Sundance 2008 | The End Is Nigh

by twhalliii
January 26, 2008 3:00 AM
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One of the most condescending ideas in the whole of Western Mythology is the idea that if you work hard enough and think positively and try and try and try, you will eventually succeed.

It has been a long ten days for me in Park City. With two or three films left on the docket (including Hamlet 2 and Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) in a couple of hours), I have taken in around 37 films, but as with any festival, I am harboring some deep regrets about films I missed; The Order Of Myths and Momma's Man top the list, but thankfully Holly was able to get to those. It's all about the team covering as much as we can, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I hope to catch up with these movies when the invitations go out for Sarasota. In the meantime, I did brave the ever-diminishing industry lines to see some excellent films yesterday; A great way to begin the wind down here at Sundance.

Anvil: The Story Of Anvil

Before we begin, let me introduce you to the band. This is, without question, the anthem of Sundance 2008...

One of the most condescending ideas in the whole of Western Mythology is the idea that if you work hard enough, think positive thoughts and try try try, you will eventually succeed. This idea, that the will to power is some physical force in the universe, that there is such a thing as justice for working hard, serves the as the premise of Sascha Gervasi's terrifically funny and heartbreaking documentary Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Of course, Anvil also serves as a corrective to the fame and fortune myth; This is a story that will resonate with most of us who, for whatever reason, have modified our dreams over time to adjust to the expectations of real life.

Formed in the late 1970's by high school friends Robb Reiner (drums) and Lips (guitar/vocals), Anvil was a heavy (and I mean heavy) metal band just slightly ahead of their time. Early on in the film, Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Slash (Guns N' Roses) and a slew of other metal superstars recount the influence of Anvil's seminal album Metal on Metal on their own youthful dreams of becoming rock gods. The film opens with a sequence of bands playing an outdoor festival in early 1980's Japan and all of the big names are there; Metallica, Bon Jovi, Megadeath and, of course, Anvil, who certainly seem to hold their own as monsters of loud, fast rock and roll. But a funny thing happened on the road to the heavy metal pantheon; For whatever reason (most likely, Lars Ulrich suggests, it's something about "being Canadian"), Anvil never achieved the popularity of their peers. Of course, that didn't stop them; Recording 12 albums in the ensuing twenty five years, the band ground on, playing to diminishing crowds and equally declining economic success. The music business changed, metal moved to the margins, but Anvil hammered on in obscurity, becoming a part-time outlet for the founding members who have to hold various day jobs to help pay for the needs of their families.

The majority of Gervasi's film takes place between 2005 and today, as Anvil undertake two risky attempts to claim a modicum of the economic success and popular recognition that they richly deserve and have worked so very hard to attain; First, an ill-organized and poorly promoted 6 week tour of Europe that would have made Spinal Tap blanch and then a subsequent recording session for their new album, which costs tens of thousands of dollars that the band doesn't have. The album is crucial, the document they believe will finally be an adequate testament to the power of their thunderous sound. Nothing comes easy for the now 50-year-old rockers, and a series of conflicts and arguments between Robb and Lips brings us to the heart of the matter; Both men are so close to one another, so in need of the other's love. that their investment in the shared dream that is Anvil becomes apocalyptic; Each threat and intention to dissolve the band serves as an act of self-negation. The men are too close to one another to exist without the other, and their relationship through decades of shitty gigs and under-sold albums is really a love story between two artists and collaborators who struggle with the costs inherent in never realizing the fullness of their dreams.

But for all of their goofy proclamations, these guys aren't stupid. After shopping the record around to a slew of disinterested labels, Anvil finally get with the times; Self-distribution over the internet leads to a phone call from Japan, bringing Anvil back for a metal festival and allowing Gervasi's story to come full-circle. Will the Japanese audience help Anvil live the dream? Will Lips and Robb ever find the success they so desperately crave? A must-see for dreamers everywhere.

Man On Wire

On August 7, 1974, a French tightrope walker named Philippe Petit and a team of sympathetic raconteurs constructed a cable between the rooftops of the two towers of the World Trade Center. In the early morning hours, Petit grabbed his balancing pole and stepped out onto the wire. For 45 illegal minutes, Petit performed without the safety of a net, walking the wire, laying down on it and dazzling the crowds below. When he finally returned to the rooftop, he was immediately arrested, but his place was already firmly cemented in New York City legend.

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Petit On The Wire

In James Marsh's beautiful new documentary Man On Wire, Petit's walk, known among his collaborators as Le Coup, is examined in detail. Through in-depth interviews with the charismatic Petit and his collaborators, the entire planning for and execution of the daring walk is shown. The movie is both a celebration of the beauty of art (and the film leaves no doubt that Petit is an artist) and also a heist movie on par with, say, Rififi. March's generous use of gorgeous archival footage shows us the glorious amateurism of the plan in great detail; Petit's hand drawn models and maps of the Towers and their rooftops, his low-budget stake out of the Trade Cente, and his insider scheme to gain access to the building is something you'd expect to see in a Bottle Rocket-era Wes Anderson film. But while the Petit crew may not have been the most able of planners, when the plan is finally executed and the high wire is assembled and (somewhat) secured, it is Petit's artistry and concentration that literally takes your breath away.

Practicing for this great moment, Petit and his crew worked with playful abandon in the pastoral French countryside and their whimsical approach to the incredibly dangerous high wire walk in New York City is a testament to Petit's process; Walking the wire is pure joy, an expression of something ineffable and so very simple, you stand in awe of the achievement. Marsh does an amazing job of cutting between the "heist" portion of the film and Petit's artistic philosophy and action; Just when we're about to get bogged down in the story of the team breaking into and hiding out in the upper reaches of the World Trade Center, we return to the French countryside, to Petit horsing around with his friends, to the look of rapture on his face when, with the deepest concentration, he practices his craft.

Of course, the specter of September 11 looms over this film like an ethereal ghost, and while Marsh leaves the correlation between Petit's beautiful, creative crime and the horrible destruction of September 11 unspoken, there are a few moments that get stuck in the throat; A photo of Petit, balancing masterfully on the middle of his wire, perfectly placed between the Towers, with an passenger jet soaring just over his head is an absolutely unforgettable image. Marsh's understanding of the natural juxtaposition in the viewer's mind between Petit's walk and the tragic history that followed allows for even more resonance and feeling. After all of the planning, all of the anticipation, and with the real possibility of death or failure looming over the proceedings, Petit simply took a step onto his narrow wire, and with only the sky above and the concrete below, moved me to tears.

Baghead

Jay and Mark Duplass' genre-hopping romantic horror comedy Baghead is the story of four people, heart-sick Chad (Steve Zissis), studly Matt (Ross Partiridge), jilted Katherine (Elise Muller) and flirty Michelle (Greta Gerwig) who decide, after seeing a shitty independent film at a film festival screening, that they should make their own movie. On the spur of the moment, the team decides to head to a rustic cabin for the weekend in order to collaborate on their own script, and suddenly, something like Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy ensues; Attractions are declared and rejected, romantic intrigue abounds and plenty of alcohol is consumed. But when Michelle has a dream about a stalker with a paper bag covering his face, the plot quite literally thickens; The group decides that a horror film about a man with a Baghead would make the perfect script and, before too long, all hell breaks loose.

Baghead is a complete blast, a meta-exploration of the creative process, genre and relationships that gets just about everything right. Most excitingly, the film's tonal shifts between comedy, romance, horror and drama all feel completely natural and earned, which is no small feat. The film's visual style, with Jay Duplass' signature zooms and pans between closeups, works wonders with these actors, all of whom turn in winning performances; Greta Gerwig's work here, shifting between flirtation, fear, anger and compassion, cements her status as a rising star, and Steve Zissis' winning performance as Chad is a riff on the lovable, put-upon mensch he played in the Duplass' terrific short The Intervention. The film's shifting tone really works in concert with the performances, and because the story and the acting are so light and nimble, the film never bogs down in any one style. I was excited to see that the film sold and will be receiving distribution; I think, with the proper marketing and a good run of festival dates, the film could be a real hit with younger audiences who are looking for new stories that take chances and deliver the fun. The film is a true independent and while it won't be for everyone, it is comforting to know that there are filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers out there making us laugh, giving us the willies, breaking our hearts and telling stories that can't be categorized in a single sound bite. Or can they?

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