Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I'm Sundancing As Fast As I Can

If anyone is on the fence about whether Sundance is worth the expense, or the time, or the effort, my answer to that is a resounding “YES”. You have to do it at least once, assuming you’re a film buff. If you’re not, I wouldn’t bother. As much as star searching is part of the fun, it’s a secondary bonus to actually seeing the movies in packed houses with a captive audience.

Our trip began bright and early Thursday morning. The first film, “Sympathy for Delicious” was starting at 8:30, so we needed to leave Farrah’s parent’s house in Bountiful by about 6:45 to get to Park City, park the car, walk to the theater, and get a good seat. This turned out to be easier than we thought it would be. Parking was 10 bucks each time, so we stayed in one spot all day, and the free shuttle service is excellent. And, at the very worst, the many theaters aren’t that far apart so even walking from one film to the next is some nice exercise.

“Delicious” was directed by Mark Ruffalo (his directing debut) and written by actor Christopher Thornton. They had been friends in acting school 16 years ago when Chris became a paraplegic in a climbing accident. Since then, he’s only gotten sporadic acting gigs, all for guys in chairs, while Mark has become a star. Mark did him a solid by directing his screenplay, though they would never admit that. The film is the story of a recently disabled homeless former DJ (Thornton) who lives out of his car on Skid Row where Father Joe (Ruffalo) works to provide shelter. All of a sudden, Delicious wakes up with the power to heal, which has Father Joe lining up the poor folks of Skid Row to be made whole by D’s hand. D is too cynical to believe his gift does anyone any good. While this is happening, D also gets asked to join a band by Juliette Lewis (the best part of the movie by far). The band’s gimmick is to heal fans in concert, which D plays along with for a while, thus becoming a sell out.

The movie is like four different films in one and none of them work that well together. There’s even some courtroom drama near the end. I’m sitting there thinking the thing is a total mess, and realize Mark and Christopher are on the other side of the room gauging the audience’s reactions. That was surreal. I like Mark, but I don’t see a promising career as a director in his future. The sadder thing is, as weird as this movie was, after seeing some really bad ones afterwards, it ended up not being that bad by comparison. 4/10

We didn’t have tickets to anything for a few hours, and rather than taking our chances at another theater, we stayed at this one with the hopes of getting into a documentary called “GasLand”. The story of the environmental hazards of natural gas drilling didn’t sound very enticing at all, but we didn’t have anything better to do. The other bonus was the guy at the ticket counter let us in for free. Little did we know it would be the best film we saw by far.

I knew nothing of natural gas and assumed, based on the term “natural” that all was well and on the up and up with it. Not so. The real story plays out like “Erin Brockovich” or “A Civil Action” where the people and communities living near the drilling end up drinking contaminated water full of chemicals that decimates their health, all while large corporations like Halliburton and EnCana sit back and get filthy stinking rich. People were literally lighting the water coming out of their faucet on fire. Corporations sit back and claim innocence, refusing to do anything unless these people can prove something they did caused the problem. Of course, these people can’t. So, they live out their days heading to WalMart every week to fill up thousands of gallons of clean water so they can bathe, cook, drink, and live. Filmmaker Josh Fox has the muckraking spirit of a young Michael Moore, but without the political bent. Required viewing. 9/10

From there we had some time to kill before our next show so we got lunch at Pizza Hut. I haven’t had Pizza Hut in years and haven’t liked it for longer than that, but this was delicious. Maybe the pizza in the restaurant is better than what they deliver. Whatever it was, I loved it.

The third film of the day was called “3 Backyards” and played at Eccles, which is the main theater and seats about 1200. This was one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen. Just the kind of movie you’re afraid you’re going to see at a film festival. All overly-precious artistic indulgence, no story and no entertainment. It shows the lives of three different characters, but goes nowhere, gives no reason for anyone’s behavior, and offers no resolution. One is a guy who’s leaving for a business trip and also leaving his wife. His flight gets canceled so he wanders around town for a day, calls his wife from his own backyard to watch her body language, follows a girl he sees in a cafĂ©, and ends up going home. That is it. The second story is a little girl who passes through some weird guy’s backyard on her way to school, only to see him in the shed out back whacking off to porn (although she’s probably too young to comprehend that). The third is played by Edie Falco and is a woman who gives a movie star that’s just moved into her upstate New York neighborhood a ride to the fairy. The star, played by Embeth Davidtz, is distraught over something, it never says what, and it irritates Edie, so she gets angry and distraught herself. None of these go anywhere.

In the Q&A after, the director said he wanted to make a sort of nature documentary, but with people. That’s about spot on. Also, the music was the all-time worst film score I’ve ever heard. The rest of the crowd wasn’t too enthusiastic either (although I heard the guy went on to win some kind of director’s award for it which baffles me). 1/10

We had another couple hours to kill before our next show, but none of the options were really compelling us. Farrah wanted to see something called “The Dry Land” with America Ferrera, but that didn’t appeal to me, so we settled on a documentary called “My Perestroika” about what the generation that saw the transition from USSR communism to the current regime and philosophy. The film wasn’t terrible, but it really only focuses on four different people, all of whom grew up and went to school together. Once you realize you aren’t getting anything, but what these people think, it gets pretty boring. They were all friends of the filmmaker, which shows a lack of imagination to me. She said in the Q&A afterwards that she wanted to show a side of Russia that wasn’t grey and dismal like it was depicted in most movies. I suppose she did that, but it still wasn’t very compelling. 4/10

Incidentally, while walking to this theater I passed Joel Schumacher (director of “Lost Boys”, “Batman and Robin”, “A Time To Kill”) which counts as my second star sighting, unless you count Katherine Erbe from one of the “Law and Orders” who was in “3 Backyards” and at the showing. I’ve always liked her, but she isn’t exactly a household name.

The fifth and final film of day one was another doc called “Family Affair”. This one is basically a real life “Precious”. Black family torn apart by the incest and physical abuse of the father. In this case, the dad perpetrating on his three daughters and wife and the film is made by his one son. There’s no question this is an intense topic, but I really didn’t like the way the film was constructed. It was extremely vague in its storytelling. The son/filmmaker shot his one sister in the leg when he was 10 years old, which may or may not have anything to do with the abuse. One daughter is schizophrenic and another has battled cancer, as if these are also possible results of the abuse. Of course one gets pregnant. There’s even a deathbed sort of apology by the dad, except that he doesn’t die (I assume, the movie never closes that loop).

I guess the point is that the family continues to interact (the mom left years ago and has avoided all of them ever since) in spite of the stories that swirl around the air. It plays like an episode of “Intervention”, but without the placards that come up every few minutes to give you the backstory and explain what’s really happening. The director plants a lot of potential bombs in a mine field, but then proceeds to get to them very leisurely and never completely. Plus, in the Q&A after he seemed like kind of a douche, thanking his lawyers for their help. 5/10.

The drive home was going to get us back to the house at around 12 as it was, but there was a wreck or construction or something on the interstate that left tons of us sitting completely still for a good 45 minutes. Cars turned off and everything. We ended up not getting back until around 1:15. Steve came over to stay the night because he was going to be watching the kids for part of the next day, so by the time I finished hanging out with him and got in bed it was 2:15. AND, of all days for this to happen, Georgia decided to wake up the next morning at 5:30! We put her back to bed a couple times, but it only lasted until 6:15 when we were all up for good. Knowing we’d be spending the day in dark movie theaters on less that four hours sleep was torturous.

Day 2 began with “Holy Rollers” a film written by a friend of Farrah’s and a member of the church named Antonio Macia. It’s a story that was new to me, Hasidic Jews in NYC being used as drug mules trafficking Ecstasy into the states from Europe. The movie stars Jesse Eisenberg (who I love, but am convinced can only really do one thing well, from an acting perspective) and Justin Bartha from “The Hangover”. As much as I wanted to like the movie, feeling I had a stake in it knowing the writer and everything, I didn’t love it. It’s a total by the numbers. Young Jew lives uneventful life until his friend turns him into a mule. He gets attracted to the money and lifestyle, turns his back on his family and traditions, only to get into trouble and learn what’s really important in life. We’ve seen it in a dozen “Behind The Music’s”. 4/10

From here we saw the film with the least known cast of all the dramas we saw, “Skateland”. This one is basically “Adventureland”, only the hang-out is a skating rink instead of an amusement park. I actually really enjoyed this one. It’s the typical “what am I going to do with my life after graduation” type thing that we saw in “Adventureland” and “Dazed and Confused”, but it had some fresh moments, an attractive cast (good GOD Ashley Greene is gorgeous), and some really good laughs. The end credits say the film is dedicated to John Hughes, which comes as no surprise. My only issue with these kinds of films that are popping up all the time now, is that they all feel too much like copies instead of originals. Get a soundtrack from 1983, put people in retro band t-shirts and muscle cars, and put cool old posters on their walls, and you’re set. Of course I’m all for that, but it isn’t original. Look more at a movie like “(500) Days of Summer” that takes the John Hughes vibe and makes something new out of it. Still, a copy of the best is better than an original piece of junk. 7/10

We had no more tickets for shows that day, but we weren’t ready to head back yet, so we waited in line to see another doc called “Smash His Camera”. Luckily, we got the last two seats. This was the story of Ron Gallela, who I hadn’t heard of before, but is considered the first and proudest paparazzo. I wish I loved anything as much as he loves stalking celebrities. He’s the perfect subject for a film like this because he’s all New Joisey accented and attitude. The guy’s in his 70s now, but still pounds the pavement and races through traffic to get the right shot. His photos are beautiful and have been shown in the MOMA, which brings up the argument of whether this is really art, whether what he does is decent, whether what he does is lawful, etc. It was made by a guy that won an Oscar for “When We Were Kings”, so the guy has his bona fides. It was a fluffy, sweet confection that isn’t good for you, but so very very enjoyable. 9/10

We headed home after this and were both asleep in bed by 9:45. I managed to stay awake long enough to watch the Jazz beat Sacramento, which is another bonus of trips to Utah. We needed the rest because we were back at it early on Saturday morning.

Oh, while we were walking around on Friday, we were approached by some people working for GMC who offered us Starbucks gift cards if we just sat in the car with them for a minute and listened to their spiel. I was impressed, both with the guts it takes to guerrilla market like that, and the car. Honestly, I’ll consider a GMC next time we buy a car. Isn’t it amazing how that works?

Saturday kicked off with the least indie film of the festival, “Twelve”. It was directed by Joel Schumacher and starred Chace Crawford, so you know an official release date is eminent. I have no problem with seeing mainstream movies masquerading as indies while at Sundance. In fact, it made for a nice change of pace. The movie was nothing special, very Hollywood formulaic, but that’s what you should expect from Schumacher. It’s the story of privileged kids in Manhattan that kill time doing drugs and partying. The cast is all perfect and beautiful and the story is typical. Chace and Joel did a Q&A after and it was good to hear from Joel especially. All the other filmmakers are so nervous and timid and humble during their Q&As. Joel’s a pro, he’s been in the biz for a while, so he knows to quit the pandering and be present. I liked that. 6/10

Farrah’s sister Brooke and her husband Jake came to the movie as well. We like them, so that was fun. They also stuck around and went to the next one with us, which was a documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat called “Radiant Child”. When Farrah bought tickets a couple of weeks prior, this was the one I was most adamant about seeing. I’ve been curious about him for years and have been on a big art from that period kick for the last couple years. The movie did not disappoint. I’m not sure why I’ve never considered Basquiat’s art anything special, but the second you see it on the big screen it all makes total sense. Had I been an art dealer in the early 80s and been a room full of up and coming artists, I wouldn’t have been able to see anyone but him either.

The film was directed by Tamra Davis, who also, believe it or not, made “Billy Madison”. Davis new Jean-Michel back in the day and had filmed an interview she did with him, which ended up being one of the only interviews he ever did and it wasn’t even “official” it was just friends talking. That footage is like gold, so the movie builds off of it to tell his story. Afterwards we were debating whether it was the age-old story of power and fame corrupting someone, or whether what drove him to drugs and, ultimately, death was the fear of becoming irrelevant. I’m in the latter camp. I loved this film. I would buy it and watch it over and over just for the sensory experience of seeing his work and hearing the music and seeing the fashion of the time. 9/10

While sitting in the theater waiting for the movie to start, America Ferrera walked in and began speaking with someone sitting behind us. It took me a second to recognize her because she’s tiny and very pretty and normal looking in real life. She was wearing a puffy parka, so she may have been bigger than she appeared, but I would guess not. We overheard them say that “Ugly Betty” is getting canceled. It’s too bad for her because that should have been an iconic role. She did it well, but the writers were too all over the place and ABC mis-marketed the show.

We tried, but couldn’t get into anything after this. We had tickets to the Grand Jury prize winner for documentary, but it wasn’t til 8:30. We tried getting into a documentary produced by Adrian Grenier called “Teenage Paparazzo”, but they ran out of seats about seven people ahead of us. The last person to NOT get in was one of the stars of “Twelve”, Emily Meade, so it made me feel better knowing actors and actresses don’t always get special treatment. Granted, “Twelve” was one of Emily’s only credits, but still. At one point, Adrian himself came out and handed out tickets to some of the people in line and was very gracious and nice to everyone, which was a classy move.

The last movie we saw, and the Grand Jury prize winner, was called “Restrepo”. It was made by the guy that wrote “A Perfect Storm” and it shows a troop of Iraq soldiers that have to take over a valley I’ve forgotten the name of. While not being as good as some of the other docs we saw (Farrah hated it), I liked that it was a true, unfiltered look into the life of a soldier under extreme circumstances. We’re so used to seeing movies like “Jarhead” or “Stop-Loss” that dramatize the situation, but this was the real deal. You see them cope with fear, death, boredom, combat, and everything else in between. “Restrepo” was the last name of one of the soldiers in the platoon that died in battle, so they named one of their camps after him. I’m pretty sure two things went into influencing the judges to give it the award, 1) the success of “The Hurt Locker” which has made movies and discussions on the war from an apolitical perspective ok again. And, 2) the danger involved in capturing the images, which is no small feat. Personally, I would have voted for “GasLand”. 8/10

So, that’s pretty much everything. It was an incredible time and I’d do it again in a second. Seek these films out when you can, even the bad ones. It will be interesting to see what the public opinion is. But, if any of you try to defend “3 Backyards” to me, we’re finished.