SUNDANCE 2006: A 14 Film Preview!

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Last year we were proud to bring you a four part preview of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. This year might not be in as many parts, but I can assure you that I have made an attempt to make this first preview a worthy one as I bring to you brand new pics and information on 14 new films and there is sure to be at least one, if not 14 films below that you are interested in.

One of the most interesting films to me is Come Early Morning, a film directed by the lovely Joey Lauren Adams and starring another lovely lady in Ashley Judd. The film is Adams’ directorial debut and the fact that she was able to get Judd along with Laura Prepon, Tim Blake Nelson, Diane Ladd, Jeffrey Donovan and Stacy Keach is a testament to how good this film could be.

Beyond that is Alpha Dog from Nick Cassavetes starring a huge cast of names. Speaking of names, how about The Darwin Awards with Winona Ryder, Joseph Fiennes, David Arquette, Jeffrey Tambor, Tim Blake Nelson and Emily Mortimer? Then you have two new films below featuring the amazing talent of Paul Giamatti in The Hawk is Dying and The Illusionist in which he stars alongside Edward Norton who plays a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna who falls in love with Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel), a woman well above his social standing. When she becomes engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the magician uses his dark arts to win her back and undermine the stability of the royal house of Vienna.

I think I may be giving enough away of what interests me, why don’t you make your own decision.

Below you will find a teaser image, the director/cast and a short preview of each film written by the Sundance Film Festival staff, which elegantly gives you a description and an opinion on each film. To check out the pics from each film you can click on the teaser image and be taken directly to the gallery for that film.

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ALPHA DOG

Nick Cassavetes captures the driving energy and sordid anomie of contemporary youth culture in his unflinchingly told cautionary tale, Alpha Dog. Based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, a midlevel drug dealer whose ambition and ruthlessness led him to become the youngest man ever to appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, Alpha Dog offers a glimpse of the rawness and reality of teenage life on the edge. The film stars Emile Hirsch as a teenage suburban drug dealer, Johnny Truelove, whose “gangsta” fueled lifestyle of sex, guns, and drugs is far over the top of customary adolescent restraints. When a competitor/client cheats him, he and his posse “kidnap” the client’s younger brother, who is more than willing to spend days partying with little sense or anticipation of his fate. But as events spiral out of Johnny’s control, the real consequences of his deadly games become inexorable. Featuring a marvelous ensemble cast that includes Justin Timberlake (whose work is a revelation), Ben Foster (equally so), Bruce Willis, and Sharon Stone, this is dense, galvanizing filmmaking, seething with tension and culminating in a tragedy that would be shocking if we weren’t so aware of the kind of world we live in, a place with kids who live without mores, parents who don’t have a clue, and ongoing conflict between the lingering innocence of youth and moral disintegration and dissolution. – Geoffrey Gilmore

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL

Art School Confidential tracks an art student who dreams of becoming the greatest artist in the world. Arriving as a freshman at a prestigious East Coast art school, Jerome quickly discovers that talent alone does not get him very far. When he sees that a clueless jock is attracting the glory rightfully due him, Jerome hatches an all-or-nothing plan to hit it big in the art world and win the heart of the most beautiful girl in school. But all is not as it seems, and he quickly learns that sometimes you really should be careful what you wish for. The film reteams Ghost World helmer Terry Zwigoff and cartoonist/screenwriter Dan Clowes. This time they shift their insightful gaze to the world of art schools and their vulnerable inhabitants. Their genius lies in the ability to peel off the layers of these type characters and expose their soft underbellies, leaving them open to be petted or skewered, depending upon how the viewer perceives them. No one is spared in this biting, but hilarious, exploration of the random and subjective nature of art. With a breakthrough performance by Max Minghella as Jerome, and a truly inspired one by John Malkovich as the pretentious and frustrated professor, Zwigoff makes a triumphant return to Sundance (Crumb won the Grand Jury Prize in 1995) with a film brimming with sardonic empathy and infused with an underground comic consciousness. – Trevor Groth

COME EARLY MORNING

Come Early Morning is a beautifully rendered story about a southern woman in a small-town, rural community, a subject director Joey Lauren Adams obviously knows intimately. Delicately told, and rather efficiently related, it is the story of Lucy, a 30-something woman who keeps waking up with a stiff hangover and a guy she doesn’t even want to look at. If coming to grips with why she keeps repeating this pattern isn’t enough, Lucy also begins to realize that she needs to get in touch with her familial past and, more importantly, with the person she has become. Fueled by a perfectly nuanced performance from the gifted Ashley Judd, Come Early Morning is about life transitions, the search for love, and the burdens we carry with us. A portrait of simple truths that isn’t archetypal melodrama, it steadfastly avoids wallowing in the depths of sentimentality or self-destruction. You can’t help but appreciate this kind of storytelling for its directness, honesty, and qualities of toughness and heart that leave you wanting to know more as it plays itself out, following you into that part of your filmic memory reserved for distinction. – Geoffrey Gilmore

THE DARWIN AWARDS

The Darwin Awards are a real-life phenomenon presented to individuals who improve the human gene pool by removing themselves from it when they accidentally kill themselves in incredibly stupid ways. Writer/director Finn Taylor develops this irony with a deliciously dark comedy that revels in the notion that truth is stranger than fiction…and a hell of a lot funnier. The stories in The Darwin Awards are integrated into a narrative about two characters grappling with their own destinies. Burrows is a brilliant detective with a special talent for profiling criminals. Siri is a hard-nosed insurance investigator whose steeliness and “throw-caution-to-the-wind” attitude is exactly the opposite of Burrows’s thoughtful hesitation. When Siri’s employer hires Burrows to create a profile for potential Darwin Award winners-who are costing the insurance company a fortune-the two begin a search for the answer to what makes these people tick. Taylor returns to Sundance (Dream with the Fishes, Cherish) with an epic comedy that boasts a dream team of acting talent. Joseph Fiennes exudes an intelligence that is the perfect foil to the absurdity happening around Burrows, while Winona Ryder displays a brazen strength and maturity that is a revelation as Siri. Combining these performances with numerous tasty cameos, Taylor weaves humor, romance, and adventure into a highly entertaining film. – Trevor Groth

THE DESCENT

As a rule, every year, Sarah and her athletic gal pals take a trip into nature’s wilds for an adventure. During a white-water rafting excursion, damaging sexual intrigue develops, and tragedy strikes Sarah and her family. In an attempt to heal old wounds, her friend Juno convinces Sarah and her sister, Kate, to leave Scotland and rejoin the group in the Appalachian Mountains for a cave expedition. After a night of revelry and reminiscing in their mountain cabin, the ladies hit the back roads for a set of unmapped caves discovered by Juno. With all faith placed in their fearless leader, the spelunkers dive into the beautiful depths of the damp caves and commence a journey destined to reveal the true nature of their friendships. What they discover in the cavernous depths will change their lives forever. With an exquisite eye for detail, Neil Marshall has created a rare achievement-a visually splendid horror thriller that delivers a roller-coaster ride of tension and fear. Starring an exceedingly good-looking cast, led by Shauna Macdonald as Sarah and Natalie Mendoza as Juno, The Descent is filled with astonishing cinematography and takes us on a terrifying drop into uncharted territory, one that you may find yourself wanting to take more than once. – Shari Frilot

DON’T COME KNOCKING

Howard Spence’s fame has enabled him to become the man he is today-a spoiled movie star, known for his rugged good looks and a checkered past of drinking and carousing. One day, on a mean drunk, he disappears from a film shoot in the Utah hills. A crazy road trip takes him as far as Butte, Montana, the last place he remembers being happy. Here he finds the scattered remains of a family life that could have been. At last our cowboy hero has reached the crossroads; he must embrace his past or keep on running. With his usual rare insight, Wim Wenders again delves into family dysfunction and absence, and rekindles his affection for the American West. He uses the expansive western sky to light Spence’s exterior journey, but the interior one is illuminated by the writing and performance of Sam Shepard. In Don’t Come Knocking, Wenders and Shepard continue their iconoclastic partnership of examining repression in the modern male. Not to be ignored is Jessica Lange as the gal Spence left behind. In no uncertain terms, she has her say and reminds us that life is all about choices-to have them is a luxury, not making them is just plain chicken, but it is living with them that makes you a real man… or woman. – John Cooper

FACTOTUM

Based on Charles Bukowski’s second novel and incorporating elements of his short stories, Factotum (which means “man of many jobs”) focuses on Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski. Henry is a slob of a man who is fired from one undemanding job after another because of his inability to focus on anything but boozing, gambling, and sex with women as libidinous as he is. He occasionally works on becoming a writer, forever sending short stories to publishers, and equally often receiving rejection notes. Along the way, he falls in with fellow lost soul Jan, and they embark on a tempestuous relationship fueled by sex and alcohol. Bukowski has been adapted to the screen many times, but seldom has it been done with such booze-soaked authenticity. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace as a series of incidents and anecdotes that are at times amusing, and at others gut wrenching. Writer/director Bent Hamer displays an unusually pleasing faithfulness to the peculiar spirit of Bukowski’s writing and worldview, and Matt Dillon gives one of his best performances as Chinaski; his deadpan delivery and raw physicality pump life into the gnarled character. Thanks to Hamer’s offbeat direction, a thoughtful script, and superb performances, Factotum has a scruffy, lowlife charm that gets under your skin and works its magic-much like Chinaski himself. – Trevor Groth

HALF NELSON

Ryan Fleck returns to Sundance with Half Nelson, a feature-length version of his Jury Prize-winning short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, that looks at an unlikely friendship that brings hope to a man trapped by his own demons. Dan Dunne is an idealistic inner-city junior high school teacher. Though he can get it together in the classroom, he spends his time outside school on the edge of consciousness. He juggles his hangovers and his homework, keeping his lives precariously separated, until one of his troubled students, Drey, catches him in a compromising situation. From this awkward beginning, Dan and Drey stumble into an unexpected friendship that threatens either to undo them, or to provide the vital change they both need to move forward in their lives. Half Nelson neither condemns nor sanctions Dan’s actions, but rather depicts characters who are “wrestling” with various aspects of themselves and their roles in the larger world around them. Ryan Gosling perfectly renders Dan, imbuing him with layers and dimensions rarely seen in film. Equally exciting is newcomer Shareeka Epps’s performance as Drey; she displays a remarkable ability to convey both wisdom and innocence. Fleck has delicately crafted a film about the universal struggle to achieve vital change in one’s life-and also about the role friendship can play in that struggle. – Trevor Groth

THE HAWK IS DYING

It is a basic human need to connect with something larger than yourself. Achieving this state of grace is an elusive goal, and oftentimes the process of making this connection doesn’t look very pretty or logical. Julian Goldberger returns to Sundance (his film Trans played in the 1999 Festival) with The Hawk Is Dying, an enigmatic and emotionally potent film about one man searching for meaning in his life. George Gattling is an auto upholsterer who lives with his sister, Precious, and her mentally challenged son, Fred. Occasionally in George’s life, there is sex with Betty, a 20-something pothead. But George’s passion and meaning in life are training hawks, even though he has fumbled falconry and killed several birds. One day, he and Fred catch the most magnificent red-tailed hawk he has ever seen. Nearly everyone in his life thinks he is mad for wanting to continue with falconry, but George is determined to finally tame the bird, even in the face of tragic events. Paul Giamatti’s incredibly powerful performance as Gattling, an earnest man who finds himself a fish out of water in his own life, firmly holds the emotional center of this daring and confident film. Entirely original, The Hawk Is Dying is a beautiful and metaphorical film rich with genuine emotion and unexpected epiphanies. – Shari Frilot

THE ILLUSIONIST

Are you the kind of person who scrutinizes magic tricks, or do you surrender yourself to the thrill of the moment? Either way, The Illusionist will keep you on the edge of your seat and transport you to a time that embraced the supernatural. Set in 1900 Vienna, this stunning romantic thriller is the story of Eisenheim, a brilliant mysterious magician bent on solving a puzzle that has eluded him since childhood. His ability to mesmerize crowds and his apparent attraction to the crown prince’s fiancée-Duchess von Teschen-threatens the prince and ignites suspicion from Chief Inspector Uhl. When the duchess is murdered, Eisenheim summons extraordinary powers in a desperate attempt to overcome Uhl, prove the prince guilty, and bring down the monarchy before it destroys him. At its heart, Neil Burger’s film is about social position and the will to challenge it. Eisenheim, a cabinetmaker’s son, iconoclastically dares to love a noblewoman and ridicule the prince. Uhl, on the other hand, believes royal fealty is his only ticket to power. From Eisenheim, he learns to listen to his inner sense of justice. With its glowing amber palette, splendid spectacles, and nuanced performances, The Illusionist explores art and technology as populist forces. Eisenheim’s otherworldly conjurings, which create a “protocinema,” stir his audiences to question authority, while he enlists acts of magic to serve the power of true love. – Caroline Libresco

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN

It all starts with a horse. Then an innocent man is mistaken for someone who owes money to a bookie. And when Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis), the most notorious assassin around, blows into town, everyone knows something big is about to burst. But what? Paul McGuigan’s delectable murder mystery, Lucky Number Slevin, is a fun, fast-paced thoroughbred of a thriller that is a sheer delight to track. Try and crack it, if you can! Slevin (Josh Hartnett) comes to New York to visit his friend Nick, but finds his apartment empty. “I think Nick is in trouble,” says Lindsey (Lucy Liu), his neighbor. This becomes clear to Slevin when he opens the door expecting to see cute little Lindsey and gets a henchman’s knuckles instead. The boss (Morgan Freeman, and later Ben Kingsley) wants to see Nick, and Slevin can’t prove he’s not Nick because his pocket got picked that morning. Soon he finds himself in the middle of a high-profile murder being plotted by one of New York’s biggest crime bosses. Exactly what kind of trouble is Nick in? McGuigan has crafted a densely stylish film noir from Jason Smilovic’s swift, tight, and furious script. Lucky Number Slevin‘s sly humor leaves you smiling as you contemplate the beauty of a Kansas City shuffle. – Shari Frilot

THE NIGHT LISTENER

Gabriel is a celebrated writer and popular late-night radio host. On the air waves across America, he is famous for sharing the many stories of his life, both true and embellished. When a manuscript from a troubled young listener finds its way onto his desk and into his psyche, he is rustled out of his New York brownstone and safe neighborhood. He embarks upon a journey that comes to test the very threshold of his own empathy. Gabriel states, “I will lay the events out exactly like I remember them”; thus begins the story of The Night Listener. Director and co-writer Patrick Stettner returns to Sundance (The Business of Strangers played in the 2001 Festival) and once again ventures into the darker side of human relationships. Adapted from the novel by Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener is a psychological thriller exploring uncharted territories of the bizarre and macabre. As Gabriel, Robin Williams contributes a wonderfully subdued performance, but meets his match in Toni Collette, who portrays the young boy’s adopted guardian. With an eerie atmosphere that borders on the creepy, desolate, wintry Wisconsin becomes the locale for a tale that may rattle you to your soul. In The Night Listener, when deception is what you desire, the line between truth and fiction begins to blur. – John Cooper

THE PROPOSITION

Nick Cave, the iconic Australian musician, marks his debut as a solo screenwriter with an intense, superbly crafted Australian western and journey through the mythology of the bush frontier. The Burns brothers’ gang-Arthur, Charlie, and 14 year-old Mikey-are allegedly responsible for the savage rape and murder of a settler family. After capturing two of them, British trooper Captain Stanley offers Charlie a proposition: young Mikey will hang on Christmas day unless Charlie finds and kills Arthur, his older brother and leader of the gang. What follows is a mythic exploration of colonization, racism, rituals of violence, and familial bonds in this compelling, and at times astonishingly violent, story that re-energizes the genre. The Proposition boasts full-bore performances by Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone. Pearce gives Charlie a stillness and grave introspection overlaid with feral cunning, while Winstone, as Stanley, rumbles with a tempered intensity as only he can. Equally impressive is the wild barrenness of the terrain; with its shimmering heat, flies, dust, and dead trees against a vast, empty sky, it becomes an integral character in itself. Despite its savagery, The Proposition is a superbly poetic and original film, showcasing the immense talents of director John Hillcoat in a graphic, haunting story of brotherly love, betrayal and redemption, and the consequence of violence. – Trevor Groth

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING

The last time he was at Sundance, we jokingly told Jason Reitman, “After three short films, you can only return with a feature.” Ask, and you shall receive. Thank You for Smoking is not only hilarious, but it also demonstrates a confident filmmaking maturity that should skyrocket a long career. Thank You for Smoking is nearly perfect in three ways: First-premise. Nick Naylor, fast-thinking master of media manipulation, is tapped to turn the tide of animosity away from the tobacco industry. Nick can talk his way in or out of anything, but this time he pulls out the big gun-Hollywood Second-pace. Reitman’s script is crisp and tight. Every joke and sight gag lands a punch. This hard-hitting satire takes us right to the edge but never over. Setups take place in real-world situations just close enough to the truth to scare us into laughter. Third-casting. The whole ensemble, led by Aaron Eckhart with his smug good looks, could not be better. Maria Bello’s liquor lobbyist and David Koechner’s gun advocate complete the mod squad of merchants-of-death who meet each week to brag about the spin they have unleashed. Film number four is a charm for Reitman, who achieves the near impossible: making us think and laugh at the same time. – John Cooper