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Sundance #5: From Judd to Jesus

PARK CITY, Utah – Most of Ashley Judd ‘s biggest hits have been thrillers, but most of her very best work has been in closeup character studies. That was true of her first film, “Ruby in Paradise,” and it’s true again of “Come Early Morning,” the story of a small-town woman whose pattern is to get drunk, sleep with a guy she picks up in a bar, and make a quick getaway the next morning.

But her character is not quite that simple. She also holds down an important desk job in a construction company, goes to church with her dad in hopes of getting closer to him, and is a good friend –- or girl friend, because no guy gets very close, until she meets a nice man played by Jeffrey Donovan.

In a more conventional movie, she would learn to love him, and leave all her issues behind. “But I didn’t want this movie to be about how all her problems are solved when she meets the right guy,” Joey Lauren Adams told the audience at the Sundance premiere. Adams, an actress who works too rarely (she was wonderful in Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy”), makes her directing debut with “Come Early Morning,” and it has the assurance of a thoughtful filmmaker who knows her characters and how to tell their stories with no wrong steps or awkward moments.

We watch Lucy, the Ashley Judd character, and we sense how deep her problems are, and there is an answer somewhere in the shyness of her father (Scott Wilson), who sits alone and drinks and smokes and once played guitar good enough to go head-to-head with Chet Atkins, but never had the nerve to do it again.

* * *

The South African film renaissance continues with one of the most extraordinary and powerful films at Sundance, “Son of Man.” This is the story of Jesus, told in episodes from the New Testament, but set in present-day Africa. This is a Jesus (Andile Kosi) who says the same sorts of things he says in the Bible, is not “updated” except in some of his terms of reference, and yet sends an unmistakable message: If Jesus were alive today, he would be singled out as a dangerous political leader, just as he was the first time around.

The movie has relatively little spoken dialogue, but a great deal of music, that joyous full-throated South African music that combines great technical skill with great heart. Some of the best moments belong to a chorus, singing the praises of the lord. Others belong to an actress named Pauline Malefane, who plays Mary, and sings in celebration after being told she will be the mother of Jesus.

She’s told by an angel; the angels in the movie are small African boys with a few feathers attached here and there, looking on with concern. Jesus’s disciplines include a few women along with the men this time, and they follow him through the townships of Cape Town as he preaches non-violence. Television news tells of occupying forces and uprisings, the modern version of the Roman concern with the Jews. Judas spies on Jesus with a video camera. The secret of the movie is that it doesn’t strain to draw parallels with current world events – because it doesn’t have to.

The movie was directed by Mark Dornford-May, but it is an improvisational collaboration of the Dimpho Di Kopane Theater company, which also created Dornford-May’s great “U-Carmen” (2005), a version of Bizet’s opera sung entirely in Khosa. That, too, starred Pauline Malefane, a trained opera singer.

* * *

Haskell Wexler and his wife Rita Taggert held a little dinner on Monday night after the Sundance premiere of “Who Needs Sleep?,” the new doc by Wexler and Lisa Leeman. But I had to get up early Tuesday to see the 8:30 a.m. screening of, yes, “Who Needs Sleep?” Here is a movie that could supply Sundance with its official motto.

“I started working on this film when I was 75,” says Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer, who is now 80. He started it soon after the death of a camera operator named Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and was killed, after finishing a 19-hour day on the set.

Wexler argues that long hours are running out of control in Hollywood. He’s involved in a group called “12 On and 12 Off,” which tries to limit shifts to 12 hours. A more typical work schedule for cast and crew members is 14, 16, even 18 hours. Such hours are unheard of on movie sets elsewhere in the world.

Wexler visits sleep experts who say Americans exist with a “sleep debt,” take pride on going without sleep, and are doing damage to their health, their thinking, and their safety. He visits union officials who were early to sign on to shorter hours after Hershman’s death, but now, curiously, claim they’re powerless. No one seems to have the will to act.

Overtime is a way to hide budget moneys, one insider tells Wexler. “The studio doesn’t notice overtime, but they notice extra days.” Spouses complain they never see each other. One production worker has never had dinner with his family. Toward the end of shooting, another film worker was killed, asleep at the wheel.

Wexler has been a political activist since day one. Here, because he’s dealing with a glamorous industry, he runs into opposition from people who argue that if you want to make movies, you gotta be willing to pay the price. Yes, some actors make $20 million paychecks, but the average actor makes around $40,000, and because they are often out of work the average crew member is also around that level. Many of them need longer hours to qualify for health insurance. And their unions seem co-opted by the industry.

* * *

It’s official: Rights to “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hit comedy hit from Sundance, have been purchased by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million, a festival record. Meanwhile, “Son of Man” and “Eve and the Fire Horse” (which I wrote about yesterday) are still seeking distribution deals. Terrific comedies are a lot of fun and an easy sell. Quieter, more human films, those made at the edge of imagination and artistry, are another matter

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