Friday, February 5, 2010

Sundance Films: Restrepo

Title: Restrepo
Director: Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington

Summary: In 2008 Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington dug in with the men of Second Platoon for a year. Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, a stronghold of al Qaeda and the Taliban, has proven to be one of the U.S. Army's deadliest challenges. It is here that the platoon lost their comrade, PFC Juan Restrepo, and erected an outpost in his honor. Up close and personal, Junger and Hetherington gain extraordinary insight into the surreal combination of backbreaking labor and deadly firefights that are a way of life at Outpost Restrepo. Ever wonder what it's really like to be in the trenches of war? Look no further. Restrepo may be one of the most experiential and visceral war films you'll ever see. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers reveal the humor and camaraderie of men who come under daily fire, never knowing which of them won't make it home (Sundance).

Thoughts: Winning the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries is a huge honor and it shouldn’t be treated lightly. From what I’ve seen, directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington have put together one heck of a film. It’s being compared to a real life Hurt Locker and I can see why. Junger, a writer, and Hetherington, a photographer, aren’t your typical filmmakers, but perhaps that’s why they are able to think outside of the box to create this master piece. Definitely look for this in theaters.

Sundance Films: Sins of My Father

Title: Sins of My Father
Director: Nicolas Entel

Summary: Pablo Escobar, the most notorious and brutal drug lord in Colombia's history, was gunned down in Medellín in 1993. After his father's death, Juan Escobar fled to Buenos Aires, changed his name to Sebastián Marroquín, assuming a new identity to escape his father's dubious legacy. For the first time since Escobar's death, Marroquín comes forward to tell his father's story. With heartfelt honesty, he recounts what it was like to grow up loving a father that he knew was his country's number-one enemy. Unsatisfied with simply relating history, Marroquín requests a meeting with the sons of two celebrated Colombian political leaders who were among hundreds of victims that his father had killed in the 1980s. Filmmaker Nicolas Entel captures the powerful and historic moment when the son of Pablo Escobar and the sons of his victims come together to heal wounds that have haunted them all for decades (Sundance).

Thoughts: Nicolas Entel’s Sins of My Father looks like a powerful film not about redemption exactly, but about dealing with the chaos left behind by others. The film looks every bit the part one would expect from a subject like this- which is a very good thing. However, the meeting between Sebastián Marroquín and the sons of his father’s victims sounds a little forced. Hopefully that is not the case and, more importantly, hopefully this is coming to theaters sooner rather than later.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sundance Films: The Oath

Title: The Oath
Director: Laura Poitras
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: Unraveling like a lush, gripping novel that constantly subverts expectations, The Oath is the interlocking drama of two brothers-in-law, Abu Jandal and Salim Hamdam, whose associations with al Qaeda in the 1990s propelled them on divergent courses. The film delves into Abu Jandal's daily life as a taxi driver in Sana’a, Yemen, and Hamdan’s military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay prison. Abu Jandal and Hamdan’s personal stories—how they came to serve as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and driver respectively—act as prisms through which to humanize and contextualize a world the Western media demonizes. As Hamdan’s trial progresses, his military lawyers challenge fundamental flaws in the court system. As charismatic Abu Jandal dialogues with his son, Muslim students, and journalists, he generously unveils the complex evolution of his belief system since 9/11. Exquisitely constructed so multiple threads and time periods commingle seamlessly, and gaining astonishingly intimate access to subjects and information, The Oath illuminates a realm too long misunderstood (Sundance).

Thoughts: First off, before even reading the summary, seeing The Oath win the Cinematography award for documentaries instantly puts this as a must see film. But then, when you take in the actual story itself, you begin to realize this could very well be a seminal work in our beloved genre. Al Qaeda isn’t exactly a group people in the U.S. will want to show sympathy towards, so Poitras attempt to paint a humanizing portrait may be condemned by many, but hopefully this is a work that opens eyes and changes perceptions.

Sundance Films: Secrets of the Tribe

Title: Secrets of the Tribe
Director: José Padilha
Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: The field of anthropology goes under the magnifying glass in this fiery investigation of the seminal research on Yanomami Indians. In the 1960s and ’70s, a steady stream of anthropologists filed into the Amazon Basin to observe this "virgin" society untouched by modern life. Thirty years later, the events surrounding this infiltration have become a scandalous tale of academic ethics and infighting. The origins of violence and war and the accuracy of data gathering are hotly debated among the scholarly clan. Soon these disputes take on Heart of Darkness overtones as they descend into shadowy allegations of sexual and medical violation. Director José Padilha brilliantly employs two provocative strategies to raise unsettling questions about the boundaries of cultural encounters. He allows professors accused of heinous activities to defend themselves, and the Yanomami to represent their side of the story. As this riveting excavation deconstructs anthropology’s colonial legacy, it challenges our society’s myths of objectivity and the very notion of “the other” (Sundance).

Thoughts: Anytime a documentary challenges the status quo of society AND makes reference the classic novel, Heart of Darkness, I’m instantly a fan of it. Let’s face it, we all get comfortable with certain parts of our lives and while comfort isn’t a bad thing, it’s always good to take a fresh look at things – even for the sake of verifying what we already know. José Padilha’s documentary looks like the perfect documentary to raise questions without making brash accusations. And the very fact this film compares itself to Heart of Darkness means there’s going to be some interesting storylines unfolding. I can’t wait to see this in theaters.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sundance Films: Russian Lessons

Title: Russian Lessons
Director: Andrei Nekrasov, Olga Konskaya

Summary: Andrei Nekrasov, with directing partner Olga Konskaya, returns to Sundance with a formidable documentary that energetically delves into the violent and bewildering conflicts in the Caucasus, with Russia pitted against the former Soviet state of Georgia, and involving Georgia’s troubled regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Boldly visiting conflict zones rarely filmed, the codirectors uncover damning evidence of Russian violence, incidents whose few recorded images are often reprocessed in mass-media reports as evidence of other people’s crimes (often, supposedly, residents of Georgia). Parsing the complex history of the region, as well as oversimplified cultural assumptions about internecine ethnic conflicts, Nekrasov and Konskaya construct a portrait of a cynical Russia willing to engage in secret wars and manufacture conflicts and media reports simply to consolidate power. With immediacy and passion, but also with a commanding mastery of film form, their documentary dignifies the struggles of powerless people and holds a sobering mirror up to a superpower and its media (Sundance).

Thoughts: certainly a pro-Georgia political documentary, Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya have certainly tried to develop a film to stir people to action... or at least awareness. Unfortunately, it will be hard for many outside of this region to care enough to even bring themselves to watch this documentary. This is a cautionary tale for filmmakers, subjects that are vitally important to you may be totally irrelevant to the masses. Now that isn't to say this will be a bad documentary, it's just a reminder to not assume audiences will care about your film. Is Russian Lessons worth watching? Perhaps, but it depends on their talent.

Sundance Films: My Perestroika

Title: My Perestroika
Director: Robin Hessman

Summary: The Bolshevik revolution, the cold war, and the collapse of the Soviet Union defined the history of the twentieth century. With such a past, what does it mean to be Russian today? Robin Hessman's lovingly crafted documentary, My Perestroika, adopts the idea of the “everyman story,” suggesting that the unheralded lives of the last generation of Soviets to grow up behind the iron curtain hold the key to understanding the contradictions of modern Russia from the inside out. Crafted during five years of researching and shooting, and based on almost a decade of living in Russia in the 1990s, Hessman's film poetically interweaves an extraordinary trove of home movies, Soviet propaganda films, and intimate access to five schoolmates whose linked, but very different, histories offer a moving portrait of newly middle-class Russians living lives they could never have imagined when they were growing up (Sundance).

Thoughts: I find these “everyman” documentaries that are popping up of late truly appealing. Errol Morris was the master of turning the unknowns or unliked into fascinating examinations everyone could relate to. Perhaps this is what I hope for in Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika. Most of us know the big picture elements of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but very few understand the personal triumphs and tragedies resulting from this major event. This could be a simple but illuminating story worth catching.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sundance Films: The Red Chapel

Title: The Red Chapel

Director: Mads Brügger

Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: A journalist with no scruples and two Danish/Korean comedians—one a self-proclaimed "spastic"—travel to North Korea under the guise of a cultural exchange. On the pretext of being a small Danish theatre group, named The Red Chapel, they are allowed into the country, but unbeknownst to the North Koreans, cultural exchange is not really what they have in mind. Mads Brügger, the journalist; Simon, the straight man; and Jacob, the spastic, use humor to challenge one of the world’s most notorious regimes. The troupe rehearse under the watchful eye of government officials brought in to "collaborate" on their performance and make it more palatable for the Korean regime. They are shown the important historical sights by a female government employee, who smothers poor Jacob with motherly affection. Fusing elements of activist filmmaking with theater of the absurd, The Red Chapel is an acerbic romp, as subversive as it is wildly original (Sundance).

Thoughts: I'm going on record and stating this is not a documentary I'm looking forward to seeing. Perhaps I will come around, but political theater for the sake of revealing absurdities is a fine line few can walk and frankly, Red Chapel doesn't walk it. Hurting it's cause, the film's trailer begins by stating (matter of factly) that North Korea is the most evil dictatorship in the world. I'm not supporting North Korea, but I'm pretty sure there have been worse regimes in history and there arguably still are some today. Over simplifying never helps anyone. Skip this one unless there are drastically positive rumblings from the Sundance community.

Sundance Films: Lucky

Title: Lucky

Director: Jeffrey Blitz

Website: no individual site, but click here for Sundance page

Summary: Dreaming of winning the lottery is as American as apple pie. Millions of Americans spend billions of dollars each year hoping to come up a winner. But what happens to the lucky few who actually pull a winning ticket? Lucky crisscrosses the country, examining a handful of past lottery winners as they navigate their newly found riches and a couple of extremely determined hopefuls. The winners’ lives are undoubtedly changed forever but not necessarily in the ways we may expect. Life becomes complicated as attorneys, hired security guards, jealous friends, scheming family members, and desperate pleas for help from strangers pepper their new existence. Veteran director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound, Rocket Science—2007 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award winner) has skillfully crafted a revealing look at the way one’s identity is undoubtedly turned upside down after the big payout. Thoroughly involving, Lucky cleverly strips off the veneer and shatters our perceptions about the ultimate American dream (Sundance).

Thoughts: Spellbound captured the hearts of many film goers with it's focus on children driven to find success in a competition where only one is victorious. Jeffrey Blitz' latest film Lucky seems to be investigating a different persona: adults who find rare success not because of talent but because of, well, luck. Will Blitz ruin the dream of winning the lottery for many? Perhaps not, but I'm sure his film will remind you that wealth doesn't always solve the one's problems.

Sundance Films: Last Train Home

Title: Last Train Home

Director: Lixin Fan


Summary: Each year in China more than 130 million migrant workers travel home for the New Year's holiday—the one time they’ll reunite with family all year. The mass exodus constitutes the world’s largest human migration. Amid this chaos, director Lixin Fan focuses on one couple, Changhua and Sugin Zhang, who embark upon a two-day journey to see their children. The Zhangs left their rural village for factory jobs when their children were just infants. Now a teenager, daughter Qin resents their continual absence. Yearning for her own freedom, she quits school to work in a factory herself. Her parents, who see education as their children’s one hope, are devastated. Through its intimate and heartbreaking observation of the Zhangs, Last Train Home places a human face on China’s ascendance as an economic power. To overwhelming effect, Fan illustrates the cost incurred by fractured families and reveals a country tragically caught between its industrial future and rural past (Sundance).

Thoughts: Last Train Home reminds me of a Wong Kar Wai film, and that's a very good thing. It looks simple, honest and full of subtle emotion that may take a few watchings to truly grasp. Though the film centers on a family in China, there could be a lot here for people of any society to relate to. This is definitely a film to keep an eye on if you are a fan of subtle cinema.

Sundance Films: Joan Rivers—A Piece Of Work

Title: Joan Rivers—A Piece Of Work

Director: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg


Summary: This exposé chronicles the private dramas of irreverent, legendary comedian and pop icon Joan Rivers as she fights tooth and nail to keep her American dream alive. The film offers a rare glimpse of the comedic process and the crazy mixture of self-doubt and anger that often fuels it. A unique look inside America's obsession with fame and celebrity, Rivers' story is both an outrageously funny journey and brutally honest look at the ruthless entertainment industry, the trappings of success, and the ultimate vulnerability of the first queen of comedy. Being able to break through Rivers’s self-made facade is a tribute to filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. It is obvious the magic of this film is the inherent trust between filmmakers and subject. Shot over the course of a year, the film enlists a resilient cinema vérité style to craft a moving look at this iconic performer, stripping away her comedy masks and laying bare the truth of her life and inspiration (Sundance).

Thoughts: Joan Rivers. What else can I say, but Joan Rivers. I honestly don't know how I feel about a film that follows around one of the faces of the Hollywood beauty judgment that our society is quite obsessed with. Then again, there have been great documentaries about other celebrity subjects, so anything is possible in this genre. Certain films can catch you off guard and hopefully Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's film does exactly that.