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Sounds, Starts and Padres

(L-R) Actors Kene Holliday and Pat Healy with writer/director Craig Zobel at the Sundance premiere of The Great World of Sound (Photos: STV)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

I've been underachieving mightily in my dispatches from Park City -- especially from premieres, which gave me such pleasure last year in the credential-less early days of crashing public screenings. These days, however, I have split on attending press screenings and public events, and it's something of a drag, to be honest; hissing at the screen at the end of Hounddog isn't nearly as rewarding among jaded peers as it would be among baffled festivalgoers.

But I've still taken in a few premieres featuring NYC films and/or filmmakers -- some of which were reported earlier, but a few of which I wanted to pass along quick word of now:

The Great World of Sound

Writer/director Craig Zobel was a hell of a gracious good sport in fielding the third degree on The Reeler before Sundance, and as I told him at the time, I wouldn't have been so inquisitive if I hadn't outright loved his film. A kind of American Idol meets Borat -- without the pranky cultural warfare -- The Great World of Sound follows the professional trajectories of "song sharks" Martin and Clarence (Pat Healy and Kene Holliday), traveling salesmen masquerading as record producers who audition "talent" from open calls placed in the back of newspapers. Not that talent has anything to do with it; the men work to pull thousands of dollars in production fees from anyone sentient enough to make a noise into a microphone. Think of it as Salesmen recast as an honest-to-goodness buddy movie -- and a classically funny one at that.

"I think everybody, in their lives, has been in these high-pressure, high-sales situations," Zobel said after last weekend's well-received premiere. "The most obvious would be shopping for a car or something, where you really do wind up in situations where you want to leave, and you feel like you’ve said, 'No.' Yet this other person just won't let it go. And I wanted to know where that other person was coming from. That was the kernel of it."

The audience let Zobel off the hook with the exploitation issue I raised in our conversation; I honestly thought the shooting methods -- surreptitiously filming auditions from behind two-way mirrors -- would provoke a little more controversy. But smart filmmaking and a pair of terrific lead performances will clear anyone's conscience, I suppose. I won't complain; this movie deserves every accolade it has coming to it.

Follow the jump for recaps from Starting Out in the Evening and Padre Nuestro

Starting Out in the Evening

Andrew Wagner, whose 2005 home movie-meets-family road comedy The Talent Given Us became a surprise Sundance hit (and my favorite film of that year), returned to Park City in competition on Sunday with the total stylistic reversal Starting Out in the Evening. Adapted from Brian Morton's novel, the film features strong performances from Frank Langella as novelist Leonard Schiller and Lauren Ambrose as a graduate student who befriends him in an attempt to profile and possibly revive his career. Lily Taylor portrays Schiller's daughter, as protective of him as she is leery of Ambrose's ambitious, driven young intellectual.

A good Start: Lili Taylor and filmmaker Andrew Wagner greet the crowd after the premiere of Starting Out in the Evening

Briefly overtaken with emotion following the strong audience response, Taylor acknowledged that the polished final product belied its grueling 18-day shooting schedule. "It was a hard film to make, but what it did was really refurbish my hope in independent film," she said. "I haven’t worked on a film for while that really had that experience that I think we saw more of a decade ago and then further back. To have that spirit where everyone was working really hard without a lot and wanted to be there, I just left feeling, 'Yeah.' And here it is a year later."

Beautifully shot in HD by cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian, Starting Out nevertheless struggles through a few convenient narrative hitches before settling into the character-driven New York chamber drama in which it finds its strongest momentum. "In all truth, it was the beauty of Brian's writing," Wagner said of his adaptation with writing partner Fred Parnes. "When you read a novel, the words on the page -- the words themselves -- as Leonard Schiller says, 'They are their writers' signature.' In making a film of those words, you have to somehow let go of the beauty for the moment and find out: Where is the inner life of the story? Where is the drama, and who are these characters? Of course, Brian rendered them beautifully, but our job in particular -- in bringing this to life as a screenplay -- was to find and enhance the dramatic and thematic spine so when someone as gifted and enormously talented as Lily takes these words and inhabits them, she brings them to life and that becomes our movie."

(L-R) Director Christopher Zalla with his Padre Nuestro cast -- Jesus Ochoa, Paola Mendoza, Armando Hernández and Jorge Adrián Espíndola -- at Monday's premiere

Padre Nuestro

Loaded with supersonic shooting style and moral ambiguity to spare, Christopher Zalla's Padre Nuestro is easily the best directed narrative feature I've seen at this year's festival. It literally begins and ends on the run, with the charismatic young Juan (Armando Hernández) first outmaneuvering a pack of anonymous pursuers on his way to a truck smuggling immigrants from Mexico to New York City. There, he meets Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), who's traveling to Brooklyn to meet his long-lost father. Juan steals Pedro's bag and his identity, locating the exhausted Diego (a magnificent Jesus Ochoa) in his rundown hovel and plotting to steal every dime the old man has saved in decades of labor in America. Left with nothing, Pedro resorts to petty crime and a partnership with junkie Magda (Paola Mendoza) to track down his father before his bond with the imposter Juan strengthens to the point insolubility.

Like Maria Full of Grace, Padre Nuestro was shot almost entirely in Spanish by an American filmmaker in New York, and in the discussion following the premiere, Zalla echoed a sentiment pronounced in that earlier film by director Joshua Marston. "Hopefully, we're to a point in the world now where we're starting a new conversation where we can look at how we're all alike and what our similarities are," Zalla said. "This is a movie about New Yorkers, for me -- it's about Americans."

But also like Maria (and Half Nelson, whose handheld urban perspective Padre also mirrors), Padre Nuestro toys with viewer sympathies, defying you to choose sides as Juan and Pedro skid through the city in increasingly desperate and unscrupulous fashion. It's an engrossing story -- a tribute to Zalla's extraordinary pacing and characterizations; that said, it's a difficult sell if only because it features only one genuinely likable character -- Diego -- and then places him inexorably in devastation's path.

Zalla told the audience that he embraces that reaction, freely admitting an attempt blur moral and ethical lines. "I think morality is a real privilege, and it's really easy to sit here and watch something and say, 'I wouldn't do that; he's the bad guy,' " he said. "But in fact, I don't see much difference between the decisions that the boys make. They're both doing what they have to do to survive. It's interesting. Part of the reason I did the movie was I was really looking at the way in which we, as an audience, approach those notions of good and evil, and how we align ourselves just on that moral paradigm. So what we really tried to do here was keep shifting that paradigm. Hopefully you abandon the need to sort of label someone good/evil/hero/villain and just say, 'OK, wow. You're real. I'll follow you and see where this goes.' "

And I certainly won't discourage that. A little late-festival alienation never hurt anyone, and Lord knows you can always bounce back with a good laugh at Hounddog.

Posted at February 24, 2007 12:11 PM

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