Friday, February 4, 2011

Sundance Film: An African Election

Director: Jarreth Merz

Summary: In a world plagued by stolen elections, secret government agendas, and a renewed interest in the exploitation of African natural resources, what value does democracy offer, particularly in the tumultuous region of West Africa? For Ghana, a nation that has been Africa’s barometer of political stability, democracy may mean the difference between peace and prosperity—and murderous chaos under military coup.
An African Election is a remarkable documentary that grants viewers unprecedented access to the anatomy of Ghana’s 2008 presidential elections. Capturing the intrigue of electioneering, the intensity of the vote-counting process, and the mood of the countrymen whose fate lies precariously in the balance, director Jarreth Merz’s coverage unfolds with all the tension of a political thriller, revealing the emotions, passions, and ethical decisions that both threaten—and maintain—the integrity of the democratic process. An African Election illuminates a beacon of hope for Africa and for the value and vitality of democracy today.

Excitement scale (1-10): 10 – The summary for Jarreth Merz’ film will hook many, but it’s the trailer that will really get people excited. This appears to be an excellent film that captures both the history and the tension of the 2008 presidential election in Ghana.

Sundance Film: The Bengali Detective

Director: Philip Cox

Summary: In response to police corruption, the private detective business has become increasingly common in India. The Bengali Detective follows the life of detective Rajesh Ji, who, along with his ragtag team of assistants, investigates cases ranging from counterfeit hair products to a brutal triple murder. When Rajesh is not sleuthing, he has big dreams of competing on a televised national talent show, so he and his detective gang form a dance troupe—which must be seen to be believed—and rehearse for their big audition.
Set in chaotic Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, the film is shot with atmosphere and immediacy, complementing the mystery and suspense of the investigations. Director Philip Cox finds a riveting subject in Rajesh. He’s all at once a showman, a dedicated husband, and a humanitarian. The Bengali Detective is a layered, wildly entertaining film: a poignant profile of a delightful character, a gripping detective narrative, and a detailed look at the middle class in contemporary India.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 6 – Though I’m always a fan of quirky characters, a poor trailer a lack of recognition from the Sundance awards and relatively new documentary director limit the overall excitement.

Sundance Film: The Black Power Mixtape1967–1975

Director: Göran Hugo Olsson 2011

Summary: From 1967 to 1975, fueled by curiosity and naïveté, Swedish journalists traversed the Atlantic Ocean to film the black power movement in America. The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 mobilizes a treasure trove of 16mm material, which languished in a basement for 30 years, into an irresistible mosaic of images, music, and narration to chronicle the movement’s evolution. Mesmerizing footage of Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver, as well as Black Panther activities, are peppered with B-roll footage of black America. These scenes take on a fresh, global angle through the outsider perspective of the Swedish lens.
Meanwhile, penetrating commentaries from artists and activists influenced by the struggle—like Harry Belafonte, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, and Professor Robin D. G. Kelley—riff on the range of radical ideas and strategies for liberation. Their insights and the vibrancy of the unearthed footage render the black power movement startlingly immediate and profoundly relevant.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 8 – Though I’m not always big on Swedish filmmakers (and Olsson hasn’t had too much success with audiences in the past), this documentary certainly sounds intriguing. Its scope is large, but winning an editing award at Sundance should hint at Olsson’s ability to keep his film focused.

Sundance Film: Family Portrait in Black and White

Director: Julia Ivanova 2011

Summary: In a Ukrainian village, big-hearted, formidable Olga Nenya single-handedly raises 23 foster children. Sixteen are the biracial offspring of visiting African students and Ukrainian women, who, living in a country of blue-eyed blondes that’s racked with endemic racism, often see no choice but to abandon their babies. And that’s where Olga comes in.
Family Portrait in Black and White charts the rhythms of Olga’s hectic household, rife with rambunctious kids and goats. As diverse dramas unfold among the brood—a high-schooler struggling to transcend his plight through education, a boy longing to reunite with his Ugandan father, and a child courted for Italian adoption—Olga reveals herself to be loving and protective, but also narrow-minded and controlling. A product of communist ideology, she favors collective duty over individual freedom. It’s this philosophy that gives the orphans the rich sense of belonging they ache for, as well as cause for rebellion and distrust, in this lyrical, sometimes gut-wrenching tale about the meaning of “Mama,” “family,” and “nation.”

Excitement Scale (1-10): 4 – I actually think the subjects of the film could be fascinating, but Julia Ivanova has uncovered intriguing stories before without yielding strong audience support.

Sundance Film: The Flaw

Director: David Sington

Summary: The Flaw makes one thing clear from the outset—there was nothing simple about the U.S. financial collapse of 2007. Within minutes, experts had identified plenty of culprits: market failure, a credit culture, a wage crisis, a debt crisis, and upward redistribution of income. That’s economic shorthand for fasten your seatbelt.
David Sington’s rigorously constructed analysis of the meltdown, told entirely by economists, brokers, bankers, and borrowers, plays like a financial whodunit. Moving past the usual suspects, it creates a vivid historical context through which to view twentieth-century American capitalism.
Bolstered by graphics and animation (ironically plucked from postwar cartoons extolling free markets) the film renders complex ideas digestible and argues that capitalism has changed in the last 30 years—and not for the better. Once sold on consumer power through borrowing and a higher standard of living, we realize we bought into a lie. The Flaw has burst the bubble.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 8 – Following on the heels of ‘Inside Job’, Sington’s film may get overlooked by most, but it appears to be every bit as good (and perhaps more focused) than last year’s Oscar nominated film. Sington has an established resume of success and I’m sure it will continue here.

Sundance Film: The Green Wave

Director: Ali Samadi Ahadi

Summary: In early 2009, a new generation of Iranians hoped for change through the upcoming presidential elections. Fueled by youthful exuberance and media technology, a groundswell—the so-called Green Wave—emerged to challenge the status quo, and caused a seismic shift in the political climate. A new brand of revolution seemed to be at hand. All polls predicted challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi would be the country’s next president; however, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor, prompting a backlash of unparalleled violence and oppression and a massive surge of human-rights violations that continues today.
In this powerful and urgent documentary, filmmaker Ali Samadi Ahadi integrates animation with live-action footage, testimonials, and posts from courageous Iranian bloggers, who dared to tell the world about the anatomy of the movement and its devastating consequences. The Green Wave is a remarkable portrait of modern political rebellion, an exposé of government-sanctioned violence, and a vision of peace and hope that continued resistance may galvanize a new Iran.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 5 – Ahadi’s documentary promises a lot but it’s hard to tell if it can deliver. I’m currently torn between loving this idea and being underwhelmed by previous films of similar scope. Let’s hope Ahadi takes a cue from Ari Folman’s brilliant Waltz with Bashir.

Sundance Film: Hell and Back Again

Director: Danfung Dennis

Summary: In 2009, U.S. Marines launched a major helicopter assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Immediately upon landing, the marines were surrounded by insurgents and attacked from all sides. Embedded in Echo Company, filmmaker Danfung Dennis captures the action with visceral immediacy. As he reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris, Dennis’s film evolves from being a war exposé to becoming a story of one man’s personal apocalypse. From the bloody battlefields of Afghanistan, to his home in North Carolina, Harris struggles to conquer the physical and mental fallout of war. A shell of the man he once was, will Harris ever return to the happy life he shared with his loving wife, Ashley?
Contrasting the horrors of the battlefield with the battle back home, Hell and Back Again is a transcendent film that comes full circle as it lays bare the true cost of war.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 7 – At this point, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been covered Ad nauseam. Dennis film sounds like a combination of Restrepo and War Tapes, but will it succeed as those did or continue to beat the drum most audience are tired of hearing? A Grand Jury Prize is a good sign.

Sundance Film: Knuckle

Director: Ian Palmer

Summary: Residing in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom, the Travellers are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group with their own customs and a deep sense of clan pride, despite being interrelated by marriage within their small population. When conflicts arise, arguments are often settled through ritualized, bare-knuckle fighting.
Director Ian Palmer followed members of the Traveller community for 12 years and became privy to a decades-long family feud of Hatfield-McCoy proportions. At the center of the conflict is James, the confident, yet reluctant, defender of the Quinn McDonaghs, who is frequently challenged to fight his cousins, the Joyces. An outsider in a secretive world, Palmer waited years before he began to learn the reasons for the animosity between the rival clans.
Disturbingly raw, yet compulsively engaging, KNUCKLE offers candid access to a rarely seen, brutal world where a cycle of bloody violence seems destined to continue unabated.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 6 – Uncovering a seemingly more serious version of Mickey O’Neil’s character in Snatch, Knuckle has all the makings of a great film: unique subject, harsh conflict and a director dedicated to immersing himself in the story (12 years time!). There are several unknowns still tempering my excitement though (mainly a lack of footage/trailers for non-Sundance audiences to enjoy).

Sundance Film: Position Among the Stars

Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich

Summary: This final installment of the trilogy follows the award-winning documentaries The Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon (winner of the World Cinema Documentary Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival) as filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich concludes his in-depth portrait of Indonesia seen through the eyes of one family living in the slums of Jakarta. Grandmother Rumidjah, a poor old Christian woman, weathers a changing society and the influence of globalization reflected in the lives of her juvenile granddaughter, Tari, and her sons, Bakti and Dwi, who are Muslims. Modern-day Indonesia is entrenched in a tug-of-war between Christianity and Islam, young and old, rich and poor, and beset by encroaching globalization that threatens the simple life that Rumidjah knows so well.
Forgoing interviews and voice-over narration, Position Among the Stars allows each exquisite detail to come together and construct a rich mosaic of Indonesia today. The result is poignant, breathtaking, and a singularly stellar vérité triumph.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 7 - Helmrich’s Shape of the Moon won numerous festival awards, so his conclusion to the trilogy has been highly anticipated. Winning a Special Jury prize out of the gate is a good sign and while the trailer is a bit over the top, the visuals and story should be enough to pique audience interest.

Sundance Film: Project Nim

Director: James Marsh
Website: N/A

Summary: From the Oscar-winning team behind Man on Wire comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who, in the 1970s, became the focus of a landmark experiment that aimed to prove an ape—if raised and nurtured like a human child—could learn to communicate using sign language. If successful, the consequences of the project would be profound, breaking down the barrier between man and his closest animal relative and fundamentally redefining what it is to be human. Combining the testimony of all the key participants, newly discovered archival film, and dramatic imagery, Project Nim tells the picturesque story of one chimpanzee's extraordinary journey through human society and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way.
Filmmaker James Marsh returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an unflinching, unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about Nim’s true nature—and indeed our own—is comic, revealing, and profoundly unsettling.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 10 – Marsh’s Man on Wire is a gem of the documentary genre and this director returns with another fascinating subject for audiences to enjoy. Audience can only hope this hits theaters soon.

Sundance Film: Senna

Director: Asif Kapadia

Summary: The story of Ayrton Senna, perhaps the greatest race car driver who ever lived, is an epic tale that literally twists at every turn. In the mid 1980s, Senna, a young, gifted driver, exploded onto the world of Formula One racing. As a Brazilian in a predominantly European sport, a purist in a world polluted with backroom deals, and a man of faith in an arena filled with cynicism, Senna had to fight hard—both on and off the track. Facing titanic struggles, he conquered Formula One and became a global icon who was idolized in his home country.
Told solely through the use of archival footage, Asif Kapadia’s documentary is a thrill ride worthy of its daring subject. Adrenaline will be pumping as cameras from inside Senna’s car put you smack-dab in the driver’s seat. Buckle your seat belt; Senna will take you on a trip you do not want to miss.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 10 – I know, I’m a sucker for sports films, but a great story is a great story no matter what genre. Kapadia brings his cinematic background to documentaries and it appears he has made an excellent film.

Sundance Film: Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure

Director: Matthew Bate

Summary: In 1987, Eddie and Mitch, two young punks from the Midwest, moved into a low-rent shithole of an apartment in the Lower Haight district of San Francisco. Through paper-thin walls, they were informally introduced to their middle-aged alcoholic neighbors, Raymond Huffman, a raging homophobe, and Peter Haskett, a flamboyant gay man. Night after night, the boys were treated to and terrorized by a seemingly endless stream of vodka-fueled altercations between the two unlikely roommates. Oftentimes nonsensical and always vitriolic, the diatribes of Peter and Ray were an audio goldmine just begging to be recorded and passed around on the underground tape market. For 18 months, Eddie and Mitch hung a microphone from their kitchen window to chronicle the bizarre and violent relationship between their borderline-insane neighbors.
Not satisfied with simply documenting these outlandish events, director Matthew Bate has concocted a darkly comedic exploration into the blurred boundaries among privacy, art, and exploitation.

Excitement Scale (1-10): 8 – As absurd and enjoyable as this film looks, I have one major fear: Bate normally handles documentary shorts and I’m not entirely sure this subject is worth his first feature length attempt.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sundance Film: We Were Here

Director: David Weissman

Summary: In the early 1970s, in the shadow of the Stonewall riots and the free-love movement, gay men and lesbians flocked to San Francisco to find acceptance. They formed a thriving, tight-knit community until the arrival of AIDS in the early 1980s drove them under siege.
Director David Weissman (The Cockettes screened at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival) chronicles this transformative era through the stories of five individuals who lived through the best and the worst of it. In the face of unheralded tragedy, these men and women relate how they were affected and the way their community united to help those suffering and prevent further deaths.
Elegiac but inspirational, We Were Here bears witness to the experiences of those who died—and, equally importantly, those who lived—in the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic. Its story is universal, showing the capacity for compassion and strength in all of us, even against unimaginable adversity.

Excitement scale (1-10): 7 – It’s been 9 years since David Weissman has made a documentary so you know his most recent film had to be compelling enough for him to jump back in. The idea itself seems to take a unique perspective in covering the history of the aids epidemic in our country and while I’m sure it’ll be insanely depressing, I think it’ll still be worth watching.

Sundance Film: Troubadours

Director: Morgan Neville
Website: N/A

Summary: Framed by the illustrious careers of James Taylor and Carole King, Troubadours delves into the quietly explosive singer-songwriter movement in Los Angeles during the early 1970s. From their home at impresario Doug Weston’s Troubadour club in West Hollywood, artists like Taylor, King, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Kris Kristofferson (the list goes on) wrote and performed songs with intimately personal lyrics, marking a transition from the politically focused songs of the ’60s. While some rock critics denigrated the music, the spirit among the musicians was one of collaboration and inspiration, and these singer songwriters flourished.
Morgan Neville creates a riveting chronicle of the time, weaving together archival footage, rare performances, and interviews from a veritable who’s who, including Elton John, Steve Martin, and Bonnie Raitt. Troubadours takes us deeply into the scene (and its inevitable demise) and celebrates the pure, timeless music and the undeniable legacy of these groundbreaking singer songwriters.

Excitement scale (1-10): 4 – Much like Sing Your Song, there is no specific reason to not be excited about this documentary, but alas, I just don’t see a reason to be excited. Though it covers great artists and features fascinating interviews, director Morgan Neville has been up this road before with little recognition for his work. Perhaps he tries something unique here though.

Sundance Film: Sing Your Song

Director: Susanne Rostock
Website: N/A

Summary: Wonderfully archived, and told with a remarkable sense of intimacy, visual style, and musical panache, Susanne Rostock’s inspiring biographical documentary, Sing Your Song, surveys the life and times of singer/actor/activist Harry Belafonte. From his rise to fame as a singer, inspired by Paul Robeson, and his experiences touring a segregated country, to his provocative crossover into Hollywood, Belafonte’s groundbreaking career personifies the American civil rights movement and impacted many other social-justice movements. Rostock reveals Belafonte as a tenacious hands-on activist, who worked intimately with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., mobilized celebrities for social justice, participated in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and took action to counter gang violence, prisons, and the incarceration of youth.
Because of his beliefs, Belafonte drew unwarranted invasions by the FBI into both his personal life and career, which led to years of struggle. But an indomitable sense of optimism motivates his path even today as he continues to ask, at 82, "What do we do now?" His example may very well inspire you to action.

Excitement scale (1-10): 4 – I’m going to admit, I’m not excited by this. I’m not entirely sure why either. Belafonte is certainly not a boring figure and he has a story worth exploring. Plus, Susanne Rostock has a background in editing so it’s safe to assume it is a well pieced film, but there is nothing outstanding or original from this film. Perhaps if it had a trailer or website it would garner more attention, but for now I’m placing it on the backburner.

Sundance Film: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Director: Jon Foy

Summary: Toynbee Idea in Movie 2001. Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.
Beginning in the early 1980s, hundreds of tiles carrying this cryptic message were found embedded in the asphalt of city streets as far apart as New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. Street art? A prank? A message from space?
Filmmaker Jon Foy recounts how young artist Justin Duerr became fascinated with the strange plaques and, with two other "Toynbee tile" enthusiasts, Steve Weinik and Colin Smith, spent years trying to discover what they meant and who made them. The unlikely investigators uncovered increasingly bizarre clues: a newspaper article, a David Mamet play, a Jupiter colonization organization, and a Toynbee message that "hijacked" local news broadcasts.
That the origins of a street tile can be so captivating is testament to both Duerr’s passion and Foy’s filmmaking. Artfully constructed, Resurrect Dead thrusts us into the black hole of this fantastic mystery but also reflects on Duerr himself, and the personal connection he develops with finding an answer.

Excitement scale (1-10): 9 - I know nothing about Jon Foy but this first timer just won a best directing award at Sundance, so he’s clearly starting off on the right foot. The story sounds bizarre, but it reminds me of Exit Through the Gift Shop (not sure why, perhaps the crazy graffiti art comparison) and that’s definitely a good thing.

Sundance Film: The Redemption of General Butt Naked

Director: Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion

Summary: Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked, murdered thousands during Liberia’s horrific 14-year civil war. Today this once-brutal warlord has renounced his sadistic past and reinvented himself as evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi. In a riveting cinema vérité journey that unfolds over the course of five years, filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow Blahyi’s unrelenting crusade to redeem his life. Facing those he once terrorized, preaching where he once murdered, Blahyi is on a quest to save his soul.
Can a man really change? Should we be judged by what we have done, or by who we are now? Whatever you make of him—liar or madman, charlatan or genuine repentant— General Butt Naked is certainly a mesmerizing character. Challenging our preconceived notions of evil, justice, and faith, this shocking story of one man’s remarkable journey will resonate with anyone who has ever questioned his or her capacity to forgive.

Excitement scale (1-10): 8 – With no trailer to watch, this film by two National Geographic veterans is knocked down a few pegs- only because I'm not sure what to expect. Cinema vérité style is never easy and today’s audiences are certainly less interested in it, but when it works, it works beautifully.

Sundance Film: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

Director: Andrew Rossi
Website: N/A

Summary: With the Internet surpassing print as our main news source, newspapers going bankrupt, and outlets focusing on content they claim audiences (or is it advertisers?) want, Page One chronicles the media industry’s transformation and assesses the high stakes for democracy if in-depth investigative reporting becomes extinct.
The film deftly makes a beeline for the eye of the storm or, depending on how you look at it, the inner sanctum of the media, gaining unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom for a year. At the media desk, a dialectical play-within-a-play transpires as writers like salty David Carr track print journalism’s metamorphosis even as their own paper struggles to stay vital and solvent. Meanwhile, rigorous journalism—including vibrant cross-cubicle debate and collaboration, tenacious jockeying for on-record quotes, and skillful page-one pitching—is alive and well. The resources, intellectual capital, stamina, and self-awareness mobilized when it counts attest there are no shortcuts when analyzing and reporting complex truths.

Excitement scale (1-10): 7 – If Page One reminds you of 2004’s Control Room (Inside the Al Jazeera network) don’t be surprised. Andrew Rossi was an associate producer in that film. Since then, he’s made two restaurant related documentaries before returning to cover the news world. I’m curious to see how this plays out and am hoping this turns out nearly as well as the film that ushered him to the documentary world.

Sundance Film: Miss Representation

Director: Jennifer Siebel Newsom

Summary: Like drawing back a curtain to let bright light stream in, Miss Representation uncovers a glaring reality we live with every day but fail to see. It’s clear the mainstream media objectifies women, but what most people don’t realize is the magnitude of that phenomenon and the way objectification gets internalized—a symbolic annihilation of self-worth—and impedes girls and women from realizing their full potential. While women have made strides in leadership over the past few decades, trivializing and damaging images continue to proliferate. In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that a woman’s value and power lie only in her youth, beauty, and sexuality is pervasive.
Stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with politicians, journalists, academics, and activists like Condoleeza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, and Gloria Steinem build momentum as the film accumulates startling facts and statistics that leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective.

Excitement scale (1-10): 8 – I’m a man, so maybe my excitement is just me trying to make up for all my objectifying, but I actually think this is going to be a great film. As an actress, Jennifer Newsom has a unique perspective on the subject matter and her wide array of interviews should present something everyone can understand. Just like the controversial book Blink, perhaps it’s time to look at how our images in the media affect the mentality of millions.

Sundance Film: The Last Mountain

Director: Bill Haney

Summary: It’s easy to forget that each time we turn on a light, we are contributing to the ecological damage caused by the coal that generates electricity in this country. The Last Mountain gives us plenty of reasons to remember. Contaminated air, soil, and water; coal dust, cancer clusters, and toxic sludge are all by-products of this widespread energy source.
Focusing on the devastating effects of mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, filmmaker Bill Haney illustrates the way residents and activists are standing up to the industry and major employer that is so deeply embedded in the region. With strong support from Bobby Kennedy Jr. and grassroots organizations, awareness is rising in the battle over Appalachian mountaintop mining. Forces are aligning to prevent coal removal on Coal River Mountain and preserve the region’s precious natural resources. Superb storytelling and exquisite photography combine to remind us that this environmental calamity impacts us all.

Excitement scale (1-10): 5 – No one can doubt Bell Haney’s activist mentality. His films generally attempt to confront the mainstream public with major issues caused by our everyday actions. His films are honest, providing messages usually necessary for the public to discuss, but they are a bit too ‘in your face’ for general audiences. Depending on his approach, this could be really good or just another run of the mill activist minded film.

Sundance Film: If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Director: Marshall Curry

Summary: Marshall Curry’s documentary tells a timely story of political action and environmental beliefs at loggerheads. His reconstruction of the recent history and unraveling of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is a fascinating exploration of a modern revolutionary movement and its efficacy. Fusing fervent concerns about ecological imbalance and capitalism run amok, ELF members and sleeper cells employed economic sabotage by destroying facilities involved in deforestation to remove the profit potential from companies wreaking environmental destruction.
Focusing on Oregon-based activist Daniel McGowan, Curry relates the tale of a mild-mannered, middle-class citizen driven to extremes and brought to trial on charges of terrorism for his participation in ELF-related arson plots. Detailing activists’ past disillusionment with public protest—and the police brutality and inertia that often followed—the film poses difficult questions about the possibility of effecting change from either within or without the system and examines the changed stakes for revolutionaries today in a world fixated on branding all dissenters as terrorists.

Excitement scale (1-10): 10 – If there is one thing I’ve learned in recent years, it’s never doubt Marshall Curry as a director. He makes great films and brings his characters and their issues to life in engaging ways. The subject appears fascinating on its own, and having Curry helm the project only makes it all the more appealing.

Sundance Film: How to Die in Oregon

Director: Peter D. Richardson
Website: N/A

Summary: From its opening scene, where a terminally ill cancer patient takes a lethal dose of Seconal and literally dies on camera, it becomes shockingly clear that How to Die in Oregon is a special film. In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. As a result, any individual whom two physicians diagnose as having less than six months to live can lawfully request a fatal dose of barbiturate to end his or her life. Since 1994, more than 500 Oregonians have taken their mortality into their own hands.
In How to Die in Oregon, filmmaker Peter Richardson (Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon screened at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival) gently enters the lives of the terminally ill as they consider whether—and when—to end their lives by lethal overdose. Richardson examines both sides of this complex, emotionally charged issue. What emerges is a life-affirming, staggeringly powerful portrait of what it means to die with dignity.

Excitement scale (1-10): 9 – How to Die in Oregon could very well be the next iteration of The Bridge, which also examined suicide in a meaningful way. Richardson’s film takes this investigation further by including assisted suicide into the equation. Winning the Grand Jury Prize is a big boost for this film’s credibility, but one has to wonder how the general public will feel about such a taboo subject.

Sundance Film: Hot Coffee

Director: Susan Saladoff

Summary: For many Americans, the famous McDonald’s coffee case has become emblematic of the frivolous lawsuits that clog our courts and stall our justice system. Or is that exactly what McDonald’s wants us to think? Enter intrepid filmmaker Susan Saladoff. Using the now-infamous legal battle over a spilled cup of coffee as a springboard into investigating our civil-justice system, Saladoff exposes the way corporations have spent millions distorting this case to promote tort reform. Big business has brewed an insidious concoction of manipulation and lies to protect its interests, and media lapdogs have stirred the cup.
Following four people whose lives have been devastated by their inability to access the courts, this searing documentary unearths the sad truth that most of our beliefs about the civil-justice system have been shaped or bought by corporate America. Informative, entertaining, and a stirring call to action, Hot Coffee will make your blood boil.

Excitement scale (1-10): 6 – I’m actually curious to see Susan Saladoff’s documentary. It has a premise most audiences won’t know too much about (or have misrepresentations of) and it comes at it from a unique and honest perspective. The question remains how well she presents her argument. Admittedly, I loathe the ‘media lapdogs’ mentality because it portrays the filmmaker as this lone knight in shining armor (and we know they aren’t the only ones suddenly presenting the issue), but I’ll let it slide for now.

Sundance Film: Crime After Crime

Director: Yoav Potash

Summary: In 1983, Deborah Peagler, a woman brutally abused by her boyfriend, was sentenced to 25 years-to-life for her connection to his murder. Twenty years later, as she languished in prison, a California law allowing incarcerated domestic-violence survivors to reopen their cases was passed. Enter a pair of rookie land-use attorneys convinced that with the incontrovertible evidence that existed, they could free Deborah in a matter of months. What they didn’t know was the depth of corruption and politically driven resistance they’d encounter, sending them down a nightmarish, bureaucratic rabbit hole of injustice.
The outrageous twists and turns in this consummately crafted saga are enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, the spirit, fortitude, and love all three characters marshal in the face of this wrenching marathon is nothing short of miraculous. We fall in love with the remarkable triumvirate as they battle a warped criminal-justice system and test whether it’s beyond repair.

Excitement scale (1-10): 4 – Oprah already snatched up the rights to this film so take that as you will. This could be potentially over-dramatic/hyper-emotional documentary, but it’s also a fascinating story. I really want to be excited about this documentary, but so far I’m just not feeling it.

Sundance Film: Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology

Director: Tiffany Shlain

Summary: With wonderful heart and an impressive sense of scale, Tiffany Shlain’s vibrant and insightful documentary, Connected, explores the visible and invisible connections linking major issues of our time—the environment, consumption, population growth, technology, human rights, the global economy—while searching for her place in the world during a transformative time in her life. Employing a splendidly imaginative combination of animation and archival footage, plus several surprises, Shlain constructs a chronological tour of Western modernization through the work of her late father, Leonard Shlain, a brain surgeon and best-selling author of Art and Physics and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.
With humor and irony, the Shlain family life merges with philosophy to create both a personal portrait and a proposal for ways we can move forward as a civilization. Connected illuminates the beauty and tragedy of human endeavor while boldly championing the importance of personal connectedness for understanding and coping with today’s global conditions.

Excitement scale (1-10): 3 – This is one of those ideas that ends up either really cool or extremely pretentious. There is no middle ground and unfortunately, these documentaries tend to fall in the latter category. Shlain is relatively new to the documentary world and her desire to experiment and try something unique could be refreshing, but so far I’m not too hopeful.

Sundance Film: Buck

Director: Cindy Meehl

Summary: A living legend in the horse world, Buck Brannaman was the inspiration for The Horse Whisperer. For this true cowboy, horses are a mirror of the human soul. Reared by an abusive father, Buck eschews violence. By teaching people to communicate with horses through instinct, not punishment, he frees the spirit of the horse and its human comrade. Crisscrossing the world with Zenlike wisdom, Buck promulgates grace in the bond between man and horse. The animal-human relationship becomes a perfect metaphor for meeting the challenges of daily life, whether they consist of raising kids, running a business, or finding your flow with a dance partner.
What is extraordinary about Buck Brannaman, the man, leaps off the screen in this strikingly cinematic film by first-time director Cindy Meehl. Part guru, part psychologist, the adult Buck, who was once a beaten kid, has now beaten the odds. Buck Brannaman could transform your troubled horse. Buck the movie may transform your soul.

Excitement scale (1-10): 10 – Admittedly, the first time I heard about this documentary, I wasn’t impressed. Then again, audiences have been swooning over this film and after reading a few interviews with Buck Brannaman, I have to admit, I’m hooked.

Sundance Film: BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey

Director: Constance Marks

Summary: Each and every day, millions of kids tune in to Sesame Street to see one of the world’s most adored and recognizable children’s characters, a furry red monster named Elmo. Yet, with all of Elmo’s fame, the man behind the Muppet is able to walk down the street without being recognized.
Meet Kevin Clash. As an average teenager growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s, Kevin had very different aspirations from his classmates—he wanted to be a puppeteer. More specifically, he wanted to be part of Jim Henson’s team of Muppeteers, the creative force responsible for delivering the magic of Sesame Street on a daily basis. With a supportive family behind him every step of the way, Kevin made those dreams come true. Combining amazing archival footage with material from the present day, filmmaker Constance Marks explores his story in vivid detail, chronicling the meteoric rise of Jim Henson’s Muppets in the process.

Excitement scale (1-10): 9 – Documentaries covering subjects our inner child craves tend to do well (especially in terms of audience entertainment) and if you add Kevin Clash’s personality with the overall praise this film has been receiving and it’s hard not to be excited.

Sundance Film: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Director: Michael Rapaport

Summary: Having forged a 20-year run as one of the most innovative and influential hip-hop bands of all time, A Tribe Called Quest has kept a generation hungry for more of its groundbreaking music since the group’s much-publicized breakup in 1998. The band shaped a unique sound by wedding jazz-infused musicscapes to Afrocentric rhymes espousing unity and community. Its music became the anthem for cool and broke down barriers for people who had never before connected with hip-hop. In spite of unparalleled artistic success, however, the group encountered pitfalls that eventually caused its tumultuous breakup.
Beats, Rhymes & Life, the feature directorial debut of acclaimed actor Michael Rapaport, documents the inner workings and behind-the-scenes drama that follow the band even today and explores what's next for a group many claim are the pioneers of alternative rap. Rapaport’s passion for his subjects allows them to open up to the camera, resulting in a remarkably honest, emotional portrait that does justice to this seminal band.

Excitement scale (1-10): 5 - Michael Rapaport is an enjoyable actor, but can he translate as a documentary director? The relative lack of buzz (no trailer?) does not bode well for this film. The only thing currently saving it is the subject matter (A Tribe Called Quest is awesome). This could definitely gain steam, but for now, I'm remaining neutral.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Sundance Film Festival Award Winners

Alas, Sundance has come and gone (we will have a summary of the films that premiered in the next few days), but while we mourn the passing of another great festival, we praise the winners who came out on top. The list is below (note, we're only listing documentary awards... we don't cover fictional nonsense here), head on over to the Sundance website to learn more about each film.

  • Grand Jury Prize (U.S.)- How to Die in Oregan by Peter Richardson
  • World Cinema Grand Jury Prize - Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis
  • Audience Award (U.S.) - Buck by Cindy Meehl
  • World Cinema Audience Award - Senna by Asif Kapadia
  • Directing (U.S.) - Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles by John Foy
  • World Cinema Directing - Project Nim by James Marsh
  • Editing (U.S.) - If a Tree Falls: A story of the Earth Liberation Front by Marshall Curry
  • World Cinema Editing - The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 by Goran Hugo Olsson
  • Cinematography (U.S.) - The Redemption of General Butt Naked by Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion
  • World Cinema Cinematography - Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis
  • Special Jury Prize (U.S.) - Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey by Constance Marks
  • World Cinema Special Jury Prize - Position Among the Stars by Leonard Retel Helmrich