Sundance Millions for Some — Others Wait
The sharks are out. They smell blood in the water.
After four days of screenings, movie distributors are starting to shell out big bucks for some of the Sundance movies. The word went out yesterday afternoon that Fox Searchlight may have bought the rights to Jay Chandrasekhar's Super Troopers, a comedy that did not have a lot of buzz, for somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million. Arrow Releasing Corp. will announce on Wednesday that they bought Denis Villenueve's Maelstrom — which is narrated by a talking fish — for significantly less.
Still being negotiated are deals for the best of this year's Sundance crop: Green Dragon, Lift, Intimacy and Scotland, PA. Maybe the best movie of the whole festival, Memento, will not be sold but instead released by its owners under their own banner, Newmarket Distributing (absolutely not to be mistaken for a small American publisher with a similar name) on March 9 in New York and Los Angeles.
Memento was shown at the Toronto Film Festival, which does not award prizes, and subsequently put into competition here. I'm hard-pressed to say Memento is actually an indie film. It was produced after all by Team Todd — sisters Suzanne and Jennifer Todd — who also produced the Austin Powers movies.
Nevertheless, Memento is nothing short of a miracle as a motion picture. If there is any justice it will catch on just as The Sixth Sense did, with audiences going back to see it again and again to figure out the clues of this complex, superbly crafted mystery.
Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan from a script he wrote based on his brother Jonathan's short story, stars L.A. Confidential's Guy Pearce, Chocolat's Carrie-Anne Moss and the great character actor Joe Pantoliano. Pearce plays a man with short-term memory loss — he can't form any new memories — who is hunting for the man who raped and killed his wife. Because nothing since this trauma sticks in his mind, Pearce must write everything down, make Polaroids of new people he meets and tattoo his body with vital information lest he forget it. Pearce's performance is searing and nothing less than remarkable.
But even though it's stylish and well acted, Memento's real star is its script. Told not just backwards but in circles, constantly repeating information that Pearce has forgotten and piecing it together with what the audience has learned. Nolan has almost single-handedly reinvented the mystery/thriller format with Memento, combining elements of Harold Pinter's Betrayal with L.A. Confidential to make a riveting, mind-blowing movie experience. I have rarely seen the jaded Sundance audience on the edge of its collective seat during a showing, but Memento made believers of everyone. Audience applause started before the credits actually began to roll.
Not everything is going that well at this year's festival. Certainly there are head-scratchers, films that don't seem complete or well thought out, a little undercooked or not assembled properly.
But for every one of those there is a pleasant surprise. Following Memento Monday came Billy Morrissette's Scotland, PA, a parody of Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth set in the early '70s. Morrissette, husband of ER star Maura Tierney, scored a home run right out of the box. And popular Sundance actor James LeGros, currently featured on TV in Ally McBeal, may have his first real hit after making an endless number of indie features.
Not to give too much away, but Tierney and LeGros are the married McBeths, a couple who work for burger joint king Duncan. When Duncan passes over them for his metal rocker son Malcolm, the McBeths kill him. Idiot Malcolm gives them the restaurant, which they rename McBeth's, and they invent the drive-thru window. Alas, the local police detective McDuff (a delicious performance by Christopher Walken) pursues the McBeths, believing them to be the murderers. Among the many sly references is a character named Anthony Bancotti, nicknamed "Banco," whom the McBeths ultimately turn against.
Sounds like the sequel to Shakespeare in Love, and yes, Miramax would do well to buy Scotland, PA, and market it that way. It's an intensely witty, very funny and completely satisfying effort — and Walken gives his most centered and complete performance in years.
Meantime, Lift has taken off as one of this year's Sundance sleepers. DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter, a female/male directing combo who previously toiled for a Boston ad agency, have been fielding offers all weekend for their proud achievement. And Lift's star, Kerry Washington, is about to give Halle Berry a run for her money.
Washington, currently featured in Save the Last Dance, is a gorgeous creature in person, just waiting to be one People magazine's 50 most beautiful anythings. And on screen — well, in Lift, a dramedy about high-end shoplifting — Washington gets the kind of rare exposure Melanie Griffith got in Working Girl and Renée Zellweger gets in Nurse Betty. It's a memorable, career-making star turn.
It doesn't hurt that Washington is joined by a strong supporting cast that includes Lonette McKee as her unforgiving mother and Eugene Byrd as the boyfriend who wants her to go straight and stop "boosting" or "lifting" designer clothes from department stores.
I met the whole cast of Lift on Sunday morning at breakfast, and all I can say is they are my favorite ensemble from any movie. Byrd, who's a standout as Angelo in the film, got his start at age 15 on Sesame Street. His favorite memory? "Being eaten alive by Snuffleupagus," he laughed. "They should show it on an outtakes reel. But believe me, they never let the kids see it!"
Lonette McKee, whom you will remember from Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, and who recently did a long stint on As the World Turns as Camille's strict mother, is again cast here as a difficult, rigid, disapproving mom. In real life, she says, nothing could be further from the truth. "I'm so relaxed, these characters are nothing like me. But maybe it's the way I hold myself. Good posture, you know?" McKee, who's also an accomplished cabaret and Broadway singer, says her first love is R&B and hip hop. She's busy writing material now. She's an original free spirit. And like everyone and everything else to do with Lift, a real pleasure to be around.
Charlie's Angels star Sam Rockwell, looking like the Cat in the Hat, at the screening of Daniel Waters' Happy Campers ... Bruce Dern, famous actor and father of Laura, at Premiere magazine's bash Monday night. Also on hand: Jurassic Park's Sam Neill (see tomorrow for more about Sam) ... Mick Jagger making the rounds for Enigma, the film he produced with unlikely partner Lorne Michaels ... ex-Suddenly Susan star Nestor Carbonell — who faked a Spanish accent for the show — in town to promote his winning star turn in Bobby Roth's Jack the Dog ...