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Sunday, February 5, 2012

You know you have a good partner when for your 30th birthday she surprises you with a trip to the Sundance Film Festival. The festival (of course started by Redford and company in the late 70s) is one of the Meccas of film in the United States and the thought of going has always crossed my mind but never stuck. I was happy, keen even, to read over the various reports from my favorite outlets and imagine what that sort of existence it would be to gorge myself on film while frolicking in the snow. Three days after my 30th birthday though, Alex (the partner) and I (and soon, as another surprise, my parents) would be knee deep in sub-freezing levels and undiscovered cinema.

You canít do everything at Sundance. You think you can. You think you can look at the schedule and see some way that every single film you want to experience can fit in to your schedule. You think you can work the free buses and the wait list lines or find a ticket from some nice shmuck but you canít. Sundance is a workout if youíre in it to see as many films as possible and youíll be tired and I promise you that schlepping your way to Redstone 8 from The Egyptian just doesnít seem worth it after awhile. None the less I did a lot, almost all I could in just under four days.

The experience of Sundance is just that, an experience to be had, and I want to focus on the films, so hereís a brief rundown of what I saw and what you should see.

Noah's Sundance Recap


Teddy Bear, d. Mads Matthiesen

Three things that might bias my review of Mads Matthiesenís Teddy Bear:

1. My first film at my first Sundance ever. To say I was tingling with exciting would be an understatement. To say it couldíve been the worst film of all time and I probably wouldíve happily sat through it, eyes aglitter.

2. The tickets were free. Yup, some fellow just handed me over a couple of tickets as I was nervously bobbing in the wait list line and then disappeared in to the bathroom.

3. It had been a long day of airports and I think at this point anything not involving uncomfortable seats and Broom Hilda looking flight attendants wouldíve been a two thumbs up experience for me.

That said, I loved Teddy Bear. Kim Kold plays Dennis, a former body builder (a giant of a man) so shy around the opposite sex that he resorts to traveling to Thailand to try and bag himself a wife. Mad Matthiesen directed the film based on his short Dennis and he does so with a strikingly gentle hand. Dennis is an exceptionally nice fellow hemmed in by a domineering mother and the aforementioned awkwardness, all wrapped up in two hundred plus pounds of tightly knit muscle. Heís an exceptional visual in himself and Matthiesen wraps him in soft focus and floating camera work. Teddy Bear is a film about one surprising individual opening himself up to the world outside of body building. The moments in Bangkok, especially with Toi (Lamaiporn Houggard) are the best in the film - lush and imbued with a sort of gentle romance you just donít see so much any more. As a whole itís a touching film, small and intimate and pointed inward in just the way I thought a Sundance film should be.


New Frontier Shorts, d. Various

The second film in the avant-garde leaning New Frontier Shorts was possibly the worst thing Iíve ever seen. The Search For The Monkey King featured a crumpled piece of tin foil spinning in a blinding assault of red, green, blue and white lights. Half the theater left, my girlfriend included. The biggest reaction I heard at the entire festival was the crowd first cheering when the film seemingly ended and then erupting in shocked laughter as the film roared back to life.

And it was my parents first film of the festival. I really thought it might ruin them.

As for the rest of the films, there was a surprisingly somber bent to the whole affair, each film a reflection on the current state of our world, none of them painting an upbeat picture whatsoever. All three were beautifully shot and beautifully composed with the third short, The Collectors - a stop frame animated picture about a family colonizing a paralyzed corpse - leaving the greatest impression. Short programs are tough sells and every one always offers ďthe worst filmĒ someone has ever seen, but they also always offer challenging filmmaking you might never see. As the senior programmer who introduced the short program said, ďthis is a chance to see films that will never screen ever again.Ē And 45 minutes of strobe lit aluminum foil is just one such consequence of taking the risk, but Iíll say this, my family and I talked more about Search For The Monkey King than any other film we saw. Itís awfulness making that much of an impression.

The First Time, d. Jonathan Kasdan

I had no intention of seeing this film. I was standing in some lobby with my parents trying to figure out what to do with their luggage when a woman just walked right up and gave it me (or sold it to me for 15 dollars - if youíre paying attention to details). And thatís sort of the magic of Sundance, if you let yourself be taken, youíre subject to the wiles of random filmdom and itís absolutely awesome.

The First Time isnít a movie Iíd ever have seen in a theater. Possibly one that Iíd have avoided based on itís more teenage tendencies. But guess what? Thanks to the magic of Sundance I saw a film that featured some great performances and that even brought a tear to my sap-heavy eye. The First Time is Jonathan Kasdanís second film, the story of two high schoolers who meet at a party whilst both in the midst of relationships, and suddenly, realize they might just be perfect for each other. Sounds boring huh? It could be, but the cast is great (especially lead actor Britt Robertson - expect big things out of her) and Kasdanís dialogue is pretty sparkly at times. Both helping to elevate the film out of its more mediocre tendencies. Did I love it? No. Will I see it again? Probably not. Was I glad I saw it in a packed theater built in to the back of a tennis club. You better believe it.

Excision, d. Ricky Bates Jr.

Our first taste of midnight programming, a supposedly "campy" horror film playing to a packed house of horror loving cinephiles. Also, my 60-plus parents second film of the festival (my girlfriend, the film selector seemingly putting my parents resolve to the test). All of us unabashedly loved the film, my girlfriend the most.

Annalynne McCord (she of Beverly Hills 90210 pt. 2) plays Pauline, a high school senior with some seriously fucked up mental waves. A float in adolescence with a a bevy of sick thoughts roiling about her brain, Pauline slowly devolves from strange girl with fucked up thoughts to really strange girl with really fucked up thoughts. Itís a wild ride with Ricky Bates Jr. never pulling the punches on any moment of gross. The film plays a little like Napoleon Dynamite meets Carrie meets David Lynch. The dream sequences are horrifying in the best way, reflecting the strange and ever-stranger mind of the protagonist (one involving a self-performed abortion and the aftermath is particularly horrifying). Donít let yourself think you know whatís going to happen in the end. You donít. But itís well worth waiting for. Ricky Bates Jr. spoke after the showing and he seems like the perfect kind of film-obsessive nerd to be making this type of particularly gruesome piece. He approaches it with a sense of sick humor that somehow makes the events occurring on screen just bearable enough that you can laugh.

If you were curious my parents, troopers that they are, made it through both films, smiling all the way.


Love Free Or Die, d. Macky Alston

This was the best film I saw at Sundance. Gene Robinson is the first, but not only, openly gay bishop and Alstonís film follows him in the wake of his announcement and in the moments before the Episcopalian church makes the decision on whether or not to allow more openly gay bishops. Robinson is not only a stone-cold charmer, but the sort of warm, loving personality, you just donít see anymore. Heís besieged by oppression on all sides and he manages to just keep pulling people in to his circle of love. Itís a film that made me a devout Atheist make me think maybe there was something to this whole faith thing. Four days later I canít say that Iíve suddenly converted, but the message of faith and spirituality that Gene Robinson not so much preaches, but lives clings to me. After the showing I actually got to meet Gene Robinson, even hug the man, and it and the film brought tears to my eyes. We live amongst a lot of hate right now and a film like Love Free Or Die does wonders to think that theyíre might be a respite, even an end to that hate at some time in the future.

This is a must see.

Room 237, d. Rodney Ascher

Up until the Room 237 screening Iíd been almost professional in my ability to stay awake during films on limited amount of sleep at the festival. I am notorious for snoozing during films (donít judge, David Thomsen, world-renowned critic, is an admitted cine-narcoleptic as well) and with the excitement of Sundance had momentarily become a viewer who could actually see every moment of every film. I was shocked, relieved even. And then I saw the midnight screening of Room 237. Not to say this film is bad in any way whatsoever, itís just a hard film to screen on three hours of sleep in the wee hours of the night.

Rodney Ascher has put together a film that is entirely about the conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrickís The Shining. Beyond that esoteric documentary subject, Ascher uses almost entirely clips from Kubrick movies to illuminate the words of The Shining theoreticians that he interviews. Itís a strange, strange movie, with a handful of intelligent interviewees espousing on The Shining and itís supposed meanings. Nazi Germany, American Indians, Kubrickís obsession with persuasive techniques - itís all here. At times the film can be a little much (the director beforehand told us that we were about to become the most Shining-versed cinephiles on the planet) but if you look past the non-stop Shining breakdown the film becomes about something entirely different. Itís about the maze of meanings that is The Shining but more so itís about the maze of meaning and how it defines these people who are so obsessed with it. Itís about film love and film obsession and honestly with itís creepy music and choppy editing style I found it totally disconcerting. A truly odd film about a truly odd subject. A film about a horror film that becomes horrific in its own right.

Very, very strange film.


Save The Date, d. Michael Mohan

Sundance is a divided world. On one hand you have serious cinephiles flowing in to absorb as much as they can. I heard stories of sixteen or seventeen films seen in a week. And thereís films for these people - awesome, strange foreign films that will never be shown in America ever again - and then thereís films for the rest of the crowds. The crowds that crush in to Park City hoping for a taste of Little Miss Sunshine, broad, friendly "indie" films that might just make it to the Oscars someday. Iíd avoided this subsection of films for the most part at Sundance (not on purpose, I just wasnít putting that vibe out and I think the gods of Sundance steered me clear) until Save The Date, a film that Alex had purchased in advance with a heart full of reservation.

Save The Date isnít a bad film. Itís well written and well-shot and the actors of pretty and believable for the most part, it just doesnít do very much. Itís the story of two sisters (Alison Brie and Lizzy Caplan) one whoís getting married, one whoís just ending a long relationship, and all the things that happen in between. I keep describing it as a hipster-romance (a lot of skinny jeans and indie-pop in this one) and coming away from it I just wasnít that blown away. I wasnít angry or mad that Iíd seen it, I just wasnít that excited. Thinking of my own dreams of programming, I couldnít imagine watching this film and thinking, this should go in Sundance, but maybe thatís what Sundance needs, a healthy selection of films that appeal to the broader, thought still indie subset. It just isnít me.

Half Revolution, d. Omar Shargawi And Karim el Hakim

Media has become a spectacle of diminishing returns. Weíve become so involved in the 24-hour news cycle that if a story isnít popping with easily digestible content, we move on. The Arab Spring, the revolution in Egypt, the general and total altering of the face the Middle East has stalled because of terrible dictators and the troubles that plague all revolutions and quite honestly, here in America weíve already turned whatever might be next. Half Revolution (named for the sad truths of the Egyptian revolution) is a tiny film about a huge subject. A group of friends, Shargawi and el Hakim (the filmmakers) amongst them, are pulled in to the revolution in Tahir Square and capture the trials and tribulations of the first 11 days on film. Itís harrowing. Thereís celebration to start as the square fills and then monotony as no one knows what to do and then finally abject terror as the government turns against the protesters. Iíve heard the film described as an action movie, but I see it more as a thriller. A group of progressive foreigners attempting to fight for their country are repelled by the greater forces at work. Every moment of the film is captured on shaky handcam and it brings the experience right in to your gut. I worried for the members of this little group. When they feared for a friends life, I feared right alongside them. Half Revolution is a film much like Love Free Or Die that you need to see. That you need to bring your friends to, that needs to be played on big screens so that we as fat-cat Americans can realize that the news coverage may have faded, the issue still rages on.

And that was Sundance. I spent my last night drinking whiskey and watching shitty television, thinking about films and wishing I could come back here next year as a great participant, and knowing, sadly, that it probably wouldnít be the case.

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