One of the recurring themes of this year’s Sundance Film Festival is faith, religion and spirituality — how we define it and how it defines us. Festival Director John Cooper said he was struck by how many submissions focused on faith, and he feels it's a reflection of filmmakers considering issues larger than themselves.
"It's America looking at itself," Cooper said,
Salvation Boulevard, is a dramatic comedy starring Pierce Brosnan as a charismatic preacher of a Christian spiritual community who is — you guessed it — corrupt. After a public debate with a famous atheist professor, he and loyal parrishoner, Carl Vanderveer (played by Greg Kinnear), repair to the professor's home to discuss a joint book idea. Spoiler alert — Brosnan accidentally kills the professor (played by Ed Harris), panics, and makes it look like a suicide. Brosnan then attempts to pin the killing on the shallow, silly, former Dead Head Vanderveer who is forced to go on the lam to clear himself.
Although the movie attempts to point out the hypocrisy of mega churches in a playful manner, it is about as subtle as a “laugh” sign. What follows is a lot of yelling, chases, and mostly cheap jokes that ridicule the branding and proselytizing of mega churches. For every laugh there are 20 jokes that are either silly, or just fall flat.
Brosnan looks the part of the famous, larger-than-life preacher but his accent in the movie veers between Texas twang to British. Clearly this is a movie that needs saving from a bad script and perhaps from audiences in general, though IFC Films and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions have partnered to acquire North American rights. Release date is set for later this year.
While Salvation Boulevard is slapstick and shallow, first-time-director Vera Farmiga takes a nuanced and thoughtful approach to faith in Higher Ground.
Farmiga, who was nominated for best supporting actress last year in the George Clooney movie, Up in the Air, also stars in this film based on Carolyn Briggs’ memoir This Dark World. She plays Corinne, an Iowa farm girl who becomes a born-again Christian in the 1970s. The movie does a good job of portraying a small town church and the tone of evangelical Christians during that era, when there was a rigid way to dress, speak (women, never) and behave.
Corinne’s spiritual crisis begins when her closest friend Annika, (portrayed brilliantly by Dagmara Domincyzk) is brain damaged from cancer surgery. While Corinne talks to God, she is not able to hear God’s response. Though she never abandons Christianity, she rebels against the rules. Though she has faith, she also has questions.
While a couple of the characters come close to being caricatures (though quite funny), Farmiga doesn’t let the story lose sight of Corine’s search to find a meaningful living faith. This is a motherlode of a role for an actress of Farmiga’s formidable talents. And the soundtrack is loaded with haunting, lyrical, original source music (Farmiga’s husband served as music director).
Farmiga, who has never forgotten her Sundance roots, charmed the audience when she introduced the film by saying “Hope you like it. I’ll be back afterward for a chat.”
During the Q&A, Farmiga said she was drawn to the movie because it involved fearless women—mother, daughter, wife. She had no intention to direct but was drawn to the book on so many levels that she ultimately didn’t want anyone else to direct the movie.
Farmiga told the audience that she was newly pregnant when approached with the film and directed it in her second trimester. “Talk about hormonal overload”, she laughed.
She said that she did everything new directors are told not to do: “I included dogs, children and other animals.”
I asked Farmiga— a self professed searcher of many religions — to elaborate on the ending which was, in my opinion, unresolved. Farmiga asked me, “Well, what do you think? Did she go back to the church? With this ending the viewer can create their own adventure that reflects their own spiritual journey. Corrine feels a responsibility to herself –not ridding herself of faith, but of an impoverished faith.”
“There will always be moments of not knowing and these moments can lead you to higher ground,” she said.
Sadly, no distribution deal yet for the movie.
Other Quick Takes:
This is not the last you will hear of Mark Pellington’s I Melt With You. At the press screening, nearly 50 people walked out and opinions veered mostly to the negative. The drama featuring Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Thomas Jayne and Christian McKay starts out benignly as four college friends in their mid forties reunite for a guy weekend of booze, drugs, bad behavior — and did I say drugs?
Without giving away the plot, we have four unlikable characters, not a happy moment to be had and bad goes to worse to catastrophic. Kyle Buchannan of Vulture commented that the characters had more lines of coke than they did dialogue.
On the plus side the film is filmed in majestic Big Sur and has an edgy 1980’s soundtrack . Rob Lowe fans will be impressed by his performance and a bit of nudity. But you will get to decide for yourself. Magnolia Pictures acquired rights to the movie (no release date set).
Margin Call with a mega-watt cast of Kevin Spacy, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany, was snapped up by Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate Films with a planned October release. It's a thriller that revolves around the key people at an investment bank over a 24-hour period during the early stages of the financial crisis — a timely topic that puts faces and humanity to a financial apopcalypse.