Helen Thomas — You will be missed… If only by me. OOooof… what a week! I got my ass chewed out on Facebook for saying I would miss Helen Thomas… Okay. Half of what she said was pretty indefensible (I am of the mind that Israelis should, indeed, stop building on settlements. However, I do…
sundance film festival 2010
WINTER’S BONE, Grand Jury Prize Winner at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival
Now that Sundance is over, it’s time for a little perspective. And critics and industry watchers are only too happy to provide it.
Sure, since the awards were handed out on Saturday night and the festival wrapped on Sunday, there have been the requisite stories about which movies to watch out for and the reports on last-minute acquisitions. (Ten movies were acquired at the festival; in the past few days, Weinstein Co. snagged Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling; IFC Films scored the rights to Michael Winterbottom’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME; and Roadside scooped up Debra Granik’s WINTER’S BONE, which won the festival’s grand jury prize.)
But what lessons can we take away from Sundance 2010?
LAST TRAIN HOME (World Documentary Competition)
Anyone who has been paying attention to the remarkably fertile Chinese independent film scene this past decade knows that present-day China, given the sheer speed and scope of its transformations, is a wellspring of abundant contradictions, an endless source of stories and images for the observant filmmaker.
The title of Lixin Fan’s directorial debut refers to the annual exodus of China’s 130 million migrant workers from the cities to their mostly rural hometowns — this happens only once a year, for the Chinese New Year holidays. Fan evokes the mind-warping scale of this event — we see the anxious rush to secure tickets, thronged railways stations and trains — even as he zeroes in on the experiences of one family. The Zhangs left their young children and their farming village so they could work at a faraway garment factory. Now strangers to one another, parents and children (who were raised by their grandparents) struggle to communicate, and the gulf only widens when the teenage daughter decides to leave school and takes a job in the city.
SECRETS OF THE TRIBE (World Documentary Competition)
The Yanomami Indians are an Amazonian tribe who lived in total isolation from the modern world until a half century ago, when one anthropologist after another started showing up to observe, document, and eventually exploit what they saw (and, in some cases, fetishized) as a virginal society. Piecing together testimonials from key researchers in the field and from tribe members, Brazilian documentarian José Padilha (BUS 174, Sundance ’03) progressively complicates the picture. Underlying all the bitter accusations and recriminations are the starkly opposed views of cultural and scientific anthropologists (the latter emphasize the role of evolutionary biology) and the conflicting assumptions that these native others are either noble innocents or violent primitives.
LOVERS OF HATE
Rudy (Chris Doubek), the less-than-lovable protagonist of Bryan Poyser’s dramatic-competition entry LOVERS OF HATE, is an embittered sadsack who can barely tolerate the sight of his smug younger brother, Paul (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, last seen in Andrew Bujalski’s BEESWAX). An author of children’s novels who has apparently borrowed some ideas for his monstrously successful books from Rudy’s childhood fantasies, Paul drops into Austin for a reading and catches Rudy at low ebb: he’s out of work and has just been thrown out of the house by his wife, Diana (Heather Kafka), whom Paul has always had a crush on.
FAMILY AFFAIR (U.S. Documentary Competition)
It makes sense that Chico Colvard’s first-person documentary was picked up by OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network, given the surface parallels with last year’s Oprah-endorsed Sundance hit PRECIOUS. As a little boy, the filmmaker accidentally shot one of his sisters in the leg and, in so doing, blew the lid on a family secret. His father, an African American former GI who grew up in segregated Mississippi, had been sexually abusing his three sisters for years, unbeknownst to their mother, a German Jew. At first glance, FAMILY AFFAIR seems like yet another dysfunctional-family home movie, but it’s willing to ask some unexpectedly tough questions about abuse and its aftermath.
SMASH HIS CAMERS, directed by Leon Gast, Oscar-winning director of WHEN WE WERE KINGS
I suppose it’s a mark of where celebrity journalism and gossip are today that paparazzo Ron Galella is finally getting the star treatment.
For decades, Galella lurked in bushes and staked out buildings, hunkered down in taxis and emerged seemingly out of nowhere to get his shot of celebrities like Sinatra and Warhol, Sophia and Bianca, Michael Jackson, Elvis, and Sundance founder Robert Redford himself. Jackie O, whom he considered his “Mona Lisa,” took out a restraining order against him. Brando broke his jaw. Now, Leon Gast, the Oscar-winning director of WHEN WE WERE KINGS, has focused his own cameras on the infamous lensman in his new documentary, SMASH HIS CAMERA, currently showing at the Sundance Film Festival.
SMASH HIS CAMERA, directed by Leon Gast
One of two documentaries about paparazzi culture at the Sundance Film Festival this year — the other is Adrian Grenier’s TEENAGE PAPARAZZO — Leon Gast’s SMASH HIS CAMERA traces the colorful career of Ron Galella, “paparazzo superstar” (as he calls himself). Among the first and by far the most notorious of stalker photographers, Galella played a years-long cat-and-mouse game with Jackie Kennedy and earned a restraining order for his efforts. Once he got too close to Marlon Brando, who rewarded him with a fist in the face.
Now in his late 70s, Galella fondly revisits these old war stories in SMASH HIS CAMERA, which also follows the still-active photographer on a few excursions from suburban New Jersey to Manhattan high society. He worms his way up to Robert Redford at a charity event and hands him a copy of his new book (needless to say, this got plenty of laughs at Sundance). He barges onto the red carpet of the CHANGELING premiere to get a good look at Brangelina. Various experts — curators, photographers, lawyers, gossip writers — weigh in on the merits and ethics of Galella’s work (there’s widespread disagreement).
JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK
Joan Rivers is about to enter the pantheon of gods in my addled mind that is only occupied so far by Cher and Barbra Streisand, aka The Survivors Club. So I finally saw JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK last night at the Sundance Film Festival and it is perfection.
UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS.
Love it or hate it, AVATAR has revived for many audiences the old-fashioned notion of movies as a social experience. Billed as a “live documentary,” Sam Green’s UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS does effectively the same thing, on a smaller scale but with bigger ideas. Performed twice at the Sundance Film Festival this week as part of the New Frontier section, this was a charmingly homespun cross between a “benshi” silent-film show and a PowerPoint presentation: Green stood before the audience, narrating and cuing still and moving images while three musicians performed a score by co-director Dave Cerf.
As in his Oscar-nominated THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (Sundance 2003, co-directed with Bill Siegel) Green sifts through the ruins of extinguished idealism. UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS is as much a story of failure as it is one of hope.
Until Thursday, Sundance Film Festival watchers from afar could have been forgiven for concluding that the increased emphasis on art, rather than on commerce, in the festival offerings this year may have worked all too well. Many of the films making their debuts were wowing critics, but the money people appeared to be unimpressed, or at least not impressed enough to open their wallets. Or at least opening them too often.
What are the top trends emerging from the Sundance Film Festival this year? That really depends on whom you ask.
Los Angeles Times Film critic Betsy Sharkey thinks it’s punk saviors. “If there is a collective vision emerging out of the films in the Sundance dramatic competition it is this: The punks will save you,” she writes, citing WELCOME TO THE RILEYS, the debut film of director Jake Scott (son of Ridley); actor Mark Ruffalo’s directing debut SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS, in which he also stars; and Spencer Susser’s HESHER.
From left to right: Josh Sapan (Rainbow Media), Martin Katz (Prospero Pictures), Lynne Kirby (Sundance Channel), Sir Elton John, Evan Shapiro (IFC/SUN), Mala Chapple (Sundance Channel) Sarah Barnett (Sundance Channel) and David Furnish.
I usually have a rule: If you love someone’s work NEVER meet them. Seriously – I’ve suffered too many disappointments over the years. And really – if you know someone’s a walking septic tank – how can you enjoy their work afterwards? It’s like Pearl Cleage wrote in Mad At Miles, “How can you celebrate a genius in the face of a monster?” But this week has proven the rule wrong. Twice. First Danny, now Elton John.
Last night, Rainbow Media and the Sundance Channel held a big dinner at the Stein Erickson Lodge and my Tiny Dancer was there (he executive produced SPECTACLE ELVIS COSTELLO WITH… along with David Furnish) with hubby David Furnish – who once came to my 30th birthday party with Cornelia Guest at the Sunset Tower. He didn’t remember, but who cares? I got the pics to prove it!
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2010
It’s easy to see why Lisa Cholodenko’s THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT has scored the biggest distribution deal to date at this year’s Sundance. (Focus Features acquired it for a reported $5 million.) Enthusiastically received at its packed premiere on Monday night, this lively crowd pleaser appears to take a conventional form (family dramedy) and give it an unconventional spin (it’s about what you might call a modern family).
Image from THE RED CHAPEL.
One of the oddest non-fiction stunts in recent memory, THE RED CHAPEL combines two inherently dubious genres — the culture-clash comedy and the ambush documentary — and pushes them to surreal extremes. The film’s director, Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist, recruited two Danish-Korean performers, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell (who is handicapped but prefers the term “spastic”) to pose as a comedy act, and convinced the North Korean authorities to allow them to perform in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, in the spirit of cultural exchange.
The Sundance Film Festival is entering the home stretch, and the press coming from Park City details not only the hit movies, but also the state of the state of indie film (it’s that time of year to evaluate your union, comrades). Your correspondent from the mid-West — or really Appalachia, as we say around here in Southeast Ohio — is far, far, far from Park City, but has seen two films recently that prompted reflection on indies and Sundance, Miguel Arteta’s YOUTH IN REVOLT and Oren Moverman’s THE MESSENGER.
FOUR LIONS, a comedy about terrorism at the Sundance Film Festival 2010
FOUR LIONS, a pitch-black farce that begins with jihadi-video bloopers, raises some obvious questions. Are jokes about suicide bombers in poor taste? Is it too soon to be finding the hilarity in extreme radicalism? Can terrorism ever be safe for comedy? But if FOUR LIONS proves anything, it’s that “safety” and “taste” are irrelevant concepts for a comedy about such a deadly serious subject; whatever larger meaning we might glean from the film comes from the inherent danger of the project and from the discomfort it provokes.
La Pieta is in Park City, sort of (replica)
I’m gonna take a break from the booze, the nightlife and the parties for a second an delve into the world of Sundance Film Festival Art. Because it’s just that spectacular.
The Sundance Film Festival attracts the most random things. Beyond the psychotic gifting suites, the MySpace lounges, the Bing Bar and the Music café (which, by the way, may have nothing to do with movies but has had an INSANE roster of people playing including the Fray, Leeann Rimes, Joey+Rory, Lady Antebellum, etc.) – the randomest of the all prize goes to the “Have You Seen Michelango’s La Pieta?” exhibit (and let’s use that term loosely) at the Caledonian Hotel.
Paula Froelich and Celine Rattray, producer of THE ROMANTICS
Is it terribly wrong that I find Lyle Lovett insanely awesome and hot? So the other night I finally got to hang with my pal Celine Rattray, who produced THE ROMANTICS and another flick here. Fun Fact: Celine started her career at HBO and then started Plum Pictures with her pal Gault Niederhoffer (whose daddy Jimmy was in foreign exchange and blew up the Thai Baht in the 90’s) and other friend Daniella – they kicked ass and now Celine is leaving to partner with Peter Fricking Guber. I mean – that’s amazing. (Gault will focus on directing now and not sure what Daniella is doing. I mean – I don’t even know her last name, so…). Celine always makes me feel like I need to revise my 5 year plan. (which currently consists of curing Karl Froelich the wonder dachshund of his grudge-pooping habit, nursing my liver back to life and trying to avoid turning into a complete stereotype).
So Celine and I decide to catch up, get a drink before hitting the Variety party at the St. Regis at Deer Valley.
Abu Jandal, a Yemeni cab driver and former Al-Qaeda member in THE OATH
I’ll be surprised if I see a fiction film at Sundance this year that comes close to the novelistic scope and richness of Laura Poitras’s exemplary documentary THE OATH — or has a character even half as complicated as THE OATH’s main subject, Abu Jandal, a Yemeni cab driver and former Al-Qaeda member.
Sundance Film Festival attendees who are looking to unglue their eyes from screens and emerge from darkened movie theaters now and again just got a little added incentive. The Festival has announced a series of panels, roundtables and special events examining the powerfully transformative role of art and culture in society
Paula Froelich and Utah Trannies in Park City to support 8: THE MORMON PROPOSITION
I feel like a gang of roudy elephants held a party in my head last night and forgot to clean up. Some musings after the jump…
From Left to Right: Fisher Stevens, Danny McBride and Jon Gosselin Sundance is getting more surreal by the day. Or I should say night. Last night involved Danny McBride and his band of North Carolina brothers, Fisher Stevens, a bad basketball game, a choking man, a quart of booze, two feet of snow and a…
I’m reluctant to add to what I suspect will be a critical pile-on against HESHER, at least based on the reactions after yesterday’s mobbed premiere at the Eccles Theater. But I’ll call it out only because its problems seem to be symptomatic. Despite its appealing cast, Spencer Susser’s HESHER is not just familiar in its failings but weirdly comprehensive, practically a textbook of indie-film blunders and cliches.
This is the kind of movie, all too common among rookie directors, that is so enamored of its cute concept — in this case, anarchist as grief therapist — that it never bothers to develop or explore that concept, or even test its basic plausibility.
Seems like James Franco has been all over the place in the last few days, talking about, among other things, HOWL, the new film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in which the actor stars as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Here he is discussing his love of poetry with Vanity Fair. There he is explaining his love of soap operas to New York magazine. Here he is defending his tendency to play roles based on himself on screen in Movieline. And there he is getting rapped for his shabby grad-school duds by old-school gossipist Cindy Adams: “His black coat was littered with light brown hair,” she sniffed in her New York Post column on Wednesday.