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

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