Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Twelve Movies in Four Days Plus One this Morning

Waste Land

We named Waste Land our favorite documentary of the festival because we knew nothing about the subject and everything about this film surprised us. Vik Muniz is a Brazilian artist, who uses his art to bring attention to social concerns. The film documents a project that took him to the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, in Rio de Janeiro. The site is home to “pickers” who gather two tons of recyclable materials from the garbage daily. He befriends several pickers, photographs them and they help him transform those photos into large scale portraits made entirely of the recyclables they collect. We expected it to be depressing, but instead it was a story of stoicism, hope and the power of art to change lives.

Shorts Program IV

Here’s one of those cases where the Film Guide description did nothing to inform us about these films. With every short film programs, there always seems to be at least one film that is so bad we can’t wait for it to end. This program lived up to that expectation, but thankfully, there was more that we liked than disliked. Here’s what we saw:

Wisdom Teeth
A five-minute film featuring stick figure animation where one friend offers to remove the other’s mouth stitches. The result is something that can only happen in animation.

Family Jewels
This story of a woman leaving her family to serve as a translator in Afghanistan quietly shows her inner conflict and the strain it puts on her marriage.

ICK -- Creepy guys, doing creepy things! One watches the other have sex with a prostitute, they eat pink and blue cake with creepy guy #3, and accidentally shoot creepy guy #4’s ear off while he’s having sex with creepy guy #5 in the woods. ICK!

Laredo, Texas
This film distills what is likely a typical conflict at this Mexico/America border town by following a pay phone coin collector as he trains an undocumented worker to do his job.

A Polish film involving two young boys accused of a crime. This film, like a lot of shorts, left me with more questions than answers.

The Armoire
A somewhat disturbed young boy “copes” with the death of his best friend when a game of Truth or Dare goes terribly wrong.

Can We Talk?
Our favorite film of the seven, Vince tries to dump his girl friend, but ends up getting dumped instead. Deadpan delivery of cheeky British humor makes this 11 minute film hysterical from beginning to end. After the show, we met Sam (who plays Vince.) We told him how much we enjoyed the film and I’m pretty sure we even promised him a new pair of Nikes. He’s a starving artist “pulling pints” in London, so we instantly became surrogate mothers to him.

This is Dede, Sam (from Can We Talk?) and I outside the theater. You can't see his shoes, but trust me, he could use a new pair.

8: The Mormon Proposition

This was the hottest ticket at Sundance this year. The theater was packed for this disturbing look at the deceit, manipulation and money the Mormon Church used to get Measure 8 passed in California. (Yes, I’m biased, but it’s clear that full disclosure is a foreign concept to the Mormon Church.) As disturbing as it was, it did clearly explain what the Mormons believe that makes them so opposed to gay marriage. It also sheds light on the suicide and homeless problems plaguing Utah due to the ostracizing of gay children born to Mormon families.

A particular thrill for me was meeting Linda Stay, the Mormon mother of two gay children who started "Moms for Equality" in Southern Utah. She and her son are featured throughout the film. I had met her by phone before I left Portland (she contacted me looking for extra tickets for her family.) This woman is an inspiration to me -- epitomizing the courage, dedication and devotion that come from that all powerful place, a mother’s love.

Me, Linda and Steve Stay after 8:TMP

The Q & A was different from any I have attended. It was part gay pride rally, part political activism and part testimonials. It is my hope that this film informs everyone, angers “fence sitters” to the point of action and, in some way, provides strength to the gay youth of Utah and the rest of the United States.

Thursday morning before our flight home, we caught one more movie and boy am I glad we did. The first film directed by Diego Luna was a smash hit in my book.


This is the story of an emotionally damaged young boy, who snaps out of his non-communicative state when he is released from the hospital and decides to become the head of the household. It’s about the resilience of children, the difficult decisions moms have to make on behalf of their kids and the struggles of single parenting. The children in the movie had never acted before and they bring a fresh innocence and beautiful honesty to the film. Funny and tragic at the same time, I loved this movie.

The actors who played Pablo and Abel enjoying their fame and mugging for the camera.

I’m back in Portland now, but hope to add a postscript about some of the wonderful interesting people (see photo below) we met during our time in Park City and some of the lessons learned for next year.

This is Parker and Hailey. I met them in the audience of Waste Land. Parker made his blue yarn beard and planned to wear it all day. "It's keeping my face warm. My brother's making one too."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Beautiful People, Beautiful Movies, Beautiful Day

Well, we finally had to pull out the old sunglasses and rubbed elbows with a few celebrities. Today was our day on Main Street. Main Street in Park City is the hub of Sundance. The box office, Sundance Store, film maker workshops and panels, hospitality venues, nightclubs, etc. are all along this street. In short, it's a scene.

But first, we shuttled to the Temple Theater for our only documentary of the day. On our way there, we met the director of Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work and her researcher/production assistant. It premieres tonight and Ms. Rivers will be there for the Q & A. The director encouraged us to try to get tickets. She's proud of it and wants everyone to be able to see it. It's funny, many of the directors we have talked to are concerned that no one will come to their films, even though every movie this weekend is "sold out."

Upon entering the theater, our new friend pointed out Michael Moore in the lobby. As I headed to the restroom, I grabbed my camera to get his pic. He had disappeared by then, but I bumped into this guy (see photo below.) He was very nice as I thanked him for Supersize Me (no more McDonalds for my kids after that) and complimented him on the recent Simpson's 20th Anniversary special.

Me and Morgan Spurlock

12th and Delaware
To make this documentary, one corner in a small town in Florida was filmed for a year. On one side of the street is an abortion clinic and on the other a "Pregnancy Crisis Center" (aka Right to Life facility.) This gave the film makers a bite-size picture of the greater abortion debate and why it won't be resolved any time soon in the U.S. With full access to both sides of the street, the film makers give equal time to each perspective. As someone who is pro-choice, however, it was illuminating to see the somewhat underhanded tactics of the opposite side. The really telling stories, however, come from the interviews with the women visiting each clinic. Every high school kid in America should see this movie.

Sundance added another new film category this year called "Spotlight." These are films that the programmers have seen at other festivals and loved, so they worked hard to bring them to Sundance. These next two films were in that category.

Women without Men
This gorgeous film, adapted from an Iranian novel, focused on four women in 1950's Iran. The film, which will never by shown in Iran, was directed by an Iranian-American who is a visual artist, so it had a stunning beauty to it and felt more like a poem than a narrative. It was a challenging film (for example, we were never entirely sure if the main character was alive or dead throughout the movie) but the period costumes, beautiful Moroccan landscape and exemplary acting made for a very compelling total package. The director described the film as "magical realism" and I think that's the best description of her unique storytelling and exquisite cinematography.

The director (the tiny, but brilliant woman on the right) and her producers and cinematographer from Women without Men.

I am Love
This Italian film starring Tilda Swinton (who is British) as the Russian born wife of a wealthy Italian industrialist (did you get all that?) almost overwhelmed the senses. Dramatic flashbacks, sensuous feasts and a soaring soundtrack hit you from all sides. As, for various reasons, the family starts to unravel, the audience is taken for an emotional ride. In the end it is a story of discovery and being true to yourself. I'm not sure if it will ever play in U.S. theaters, as there's one sex scene that leaves little to the imagination. That being said, if you get a chance to see it, do.

Tilda Swinton and Director, Luca Guadagnino during the Q & A. Every woman in the room coveted her shoes and, at the same time, wondered how she was getting around in them in the snow.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two Documentaries and a "New Low"

Waiting for Superman

This is a must see documentary for anyone involved in public schools -- students, parents, teachers, administrators -- that's you. Already bought by Paramount, it will come to your hometown theaters (probably next Fall.) Directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), it tells a clear story of the problems plaguing the U.S. public school system and shows some examples of schools that are getting it right. The statistics are appalling, but the film refrains from too much finger pointing and gives credit where credit is due.

Drunk History: Lincoln and Douglass

We saw the Tesla and Edison short yesterday, here's another volume that screened before New Low. Will Farrell as Lincoln, Don Cheadle as Douglass and Zoey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln. All narrated by a drunk. Need I say more? There are three Drunk History videos on YouTube - search "Drunk History" and enjoy.

I met the two men responsible for Drunk History in the lobby.

In reaction to criticism that they have strayed from their original mission, Sundance has added a new category this year called "Next." This category is dedicated to truly independent (low budget, homegrown) films. This next film defines that category.

New Low

Written, directed by, paid for and starring 25-year-old Adam Bowers; this love triangle story with a total loser leading man is charming. Filled with self-deprecating humor and awkward moments, you can't help cheering for geeky Wendell. Filmed in five weeks on borrowed equipment and starring all his friends (who got paid in pizza and gas money), it never feels amateurish. I would love it if this film became a cult classic. Here's the director (on the left) and his friends:

Last Train Home

This documentary gives a glimpse at the lives of the millions of migrant workers in China. It follows one family, where mom and dad live in the city, while their mother takes care of their children at home. The trials of living apart become very apparent as the parents travel home for an annual visit each Chinese New Year Holiday.  Filmed over three years, the movie paints a very intimate portrait of the Chinese culture, the pitfalls of their economy and the challenges facing the next generation.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Musical!

Yesterday we saw our first three films. Here's a recap:

The Good: Documentary Spotlight
This was a collection of seven short documentaries.

Quadrangle -- The film maker interviews her mother and father about their open relationship with another couple that eventually resulted in them trading spouses. It was extremely well made. She used a split screen to show both parents describing this time in their lives, so that it was almost as if they were conversing about it. The director does a nice job of removing herself from the subject, presenting a very honest account of this period in her family's history in a fairly straight forward and non-judgmental manner.

Drunk History: Tesla and Edison -- I'm still trying to imagine the creative meeting where the concept for this film was discussed and agreed upon. The film maker decided to have someone get drunk (yes, he was actually drunk) and recount a piece of history. As he tells the story, well-known actors (in this case, John C. Reilly played Tesla and Crispin Glover played Edison) don cheesy wigs, mustaches and costumes to stage reenactments. Their dialog, however, uses the drunk guy's words, not their own. You are just going to have to trust me when I say it was hilarious. This is one in a series and they ar part of a longer comedy program debuting on HBO next month. Tonight, we are seeing another Drunk History short, this time on Douglass and Lincoln -- I can't wait!

Notes on the Other -- A short look at Hemingway and how he created his own persona. The topic was explored by visiting the son of a man that Hemingway saw fall during the running of the bulls (who  photographs the event every year) and visiting a Hemingway look-alike contest. The film asked us to figure out the link between all these events and I think I failed the test -- it just didn't come together for me.

Bus -- An Israeli film maker explores the difficulties of traveling by bus between Israel and Palestine with images of the checkpoints and recorded phone conversations.

Thompson -- This film hints at the changing friendship of two teenage boys as one graduates from high school and the other doesn't. At least I think that was what it was trying to do -- no clear story line ever actually developed. When the film makers were asked about their inspiration, they said that they were at a party across the street from Matt Thompson's home and he wandered over, so they decided to make a movie about him. Oh... that explains it.

Born Sweet -- My favorite of the collection, this film illuminates the problem of arsenic poisoning in Cambodia (over $2 million people have it) and how one non-profit is using Karaoke to educate the next generation. Focusing on the story of Vinh, a 15-year-old boy, with arsenic poisoning who loves Karaoke, it puts a face on the problem and delivers a message of hope.

Wagah – This film explores the separation of India and Pakistani through the eyes of three young children and the pageantry around the lowering of both flags at the border gate. The children lend an element of honesty and innocence to the story, while the flag ceremony is all about patriotism. Not allowed to cross the border, two film makers were enlisted. One filmed from the Pakistani side and the other from India. Although they did not meet until after the film was complete, they somehow created a seamless story.

The Bad
Lourdes -- This French film by an Austrian film maker focuses on, Christine, a paraplegic woman who travels to Lourdes in hope of a miracle. Even though she is the main character, we never really get to know her. (In fact, I had to look her name up in the film guide.) The pacing of the film is painfully slow and the characters all seem to speak to each other as little as possible. I doubt this film will ever show up in U.S. theaters, but if it does, skip it.

The Musical
Bran Nue Dae -- An adaptation of a popular stage musical from Australia, this film had catchy tunes, loveable characters and all the hokiness you would expect from a musical. I didn't like it as much as Jois and Dede, mainly because I found the ridiculousness of it distracting. It also kept bringing to mind other movies (Grease, Little Miss Sunshine, and just about every Disney Movie made between 1960 and 1980.) That said, it had a great cast: Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy as the girlfriend, Geoffrey Rush as a shifty and eccentric Priest, and Ernie Dingo (yes, that's really his name) as the pickled, but wise Aboriginal elder. It does entertain, it doesn't offend and you may even catch me singing a few bars of "I’d rather be an Aborigine."

We have three more movies today, finishing up about 11:00pm tonight. It's still snowing like crazy, but with less wine and slower driving, we hope to stay on the road tonight.

Blog Disrupted

I had every intention of blogging about the movies we saw yesterday (the good, the bad and the musical), but forces (some beyond our control and some not) conspired against me.  After an early dinner (that included a bottle of wine, secrets revealed and lots of laughter -- gotta love an all-girl vacation) we went and shared another bottle (or two) with a friend down the road. Time got away from us and the snow kept piling up.

On the way home, I took a corner too fast in our non-snow-worthy rental car and landed in a ditch. See photo. We called our friend to rescue us and he too slipped off the road and got stuck. We were all eventually rescued by my sister and her Big-Ass-Truck! It's great to a have strong women on your side!

By the time we got home it was almost midnight. With an early movie this morning, it was right to bed for us. I'll provide a more thorough update later today.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It Wasn't Easy, But We Have Tickets in Hand

I went to pick up our tickets today. As none of them were purchased under my name, I had to jump through a few hoops to do it. First, I posed as my sister and presented her driver's license to pick up her tickets. The woman looked up the order and told me those tickets had already been printed. After a great deal of back and forth (where I often forgot I was supposed to be Jenn) we finally found a note on the account that said, "OK to reprint. Fed-Ex delivery cancelled." Whew!

Then I had to go to another area to pick-up the tickets purchased as part of a local's pass under a friend's name. I had a signed note with a photocopy of his driver's license giving me permission to pick them up. The first person I talked to said they are not releasing tickets to people with notes until tomorrow and that I needed two more pieces of documentation in order to pick them up. I left dejected and called my sister. She said she could produce one of the documents, but not the other.

I decided to go back and find out what my options were without that third piece of documentation. I waited in line (again) and talked to another representative. She looked at my note, said everything was in order and got me the tickets. The passes also came with two creditial passes (access to the music venues, panel discussions and other non-movie events), a keepsake film guide and a water bottle. I am so glad I decided to go back!

I'm watching the news as I type this and they are predicting lots of snow in the mountains over the next three days. It sounds like the worst of it will hit Southern and Eastern Utah, so I'm hoping Jois and Dede have no trouble getting over the pass tomorrow night. On a positive note, this is the warmest I have ever been in Park City in January.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Travel Day

  • Laptop, iPod, Blackberry, camera – check!
  • Boots, hat, scarf, and mittens – check!
  • Lip Balm, sunscreen and plenty-o-moisturizer – check!
  • Festival.Sundance.org/2010, blogspot, Facebook and imdb.com bookmarked on Internet Browser – check!
  • Twitter account set-up (SDOutsider) and synced to Blackberry so I can rate one movie as I walk to the next and post my ratings on Sundance.org – check!
  • Low-fat bran muffins baked and packed – crap (no pun intended) I forgot the muffins!

While we might be missing our fiber, we won't be missing any fiber optics.

I’m feeling very techy this year as I gather all my portable electronic devices (as they say in airplane-speak), the appropriate charging and power cords for each, and my passwords/user names for the various social networking programs. I'm wondering if I will feel chained to all this technology or if it will make me feel more “dialed in?” We shall see.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Several Sundance Firsts

Every year, ticket buying is an adventure, but this year was just plain weird. Yesterday was our first opportunity to purchase tickets on line. We had a morning time slot on the first day and were optimistic about our chances. That optimism quickly turned to frustration when we saw the number of sold-out movies.

We wanted tickets to four more movies and had identified 40 options. Of those 40, we got three -- two Shorts Programs and one early morning movie. We bought tickets to another early morning movie that wasn't on our list of 40 to fill out our schedule.

I'm not sure why tickets were so hard to come by this year, but because of that we are looking forward to several "Sundance Firsts:"
  • First time seeing the Documentary Short Film Program,
  • First time seeing a musical at Sundance,
  • First time seeing a movie in the Temple Theater (a new venue, added last year),
  • And the first time we won't be seeing any movies at Eccles (the high school auditorium, which is the largest venue and where most of the "big name" films premiere.)
Here are the newest films in our line-up:

Bran Nue Dae -- The film mentioned above that was not on our preferred list and represents our first Sundance musical. An Australian film that adapts the stage production to film. I have to admit this is not my favorite genre, but Geoffrey Rush is in it, so it can't be all bad. (I'm also trying to overlook the fact that the title reminds me of high fiber cereal and is in desperate need of spellcheck.)

Documentary Showcase -- A collection of seven documentary short films from the U.S., Israel, Spain and Germany. It's hard to tell what they are about, but the description hints at drunken history, wife swapping and karaoke.

Shorts Program IV -- A collection of seven short films from the U.S., Poland, the U.K. and Canada. I have no idea what they are about, but there are few opportunities to see short films here in Portland and short programs always give us something to talk about.

(I'm fully expecting both of these shorts programs to give me a leg-up at Academy Awards parties.)

Abel -- Tuesday morning, before we fly home, we are going to squeeze in this family drama directed by Diego Luna (he also directed Rudo y Cursi which we saw last year.) It looks like a touching film about a unique little boy and how he changes the family dynamic.

We had another buying time slot this morning, so I logged on to see if the Box Office released more tickets today. No such luck. All that was left are shorts programs, midnight showings and films playing outside Park City. Bad news for anyone with a buying time slot after yesterday morning who wants to see a weekend movie. There was, however, a pretty good selection of movies midweek. Hmmm, maybe this needs to be a longer trip next year.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

We Now Have Tickets to Nine Movies!

My sister had an opportunity to purchase tickets at the box office yesterday and was able to get tickets for six movies. As it stands right now, we will be seeing five documentaries, four dramatic films and five foreign films (two documentaries and three dramatic.)

You can read more about these films at http://sundance.bside.com/2010/. In the meantime, here's a brief synopsis of each:

Lourdes - The filmmaker is described as "nestling Lourdes between religious satire and redemption story." The subject of miracles is explored.

Waiting for Superman- An American-made documentary that explores all aspects of the public school system by following some promising students through their academic life.

New Low - A comedic love triangle -- yay, a comedy! It was written and directed by 25-year-old, Adam Bowers (who also stars in it) and shot on borrowed equipment by whichever friends happened to be available at the time.

Last Train Home - A Canadian filmmaker made this documentary about the exodus that happens in China every New Year's Holiday. While this is considered the world's largest human migration, the focus is on one couple's story and it sounds like it ends up being a much broader story about China the plight of its people.

12th and Delaware - An exploration of the abortion debate by turning the cameras on an intersection in Florida where an abortion clinic and a pro-life office sit right across the street from each other.

Waste Land - A documentary about a Brazilian artist who creates realistic images of people out of materials found where they live. The film documents his latest project, using garbage to portray the people who live around the largest landfill in Rio de Janeiro.

We will be buying more tickets on Tuesday and I'm confident we will be seeing no less than 13 movies during Sundance 2010. Woo Hoo -- we are on our way!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

SUNDANCE TWENTYTEN -- The Adventure Continues

After a long break from blogging, I'm back to record my experiences at what will be my seventh trip to the Sundance Film Festival. Two weeks from now, myself and two movie-loving friends will trade our rain boots for snow boots and rendezvous with my sister in Park City, Utah. In the meantime, we have been preparing by registering to buy tickets, studying the Film Guide, and mapping out a game plan that lets us see at least 12 movies in four days.

We asked 10 friends and family members to enter the lottery to help us score an early ticket buying time slot. This strategy paid off, resulting in one pass (good for 12 tickets), one box office buying time (hopefully resulting in 20 more tickets), and three first day time slots for on-line buying (potentially good for 20 tickets each.) We won't need that many tickets (we're only there for three days after all), but it's good to know that we will mostly certainly arrive in Utah with tickets in hand.

Our strategy in buying tickets is complicated, but works. It goes like this:

1) Identify those films that are playing while we are there (the actual Festival is 10 days long -- we go for the first weekend.)

2) Of the films that are playing while we are there, identify the films we want to see. Sundance provides an on-line catalog once the films are announced. Over the years, we have learned a great deal about how to interpret the film guide descriptions in order to avoid the stinkers. Here's a good example from this year's guide regarding a film called Armless: "For years, John ... has secretly wanted to have his arms chopped off." Yikes, big red flag!

3) Identify any time and distance constraints. Movies play from 8:30am until midnight at eight theaters around town. The town is completely clogged with people and vehicles, so you really need to understand where a movie is showing, when it ends and how long it takes to get to the next place before you buy.

4) Map out your first through third choices for movies for every time slot and every day.

5) Stick with that plan until movies start selling out -- then throw the whole plan out the window and buy whatever you can.

Today we were able to select the 12 tickets that make up our pass. Already, one of the films we wanted was sold out and one had only two tickets remaining. Other than that, we were able to grab four tickets each to the following movies:

Women without Men - Adapted from an Iranian novel, this film tells the story of the 1953 removal of Iran's democratically elected government through the individual stories of five women. I'm hoping for a visually arresting film that alters my perceptions of Iran.

I Am Love - An Italian film (in Italian and Russian with subtitles) starring Tilda Swinton, hmmm, what's that about? That's enough to get me interested right there, but it is also described as "a feast for the senses." We'll see ...

8: The Mormon Proposition - A documentary about the Mormon church's involvement in the passage of Proposition 8 in California. I know it will make me mad, but sometimes it's good to be a little angry.

My sister, Jenn, will be hitting the Park City Box Office this Saturday to try to score 20 more tickets and we will do our best to fill in any holes through on-line ticket sales on Tuesday. For us, it's all about the movies!