Sundance Film Festival – The History

Right now the 2010 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing in Park City, Utah. American films of all sorts are being rolled out every day till January 31st. For the blog, I’ll be looking at the general history of Sundance here in part one, and then in part two I’ll look at some of this year’s films that I’m most excited to see.

The Sundance Film Festival began in 1978 as the Utah Film Festival. At the time there was no prominent American filmmaker-only festival in the existence and the hope was that this small gathering in Utah would provide a focal point for the iconoclastic film being made at the time. The festival was originally held in Salt Lake City and its biggest event was the awarding of the Frank Capra Award, given to filmmakers who worked outside the mainstream Hollywood system. The first year it was awarded appropriately to Jimmy Stewart, who worked with Capra on It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
In conjunction with the festival, the Sundance Institute was formed, named for Robert Redford’s iconic character and chaired by the actor. The Institute provided young filmmakers with funding for their projects. It was Redford’s involvement in the program that raised the prominence of the film festival. In 1981, the festival moved to its current location of Park City, suggested by director Sydney Pollack due to the resort and tourist nature of the area.
Originally, the festival only dealt in incredibly obscure films but in the late 80s and early 90s, a few young directors gained a large amount of attention. Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotapes hit the festival in 1989, followed by a huge year in 1992 with the debut films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Kevin Smith (Clerks), and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi). Even Wes Anderson’s short film, Bottle Rocket (the basis of the later feature) debuted in the 90s at Sundance.
As Sundance grew in prominence, many argue that its dedication to burgeoning filmmakers waned. Big money is to be made from distribution sales at the festival now, especially in 2001 when Mariah Carey’s Glitter debuted. Many independent filmmakers saw Sundance as becoming more interested in the business and paparazzi side of things. In response, the rival Slamdance festival started in 1995. Slamdance has discovered its own fair share of talent, including Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), and Christopher Nolan (Memento).
Up Next: A Look at 2010’s Sundance line up

Film 2010 #16 – Goodbye Solo

Goodbye Solo (2008, dir. Ramin Bahrani)

It begins in the middle of a conversation between two men, Solo and William. William wants a ride to national park in Eastern North Carolina two weeks from now and is offering Solo, the cab driver, a $200 down payment to ensure this. At first, Solo can’t quite understand why William wants a one way ride to the middle of nowhere, but soon he begins to figure out William’s motives and decides to do whatever he can to stop him.
I first became of aware of Ramin Bahrani with his 2007 film Chop Shop. Bahrani has found his niche in taking unfamiliar faces and non-actors and placing them in very human and very compelling stories. Goodbye Solo is no exception, and it owes the majority of its grounding in honest humanity to the acting of Souleymane Sy Savane who plays Solo. Solo is so incredibly genuine in his caring for William, that you cannot help but be pulled into this deceptively simple story.
Director Bahrani presents a very complex view of suicide in this film. We are never given explicit reasons as to why William wants to end his life, but there are hints dropped and Solo does some investigating of his own and learns some things about the elderly man’s past. The two characters are excellent foils for each other: both very connected to their role as fathers and both determined in their own ways. Solo is just as bullheaded as William, except Solo has the charisma and smile to get people on his side.
The film’s resolution will probably frustrate people more accustomed with mainstream cinema. There is a lot of ambiguity and Solo reveals the complexity he hides to most people. Bahrani is one of the most powerful new voices in American cinema. His landscape encompasses both the urban and rural masterfully and the faces in his films are a true representation of the diversity present in our nation. Bahrani also chooses to focus on the working class in all his films and really taps into the zeitgeist of daily life and the state of the economy today. His films are in no one overtly political and seem only to yearn to find commonalities between diverse groups in America today. Goodbye Solo is a film that, if you allow it, will stay with you for a long time to come.

The James Dean Trilogy – Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray)
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Dennis Hopper

Where in East of Eden, we have the contorting and convulsing Dean, here we have a more muted and subtle performance, and the one that made Dean the icon that he is today. The film was helmed by director Nicholas Ray, who would not find much more cinematic prominence in his career after this picture. It’s also notable that James Dean was only alive for the release of one of his films, the aforementioned East of Eden. Both this film and Giant were released posthumously and caused many fans to read into bits of dialogue here and there in hopes of gaining some insight into the actor’s psyche.

Dean plays Jim Stark, a young man who has frustrated his parents and forced them to move multiple times because of his anti-social behavior. Jim is not a “bad boy”, as the iconography of Dean has informed pop culture, but more of a quiet, troubled young man. And Jim doesn’t have an issue with figures of authority as long as they show him respect. One of the most remarkable characters in the film is Officer Ray Fremick, who genuinely wants to help Jim and offers him an ear any time he needs to talk. In turn, Jim’s parents are an utter mess attempting to hide this to public.

A scene early on sets of the thesis of the film: Jim and his classmates are attending a planetarium show at Griffith Observatory where the presenter tells them of the sun’s eventual implosion and the earth’s destruction, utter the phrase “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.”. This is why Jim is a rebel without a cause, he fights against a system for no reason other than to fight. At one point in the film, Jim is challenged to a game of chicken by school bad boy Buzz. As they prepare to race, Buzz tells Jim he likes him, Jim asks why they are doing this then, and Buzz replies “Well, what else are we gonna do?”

Another interesting aspect of the film is Plato (Sal Mineo), a fellow student of Jim’s whose father has left and whose mother is little involved in her child’s life. The family’s housekeeper is the most concerned person about Plato, as the boy tortures small animals and grows increasingly aggressive and upset. Plato immediately clings to Jim and, as it wouldn’t have been apparent to audiences in the 1950s, has homosexual feelings for the new boy in school. There are scenes where Plato reaches out simply to touch Jim’s shoulder, and when Jim heads home for the night, Plato informs him that there’s no one at his house and that he and Jim could hang out there if he’d like. I found it to be tremendously progressive for a film of this period to feature a character to so blatantly gay and not make him a villainous figure.

The film shows major growth in Dean’s acting ability, as this character chooses to simmer instead of explode. It’s definitely not his best performance, which I believe is in Giant.

Film 2010 #14 – The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli (2010, dir. The Hughes Brothers)
Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Malcolm McDowell

The post-apocalyptic world has been the setting for many films, the most obvious that comes to people’s minds would be the Mad Max trilogy. In the last few years we’ve seen I Am Legend, Terminator: Salvation, and The Road. So how does this latest entry into the sub-genre stack up? Not exactly a masterpiece, but not without its merits either.

The story follows the enegmatic Eli (Washington), a traveler across the devastated landscape who lives by a stoic system of conduct. He has the reflexes of superhero and a stony resolve. There isn’t much depth given to the character, and he is definitely in the category of Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name. We have no back story ever given for Eli and in fact it probably doesn’t matter too much anyway. There are some interesting twists that provide a different context for the film if you were to go back and rewatch it, however, the film never provides any real reason to want to.

The post-apocalyptic world the Hughes Brothers have designed feels incredibly bland. They add some new details: a world so sun bleached everyone must wear sunglasses when going outside. But other than a few details here and there, there is nothing that sets this world apart from richer futurist visions. The one thing that elevates the picture is the acting, particularly of Washington and Oldman. These two actors are much better than the material they are working with and its only due to their acting prowess that they make it enjoyable.

In the end, its a case of great concepts but poor delivery, very much like last year’s Pandorum. The film feels way too rushed (it’s about an hour and half), and the action doesn’t really kick in until an hour in. This imbalance of the plot can definitely be felt and ends up showcasing some of the sloppiness in the screenplay. It’s a film with a look once its on DVD or you come across it on HBO, but definitely not one to rush out to the theaters and see.

Weekend Trailer Roundup

Here are some of the best trailers I saw this week, hope you see something you like.

Cyrus (dir. The Duplass Brothers) – Premiering at Sundance, this comedy stars John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill. The Duplass Brothers are known primarily for their work in the mumblecore genre (improvised indie pics). Very interested in what they do with this film.

Terribly Happy (dir. Henrik Ruben Genz)- a very crazy looking Danish film, in the vein of Twin Peaks. I am there!

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Lone Star

For the next six months or so, I have decided to take a look at a director whose entire filmography will be new for me. The first director up will be John Sayles. Sayles’ name has come across my radar many times but I’ve never sought out his pictures until now. What I know about him is that he typically prefers large casts and very complex narratives, sort of like Robert Altman but with less improvisation. Sayles has done a tremendous amount of screenwriting work on films as diverse as The Howling, Apollo 13, and The Fugitive. It was an unproduced screenplay, titled Night Skies, that Sayles wrote which inspired Spielberg’s E.T. I hope that you learn as much as I do about a new major director in the American cinema with me as we go.

Lone Star (1996, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey

My feelings after seeing Lone Star was that Sayles made a perfect concept for the first season a television drama. There are so many characters and so many myriad plot strands that the two hours the film takes does not feel like enough to do them justice. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good film, it just feels like so much for such a small portion of time.

The film is set in Rio County, Texas where two off-duty soldiers discover a partially buried skeleton wearing a sheriff’s badge. Current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is called in and an investigation begins revealing the skeleton to be that of Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who mysteriously disappeared forty years earlier. Sam starts asking questions of the older members of Rio County and is met with many warnings to leave the past alone. Simultaneously, we follow Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), Sam’s high school sweetheart and current social studies teacher. The circumstances of how their relationship ended becomes entangled in some of the same events that brought about the death of Sheriff Wade.

Much like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, Lone Star is very much about things that happen below the surface level. There is the core mystery of the film, but there is just as much time devoted to the racial history of Texas. One scene involves a meeting of parents upset about the way Pilar teaches the history of Texas, giving a sympathetic view of the Mexicans’ role. A new courthouse is being dedicated during the film and an ongoing argument in the film revolves around whether to name it after Sam’s father, Buddy (also a sheriff) or to name it after a notable Mexican-American in the community. Pilar’s mother clings to her Spanish heritage over her Mexican roots and yells at her cantina’s staff if they do not speak in English.

The only flaw with the film is as I said before, so much for such a small amount of time. There are so many subplots, and they weave and connect together flawlessly, but I think they would have grown and matured better if allowed 12 to 13 hour long episodes to develop. As a series this would have combined the smalltown politics of Friday Night Lights with an investigation concept. The picture left me thinking that in the current climate of series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, there would definitely be a home for Sayles if he ever wished to developed a series.

Film 2010 #12 – My Winnipeg

My Winnipeg (2007, dir. Guy Maddin)

If you aren’t familiar with Guy Maddin’s style of film making, then viewing one of his pictures can be a very jolting experience. Narrative is secondary to a more stream of consciousness style of storytelling. I’ve been very familiar with Maddin’s work, starting with Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and this oddity of cinema lead me to watch Tales of the Gimli Hospital, Careful, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, and The Saddest Music in the World.

Maddin has an affinity for German expressionist and Soviet propaganda films from the early days of cinema. As a result, he typically makes black and white pictures that utilize the actual technology of the time period he attempts to recreate. In My Winnipeg, Maddin uses rear-projection and obvious sound stages to create a film that will be unlike anything you see in the theaters. The premise is that Maddin is attempting to psychologically break free from his frigid hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The best way he decides upon doing this is to recreate moments from his childhood, focused around his cold and controlling mother.

Interwoven with these recreations are bizarre, Winnipeg legends. Maddin tells us about the First Nation (would be Native Americans for us) belief that beneath the forks of the rivers that converge in Winnipeg, are a second “forks beneath the forks” that are mystical in nature. This image of a parallel existing underneath what can be seen is crucial to understand what Maddin is doing in this film. All of his anecdotes about Winnipeg involve the idea of a darker side of things, and the world of myth and fable.

Many of Maddin’s claims about Winnipeg are suspect (10 times the number of sleepwalkers than any other city, a city hall built as part of an occult Mason rite) but they act as conduits into the subconscious and representations of the unseen nature of things. The fact that this entire film is a one long poem taking place in the mind of Maddin plays into the examination of a seedy underbelly to things. The film is also able to evoke strong emotion, particularly when Maddin laments the destruction of the city’s professional hockey stadium, a temple to him as he grew up.

What started as a commission by the city of Winnipeg to make a documentary of their city, evolved into an amazing exploration into one man’s psyche. Maddin is a director more interested in making what he likes to see and, if an audience happens to enjoy it, that is simply an added bonus. What Maddin creates as an end result is very similar to the film art created by David Lynch. This is not cohesive story with beginning/middle/end, but is an expression of the artist’s mood.

Film 2010 #11 – Gomorrah

Gomorrah (2008, dir. Mateo Garrone)

In Southern Italy there is a disease that infects the lives of many people living below the poverty line. This disease is a crime cartel known as the Camorra. The mafiosa organization has interwoven itself into the workings of both black market operations and legitimate enterprise, including investing in the construction of the rebuilding at Ground Zero in NYC. Such a concept seems too large to be real, but as director Garrone chronicles in this film, it is all too true.

Gomorrah, based on the nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, takes an interesting direction in telling this story. The film is divided up into five separate plot strands that occasionally interweave, but more than not remain as their own isolated story. If the plots were to connect, it would cause the film to feel insular rather than expansive, which is the feeling Garrone wants to evoke. The Hollywood version of this film would seek to be sleek, refined, and would desperate to constantly try and engage the audience. Gomorrah, plays out slowly and at a pace that could be infuriating to some viewers. It is a slice of life film, showing how mundane and common these acts of violence and crime are in the lives of the people in these regions of Italy.

The main characters are Don Ciro; a man charged with distributing cash to the families of imprisoned members of the family, Toto; a 13 year old boy who seeks to join the family to gain prominence in his slum community, Roberto; a recent university graduate working with a mob boss to illegally dump toxic waste, Pasquale; a tailor who is struggling to make the order demands of the mob and moonlighting as a sewing instructor for a Chinese-Italian sweatshop, and finally Marco and Ciro; two young men who are caught up in the fantasy of being in the mob and are unaware of the real dangers of pissing off the wrong people.

Instead of focusing the top tier of the mafia and glamorizing it, the film seeks to explore the lives of the people at the bottom rung of the ladder. The lives displayed are gritty and bleak and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of rising out of the mire. The mob has so taken over every aspect of life that they have replaced the government, and in the case of Tito, his biological family. There is much this picture has in common with Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, just even less stylistic. In fact, I believe Garrone is trying to create a film without embellishment so that the every day nature of crime is the main focus. I highly recommend this as counterprogramming to the mainstream films that stylistically glorify the criminal lifestyle

Film 2010 #9 – Cold Souls

Cold Souls (2009, dir. Sophie Barthes)
Starring Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson, Dian Korzun, David Strathrain

The premise is an intriguing one: Paul Giamatti playing an actor named Paul Giamatti, is having trouble tackling his role in an upcoming production of Uncle Vanya. His agent informs him of a new soul extraction service and hints that this might help him overcome his difficulties. Giamatti hems and haws over it and finally agrees and finds he’s lost his ability to act completely. Sounds like it could be good, right? Sadly, the film fails to explore its concepts fully and provides a picture that is moderately engaging.

Giamatti’s story is paralleled by that of Nina, a Russian woman who traffics souls back and forth to be used on the black market. Because the only safe way to transport a soul is to have a person carry it inside them. A side effect is that fragments of carried souls accumulate in a person and they begin to lose touch with the world. This story takes up more of the narrative and is eventually tied into Giamatti’s plot strand. It feels that the cleverness and originality of the plot concepts it lost on director Barthes.

The film owes a lot to the work of Charlie Kaufman, most notably Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unlike those movies, there is an undeveloped nature to this script. The Giamatti angle doesn’t feel fully explored the true plot is Nina’s. In addition, Barthes creates a much darker landscape than Kaufman has ever attempted. His world’s lean more to the fanciful, while Cold Souls has merely dipped its toes. There seems to be a lot of influence from Russian literature and absurd and satiric theater, specifically that of Eugeneg Ionesco. There is not much humor in this picture, and for myself that is where I felt myself distancing from it.

I truly wanted to love this movie after seeing the trailer and seeing the interesting angle Giamatti was going to take. However, I finished it with a sense of dissatisfaction, wishing I could have seen the movie I had prepared myself for in my head. I wouldn’t encourage someone to not see this film, because there are some wonderful concepts and ideas, I just wouldn’t be able to recommend it enthusiastically.

Film 2010 #8 – The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones (2009, dir. Peter Jackson)
Starring Saorise Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon

Before he was known as the director who brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, Peter Jackson was a small budget New Zealand filmmaker. Among his work was the wacked out zombie flick Dead Alive, the Muppet show on crack Meet the Feebles, and the amazing Heavenly Creatures. And it is Heavenly Creatures, that seems to bear the strongest kinship to Jackson’s latest film. Both films focus on female protagonists and involve their subconscious being brought to the surface in surreal landscapes. However, where The Lovely Bones is an improvement in technical achievement, it lacks the narrative strength of Heavenly Creatures.

Based on the 2003 novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is a first person narrative where the newly deceased Susie Salmon chronicles her afterlife and her family’s reactions to her death. Susie is unable to be at rest in the afterlife, due to her murderer still wandering free. She begins to influence the actions of her family and direct them towards the murderer’s house so that the case can be solved and she can move on. This is juxtaposed to her living out fantasies in a strange surreal afterlife landscape.

This film felt as much like fantasy as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While there are no orcs or wizards, characters are so unrealistic they might as well be wielding magic wands and riding dragons. Susie is so perfect in her actions and attitudes that I could not connect or empathize with her at all. Susie’s biggest rebellion as a teenager comes in being embarrassed about her new knit cap. Everything Susie does is framed by the film in a sort of gauzy light. In contrast, Mr. Harvey, her murderer is filmed in an equally absurd but menacing way. He constant sweatiness and heavy breathing is over-emphasized, and Jackson employs low camera angles to create a sense of looming danger.

This over simplification causes the film to come across as shallow as a silent film. I half expected, Mr. Harvey to start twirling his mustache and tie Susie to a railroad track. I assume the audience is meant to be wowed by the CG effects employed in the afterlife sequences, but because of the initial depthless nature of the characters it was simply some pretty pictures. At the end, the characters are so poorly developed it doesn’t seem possible to have the strong emotional response I’m sure Jackson and co-scripter Fran Walsh intended. It seems that since, and in despite of the success of, the Lord of the Rings series, Jackson has been returning a diminishing product (see King Kong as well). One hopes that he can make his next project a bit more meaningful and more character-driven.