Sundance 2014

TLMW, SA, and I watched 12 movies in 4 days at Sundance this year. We generally pick as many documentaries as we can and don’t try to get into the movies that generate the most hype; a) because they are obviously hard to get into and b) they have the highest probability of becoming available in theaters or on Netflix etc. later on. We prefer documentaries because we have seen some really bad dramas there in the past. Forcing oneself to sit through some incomprehensible, self-indulgent film school crap kind of spoils the whole experience. It’s hard to go wrong with documentaries. That said, the ticketing at Sundance is a complex affair and getting exactly the films one wants is often a crap shot, so inevitably one has to make do with what one gets. One thing about seeing so many movies in such a short time is that one gets into a sort of “Sundance state of mind.” On the bad side, story lines begin to blur into one another as one tries to remember what one has already seen (though this can be quite a trip on occasion when doung inadvertent mash ups). On the good side, with so many movies from different places one begins to feel more “of this world” than by just reading the world news section in the NYT (also see the Ebert quote below). I have always thought that one of the best things about Sundance is the queuing. One learns a lot from others in line and can have some of the best conversations there. (This article in the Guardian summarizes that experience very well.) On to this year’s films:

Rich Hill (★★★★★)

– A very subtle ethnographic film that explores the lives of three adolescent boys living in the rural Missouri town of Rich Hill, who try to overcome their struggles with poverty. A touching movie that just let the camera linger on scenes without ever editorializing. It’s important that films like this keep getting made.

Trailer: http://vimeo.com/74987674

The film won the grand jury U.S. documentary prize at Sundance this year.

All the Beautiful Things (★☆☆☆☆)

– An elaborately staged story of a friendship thrown totally off course by real and alleged domestic violence. The narcissism of this film was so thick that even interesting ideas drowned in it. Shot on 35mm, the film is good-looking in a commercial way: colored lights illuminate rain-slicked NYC streets as steam billows up from the … pretty cliché factory. But all the atmosphere and buildup couldn’t gloss over the fact that nearly nothing of substance was being communicated in the film that is important to anyone other than the two men in the film. Among its most fatal flaws were: 1) the director evidently never could make up his mind whether he wanted to do a story in comic book format, Dinner with Andre-style, Jazz video, documentary, drama or whatever else; each of these formats was interesting but mixed together they didn’t work at all; 2) it’s pretty disturbing to do a stylized and precious account of one’s own life and call it a documentary; 3) the roles of women in the film were ridiculously subservient to the male-dominant plot; 4) the treatment of domestic violence was distasteful at the very least; 5) and perhaps worst of all, don’t ever use Coltrane’s sublime and spiritual A Love Supreme as the score for a self-indulgent friendship!

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSk6S-IyDuU

We Come As Friends (★★★★★)

– Critical perspective about the split of Sudan and subsequent conflict. Complex interests of religion, governments, business, and people. The documentary showed the effects of continuing colonialism in Sudan, motivated primarily by control over its oil. The shaky, handmade two-seater plane (“a flying tin can”) specially built for the film was a superb way of capturing an aerial view of the conflict in Sudan and amazing footage in remote places. Very Herzog-ish story-telling overall. The French-Austrian director’s Q&A session was brilliant.

Article: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/we-come-as-friends-sundance-673883

The film won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematic Bravery at Sundance this year.

Return to Homs (★★★★★)

– Harrowing documentary account of the effects of civil war in Syria and particularly the destruction of the city of Homs by government forces. The film follows a small group of rebel fighters who want to free their besieged city. They start with large, peaceful demonstrations and progressively turn to more and more armed resistance. Scenes of the utter destruction of the city and of brutal street fighting are shocking. The Syrian director and producer were also excellent in the Q&A session.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYMhVE2iJCk

The film deservedly won The World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Award at Sundance this year.

No No, A Dockumentary (★★★★☆)

– About Dock Ellis, the 70’s MLB pitcher renowned for his voluminous drug intake and pitching a no-hitter while on LSD. No No was spectacular. Not only because of Dock himself, but also because of all his friends that were interviewed. The film showed Dock on camera tearfully reading out loud a letter Jackie Robinson had written to him. The whole thing was a very funny, moving, and important bio of the Muhammad Ali of baseball. This is as good as documentaries get – while telling one person’s strange life story it ultimately reveals a much deeper tale of courage, survival, and redemption.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIZ5TXjnml4

I Origins (★★★★★)

– A very poetic film about science and faith without ever crossing the line into pseudo philosophical hokeyness. Well-acted and beautifully shot and with a nice, meandering storyline and atmosphere not unlike Wim Wenders’ movie Until The End of the World. This film will be in theaters for sure.

Article: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/i-origins-sundance-review-672274

The film won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance this year.

Jamie Marks is Dead (☆☆☆☆☆)

– THE rotten apple of the bushel at this year’s festival!! Just an out-and-out horrible film. If you’re into homoerotic ghost stories for teens with a Harry Potter look-alike in dirty underwear, this one may be for you. How this film was selected by Sundance is a mystery worthy of making a documentary about.

Trailer: http://www.indiewire.com/article/sundance-review-jamie-marks-is-dead-is-a-poetic-but-flawed-meditation-on-human-connection

Watchers of the Sky (★★★★★)

– Definitely the most important film this year at Sundance. Mostly about Raphael Lemkin who not only coined the term ‘genocide’ but whose perseverance assured a UN convention that eventually led to the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Didn’t know that the legal term of crimes against humanity evidently implied only war time atrocities and therefore necessitated the term genocide to also cover senseless slaughter of people by a sovereign nation during ‘peaceful times’. The documentary was expertly narrated, for the most part by Samantha Powers, and used animation and live-action to tell five interwoven stories of courage in facing genocide from the Nuremberg trials to Rwanda, Darfur, former Yugoslavia, and to Syria. It should be shown in schools and public squares the world over! How Lemkin never won a Nobel Peace Prize after 8 nominations leads one to believe that the award is a sham.

Article: http://www.indiewire.com/article/sundance-review-in-both-form-and-content-watchers-of-the-sky-shows-both-the-enormity-and-difficulty-of-tackling-genocide

Clip: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/exclusive-humanity-and-the-law-come-together-in-clip-from-sundance-documentary-watchers-of-the-sky-20140121

The film won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Use of Animation at Sundance this year.

Land Ho! (★★★☆☆)

– Charming though somewhat inconsequential comedy about two old friends going on a trip to Iceland. The actor playing the character of Mitch in the film apparently was an actual surgeon in Louisiana and had never acted in anything before. Best line: “That dish tastes so good, it’s like angels pissing on your tongue.”

Article: http://www.indiewire.com/article/sundance-review-how-the-road-trip-dramedy-land-ho-from-aaron-katz-and-martha-stephens-transcends-cliches

Cesar’s Last Fast (★★★☆☆)

– Portrait of Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farmworkers Union, which cuts between a recap of his overall career and a more detailed chronicle of the 36-day protest fast he undertook in 1988. Not much new in the film but the archival footage of his fast and funeral a few years later, shown here for the first time, were very touching.

Article: http://www.indiewire.com/article/sundance-review-bodily-deprivation-for-justice-in-the-spiritually-charged-cesars-last-fast

Director Interview and Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RC7W4v5cZR0

Freedom Summer (★★★★★)

– This film was outstanding start to finish. Exceptionally well crafted. I’ve seen so many documentaries on the civil rights movement that I was wondering beforehand what more could be brought to the table – and I was amazed at the amount of new information and perspectives presented. It covered the campaign that was launched in 1964 to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi, which had historically excluded most blacks from voting. The project also set up dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers in small towns throughout Mississippi to aid the local black population. Recent interviews with student volunteers from that time were juxtaposed with amazing archival footage. The film surprised me with some of its historical details similarly to the film “Slavery By Another Name” which we saw at Sundance a couple of years ago and which is now also available on PBS in its entirety.

Trailer: http://vimeo.com/83539844

The film has been purchased by PBS and will appear on American Perspectives later this year.

Life Itself (★★★★★)

– A fitting end to a great run of films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Beautiful and moving biopic of Roger Ebert who passed away last year. Some of the scenes showing Ebert’s facial deformities from cancer toward the end of his life were very hard to watch. Great interviews with some of the people who knew him best provided some funny anecdotes. E.g. I knew about Ebert writing the screenplay for the soft porn parody “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” but I had no idea of Siskel’s stint as a regular in the Playboy Mansion. I hate to admit it but I used to think of Ebert as a sort of windbag for a long time and I mostly sided with Siskel on the movies I actually cared for. But I grew to really appreciate Ebert for his profound humanity and wit on the blog he was writing in his later years when he was too debilitated to regularly appear on TV. Martin Scorsese, who is he Executive Producer of the film put it well here. “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine of all the arts. When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life a little bit for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.(Roger Ebert in his autobiography Life Itself) What he said! That is exactly why I love going to Sundance where the opportunities to do precisely that are so plentiful!! “I’ll see you at the movies.”

Article: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/life-sundance-review-672554

sundance2014

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Klown and The Imposter

Saw two movies:

Klown

The NYT reviewed it perfectly. Don’t have much to add, except to say that I laughed myself silly. It’s a stupidly funny film loosely patterned after the narrative structure of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (H/T TLMW), but with a triple dose of inappropriateness. This is not your father’s Dogme 95 Danish movie fare, but a hilarious “Tour de Pussy” that is, in parts, quite sublimely depraved.

The Imposter

This film was shown at Sundance earlier this year but I didn’t get to watch it there. The film is a quasi-documentary (it includes some re-creations) from which one can only walk away thinking truth is stranger than fiction. It tells the story of a 23-year-old French Algerian man in Spain who with dark hair and dark eyes came to pass himself off as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, and younger boy from Texas who’d been missing for nearly four years — fooling international officials and, most incredibly, the boy’s family. Yes, it is that bizarre and incredible. It’s all about deception, self-delusion and the desire to believe.

One of the priceless characters in this movie is a private investigator called Charlie Parker. This guy is the quintessential gumshoe who not only looks the part (see below) but who also has got to be one of the most brilliant figures in the history of documentaries. I don’t want to say he steals the show, because this is about much more than him, but he is the perfect deus ex machina for the last third of the film.

Gripping and thoroughly mesmerizing stuff. Here’s an interesting interview with Charlie Parker (spoiler alert).

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And Everything Is Going Fine

I finally saw the Spaulding Gray documentary I had mentioned before. Soderbergh does a great job in slicing and dicing archival footage of Gray’s performances for what essentially amounts to a “new” monologue about his life as a whole. The documentary stays pure Gray, no other new footage (e.g. interviews) is used.

But what tangled mess Gray’s psyche was! I saw movies of a few of his monologues years ago and, yes, they were twisted and autobiographical and wildly imaginative, but I had no idea just how autobiographical they actually were. Gray’s childhood may almost rival Augusten Burroughs’.

As he says in the documentary, his basic approach to the monologues was “poetic journalism,” i.e. reality filtered through his imagination. His public solo performances turned into swinging and flying psychopathological trapeze acts without safety nets. They were cathartic events in which he tried to come to grips with the psychological issues that plagued him.

Three things really stayed with me from the documentary: one, the incredible craftsmanship that went into the monologue performances. What comes across as him just showing up on stage and telling stories off-the-cuff, were instead very carefully developed and structured stories. Two, the frail looking images of Gray at the end of his life after having suffered severe hip and brain injuries from a car accident in Ireland. He never was the same again. In one shot he calls himself, when he was at his most helpless and needed constant care, a “half-dead spectator.” The third thing is just such a sad leitmotif in his life. The relationship, or lack thereof, he had with his mostly uncaring and unbalanced, if not psychotic, mother who also committed suicide clearly traumatized him. The documentary shows that he longed for some form of “mothering” for the rest of his life. At some point, he mentions that wherever he is, he always tries to ground himself by his physical location to the sea. “The sea,” he says, “is the mother.” Of course, given his apparent suicide by ‘sliding’ into the East River, this turned out be oddly ironic and prophetic. However, in the movie there is no reference of the suicide. Instead it ends with a series of photos of Gray as a young boy – the final photo is of him in the arms of his mother.

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No One Sends Mail to the Mailman

I quite liked the Mexican movie Cartas a Elena.

It’s a melodramatic picture with gentle and moving parts. Story about a mailman in Chihuahua. Or, perhaps more generally, about the act of deliverance. With a dose of magical realism. The old people in the sierra tarahumara, to whom the mailman delivers the mail on foot, are mostly illiterate so they need their mail read to them and require help getting their own letters written down. Unfortunately, they keep getting nothing but bad and painful news from loved ones living in the US.

The mailman has a long-lost son who never writes until finally one day he seemingly receives a letter from his son, believes he has been forgiven, and dies suddenly but happily. As it turns out, the letter has been written by a young boy, who the mailman had adopted earlier. The boy is so saddened by the bad (or lack of) news for those around him, that he decides to use his imagination and make the letters appear more positive and optimistic. The old people end up being much happier and begin to prefer being fooled by the boy rather than having to cope with the steady stream of hardship in the actual letters.

There’s much more to it, in a fairy tale kind of way. There’s some lovely storytelling in this movie – and beautiful scenery. Some of the acting is a bit over the top and appeals perhaps more to soap operatic sensibilities but generally works very well here. A few scenes are over the top of that top and require moments of severe patience but they are fairly limited.

There are some beautiful panoramic shots in the movie of the barranca del cobre (Copper Canyon), a canyon system in the Sierra Madre larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Many years ago I had a good friend CG, the badass drummer for the Sun City Girls, who sadly passed away 5 years ago. He was the one who first told me stories about the canyon and the Tarahumara runners. He had read “The Peyote Dance“by Antonin Artaud, one of the most amazing pieces of drug literature ever written. CG would retell all those stories to me in excited monologues that would also include mysterious facts about Haitian voodoo drumming. At some point, I found a book by the anthropologist John Kennedy on the “Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre” full of fascinating accounts of beer brewing, running matches, and dealings with Catholic missionaries. I knew I would have to visit one day.

A few years later, my friend JCK and I finally travelled via the Chihuahua al Pacifico train from Los Mochis in Sinaloa to Creel in Chihuahua at the top of the barranca del cobre. From there we (hitch)hiked down to the old, dusty mining town of Batopilas at the bottom of one of the canyons. We saw a decomposing body in the ruins of the old Jesuit mission in Satevo (a stop on the Camino Real), saw airstrips for opium poppy transhipments, endured bloody cockfights, and played pool games with pistola toting cartelitos in a local dive.

The landscape in the movie was instantly familiar to me. The scene below, I believe, was taken near the popular lookout in Divisadero. Good movie, nice memories.

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East River Terror

Source: Esquire

I just ordered the DVD And Everything Is Going Fine, a documentary Steven Soderbergh made about Spalding Gray. I hadn’t heard of it before but have been a fan of Gray since seeing “Swimming to Cambodia.” I was looking for a review of the DVD when I stumbled upon a brief but graphic account by a 28-year-old web developer of how he and a friend came upon Gray’s washed up body in the East River. Two months earlier, in an apparent suicide attempt, Gray had jumped off the side of the Staten Island Ferry. (The DVD cover and title are thus perhaps a bit, shall I say, mordant.) Gray had evidently suffered from severe bouts of depression ever since a car crash a few years earlier.

Then they flipped him over, and we saw the face. It was like a blast wave from a bomb emanated from it. His face was totally torn off, like you see in the zombie movies. Just… red. Eyes poking out. The cops explained that in the winter, bodies sink to the bottom and get dragged around. When the water gets warm, the bodies float to the top. Apparently this one had been rubbing on the bottom for some time.

Shocking and sad. The story is told with candor, some humor, and unfailingly bizarre images: so very Gray-like.

PS: One of my favorite Gray quotes is:

“I refer to jet lag as ‘jet-psychosis’ – there’s an old saying that the spirit cannot move faster than a camel.”

I have been there. Too many times. Not good.
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A Serious Man

By the Coen Brothers. Movie is a few years old but finally got to watch it. What a great film!! Beautifully done with some deep, dark humor.

Best scene? Hard to pick, but it has to be the “Goy’s teeth” sequence about what it all means, with the second rabbi. The fact that Jimi Hendix’ Machine Gun is used as the soundtrack here is priceless. When Larry ends up not liking the rabbi’s story (“Why tell me the story?”) the rabbi goes: “First I should tell you, then I shouldn’t tell you?” Beautiful!

Other things to love:

  • Somebody to Love, Surrealistic Pillow
  • Fuckers on the bus
  • Columbia Record Club phone call (Santana Abraxas?)
  • Schrödiger’s Cat
  • “It’s not about wupsy dupsy”
  • “Accept the mystery”
  • The perspective. Of the parking Lot. (Rabbi #1)
  • “When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies … then what?” (Rabbi #3 before returning the radio)

Life is short. Life is uncertain. Find somebody to love.

A real gem!!

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To Rome With(out) Love

I used to go watch Woody Allen movies with people my age (whereby I mean “young”) and laugh my heart out. Now I go watch Woody Allen movies with old people my age and am bored to death. There’s nothing charitable one could say about “To Rome With Love.” There’s zero plot to speak of, the acting is deplorable, the gags cringe-worthy, and there is not much of Rome either except for a few glossy brochure shots of the usual aspects and a  gratuitous 360° pan of the Piazza del Popolo. Fahgettable.

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Savages

I was prepared to like this movie based on the book reviews and reading the first few pages. But what a fucking waste of much-needed life time! The linked review above nails it in horrid detail – I could add some more scathing remarks but this should suffice as stern warning.

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