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Sundance 2012 was as busy as ever including the all important film deals. There may have been a slight let-up in the downtown party scene, but I may not have been the best judge of that as I opted to stay in on Friday and Saturday night of the opening weekend. That was due in part to the relentless Saturday snow which became slush on the ground. I wore my favorite shoes, they are not waterproof. That Saturday snow also led to an enormous traffic jam. At about 6 pm on that day it seemed like there was one theater bus, with about 500 people on it and it was not going anywhere. Things lightened up as the weather calmed and the week wore on. But opening weekend is always the crazy part of the festival, the crowds continually subside throughout the week heading towards the closing weekend. Secrets festival photographer Ray Keller and I departed on Thursday after seeing 18 movies (and skiing 3 days). Three of those 'movies' were shorts collections so I have 15 to report on below.
Tickets were a little hard to come by for the major Hollywood premiers but that worked out ok as we ended up seeing some real gems from the indie scene. If you are thinking of coming to Sundance keep in mind that you can get into most any movie if you show up early and wait. Being at the front of the waitlist line almost always works out, you'll be able to purchase a ticket for $15 from the festival or from a person who has extras. Or, some other person might just give you a ticket.
We talked to some people in line for another movie who used that tactic to get into Red Lights with Robert Deniro and Sigourney Weaver. They were there three hours before the screening to get that spot at the front of the wait list line though. They loved the film but there were reports online that potential studio buyers of this film walked out 30 minutes into the screening, one of them throwing up his hands and saying 'What!? What!?'. It's unclear if it was excessive violence or a hard to follow plot that was so upsetting.
Being away from the Downtown and Hollywood premiers we ended up with few celebrity sightings. As we were waiting to see Payback (a documentary about the concept of debt, based on the writings of Margaret Atwood) I thought I saw Mathew Perry but thought 'no that can't be him, these people are exiting from the Documentary Shorts program' (not exactly a star studded event). Later I overheard some volunteers remarking on the departure of Mathew Perry so there you go, celebs all over. There is an interesting difference between Sundance's industry focus and the film-fan focus at Telluride (the other festival I regularly cover for Secrets). A couple of years ago Sean Penn was at Telluride for the premier of his film Into the Wild. Every single Telluride attendee wanted to be in that one theater. Mr. Penn was also at Sundance this year to promote This Must Be the Place (Sean Penn plays a retired goth rocker). I can't speak for the atmosphere in the theater but elsewhere in the festival no one raised an eyebrow. It was non-remarkable news. People who saw the movie liked it immensely and said that as with other Sean Penn roles after about two minutes you forget that it is him and become engrossed in the character.
Festivals always seem to have unofficial themes and for Sundance 2012 it was robots(!). We managed to see one of the robot films - a short called Robots of Brixton which used CGI to convert stock footage of protesters at police riots into video game style robots, very interesting. The primary robot film was Robot and Frank. Everyone who saw that loved it.
There were two films that we did not have tickets for but that seemed to get especially good or bad buzz at the festival:
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Grand Jury Prize Winner) Listed as mythological, anthropological, folkloric, and apocalyptic and staring no professional actors.
The Surrogate (Dramatic Audience Award) Based on a true story of a man who must live his life in an iron lung. Staring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes.
Wuthering Heights on the other hand seemed to be universally hated. Folks said it was incredibly self indulgent with extended shots of water between each and every scene.
On to the reviews!! I've listed my favorites here at the beginning, otherwise the films are kind of in the order we saw them.
Safety Not Guaranteed
During the Q&A actor Mark Duplass said that he thought of this movie as 'cynicism meets optimism, complete and utter optimism, blind and stupid optimism'. This is my favorite film from Sundance this year. Call me an optimist but I'll try to get everyone I know to see it. Last year my favorite was 'Another Earth' which I hope everyone has seen or will see as well. In 1997 a classified ad appeared in Washington Papers: "Wanted, Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before." That much is a true story, the film makers had to option the rights from the person who had placed the ad to make this film. In the movie (fictional), a magazine reporter takes two interns to investigate. They find the man who placed the ad in rural Washington and he is as eccentric as you might expect. Actress Aubrey Plaza is wonderful in a leading role as one of the interns. Writer Derek Connolly had seen her in Funny People and was inspired to write this part specifically for her. She can also be seen currently in the TV series Parks and Recreation. BTW, the person who originally placed the ad has a cameo in the movie. He is the first person to pick up mail at the PO Box that the reporters are staking out. It is the actual PO Box that was mentioned in the original ad. He was also present for the second screening at Sundance, unfortunately we saw the first screening and he wasn't there. Why couldn't he just travel back in time to be there at our screening?? Anyway, the more I like a movie the less I want to tell you about it so see it! With a date. I'll just relate a low-budget movie making story that the director shared at the Q&A. The hero of the film drives a beat up Datsun 240z. The producers bought the car for $300. On the day of filming a mild car chase, it wouldn't start, so the car chase was filmed with people pushing the Z. Movie magic.
Waiting for the bus after the movie, in the snow, we talked with a friend of the director of LUV. He said this movie has been in development for 10 years. I think most of that was waiting for child actor Michael Rainey Jr. to reach the appropriate age for this character. Once again a movie that relies heavily on a child actor finds one that hits it out of the park. I can only think that growing up in the technology era has acquainted these kids with the notion of acting from an early age. Some rapper named Common also does pretty well in this film. I wouldn't be surprised if they both got Oscar noms when this movie makes it to theaters. The story centers on these two, Vincent (Common) is recently released from jail and wanting to play it straight, his nephew Woody (Rainey) has nothing but admiration for his uncle. Everything happens in the next 24 hours. But the movie is as much about Baltimore and the rampant drug gangs as it is those critical family relationships. Introducing the film, first time director Sheldon Candis was a little bit teary when he said he hoped the movie would move people to be forgiving towards a family member who perhaps wasn't there in the way they should have been when you were a child. After the film, during the Q&A, Candis choked back heavy tears when talking about having to leave his native Baltimore (due to rampant crime). This one is from the heart and ranks among the most amazing first features for a director of all time. There was a lot of Q&A time spent on the cinematography as well. The film was shot on the Red One camera using crazy expensive HAWK anamorphic lenses to make the most of the camera's sensor. The film is full of fantastic low light scenes and looks as good or better than any Hollywood film I can think of.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
The power of the documentary films shown at Sundance continues to amaze me. A lot of times when we've got a documentary lined up in the schedule I start to think that I'd rather be seeing a feature. They're more interesting right? Then I get schooled. Part of what makes for an amazing documentary is access. Access to presidents, access to artists, access to foreign lands. This movie about Ai Weiwei has two of those three. The one that is missing, the leaders of China, have their representatives all over this film though. Their henchmen. We are presently so entrenched with China for business purposes we might as well think of them as the 51st state. Unfortunately it's a mafia controlled 51st state. Ai Weiwei has been China's most visible artist, most famous perhaps for designing the Bird's Nest stadium used in the Beijing Olympics. He's also famous for outspoken criticism of the Chinese government. For instance, as shown in the film, after the devastating Sichuan earthquakes Weiwei joined another artist in attempting to publicize online the names of the school children who were killed. This was part memorial, partly a service to the parents who had no official means of finding out the fate of their child and largely a way to protest against the party and corruption that allowed the construction of unsafe buildings, including these schools. As there was no official government accounting of the dead he gathered the names from teachers, friends and parents, one at a time. His blog was shut down for this. That was just the beginning though. The amazing part of this film is getting to see the thugs that are sent by the government to spy on and harass Weiwei. The powers that be are not yet prepared to deal with everyone having a camera. Had they known however that one of those cameras belonged to an American documentary film maker they might have taken steps to stop her. Clearly they did not know this would become a film that anyone could see. I highly recommend that you see it. There is so much happening in the news on a daily basis it is easy to forget just how oppressive our enormous business partner is. The news about the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei in April 2011 came and went. An earlier version of this film was in post production at the time, director Alison Klayman returned to China to continue filming. This filmmaker deserves a special note, this young woman who graduated college in 2006, taught herself Chinese in the months before travelling there. She says it's easy. The trip did not have this specific purpose though she does consider herself an independent journalist. She came back with this important film.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Director Alison Klayman
Ooo boy. You have to see this movie. It's disturbing as all get-out and all the more so because it's based on true events. I'm still a little creeped out as I write this a week after seeing it. At the screening I saw there was an array of people addicted to texting, lighting up their cell phones which I find supremely annoying but in this case I was actually glad to have a distraction from what was occurring on screen. At the Q&A the director thanked the audience for staying, it's that hard to watch. But no one was leaving this film, it's gripping and the tale is told flawlessly. The violence shown is psychological and perpetrated over the phone as employees at an overly busy fast food restaurant are phoned by a police officer, he's too busy to come over and investigate a complaint from a customer about stolen money so he convinces the manager to hold the suspect employee, a teenage girl, in the back and perform an interrogation and search. Had this been a made up tale, no one would believe it but it's based on a composite of 70 such (known) events and one especially that went as far in real life as the one shown in this movie. I know many people don't like disturbing films, real or made up. But, since this is a true tale and involves the psychology of authority I think it is vital that people see this and think about their own reactions to authority, in all situations. Even though the film was part of the NEXT program at Sundance, usually reserved for films of lesser production value (which I don't think applies here), the film was bought by Magnolia pictures so it looks like it will be in theaters.
Marina Abromovic:The Artist is Present
The filmmakers, like most people in the audience for this film, like most people, have been skeptics of the concept of performance art. Making this film changed their ideas, changed them. Watching it will likely do the same to you. If an artist's goal is to move you, to change you, no one puts more into that goal than Marina Abromovic and for those present at her performances and perhaps no one succeeds as much. Of particular interest in the film is the centerpiece of Abromovic's unprecedented show at MOMA in NY in 2010. All six floors of the museum were given over to one artist. On 5 of the 6 floors were recreations of her previous works with young, currently active performance artists performing the pieces originally performed by Marina and her husband Ulay, starting in the 70's. The centerpiece though was perhaps a career defining if not genre defining piece (act? performance?) wherein Marina Abromovic made herself present to whomever wanted to sit across from her, for however long they wanted to sit there. Lines formed outside the museum from the night before to have a chance to do this during the 60 days that the show was on. This meant that the artist sat, sat and made continuous eye contact with complete strangers, 10 hours a day for 60 days. I can tell you that people felt transformed by the experience but I really suggest seeing the movie to see these people report it themselves. You won't doubt them.
So many things are revealed at Sundance Q&A's: At this showing the film makers decided to remove the final scenes of the movie. These scenes show a sort of celebrity-filled after party held for Marina immediately after the conclusion of her MOMA show. The film and the artist make no bones about this sort of dual nature of Abromovic, she is at once earthy, genuine and about nothing but art while simultaneously being a fashionista and lover of celebrity culture. However, some in audience as well as the film makers thought that the final scenes in the film took away from the power of what she was doing at the museum. Also of note, a man who managed to sit with Marina 21 times during the show is in the film, he has '21' tattooed on his arm. What isn't said is that each of those times he sat with the artist for 7-10 hours (kind of unfair to the others in line I think). Also, the museum guards, who were more about security, ie, not necessarily the arty type, would come back to the museum on their day off to get their chance to sit across from Marina. The director of the film met Marina by chance when he was a last-minute fill in for a friend who had to cancel from a dinner party. He was seated between Marina and her ex-husband Ulay. He got this idea to shoot this documentary and Marina gave him keys to her house that day. The film would have faltered due to financial reasons but an HBO executive sat across from Marina during her MOMA show and immediately arranged to finance the film.
Sundance, like the Oscars, has a somewhat artificial division between domestic and foreign films. Four Suns was one of the films in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, had it been in English, and/or filmed in the US it seems like it would have done fine in the domestic contest. Filmed in the Czech Republic and in Czech with English subtitles it is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Jára, his wife, Jana, their toddler, and Véna, Jára's teenage son from a previous marriage live in a small house with not much to show. Jára's marijuana habit causes him to lose his factory job and when his son picks up the same habit things go from bad to worse. Misplaced faith in his New Age-y friend Karel doesn't help. Director Bohdan Sláma is considered the best contemporary Czech director and it's clear why. The characters are distinct, delicate and very realistic. The film's positive view emerges gently from a sea of disastrous decisions and bad turns by people that could easily despise if this director/writer didn't love them himself.
Wish You Were Here
This is an Australian mid-budget thriller. Told through flashbacks that slowly reveal an exotic vacation (to Cambodia) gone way bad. An amazing first feature from director Kieran Darcy-Smith. Co-written with his wife, Felicity Price who also stars in the movie. The bad events on the trip are not apparent as the film begins, just that one member of the two-couple contingent is missing. The stress on those who returned (to Sydney) is the immediate focus. The stress comes from the fact that one of their party is missing and it's not at all certain if he will turn up. Each of the actors has a during-the-vacation and an after-the-vacation persona which they play perfectly. During the Q&A they credited that to a long rehearsal process. The flash-back editing is top notch, drawing you into the story with precision. The film also offers an excellent opportunity to see life in Cambodia both during the day and in some beautiful night scenes.
See the rest of the reviews in the Next blog post...