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Sundance brings indie flicks into limelight

By Sommer Mathis

January 28, 2004 9:00 pm

“Primer” Written and Directed by Shane
Carruth Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic
Feature

If the goal of the Sundance Film Festival is to reward truly
independent films that rely on well-crafted stories, then
“Primer” is by far the obvious choice for top honors
this year. Faintly reminiscent of “Pi” and
“Memento,” Shane Carruth’s gripping tale of two
engineers who stumble upon an invention that could change the
entire world is a subtle, emotionally complex study on the joy of
discovery and the perils of absolute power. The story itself is
nearly impossible to summarize. At times infuriatingly confusing,
at others exhilaratingly clear, the film opens in a garage-based
laboratory not unlike the legendary one where Steve Jobs reportedly
developed the first Apple computer. Here we find four friends
looking for the next big thing to make them rich; two of them have
aspirations that seem to dwarf those of their partners. So they
begin working secretly on a machine that neither they nor audiences
quite understand at first. What slowly unravels is a narrative so
tightly held together that it should cause audiences often to lose
their breath in nervous anticipation. Being a freshman effort
produced for, according to Carruth, about the price of a used car,
“Primer” is by no means without flaws. Originally shot
on Super 16mm, the transfer to 35mm for its Sundance debut leaves
many scenes looking a little grainy and washed out. And while the
performances from the two leads, Carruth and standout David
Sullivan, are both extraordinary, the inexperience of some of the
supporting cast tends to show around the edges. Despite these few
shortcomings, most of which are a testament only to how much
Carruth was able to do with so little to work with,
“Primer” serves as an announcement of the arrival of a
confident young filmmaker with an uncanny feel for dramatic
tension.

“Down to the Bone” Directed By Debra Granik;
Written by Debra Granik, Richard Lieske Winner of the Dramatic
Directing Award

Whether or not you think there have been too many films about drug
addiction already made (and that is certainly a strong argument),
Debra Granik’s “Down to the Bone” cannot easily
be dismissed as just another junkie movie. It is simply too honest,
thoughtfully conceived and emotionally wrenching to be ignored.
Simply put, here is what “Down to the Bone” does better
than almost any film about drugs: “¢bull; Unlike
“Trainspotting,” it never comes close to glamorizing
drugs by showing users as exceptionally witty, fun people. “¢bull;
Unlike “28 Days,” it portrays a realistic,
honest-to-goodness rehabilitation center populated by real people
with real addictions instead of an eclectic mix of consistently
witty and interesting people. “¢bull; Unlike “Requiem for a
Dream,” drug users are not either beautiful young people with
great tastes in music or pathetic middle-aged people with no one to
look after them. Irene, the main character in “Down to the
Bone,” is a functioning, thirtysomething mother with a steady
job and a husband who is still around. “¢bull; Unlike
“Traffic,” the performances of the characters affected
by drug users are not over the top. Yes, the consequences of the
main characters’ actions are often dire, but Granik chooses
to let her actors react like actual people might, as opposed to
featuring chest-beating histrionics and overacting. Of course, all
of these distinctions are the mark of a smart director, so
it’s fitting that Granik was honored by the Sundance jury.
With a masterful performance from lead actress Vera Farmiga,
“Down to the Bone” is one of the most elegant,
realistic portrayals of addiction ever brought to the screen.

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