At The Picture Show
Sundance 2008 roundup: The IGMS set
The best and worst of sci-fi, fantasy and horror from this year's Park City lineup
The budgets may not be as big, but every year Sundance has a hefty offering of
challenging sci-fi cinema. One of the best films of the last decade, Shane Carruth's
Primer, won the festival's Grand Jury Prize in 2004. This year, maybe I just
noticed it more or maybe there was an extra emphasis on certain genres, but there
was a huge, almost intimidating slate of films that I wanted to write about for
IGMS. But with well over 100 films playing - including various competitions - I
could only do so much. This means I missed The Broken, George Romero's Diary
of the Dead, Donkey Punch, Larry Bishop's Hell Ride and the well-received Half-Life. But for what it's worth, here's a small sample of what Sundance had to offer
Directed by Alex R ivera
Somehow this picked up two awards at the
festival - and somehow one of them was for screenwriting. Never mind an
interesting concept or two - all that gets lost in Alex Rivera's shoddy execution.
It's the near future, and society has moved toward a few specific kinds of virtual
reality. People get nodes implanted into their nervous systems and hook up to a
global network - many use the technology to buy and sell their own memories. Or
in the case of our protagonist, Memo Cruz, you can use it to work jobs overseas -
an interesting commentary on the immigration debate.
But what possibilities may have been present in the conceptualization of Sleep
Dealer have been lost. The logical and thematic holes are embarrassingly
transparent and Rivera's execution behind the camera never brings the sense of
urgency that the story seems to require.
Phoebe in Wonderland
Directed by Daniel Barnz
While watching Phoebe in Wonderland, it's hard not to be reminded of all the
films that have been influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland over the
last few decades. In fact, during certain sequences - when the mind of our young,
mentally troubled heroine is slowly getting detached from reality - director Daniel
Barnz even calls to mind Terry Gilliam-esque visual techniques. Unfortunately,
the comparison doesn't suit him, or his film. Phoebe in Wonderland features a
strong cast and has strong, even thought-provoking intentions, but a sense of
monotony sets in early on and rarely wavers. And his upbeat message about kids
growing up and fending for themselves is hopelessly trite.
Directed by Michael Haneke
OK, so this one I expected and anticipated all
along. Michael Haneke's Funny Games - a very unique twist on sociological and
psychological horror - is a remake of his own film, originally released in 1997.
This new version was re-crafted essentially shot-for-shot, only with English-speaking actors Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt (in a particularly great
performance) and Brady Corbet in the principle roles. But just because we may
have seen the original doesn't mean the new version is any less potent.
A vacationing family gets taken hostage by a couple of well-to-do, well-behaved
young men - almost too charming for their own good - who proceed to play
sadistic games with their captives. For no other reason than mere entertainment, it
seems. Aside from being scary and emotionally horrifying in its own right, Funny
Games is a pointed critique at the uses of violence in the media - and violence's
numbing effects in general. It was especially fun, during the screening, to see
which of the audience members understood what they were seeing, and which
ones were actually the butt of the joke.
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Time Crimes is one of those films that is completely fascinating on its surface.
And I won't say it doesn't bring any of that fascination to its subject matter. The
thing is, it just takes a while to get there. Playing with cause-and-effect and time
travel in a manner we've seen before, the film opens by creating an eerie mood, as
our main character, Hector (Karra Elejalde) peers into the distant woods and
thinks he sees . . . something. What he eventually does or does not see leads him
along an increasingly treacherous and bloody chase, which leads to him getting
sent a few hours back in time.
Like many films before it (the aforementioned Primer among them), Time Crimes
intends to deal with the paradoxes of time travel and cause-and-effect, but falls
into the horror-movie trap of requiring the main character to be a complete
imbecile in order for the storyline to hold up. After that passes, the film settles into
a sometimes-clever movie that, despite the possibilities its premise offers, never
rises above the level of in-the-moment, horror entertainment.
Directed by Sean Byrne
However, the short film that preceded Time
Crimes at Sundance was this little gem, Advantage. This horror film - which starts
out an innocent romp between two young lovers and ends, well, not-so-innocent -
is easily the best short I saw at this year's festival. I don't even want to give too
much away - but I will say that the terrifying atmosphere that erupts all-too-suddenly immediately made me a believer in director Sean Byrne's talents. The
imagery (and that timing of that imagery) that punctuates the disquieting changes
in mood and feeling is nothing short of brilliant.
Directed by Mia Trachinger
The New Frontier category is often used to cater to especially experimental films,
and Mia Trachinger's Reversion definitely pretends to be that. I say "pretends"
because, while making the film, Trachinger could not possibly have experimented
with any thought, intellect or unique filmmaking techniques. Yes, it was that bad.
The more I've thought of it as time as passed, the more I'm convinced that it is the
worst film I have ever seen. I'm a proponent of experimentation and a strong
supporter of Sundance in general - but never have I seen a film this incompetent.
Reversion is supposedly about a near-future in which genetic mutants exist that
have no concept of time. That is, every moment of their lives is "one big mish-mash." It's curious, then, how consistently Trachinger breaks her own rules
applied to such characters. For a film that follows characters who don't understand
time, Reversion is astoundingly linear. This is one of those special movies that is
so bad, I can't even explain how bad it is unless you've seen it. Suffice it to say
that it is completely incompetent in every way - cinematically, thematically,
scientifically, existentially, intellectually, dramatically, theatrically and
experimentally. Maybe you just had to be there.
Read more by Chris Bellamy