Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Ended on a High Note

Our last Sundance movie was "Filly Brown," the story of an up-and-coming Latino hip hop artist. Filly, passionately played by Gina Rodriguez is using her music to tell the immigrant story and help her struggling family. Rodriguez received all the attention around this film as a previously undiscovered actress who delivers a dynamic performance, but I don't want the film itself to be overlooked in the wake.

Filly Brown is a story with a huge heart. It's about the immigrant story, yes, but it is also about family, loyalty and being true to oneself. Lou Diamond Phillips is great as Filly's dad and the almost all Latino cast crackles with energy and anger throughout. The original music (sung mostly by Rodriguez) illuminates the Latino hip hop scene, provides a pulsing backdrop to the film and may even convert a few dyed-in-the-wool rap haters into fans.

I'm not sure if this film will make it into mainstream theaters. If so, check it out, if not, put it in your Netflix queue. Here are some other much-talked-about films that premiered at Sundance this year:

In the Dramatic Category
The Surrogate
Beasts of the Southern Wild

In the Documentary Category:
Ethel (about Ethel Kennedy)
Finding North (about Hunger in America)
Searching for Sugarman (about a 70s rocker whose music becomes a hit in South Africa)

This year's award winners have also been announced: Check them out for more interesting Netflix options.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Where are the Writers?

Jenn and I saw a shorts program and a feature film today and all total heard about 20 lines of dialog. Ok, that's a slight exaggeration, but we have heard several filmmakers say that "they wanted the relationship to be communicated through body language" or "they wanted the story told through the character's eyes." A little of that is fine but a whole movie of brooding looks is tedious and slow.

Such was the case with, "For Ellen" featuring Paul Dano and basically, only Paul Dano, as Joby Taylor an almost-rock-star sorting out his feelings about being a deadbeat dad as his divorce is finalized. The movie plays out mostly in his head. In the Q and A the film maker says she was going through a bit of a midlife crisis when she wrote it. I say, have your crisis... in private ... don't bring us all down with you.

I don't even know what to say about Shorts Program III. We have seen some great short films over the years, but the six films in this program were a bust. One of the films had no dialog at all and it was actually one of the better ones. Four of the six played like a small segment of a larger story. They had no resolution and left the audience to finish the story. The one we liked best (and that's not saying much) was a comedy by a Polish director called "Frozen Stories." It focused on two incredibly lonely people who are pushed into entering a reality show/contest called "The Unhappiest Person in the World." Yep, I said comedy. 

One more movie tomorrow and we are hoping to end on a positive note. We'll see ...

This is Why we Come to Sundance

On Wednesday, we saw three films that really represent the Sundance experience. One quietly elegant film set in Kashmir, one a moving exploration of grief and fatherhood, and the last one a comedy featuring an over-zealous boss.

Valley of the Saints
This film is simply gorgeous and made even more beautiful by it's story. Set in Kasmir around Dal Lake, it is a story of struggle and friendship and poverty and  hope. While ever-present in the background, the country's political unrest is not the primary focus of the story. Instead, the story centers on the Lake and the people who live there. Using mostly untrained locals as actors (the lead actor still makes his living taking tourists for boat rides on the lake) gives the film its heart. The film makers took many risks in making this film and I'm grateful they did. For an intimate look at an often overlooked part of the world, this film is so worth seeing.

The End of Love
Directed by and starring Mark Webber, The End of Love tells the story of a recently widowed father trying to find his way alone with his son. We were amazed to learn that every scene involving the 2 1/2 year old boy in the movie was unscripted and shot in one take. Webber was able to accomplish this by casting his own, incredibly cute, son in the role. Not a terribly uplifting story, it was compelling without being overly sad and uses an extreme situation to explore some of the sacrifices that come with being a dad.  

Price Check
Because Sundance features so many realistic films dealing with painful subject matter, a comedy is always a welcome break. Price Check features Parker Posey as a somewhat crazed boss and Eric Mabius as one of her star employees. The premise is not new -- compromising one's dreams to earn a living and support a family -- but  P.P.'s over-the-top performance and the scene where one particular employee gets a new nickname is worth the price of admission.

Day Two -- Movies Three Through Five

We started our day with a 9:00AM movie (something I would only do at Sundance), Julie Delpy's 2 Days in New York. A comedy, the story unfolds as Marion's (played by Delpy) family descends on the small apartment she shares with her boyfriend Mingus (Chris Rock) for a visit from France. While the whole cast is great, Delpy's father steals the show as - who else - Marion's father. While this movie won't blow your socks off, it has some very funny moments and anyone who has had a stressful weekend with familial house guests will relate to it. 

Gypsy Davy was our next film. The film maker, a very angry daughter, turns the camera on her father, who abandoned her and her mother. Her father is a flamenco guitarist who travels the world leaving a trail of women and children in his wake. Using a combination of home video, interviews and narration, a very personal story unfolds. In the end, the film feels a little self-indulgent. Father and daughter are on better terms in the end, but I personally didn't need to go along for the ride.

Our third film was a documentary about Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a brilliant portrait of is artist and it was created by a very young, first-time film maker. I was already a big fan of Ai Weiwei, but after this movie he has moved up to hero status. His art is provocative and thoughtful, and his politics are communicated passionately and rationally. Currently silenced by the Chinese government, follow him through the film's Twitter account: AWWneversorry. If this film comes to the Portland International Film Festival, see it!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kid-Thing ... So not my Thing

We saw two movies and a short film on our first day of the Festival. The second film redeemed the day for us. But first, I will try to describe the terrible short film and depressing feature film that kicked-off the day. As I seriously doubt that these films will be shown anywhere but here, I don't think I'm spoiling anything for you.

The short film was called Don't Hug me I'm Scared. It featured a crafty (and I mean that literally) set made entirely of felt. Picture a felt refrigerator. A talking notebook (also made of felt) encourages three puppet-like characters to use their brains and "get creative." In the course of this less-than-10-minute film, things degenerate into rolling brains in glitter and slicing a brain-filled cake. Blech, blech, blech!

The feature film that followed at least had human characters. Primarily one very alone, bored and neglected 11-year old girl named Annie. As you follow her through one empty day after another, you get the point ... this girl is completely lacking supervision and any sense of a moral compass. The bleakness of her life is further amplified by the ridiculously slow pacing of the movie and almost non-existent dialog. (How many cars do we need to watch ram into one another to understand the character is now at the demolition derby?) When Annie discovers a woman who has fallen in a remote well, she has a chance to make a good choice. In the end, she makes several very wrong choices and jumps in the well herself. The End. Blech, blech, blech!

Luckily we ended the night with Mike Birbiglia's comedy based on events from his life, Sleepwalk With Me. Already a fan of Mike's from The Moth (search his name on or check out I was really hoping I would like this film. And I did. Throughout the movie Birbiglia (renamed Matt Pandapiglio in the movie) speaks directly to the audience as he takes us back through the events that brought him to the present. Despite the name change, the movie is clearly autobiographical. A fine cast, a story-telling format and a series of unbelievable dream/sleepwalking sequences all work together to keep the audience engaged.

At the start of the film, Ira Glass (one of the Producers of the film) says he just wants the audience to leave liking Mike the way he likes him. We did. In true Sundance fashion, we bumped into many of the cast from this film having lunch in the booth next to ours the day after the screening. I congratulated them and then slid into the booth next to them for a photo. Carol Kane played Mike/Matt's mom in the film and we were all proud of ourselves for resisting the urge to quote lines from "The Princess Bride."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I Can't Believe it's Year 9

As Sundance 2012 quickly approaches and the flurry (aka stress) of ticket-buying subsides, I decided I better dust off the old blog and do some postin’. I wouldn't want to disappoint my fans (Hi Mom and Dad.)

To bring you up to date, my sister, Jenn, and I spent the long Christmas weekend pouring over the Film Guide and carefully crafting the Ultimate Sundance Viewing Schedule. As with previous years, that plan was completely scrapped once we discovered the lack of available tickets. We did however end up with an interesting mix of movies that even includes some of our first choices (thanks to the fact that Jenn has put off getting an Oregon driver’s license, so still "appears to be" a Park City resident.)

Reading the Film Guide is an exercise in code-cracking. As this is our ninth year, we have learned a thing or two about how to interpret the two-paragraph descriptions for each film (see previous posts about completely awful movies.) Here are some examples of actual descriptions that cause our red flag to fly: 

“Using a non-linear timeframe…”

“…a funky, surreal, world of deadpan absurdism.”

And this one right from the description of Wuthering Heights (yes, that Wuthering Heights): “A stark cinematic expression of the novel’s fierce beauty. Stripping the story to its elemental form, [the filmmaker] dispenses with narrative embellishments, music, literary sheen and romanticism – leaving a wondrous, spare aesthetic of somber hues and harsh textures dominated by nature, natural sounds, animals, and the craggy, windswept terrain.” This description, coupled with the fact that there is no mention of the actors’ performances makes me think it’s a film comprised of brooding looks and physical tension rather than dialog. I’ll pass.

We prefer (and are seeing) films with descriptions that include:

“…propelled by an exceptional cast, and fused with a fierce hip-hop score…”

“Chris Rock … who convincingly plays the straight man…”

"Parker Posey” (You had me at P-uh.)

And this little gem from the Australian movie Kid-Thing: "...a carefully observed film that is both harsh and poignant, but one that retains [the filmmakers’] idiosyncratic humor – you will learn how to ‘blow a chicken’s mind’." Could be useful in chicken-centric Portland.

If these little snippets aren’t enough and you have a half day to spare, check out the on-line film guide in its entirety at:

The Festival kicks off on Thursday, January 19, but we will not be arriving until the weekend and plan to see movies every day from 1/23 to 1/27. In the meantime, you will have to do with my musings and ramblings about the films we plan to see and the wines I plan to pack (it is Utah after all.)