I am sitting by the fire in my Park City, Utah hotel, where the wall has enormous pictures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (as portrayed by Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and a sign that says “No Skis In Room.” This is the last day of the 2011 edition of the film festival founded by Redford. It began in 1978, took on the name Sundance in 1991 in honor of the founder’s iconic role, and is now the biggest festival in the US and possibly the world focusing on independent film. Movies like “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” and current Oscar nominee “Winter’s Bone” got their start here. While some people complain that it has become too institutional, the festival and its audience are devoted to independent film and film-makers who are independent in vision as well as in financing. A new category for entries called “Next” is dedicated to films made on micro-budgets. And Sundance has programs for beginning screenwriters and directors that has provided support to film-makers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Gordon Green.
I am here for the most unexpected of reasons, not as audience, critic, or press, but in support of a documentary about the financial meltdown called “The Flaw,” in which I appear. Director David Sington and I answered questions about the movie following yesterday’s screening.
I got to see two other films while I was here, both documentaries, “Hot Coffee,” a first-time film from lawyer Susan Saladoff about corporate sponsored efforts to prevent access to the courts and “Project Nim,” the story of an ambitious but poorly conceived 1970’s project to teach language to a chimpanzee and what happened when the experiment ended. Saladoff appeared before her film to tell us that two years ago she was where we were, sitting in the audience at Sundance, and inspired by what she saw to take a year off from work to make her movie. She told me later that she does not plan to go back to practicing law; she wants to keep making movies.
I was thrilled to attend the awards ceremony (you can see host Tim Blake Nelson wearing the festival’s logo snowflake), where I sat next to director Anne Sewitsky as she heard her name called as winner of the top prize for an international feature film for “Happy Happy.” Other award-winners that I am hoping to see in theaters include top festival prize and acting award winner “Like Crazy,” “Another Earth,” about a discovery of a parallel planet that might possibly give us the chance to erase our mistakes and painful losses; “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” based on archival footage from Swedish journalists of American black power leaders including Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver; “The Redemption of General Butt Naked,” a documentary about a once-brutal Liberian warlord turned preacher; and “Buck,” the true story of the man who inspired “The Horse Whisperer.” This year featured an unusual number of films about struggles with faith and spirituality, including “Butt Naked,” and “Higher Ground,” directed and starring Vera Farmiga (“Up in the Air”); “Tyrannosour,” directed by actor Paddy Considine (“In America”), and “Kinyarwanda,” the first feature film produced by Rwandans.
“Whip my Hair’s” Willow Smith, the daughter of mega-stars Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and sister of “Karate Kid’s” Jaden Smith is going to have a big-screen remake of her own. She will play Little Orphan Annie in the third version of the musical based on the plucky Depression-era girl with the red hair and the indomitable spirit.
Aileen Quinn starred in the musical film Annie, along with Carol Burnett as the wicked Miss Hannigan and Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks, the Wall Street financier who learns from Annie the importance of family. A somewhat livelier version of Annie was remade for television with Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as Miss Hannigan and an all-star cast of Broadway veterans including Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, and Kristin Chenoweth.
Before she sang about the hard knock life and the sun coming out tomorrow, Annie was the star of a comic strip created by Harold Grayin 1924, appearing in newspapers through June of last year. After Gray’s death, the strip was drawn and written by other artists, most notably the brilliantly talented Leonard Starr.
Annie was also a long-running radio series (you can hear it in “A Christmas Story”) and, an early example of multi-platform marketing, she appeared in books, comics, and as a doll, a game, and many, many other collectibles. A bittersweet documentary, Life After Tomorrow, is the story of the high-pressure atmosphere behind the scenes for the little girls who played Annie and the orphans in the musical show.
Who should co-star with Willow? And should they try to make it contemporary?
Actors! They just can’t help themselves when a juicy part comes along. And that is why Oscar-winner Sir Anthony Hopkins finds himself in “The Rite,” an “inspired by a true story” thriller about an exorcist who struggles with his own demons.
Actors who go over the top are often described as “chewing the scenery.” Sir Anthony here doesn’t just chew the scenery; he grinds it into dust.
The movie begins with Michael (“The Tudors'” Colin O’Donoghue), preparing a body for burial, the artifice of stuffing the inside of the mouth and sewing it shut to make it look comfortingly “real.” Michael and his father are undertakers, working out of their home. “We serve the dead but we don’t talk about them,” Michael’s taciturn father (Rutger Hauer) responds when Michael asks about her. Michael is not at all sure he is a believer, but in his family the only options are mortician and priest, so he enters seminary.
Four years later, he plans to leave. He is still not sure of his faith. One of his teachers persuades him (in part by threatening to turn his scholarship into a six-figure loan) to take a class at the Vatican in exorcism.
In Rome, he meets a Welsh priest named Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins) who lets him watch as he tries to exorcise a demon from a pregnant teenager. Michael acts as the representative of the audience by expressing his skepticism — how do the priests know that it is not just mental illness? Can we believe, in an era of science and empiricism, in demonic possession?
Director Mikael HÃ¥fstrÃ¶m has a good eye and a deft touch. He films the settings beautifully. And he knows when to lighten the mood with a little comic relief, though it is a bit much when someone comes to the door and Trevant says, archly, “Speak of the devil!” O’Donoghue has an appealing screen presence and holds his own on screen with Hopkins.
But the movie falls about the same time Hopkins’ character does. Up to that point, it does a pretty good job of balancing the spooky-horror gotcha schocks with some sincerity about the validity of demonic possession. But once Hopkins starts unraveling, the movie — and the interest of the audience — does, too.
I’m looking forward to Gnomeo & Juliet. It’s Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed love — with garden gnomes — and an all-star voice cast of classically-trained British acting royalty including James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Dame Maggie Smith, Patrick Stewart, and….Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan, and Ozzie Osborne!