My LA Weekly colleague, film editor Scott Foundas, is covering the Sundance Film Festival. Agree or disagree with what he thinks — but just know these are his reviews, not mine. I’m editing his reports for space, but you can read them in their entirety on LA Weekly‘s website here and here and here:
Writer-director Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls is an amusing divertissement that has injected some welcome levity into a Sundance dramatic competition dominated by visions of poverty, incest, domestic violence, dead children, bloody border crossings and the shadow of 9/11. Barthes’ film features the hangdog Paul Giamatti in a gently existential comedy about the little-known but highly lucrative world of international soul trafficking. Weighed down during the rehearsals for a stage production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Giamatti at the suggestion of his agent, puts his soul on deposit at a Roosevelt Island “soul storage facility” run by a kooky David Strathairn (not playing himself), then later opts for a soul transplant. Like a lot of Sundance entries past and present, Cold Souls begins with a blast of self-assured ingenuity that it doesn’t quite sustain over the course of the entire feature. But Barthes’ low-fi futurism, generous good humor and respect for the audience’s literacy are easy to admire.
In writer-director John Hindman’s Arlen Faber, Jeff Daniels plays to the back row as a reclusive Philadelphia author who 20 years ago published a book that came to define spirituality for an entire generation. Now, as reclusive authors are wont to do in Sundance movies, Faber is slowly lured out of his shell by an aggressively annoying cast of supporting characters that includes an overbearing, overcaffeinated single mother (Lauren Graham) and a self-pitying alcoholic bookseller (Lou Taylor Pucci). “Hell is other people,” Faber says at one point, quoting Sartre; but unlike the self-absorbed, misanthropic writer Daniels so effortlessly brought to life in The Squid And The Whale, this one never convinces as anything but the destined-to-be-lovable central figure in a wide-screen sit-com.
An existential quandary of a different sort drives director Nicholas Jasenovec’s Paper Heart, a hydra-headed narrative/non-fiction hybrid in which the diminutive Asian-American comedienne Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up) sets out on a cross-country journey to discover whether true love is a reality or merely an illusion. For a while, Paper Heart is a delight. Of considerably less interest is the contrived “B” storyline (which eventually becomes the “A” storyline) in which Yi’s own budding romance with Superbad and Juno star Michael Cera (who appears as himself) wreaks havoc with her progress on the documentary. But in Sundance — as in most relationships — a 60/40 success/failure ratio is nothing to scoff at.
One of the best films to premiere thus far in the festival’s dramatic competition will go straight from Sundance to HBO on February 21st. The movie is called Taking Chance and it would, admittedly, be a tough sell to moviegoers even in a boom market. Based on the journal kept by now-retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael R. Strobl as he escorted the body of a decorated PFC killed in Iraq back to his family, Taking Chance is an Iraq movie that consistently defies your expectations, and then exceeds them. The directorial debut of the veteran indie producer Ross Katz (whose credits include In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation), Taking Chance documents the preparation and transportation of Phelps’ body and finally prepared for burial. It speaks to the tact, simplicity and intelligence of Katz’s approach that he elects to keep Phelps a largely abstract, representative figure. He has also created an extraordinary showcase for Kevin Bacon, who plays Strobl.
In director Shana Feste’s dubiously titled Sundance competition entry The Greatest, Susan Sarandon’s 18-year-old son dies (by his own stupid fault) in a car crash and his surviving girlfriend (newcomer Carey Mulligan) subsequently announces that she’s pregnant. Seemingly included by the festival only because of its shameless plagiarism of Sundance founder Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, The Greatest is a mourning-family turkey with all the trimmings, like Pierce Brosnan playing the a father who can’t bring himself to grieve while Sarandon refuses to alter so much as one dust mite in the dead boy’s room. No movie at Sundance this year has depressed me more — not because of the story it tells, but because of the creative bankruptcy it embodies.