Sundance 2011: 20 paragraphs for 20 films

Last week I saw 20 films in five days at Sundance. With just over 200 films listed in the index, that means I barely covered 10% of the slate. Documentaries are a Sundance forté, so it’s not surprising that almost half of the films I screened fall into this category. Similarly, as most docs these days never get transferred to film that accounts for why about half of all my screenings were digital projections. Happily, despite many rumblings by industry pundits regarding the eminent death of 35mm film, most of the narrative features were still on celluloid. Huzzah!

I Saw the Devil (dir. by Kim Jee-woon, 2010)

Sundance divvies up its films into 13 sections such as U.S. Dramatic Competition, Premieres, etc. I Saw the Devil fell into the “Spotlight” category (a catch-all section where Sundance programmers favorite directors or films, be they premieres or finds from other festivals). What’s bizarre, in this case, is that I Saw the Devil is the embodiment of a Park City at Midnight selection. Here’s how the Sundance catalog describes Park City After Midnight: “Raucous, rowdy, and rebellious; softies need not enter. Park City at Midnight is for the hard-core film lovers who get so engrossed in a cinematic experience they don’t even notice it’s tomorrow. From horror flicks to comedies to works that defy any genre, these unruly films will keep you edge-seated and wide awake.” That pretty much sums up I Saw the Devil, a South Korean mash-up of genres from the director of The Good, the Bad, and the Weird that stars Choi Min-sik (playing a psychopath who bludgeons his victims with the kind of ferocity that recalls his performance in Old Boy) and Lee Byung-hun (a frequent collaborator with the director, who here plays a special agent who vows revenge for his wife’s murder). The sadistic insanity on display in I Saw the Devil clocks in at 141 mins., and careens around in tone from crime-thriller to revenge-drama to black-humor to freakish horror-show terrain that manages to touch on Grand Guignol, scatological, and exploitational elements – sometimes all at once. An alternate title for this could have been I Spit on Your Silence of the Texas Chain Saw Pink Death Wish Revenge. Putting aside the brutal content of the film, the cinematography was never less than exceptional. The aesthetics behind the lighting and color schemes showed crazy talent. But the story? Pure crazy.

Submarine (dir. by Richard Ayoade, 2010)

Another Spotlight film, but this time a comedy from a young English music-video director of Norwegian-Nigerian descent. Submarine is a break-out film that has already garnered great press. Set in Wales circa the early ’80s, it follows an awkward Welsh teenager’s many maneuvers between his first love and the seeming dissolution of his parents marriage. Submarine has already been compared by some to evoking the works of Wes Anderson, but Ayoade has responded by saying that he’s feels his film has more in common with John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963). “As a director, John Schlesinger doesn’t really get mentioned very much anymore. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s because he’s not an adjective yet and in a way, Wes Anderson, he’s amazing, but he has become an adjective. Which is a very simple way to denote a certain type of thing. It’s like films being described as ‘Lynchian’ just because it’s an adjectival term now. You can say ‘It’s like Cecil B. DeMille’ because people know what that denotes but you can’t really say ‘It’s Lindsay Anderson-like’ because it just isn’t an adjective yet. Despite that, who can have a stronger voice than Lindsay Anderson?” (IndieWire, Jan. 25).

Connected: An Autiobiography About Love, Death and Technology (dir. by Tiffany Shlain, 2011)

Category: U.S. Documentary. Shlain founded the Webby Awards and is very tech savvy. Her father, Leonard Shlain, was a brain surgeon and a best-selling author. A confluence of three factors helped shape this documentary: Tiffany had reached a point in her life where she was making excuses to cut out of meetings to check her cell phone for text updates, she was pregnant, and her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. What emerges is a philosophical exploration that attempts to make sense of “the environment, consumption, population growth, technology, human rights, the global economy,” along with the personal roles we all share in these many areas. Tiffany’s doc is both light-hearted, edifying, and optimistic about how technology can help us be more connected. I hope she’s right, but during the screening of her film I saw several people spend more time checking their cell phones rather than paying attention to what was being put up on the big screen. The irony of this was clearly lost on them. Connected tries to make the case for our many gadgets being able to help us be better people. But judging from the behavior I saw at the industry screenings (where, literally, not a single screening was free from the glowing lights of people playing with their cell phones), I think we’re doomed.

Meek’s Cutoff (dir. by Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Section: Spotlight. As a fan of both Old Joy (2006)  and Wendy and Lucy (2008), I was excited to hear that Reichardt was back and delving into a western. The film features Will Patton, Michelle Williams, and Bruce Greenwood in the title role. The story concerns a handful of early settlers circa 1845 as they struggle to push their cattle and three covered wagons through the arid eastern Oregon desert. Stephen Meek is the bearded guide who has been hired to deliver these pioneers to fertile land, but as rations and water run dry, so does  the general sentiment against Meek. Meek’s Cutoff moves at a slow and deliberate pace that will test many viewers patience, but it pays attention to the details of its time and will reward those seeking an authentic view into the past . Westerns have traditionally marginalized the role of women. Not here: their sweat and toil is obvious. It is no small victory when we see Williams’ character get the upper hand in one enigmatic moment, even if the results remain unclear.

Buck (dir. by Cindy Meehl, 2010)

Section: U.S. Documentary. Buck Brannaman is the true cowboy inspiration behind The Horse Whisperer. He’s also a busy man who travels across the U.S. teaching people how to better communicate with their horses using empathy and instinct, not force. The results go far deeper than simply being a good horse-back rider as the lessons imparted reveal much about human nature and how our own behavior truly reflects back who we are deep down inside. Buck uses himself as the perfect example; he was abused horribly as a child, but rather than perpetuate that cycle of violence he chose the opposite path. Buck is a charismatic and eloquent spokesman for nonviolence, and it doesn’t hurt that he has a great sense of humor too. Winner of the U.S. Documentary Competition Audience Award.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (dir. by Alex Stapleton, 2011)

Section: Park City at Midnight. As one might expect, between all the big names reminiscing about how they got their start working for Corman and the myriad of fun movie clips spanning a career that goes from 1955 all the way to last year’s Dinoshark, this is a hugely engaging documentary. Highlights for me included sections on The Intruder (1962), starring William Shatner as a hate-monger who gets a small Southern town riled up over integration, as well as Corman’s perspective on big-budget movies. The former gave Corman some of the best reviews he’d ever had, but did not perform well at the box office – so from this point out he decided his social messages would be in the subtexts only. On the subject of big budgets, Corman feels they are simply unethical and he’d rather see those tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars put toward helping out the ghettos of our country. Corman’s liberal heart isn’t the only thing that bleeds here, just about everything else onscreen does too – but it’s mostly all in good fun.

On the Ice (dir by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean)

Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition. I had déjà vu while watching this and then realized that I was watching a feature-length version of a short film by the same director that had screened at Sundance in 2008 called Sikumi (On the Ice). Both show a violent crime being committed in the snow drifts of the Arctic plains, but this feature-length version expands to show more of the life and people who inhabit the small community of Barrow, Alaska. The lengthened version offers a view of bored teenagers facing dead-end jobs as they replace traditional lifestyles with hip-hop, drugs, and snowmobiles. In its short version the material felt much more enigmatic. As a feature it gains a deeper sociological strength, but it loses the emotional resonance contained in the short.

The Last Mountain (dir by Bill Haney, 2011)

Section: U.S. Documentary. Anyone who flips on a light switch is guilty in this documentary about the devastation occurring in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, where Appalachian mountaintop mining pits the health of locals up against their economic ability to survive. The complexities of the issue are seen from several perspectives, and heartbreaking moments are balanced by creative possibilities that might both provide for our energy needs without destroying both land and health. It also shows how immense destruction can be caused by a single word (courtesy of the Bush Administration in 2002 via the Clean Water Act). Not all the politicians are in the pockets of lobbyists; Robert F. Kennedy is shown as a man of admirable integrity who makes plenty of personal sacrifices.

The Troll Hunter (dir. by André Øvredal, 2010)

Section: Park City at Midnight. What starts out as a Norwegian mockumentary in the style of The Blair Witch Project goes, thankfully, far astray. The students here are supposedly making a documentary about a bear poacher in West Norway, so right off the bat, even if they don’t find anything, at least we’ve got some beautiful and exotic locations to gawk at (it’s Norway, after all, so already that’s more interesting than being stuck inside a screeching girl’s tent that’s in somebody’s backyard in Maryland). The $3.5 million dollar budget might give Roger Corman heart-burn, but it also allows for the startling presence of some rather big and menacing trolls. Best of all, it has a great sense of humor. This hugely entertaining film was heralded in Norway as a notable “cultural event,” and here in the states it stands to be make a mark as a notable “entertainment event.”

Reagan (dir. by Eugene Jarecki, 2011)

Section: Documentary Premieres. This is not a documentary about Reagan’s presidency so much as an attempt to crack the nut of his character. In and of itself, this is admirable, especially as Reagan’s stature has been elevated by many myth-makers seeking to cash in on his name to further their own agenda, such as The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, founded by Grover Norquist (of “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub” fame). The fact is, Reagan was a complex human being; his father and brother survived their personal hardships thanks to F.D.R.’s New Deal recovery acts – and in his youth he was even a self-described “hemophiliac liberal.” But through various twists and turns of fate, Reagan came out to embody everything opposite of that. To its credit, Jarecki’s film does a good job of giving people a glimpse into Reagan’s evolution from Hollywood, to G.E. spokesman, and on to the national stage. It’s many omissions will enrage liberals and conservatives alike, and to that end it can be said to be fair. Ultimately, two hours is too short a time to give the Reagan presidency an appropriate assessment. What it really needs is a seminal 13-part TV series akin to what PBS did with Vietnam back in 1983.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked (dir. by Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion, 2010)

Section: U.S. Documentary Competition. A brutal warlord of Liberia’s 14-year civil war, who admits to playing a role in the murder of up to 20,000 people, reinvents himself as the evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi. In this documentary we see him spend much of his screen time approaching the victims of his many atrocities as he tries to seek their forgiveness and atone for past sins. A pivotal scene shows one such victim, who has agreed to come to his church, remark on how the violence of his theatrical form of evangelism echoes the violence she remembers him commanding on the street. In the Sundance catalog the question is asked whether Blahyi is a “liar or madman, charlatan or genuine repentant.” Viewers are left to form their own conclusions. Winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award, U.S. Documentary Competition.

The Devil’s Double (dir. by Lee Tamahori, 2010)

Section: Premieres. Tamahori blew me away with both Once Were Warriors (1994) and The Edge (1997). Others might remember him for the James Bond box-office hit of Die Another Day (2002) or Next (2007). Here the inspiration is based on the true story of a body double for Saddam Hussein’s oldest son, Uday. Not surprisingly the story is full of action, betrayal, drugs, bullets, death, and plenty of over-the-top moments that might play well with a male audience but will most certainly alienate the women. Such generalizations being meaningless, let me instead put it this way: if you liked DePalma’s Scarface, this film’s for you. If not, stay away.

Red State (dir. by Kevin Smith, 2011)

Section: Premieres. It starts out with three unpleasant high school characters engaged in explicit dialogue who are clearly looking forward to having a gang-bang via Craigslist with an unknown 38-year-old woman, and goes from there into uncharted territories. Which is to say, it starts out with a Clerks-vibe and goes toward altogether new terrain for Kevin Smith, and that was the allure. Can he pull off a horror film? The answer is no. He establishes some of the tropes, but can’t help but go off in all kinds of batshit directions. Which, in a way, makes this a much more interesting film than, say, Mallrats. Smith is, after all, an equal-opportunity offender, and nobody comes out of this looking good. All of which is offset a bit by some very good performances by Michael Parks and John Goodman. But is that enough to salvage a film that Smith gleefully admits to being made with only his audience in mind? For me the biggest offense was the use of flashbacks to remind the audience of who certain characters are. Smith might be making a film with only his audience in mind but, if so, he must think his audience is not very bright. Or perhaps he takes it for granted that they’ll be stoned. (As I was not, perhaps this was why I didn’t connect with the film.) Either way, kudos to him for self-distributing this thing. I wouldn’t pay to see the film again, but Smith himself is a gifted and comedic speaker and he apparently plans to tour alongside the film. Also: rad poster!

Life in a Day (dir. by Kevin Macdonald, 2011)

Section: Premieres. Macdonald, working with executive producers Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, used YouTube to enlist the global community in a project that is meant to sum up one day; July 24, 2010. The result? 80,000 submissions totaling over 5,000 hours. These were then distilled by Macdonald into 90 minutes that begin at 12:01am on July 24, and then go on a journey around the world showing a steady and chronological progression of both birth, life, death, happiness, sadness, and more that ends at 11:59pm that same day of July 24th… At alternating turns it is poignant, sad, funny, disgusting, fascinating and exhausting.

Vampire (dir. by Iwai Shunji, 2010)

Section: World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Japanese director Shunji Iwai gets a leg up here with help from Canada to shoot a new take on the vampire myth. Premise: Simon is a biology teacher with a sick mother who is compelled to drink blood. His particular method for getting the precious fluid he wants is to troll around online chat rooms looking for suicidal women who were going to die anyway. Amanda Plummer is great as the mom, and there are some very lyrical (albeit brief) scenes toward the end. But, overall, here’s a flag: if a “film” is shot digitally, and directed, and written, by the same guy, that should be a sign that you’re in for a long and meandering ride that would have benefited from far more edits,nips, and tucks. End result for too many self-indulgences? The most walk-outs of any screening I was privy to at Sundance this year.

Miss Representation (dir. by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2011)

Section: U.S. Documentary Competition. It’s no secret that we live in a patriarchy which has a very real and ongoing effect on how we view women. What Newsom reveals here is that women aren’t the only victims, men are also being short-changed. It boils down to this: nothing healthy can come of the current standards that photoshop and alter a woman’s image on almost every advertised image you see so that the finished result is no longer anywhere near what can be remotely approximated as real. This results for both genders are toxic. Miss Representation covers much more ground than this and is provides both topical and important material that deserves as large an audience as possible.

The Woman (dir. by Lucky McKee, 2011)

Section: Park City at Midnight. I’m a fan of McKee’s previous films (his 2002 debut with May was very accomplished, and his 2008 heartbreaking look at one man’s grief over his dog’s murder in Red also hit many sensitive chords), but I’m still not sure what to think about this one. What I can say is that to watch this on the heels of Miss Representation is like drinking too much Tequila after shots of Kahlua – a nauseous affair. There’s a whole lot of miss-representations going on here, with the “missy” bits getting quite messy. Many lines get blurred and I wasn’t sure whether it was being gleefully exploitational, cluelessly misogynistic, or knowingly echoing some of the sentiments from Miss Representation by showing us a man literally chain and abuse a wild woman as he tries to mold her into his preferred image. The story was working toward some very interesting messages, but there were also many missed opportunities. Either way, it gets points for haunting me with images that resonate beyond the end-crawl.

Salvation Boulevard (dir. by George Ratliff, 2010)

Section: Premieres. Ten years ago director George Ratliff made a award-winning documentary about the “Hell House” put on by the Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) in Texas every October as a religious Halloween ritual. That’s basically all I knew walking in to this film that also deals with fundamentalists and mega-churches, so I was a bit disappointed to find out it wasn’t a documentary but rather a satirical send-up starring Pierce Brosnan, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Greg Kinnear, and Marisei Tomei. It’s a fun cast and a light-hearted romp, one unlikely to offend anyone. If you notice some disdain on my part it’s simply because after seeing so many films at this festival the push the envelope in so many different and uncompromising ways, it’s hard not to yawn when a filmmaker plays it safe.

Elite Squad 2 (dir. by José Padiha, 2010)

I never saw the first Elite Squad, which a friend told me was a fast-paced look at crime and corruption in Brazil with a gung-ho Lt. who commandeers the Special Police Operations Battalion of Rio de Janeiro Military Police. This sequel takes place 13 years later and has already broken box office records in Brazil. I think the claims of fascism leveled at the first film still hold true for this sequel, insofar as the first-person narration that the audience is made to identify with belongs to a military man whose utter disdain for due process and social justice sizzle with open contempt; what it champions is brute force. Other films with narrators with might-makes-right fetishes include Fight Club and A Clockwork Orange. These films easily seduce their audience by appealing to primal urges, and are very interesting but also dangerous works when consumed by impressionable minds who are visually illiterate. Elite Squad 2 does get bonus points by – eventually – taking a longer view of things. It provides a bleak and nihilistic look at power and corruption that, unfortunately, is steeped in reality.

Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World (dir. by Annette von Wangenhem, 2006)

This one’s a cheat, as it was not part of the Sundance lineup at all, but rather a DVD screener passed along to me by a distributor from ArtMattan Productions while I was up at Sundance. Unlike Telluride, which regularly screens archive prints and obscure repertory titles to help viewers appreciate the full legacy of film, Sundance is very focused on the fresh crop of films that have been released within the last year. You’ll note that of all the other films I saw, the release dates are all 2010 and 2011. For this reason it was nice to decompress with a talented performer from the ’20s who fought racism and also went on to join the French Resistance in 1940. Now that’s representing!

4 Responses Sundance 2011: 20 paragraphs for 20 films
Posted By suzidoll : January 30, 2011 7:51 pm

Sounds like a terrific time. How gratifying that so many of them were on 35mm. Yay!

I have heard a lot about THE LAST MOUNTAIN, which I am particularly interested in because my family is from Appalachia.

Hope some of these get distribution just as I am hoping my favorites from the Palm Springs fest get picked up.

Posted By suzidoll : January 30, 2011 7:51 pm

Sounds like a terrific time. How gratifying that so many of them were on 35mm. Yay!

I have heard a lot about THE LAST MOUNTAIN, which I am particularly interested in because my family is from Appalachia.

Hope some of these get distribution just as I am hoping my favorites from the Palm Springs fest get picked up.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 30, 2011 10:56 pm

I would watch a 13 part documentary on Ronald Reagan. I love that man.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 30, 2011 10:56 pm

I would watch a 13 part documentary on Ronald Reagan. I love that man.

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