Friday, January 28, 2011

We Were Here, Taking Shelter on Another Earth (This will make sense later)

Our last day at Sundance 2011 and we saw three very different movies. We all agreed that we like every movie better after the Q & A session that follows each movie. We call this the “Sundance Factor.” Keep that in mind as you read my reviews.

Another Earth

Part tragedy, part science fiction, Another Earth explores the opportunity to right a dreadful wrong. It begins with the discovery of a new planet -- completely identical to earth, right down to the folks that live there. On the night the planet is discovered a young girl causes a tragic accident. As she struggles to get her life back on track and make amends to the man whose life she destroyed, the rest of the world is tuned-in to unfolding news about this new planet.

This is a smart film. I love the way a real-world situation is juxtaposed with this big “what if?” scenario. The characters are relatable and it plays as two-stories-in-one until the end when they come together. The very young, very hyper Director, Mike Cahill, was hugely entertaining in the Q and A, including a Sundance first where he stopped to zip his fly in front of 1200 people. My sister swears he was joking around, but I’m not so sure.

Possibly coming to a town near you, see it with friends so you can have your own “what if” discussion.

      The Cast and Crew of Another Earth

     Director, Mike Cahill, who was very excited to be there.

Take Shelter

It’s never easy watching a film about mental illness and this film is no exception. It is, however, a brilliant portrayal of one man’s decline into irrational fear and the impact that has on his family. Punctuated with special effects and ghoulish nightmares, the audience is placed in this man’s head as much as possible. Set in rural Ohio, the film is an actualized rendering of the impending doom that the filmmaker senses many Americans are currently feeling. The tension in the film was such that I had to remind myself to breathe.

Casting was right on. Michael Shannon played the main character, Curtis and it didn’t seem to be too much of a stretch. He seemed as disquieted in person as his character was in the film. I particularly loved how his wife’s character was written. Played with subtlety and grace by Jessica Chastain; she was a strong, take charge woman, who stayed by her man even when he was at his least lovable. Their deaf daughter was played by Tova Stewart, a young student from the nearby School for the Deaf. Her first role ever, she came across as a seasoned professional.

I think this film has already found distribution, so if you like an edge-of-your-seat, psychological thriller featuring a loving, hard-working family in a small town, be sure to check it out.

      Jessica Chastain and Tova Stewart

     Michael Shannon

We Were Here

Chronicling the gay revolution in San Francisco starting in the 1970s, this documentary is an intimate and deeply personal portrait of the Aids epidemic. From the nurse who dedicated her life to caring for Aids patients and helping to find a cure, to the men who lost countless partners and friends; the story is told chronologically through interviews and hundreds of archival photographs. Bottom line, it’s sad, very sad.

If I thought it would make a difference, I would love to force every one of those protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church to watch it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sunday we set out with high expectations. This is the day where we have three Premieres in a row at Eccles, the Park City High School Performing Arts Center, which is the biggest and nicest of the venues.

Higher Ground

Our first film of the day, Higher Ground, was directed by and stars Vera Farmiga (of Up in the Air fame) and is based on a memoir called This Dark World written by Carolyn Briggs. It tells the life story of Corinne, who marries her high school boyfriend, has kids and finds God (not necessarily in that order.) It’s a story of a spiritual journey and a story about being true to oneself. I must admit this film hit close to home for me – I could totally relate to Corinne’s character and I appreciated someone telling an honest story about faith and doubt. It was a very personal and emotional directorial debut. I don’t know if this film will find a wider audience, so I’m glad I was able to score a ticket at Sundance.

Vera Farmiga discusses Higher Ground.

Another Happy Day

Another Happy Day is one of those "Sundancey" films that really has no plot and features dysfunction on every level. An all-star cast tells the story of a family with big issues that completely boil over when they all come together for a family wedding. Ellen Barkin is terrific as a mom at her wits end. Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy play her parents and Thomas Hayden Church plays her ex-husband. Demi Moore is great as the controlling and somewhat slutty new wife, but I particularly liked the two boys who play Ellen Barkin’s sons. Ezra Miller plays a brilliant, but drug-addicted son with Tourettes while Daniel Yelsky plays his precocious little brother. Together, they provide what little levity exists throughout the film and delivered all the best lines.

Despite the excellent cast, this sarcastically-titled film is so relentlessly sad that it is hard to enjoy and I even found myself wishing it would end. A person can only take so much of Ellen Barking crying.  The truly remarkable thing about this film is that it was written and directed by 25-year-old, Sam Levinson. To be that young and create a story that authentically gives voice to three generations is a true gift. I predict bigger and better things to come – he’s definitely one to watch.

Sam Levinson, unknown guy (sorry, whoever you are), Ellen Barkin, Demi Moore and Kate Bosworth

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is one of the hottest tickets at Sundance this year – partly due to its well-known cast and partly due to the fact that it is one of the few comedies. It stars the loveable Ed Helms (Andy from The Office) as a small-town insurance salesman who travels to the big city (relatively speaking) for an insurance convention. John C. Reilly steals the show as the glad-handing, potty-mouthed roommate. I wish I could remember all the off-color euphemisms he delivers -- suffice it to say he had colorful phrases for everything from a white guy hugging a black guy to having sex with a red head. This film is part coming-of-age, part moral dilemma and completely hilarious.

Other stars include Ann Heche, Isiah Whitlock and Sigourney Weaver. A little smarter than The Hangover, this could be your guilty pleasure movie for 2011. Here's a link to the trailor if you want a sneak peak:

 Ed Helms, with Director, Miguel Arteta right behind him.

The cast and crew of Cedar Rapids

Monday, January 24, 2011


Saturday went much better than Friday. We spent a lovely 12 hours at the picturesque Sundance Resort and saw a total of five movies (two feature-length films and three short films.) Between films, we walked along a postcard-worthy stream to hang-out in another building which houses a restaurant, bar, gift store and deli/coffee shop. Everyone there was friendly, the staff was very accommodating and the facilities were top notch. Now that we know how comfortable it is to see movies at the Resort, I’m sure we will make it a point to spend at least one day there every year.


Our first movie of the day was our favorite of the day. Pariah tells the story of a teen African-American lesbian whose family is having difficulty accepting her lifestyle. This film is remarkable for several reasons. First, it shed lights on a common issue for gay teens in a very authentic and honest manner. Second, it is beautifully acted. Each actor portrays his or her character were such sensitivity that you find yourself sympathizing with all of them. And third, this is a very complete and polished film created by a team of mostly young, unknown talent. It is Director Dee Rees’ (photo below) debut film. Newby Cinematographer, Bradford Brown, did an amazing job and the cast poured its heart and soul into it. By the end of the movie everyone in the building was crying, including the cast and crew.

Documentary Shorts II

Three short films were bundled together to make this shorts program. The first two should be seen by every American, the third … not so much.

Living for 32

This is the story of Colin Goddard, a Virginia Tech shooting survivor who is now dedicated to lobbying for gun law reform. In light of our recent experience in Tucson (we were on vacation there and not far from the site of the shooting when it occurred) this young man is my new hero. He was shot four times and is one of seven survivors in a classroom of 17 people. After dedicating himself to getting better physically, he has now dedicated himself to making America a better place. He is involved in the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. I plan to get involved when I get home. Here’s the link if you are interested in knowing more:

The Barber of Birmingham

This film provides a snapshot of the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of 85-year-old James Armstrong. Armstrong was a Civil Rights Foot Soldier, his sons were the first black kids integrated into a Birmingham elementary school and you cannot help but cheer along with him as he tearfully watches Obama’s inauguration. A hard-working barber, this delightful man fought the fight with humor, grace and relentless dedication. He passed away shortly after the film was made and I hope this film will find audiences across America so his story will continue to be told. Much of his family attended the screening and his legacy will definitely live on through them.

Animals Distract Me

The group was split on this film. Personally, I thought it was a frivolous waste of time and film. Directed by Isabella Rossallini, she tells about her infatuation with animals in a completely meaningless, nonsensical way. If you have ever seen her two-minute shorts series on the Sundance Channel called Green Porno, you will have a sense of the film. It starts with charming childhood photos of her very famous family and their pets. From there, it goes downhill fast. It is a series of cheesy segments that range from a visit to Mario Batali to discuss guilt-free eating to Isabella dressed as a bug that lives on eyelashes being smeared with mascara. This film tells us nothing new and can't even be called art. To me it seems to exist merely as a vehicle for Isabella to put herself in front of the camera.

The film seemed even more frivolous in that it followed two hard-hitting, well-made documentaries about serious social issues. My sister is a big Isabella Rossillini fan, so we did get a photo of the two of them together. My “big dork” moment came earlier in the day when we saw Ms. Rossillini at the restaurant and, seeing a familiar face, I said “Hi.” Even though I did not look a bit familiar to her, she was gracious enough to say “hello” back. This is why I don’t talk to celebrities.


A very quiet, slice-of-life film about an Israeli man trying to save his antique furniture restoration business and sort through his feelings about his son, this film is not very everyone. It drags in places, has very little action and is in Hebrew with English subtitles. That being said, it is beautifully made and acted. This is a case where I liked the film better after hearing the director discuss it than I did while watching it. I didn’t like the fact that many parts of the story are left untold, so it was nice to have the Director fill in some of those holes at the end. I doubt it will find U.S. distribution, but if it does, skip it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Friday is Dubbed "Operation Get Movie Tickets."

Operation “Get Movie Tickets” begins before the sun comes up Friday morning.

First Plan A:

Up by 5:30 and out the door by 6:15 to head to the Box Office. Each morning the Box Office releases a few more tickets for the movies that are playing that day. By being there an hour before it opens, we were hoping to be able to score tickets to at least two movies. The other advantage of going to the Box Office is we should be able to exchange some of our extra tickets for Monday for Friday tickets. This saves us the hassle of trying to sell those tickets.

Plan A did not work out so well. We waited in line for 90 minutes and by the time we got to a ticket seller, there were one or two tickets available for a few Friday movies – nothing that met our needs. So, we left empty-handed. While we were unable to trade in our unwanted tickets, we did sell the bulk of them to people in line. Yeah, cash on hand!

On to Plan B:

Now that we are almost over our outrage over this crazy non-ticket-buying process, we are going to take another tactic to see two movies. We are headed to The Library Theater two hours before show time to see if we can get wait list tickets to see Buck (the horse whisperer documentary.) After that we will move to the Yarrow Theater, again two hours before show time, to try to get wait list tickets for Old Cats (a very quirky Spanish film in the Spotlight Category.) This is a tedious, time-consuming way to try to get tickets, but we are determined.

We are here to see movies, damn it, and see movies we will!

OK, so we saw one movie. We ended-up not getting in to see Buck. We had wait list numbers 47-50 and the theater filled-up about six people ahead of us. It’s playing again tomorrow, so we plan to try again. By sacrificing any other afternoon activities, we were able to get seats for Old Cats. We thought this was going to be a funny, charming look at old age and difficult mother/daughter relationships. Yeah, not so much. Instead it was a plodding, sad look at old age and difficult mother/daughter relationships. It was made by two Chilean film makers whose charming personalities almost made up for the lack of charm in the film.

Highlights of the Day:

  • Being called “Sundance Fairy Godmothers” by a group of USC Law students who were trying to navigate the Sundance scene for the first time.
  • Making a quick trip to Main Street and the Sponsor Co-op, where we scored everything from a free L.L. Bean tote bag to a tube of L'oreal lipstick.
  • Jennifer, craving a chocolate chip cookie, insisted we stop in at an Internet CafĂ©. When she turned around, she literally ran into Elijah Wood. There weren’t many people around, so we are still kicking ourselves for not asking for a quick photo.
  • Meeting all kinds of wonderful people in line. Including Jeremy from Chicago, who stars in a low-budget, handcrafted film that premieres Sunday and proudly shared photos of his 18-month-old daughter. And Mohanned who works for the Royal Film Commission in Jordan and travels to film festivals around the world, scouting movies and promoting Jordanian-made films.
This is what we love about Sundance.

Old Cats Directors Pedro Peirano and Sebastian Silva

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Saturday Line-Up

Despite my down-beat post earlier this week, we did manage to get a few movie tickets. This year we will be seeing movies at The Sundance Resort for the first time ( The Sundance Resort, founded by Mr. Redford himself, is a high-end get-away at the base at the base of the Timpanogos Mountains. During the Festival, it has one theater showing movies and is host to workshops and panels geared toward those folks in “the biz.” Other times of the year, the Sundance Resort is a place for skiing, hiking, art and fine dining. At some point we hope to partake in the last of those four.

Saturday, for our day at The Resort, we are seeing:


Produced in part by Spike Lee, this film tells the story of a 17-year-old Lesbian who is keeping her true identity hidden from her conservative family.

Documentary Showcase II

One of our favorite parts of Sundance is seeing the variety of short films they present. Last year we really enjoyed the documentary shorts, so we re-upped this year. Typically a shorts program will have five to seven films. This one only has three, so I guess they are long shorts. One is about a Virginia Tech survivor lobbying for gun control (interesting in light of current events), the second is about an African-American barber in Birmingham, Alabama and the third (directed by Isabella Rossellini) is a 47-minute stroll through New York through an animal-lover’s eyes (huh?)


We don’t actually have tickets for this documentary, but we are hoping to waitlist in. It’s the story of Buck Brannaman, the real-life horse whisperer. Jenn's a horse-person, so for her, we'll wait in line.


The first Israeli-made movie we have seen at Sundance, Restoration (in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition) tells the contemporary story of the owner of a failing antique furniture-restoration business trying to save his business. Jois is married to an Israeli, so for her we'll read subtitles.

We have now arrived in Utah and are looking forward to picking up our tickets at the box office tomorrow, collecting the other two members of our posse from the airport and hitting The Bombay House for our traditional Indian feast! Still hoping to score some tickets for Friday.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dear Sundance

Dear Sundance:

As I prepare for my eighth trip to the Sundance Film Festival, I have never felt so much like an outsider. I am completely discouraged and disheartened by the lack of ticket availability. We jumped through your hoops. We registered ahead of time for the on-line ticket sales lottery and were excited when we got two buying time slots for the first day. That excitement quickly turned to frustration when we realized most movies were already sold out.

I understand the filmmakers and industry executives need tickets to the movies. I understand the pass holders pay big bucks to go to whatever movies they like. I understand you take care of the locals first. And I understand the number of seats in each Park City venue is finite. What I don't understand is how there cannot be a single decent ticket left on the first day of on-line ticket sales.

I know the Festival attracts the wheelers and dealers, the celebrity watchers, the party-goers and people who can afford to rent a condo in Park City that week. But we have had many conversation over the years with people who are there for the same reason we are. They love film, particularly independent film, and Sundance is one of the best places to see the latest and the greatest.

So, for those of us film lovers who have already booked our flights and reserved accommodations, please figure this out! Let me know if I can help in any way.


The (Literal) Sundance Outsider

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sundance 2011 is Underway!

Any downtime I had during the holidays was spent reviewing this year's Film Guide and mapping out a game plan for Sundance 2011. If you have followed this Blog before, you know that this is a lot more time consuming than it sounds. All I can say is thank goodness for Excel spreadsheets and highlighters. Here's my plan (if only the rest of my life were this organized):

Step One: identify the movies playing while we are there (we attend four days of the ten-day Festival.) Step Two: identify the movies playing in Park City (Sundance screens films in Ogden and Salt Lake too, but they are far away and the real action is in PC.) Step Three: eliminate any movies that seem just a little too "out there" (such as this year's film titled Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.) Step Four: Avoid 8:30am and midnight movies as much as possible, especially back-to-back. Step Five: decide between any preferred films that are playing at the same time (there are nine venues showing movies all day throughout Park City.) And Finally: make sure there's time to get from one theater to the next between showings (the best part of Sundance is the Q & A after the movie, so it's a bummer to have to leave early.)

Once I do all that, I gather up my spreadsheets and anxiously await our first ticket buying opportunity. This year, that opportunity came today when my sister was able to select twelve tickets to fulfill her Locals Pass. One strategy I suggested to her was to try to stay in one theater all day. We have done this before and it makes for a much more relaxing day less. One of the best opportunities for this was Sunday at Eccles Theater, where all five of the movies that day look great. Plus Eccles has free parking on Sundays (we know all the angles.)

Typically my strategies go by the wayside once we log-on and see the limited ticket availability. Today, however, we were able to stick with the plan and Jenn came up with four tickets each to three Sunday movies: Higher Ground, Another Happy Day (both in the U.S. Dramatic Competition) and Cedar Rapids (in the Premiere category.) The great thing about all of these movies is we are seeing the first-ever public screening of each of them. This pretty much guarantees that the directors and most of the cast will be there for the Q & A after the film.

Higher Ground is directed by and stars Vera Farmiga. Another Happy Day is directed by Sam Levinson and stars Ellen Barkin, Demi Moore, Ellen Burnstyn, Thomas Hayden Church, George Kennedy and others. Cedar Rapids stars, among others, Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver. According to the Film Guide, "Cedar Rapids achieves the impossible: it makes insurance fun." There are actually two movies about the insurance industry screening this year -- go figure!

Our Sunday schedule is complete! Next week, with spreadsheets revised, we will attempt to purchase the perfect line-up for Friday, Saturday, Monday, and possibly an early movie Tuesday morning. Game on!