by Harlan Kennedy


Redford’s Relaunch

You’ve got to do something to celebrate the 125th birthday of a historic silver-mining town in snowy Utah. Do you party in Park City’s streets? Dance on its mountainsides? Place 125 giant candles on nature’s frosted hills and hire a giant to blow them out?

What you do – better than all these – is re-launch America’s favourite movie junket. It happens to be sited here. Robert Redford, film star and founder, announced that 2010 was the year the Sundance Film Festival would be transformed and renewed. It would return to its youthful roots, becoming once more the feisty, rebel event it was when he took charge 30-odd years ago. Describing recent Sundance sprees at this year’s opening press conference, Redford let slip an undeleted F-word: ‘flatlining’.

So we Sundancers came, saw and were conquered. This was a perkier fest. There were fewer brain-dead Hollywood blockbusters; also fewer bleeding-heart indie soap operas. And thank the Lawd there was no LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. (All you who liked it, get out in front of the firing squad). In fact a sample of outstanding films – taken by plunging an instrument into an exact spot in the Wasatch Mountains permafrost – proves that Sundance is not only trying again but in several cases succeeding.


Wasatch This Space


Here they are. The best in snow. Proof that 2010 has brought life back to Sundance.


☼☼☼ BLUE VALENTINE. This may be the most powerful troubled-marriage drama, on screen if not stage, since WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Derek Cianfrance has directed just one feature before, but on this showing should be busy for the rest of his life. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play the borderline-blue-collar couple trying to repair their union, while expertly differentiated flashbacks (more saturated colours, more expansive lenses) dramatise their happier days. He is a handyman with ambitions below his mental station – yet content, if marriage would let him be, with love, fatherhood and domesticity. She is a hospital doctor who won’t let anything ‘be’ if it can be cured, reformed or rehabilitated. The grit in their union doesn’t make a pearl; it just makes more grit, culminating in a brilliantly abrasive scene of attempted reconciliation in the ‘Future Room’ of a tacky love-hotel. Amid the bad-dream décor their old love, drained by daily differences, fights to jumpstart itself. It’s a touching, harrowing film. The dialogue has a mod-Strindberg intensity. The acting by the two leads is terrific.


☼☼☼ CATFISH  The best documentaries are dramas in their own right. By power of story and strength of theme they magic themselves to a higher level. Reportage becomes art. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman start by sharing and recording the tickled consternation of their real-life housemate Yaniv Schulman (Ariel’s brother), a New York photographer, as he pores over his accumulation of emails and unsolicited gifts from an unknown family of females in Michigan. Mother; lovestruck teenage daughter; art-struck younger daughter, an apparent prodigy, who sends him her paintings. Soon things get creepy. Then they get creepier. Is everything real? Are the three females’ Facebook biogs – consulted and featured in the film – semi-fantasy? Should the three men get themselves up to Michigan to investigate? What they find is stranger than fiction and spookier than Hitchcock. This is a brilliant thriller trouve, with black comedy thrown in. Joost/Schulman direct with a truckful of invention, from web-spoofing visuals to suspenseful crosscutting that has us biting our nails down to the wrist.


☼☼☼ CANE TOADS: THE CONQUEST. At last. We thought it would never come. The great sequel to Mark Lewis’s toad movie. This Aussie nature film – see above for remarks on documentaries that transcend their station – is in 3D and has already been dubbed ‘Avatoad.’ The warty horror-creatures originally imported Down Under to eat and control sugar-cane grubs, which they never did, have multiplied from 100 to 2 billion. They are hopping, even as we speak, across the top half of Australia. The bad news is they’re mean, ornery and toxic: don’t eat one. (The local wild life snacks on them at each invasion, then learns better). The good news is they’re funny, bizarre and watchable, especially in 3D. Stereoscopy enhances their popping eyes and graphic habit of jumping out at people. Apparently, though, if you’re a dog, you can also lick their tummies and get a high. Witness the glorious psychedelic sequence – like something out of a toady LOST WEEKEND – in which a lovable mutt experiences the canine equivalent of an LSD trip.


☼☼☼ 8: THE MORMON PROPOSITION Sundance does what it does best. Banners the power of movies to beat up on the political or ideological establishment. At least when that establishment’s integrity goes awol. In this case the enemy is the Mormon Church. Reed Cowan’s stupendous documentary exposes the Church’s role in supporting, with word and cash, California’s notorious Proposition 8 outlawing gay marriage. The Mormon leadership tub-thumped its congregations in California and Utah to co-fund, with other homophobic bodies religious or secular, a multi-million-dollar campaign to pass the ballot proposal that was heading – without them – into the waste bin. Cowan doesn’t only record the shocked response of the gay community, which had just started putting newly liberalised marriage laws into action. He digs deep to expose Mormonism’s historic record of anti-gay endeavour through history, including electric-shock aversion meted out to youngsters in its flock. And he rightly asks: How was a tax-exempt religious organisation (in which polygamy is a favourite pastime, and yes I met three women who share the same husband) allowed to make an intervention in a state’s political decision-making? In a nation that theoretically separates church and state it should never have happened. But then – hey – the state in question is California, home of Hollywood, home of a Hollywood governor. Anything can happen.

So it can – more happily – in Park City. That includes a festival that screens a documentary holding to judgment the leaders of the established Church in the festival’s own host state. Way to go. If we can’t get secular government anywhere else in America, we can at least establish a model of it on the celestial, cinephile slopes of Mount Redford.

Right. Now, where are my ski’s?






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved