Film Essent Archive for January, 2012

Sundance Preview: World Documentary Competition

As with the US Documentary competition, there looks to be a lot worth checking out in the World Documentary competition at Sundance this year. Here are the ones that I’m putting on my short-list. (Note: All film descriptions are from the Sundance film guide.)

5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi (Palestine/Israel/France)

What It’s About: Five broken cameras—and each one has a powerful tale to tell. Embedded in the bullet-ridden remains of digital technology is the story of Emad Burnat, a farmer from the Palestinian village of Bil’in, which famously chose nonviolent resistance when the Israeli army encroached upon its land to make room for Jewish colonists. Emad buys his first camera in 2005 to document the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel. Over the course of the film, he becomes the peaceful archivist of an escalating struggle as olive trees are bulldozed, lives are lost, and a wall is built to segregate burgeoning Israeli settlements.

Gibreel’s loss of innocence and the destruction of each camera are potent metaphors in a deeply personal documentary that vividly portrays a conflict many of us think we know. Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, joins forces with Guy Davidi, an Israeli, and—from the wreckage of five broken cameras—two filmmakers create one extraordinary work of art.

Pedigree: A unique collaboration between a freelance photographer and a documentary filmmaker.

The Ambassador, Mads Brügger (Denmark)

What It’s About: An enigmatic and decadent white diplomat arrives in central Africa sporting dark glasses, riding boots, and a cigarette holder. He has recently bought an ambassadorship and claims to be a do-good rich businessman spearheading a diplomatic mission. Officially, he is there to start a factory that will employ locals to produce matches. Unofficially, he has really come to gain access to the area’s vast reserves of diamonds. It soon becomes apparent that, in this postcolonial economy, nearly everyone is out to rip off everyone else, and the dangers become all too real.

Pedigree: Brügger’s 2010 film, The Red Chapel, won the world docs jury prize at Sundance in 2010.

China Heavyweight, Yung Chang (Canada/China)

What It’s About: In southwestern China, state athletic coaches scour the countryside to recruit poor, rural teenagers who demonstrate a natural ability to throw a good punch. Moved into boxing training centers, these boys and girls undergo a rigorous regimen that grooms them to be China’s next Olympic heroes but also prepares them for life outside the ring. As these young boxers develop, the allure of turning professional for personal gain and glory competes with the main philosophy behind their training—to represent their country. Interconnected with their story is that of their charismatic coach, Qi Moxiang, who—now in his late thirties and determined to win back lost honor—trains for a significant fight.

Pedigree: Yung Chang’s 2008 film Up the Yangtze, which played at Sundance, was one of my favorite docs of that year. Looking forward to this one.

The Imposter, Bart Laydon (U.K)

What It’s About: It’s 1994: a 13-year-old boy disappears from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three and a half years later, he is found alive, thousands of miles away, in Spain. Disoriented and quivering with fear, he divulges his shocking story of kidnap and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not what it seems. Sure, he has the same tattoos, but he looks decidedly different, and he now speaks with a strange accent. Why doesn’t the family seem to notice these glaring inconsistencies? It’s only when an investigator starts asking questions that this astounding true story takes an even stranger turn.

Like his canny subject, gifted filmmaker Bart Layton pulls off an astonishing coup. Buoyed by eye-catching dramatizations and an enthralling structure that crisscrosses time and place, The Imposter unfolds as a gripping thriller that leaves us dizzy, yet certain that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

Pedigree: An acclaimed television documentarian exploring what sounds like an most intriguing story. Count me in.

Payback, Jennifer Baichwal (Canada)

What It’s About: Jennifer Baichwal’s brilliant documentaries exemplify the alignment of form with content as she imaginatively transposes other artists’ work into the film medium to explore and expand their narratives. In her latest such project, Baichwal undertakes the ambitious task of cinematizing Payback, Margaret Atwood’s visionary book of essays about systems of wealth, justice, and reparation.

Seemingly disparate forays into the worlds of migrant tomato pickers in Florida, feuding clans in Albania, victims of BP’s oil spill, and a repentant inmate all mix with insights from thinkers like theologian Karen Armstrong, ecologist William Rees, public critic Raj Patel, and Atwood herself. Integrating Atwood’s words with their outlooks, Baichwal’s luxurious pacing, arresting imagery, and astonishing juxtapositions stimulate provocative associations among ideas and realities.

Both visceral and revelatory, Payback plunges us deeply into reconsidering the roots of social inequity, what we value, and debt’s profound role as an organizing principle in our lives—one that shapes relationships, society, and the fate of the planet.

Pedigree: New film from the director of Manufactured Landscapes, which has one of the most amazing opening sequences ever. Do I need to say anything more? I didn’t think so.

Putin’s Kiss, Lise Birk Pedersen (Denmark)

What It’s About: Masha Drokova is a rising star in Russia’s popular nationalistic youth movement, Nashi. A smart, ambitious teenager who—literally—embraced Vladimir Putin and his promise of a greater Russia, her dedication as an organizer is rewarded with a university scholarship, an apartment, and a job as a spokesperson. But her bright political future falters when she befriends a group of liberal journalists who are critical of the government, including blogger Oleg Kashin, who calls Nashi a “group of hooligans,” and she’s forced to confront the group’s dirty—even violent—tactics.

In her first feature, Danish filmmaker Lise Birk Pedersen offers a chilling view of modern Russia, its fragile—perhaps illusory—democracy, and Nashi’s alarmingly fascist tendencies (mass rallies, book burnings, “patriotic education,” and vilification of opponents). But, distinguished by an artful, cinematic aesthetic and astonishing intimacy, the film’s emotional weight lies in the evolution of Masha’s political consciousness. Putin’s Kiss reminds us that all politics are deeply personal.

Pedigree: Feature documentary debut.

Sundance Preview: World Dramatic Competition

With the World competitions, I often don’t know a lot about the directors, so I have to pretty much go by what looks interesting from the catalog descriptions. It can be a bit of a crapshoot, since those descriptions tend to make every film at the fest sound like the Next Big Thing, but hey, that’s part of the fun of Sundance. Here are the films from the World Dramatic Competition field that I’m most interested in checking out this year at Sundance. (Note: All film descriptions are from the Sundance film guide.)

About the Pink Sky, Keiichi Kobayashi (Japan)

What It’s About: Izumi, a headstrong high-school girl with a cheerfully cynical outlook—she routinely “rates” the newspaper by assigning articles positive or negative values—finds a wallet containing 300,000 yen (almost $4,000) and the owner’s ID: Sato, a wealthy high-school boy. Instead of returning it, Izumi lends a hefty sum to an older fishing buddy with financial problems. Her classmates Hasumi and Kaoru later force her to return the wallet to Sato, but, unable to account for all of the money, Izumi agrees to help him console a friend in the hospital by creating a newspaper containing only “good news.”

Keiichi Kobayashi’s serene, coming-of-age story avoids the customary trappings of teen culture and genre with a pronounced sense of quiet. With its lively, black-and-white cinematography and long takes, Kobayashi’s aesthetic—drained of color and clutter—feels like a dream or a distant memory. About the Pink Sky owes its underlying energy to the young actors (all newcomers) with real chemistry, who deftly balance the quirky humor, teenage uncertainty, and subtle shifts in adolescent consciousness.

Pedigree: This is the filmmaker’s feature debut. Won the Japanese Eyes best picture award at TIFF (Toyko) in November, 2011.

Father’s Chair, Luciano Moura (Brazil)

What It’s About: Theo is living the good life in an upscale Brazilian neighborhood. He’s a hardworking doctor, husband, and father. However, Theo has chosen his career over his family, and little by little he discovers that his world is crumbling around him. His beloved mentor and surrogate father is dying, and his wife announces that she wants a divorce. Yet nothing prepares him for the day when he comes home to discover that his 15-year-old son, Pedro, has disappeared. Theo takes to the road in search of his son. In a journey that leads him throughout Brazil, Theo discovers what really matters to him. Searching for his missing son, Theo finds himself.

Director Luciano Moura digs into the complex, at times exquisite, and often emotionally challenging relationship between parents and children that can define our destiny. With a heartrending, multifaceted performance from Wagner Moura as Theo, Father’s Chair takes us on a road trip into the depths of humanity.

Pedigree: Feature film debut.

Four Suns, Bohdan Sláma (Czech Republic)

What It’s About: Jára lives in a cramped apartment with his wife, Jana, their toddler, and Véna, his teenage son from a previous marriage. A man who has never actually grown up, Jára loses his job at a factory when he’s caught smoking pot, and his wife’s patience is wearing thin. Jára spends too much time with his friend, Karel, an oddball, New Age mystic. Jana, meanwhile, tries to connect with Véna, who has started drinking, skipping school, and hanging out with some disaffected punks. Nevertheless, Jára decides to go along on a road trip to find Karel’s spiritual master.

Bohdan Sláma’s sensibility stems from a tender view of ordinary people and their inability to see themselves. Like Mike Leigh, Sláma uncannily creates characters that are distinctive, even eccentric, without seeming contrived. Although his characters wrestle with selfishness, infidelity, and despair, they share an inexplicable, innate optimism; a glimpse of inner light. In this delicately framed reflection on happiness, Sláma constructs a story that feels effortless and even magical. Maybe Karel’s mystic stones aren’t so far off the mark.

Pedigree: Lauded Czech director makes this one worth checking out.

Madrid, 1987, David Trueba (Spain)

What It’s About: On a hot summer day in Madrid during a significant year of social and political transition in Spain, Miguel, a revered older journalist, meets with a beautiful young student, Ángela, in a café. She wants to interview him for a project. He, with sexual intentions, suggests they go to his friend’s studio nearby. Somehow they end up locked in a bathroom together, naked, with no rescue in sight. Removed from the outside world, the pair, who represent polarized generations, begin a complex duel. On the surface, it seems a setup of unequal age, intellect, ambition, and experience, but over 24 hours, power and desire transfer from person to person.

Madrid, 1987
focuses on two characters who embody the duality of their times. Veteran actor José Sacristán and María Valverde portray the vulnerability of their characters’ situation unforgettably. Writer/director David Trueba, who made Madrid, 1987 independently in Spain, skillfully pares down his film into a layered look at a fleeting and uncommon connection made across one of life’s divides.

Pedigree: A nominee for the Ibero-American Prize at the 2012 Miami Film Festival.

Violeta Went to Heaven, Andrés Wood (Chile/Argentina/Brazil/Spain)

What It’s About: Like a Chilean Edith Piaf or Bob Dylan, Violeta Parra was a folksinger and pop culture icon whose songs, like “Gracias a la Vida,” expressed the soul of her nation and protested social injustice. Violeta Went to Heaven tells Parra’s extraordinary story, tracing her evolution from impoverished child to international sensation to Chile’s national hero, while capturing the swirling intensity of her inner contradictions, fallibilities, and passions.

Director Andrés Wood, whose films are distinguished for crystallizing Chile’s zeitgeist, wisely moves beyond linear biography, drawing on an impressionistic structure and a reverberating performance by actress Francisca Gavilán, to unearth the elusive, charged core of this magnetic character. Wood evocatively interweaves key set pieces from Parra’s life—her humble family roots, her Paris foray as a celebrated visual artist, her travels through Chile to preserve disappearing traditional culture, her tenuous hold on motherhood, and her tumultuous love life. And then there’s the music. Violeta’s heart-wrenching, indelible songs permeate this film, and they will penetrate the viewer’s soul.

Pedigree: Chilean entry for best foreign language film at the 2011 Academy Awards.

Wish You Were Here, Kieran Darcy-Smith (Australia)

What It’s About: Expectant parents Alice and Dave join Alice’s younger sister, Steph, and her new boyfriend, Jeremy, on an impromptu tropical getaway in Cambodia. But following Jeremy’s abrupt disappearance, the others must attempt to return to their normal lives in Sydney. The shell-shocked survivors’ recovery begins to fall apart when a stinging truth about their time in Cambodia is revealed. The three must contend with the fallout, along with the looming threat of further revelations about that fateful night.

With a nonlinear time line used to maximum effect, and each actor realizing two distinct versions of a character—before and after the vacation from hell—Kieran Darcy-Smith successfully orchestrates a remarkably ambitious feature debut. Anchored by Joel Edgerton’s impeccable performance as Dave, a man desperate to cling to his shattered family, the intense and stylish Wish You Were Here is a searing refutation of the notion that what happens on vacation can’t follow us home.

Pedigree: Feature debut.

Sundance Preview: US Documentary Competition

Man, there are a lot of documentaries I want to see at Sundance this year. Last year I wasn’t so enamored of many of the catalog selections, which was a shame because I love docs as a genre. This year they’re making it tough, though … I’m going to have to really push my limits on how many films I can digest during Sundance in order to squeeze in all the docs I want to catch amongst the equally intriguing narrative choices. And I haven’t even started really digging into the World categories or Premieres yet, much less things like New Frontier. Whew. It’s shaping up to be another promising year for Sundance. Here are my top picks in the US Documentary category. (Note: All film descriptions from the Sundance catalog.)
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Sundance Preview: US Dramatic Competition

It’s beginning to look a lot like Sundance … in less than a week I’ll be getting into Park City, settling into the cozy MCN house, and getting ready to immerse myself in four or five films a day for nine days. Even after this many years of working the long, hectic days in Park City, I’m still not jaded enough to pretend I hate Sundance. I love seeing the beauty and charm of Park City. I always hope for snow, because it’s the one time of year I get to enjoy it. I love perusing the catalog to decide which movies to put on my schedule, but I also I love knowing that my schedule is likely to change on a whim, or later in the fest because I’m hearing buzz on something that wasn’t on my radar and I want to check it out. It’s all part of the fun of Sundance.

Last year’s Sundance featured Shunji Iwai’s Vampire, which in spite of its ambition was probably on a lot of “Worst of 2011” lists. I sat through all two-and-a-half hours of it (I think only two of us lasted out the entire press screening), and I actually thought it was smart and interesting, albeit very over-long and desperately in need of an objective, ruthless editor. Vampire aside, though, Sundance last year was packed with films that ended up on my end-of-year Top Ten lists: Martha Marcy May Marlene, Pariah, The Oregonian, The Off Hours, The Future, Like Crazy, Submarine, Margin Call, Terri … come to think of it, Sundance last year was pretty darn awesome. Here’s hoping this year’s slate is also terrific.

I’ll be running previews of some of the sections of the festival over the next couple days — the films from each category that I’m most interested in seeing … at least at the moment. Here are my picks from the US Dramatic Competition section. (Note: All film descriptions from the Sundance Film Guide.)
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Off With His Head?

When I wake up in the morning, I usually check on Facebook to see what my East Coast friends are up to. This morning, I woke up to a bunch of people sharing this story about a cell phone alarm in the front row at the New York Philharmonic that was so distracting the conductor actually stopped the concert — a performance of Mahler’s Symphony #9 — to berate the audience member. “Are you done?” he asked the gentleman, who was sitting in the front row. A couple people shouted out some ugly things toward the gentleman in question, but things mostly stayed calm in the sedate concert hall. Then the conductor resumed the performance, and life moved on, other than the flurry of tweets about the incident, among which “Concertus Interruptus” was perhaps the funniest.

Naturally, people were responding to this story with outrage and anger. Off with his head! was the universal shout across the internets. People who usually oppose the death penalty were calling for it (I sincerely hope tongue-in-cheek) in this case. Consensus on the internet? The guy was an asshole, clearly, who deserved to be publicly humiliated for his transgression.

However, the New York Times follow-up piece sheds a little light on what really happened that makes the older man whose phone went off — he’s between 60 and 70, according to the NYT piece — a bit more sympathetic. He’s an enormous supporter of the New York Philharmonic, a 20-year subscriber. His business phone had been switched from a Blackberry to an iPhone the day before, and an assistant had apparently set the alarm for him. He had silenced the phone before the concert started, but didn’t know the alarm was set, much less that it would go off even with the phone on silent. He didn’t even realize it was his phone at first, but just in case he pulled it out and started pushing buttons and then it turned off. He was embarrassed and humiliated, and told the NYT he hadn’t slept in two nights, he was so upset about what happened.

So look. I get as irritated as the next guy when it comes to cell phones going off in movies, and it’s certainly understandable that the audience at the Philharmonic, and the conductor, were irate about the cell phone alarm going off — especially during that particular piece, at the unfortunately particular time it went off. But the greater lesson learned here, I think, is the way in which people were so quick to rush to judgment against the perceived offender. A $1000 fine? Off with his head? String him up in the public square and let small children throw rotten tomatoes at him?

The age of internet etiquette, such as it is, is training a generation to be overly hasty in judgement, to call out others on anything seen as a fault before there’s actual evidence in as to what the full circumstances are. People engage in the most vicious fights over Twitter or in blog comments, saying things that (one hopes) they would never actually say to someone in a face-to-face discussion. Honestly, it’s appalling. We need some perspective. Is it necessary to call someone names, to pick a playground fight because someone disagrees with you about which film should win the Oscar, or whether this or that trailer sucks, or if a director is the best thing ever or a total hack? Or to publicly call for “off with his head” on the unfortunate guy whose cell phone went off at the Philharmonic? In the wake of that NYT interview making it pretty clear this was an unfortunate case of technology gone awry rather than a patron deliberately being rude, perhaps folks have changed their tune a little on their rush to judgement.

But probably not. On to the next thing to get irate about. Someone out there on the internet must be doing something wrong. And it’s up to the mob to find them and let them know just how wrong they are, post haste.


Adventures in Filmmaking: Off to the Races

Back in December we picture-locked on my short film, Bunker. The plan was to be done by December 20 and shipping off to fests before Christmas. We locked picture on the 8th. We recorded score the 9th-11th. We were done with color grading and post-sound (stereo sound, anyhow) by deadline. We were golden. And then I did something I swore I’d never do.

On December 15th, the day after Neve’s surgery, the day we were slated to get Dolby sound done at Bad Animals … I broke lock on the picture to re-edit.

Now, back in my project management days, I would have pitched a serious fit if anyone had tried to break lock on a project I was in charge of. Dave Howe at Bad Animals was, thankfully, very understanding, and encouraged me to do what I needed to do to make the film right. Get it how you want it, he said, and then we’ll bang this part out in a few hours. No big deal. It was a bigger deal for my post team, particularly for my editor, Joe Shapiro, and my sound guy, Vinny Smith, who had worked hard to meet our deadline. But I think they both agreed with me that it needed to be done. I thought, at first, that all we needed to do was a simple excision of one continuous piece in the beginning. I was wrong.
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We Need to Talk …

Or at least, you need to hear my good friend, the film critic Eric D. Snider, in this awesome little parody of the theme song for We Need to Talk About Kevin. As written and directed by Randy Newman. Happy Sunday.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!

One of the best things I’ve come across this week. For every filmmaker who’s out there taking chances, taking risks, making it happen. You’ve got brains in your head and feet in your shoes, so steer yourself any direction you choose …

Happy weekend to all the creators and dreamers.

Found via numerous friends on Facebook. Enjoy.

The Latest Chapter of the Death of Film Criticism

Over on The Hot Blog, David has a piece up on the laying off of J. Hoberman from the Village Voice that says, essentially, what many of us who have struggled to continue to work on this side of the industry have been thinking for a long time. The age of the print critic (really, of the print film journalist) is coming to a rapid end; those who survive will be the ones who can adapt to the internet, to blogging, to interacting with readers in comments. As David has done, and Roger Ebert, and Anne Thompson, and many others.

You have to be able to compete against all the enthusiastic young writers who realized that the Internet and self-publishing through blogging gave them a foot in the door to work as film writers by building an audience for their writing, even as it gouged the idea of journalists getting paid a decent salary and benefits. And I don’t intend that as a slam against some of the highly talented, smart younger writers out there making a name for themselves. It’s a shift that was as inevitable as every other change technology has brought to our business, and you either embrace and try to succeed, or you get rolled over by it. Not a lot of sense bemoaning how things used to be, because they just aren’t.
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Top Ten 2011: Documentaries

Here’s the last of my 2011 wrap-ups: The best 10 documentaries I saw last year. They encompassed a wide array of subjects, and each told its story in a unique way, from the bottomless heart of Kevin Clash in Being Elmo, to the impressionistic energy of Dragonslayer, to the stunning movement and dance of Pina … here are the docs that I’m still thinking about now that 2011 is behind us.
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Top Ten 2011: Notable Indies

Okay, I lied. There are actually eleven films on this list, but they all deserve a little spotlight, so I decided not to cut one of them. There are quite a few indie films on my Top Ten Narratives list, but there was a lot of work this year from independent filmmakers that I saw at festivals this year that moved me, surprised me, impressed me, or just stuck with me throughout the year. Here are the indie films that stood out from the pack for me this year (Note: this list includes films that have not yet been released in the US or picked up for distribution, so far as I know).
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Top Ten 2011: Narrative Features

I’m doing a couple things differently with my top ten lists for 2011. This year, I’ve put together separate top ten lists for narrative features and notable indie films, which includes a couple films from the fest circuit that haven’t yet been picked up or released, and a third list highlighting documentaries. I also decided to list my picks alphabetically this year, rather than assigning a particular position on the list to each. Here’s round one: the top ten narrative features I saw this year:
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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon