Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sundance Film Festival - Day 4 (5 & 6)

Nicholas Kristoff is developing a video game?

A conversation between two people, a documentary photographed largely on low-grade video cameras and an ultra-violent drama about a prisoner who discovers that violence is his art highlighted my past three days of Sundancing.

Two Pulitzer Prize winning authors, Nicholas Kristoff and Samantha Power, debated the merits of the printed word versus filmmaking in a stimulating discussion on the mediums. Both writers are showcasing their first forays into film at the festival. The discussion covered a range of topics and became particularly rewarding when it focused on how best to reach an audience to create change. Anecdotal highlights included Kristoff’s revelation that he is exploring every way possible to reach new audiences, including developing a video game.

“Reporter” follows Kristoff as he travels deep into the Congo to expose the desperate poverty and conflict in the region through his twice weekly column in The New York Times. It is a fascinating first-hand view of the travails of a reporter in a war-torn region, as well as a probing look at the challenging decisions about coverage, risk and subject manipulation he must constantly make. A particularly complex scene involves his interview and subsequent dinner with a notorious and brutal war lord.

“Sergio” is a look at the charismatic United Nations diplomat from Brazil, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who is often described as a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy. Based on the novel by Samantha Power, this beautifully photographed, crisply edited and fascinating look into his life focuses on his appointment as U.N. ambassador to Iraq and a day that will live in infamy, August 19, 2003, the first time the U.N. had become the target of terrorism.

One of the most urgent films I have ever seen in my life, “Burma VJ” follows the harrowing journalistic exploits of the Democratic Voice of Burma (or simply DVB). Comprised mostly of handheld, low-grade video camera and cell phone footage, it surpassed the power of almost all of the talent laden, higher budgeted and tightly orchestrated dramas I have seen so far at Sundance.

The DVB band of renegade journalists provides the world and Burma its only news source in a country where reportage is strictly prohibited by a repressive regime. The film deftly compiles their footage, including the reporters’ firsthand accounts, of the 2007 peaceful rebellion led by Buddhist Monks that turned into a nightmare for the citizens of Burma.

On the dramatic side the highlight was “Bronson,” the latest film from Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn is famous for his “Pusher” trilogy, about underground crime in Copenhagen, which is considered a cult hit many circles.

With stunning imagery and a tour-de-force performance from Tom Hardy (who reportedly gained 100 pounds of muscle for the role!), “Bronson” dramatizes the real life of Charlie Bronson, Britain’s most violent prisoner. Stylistically urgent, this ultra-violent exploration of character can‘t be missed.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sundance Film Festival - Day 3

“She was in some Seth Green film…and she’s on TV a lot.” Unfortunately I did not get a peek at the young starlet in question, but simply overhearing this comment on Main Street provided enough pleasure.

My day started with a movie at dawn, no, Sundance does not screen around the clock; I viewed this Sundance film from the comfort of my bed, um, couch that I sleep on. While at Sundance I trade the comforts of a bed or my own room for sharing a two room condo with four film critics. Not only do I save money for Milwaukee Film, and experience the pleasures of sharing a bathroom between five men, I get access to several DVD screener copies of films from the film critics.

The highlight of my viewing day was by far the press & industry screening of “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.” My last minute decision to see the film, instead of going to a panel that I found out I catch online later, was rewarded with what I would consider, even at this early junction, the surprise of Sundance. In the clear favorite for the competition prize, bleak subject matter is given a refreshing and stylish treatment. Read John Anderson’s review in Variety, posted to the Milwaukee Film Facebook group page, could not have said it better myself.

The social highlight was a Milwaukee reunion at the edgier Slamdance Film Festival with Howie Goldklang (Event Producer at Slamdance for the past 8 years and Owner of and Scott Robbe (Executive Director at Scott and I then moved onto dinner and screenings, concluding the evening with a spirited debate over the merits of Sundance documentary “Art & Copy.”

I have started posting photos to the Milwaukee Film facebook group page, check them out if you get a chance.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sundance Film Festival - Day 2

The best thing about Sundance so far this year is by far the new seats at the Yarrow Hotel Screening Room. No disrespect to the films I have seen, but if you have ever sat 12 hours-a-day, for 8 days straight in conference room plastic chairs you will understand how I feel. To my delight, the Sundance Film Festival decided to splurge on the Press & Industry and actually brought in old cinema seats!

See, at Sundance, I rarely go to the screenings you read about in the media. Thankfully, they keep the programmers, press and miscellaneous industry folk away from the hordes and locked into closed to the public screening venues. The luxury is that you can easily get into 99% of the screenings without waiting and don’t have to deal with being herded like cattle. You see more movies this way, but unfortunately have fewer Dakota Fanning sightings.

Day 2 Film Tally: 15! Okay, it is not as impressive when more than half are shorts, but I am still proud. The most original and creative in the bunch were by far from the animated shorts program. Don Hertzfeldt, not to my surprise, highlighted the program with “I Am So Proud of You,” a continuation of the story of Bill from “Everything will be Okay.” The program also featured a mesmerizing and moody Quay Brothers style short film called “Out of Control” from Mexico.

Also of note was the complex and very personal competition documentary about the infamous defense attorney “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” You follow the creators, his two daughters, journey into their father’s past as they try to come to terms with his controversial legacy.

Tomorrow will include my first visit to Main Street, so let the celebrity gawking begin!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sundance Film Festival - Day 1 - Part 2

I made it with 15 minutes to spare! Granted, I did have to pay extra and skip the shuttle for a cab from the airport, but I made it just in time for the opening night screening of "Mary & Max." A curious, stop-motion clay animation film from Australia created by Adam Elliot. Elliot may be familiar to some as the director of "Harvie Krumpet," the 2003 Academy Award Winner for Best Animated Short Film.

Based on the unlikely, 20-year pen pal relationship of a chubby 8-year-old girl from Australia and a 44-year-old Jewish man in NYC who is morbidly obese and suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, "Mary & Max" charms in the beginning, showcases excellent voice acting (Philip Seymour Hoffman & Toni Collette) and surprising visual complexity, but seems to stretch itself a bit thin by the end. Definitely worth the effort to see, but would be surprised if it receives any kind of wide distribution in this market. Word on the street is that distributors are really reluctant to pull the trigger on buying films this year an with no easily identifiable audience, “Mary & Max” may just slip through the cracks.

I mentioned in my opening post that the Sundance Film Festival is celebrating its 25th Anniversary, well, sort of. The Sundance Film Festival was actually founded in 1978, but was then known as, get this, the United States Film Festival. It is the 25th Anniversary of the Sundance Institutes purchase of the festival that is being celebrated. Purchased in 1985, it was immediately moved to Park City from Salt Lake, and shifted its focus to more independent film fare. In fact, in the first year the Coen brothers won the Grand Jury Prize for their debut film “Blood Simple,” a crisp, low budget neo-noir caper. They did not change the name of the festival until 1991.
For more on the history of Sundance, visit:

Tomorrow will be a full day of planning and screenings. The industry office was kind enough not to schedule a morning screening, allowing all of us to get our bearings.
Also of note, this is the first time since I have been going to Sundance that I would describe the temperature as balmy. However, I believe that has more to do with temperature in Milwaukee when I left this morning then the 35 degree temperature here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sundance Film Festival - Day 1

En route to Sundance Film Festival, hoping to arrive in time to catch Opening Night Film "Mary & Max," a clay animation film from Australia. - Jonathan Jackson