Sundance/Slamdances (Pete Small Is Dead, Vampire, The Ledge)

Movies Reviews Sundance
Sundance/Slamdances (Pete Small Is Dead, Vampire, The Ledge)

Paste film editor Michael Dunaway is at Sundance this week. Here’s a round-up of just some of the narrative films he’s seen so far.

Pete Smalls is Dead
The first wildly enjoyable film I saw at Sundance wasn’t a Sundance film at all. Rather than bring his new film to the senior festival, former Sundance winner Alexandre Rockwell chose to accept an invitation to open Slamdance this year because he says Slamdance is more fun. The cast (Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth in supporting roles and Peter Dinklage and Mark Boone Jr in two marvelous lead roles) is worthy of a Sundance Premiere, let alone a competition film. And it didn’t disappoint—the deft blend of ridiculous comedy (Buscemi’s wig alone is a sight to behold) and heartfelt poignancy works well. Dinklage’s weary sadness is palpable, and Mark Boone Junior is irresistible in “the Tom Waits role,” as a friend of mine called it. The plot is reminiscent of The Player in its multilayered and subversive critique of the Hollywood system. A heck of a good ride.

The Ledge
A tale of two movies, one of which works very well and one of which falls short of its mark. The cast is excellent, with Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), Terence Howard, and Liv Tyler all turning in fine performances. Howard co-produced and is probably the best of the three as a man who learns a terrible secret in the first scene of the film. But he doesn’t have time to grieve, as he’s called in to try to negotiate a man off a ledge (he’s a police officer, though by his own admission not an expert at these sorts of efforts). Howard’s scenes, including those on the titular ledge with Hunnam, are generally very well executed. But the filmmakers’ (and, for that matter, the cast’s) main purpose for the film is in the second storyline, told in flashback. It’s meant to be an intelligent exploration of the (false?) conflict between faith and reason, but the best champion that Director Matthew Chapman can produce for Team Faith is a hateful, misogynistic, socially awkward, snail of a guy, and his straw-man character gets virtually no intelligent lines. Improbably enough, Chapman is actually the great-grandson of Charles Darwin himself, so I suspect the subject hits a little too close to home for him to be sufficiently objective about the characters he’s putting on the screen.

Japanese director Shunji Iwai has produced a vampire film like none I’ve ever seen. The vampires in question have no supernatural powers at all; they simply crave the act of drinking their victim’s blood. And yes, that makes them serial killers. But at the opening of our story, Simon (Kevin Zegers) has infiltrated an Internet suicide club, much like the ones so common in Japan and popping up in the US and other countries as well. Iwai has an eye for beautiful and compelling images, a patience for mystery and ambiguity, and a stellar cast. Trevor Morgan is a standout as the creepiest taxi driver you’ll ever meet; he skates the line between pathetic and impressive perfectly. Adelaide Clemens turns a role that could easily have become a cipher into an enormously moving portrait. Rachael Leigh Cook creates a girl so wacky that even though she’s one of the only characters not involved in suicide and death, she’s actually the one we remember as a psycho. And Kristin Kreuk takes a crucially important final scene and nails it. An ambitiously innovative film that reaches for the stars and often gets there.

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