From Sundance to Berlin
The strength of a countrys industries is in its exports, at least thats what were told. Should film be any different? Sundance is a global brand, and an international one. Even though the foreign films at Sundance are a growing part of the festival, most of the program is American, and quite a number of those films are going to the Berlin International Film Festival. So ““ now that Sundance is over, whats part of the Berlin airlift?
Theres Margin Call, yet another version of Wall Street, this time in a 24-hour window in an investment bank on the upper floors of a Manhattan skyscraper with Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, and even Demi Moore as an icy downsizer whos as ruthless as the boys in the boardroom. Stanley Tucci plays the saint in the shark tank as a specialist in risk management whos let go, but not before he tells the kids who are left in his department that the bank has been exploiting toxic assets that could bring the whole house down. Margin Call, the feature debut of J. C. Chandor, is melodrama, but what feature about financial collapse isnt? Well see in Berlin whether theres any appetite left for this kind of saga ““ and whether theres any room left in hell for actors who want their shot at the Gordon Gecko role. Irons puts a new wrinkle on the investment villain, as a CEO who cant read a financial chart (he comes from the marketing department) but does drink a fine Bordeaux at lunch. He may even read Proust.Its more evidence that cultural refinement doesnt necessarily make you a better person.
But can the world take another saga about misdeed on Wall Street? Can the stars make this ship sail?
Then theres The Future, the latest by Miranda July. The actress/writer/director should have gotten Sundances prize for Self-Love, but Tiffany Shlain (Connected) cut ahead of her on the line. Julys story here is about two characters in a relationship in LA who decide to change their lives, by quitting the jobs. The story is narrated by a cat ““ in the voice, I think, of July herself.
Theres German money in this film, and a German sales agent, and her previous film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was a hit at Cannes in 2005. Maybe they see something in the film that I dont. If The Future is the future of independent cinema, Im worried.
One of my favorites at Sundance was The Bengali Detective, the documentary that Brit Philip Cox built around Ralesh Ji, a paunchy private detective in Kolkata (Calcutta) whose business does the dirty job that corrupt or indifferent police are supposed to do. Rajesh Ji has a team of detectives who scramble around him to investigate everything from murder to the trade in knockoff goods. In his spare time, Rajesh Ji and the detectives study dancing with the hope of participating in national contests.
Who could make this stuff up? Well, Fox Searchlight hopes to do some of that. The division of 20th Century Fox bought the remake rights to The Bengali Detective. Who can blame them? The documentary has great characters, pageantry, intrigue, and emotion. Maybe theyll cast the Bollywood star Aamir Khan and turn this into an international hit. Yet, given what happens to most remakes, see the doc first.
Among the features at Sundance which indicate that this American festival is gradually becoming a festival of films in the English language, The Guard was another study in character. Brendan Gleeson, the Irish actor who has played everyone from Churchill to Cromwell, is a local policeman with a taste for literature, a dying mother, and a habit of waking around in underwear that makes him look like a fashion victim. And drug dealers are killing people in his town. The crooks end up murdering his young rookie partner.
Gleeson is the kind of actor who, as they say, would be fun to watch even if he were reading from the telephone book, which might be compelling if that were a telephone book from rural Ireland. But he doesnt have to do that here. The script for The Guard is written by John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh, author of In Bruges and a string of hits for the theater.
John Michael McDonagh also directed The Guard, which has an ensemble of Irish character actors that weaves together a web of corruption in the local police force.When a square by-the-book FBI agent played by Don Cheadle arrives to investigate the drug ring, McDonagh gets a chance to write for a character whos new to the local pub. Just listening to the dialogue, you can hear how much fun hes having when the FBI man gets exasperated as things fly out of control. The Guard will make it to theaters in the US. It may be too dialogue-driven for the European market (in English that now needs sub-titles for American to understand it).
A film that might work in Europe, or at least at a festival like Berlin, is The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75, a Swedish compilation of interview tapes that were distilled from hours of mostly black and white material found on the shelves at Swedish television. Swedish crews came to the US during those years and sought out Black radicals and people on the street. The mixdown in this documentary is as nostalgic now as it was naÃ¯ve and exotic then. But these were the days when it was unthinkable that a Black American could be elected president.A lot of the interviewees ended up in prison. Voiceovers from observers today ““ Harry Belafonte, Erykah Badu, Sonia Sanchez and others link Black radicalism then to a world that has changed in some ways, and remained the same in others.
The films that Berlin doesnt seem to take are the environmental sagas that have been a fixture of Sundance for decades now. Its not just an American taste. Darwins Nightmare, the Austrian doc of 2004, is one of the pioneer films in this broad field.
One film that should be traveling is The Last Mountain, Bill Haneys doc about mountaintop removal in West Virginia and “the smudge of coal on the politics and the landscape of America.” Coal now fuels half the electricity used in the US. Haneys film looks at a plan to place a wind farm on a mountaintop instead of demolishing the peak. “The US is the Saudi Arabia of wind. We have almost twice the natural wind resources of any country in the world,” he said. “Just three states in the US have the capacity to meet all the electricity needs of the country, even if every car was an electric car.” Good news. Too bad it wont be heard (or seen) in Berlin.