PARK CITY, UTAH—After sleeping in and choosing not to go to the new Richard Gere Wall Street thriller, Arbitrage (which was picked up by Lionsgate & Roadside Attractions), it was nice to sleep until 9 a.m. and take my time figuring out my screening schedule at the Sundance Film Festival, rather than run off to something that started before noon. Heading down to the press office after a blistering snowstorm the night before was a bit of a headache, but I was bound and determined to get tickets for a few public screenings before I left town.
By this time I had made friends with a few people waiting in line for press and industry screenings, staff members from the Newport Beach Film Festival, who I saw at quite a few screenings as we traded opinions on what we saw or what we were excited about seeing; there were a few debates, but we mostly agreed on the same films. Being at Sundance isn’t always about what you see but about who you meet. You find yourself waiting patiently in line with other film industry folks—distributors, journalists, producers and programmers—and I listen to everyone expressing their hatred or love for something that I might have missed or need to catch.
One of those films that was not on my radar as I felt I knew what it was going to be about, but ended up being a really entertaining and funny documentary directed by hip-hop artist Ice-T. He co-directed the hip-hop doc Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, which features many innovators of the genre sharing their takes on what hip-hop means for them. Starting out in the East Coast before moving much later to West Coast artists, Ice-T and co-director Andy Baybutt focus mostly on speaking with fellow hip-hop artists—or, a better way of putting it, Ice-T’s homies—and getting the scoop on their processes, giving us a taste of each of their rapping styles. Interviews, stock footages, old videos, some terrible slow-motion/voiceover by Ice-T himself constitute The Art of Rap, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
The film features the likes of Big Daddy Kane, who gave the best quote about hip-hop: “Dr. Seuss could be considered a rapper with all his rhymes. The first thing I would tell a rapper is: work on your originality.” Grandmaster Caz added, “Hip-hop didn’t invent anything…hip-hop reinvented everything.” Even Doug E. Fresh, a pioneer and arguably the inventor of beat-boxing, appears and drops some ridiculous sounds, unlike anything of ever heard before. Hearing Eminem say, “The first time I grabbed the mic to perform, I got booed, [and it] only made me want to do better the next time,” brings to mind, what if he’d never grabbed another microphone? Would a style like Eminem’s vocals and words ever exist? Not the most original documentary ever, but an entertaining one nonetheless, and a must for any rap, hip-hop, funk, R & B fans surely won’t want to miss it, but it was disappointing not to see some of my favorite hip-hop artists—the Beastie Boys and the Roots—featured.
Sometimes you’ll check out a film just because of a recommendation, and when I heard that Richard Bates Jr.’s horror comedy Excision was in the Park City at Midnight section, and that it had moments similar to Lucky McKee’s 2002 wonderfully demented May, I was sold. With many deranged dream sequences, Pauline (ditching her 90210 looks and killing the part, AnnaLynne McCord) is a strange teenager to say the least. She enjoys dissecting road kill and says the “f” word around her parents (played enjoyably and spot-on by Roger Bart and Traci Lords), and besides wanting to be a top surgeon, she’s trying to help her younger sister who has cystic fibrosis. Most importantly, she wants to lose her virginity. When she succeeds in having sex with one of the most popular boys at school, in a disgusting manner, she becomes even more bound and determined to become a surgeon—and she’s got a diabolical plan. Bates creates plenty of cheeky laughs in his film, but as far as horror standards go, it would have been nice to see Excision go farther into developing a menacing story beyond the elaborate dream sequences that have McCord enjoying her evil and sexual dreams and waking up in bed with sinister grins. The ending felt rushed and is somewhat of a letdown once we see what Pauline has in store, but what he lacks in horror, Bates makes up for with hilarious cameos (John Waters, Ray Wise, Marlee Matlin, and Matthew Gray Gubler) and witty dialogue.
From one fictional horror story to a real life horror story, Eugene Jarecki’s exhilarating documentary The House I Live In packs a wallop in its 40-year investigation of one of America’s biggest struggles: “the War on Drugs.” In less than two hours, Jarecki’s film explores everyone from drug dealers to narcotic officers to inmates serving time in jail to a grieving mother to a candid David Simon—creator of HBO’s The Wire—discussing what is wrong with our criminal justice system. A staggering statistic that sets up the entire documentary is that “over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion dollars and accounted for over 45 million arrests.” The House I Live In moves fast and demands to be seen multiple times; at times, I would have liked a pause and rewind button to understand every story we’re following, but one that stands out is Jarecki’s own story. He was raised by Nannie Jeter, a black nanny in Connecticut in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement; Jeter became a second mother to Eugene and her children and grandchildren were raised with Jarecki. Jeter, however, tells Jarecki that her family has been devastated by the “war on drugs” over the years. From each telling story Jarecki hears, it becomes apparent that anyone can become a victim—and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. (The House I Live In won the Grand Jury prize for Best Documentary.)
Sitting in the Egyptian Theater for the midnight screening of Will Lovelace’s and Dylan Southern’s LCD Soundsystem concert documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, I found it to be as good as as advertised. Getting a glimpse into LCD Soundsystem’s last show at Madison Square Garden, their biggest show ever before breaking up, Lovelace and Southern employed 11 cameras, showing the high energy the band and leader James Murphy displayed in the four-hour concert. The documentary is juxtaposed with writer Chuck Klosterman interviewing Murphy one week before the concert about what he is going to do next, now that Murphy ended the band at the peak of their career. It also shows us a relaxed Murphy days after the show, mostly walking around New York with his dog. Murphy seems content with ending the band as he is looking forward to his uncertain future, but I think everyone knows he’ll do just fine. There are plenty of hits that LCD played at their final show, but it was thrilling to go behind the scenes at the concert with the other members of the band preparing to say goodbye and to see extra footage of a rambunctious audience diving, dancing, jumping around, laughing, smiling and crying during the set. I did feel as I was part of the concert as well. The music was bursting from the sound system in the theater and a few people were even dancing in the aisles. This could up being The Last Waltz for LCD Soundsystem, although they will go on selling more albums and leave behind some fantastic dance/rock anthems forever.
Again choosing to sleep in after getting in after 3 a.m. the night before, I took another chance on Ben Lewin’s dramedy The Surrogate, solely because it stars Minnesota native John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene) in a leading role; I was completely surprised and won over. Hawkes plays California journalist/poet Mark O’Brien, who is paralyzed from the neck down due to polio at a young age. He lives in an iron lung and works day to day with the help of assistants. At the age of 38, he decides he wants to lose his virginity, and reaches out to his priest (a perfectly wonderful William H. Macy) for his blessing. Mark finds himself matched up with a sex therapist/surrogate played by Helen Hunt. Based on the writings of O’Brien in the early 90s, The Surrogate at times plays like a sex farce comedy and succeeds at hitting all the right spots, and even plays completely straight knowing that O’Brien is willing to go all the way with not only losing his virginity but searching for his soul mate.
All three actors are terrific, especially Hunt and Hawkes, both giving career-best performances. Both should receive some Oscar consideration, but it is Hawkes who steals the show with his captivating performance mostly lying down and typing his words using a pencil and ball in his mouth. What Hawkes does with his role despite limited mobility is unlike any I’ve seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Lewin’s script is touching and profound; Lewin, also a polio survivor, brings a remarkable story to the screen and never settles for easy answers in searching for what makes humans tick and never giving up hope, no matter what your dreams are. (Fox Searchlight bought The Surrogate, which will be released in the fall. The film won the Dramatic Audience Award and a special jury prize for Ensemble Acting.)
I couldn’t exit the theater faster after the vaporous Nobody Walks, which was hyped early on at the festival due to rising co-writer Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture) and director Ry Russo-Young (You Won’t Miss Me). Not only did the material ring false, but they seemed to have left all the good parts on the editing floor. Visiting L.A. in order to finish her art film, Martine (Olivia Thirlby) stays in a pool house owned by sound engineer Peter (John Krasinski) and therapist Julie (Rosemarie Dewitt); Peter has agreed to help Martine with her film. What starts out as a working relationship slowly turns into an affair, not to mention Martine also has a brief fling with Peter’s assistant David, and Peter’s teenage step-daughter Kolt has eyes for David too and all these wandering relationships have consequences on not only Martine’s film but on Peter’s wife and family.
Friends, co-workers, patients and ex-boyfriends all become intertwined into Peter and Martine’s story; none of these characters are likeable or interesting, and everyone seems to look at each other as objects rather than humans. Despite a nice score by Brooklyn duo Fall On Your Sword and some pretty scenery by Chris Blauvelt. Executive produced by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf along with his wife Audrey, Nobody Walks never really caught my attention with a meandering plot at best which wasn’t particularly easy to sit through due to its sluggish pacing, even at 85 minutes. It felt like an eternity to watch all these characters look pretty but act ugly. (Magnolia Pictures bought Nobody Walks and will release the film this summer.)
After her charming romantic dramedy in 2010, The Freebie, Katie Aselton returned to Sundance with a completely polar opposite film this go-round in the horror/thriller Black Rock. Aselton stars and directed, while her husband, writer/director/actor Mark Duplass, wrote the taut script. Three childhood friends (Aselton, Lake Bell, and Kate Bosworth) take a weekend trip to a private island to catch up with some booze and their lives, when they are surprised to find three former servicemen on the island to hunt. When a night of booze and conversation leads to the death of one of the men, the women must flee from the men with guns out for revenge. Black Rock will probably be remembered as the female version of Deliverance, without hearing the men imitating squealing pigs, but the action never lets up and there is plenty to admire in the film. Shooting off the coast of Maine, cinematographer Hillary Spera captures high tension in several darkly shot scenes in the woods and some beautiful vistas of the Atlantic Ocean. Duplass’ script features enough blood, guts, and surprises to satisfy horror genre fans, and Aselton’s direction is more assured than in her previous feature. (Newly formed distribution shingle LD Distribution bought Black Rock and will release the film in late 2012.)
One of the more original narrative films to screen at Sundance was the science fiction comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. It starts out with an intriguing premise and constantly builds momentum with its unique concept to slowly tug at your heartstrings. When three newspaper reporters (Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and newcomer Karan Soni) investigate a wacky personal ad of someone looking for a partner to time travel with (a partner who’s ready to bring their own weapon), the three think the ad is a hoax until they discover Kenneth (a charming and committed Mark Duplass), the person responsible for placing the ad. He seems a bit odd, and the fact that he has done this before brings up more questions about his character. Advised by her superior Johnson, Plaza’s Darius tries to get closer to him to win Kenneth over so she can accompany him on his daring time travel mission and get a first hand scoop on the story. Darius starts to fall for Kenneth, and discovers that he’s trying to go back in time to be with his ex-girlfriend.
Working from a lively script by Derek Connolly (one to watch), director Colin Trevorrow creates a magical story that never slows down and is always a few steps ahead of the audience. The chemistry between Duplass and Plaza is magnificent, and Johnson shines as a cruddy reporter who starts to reopen the past with one of his ex-girlfriends with some personal and deeper meaning. A definite crowd-pleaser, the movie left the audience clapping loudly and yelling at the screen toward the end. Safety Not Guaranteed not only might become a cult hit, but one that will be remembered for the sheer excitement of romance and some enjoyably off-beat humor. (Film District bought Safety Not Guaranteed, but no release date has been set. Screenwriter Derek Connolly won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award.)
The last of the films I saw at Sundance was a doozy. Before the festival started, there was already buzz about The Queen of Versailles: a libel lawsuit was filed by one of its subjects, Florida billionaire David Siegel. As it stands, The Queen of Versailles is an entertaining if somewhat disgusting look at a wealthy family trying to scrap by with their millions. Siegel married former beauty queen Jackie, and the two are in the process of building their dream home, a 90,000-square-foot mansion (it includes a baseball field, 30-some bathrooms, and separate staircases for the couple and their children) inspired by Versailles in Orlando. Following the Siegel family, along with their eight kids is nothing short of amazing, even if it does seem to be reminiscent of Bravo’s Housewives series: we get an in-depth look at their lifestyle and what passes as acceptable behavior to a class in America that very few know.
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, David’s Westgate Resorts empire came to a crashing halt and so did the construction of the couple’s dream house, which is considered the biggest house in America. Director Lauren Greenfield (Thin) started filming the Siegels in 2007 and spent three years filming her documentary; it captures a family on the brink of collapse even they are still trying to maintain a luxurious life. Digging and finding gold with her subjects, Greenfield explores not only the Siegels but others involved with the family, including Siegel’s son, who says he and his father don’t really spend time together unless they talk business. She even interviews the nannies of the Siegels, who have been working for the family for years, even though it has meant abandoning their own. What the family’s future holds is yet to be determined. (Magnolia Pictures bought The Queen of Versailles and will release the film this summer.)
Lastly there were two short films I saw that I was impressed with: the first being Australian Nash Edgerton’s follow up to his worldwide phenomenon short Spider. The new movie is somewhat of a sequel entitled Bear. It basically follows the same blueprint as Spider, but still captivates with a surprise on a bike path gone terribly wrong with a hilarious outcome and perhaps the worst birthday ever. The other, Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke by Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva, showcases Luther Campbell, the front man for the notorious rap group 2 Live Crew. Basing their film on Chris Marker’s influential short film La Jetee was a stroke of genius, giving Campbell free reign to tell a story about his life and his demons.
Still upcoming are the documentaries and features I saw at the Slamdance Film Festival. The five best films at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival are as follows:
Compliance (Craig Zobel, USA)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (director Benh Zeitlin, USA)
Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, USA; I saw this film at Toronto)
The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki, USA)
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, USA)
Image: The Surrogate, courtesy Sundance Film Festival and Fox Searchlight