SUNDANCE 2009 FILM FESTIVAL ROUNDUP!
Here’s the annual Sundance Film Festival Roundup, complete with my views and reviews on the films, the parties and events, the lounges, and the festival in general, for those who are interested, or weren’t able to make it there. I try to keep it real here, so you’ll not only hear about the great, happy moments (of which there were many!), but also my gripes, complaints, and sometimes outright whining. 🙂
As with every year, I had a truly wonderful time – met some really fascinating people, and got some great business done – and I always make sure to get some skiing in to boot! I’ll usually head over to the next canyon and ski at Alta (more interesting runs, and higher altitude=better snow), but this year I thought I’d change things up and ski near Park City, and spent the day before the festival at Deer Valley (sorry snowboarders, only skiing allowed!). It hadn’t snowed for several weeks, so the snow was rather so-so, but Deer Valley has some great runs, and generally interesting terrain, which made for a nice day regardless of the snow. Luckily, the last day or two of the festival saw a wonderful white snowstorm that provided my post-festival ski day at The Canyons with some nice fresh powder – my main complaint about The Canyons, however, is that you always seem to have to do these long, boring traverses to get where you want to go, rather than just being able to ski down a run to get there. Fortunately, the boring-ness of the traverses was more than made up for with the good company I was skiing with, Zamir Tarmu (owner of the lodge where the “Green Door” parties were thrown – an amazing person, and a great skier also!), as well as event planner and photographer Jenna Lynn, and actress Yuri Geiger.
This may have been the warmest Sundance I’ve attended in the last 10 years – while it made for some not as good snow for skiing, it was, however, a nice change from some of the bitter cold moments of standing in line outside for parties at previous years, and the lack of snow also made it easier to get around both on foot and by car – but this was also one of the slowest in terms of turnout. The triple-whammy made up of the sagging economy, the presidential inauguration, and the impending SAG strike all contributed to the lower turnout – but I think it was actually to the benefit of the festival. It was a more intimate experience, and the focus was more on the independent film, rather than all the crowded craziness of celebrity gift lounges, etc. And, while it’s never been a problem for me to get into events – it did make it easier for me to get my condo-mates and entourage into events and screenings, which was a refreshing change as well. 🙂 The Saturday night of the first weekend, which is usually characterized by a main street that is jam packed with pedestrians, cars, and myriad goings-on, seemed almost deserted this year in comparison. So while I heard rumors that there was a 20% decline in attendance this year, it seemed to be considerably more, although I’ve yet to see any official numbers posted anywhere.
At an economic time when distributors would rather release fewer, safer films, there were still some purchases made at the festival. Senator Entertainment picked up the cop drama Brooklyn’s Finest (starring Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, and Ethan Hawke) for something reported as “less than $5 million, and Magnolia Pictures picked up Humpday – although I didn’t get to see it, I heard many good reviews of the film.
Kudos to Sundance and Park City in general for being able to deal with the huge, instantaneous influx of people (of what in the past has been something like 50,000 people that all converge on the little few-block area known as Main Street). Their handling of the parking situation, however, left a lot to be desired – and every year they seem to make it worse. This year, there were NO free public parking lots – and they had the gall to charge $20 for entrance (some of the less desirable lots were “only” $10) – something about paying $20 to park to see a $15 movie (also up from $10 ticket prices in previous years) just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. At a time when people have less money, and attendance is already plummeting does not seem like the time for Sundance and Park City to start gouging everyone – yes, we notice, and yes, we’re offended, and yes, there will be people who don’t return because of it. But, given all that Park City has to contend with, even with my occasional whining and belly-aching on a few issues, just know that overall it’s always a great experience!
Last year, after spending waaaaay to much time away from what is truly the heart of the festival (the films, filmmakers, events, etc.), I vowed to spend less time at the “gifting suites” this year. And I kept my promise. I did go to some, however (come on, it’s free stuff after all!) Last year, I had missed a number of screenings, events, and other opportunities while on the quest for swag, and while I was able to narrow it down a bit this year, and only go for the stuff I might actually use, I did end up with some rather nice stuff, which I’ll elaborate on below. 🙂 Swag-bashing aside, for those who know where to look, there’s an entire sea (or should I say mountain?) of opportunities to meet, mingle, and network with old friends and new acquaintances, getting work done all the while having ridiculous amounts of fun at the plethora of parties, events, panels, lounges, and yes, even the gifting suites. It is a place where new dreams are born, and old dreams are realized (yes, the last two sentences were lifted straight out of my last year’s roundup, but I liked them, so I’m including them again…) 🙂
While last year’s films seemed to be a steady stream of “good, but not great…” – this year seemed to have a selection of quite good films. And when you’re talking about independent film, there’s also the chance of seeing some “downright horrible” films as well – luckily, this year I was able to avoid those (yes!) – well, except in the shorts category, unfortunately. Since I’m a bit more pressed for time this year, I won’t be able to expound in quite as much detail as in past reviews – but know that it’s because I’m busy getting some great things in place for the InfoList! So, here’s my take on this year’s films, as well as the events, parties, lounges, etc.:
500 DAYS OF SUMMER
One of my favorite films of the festival, this non-linear love story spans 500 days throughout the relationship (or lack thereof) between Tom (endearingly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (wonderful performance by Zooey Deschanel). In this non-traditional tale that goes from love that is requited just a little bit, to being mostly unrequited, director Marc Webb takes us on a journey that is as heartfelt and endearing as it is witty, light, and downright entertaining. An extraordinarily high number of “great moments per minute,” brilliant dialogue, and great attention to visual details (such as adding blue color to Zooey’s eyes to make them “pop”) combined with great directing bring to life this unconventional story that just about anyone who’s ever been on the wrong side of a relationship can relate to.
MARY AND MAX
In Sundance’s opening night film, both serious subject matter and feel-good moments are brought together in this truly inspirational and uplifting tale visualized with the beautifully animated claymation for which Academy Award winning director Adam Elliot has become synonymous. It’s the story of a friendship which is as unlikely as it is perfectly matched, between Max (voiced by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely and isolated obese 40-something New York Jew with Asperger’s Syndrome (a neurological condition characterized by extreme social awkwardness), and Mary (voiced by Toni Collette), a chubby and awkward 8 year old girl living across the world in an Australian suburb, where she has few friends and is teased by the other kids in school. A coincidental fascination with the same TV show is the spark that ignites a 20-year pen-pal friendship that teaches them both about the meaning of friendship, life outside their lonely worlds, and about themselves.
I’ve always been a fan of intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi, and I’ll have to say I admire this film more for it’s attempt to be that than what it actually accomplished. This is definitely an interesting film, but by no means a great one, or dare I say even a good one. While it is replete with cool visual style, interesting ideas, a brilliant plot twist, and a great performance from Sam Rockwell in the lead role, Moon suffers from some serious holes and inconsistencies in plot points, character motivations, and even proposed technology which occur in the not-too-distant future – it’s lack of details left it incomplete and flat. It’s the story of Sam Bell (Rockwell), who has a couple weeks left on his solitary three year mission to mine alternative energy on the moon – which is of course when he begins to have severe isolation-induced mental complications (the type where you begin to doubt what is real and what is not), topped off by a severe injury, and the inability to communicate with Earth due to a failed communications satellite. While Kevin Spacey does a spot-on job providing the voice for the base’s artificial intelligence computer (ala HAL in 2001), the all-too-familiar sound of his highly recognizable voice becomes a bit of a distraction and has a tendency to pull you out of the story, as did the film’s music score, which spanned from tonally interesting to downright dramatically inappropriate. First time director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie, not that it’s relevant) spins a complex tale of isolation, human experience, corporate greed and immorality, that is an interesting mix of Cast Away, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and elements of many classic sci-fi films. He’s got all the right elements, and with the right assembly, this could have been a very cool film.
As is the case with most good filmmaking, writer/director Max Mayer tells a story about the interaction and relationship between the characters, and the specific struggles and adversities they must overcome are merely a backdrop to the heart of the story. Adam is the story of an intelligent, quirky if not geeky, electronic engineer (artfully played by Hugh Dancy) with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mental disorder which is characterized by social awkwardness caused by a difficulty in knowing what others are thinking, either by reading their facial expressions or via empathy. When his new neighbor Beth (Rose Byrne) is instantly attracted to his somewhat strange and quirky personality, an unlikely romance ensues that gives this romantic comedy with dramatic underpinnings warmth and heart. The characters are multi-layered and believable, and there is a great deal more depth to this story than the typical movie of the week about how people deal with a mental disorder. Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Award for an outstanding feature film focusing on science or technology, or depicting a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character, this film is definitely worth the watch.
What do you do when the physical embodiment of your soul looks like a chickpea? In one of the most inventive, quirky, and entertaining films in this year’s festival, first time writer/director Sophie Barthes gives you the answer to that question and more in this film partially inspired by Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Paul Giamatti plays himself – the real Paul Giamatti – but in a fictional, satirical world where one can pay to put one’s soul in a temporary “cold storage” to take some of life’s burdens off your shoulders and ease your stress. And, to give some insight into the offbeat, whacky humor of the film (ala Being John Malkovich) of course, out of state customers can have their soul shipped to the New Jersey facility to save sales tax… The “more” I referred to above comes in that the watching of Paul Giamatti struggle to understand his own soul, we maybe learn a thing or two about our own. We learn that we can’t take away the burdens of having a soul without removing the richness that it brings life – where “Pleasantville” examined why we need the bad in life to appreciate the good on a societal scale, Cold Souls makes a similar point, but on an internal, individual scale. With a top notch performance from Giamatti (and has he ever had a performance that wasn’t?), and great performances from a supporting cast including big names such as David Strathairn and smaller names that give equally large performances, the casting was as impeccable as the rest of the film. While I think there were some missed opportunities in exploring the layers and differences in Paul Giamatti’s character with soul, without soul, and with the “borrowed soul” (hopefully not giving away to much of a plot point), I think was mostly due to the lack of them being there in the writing, rather than from Paul’s performance. But as far as the technology to pay to have your soul removed, I think it’s already here – people in Hollywood sell their souls on a regular basis… 😉
Writer/director Shana Feste brings one of the most heartbreaking films to the festival, which takes the audience on the journey of emotional hardship and eventual healing that a family goes through after the death of their son. It makes us realize that we all have different ways of dealing with loss, and that just because someone doesn’t cope the way you do, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t hurting as well. One scene in the film, which is several minutes long and has not a single word of dialogue spoken between the actors on their car ride to the funeral, could not have been pulled off by lesser actors than the film’s stars Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon – a true testament not only the talent of the actors, but to the film tenet of “show it, don’t say it,” which this film exercised brilliantly throughout, with the exception of the final scene where all the characters gave a short speech about their revelations. Although the tone of sadness permeated the film to an unrelenting degree, it also gave the film an honesty that rang true.
PETER AND VANDY
The theme for this year’s lineup of romantic comedies at Sundance seems to be non-linear, and Peter and Vandy is no exception. Jumbling the film’s timeline to it’s advantage, writer/director Jay DiPietro deftly uses that structure to display aspects of the couple’s relationship, rather than the chronological story. Jason Ritter delivers one of his most endearing performances, almost making us forget that his character is at times undeserving of the affections of Vandy, delightfully played by Jess Weixler. Shot on location in New York, the film makes the most of it’s modest budget – combining great writing and dialogue with great performances and directing to make a thoroughly enjoyable film – isn’t that what indie film is all about?
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Paper Heart screenwriters Charlyne Yi and Nicholas Jasenovec bring us an utterly delightful film that is part documentary, and part fictional narrative about the real life romance between co-stars Yi and Michael Cera – and it’s up to the viewer to decide which is real and which is simply for the screen. The documentary premise of the film is that Charlyne is searching for the answer to the question, “Does true love exist?” In the process of interviewing everyone from friends and family to newlyweds, old married couples, divorcees, scientists, and even a Vegas Wedding Chapel owner dressed as Elvis, she meets and begins dating (already her boyfriend in real life) the amiably awkward Michael Cera. Charlyne, a comedian in real life, also brings so much charm to the screen, we truly feel for her when she claims that she doesn’t think true love exists, or at least she doesn’t know if she’s capable of feeling it. But as the film and her relationship with Michael progress – well, I’ll just say I think the film leaves the answer to the question about whether true love really exists to the viewer as well. While the title of this film may suggest a heart made of paper, this film has a heart of its own which is very much alive and beating.
PUSH: BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SAPPHIRE
Not to be confused with the sci-fi action film “Push” which was just released in theaters nationwide, “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” is the winner of not only the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, but also the Audience Award for best feature film at Sundance (Note: the film has been re-titled “Precious” prior to release to reduce confusion). While, in my opinion, previous “double award winners” at Sundance, while good, may not have been quite good enough to be deserving of that double honor – this film may indeed be the one that is. The film starts off by presenting the horribly bleak life that is the existence of Precious Jones, and is unrelenting as her situation goes from bleak to worse, and still worse yet. The film’s subject matter may keep some potential audience members away at first glance – an obese, 16 year old high school dropout who is giving birth to her 2nd child, both due to being raped by her own father (and one of which has Down Syndrome), and abused verbally and physically by her mother – but those who venture into the theater will find this film is ultimately about hope. Given the subject matter, it would be easy to go over the top, but director Lee Daniels instead gives us a story that is realized authentically and uncontrived, and yet without watering down the hopelessness of Precious’ situation. Gabourey Sidibe brings a quality so completely authentic to her performance, we almost forget this is a narrative and not a documentary. Even though she was surrounded by big names, it’s truly Gabourey that carries this film. Mo’Nique (winner of the Special Jury Prize for Acting) gives a hard-hitting performance as well (uhm, no pun intended), giving a depth to her character, but not letting us feel an ounce of sympathy for Precious’ mother, who continually abuses her verbally and physically, blaming her for taking the affections of her husband (and Precious’ father), and “stealing her man.” Mariah Carey also does an outstanding job in the film, dropping the makeup and glamour in her role as a social worker, where we almost don’t recognize her. While Carey may have deserved her Razzie award for her performance in critically bashed Glitter, she showed she has the stuff in Sundance 2002’s Wise Girls, and absolutely removed any doubt in her small role but big performance in this film. Lenny Kravitz was notable in his performance as Nurse John, and I got to meet supporting cast members Chyna Layne and Angelic Zambrana at various festival events, who were as charismatic and engaging in person as they were in the film. While it’s obvious that life may never be exactly peachy for Precious, we feel for her and desperately want for her the things many of us take for granted – a hint of normalcy, self-respect, and maybe even a little happiness.
It’s easy to see why this film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary – the filmmakers truly risked their lives to bring us this hard-hitting expose on the dolphin industry which raises serious questions not only about the dolphin industry, but about how we treat our planet in general. Director Louie Psihoyos and the rest of his crew embark on a series of covert operations to plant cameras and audio equipment in a highly guarded, secluded cove in Taiji, Japan, which holds a terrible secret: thousands upon thousands of dolphins are rounded up there and slaughtered every year. The select few are kept and sold to trainers at high profits for “captive dolphin shows” for entertainment, and the rest are butchered and sold as food in Japanese markets (often mislabeled as other types of seafood). To be clear, this film is not a condemnation of Japan – the average citizen has no idea this is going on – this is a condemnation of the practices of a small group of greedy and unscrupulous businessmen who profit from illegal and barbaric activities. Due to the extraordinarily high profit margin, those involved have even been able to buy off corrupt government officials to continue the practice – but as a result of this film so far at least one official has been forced to resign. As if the slaughter wasn’t bad enough, one of the other serious issues raised by the film is actually two-fold – partially about how we pollute the oceans and cause dolphins and other sea creatures to be exposed to high levels of mercury and other toxic pollutants, and also how that mercury-tainted toxic dolphin meat is being sold in markets and given to schoolchildren. This film is also directly responsible for progress being made to keep the tainted meat out of schools. A film that is engaging and dramatic, this documentary will change the way you think about not only the captive dolphin industry and the dolphin meat industry, but about our relationship with our oceans on a planetary scale.
OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY
Directed by Michel Orion Scott, this documentary tells the story of how one family deals with the inability of western medicine to cure their 5 year old son Rowan’s autism – by taking an extended trip on horseback through the Mongolian wilderness to seek the help of shamans to heal his condition. While the film is careful not to imply that this method would be a solution for everyone, it gives a thoughtful, inspiring, and at times heartbreaking look at how sometimes thinking outside the box of traditional western medicine can have astonishing results. Slightly non-linear in its presentation, the film finds a balance between it’s multiple themes: between autism itself, alternative methods of healing, and a travelogue of the Mongolian countryside and the practices of its people. Inspiring and though-provoking, the film intercuts scenes from the family’s life in Texas and their trek through the countryside – chronicling a journey that is as much as spiritual one as a physical one. A compelling score from Kim Carroll and Lili Haydn, who performed a number of dynamic live concerts at the festival (despite an almost debilitating injury to a finger on her “violin hand” which would have gone unnoticed to anyone without the prior knowledge – a true testament to a consummate professional and artist!). One of the pickups from the festival, “Over the Hills and Far Away” was acquired for theatrical distribution by Zeitgeist Films, which is releasing the film under the title “The Horse Boy.”
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION:
CARMO, HIT THE ROAD
Writer/director Murilo Pasta brings to Sundance his own take on the road movie in this film from Spain. The beautiful Carmo (sassy performance by Mariana Loureiro) needs to escape her life, so she goes on a trek across the Brazilian border country in a beat up pickup truck with outlaw Marco (great performance by Spanish star Fele Martínez), who also just happens to be one of the toughest wheelchair-bound guys you’ll come across. While the opening titles which were integrated into the actual scenery of the film were quite creative and entertaining, the subtitling was downright horrible, and almost impossible to read at times. Holes in the plot and character motivations also detracted a bit. Some very entertaining moments, creative camerawork, and solid performances helped to make up for what was otherwise a film caught somewhere between mediocre and good.
Screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Lone Scherfig bring us this film from the UK which is a coming of age story, but just as much a snapshot of London just as the 60’s were about to take off. Typically the foreign films at Sundance are some of the most unique, ground-breaking, and captivating stories – unfortunately the couple selections I saw this year, while not bad, just didn’t measure up to previous years. An Education was superbly constructed, beautifully shot, and well acted; but somehow I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe because the coming of age story I’ve seen and felt before, although to the film’s credit in its own unique way. Maybe because it was the last film I saw after ten days of parties, skiing, little sleep, and a couple dozen other films. Or maybe it was a film that had all the parts, but just didn’t quite connect them together well. But most likely a combination of all the above. It had great buzz during the festival, and has received great reviews, and won the World Cinema Audience Award, but for me, it was still missing something. Not to be overlooked, however, is an absolutely captivating performance by Carey Mulligan in the lead role as Jenny, a 16 year old girl who falls for an older man, only to learn that the perfect man isn’t always so perfect. Peter Sarsgaard gives a very astute performance as the charming older man David, who replaces Jenny’s traditional school education with an education in life, via the glittering world of sports cars, music concerts and art shows, and forays into London’s night life. Both Alfred Molina and Emma Thompson give their usual solid, spot-on performances in supporting roles. The film additionally won the World Cinema Cinematography Award – and was beautifully shot indeed. It was picked up by Sony for a reported $3 million, so you’ll get your chance to see if you agree with me, or everyone else, when it comes out in theaters…
FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN
Winner of the World Cinema Screenwriting Award. In this film from Ireland/UK, a Pro-England underground guerilla and radical in Belfast commits a horrible act of violence that creates a ripple effect and essentially destroys the life of both the surviving brother who witnessed the assassination, and murderer himself. Thirty-three years later, a TV show brings the two together in hopes there can be some sort of reconciliation – the film asks the question if the cyclic nature of violence and retribution can be broken, and there can ever truly be forgiveness. Five Minutes of Heaven mirrors real life by not providing any easy answers, but instead poses all the expected relevant questions, and even some of it’s own, which is the heart of this film. James Nesbit gives a stellar performance as Joe, the surviving brother, providing all the layers of a man torn between peace of mind and retribution. Liam Neeson is equally superb in his portrayal of the assassin who has now repented after 12 years in prison, and has become somewhat famous for all the good he is now doing in the world. Spot-on directing from Oliver Hirschbiegel on a screenplay by Guy Hibbert make this a gripping drama – by far my favorite of the three foreign films I saw at this year’s festival.
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION:
BIG RIVER MAN
If asked to name the greatest swimmer of all time, would you say Michael Phelps, or Mark Spitz? Well, after seeing this film, you might say Martin Strel, the overweight, alcoholic, 50-something man who swam a record breaking 3,375 miles along the Amazon River in 66 days. Or then again, you might still say Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz… While Strel is indeed an unlikely world class athlete, he has swam the lengths of the Mississippi, Yangtze, and Danube Rivers – and now the Amazon (over 1000 miles longer than his previous world record at the Yangtze) in a quest not only for physical feats, but to bring awareness to the pollution of our rivers and the ecological damage it causes. Director John Maringouin has created a film that is to be congratulated on it’s unique take on a unique man – just as much a role model as a circus sideshow. And it’s just these opposing qualities that are both the strength and weakness of this documentary. The antics provided by both Strel’s personality and his crew provide a fun and interesting contrast to the seriousness of his quest, and the possible dire consequences to both his physical and mental health as we see them deteriorate through the span of the film; and at the same time these opposing tones remove the focus from the storyline. Beautifully shot, the film received the World Cinema Cinematography Award for a Documentary. All in all, Big River Man is a unique and enjoyable film, and a documentary for our times.
KIMJONGILIA (The Flower of Kim Jong Il)
This film is not so much about Kim Jong Il, the leader of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes and most isolated country of North Korea, but a personal look at the strife and adversity endured by several refugees who have escaped its borders, its concentration camps, and its atrocities in search of a new life – or more directly, simply life. “We didn’t escape because we wanted to, but because we had to.” Putting their own personal safety at risk, both the filmmaker and the subjects of this documentary paint a picture not only of hardship and desperation, but of perseverance, and hope. Director NC Heikin incorporates rare and difficult to obtain footage, striking animation, and heart-wrenching personal interviews to tell her story.
OTHER FILMS – OUT OF COMPETITION:
WORLD’S GREATEST DAD
One of my favorite films of the festival (too bad it was “out of competition!”), directed and written by none other than Bobcat Goldthwait, this may be one of the quintessential independent films. It’s got that perfect balance of being completely non-traditional and anti-commercial, but at the same time it has so much originality, charm, and novel-ness (word?) that it can’t help but be appealing. It takes a definitely dark subject matter and gives it a lightness and whimsical quality, yet at the same time delves pretty deep into the dark territory – and it makes its transitions effortlessly, and completely uncontrived. Some fairly significant and unexpected plot twists happen early on in the film, so I won’t give away too much about the plot here. I will say that Robin Williams is in top form – as much due to his abilities as to Goldthwait’s well-honed, dynamic script which give him the perfect vehicle – perhaps his best role since The World According to Garp. And while Williams was busy being the world’s greatest dad, a special nod goes to Daryl Sabara for a spot-on performance as the world’s most obnoxious kid. Hats off to music supervisor Linda Cohen as well for a song soundtrack that was not only cool, but in perfect sync with the film dramatically. The success of this film will rest entirely in the marketing – as it may be tough to get audiences in based on it’s quite dark premise (nope, still not going to give it away!), but hopefully audiences will find their way past that so they can be more than pleasantly surprised when they see one of the most unique, intelligent, slick films of the year.
YES MEN FIX THE WORLD
This might not have been one of the best films of the festival, but quite possibly one of the most important! And I say that as jokingly as I do seriously. Co-writer/directors Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are like adolescent pranksters having fun at the expense of others – NOT! Rather, they are quick-witted, sly, and fiendishly clever at pulling off insane pranks – aimed entirely at exposing corporate greed, corruption, deceit, and lack of integrity – from environmental disasters that were not cleaned up, to profiteering after Hurricane Katrina, etc. Posing as executives from behemoth multinational corporations and governmental agencies such as Dow Chemical, HUD, Haliburton, Union Carbide, etc., they attend large conventions and corporate events, and even get interviewed on national news programs – making completely false statements and perpetrating hoaxes that bring to light how those corporations have conducted themselves, or rather “misconducted” themselves. To quote the film: “I wouldn’t say it was a hoax – it was an honest representation of what Dow should be doing.” Their hoaxes not only call attention to the public of what these corporations are doing, but they sometimes even get attention and force the corporations to take action – like when their Dow hoax caused stock prices to fall by 3%, and caused them to finally clean up the environmental disaster they had caused in Bhopal which they had ignored for some 20 years. The demeanor of their hoaxes range from serious and earnest to downright silly (when you see the “Haliburton Suviv-a-Ball,” you’ll know just how silly they can get) – and it’s this range that keeps the film fun and engaging, but still allows it to have a serious impact. Truly not to be missed – a film that is entertaining, and at the same time weighty, and makes you think. Three cheers for the Yes Men (the movie, and the people)!
CHILDREN OF INVENTION
Returning to Sundance after his short fim Windowbreaker in 2007, writer/director Tze Chun is back, this time with a feature film, and a good one at that. Anyone who has ever lost their a** in a crazy pyramid scheme, or has ever had a knack for inventing gadgets will immediately identify with this film, as will anyone with a heart. It tells the story of a Chinese American mother (great performance from Cindy Cheung) who is doing her best to make ends meet by getting involved in yet another failed pyramid scheme – this time to the extent that her absence puts her two young children at risk. Luckily for her, the young but precocious Raymond (Michael Chen) has a knack for inventions which may help their financial situation, and also getting himself and his sister (Crystal Chiu) home safely. Both the child actors in this film bring loads of heart and authenticity to their roles, and you can’t help but notice how truly adorable they are – which makes them the driving force behind this film. Getting believable and true-to-real-life performances from children has the reputation of being extraordinarily difficult, but Chun does it masterfully, as you frequently find yourself thinking, “Oh my God, kids totally do that!” Definitely a winner, and sure to capture the hearts of all audiences.
Gotta say, I was truly disappointed with the selection of short films I saw this year – not a single one caught my attention as outstanding, and very few were above “maybe even sorta close to kinda good.” As I tend to say every year in the shorts section of my review – just because it’s a short, doesn’t mean it’s not a film. And a film needs to either have a storyline with a beginning, middle, and end, or it needs to make some kind of point. Having a quirky character that rambles on the screen for 15 minutes about nothing, other than to show how quirky he is, is not a film. One disgusting scene after another with nothing that ties them together is not a film. Ten minutes of bland dialogue whose whole point is to lead up to one so-so joke at the end is a film, but a bad one. That said…
SHORTS PROGRAM 1:
From the Sundance guide: “Greta’s dad is moving the family…all that’s missing is Mom.” In reality: All that’s missing is a story, and an ending…
From the Sundance guide: “While a woman makes an omelette, we learn how difficult it is to make ends meet” …and apparently the audience learns how difficult it is to make a film with a story or a point. I have no idea why this film received Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking from the Sundance Jury.
From the Sundance guide: “Two young men find a surprise connection…” In reality: One young filmmaker finds an excuse to get actors in their underwear. And that excuse is apparently not having anything resembling a story. Way too many crotch shots for my tastes; and, at least in Scarface, all the F words had a purpose.
Little Minx Exquisite Corpse: She Walked Calmly Disappearing into the Darkness
Thirteen syllables too long for a film title, and three syllables too long for a Haiku – it does, however, make a better poem than a film title. From the Sundance guide: “A young man tries to sort out what has happened during the chaos of a street shooting.” In reality: The audience tries to sort out what is going on in this film. A perfect example of why it’s important to have good audio in your film – if I could have understood half of the dialogue, I might have been able to figure out the point in this film.
From the Sundance Guide: “Two couples who have never met find themselves engaged in an awkward dinner after their mutual friends cancel at the last second.” In reality: Two couples who should never have taken up acting find themselves performing a script that should never have been written, when the filmmaker should have cancelled the shoot at the last second. Poor acting, poor writing, and banal dialogue. To the film’s credit, however, there were a few funny jokes.
Copper on the Chopping Block
From the Sundance guide: “Yalmer turns inward; it is void. With fireworks and snowballs as his only friends, Yalmer’s plan is a solitude Black Bear will not grant.” In reality: Audience exits outward; film is void of a story or point. With the Sundance programmers as his only friends, his film seeks a review I will not grant.
Love You More
From the Sundance guide: “Two teenagers are drawn together by the Buzzcocks’ single, ‘Love You More’ during the summer of 1978.” In reality: Two actors give a great performance to well-written dialogue during the only decent short in Shorts Program 1. And I’m happy to finally be able to write a positive shorts review! Yes! But, just when you thought I was going all nice on you, I will have to say the although the dialogue was well written, the general storyline was lacking – but still, all in all, a nice piece. No surprise this film won Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking from the Sundance Jury.
ANIMATION SPOTLIGHT (SHORTS):
Hear, Earth, Heart
Yi Zhou has created some absolutely stunning animation and takes us on a surreal journey of shifting landscapes, stardust, and flames. While the animation is stupendous, this seems to be more of an exercise or bit for a demo reel, since there is no real story or point. Or I guess you could say its point is simply to be visually stunning.
A dark story about a couple dealing with a post-apocalyptic epidemic outbreak, and the disease that is their relationship. Interesting animation, but lack of a good script keeps this from being a truly meaningful piece.
Bill Plympton gives his trademark style of animation, in a very cute and somewhat entertaining story about a dog that wants to be a fireman – if not a bit heavy on esoteric randomness, however.
A dark and somewhat hard to follow story about a bomb factory – as with all the shorts in this collection, the high quality and creativity of the animation surpasses the quality of the script.
Although the pacing was rather slow, and this 14 minute short could have easily accomplished the same thing better in 7 minutes, it was a thoroughly entertaining film with adequate animation, based on the whacky premise that the main character is living exactly 91 centimeters from himself (and you may have to watch the film to know exactly what I mean by that!). Definitely worth the watch.
This Way Up
A semi-fun jaunt about the extraordinary lengths two undertakers must go through to lay a soul to rest. Nice animation, a story, and a point – hooray!
The Yellow Bird
No real story, and no real point, but the animation was visually appealing.
This two minute short is the perfect example of why all shorts do not need a story, but can simply make an entertaining point. Great stop-motion animation, and fun to watch – just bring the marinara! No surprise this film won Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking from the Sundance Jury.
China’s Wild West
Playing before the feature Kimjongilia, this short with beautiful cinematography paints a picture of a Muslim community hoping to find jade in a dried up riverbed on western China’s Silk Road. The Sundance guide calls it “impressionistic” – which I find to be a euphemism for “no story.” This would have been a much better piece if the filmmaker had gone into the details of a particular digger to create a story or point of view.
My Surfing Lucifer
Playing before Big River Man, this short uses found footage to introduce us to the life of surfing legend Bunker Spreckels. Had filmmaker Kenneth Anger provided some narration or better editing to tell a story, this would have been a much better film – as it stands, I still don’t know anything about the man who is the film’s subject.
Joel Stein’s Completely Unfabricated Adventures
Playing before Yes Men Fix the World, director Walter Robot has created a great animated short film that takes us on a light-hearted and funny tour through a water treatment plant that converts sewage into tap water. Drinking recycled urine – mmmmm, delicious.
John and Karen
Playing before Peter and Vandy, this very cute animated short about the argument and following apology between John the polar bear and Karen the penguin has a number of great moments, and wonderful characterization. While the overall writing was a bit lacking, the non-linear editing worked well, and was a perfect example of when and how to break the rules.
The Kinda Sutra
This short by Jessica Yu about how kids answer the question “Where do babies come from?” is mildly entertaining, but definitely not the best work from this otherwise very talented filmmaker.
THE PARTIES & EVENTS:
As with every year, this year had more than it’s share of parties at the festival – although every year seems to become more and more front-heavy with all the events crammed into the first 5 days – the downside being that you get to actually attend less events because they all occur at the same time, instead of being nicely spread out through the festival. That said, here’s the roundup for this year’s events that I attended:
SUNDANCE OPENING NIGHT PARTY
@ Legacy Lodge
The Legacy Lodge is a great venue and always provides a fun party atmosphere, whether I was relaxing by the fireplace with actress/model Angelina Bulygina, having drinks with actress Michelle Chin, or hanging with good friend and successful artist Chris Dellorco. Also present was friend and condomate Chris Charalambous of Irish Dreamtime Pictures, who was attending the festival with Pierce Brosnan‘s film The Greatest. Le Tourment Verte Absinthe was the liquor sponsor for the evening and cooked up several tasty concoctions for the attendees. In addition to all the other great food and treats, it’s definitely worth mentioning Spotted Dog Creamery‘s quite fantastic ice cream cones, which came in an assortment of flavors, including Bailey’s and mint chocolate chip.
INDIEVEST DINNER AND PARTY
@ Hotel Park City
I attended this event with Russian beauty Nadia Antii, and met a great group of people involved in running the IndieVest Film Fund. The food was great, and the company even better.
GEN ART 7 FRESH FACES IN FILM PARTY
@ The Hollywood Life House
In previous years, GenArt had a long standing reputation for throwing the biggest and coolest parties at the festival – and while the last couple years they’ve decided to scale things down considerably, they still throw a great party with a great crowd. Virgina Madsen did the honors of presenting the awards to this years 7 Fresh Faces, who all had films in the festival: Zach Gilford (Dare), Tania Raymonde (The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle), Pell James (Shrink, Zodiac), Louisa Krause (Toe to Toe, The Babysitters), Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart, Knocked Up), Jess Weixler (Peter and Vandy) and Mark Duplass (Humpday, The Puffy Chair, Baghead).
@ House of Hype
Unfortunately, after many years of holding one of Sundance’s best parties at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, which included not only great food, great guests, and a great atmosphere for networking, talking, and meeting people (the whole point, no?), they moved venues this year to The Shop, where it became nothing more than the barrage of loud music and made you feel like you were in an LA club. And the food wasn’t anywhere near as good either – we truly miss their “gourmet macaroni and cheese, and last year’s amazing chile. Disappointing to say the least – I hope they move things back next year!
LYMELIFE PREMIERE PARTY
@ Western Interiors on Heber
A nice, intimate event with a good group of people. Truly enjoyed this event. May have gotten a bit too tipsy to remember more details to write about… 🙂
CONCERT WITH LILI HAYDN, STEW, AND BILLY BOB THORNTON
Singer/songwriter and rock violinist Lili Haydn gave an awesome performance of heartfelt songs, with support from guitarist Kim Carroll, and percussion by none other than the Doors’ John Densmore! And the inside scoop (which I happened to know because Lili was staying in my condo) was that an obnoxious cab driver had slammed a door on her main violin playing hand the night before, causing one of her fingers to swell to huge proportions. After an evening of rushing to the drug store to get bandages, ice, etc., we got her finger almost good as new, and you would never have been able to tell he had an injured hand from her riveting performance! Also a bit of a surprise when the guy who was helping her up to the condo with her luggage, who we thought was just a cab driver, ended up being John Densmore! Stew has a new band, and wasn’t performing with his usual “The Negro Problem,” but gave a great performance full of energy, fun, witty lyrics, and a great backup band. The headline for the night was Billy Bob Thornton‘s band The Boxmasters – if you enjoy hillbilly/rockabilly/country, these guys are all top notch musicians, and I think Billy Bob’s speech only offended a few people… 🙂
BIG FAN PREMIERE PARTY
@ Skylodge on Heber
The crowd was fun, the DJ was totally jamming, and I stayed here until ridiculously late in the evening/early in the morning… Attorney Clif Lo and filmmaker Reuben Lim were present, and condomates Alana Curry and Jamie Carson were also spotted here, and apparently having a great time!
Always a fun group, and always a good time!
I met David Hays and Michael Cooper from E-Film, and David Grove from Deluxe. Nice crowd and good networking at this low key but well put together mixer.
SAG FILMMAKER BRUNCH
@ Cafe Terigo
Bummed I had to miss the Actors Brunch the day before due to a full schedule, but I always enjoy the Filmmaker Brunch just as much. Good food, a great crowd, and a fun mixer.
A fun crowd and great music combined to make this a very worthwhile event. Present were Peter Belsito from FilmFinders/WithoutABox/IMDb, top film consultant Peter Broderick.
DJ Thomas Golubic gave the initial portion of the event a great party atmosphere, but the evening then gave way to an unfortunately failed experiment in audience participation led by top composer Rolfe Kent (a great composer, by the way).
@ Riverhorse Café
Glad we got there early, as the line for this always-popular party was down the street in no time. As always, great food from the Riverhorse kept my belly full, a good crowd, and ample bars…and the usual lackluster band – when will Kodak bring the music up to the otherwise high standard of the rest of the party?!
NEW YORK FILM COMMISION PARTY
@ Zamir Tarmu’s Condo
A big thanks to Jerry Stoeffhaas and Pat Kaufman with the NY Film Commission for always putting together a great bash, one of the highlights of the festival! Present were recording artist Etc., Milan International Film Festival founder Andrea Galante, actress Cassandra Hepburn, former Miss Arizona Tasha Dixon, and a host of NY filmmakers and talent. There was nothing but great food at the party, and the Black Angus Sliders on Hawaiian Bread were my personal faves.
PARTY AT THE VILLAGE AT THE LIFT
Attended this party with friends recording artist Etc., commercial director Paul Emami, actress Michelle Chin, writer/director Mike Yuen, exec Chris Charalambous, actress Yoko Masuki, and a whole crew of others. This was a great night, as my guest list was given carte blanche – “If you’re with Gund, you’re gold!” was heard frequently at the tight security at the door, where others were getting turned away in droves. Definitely a night to remember!
CREATIVE COALITION PARTY
@ the bottom of Main Street
Ewan McGregor was present, as were a plethora of other high level guests – the layout of the venue was kind of long and skinny, which made for a bit of a traffic jam of people, but otherwise a great event.
ACTION 3-D PARTY
We got there a bit late, but lovelies Hillary Castle and Yuri Naruse were there, and we got to meet Limo Bob (affectionately known as the King of Bling).
THE ALARM CONCERT AT HARRY O’S
While I usually won’t come anywhere near Harry O’s (too crowded, too noisy, too a lot of things), especially during a concert event, good friend and recording artist Etc. got us in for the Alarm concert, and we had a great time!
GREEN DOOR PARTIES
@ the Green Door Condo
I got the privilege of meeting and becoming friends with Zamir Tarmu, who graciously hosted the Green Door parties at his spacious condo near The Canyons. All the parties here were top notch, and the vibe of the condo itself brought a great energy to all the events there.
JONATHAN GRAY CONDO AFTER-PARTIES
@ His Deer Valley Condo
The after hours parties were always cool and fun at Jonathan Gray‘s, where there was usually almost enough booze, and many interesting people and conversations to be found, including filmmakers and producers, and talent such as Angelic Zambrana and Chyna Layne from Sundance’s smash hit Push (aka Precious).
SUNDANCE CLOSING NIGHT PARTY
@ Racquet Club
The closing night party is always the last hurrah, the last chance to see everyone (who hasn’t already left yet), and say goodbyes, discuss all the films you’ve seen or missed, and get some photos. For some unknown reason they’ve decided to make it ridiculously dark for the last couple years – so dark that you can’t see or find anyone, and even when you do, the music was so loud that you weren’t really able to talk with anyone, especially given that most people’s voices were already gone from an entire week of yelling at other parties. I could have had pretty much the same experience going to a random nightclub in LA. This used to be a great, classy event, but it has definitely took a downturn the last couple years. It wasn’t that long ago that Sundance used to throw a great bash every single night of the festival. Due to the economy, etc., there were indeed fewer people here this year than last year, but still more people than were here 10 years ago. You’d think with the extra revenue generated by all these extra people, Sundance would be able to throw bigger, better parties – but instead, they do less, and less, and less every year – a bit sad, really.
THE LOUNGES/GIFTING SUITES:
VILLAGE AT THE YARD
In it’s 2nd year at their new location, Village at the Yard proved once again to be one of the cooler daytime destinations at the Sundance Festival – not only did they provide for some truly delicious food at the T-Mobile G1 Diner, but they also hosted the Fred Segal Fun Lounge and the SpongeBob SquarePants Lounge as well, which were must-see destinations unto themselves (see below). Also at the Yard were the Gatorade Gym, Drugstore.com and Beauty.com, a photo booth with InStyle.com, and Living Proof, a new beauty company. The diner was our frequent lunch destination, which provided a great atmosphere for interviewing filmmakers, and plenty of celebrity sightings rounded out our visits. The diner also hosted parties for several of the highly anticipated Sundance films including An Education, Paper Heart, Killing Room, and Spring Breakdown. Celebs in attendance at the VAY included Tom Arnold, Nick Cannon, Susan Sarandon, Russell Simmons, Slash from Guns N Roses, Christina Milian, Producer Lawrence Bender, designer Joey Tierney, Kevin Sorbo, and David Boreanaz to name a few…
FRED SEGAL FUN LOUNGE
Located in the Village at the Yard, the Fred Segal Fun Lounge had top products, and tons of celebrities, and FSF’s Jaclyn Brander was the consummate host. I was fortunate enough to be invited to partake in some of the goodies at the lounge, which included some great shirts, a scarf, and warm hat from Monarchy (truly one of my favorite companies – I’ve already got several of their shirts. Their style is hip and modern, but without having to put skulls and death all over the place like so many companies do in their effort to be “edgy.” Franky, to quote Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro, “Edgy is the new boring.”). The folks at Hurley were also extra nice, and provided me with a some great shirts and an extra-warm hoodie, and WildFox Couture also had a nice thermal shirt in a great blue color that truly pops. Some great goretex gloves and a ski hat from Spyder will definitely come in handy while I’m up on the slopes! Some wonderfully soft cashmere pieces from Magaschoni were on display, and the very kind people from George, Gina & Lucy generously gave me a a great laptop bag which was not only rugged and durable, but stylish as well, and a purse for the ladies that is visually stunning and sure to attract attention. Nightcap Clothing had some very sexy garments for the women in our group – one word: “Yowza!” The Original Retro Brand, who specializes in t-shirts and sportswear that has a unique vintage feel to it, and gave me a nicely soft USC Trojans T-shirt. Undun Demin was on hand, and I believe they gave some nice jeans to the girls in our group. Lisa Freede also had her signature earrings and bracelets on display, and Parish-Nation was handing out the basic knit hat with their logo. We did a little shopping here with Kevin Sorbo, who was pleasant and friendly as could be.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS / NICKELODEON LOUNGE
With SpongeBob paraphernalia everywhere, this was a sight to behold. A fun atmosphere made this a great little hang, and I of course was sure to get my plush SpongeBob, and the latest fashion rage of SpongeBob attire including matching bright yellow SpongeBob gloves, hat, and scarf…
The food here was definitely delicious, and the overall ambience made this not only a great place to relax and unwind, but also a great place for interviews, as is evidenced by the number of celebrities and other VIPs in attendance at the Myspace Café during the festival. We had the pleasure of lunching with Napoleon Dynamite’s Efren Ramirez (yes, I voted for Pedro!) and his partner Chris Barrett, as well as actresses Michelle Chin (Miami Vice) and Angelina Bulygina. And at the table just next to us happened to be Billy Bob Thornton, Tea Leoni, Kyle Maclachlan, and Chris Rock. A number of other celebs frequented this Sundance hotspot, including Ashton Kutcher, Woody Harrelson, Uma Thurman, Minnie Driver, Paris and Nicky Hilton, Ben Affleck, Ashley Judd, and Sam Rockwell, among others.
MARQUEE / ROCK BAND LOUNGE
The vibe down here was definitely fun, as the very first thing we saw when walking in was Christina Milian taking the lead vocals on Rock Band. Michelle, Erica, and Jennifer of Fingerprint Communications definitely know how to run a good show, and did an excellent job of running the place, which could have easily turned to chaos in lesser hands. KangaROOS was giving away some of their footwear (known for having a secret pocket), and No Love Lost was kind enough to provide me with one of their snazzy T-Shirts. Tt Collection was giving away some delightfully soft and comfortable cotton leggings (so I’m told – they’re women’s apparel), and Burt’s Bees was giving away great little kits that included everything to keep your lips, face, feet, and other body parts from getting chapped or dry. Ecoya gave me a scented vanilla candle called “Sinful Harmony” that smelled so good it truly lived up to its name (and is also made from natural soy wax rather than paraffin), and Muscle Milk gave me some of their vanilla flavored drink that was not only tasty, but high in protein and low in sugar (dang, I was kinda hoping for a bit of a sugar high…) Celebrities abounded in this place, including Tom Arnold (that guy is everywhere!), Ian Ziering, Efren Ramirez, Robin Thicke, Devon Aoki, Adam Duritz, Andie MacDowell, Anne Heche, and couple Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon who DJd, to name a few.
ALIVE! EXPO GREEN PAVILLION
While most of the companies set up here were happy to show how their products were environmentally friendly, there wasn’t too much in the way of gifting going on here, other than the really friendly folks from Explorer’s Bounty, who had some really tasty treats including some “Puffed Pineapple” that I may have become addicted to, not to mention their Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts, Flavored Teas, and Colombian Coffee – all of which where were organic. We had a nice time here with some fun, intelligent, and friendly people – maybe it was actually a nice thing to have that, rather than a swag bag full of stuff we didn’t really need anyway…
LRG GIFTING VILLA
Not much to write about this one, as we stayed for less than a minute and a half. Just about zero going on here this year, which was a shame, because last year this place was quite the rockin’ hang. I suppose it’s a sign of the times, or at least the economy.
GBK GIFTING SUITE
Like LRG, the title of this suite contains three letters, but that’s where the similarity ends. Many of the gracious companies at this suite took very good care of my friends and condomates actress Michelle Chin (Miami Vice) and model Angelina Bulygina, in addition to yours truly. Nappi Clothing gave us all luxuriously soft scarves (and I think the women got some jeans, too), Nordic Naturals gave us all a great supply of their fish oil supplements and other products (widely known for being of top quality!), and Lifecell Skin Cream (which is some very expensive stuff) gave a nice supply of product to the women also. Mistura Beauty was giving out some samples as well.
HOLLWOOD LIFE HOUSE
In their usual home at the bottom of Main Street, the Hollywood Life House once again hosted not only a plethora of companies and events in their gifting lounge during the day including Onitsuka Tiger, Black House White Market, Fake Bake, and Whiting and Davis handbags, but also a number of evening premiere parties including Humpday, We Live in Public, Gen Art’s 7 Fresh Faces, and many others, including after hours shindigs. Some of the faces spotted here belong to Andie MacDowell, Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Kyle Maclachlan, Mark Harmon, Parker Posey, Jamie Kennedy, Kevin Sorbo, and Jason Ritter.
So, that’s it for my coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival – the films, the people, the parties, and the gift lounges. If you have an event, film, or lounge you want covered next year, be sure to let me know about it in advance – my schedule gets jam packed up there (as you can probably tell from this Roundup!).
Good luck, have a great day, and don’t forget to dream big!
Jeffrey R. Gund
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