Tuesday, January 28, 2014

That's a Wrap, Sundance!

I got home from Park City at 3:00am yesterday, and my body is still on Mountain Time! I have been sleeping in until 11 or 12:30. I'd better get back on EST before my 8am class starts on Monday...

I wanted to finish writing about the films I saw at Sundance Film Festival so they don't escape my memory entirely. This is just as much for me as it is for any of you who happen to be interested :) 

Song One - Anne Hathaway's character is a world traveler, Franny, getting her PhD in anthropology, but she returns home when she finds out that her brother is in a coma. She is filled with regrets and decides to get to know her brother while he is asleep by embracing his music and visiting the musicians he loves. She falls in love with one such musician, James Forester. 

This is a very solid feature debut for writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland. She was poised and confident at the screening's Q&A. I did feel like the friendship between Franny and her brother was more interesting than the romance between Franny and James. Part of this is because Johnny Flynn isn't as strong of an actor as Anne Hathaway, and her performance sailed far above his. I guess that's not really his fault.

As a side note: music is a centerpiece of this story, and the musical score and live performances in Song One are fantastic. Accordions and Anne Hathaway in the same movie? Count me in! 

White Shadow – This is a top contender for the worst film I saw at Sundance. It is about how albinos are chopped up in central Africa by witch doctors because their body parts are believed to hold good luck. Alias is an albino that is running from the town witch doctor. I appreciated the concept, but the execution of the film gave me a headache.

It was filmed handheld on a DSLR camera. Since the movie has a lot of motion and chase scenes, it was unbearably shaky. The filmmakers could have benefited from a tripod and by zooming out the camera so we could see the “big picture” more often. I was in and out of consciousness for most of White Shadow until the story finally picked up in the last 20 minutes.

SepidehWhen it comes to documentaries, the crazier the concept is, the better. This is a movie about a young Iranian woman who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Pretty crazy, hugh? Sepideh was definitely my favorite international documentary.

The film is strung together by Sepideh narrating letters she has written in her diary to Einstein – who she believes will help her accomplish big dreams. The Iranian culture thinks women should be doing things besides gazing at the stars through a telescope, so she is met with opposition from her family.

Besides the narration of the letters, there are no interviews whatsoever. Director Berit Madsen tells the story by recording conversations between Sepideh and the other characters in the story. I am discovering more and more that this style (cinema vérité) is my favorite type of documentary. Oh, and one more thing…Sepideh has a happy ending!

Fishing Without NetsDirector Cutter Hodierne won the Jury Prize in 2012 for a best short film of the same title, and this year he was back with the feature film. This is a common story at Sundance (I will talk about Whiplash in a second). The basic premise is that a Somali man decides to join a band of pirates in order to provide for his family, who thinks he’s a fisherman.

At times the story is slow. Its strength is that the main character is so loveable. The audience sees that he has hardly anything in common with the other blood-thirsty pirates. As the movie continues, however, we watch him wrestle with his identity. I didn't come away with any strong feelings one way or another for Fishing Without Nets. For me, it was a good one-time see.

Land Ho! - It was so refreshing to sit in a movie where the audience was laughing the entire time. I was thankful that I made it into Land Ho! because I was one of the last three wait-list ticket holders to get in. Two ex brother-in-laws, Mitch and Colin, go on a trip to Iceland where they attend Reykjavik ice bars, trendy spas, and fancy restaurants. The two main characters are as different as night and day. Mitch is crass and smokes joints routinely. Colin is more mild-mannered and holds his tongue, but he is still eager to take advantage of all life has to offer. The two men are able to pick up the positive traits from each other, and they end up taking more away from the trip than just the picturesque Iceland landscapes. 

This is not a family movie by any means, but it learns from the classics. You could say this movie is Secondhand Lions meets Plains, Trains, and Automobiles meets The Bucket List. Unfortunately, sometimes it dips into the territory of The Hangover. If you enjoy bawdy/raunchy comedies, this is probably the most worthwhile one you will ever be able to find. 

Son of God - Technically I didn't get to see this entire movie because I had to run off to another screening, but I was impressed with what I saw. This was a sneak preview of the Christian film that will be coming out in movie theaters this year. It has the same cast from the hit History Channel series The Bible, so if you have seen that you will kind of know what to expect. The production quality is extremely high, as usual. In my opinion, sometimes the "epic-ness" gets in the way of the story's heart.  Jesus' lines often sound like Aragorn in the climax of Return of the King

I would like to see Son of God in theaters so I can finish it (even though I know the ending of the story). I am thankful someone is continuing to tell the story of Jesus at a high production quality - it has been 10 years since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ came out.

Viktoria - A 2.5 hour Bulgarian film about a girl whose life parallels the rise and fall of communism in Bulgaria. Viktoria is named the Baby of the Decade when she is born without a belly button. She has always had a cold relationship with her mother, and the two women must decide where they stand with each other when there is a political collapse and Viktoria is removed from her pedestal. 

The audience's relationship with Viktoria begins when she is in the womb. The mothers and fathers at the screening were probably more comfortable with the pregnancy and maternal issues of the film than me. We see all aspects of what a mother goes through when she is taking care of a newborn, including breastfeeding. I almost left the screening but decided to stay. The nudity has been my biggest hesitation in deciding how I feel about the film, so I cannot recommend Viktoria for this reason. 

There is no denying that the director of Viktoria, Maya Vitkova, is a cinematic artist. Her visual style reminds me of Terrance Malick. Colors (especially red) represent strong elements of the film. The framing makes you feel like you are walking through an art gallery. I am pretty sure it was made with real film, as evidenced by the natural scratches projected on the screen. My favorite part of the film, though, was how at least 50 percent of it was communicated without dialogue. I think the sound could have been turned off and I still would have understood the story. 

You have to give a film credit that can keep your attention for 2.5 hours. I had plans to leave the screening early and see another movie, but as I sat in the back of the movie theater I was so transfixed on the screen that my wristwatch lost the battle.

Alive Inside - The reason this documentary was #1 on my list of films I wanted to see was because of this clip that went viral in 2011:

For me, what made Alive Inside a magical and unforgettable documentary was watching the how seemingly brain-dead patients lit up when they heard songs from their era. It made me want go out, find a patient with Alzheimer's, and try the procedure out for myself. This was obviously the response from the other people at the screening, because they jumped up afterwards to offer help and suggestions to advance the cause. In my opinion, the technical quality of the film was mediocre - there were jump cuts and out-of-focus shots. Alive Inside charmed the audience instead if "wowing" them with slick camerawork. I guess that's why it won Audience Choice Award instead of the Grand Jury Prize.

Rich Hill - I would use the word "portrait" to describe this film instead of "documentary." The filmmaker takes the viewer into the small town of Rich Hill, Missouri to follow the lives of three boys over the course of a year. This has potential to be a very boring documentary, but I felt so nostalgic and appreciative for the window into these young lives that I could have kept watching Rich Hill for another two hours. The boys opened up to the audience and I really cared about them by the time the credits rolled. I think it would be amazing for the filmmakers to follow these boys into adulthood and extend their project into a lifelong portrait. After sitting on the fence between this film and The Overnighters, I have decided that I agree with the jury and Rich Hill is my favorite documentary.

Whiplash - I was disappointed with the selection of narrative films I had seen at the festival until I watched Whiplash, in which a student is willing to sacrifice everything to become the best drummer. His foul-mouthed and borderline-abusive instructor is played by J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man, Juno), who did a fantastic job at being detestable. At the end of the day, though, all the credit goes to the young director Damien Chazelle, who makes the drums come alive through camera angles and ultra-precise edits that match the music.

As a young filmmaker, it inspires me to think that Damien won best short at Sundance last year. He didn't miss a beat (pun intended) in turning it into a feature film and won Grand Jury Dramatic Prize this year. His story makes me want to dust off my video camera and get rollin'. 

Thank you all so much for coming along with me on this adventure!

My final verdict
Favorite dramatic film - Whiplash
Favorite documentary - Rich Hill

Thursday, January 23, 2014

7 More Films

When I started my week at Sundance, I thought I would have time to write a detailed review of every film I saw. How naive. I have seen 9 films so far at the festival, and none of them have been as easy to digest as Mary Poppins or Despicable Me 2. 

If I am not watching a movie, I'm either taking the bus to the next theatre or blabbing about the movie I just saw to the person standing next to me. (If you have been that person for me this week, I thank you!) 

While I can't write the length of a Mitt or Return to Homs review before I go to bed, I do want to make a note of all the films I have seen so I can keep track.

Hellion - This screening was held in the Eccles auditorium - the largest screening venue at Sundance. The media and Breaking Bad fans were abuzz about Aaron Paul, but I was excited about the appearance of an up-and-coming actor, Josh Wiggins. Wiggins played the role of Jacob, a young teenager who is using rebellion to grieve the loss of his mother. The acting was top-notch. Unfortunately, the kids' affinity for the f-word and the film's unsatisfying ending doesn't make me want to watch it again anytime soon.

Little Hope was Arson - A documentary about church burnings in rural Texas. It is told largely from the community's point of view, as well as the families of the criminals. My biggest complaint were there were too many "talking heads;" this worked sometimes, but at certain points in the film extra b-roll or reenactments could have helped keep the film from dragging. This movie had a great message about how there are multiple sides to every story.

Web Junkies - The filmmakers of this documentary wanted to show how virtual reality can become an addiction. The movie takes place inside a boarding school in China where parents send their kids to become more disciplined. None of the kids want to be at the camp - all they want to do is go back home and play World of Warcraft. There were several reasons I didn't fancy this film: 1) There was no story arc, 2) I watched it at 10:00pm, 3) I had to go to the bathroom. Who am I kidding...reason number three is probably why I just wanted to get out of there.

Kidnapped for Christ - I won't be able to say much about this film, because to be honest, I am still processing it. And I will be for a while. The premise is heartbreaking: Parents have their children kidnapped and sent to a Christian boarding school in the Dominican Republic to "straighten them out." The documentary deals with the abuse these children experience behind closed doors at the camp. Does it sound like a hard movie to watch? You have no idea. There are more issues in this film than there are copies of National Geographic, so I will have to save my thoughts for another day.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart - A huge "Thank You" to my sister Julie for helping me wait-list this film while I was in another movie screening! On the surface, it is a documentary about a woman who was faced with life in prison for having teenage boys murder her husband. But on a deeper level, as I concluded from talking with the director after the screening, it is about how the media shapes our perception of people and events. Through interviews we learn that there are two "Pamela Smarts" - the real Pamela and the shallow Pamela who people perceive from the news and movie re-enactments. The only reason I would recommend this film is the amazing style the director uses to tell a story that has potential to be dull. I could give many examples, but he employs methods usually used in feature films into his documentary to "captivate" the audience and hold their attention. There is some objectionable content in this one.

Documentary Showcase - A collection of short documentary films. My favorite was called, The Lion's Mouth Opens. It was about a woman who goes with her friends to the doctor to find out if she has Huntington's disease. My least favorite was a movie about these two guys who steal sewer covers to get money by selling the iron. (At least I think that's what the movie was about.) The biggest surprise of the showcase was the Russian film, Love. Love. Love. Its description in the Sundance guidebook reads: "Every year, through the endless winters, her love takes new shapes and forms." We all thought, oh great, this is going to be one of those films. Thankfully, it was a very pleasant and clean film where people talk about what love means to them at different stages of life.

The Overnighters - An unforgettable documentary about a pastor who faces opposition from his community and congregation because he lets struggling workers sleep in his church. I'm not going to give to much of the plot away, because there are many twists and turns that made it a compelling story from start to finish. There is nothing I would have cut out. This is a far cry from a happy film, but it still filled me with hope. (The hope that Kidnapped for Christ took away from me.) It ultimately shares a message that God wants to love broken people, and we're all broken. Have your tissues ready, especially if you've worked in the ministry. 

Good gracious me, look at the time. I'd better call it quits so I don't fall asleep in a screening tomorrow. Night.

Filmmaker and Pastor at Q&A after The Overnighters

Monday, January 20, 2014

Presidents and Rebels

I would like to start by saying how difficult it is after a day of being at Sundance Film Festival to sit down and relay my experiences in a coherent, organized way. Sundance is so chaotic, with many ideas being hurled at me; sometimes it feels like an emotional roller coaster. And I love it. 

Today I saw two documentary films: Mitt and Return to Homs. The settings in these movies are very different. One film takes place in crisp hotel rooms across the USA, and the other film brings the viewer into the devastated streets of a city in Syria. I would like to briefly expand my thoughts on both.


I saw the trailer for Mitt several months ago and was immediately attracted to the idea of the film. A documentarian followed the Romney family over a period of 6 years, getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives from Mitt Romney's 2008 Republican run all the way to the 2012 presidential election. The audience is essentially a mouse in the corner of the Romneys' private lives. We see their most intimate family moments right up until Mitt prepares his concession speech as his family sheds tears around him. 

I am going to pull out a fancy film word here: cinéma vérité. It is a term that literally means, "cinema truth," and refers to a style of filmmaking that stresses unbiased realism. In most cases of cinéma vérité, the director just stands back and turns on the camera as reality takes its course. Mitt comes very close to this type of documentary, but occasionally the film's director, Greg Whiteley, crosses into the world of the Romney Family to ask a question. But this is always in the context of the location - there are never any "talking head" interviews in front of a backdrop in a studio. If Mitt Romney is in a hotel room, Greg interviews him on-the-fly in the hotel room. 

There were parts of the second half of the movie that I felt could have benefited from background music in order to hold the audience's attention. Music was used effectively in the first act and helped pull the emotion out in an appropriate way. Other times silence was the filmmaker's most powerful weapon. (Spoiler Warning) For example, in the last scene of the film, Mitt and Ann go back into their house the day after losing the election. Mitt collapses in his chair, looking out the living room window. Ann sits down on the couch and lets out a deep sigh. If this closing scene would have been covered by music it would have lost its raw authenticity. The director made the right choice to leave the bare, natural sound here.

I appreciated the film more after hearing the director talk during a Q&A session after the film. Whiteley said he didn't want to make the audience feel one way or another about Mitt Romney, he just wanted to document the whole experience. He leaves the audience to decide for themselves how they feel about Mitt as the credits roll.

Return to Homs

After watching Return to Homs, I realized I came into Sundance with a tragic misconception. I expected the international films to portray people from different countries (specifically the Middle East) the way I have seen them portrayed on the news - bodies running around, shooting at each other, without personalities and names. This film rattled me. It opened my eyes and filled me with compassion.

The film follows two young Syrian men - around my age, in fact - over the course of three years as they fight to protect their hometown of Homs and its people from the government. The main leader, Basset, is shaken as he watches his best friends become martyrs for their cause. 

It would be unfair for me to not mention the danger the filmmakers were in as they made this movie. Bombs go off near the lens, people surrounding the camera are battered and bloodied, and the camera remains steady and in-focus the entire time. (My friend and I joked that the cameramen in Return to Homs did a better job keeping focus than Mitt did in a hotel room.) Sadly, after the screening the filmmakers informed us that one of the cameramen died on the field just two weeks ago. 

After the film, I was expecting a thunderous applause and emotional, tear-filled questions from the audience. The response from the Sundance crowd was disappointing. One woman stood up and essentially said she thought the filmmakers did an awful job choosing the main characters. (The audience booed her and she was cut off. I wanted to slap her in the face.) This was the first showing of the film in the USA, and I was so sad we didn't show the filmmakers more respect. 

One of the filmmakers concluded by saying that their objective was simply to help Americans care about what is going on in Syria. There are real people in that country with personal stories, and we all share the same earth with them. As my professor Kathy said, these filmmakers weren't at Sundance for vanity, but because they were desperate to have a platform to voice their story.

After the film, I was able to shake the hand of the director and tell him how Return to Homs impacted me for the better. Hopefully, responses like mine will make them feel like it was worth it to risk their lives to tell a story. 

It goes without saying that I can't wait to see what happens tomorrow at Sundance!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sundance -- And We're Off!

Dear Reader,

When I was a wee freshman putting together my four-year-plan, I decided to plop the "Sundance Study Trip" in the junior year J-term spot. It seemed like years away. Now it's here, and Day 1 is done!

I am going to try to keep you guys updated throughout the trip as time allows. This may include short movie reviews and stories. Mind you, this is not the official blog for the trip, just Keith's personal one.

The highlights of today were witnessing the majesty of Utah's mountains and meeting a Grandma named Donna.

Tomorrow I am seeing the documentary Return to Homs, which I am very excited about. Also going to explore the town and meet up with my cousin, Tim, who is also at Sundance. I would encourage you all to branch out and watch some new movies yourselves this week, even if you can't go to Sundance! Any day can be a movie day!

Love from Utah,