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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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A grand slam

By Danny Letz

So this year’s Sundance festival has been something of a mixed bag. The films I’ve seen screened have been batting roughly .500 on the sweet-o-meter, which means about half haven’t been anything amazing compared with the other half that are.

Still, the odds are better than the typical average in most regular theaters, which bat consistently in the .100 or .050 ranges.

In other words, Sundance has still got the studios beat.

And, luckily, Wednesday was a?grand slam? By that, I mean there were three movies that were all pretty damn good, and one of which takes the cake as my personal favorite of the festival thus far.

The first film, Luc Besson’s “Angel-A,” is best described as something of a modern take on Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” a la Franais–which roughly translates into: no family, no savings and loan, and probably many more student protests, baguettes and socialized medicine. Not really, but you understand it’s a different world.

Different in that Clarence has been replaced by a smoking hot, rail-thin blonde named Angela (Rie Rasmussen) set out to save the incompetent ne’er-do-well Andre (Jamel Debbouze) as he–wait for it–prepares to jump off a bridge due to the excessive amount of dough he owes to various French gangsters.

In all honesty, the film shouldn’t have been that good. Besson’s track record is sketchy at best (his writing credits include the Mila Jovovich vehicles “The Fifth Element,” “The Messenger: Joan of Arc,” the Jet Li vehicles “Kiss of the Dragon” and “Unleashed” and the always inspiring “Transporter” and “Transporter II” movies). Add a sketchy creator with material that’s been done before (repeatedly) and the result should be disaster.

Luckily, however, “Angel-A” is not. Rasmussen and Debbouze exude a certain chemistry and flirtatious irritation with each other, so it’s hard not to like them. Rasmussen is especially good, filling the role of Besson’s anemic tall girl (read: Mila Jovovich) with an intelligence that one can only hope will keep her from following Jovovich’s path into movies like “Ultraviolet” (cold shudder ensues).

Paired with a surprisingly smart script and the stark black and white cinematography of Thierry Arbogast, the film was enjoyable without being stupid or manipulative, which is saying a lot for Besson.

Following “Angel-A,” I was treated to my personal pick of the festival, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s “Reprise.”

Influenced highly by director Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” and various other directors of the French New Wave, “Reprise” is probably the most inventive, honest and striking coming-of-age stories I’ve seen in a long time.

Don’t get me wrong, “Garden State” and “The Graduate” are among my top movies of all time, but Trier’s “Reprise” is at once more experimental in its chronology, structure and stylistic approach, and it contains performances that easily rival Braff’s or Hoffman’s.

The film chronicles the fate of two best friends as they both simultaneously submit their manuscripts for prospective novels. One will be published, the other will not.

The ensuing film chronicles the paths of the two friends as they achieve success, descend into controlled madness and somehow remain incredibly close–closer than any other relationship present in the film.

I overheard someone mention that a studio is attempting to convince Trier to produce/film another version of “Reprise” with American or English actors for distribution to the states, which is as redundant as it is myopic: there’s nothing to gain from an English version but hotter actors and a washed-down script that’s more easily digested (look at last year’s remake of “The Last Kiss” for evidence of a similar situation gone awry).

Following “Reprise,” it seemed un-likely to find another film that would measure up to the previous two. Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road,” however, proved me wrong.

“Red Road” (in Scottish-English with English subtitles–always hilarious) follows a CCTV operator’s near-obsessive stalking of a man she watches from the CCTV cameras posted all over the UK. What is the connection between the two, and what drives this leering lass to do as she does?

The filmmaker insisted that no one in the screening give away the turn toward the end of the film (it isn’t as obvious as Besson’s Angela being an angel), so all that’s to be said is that “Red Road” exudes a very, very creepy, slowly rising tension throughout the film.

Someone after the screening compared it to Michael Haneke’s “Cache” in both mood and tension, which is apt. Tense without being slow, the movie is a must-see from Arnold, winner of the Academy Award for her short film “Wasp.”

So, with the precious few hours left at Sundance, try, try as hard as you might, to see any available screenings left for “Angel-A,” “Reprise” and “Red Road.” You’re sure to hit a home run. Or just insert some other baseball clich here for “will like it a lot.”

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