Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sundance Films: El General

Title: El General
Director: Natalia Almada
Potential Major Release Date: No major release date announced but there are already a few announced screenings in the coming months

Summary: Filmmaker Natalia Almada's documentary traces 100 years of Mexico's history through the story of her great-grandfather Plutarco ElĂ­as Calles, whose brutal regime as president from 1924-28 overshadowed his heroics during the Mexican Revolution. A rich portrait of the Mexican people and the country's tumultuous history emerges as Almada contrasts her family's memories of Calles with the collective memory of her country (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I only have to point to the films summary as proof of why I'm excited about this documentary. Natalia Almada no only provides audiences with a rich and powerful story, but her film now boasts the U.S. Documentary Directing Award from Sundance. I'm hoping this gets the nationwide treatment because I just can't see this movie missing the mark.

Sundance Films: Prom Night in Mississippi

Title: Prom Night in Mississippi
Director: Paul Saltzman
Potential Major Release Date: No release date announced beyond Sundance

Summary: With actor Morgan Freeman's support, Mississippi's Charleston High School stages its first senior prom to integrate both black and white students. This documentary examines the perspectives of several seniors as they prepare for this historic event. A group of disapproving white parents, who refused to meet and talk with the filmmakers, organized a separate White Prom for their children to attend (NetFlix).

Thoughts: It appears Prom Night in Mississippi has found the perfect make up for a documentary: combine Morgan Freeman, entrenched racist undertones and a creative Canadian. I say that jokingly, but in all seriousness, Paul Saltzman's film wisely takes a cue from Chicago 7: using artistry and cartoons to highlight their subjects. The lack of an official website and release date makes me nervous, but all around, this looks like it could be a sleeper hit.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sundance Films: Tyson

Title: Tyson
Director: James Toback
Website: No website provided
Potential Major Release Date: April 24, 2009

Summary: From director James Toback comes this documentary feature about the trials and triumphs in the life of famed boxer Mike Tyson. From his salad days with promoter Don King, to his infamous ear-ripping match against Evander Holyfield, to his sexual assault conviction, this film, made with the cooperation of Tyson himself, was culled from more than 30 hours of fascinating interview footage of the notorious heavyweight champion (NetFlix).

Thoughts: Unable to watch a trailer, I was able to see a short clip from James Toback’s documentary and I’m not sure it helped quell any fears. The film is reminiscent of Errol Morris’ Fog of War in that it is based entirely around a few interview sessions with the subject. Unfortunately, with Tyson on helm as a producer I just can’t see the film being completely honest with its audience. I’m still intrigued, just skeptical.

Sundance Films: Old Partner

Title: Old Partner
Director: Chung-ryoul Lee
Website: No website provided
Potential Major Release Date: No release date announced beyond Sundance

Summary: Set in the fertile fields of South Korea, filmmaker Chung-Ryoul Lee's pensive yet playful documentary examines the enduring bond between an elderly farmer -- Mr. Lee -- and his loyal ox, forged over 40 years of companionship and service. Mr. Lee tends to the ox with special care, feeding him by hand and keeping the land free of pesticides, while the aging beast faithfully carts him back and forth from town, never leaving his side (NetFlix).

Thoughts: Director Chung-ryoul Lee clearly was influenced by some of Errol Morris’ earlier works. Old Partner appears to be in the same mold as Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, which is a connection any filmmaker would want. This looks like it could be a sweet film with deep undertones. I was unable to find a trailer or website to learn more about the film, so I hope my connections to Morris aren’t mere wishful thinking.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sundance Films: Wounded Knee

Title: Wounded Knee
Director: Stanley Nelson
Potential Major Release Date: Premiers May 2009 on PBS

Summary: This episode from the landmark documentary series "We Shall Remain" examines the tense 1973 standoff between federal agents and scores of armed Native Americans who occupied Wounded Knee, a small town on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Sioux reservation. Focusing on the dire social and other factors that led to the siege, this program also reveals how the violent clash also aided the modern rebirth of Native American culture and identity (NetFlix).

Thoughts: Wow. This looks like it could be a great documentary. Maybe I’m so intrigued by this story because I’ve never really heard it before, or maybe it’s the thought of a once combative but somewhat inspiring story from an extremely minor and outcast group of people. I’m not sure what it is, but this looks like it will be really good. I’m setting my TiVo now so I don’t forget.

Sundance Films: Nollywood Babylon

Title: Nollywood Babylon
Director: Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal
Potential Major Release Date: No release date, but there is a ‘buy DVD’ function on their site that reads “available in 2009.”

Summary: Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal's colorful documentary goes behind the scenes with filmmaker Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen -- aka "Da Governor" -- a major player in Nigeria's thriving direct-to-video industry, dubbed "Nollywood" in the early 1990s. Produced on a shoestring budget, the genre's juicy tales of religion, sex, magic and urban culture have created a national craze that's made Nollywood the third-largest movie industry in the world (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I saw the first three quarters of this trailer and was hooked, but the last little bit sorta confused me on the direction the film wanted to take. Is it a recap/highlight documentary, or a mildly political documentary? I’m not sure, but hopefully this is in the same mold as IFC’s wonderfully done “A Decade Under the Influence”.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sundance Films: Dirt! The Movie

Title: Dirt! The Movie
Director: Bill Benenson, Gene Rosow
Potential Major Release Date: No release date announced beyond Sundance

Summary: Dirt takes center stage in this entertaining yet poignant documentary from Bill Benenson, Gene Rosow and Eleonore Dailly, which unearths our cosmic connection to soil and explores how diverse groups of people are uniting to save the natural resource. Drawing inspiration from William Bryant Logan's book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, the filmmakers combine lively animations with personal accounts from farmers, scientists, activists and more (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I definitely have mixed feelings on this documentary. On one hand, the story seems to follow in the mold of the eternally awful Flow. I'm also not exactly a huge fan of Jamie Lee Curtis (this film's narrator). But, within the trailer, there appeared little moments of creativity that kept my eyes from totally glazing over. Directors Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow are better known for their work in TV movies, but I always say non-traditional filmmakers tend to bring the most creativity to the table. So I'll hold out hope for this one.

Sundance Films: Let's Make Money

Title: Let's Make Money
Director: Erwin Wagenhofer
Potential Major Release Date: No specific U.S. release date, but looks to hit Europe in April.

Summary: With an eye toward exposing the policies and practices that affect the global economy, director Erwin Wagenhofer traverses the planet in a heroic effort to trace money as it passes through the international finance system. Making stops in First World countries and developing nations alike, the film reveals the far-reaching consequences of relaxed credit, deregulation and privatization as well as shocking examples of greed and ruthlessness (NetFlix).

Thoughts: Though it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, I already want to give this a bad review. Director Erwin Wagenhofer's only other film (We Feed the World) gained this review on IMDB, "Overly Gloomy And Not That Enlightening" and I can imagine the same holds true for his second documentary. The name implies a witty satire of capitalism but the trailer screams boring interviews covered with depressing footage and dark music. I think I'll pass.