Friday, January 29, 2010

Sundance Films: Kick in Iran

Title: Kick in Iran
Director: Fatima Geza Abdollahyan

Summary: Sarah Khoshjamal, a 20-year-old Taekwondo superstar, is the first female professional athlete from Iran to qualify for the Olympics. This skillful vérité portrait follows the unassuming Khoshjamal in the nine months leading up to the 2008 Beijing games. Living in an Islamic country, she is required to wear a hijab at all times and, unlike her fellow competitors around the world, cannot train with men; however, the power in her fighting resoundingly breaks down stereotypical barriers. Khoshjamal’s experience as a world-class athlete may be familiar, but captured here is the importance of the coach-athlete relationship. The bond she shares with her feisty and much-admired female coach is revealed through everyday moments as both struggle through inequality to make their mark—in sport and society. Though it’s still the male athletes who are ultimately celebrated in her country, Khoshjamal’s accomplishments and lasting influence on scores of girls in Iran are undeniable (Sundance).

Thoughts: I envision this film as a good version of “the Next Karate Kid.” Actually, even that seems like an underestimate of this documentary. In truth, I love the idea behind this film, especially it’s decision to stick with a vérité portrait- which is often more difficult to deliver on. Hopefully this is the type of film that is truthful and empowering… ok, heck I really just want to see this girl kick butt while “You’re the Best” blasts in the background. Ok, I know that won’t happen (which is probably for the best) but watch the trailer and you’ll agree this is going to be a good film.

Sundance Films: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Title: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Director: Tamra Davis
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: In his short career, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a phenomenon. He became notorious for his graffiti art under the moniker Samo in the late 1970s on the Lower East Side scene, sold his first painting to Deborah Harry for $200, and became best friends with Andy Warhol. Appreciated by both the art cognoscenti and the public, Basquiat was launched into international stardom. However, soon his cult status began to override the art that had made him famous in the first place. Director Tamra Davis pays homage to her friend in this definitive documentary but also delves into Basquiat as an iconoclast. His dense, bebop-influenced neoexpressionist work emerged while minimalist, conceptual art was the fad; as a successful black artist, he was constantly confronted by racism and misconceptions. Much can be gleaned from insider interviews and archival footage, but it is Basquiat’s own words and work that powerfully convey the mystique and allure of both the artist and the man (Sundance).

Thoughts: Those who make documentaries about their friends and relatives (whether famous or not) tend to fall into two camps: either really good or awful. There is no middle ground when you put your emotions into a film and this holds especially true for documentaries. I don’t know much about Jean-Michel Basquiat, but his story sounds interesting. Be forewarned, this may be the type of film that requires preexisting knowledge of the subject to truly understand.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sundance Films: GASLAND

Director: Josh Fox

Summary: It is happening all across America—rural landowners wake up one day to find a lucrative offer from an energy company wanting to lease their property. Reason? The company hopes to tap into a reservoir dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” Halliburton developed a way to get the gas out of the ground—a hydraulic drilling process called “fracking”—and suddenly America finds itself on the precipice of becoming an energy superpower. But what comes out of the ground with that “natural” gas? How does it affect our air and drinking water? GASLAND is a powerful personal documentary that confronts these questions with spirit, strength, and a sense of humor. When filmmaker Josh Fox receives his cash offer in the mail, he travels across 32 states to meet other rural residents on the front lines of fracking. He discovers toxic streams, ruined aquifers, dying livestock, brutal illnesses, and kitchen sinks that burst into flame. He learns that all water is connected and perhaps some things are more valuable than money.(Sundance).

Thoughts: So here's what I want you to do. Don't even read the summary, don't even look for a trailer or read a review of this film. Just go to the website for Gasland and watch the video clip they have. And I can promise you you'll want to see Josh Fox's documentary. I'm literally resting my entire case for this film on that brief clip.

Sundance Films: His & Hers

Title: His & Hers
Director: Ken Wardrop

Summary: Director Ken Wardrop has established a sterling reputation by crafting elegant short films that capture humanity in quick bursts. Expanding on this technique into the feature form, he crafts a cinematic mosaic that tells a 90-year-old love story through the collective voice of 70 ladies at different stages of their lives. The hallways, living rooms, and kitchens of the Irish midlands become the canvas for the film’s rich tapestry of female characters. The story unfolds sequentially from young to old, and the characters are charmingly unabashed; while the younger contributors are animated in discussing their relationship with their other halves, the older women describe their love, and often their bereft love, with grace and candor. His & Hers celebrates the ordinary moments that add up to the extraordinary. Individually each piece works on its own, but together they create an emotional portrait that explores the way we share life's journey with others (Sundance).

Thoughts: Fella's, take your lady friends to this documentary. The perfect Valentine's day film probably won't hit any theater in time for the holiday, but who cares. A good love story shouldn't be confined to a specific day of the year. Ken Wardrop takes what he does best (short films) and uses that too his advantage in this feature length endeavor. I can only imagine the outcome being the perfect blend of honesty, simplicity and heartwarming stories.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sundance Films: Fix ME

Title: Fix ME
Director: Raed Andoni
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: Raed Andoni has a tension headache—one that has lasted generations and isn't going to end soon. That's because Andoni is a Palestinian living in the Ramallah, where the prospects for a stress-free life are elusive. Fix Me, Andoni's latest documentary, follows him through 20 therapy sessions as he tries to cure his unwelcome condition. The internal terrain of displacement and alienation that is revealed to his therapist and through his daily encounters with friends and family mimics the lived reality of thousands of Palestinians who are themselves displaced from their history and homeland. Ironic in tone, stylishly shot, and with a haunting score, Fix Me deftly plays with the concept of detachment from every angle. In Andoni’s hands, life under occupation is rendered with sly humor and an unexpectedly light touch that culminates in a poignant statement about the universal longing for a way back home (Sundance).

Thoughts: It seems like for decades Palestinians and their supporters have been trying in vain to reach out to mainstream foreigners so they understand the plight they endure on a daily basis. But it seems people have turned a deaf ear to it all. They've heard the emotional pleas, the reasoned arguments from politicians and still foreign support remains minimal. I think it is understanding this environment that makes Raed Andoni's film so effective. There is no trailer and very little information about the film at the moment, but turning the Palestinian struggle into a backdrop for personal pain and an inward journey could be just what is needed to help people listen. This could be a sleeper hit, so stay tuned.

Sundance Films: Freedom Riders

Title: Freedom Riders
Director: Stanley Nelson

Summary: In 1961 segregation seemed to have an overwhelming grip on American society. Many states violently enforced the policy, while the federal government, under the Kennedy administration, remained indifferent, preoccupied with matters abroad. That is, until an integrated band of college students—many of whom were the first in their families to attend a university—decided, en masse, to risk everything and buy a ticket on a Greyhound bus bound for the Deep South. They called themselves the Freedom Riders, and they managed to bring the president and the entire American public face to face with the challenge of correcting civil-rights inequities that plagued the nation. Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s inspirational documentary is the first feature-length film about this courageous band of civil-rights activists. Gaining impressive access to influential figures on both sides of the issue, Nelson chronicles a chapter of American history that stands as an astonishing testament to the accomplishment of youth and what can result from the incredible combination of personal conviction and the courage to organize against all odds. (Sundance).

Thoughts: I think I could say the same about this film as I did about A Film Unfinished. Don't get me wrong, the Civil Rights Movement is an era every single American citizen should know about, and not just the basic facts either but the personal stories, the strengths and weakness of its leaders,etc. But at the same time it seems to be the go to subject when you want to make a documentary but don't have an idea what to cover. With that said, I don't know much about the Freedom Riders so perhaps there's an extra layer of knowledge one can glean from this film. It helps to see such a well produced trailer for this film. So stay tuned on this one.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sundance Films: Family Affair

Title: Family Affair
Director: Chico Colvard

Summary: At 10 years old, Chico Colvard shot his older sister in the leg. This seemingly random act detonated a chain reaction that exposed unspeakable realities and shattered his family. Thirty years later, Colvard ruptures veils of secrecy and silence again. As he bravely visits his relatives, what unfolds is a personal film that’s as uncompromising, raw, and cathartic as any in the history of the medium. Driving the story forward is Colvard’s sensitive probing of a complex dynamic: the way his three sisters survived severe childhood abuse by their father and, as adults, manage to muster loyalty to him. These unforgettable, invincible women paint a picture of their harrowing girlhoods as they resiliently struggle with present-day fallout. The distance time gives them from their trauma yields piercing insights about the legacy of abuse, the nature of forgiveness, and eternal longing for family and love. These truths may be too searing to bear, but they reverberate powerfully within each of us (Sundance).

Thoughts: First time director Chico Colvard has kicked off his filmmaking career with a documentary exposing his family's secrets, his families relationships and even the very soul and fabric of what holds them together. It's hard to understand which direction his film is going to take, but that's part of the appeal. It's obviously not an indictment of his father, nor is it a tale of forgiveness, it's instead lying somewhere in the middle. And that's what makes Family Affair so fascinating- Colvard explores the grey areas of life, the nuances that make absolutely no sense and yet somehow make us human.

Sundance Films: A Film Unfinished

Title: A Film Unfinished
Director: Yael Hersonski
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: Yael Hersonski’s powerful documentary achieves a remarkable feat through its penetrating look at another film—the now-infamous Nazi-produced film about the Warsaw Ghetto. Discovered after the war, the unfinished work, with no soundtrack, quickly became a resource for historians seeking an authentic record, despite its elaborate propagandistic construction. The later discovery of a long-missing reel complicated earlier readings, showing the manipulations of camera crews in these “everyday” scenes. Well-heeled Jews attending elegant dinners and theatricals (while callously stepping over the dead bodies of compatriots) now appeared as unwilling, but complicit, actors, alternately fearful and in denial of their looming fate. Hersonski relentlessly screens each reel as ghetto survivors and (amazingly) one of the original cameramen recall actual events, investing the cryptic scenes with detail, complexity, and authority. Rigorous in its regard for human tragedy and the power of images, A Film Unfinished indicts both the evil and the astounding narcissism of the Nazi state (Sundance).

Thoughts: Honest reaction. Not sure how I feel about Yael Hersonski's film. The Holocaust boat has pretty much set sail in the documentary genre, in that there have been so many great films on the subject in the past everything new seems just like a rehashing. With that said, I don't know much about the Nazi-produced film about the Warsaw Ghetto so perhaps A Film Unfinished has something worth telling. This one of a handful of films we'll just have to wait and see how audiences respond in order to get a better reading on it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sundance Films: Enemies of the People

Title: Enemies of the People
Director: Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath

Summary: The Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly two million people in the late 1970s. Yet the Killing Fields of Cambodia remain unexplained. Until now. Enter Thet Sambath, an unassuming, yet cunning, investigative journalist who spends a decade of his life gaining the trust of the men and women who perpetrated the massacres. From the foot soldiers who slit throats to Pol Pot's right-hand man, the notorious Brother Number Two, Sambath records shocking testimony never before seen or heard. Having neglected his own family for years, Sambath's work comes at a price. But his is a personal mission. He lost his parents and his siblings in the Killing Fields. Amidst his journey to discover why his family died, we come to understand for the first time the real story of Cambodia's tragedy. Co-directors Rob Lemkin and Sambath create a watershed account of Cambodian history and a heartfelt quest for closure on one of the world’s darkest episodes.

Thoughts: This documentary could turn out to be either award winning or ostracized. Enemies of the People is the sort of story countless directors dream of making but few (if any) ever accomplish. The very fact that directors Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath are willing to record (almost exclusively) the Khmer Rouge’s perspective could anger many people (ask an American what they would think of a film discussing the World Trade Center attacks from the Taliban’s perspective and you get the idea), but I think Sambath has the right perspective. As he states on the film’s website: “Some may say no good can come from talking to killers and dwelling on past horror, but I say these people have sacrificed a lot to tell the truth. In daring to confess they have done good, perhaps the only good thing left. They and all the killers like them must be part of the process of reconciliation if my country is to move forward.” Hopefully this film is as good as advertised and distributors are willing to show it in theaters.

Sundance Films: CASINO JACK and the United States of Money

Title: CASINO JACK and the United States of Money
Director: Alex Gibney
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

This portrait of Washington super lobbyist Jack Abramoff—from his early years as a gung-ho member of the GOP political machine to his final reckoning as a disgraced, imprisoned pariah—confirms the adage that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. A tale of international intrigue with Indian casinos, Russian spies, Chinese sweatshops, and a mob-style killing in Miami, this is the story of the way money corrupts our political process. Following the ongoing indictments of federal officials and exposing favor trading in our nation's capital, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney illuminates the way our politicians' desperate need to get elected—and the millions of dollars it costs—may be undermining the basic principles of American democracy. Infuriating, yet undeniably fun to watch, CASINO JACK is a saga of greed and corruption with a cynical villain audiences will love to hate (Sundance).

Thoughts: There couldn’t be more excitement for another film at Sundance than the official return of Alex Gibney to the subject of greed. The now well known and respected director first hit the main stage with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room where he made a complex and financial-jargon driven story into a crowd pleasing and eye opening documentary. He returns to this so-called genre by covering the Jack Abramoff scandal from a few years back. The title alone should entice audiences to this one and it should only be a matter of time before theaters showcase this documentary.