoia with young New York City hipsters’ lives into a coherent and entertaining film? Director / writer Zeina Durra achieves such an effect with her debut feature film “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!”

Asya (a magnetic Elodie Bouchez) is a New York City visual artist. Her insanely busy life of making art and evening partying with supermodels gets thrown off balance when her beloved childhood friend Faisal disappears. That possible CIA abduction heralds days of emotional multi-tasking.

Not only must the artist deal with gallery owners’ whims, but she’s not sure what relationship she has with a handsome Mexican Ph.D. student. Continual worrying about the fate of a brother stuck in an Israel-shelled Lebanon further complicates Asya’s life.

Durra ably portrays the Bouchez character’s world as a free-floating existence where unexpected connections are the norm. For example, Asya forms a chance electronic communion with a group of men listening to the latest news from Lebanon. This psychologically drifting existence is so well drawn that one realizes ongoing relationships such as that of Asya and Javier feels like an anomaly.

Multicultural New York City also proves to be a memorable character in the film. Rather than the typical white people’s playground with background ethnic color seen in far too many films, Durra noticeably inverts the formula. Funny putdowns such as Asya’s having a monkey’s arms are delivered in the original language with English subtitles. Instead of treating white skin as a cultural all access pass, the film presents a world where the old racial hierarchies have yielded to the acceptance of others outside one’s racial group as guests expected to be on their best behavior.

Rather than seduce the viewer with political correctness and direct stridency, Durra prefers employing visual wit and charm to make her portrait of modern New York City come alive. One memorable image involves a fur coat-wearing model walking past a row of Chinese barbecued chickens swinging slowly on hooks mixed glamor and quotidian reality without a blink.

“The Imperialsts Are Still Alive!” will leave viewers obsessed with neat and folded fictional closures strongly dissatisfied. For the rest of us, the film showcases a promising directorial talent.

“Jack Goes Boating” offers a more traditional love story with extra quirk. Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first directorial effort concerns Jack (Hoffman), a lonely limo driver who gets set up on a date with a budding saleswoman named Connie (Amy Ryan). As Jack and Connie slowly draw closer together, Clyde and Lucy, the couple who set Jack up with Connie, see their marriage start to slowly disintegrate.

Adapting a stage play (which Beyond Chron’s Lee Hartgrave reviewed in June) for the film screen can be a difficult task. Film may widen the visual canvas available for a scene. The sequences where Jack imagines cooking or even swimming visually flesh out the idea of Jack as someone slowly willing to take risks in life. But the long theatrical monologues that work to rivet audiences’ attention to the stage may clash with film’s insistence on the image’s dominance. Fortunately, Connie’s neurotic and semi-repressed monologues are delivered by Ryan with such rapid energy that they become spectacles in themselves. Those speeches also play well off Jack’s eloquent inarticulateness.

In short, this film is a delightful gem.

Slamdance film “YellowBrickRoad” may share with Hoffman’s film the US Northeast as a regional setting. However, Andy Milton and Jesse Holland’s film dramatically begins in a small town in New Hampshire and ends in psychological horror, madness, and mutilation.

About 70 years ago, every inhabitant of Friar, New Hampshire left their worldly possessions behind them to trek for unknown reasons into the mountains. Death by freezing or violence took many of the Friar inhabitants. Yet the only clue behind their mysterious journey was the cryptic word “YellowBrickRoad.” Now a husband and wife writing team lead an expedition along the same route to discover what those townspeople sought in the mountains. What the writers’ expedition finds are malevolent anomalies such as a malfunctioning GPS and distorted 1930s music being played without a source.

Milton and Holland cited 1970s slow burn horror movies as an artistic influence on “YellowBrickRoad.” But a seemingly endless trip into a wilderness that leads to madness and worse also suggests the Werner Herzog classic “Aguirre The Wrath Of God.”

The early parts of the expedition are leavened by some grim levity. There’s joking about the misinformation being delivered by the GPS. The supposed start of the trailhead prompts a nice bit of insult humor with the “retarded backpackers” line.

However, the film fails to sufficiently turn up psychological pressure on its characters. Having a cast with specialized functions makes the fictional expedition plausible. It also provides a bigger dramatic palette. Yet a horror film works when the viewer can see how events push a character to commit suicide. Perhaps it’s the result of having too large a cast whose fates we follow. More characters means less individual tension. Yet in moments of mass tension, such as the attacks of the distorted 1930s music, we can see what drives people to madness.

Slamdance short “Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses” successfully pursues the full tilt comic gonzo. Over 15 zippy minutes, director Brian Mc Elhaney presents a mad mix of relationship comedy and alien counter-invasion efforts. With perfect actors and timing, the only response would be “this needs a sequel.”

The previously reviewed “Space Tourists” grabs Sundance’s World Cinema Directing Award for documentaries. The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award goes to Yael Hersonski’s “A Film Unfinished.” That film ably melded vintage Nazi propaganda footage of the falsely wonderful life of Jews stuck in the Warsaw ghetto with real Warsaw survivors’ memories of constant starvation, fear, and living with filth. The editor struck the right visual balance between satisfying viewer curiosity about the film itself with the reality check of present day viewers’ very visible pain at being reminded of the lives lost to Nazi extermination efforts.


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