At last year's Cannes Film Festival, "Fahrenheit 9/11" won both a prolonged standing ovation and the Palme d'Or for director Michael Moore, and when the Bush-bashing documentary went on to make more than $100 million, it seemed likely to encourage imitators. But the two filmmakers with the most incendiary doc just prior to "Fahrenheit"--director Eugene Jarecki and writer Alex Gibney, who collaborated in 2002 on the prosecutorial "The Trials of Henry Kissinger"--have separately brought two of the strongest films to the documentary competition at Sundance.
Gibney's "Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room" and Jarecki's "Why We Fight" take a look at two highly politicized subjects--Enron, with its controversial connections to the Bush administration, and military contractors (such as Halliburton, with its controversial connections to the Bush administration)--and wisely avoid the temptation to try to ram a point of view down the audience's throat. (For obvious reasons, "Inside Deep Throat" is less, um, inhibited in this regard.)
Alex Gibney, director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." Magnolia Pictures
"It would have been a kind of cheap but satisfying hit to make a screed about how horrible these people were," Gibney told me, "and not try to reckon with what was going on in their heads."
From what Gibney has laid out, what was going on in the heads of Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and chairman Ken Lay was plenty interesting enough. "This is more like a heist film, where we're riding in the getaway car," Gibney says. "I was so interested in the characters, and the degree to which they invented this fictional company. They were, in effect, running a film studio."
America's seventh-largest corporation at the time of its fall, Enron was admired for its success, which was apparently about the only thing the company ever produced. "They were very conscious about their image, and spent a lot of time manufacturing the look of a very potent company," Gibney says. "That's why it was like a film set. If you looked behind the flats, there was nothing there.
Gibney's film wonderfully captures the Wild West mentality of Enron's energy traders, who gamed the de-regulated markets to create rolling blackouts in California and vast wealth at the company's Houston headquarters. It's a hard-hitting documentary, but never resorts to Moore's ballpeen hammer to make its point. Gibney was even discreet enough not to mention that not so very long ago, Enron was an official corporate sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival. "They wanted to get Utah to de-regulate its energy markets," he says.
A mini-controversy has erupted around the best dramatic movie I've seen so far, Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow," and it has nothing to do with references to women as "bitches" in need of frequent "whupping."
No, "Hustle & Flow" bears the taint of something considered far worse in these rarified precincts: big money. It was picked up by Paramount and MTV over the weekend for a reported $9 million, part of a multi-picture deal with producer John Singleton. Anything that makes that much dough is viewed with suspicion here.
The story of a Memphis pimp who decides he wants to make a career change and become a rap singer, the movie has more heart--and a lot more soul--than most of the meticulously wrought genre deconstructions that dominate the program here. It features an impressive performance by Terrence Howard as Djay, who pours his heart into a song titled "It's Hard for a Pimp." He's not kidding.
"Hustle & Flow" throbs with the indie spirit, and yet it has rubbed some purists the wrong way because of its $2.8 million budget. Never mind that almost every square inch of Park City is covered with the corporate logos of festival fatcats, the filmmakers are supposed to make magic with their credit cards.
Another interesting spin through high school's hellish halls is "Brick," Rian Johnson's mostly successful attempt to apply the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel--and film noir--to a set of fast-talking teenagers. They're in the midst of a drug deal with a not-so-heavy heavy, played by Lukas Haas. The femme fatale is the head cheerleader.
When the movie's cool protagonist, Brendan Fry (played with wonderful élan by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is taken to the vice-principal's office for causing trouble, he barks at him like a snub-nosed .38. "You got discipline issues with me? Write me up or suspend me," Brendan growls, heading for the door. "I'll see you at the next parent-teacher's conference."
This sort of thing is not entirely new. Baz Luhrmann did something similar--but on a much larger scale--with his "Romeo + Juliet." Johnson got the idea for "Brick" after developing an obsession with the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett. "Setting it in high school allowed us to avoid a direct homage to film noir, with guys running around in hats," Johnson says. "It's the kind of thing that, if it's done wrong, it could be really, really horrible."
Fortunately, it isn't done wrong. That cheerleader actually reminds me of a woman I once briefly married.
Film festivals have a way of making you feel that, no matter how much you're enjoying the movie you're watching, there's always something better going on somewhere else, and you're missing it. You should have chosen more wisely. Buzz is erupting all around you, and you're suffering through director Michael Hoffman's and writer Don DeLillo's recreation of "Game 6" between the Mets and the Red Sox. And with stars Michael Keaton and Griffin Dunne exchanging high-fives right behind you, it would be rude to slump down in your seat and whimper quietly.
The extent to which this phenomenon also applies to parties--the ones you can get into, versus the really cool ones to which you were never invited--attaches such a painful multiplier to those insecurities--They have chosen wisely--that Sundance sometimes feels like high school, with snow.
Keanu, we hardly knew ye.
Pamela Sue Anderson has been here for the parties. Paris and Nicky Hilton have raced from one exclusive party to the next, collecting swag bags. David LaChapelle, the photographer/director whose "Rize" documents a kids dance movement called "crunk," was beaten up and booked after the party for his movie. I was sitting in my hotel room in my underwear, watching "CSI Weekend" while all that was going on.
It should come as no surprise--especially given the ages of most of the directors here--that some of the more interesting movies to emerge at this year's festival are set in high school. Instead of an awards ceremony Saturday night, Sundance should throw a prom.
At least one of those pictures, "The Chumscrubber," has already been picked up by Newmarket for summer release. Another is "Thumbsucker," about a 17-year-old boy who sucks his thumb and stars Keanu Reaves. It's among the most widely praised films of the festival, so, naturally, I haven't seen it. I was at "Game 6."
(I throw this idea out to Newmarket at no extra charge: I would pay good money to see a "Thumbsucker"/"Chumscrubber" double-feature.
"The Chumscrubber" is first-time director Ari Posin's stylish take on suburban alienation, teenage anomie and the distribution of psycho-pharmaceuticals. Put glibly (and why stop now?), it's "Donnie Darko" meets "Desperate Housewives," and if writer Zac Stanford's script has a tendency to push the bizarre quotient over the top, the film is rescued by its standout cast, which includes Jamie Bell, Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, Allison Janney, Carrie-Anne Moss and Rita Wilson.
The most notable performance in "Chumscrubber," however, comes from Camilla Belle, an 18-year-old actress who I believe--and do so here proclaim--will soon become a big movie star, very much in the mold of Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman. I spoke to Belle Wednesday about her work in this movie and "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," in which she plays Rose opposite Daniel Day-Lewis' Jack. She put the two remarkable performances together after taking three years off from acting so she could finish high school like a normal person.
As a kid, she appeared in "A Little Princess," "The Lose World: Jurassic Park" (she finds the "compys" in the opening scene) and "Poison Ivy II." Now, as her characters make the transformation from adolescence to womanhood onscreen, so does Camilla (pronounced Ca-MEE-la) from child actress to screen siren. She's going to be huge.
It was a couple of hours after a packed screening of his comedy "Kung Fu Hustle" had ended here, and Stephen Chow still looked a little alarmed by the reaction. Chow is one of Asia's biggest box office stars, as well as one of the film world's few legitimate comic geniuses, and yet he is unaccustomed to the stomping and whooping of an American standing ovation.
"I saw people standing up and applauding," Chow said, sounding as if he had been worried he was about to be engulfed by an angry mob. "It was surprising."
"Kung Fu Hustle" is the Sundance Film Festival's first obvious breakout hit, although any movie that doesn't instantly cause you to burst into tears here at the mopey mecca of the dysfunctional family drama is likely to be considered a laff riot. Chow wrote, produced, directed and stars in the picture, which not only spoofs the conventions of the martial arts movies made in his native Hong Kong, but also honors, and then surpasses them.
Set in a teeming housing complex called Pig Sty Alley in pre-revolutionary China, it is the story of a smalltime con artist named Sing (played by Chow), who wants to join the ruthless Axe Gang. His actions set off a kung fu war between the gang and the residents of the Pig Sty, who turn out to be martial arts masters.
The picture's action choreographer is Yuen Wo Ping, who designed the fight scenes for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Matrix." And while the comedy is as broad as any Three Stooges movie, the martial arts scenes in "Kung Fu Hustle" are as entertaining as any in those hits.
As I can affirm from awkward experience, Chow has never heard of the Stooges, who turn out to be as conceptually difficult to explain to a Chinese person as deconstructing Dadaism to a duck. Chow created a new comedy style known in China as Mo Lei Tau, or, literally, "nonsense," which his movie delivers in such sly abundance that "Hustle" has already broken all box office records in Taiwan. Sony Classics will roll it out in this country on April 1.
If you would like to read more about Chow and "Kung Fu Hustle," I'll have a longer story in Thursday's Mercury News. Or you can find it online atwww.mercurynews.com
In Tuesday's Mercury News, I wrote at some length about Oakland filmmaker Eric Escobar's short, "One Weekend a Month," then mentioned that the most impressive film on the program with Escobar was Brett Simon's "Sailor Girl."
That same day, I received the following e-mail from Brett's father Jack:
Just to let you know we especially appreciated your column this morning since Brett Simon of Sailor Girl is my son. I wanted you to know that he is a local who grew up in Palo Alto and now lives in Santa Monica.
Brett has been trying to break into features by making music videos, most recently one that plays like a mini-movie for Hoobastank's "The Reason."
That Must Be Where He Got the Idea For "Curse of the Jade Scorpion"
Former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy has written and stars in a raucous comedy called "Dirty Love" that's on the festival's midnight movie program, and it may just be too outre at any time other than the middle of the night. At a noon press screening of the picture the other day, I stopped counting after 15 battle-tested entertainment journalists stampeded toward the exits soon after the first appearance of McCarthy's breasts.
This would not ordinarily be sufficient cause for flight, but during the scene in question, one of two Woody Allen look-alikes vomited into her cleavage. This was only about 20 minutes into the movie, by which time other bodily fluids had already been disbursed, including the tears that gave Jenny clown eyes.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the press' urge to surge from this debacle will diminish the picture's chances of finding a distributor. I'd be very surprised if "Dirty Love" isn't among the dozen or so movies that gets picked up before the festival is over.
When Knightley --the sunny blond star of such pictures as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Bend It Like Beckham"--showed up to audition for "The Jacket," Maybury took her aside to assess her prospects. "The producers want you for this film," the director snarled. "I don't want you, and I'm not sure you can act."
Maybury insists this wasn't a test of her resolve. He really didn't want her. "Usually people just lie to you, so in that sense it was kind of refreshing," Knightley says. "I knew that to get the part, I was going to have to earn it."
After he heard her read, Maybury too was smitten. "After all my antagonism toward Keira, I think she's going to become a really considerable actress," he says. "Her intelligence alone is remarkable, and the camera just lovesher."
Yes, that's right. It's the camera that loves her.
Frankly, We Prefer Love Scenes That Remind Us of Edvard Munch
After John Maybury -- a British painter hired by Steven Soderbergh's production company to direct the psychological thriller "The Jacket" -- had cast the stringy Adrien Brody as his leading man, and the willowy Keira Knightley as the woman who takes him home for the night, the director realized he had to show the two beanpoles in bed together and somehow make it look romantic. Or at least not frightening.
"The love scene with Adrien and Keira looks like an Egon Schiele painting," Maybury says, showing off his arty background by invoking the name of the scary Austrian expressionist. "It's the skinniest screen coupling in cinema history. Watching the two of them making out is like looking at a bag of bones and rib cages."
I was sitting across the aisle from Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert at the press screening of "Inside Deep Throat" late Sunday night, and he made the point that Johnny Carson--who died that morning of emphysema--was among the last people to smoke on television. It was one of the few things at which Johnny was ever last.
Shortly after the lights went down in the theater, Carson flickered to life on the screen, making a joke about "Deep Throat" and the justices of the Supreme Court, circa 1972. During Carson's 30-year reign as the prince of latenight--he always seemed to me too boyish to be king, which was why it came as a shock when the news bulletins revealed he was 79--Johnny let us know when something had become part of the national conversation by making a joke about it. He stood at the center of the American mainstream, and bathed in radiant light.
After I went away to college and began making my own hours, I rarely missed "The Tonight Show," even though I came to know Johnny's moves so well that I could sometimes finish the bits myself: blurting out what was in Carnac's envelope, or guessing which young comics he would invite over to sit with him. (This was known among comedians as "getting panel," and if you could ask stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and David Letterman to pick the single greatest moment of their lives, even now I think they would tell you it was being beckoned to the couch by Johnny.) For a period of time, there was almost no one in this country who didn't know what they were supposed to do when they got to the Slauson Cutoff--cut off your slauson!--even if most of them had never seen the obscure Los Angeles traffic artery on which the recurring joke was based.
Carson's was the sort of soothing predictability that people hope to find when they go to church, and for many of us, what he delivered nightly was a benediction of accessible sophistication and wit. When he left the stage, he took all of that with him. And now we know it's never coming back.
Naomi Watts Cuts My Heart Out and Stomps On It (Or She Would If She Could Find It)
People keep telling me that when one door closes, another one opens. And while this sounds like really good advice, somehow it seems a lot more emotionally satisfying to stand outside the closed door, pounding as hard as I can.
Which is why we are here this morning to discuss the heartless treachery of Naomi Watts, formerly one of my favorite actresses, now...not so much.
Let me go back a few years.
I met Naomi Watts for the first time at Sundance four years ago at a daytime party hosted by the New York Times. The then-Hollywood correspondent for the Times, Rick Lyman, is one of my oldest college friends; after you've seen a person eating Stovetop Stuffing directly from the box, it's actually quite amusing to watch gorgeous Hollywood starlets thrusting themselves at him, hoping for a shred of attention. Watts was then almost a complete unknown (she'd had a supporting role in "Tank Girl," and you can't get much more unknown than that), and she was at the festival with a short film called "Ellie Parker," about a young, uknown actress going from one audition to another. She was completely charming.
She also mentioned that she'd completed a David Lynch film called "Mulholland Drive"--about which, at that point, no one knew anything--and by the time I met Watts again later that year in San Francisco to discuss that picture, it was clear she was a star. That's how fast it can happen.
Cut to this year's festival, to which Watts has returned with "Ellie Parker," now a full-length feature with her name above the title. But it's still an ultra-low budget project, shot on video by her friend Scott Coffey, who made the original short. It's a classic Sundance story, from rags to, well, better rags, and I had requested an interview with her to discuss it. We were to meet Saturday at 12:45 at the Blind Dog, a restaurant with wildly overpriced food next door to the festival headquarters.
At 12:25, Watts' publicist called on my cell with a fluttery British accent to say that Naomi was very sorry, but she was cutting her interviews a half-hour short, and as I was the last person on her shedyule, well, she was so, so sorry. A few minutes later, she called back and, sounding confused, asked who this was. When I told her it was still me, and I was still unhappy to have arranged my entire day around this interview--now roadkill--she said she was so, so sorry and hung up.
An hour later, I was talking to Keira Knightley, one of the stars of "The Jacket," another budding star who is all of 19. Sometimes when another door opens, you just have to go ahead and walk through it.