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Category: January 2011

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Sundance 2011: 'Son of No One' director: Bad press 'makes me nuts'

January 28, 2011 |  5:14 pm

Sometimes a Sundance movie causes a ruckus before it even screens for the public. Dito Montiel's "Son of No One," a star-heavy film about a man carrying a burdensome secret that has its world premiere Friday night, was the subject of an online war of words this week after the Hollywood Reporter said in a story that there were walkouts at an early press screening and an agent representing the film lashed out on Twitter in response.

At a news conference Friday, the director acknowledged that he had been paying attention. "I'd like to say I don't read press, but I read everything," said Montiel, who was previously at the film festival with "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." "That stuff makes me nuts."

The filmmaker went on to say that he tried to chalk up divergent media reactions to differing tastes, then joked,  "But I'm taking names down anyway."

When asked further if he thought "Son of No One" -- in which Katie Holmes, Channing Tatum and Al Pacino star -- was simply a polarizing movie, Montiel flashed a little bit of his punk past and waved the notion away.  "Whatever," he said. "Joe Blow blog. The movie's great."

The movie rolls out at the Eccles Theater this evening; check back later for our report on whether there are any walkouts at this showing.

--Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah


Photo: "Son of No One." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2011: Flamethrowers and heartbreak in 'Bellflower'

January 28, 2011 |  4:43 pm


Certainly among the more eccentric talents at this year's Sundance Film Festival is Evan Glodell with his flamboyant film "Bellflower" in the NEXT section -- after all, it's not every director who can build a working flamethrower and customize a fire-belching muscle car featured in his own film. Glodell, who also served as writer, co-editor, co-producer and costar of the film, likewise designed the custom optical systems used on the camera.

The film equates the pain of heartbreak with the end of the world, turning a breakup into an emotional apocalypse. A group of young people, a few guys and a few girls, spend their time drinking heavily and hanging out, tumbling into bed with one another until everyone gets hurt emotionally and physically. Then the pain begins and things get weird.

Much of the buzz on "Bellflower" during the festival has been based around its " 'Fight Club' in the desert" aesthetic, the flamethrower, the homemade camera equipment, the wild stunt driving and the film's apocalyptic filigrees. What has often not been mentioned is how emotional and sincere the film is as well.

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Sundance 2011: 'Life in a Day' -- a snapshot of humanity via YouTube

January 28, 2011 | 12:40 pm

Getprev We'll admit it: When we heard there was a movie screening at the Sundance Film Festival that was made up entirely of YouTube clips, we didn't exactly rush out to get a ticket.

Sure, YouTube is great for the occasional viral video, or late-night TV clip. But an entire movie filled with "David after dentist" or "Charlie bit my finger"? How would that work, exactly?

A crowd of curious filmgoers filled the Eccles Theater on Thursday night seeking the answer to that question, when "Life in a Day" premiered -- and was streamed live on the Internet. (No rebroadcasts of the film are available in the U.S. However, National Geographic will release the film in theaters this summer.)

On July 24, amateur filmmakers and social media fiends around the world were asked to record a day in their lives and upload the footage to YouTube. Director Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for the 1999 documentary "One Day in September" and whose next project is the Roman drama "The Eagle" starring Channing Tatum, somehow put together a 90-minute film from 80,000 video submissions that totaled more than 5,000 hours of footage.

The result is much more than just socially awkward kids talking confessional-style to their webcams (though one of the filmmakers did admit after the screening that "teenagers whining in their bedrooms" made up the majority of the submissions). On the contrary, many of the subjects employed their friends or family members to tape them for a day instead of filming themselves. The movie begins at sunrise on July 24, and Macdonald uses the plethora of nature scenery that was sent in -- shots of the sun rising or a full moon -- to give the movie a time element. It's astounding how many of the same mundane acts people decided to share: waking up, brushing their teeth, making a pot of coffee, even sitting on the toliet. They talk about the same things, too: love, their fears, loneliness.

But the audience seemed to respond most to the movie when it broke out of the collage-like scenes and instead spent a few minutes focusing on individual stories. There was a young Peruvian boy who worked as a shoeshiner on the street; a man worrying about how to confess his feelings to his girlfriend; a married couple with a young boy trying to understand his mother's battle with cancer. These folks were just some of the two dozen participants who were flown out from locales as varied as Egypt, Indonesia and Dubai for the film's premiere --and they all took the stage afterward for the question-and-answer session, seeming to relish their momentary fame.

Bob Liginski Jr., who filmed the vignette about his wife's cancer, said at a Main Street party after the screening that the Park City experience had been such a thrill that he was dreading returning to his job in Chicago as a corporate videographer.

Liginski had been casually recording his family around the home when he heard about the "Life in a Day" project, and his wife agreed to be filmed for it -- even though only a day prior, she had returned home from the hospital after a double masectomy and reconstructive surgery.

"Everyone's been asking me, 'Aren't you freaking out? It's so personal,' " he said, referring to the graphic footage of his wife and her scars. "We just didn't want to sugarcoat anything."

Another raw moment in the movie occurs when 27-year-old David Jacqubs comes out to his 90-year-old grandmother, telling her he has a boyfriend. Jacqubs, who has a partnership with YouTube and goes by the alias 'Davey Wavey' online, said he hoped the honesty of the project would make viewers take the videos on the site more seriously.

"It's not just funny videos of cats getting stuck in fans," he laughed. "The value of this movie is that it's showing off the good stuff on YouTube, and showing that it can compete with 'real' movies."

--Amy Kaufman in Park City, Utah


Photo: Cathy Liginski and Bob Linginski Jr. with son Bobby at the premiere of "Life in a Day." Credit: Danny Moloshok / Associated Press

Sundance 2011: 'Project Nim' explores human nature (and chimps too)

January 28, 2011 | 12:00 pm


Having played as one of the opening night selections at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Project Nim" is a rare movie that has maintained momentum even as other titles have captured buzz and faded away. Seemingly among the most universally liked films at the festival, one would be hard pressed to find someone to say a bad word about it -- and at Sundance there usually is always a differing opinion.

The film entered the fest with rights already having been secured by HBO, but during the week it was announced the film would be theatrically distributed in partnership with Roadside Attractions, who released last year's Oscar-winning doc, "The Cove." "Nim" played to an enthusiastic overflow audience on Friday afternoon and as the festival heads into its final days the film seems in a strong place to win the World Documentary competition and/or an audience award.

Made by the team of directors James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn, who won an Oscar for "Man on Wire," "Project Nim" tells the story of a chimpanzee named Nim, who became a research subject for Columbia University professor Herb Terrace in the early 1970s. Placing Nim at first with his former student and onetime lover to raise as part of her own family, Terrace sets off a wild series of events. In a sense Nim becomes the product of a broken home, shuttled from caregiver to caregiver until he is all but abandoned.

A study of human nature as much as a chimpanzee's capacity for language and learning, "Project Nim" says a lot about the relationship between humans and the natural world. People who would consider themselves civilized intellectuals still have a capacity for thoughtlessness and needless cruelty, but also compassion, redemption and forgiveness. As one of the former researchers says of her decision to quit the project, "It was the humans I had to leave, not the chimp."

-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah

Scene from "Project Nim" courtesy Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2011: Science-fiction heads to the future

January 27, 2011 | 11:17 pm

Two years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, "Moon," a modestly budgeted science-fiction film from Duncan Jones, captured the attention of festival-goers before going on to become one of the most beloved sci-fi films in recent memory.

This year, "Moon" may be making way for "Another Earth."

Jones' movie starred Sam Rockwell as a solitary astronaut trying to get home after laboring for many years on the moon. Despite the intergalactic setting, the film was as much about topics such as loneliness and memory as it was about anything extraterrestrial.

"Another Earth" is a similar piece of Trojan-horse filmmaking. Ostensibly a story about the discovery of a new planet, it's a lot more concerned with the fundamentally human themes of guilt and destiny.

In Mike Cahill's feature debut, Rhoda, a precocious high school senior bound for M.I.T. (Brit Marling) accidentally kills a mother and her young child in a car accident when she takes her eyes off the road to spot a newly discovered planet.

When Rhoda gets out of jail four years later, her life all but ruined, the planet is much more of a presence -- it is, we learn, a shadow marble to our own called "Earth 2" that hovers in the dusk sky and may feature doppelgangers of every human being on our planet. To describe more of the plot is to give too much away, but suffice it to say that an unusual relationship between the young woman and the widower of the dead wife (William Mapother), as well as a potential trip to the shadow planet, are both in the cards (or the stars).

"Earth" has been garnering raves from critics and has attracted a number of distributors, including Fox Searchlight, which bought rights to the film earlier in the week. At a public screening Thursday night, the audience was enthralled, engaging Cahill on everything from technical aspects of the shoot to the movie's gentle mysteries.

When we caught up with Marling  (who also wrote and co-produced; more on the young hyphenate, who has two movies at the festival, shortly), she said it wasn't an accident that young filmmakers were using this genre to explore more human questions.

"Science fiction lets you be a pop philosopher, and the times we live in, we feel the need for pop philosophy," she said. "Things seem so strange, especially in the wake of the economic collapse. How do we make sense of everything?"

Or maybe, she wondered, it was simpler than that. "You have to find new faces that haven't been explored in storytelling before," she said. "And I think sci-fi is a good way to come at the same human dramas we keep recycling over and over again."

-- Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah

Photo: Brit Marling and William Mapother in "Another Earth." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2011: 'Rebirth' redefines 9/11

January 27, 2011 |  5:10 pm

Every once in a while at a film festival, a movie lands with so much force that you can sense the impact it will have outside the festival bubble before the lights even come up.

So it went Thursday afternoon when "Rebirth," an examination of the emotional toll taken by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, played to a Sundance audience that felt like it had been punched in the gut, driven to tears and given a (small) hug before being sent out staggering into the bright mountain sunshine.

There have been numerous first-person and talking-head accounts of the attacks on the World Trade Center nearly 10 years ago. But the movie from filmmaker Jim Whitaker, a former executive at Hollywood production company Imagine Entertainment, distinguished itself in several ways at the screening.

Whitaker finds five disparate and very emotionally available subjects: Tim, a firefighter who was on the scene and lost his co-worker and his best friend; Ling, a fiftysomething Chinese woman who was trapped high in one tower and suffered serious burns; Tanya, a 34-year-old at the time of the attacks who lost her firefighter fiance; Nick, a teenager who lost his mother; and Brian, a ground zero construction worker who lost his brother.

But instead of simply sitting each of them down once or twice to reflect on the tragedy, Whitaker shows a marathon runner's patience. He gets together with each of the victims numerous times over a very long period -- he starts right after the attacks, and then conducts annual interviews with them all the way through 2009. (Think of a more tragic version of Michael Apted's "7-Up" series.)

In these yearly meetings, shown chronologically, the individuals' physical and emotional demeanors change, as do our perceptions of them. We watch the victims dig deeper into their feelings and memories as they try to reach acceptance. It's like time-lapse photography with human beings, a conceit that matches neatly with the actual time-lapse photography Whitaker and cinematographer Tom Lappin take of the Ground Zero site as it's being torn down and built up. There's no politics, though; those looking for commentary on the near-ground-zero-mosque controversy, for instance, will have to look elsewhere.

The group of five's narration of their innermost thoughts is harrowing enough; it becomes even more wrenching when spliced in with scenes from their lives with their families and with children left behind. (The movie, which is part of a nonprofit project called Project Rebirth, will be included in a permanent exhibit at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, where it will be shown with material on other victims that Whitaker wasn't able to include in the film. No television of theatrical buyer has picked up rights yet, but it won't be long.)

Most of the five actually didn't know each other before a week ago. Since Sundance, however, they've been spending time together and sharing their experiences. Tim Brown, the firefighter, said he had been recognized several times around  Park City, Utah, which after years of private grief was a surreal experience.

He said the movie was as cathartic for him as it was for the audience. "We all came around in a circle," Brown said of the process of nine years of interviews.

Hollywood has taken on 9/11 in scripted form many times, including  Paul Greengrass' "United 93" and Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center"; it will try again shortly with Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Whitaker's movie showed everyone in Park City -- and, soon enough, likely a much broader audience -- the full extent of what a Sept. 11 documentary can do.

--Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah


Photo: A scene from "Rebirth." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Betsy Sharkey's film pick of the week: 'Chinatown'

January 27, 2011 |  6:00 am


If you live in L.A. and haven't seen the neo-noir perfection of "Chinatown" on the big screen recently, you owe it to yourself to indulge in the Egyptian Theatre's one-night stand Friday at 7:30 p.m. It will screen as part of the American Cinematheque's retrospective of director Roman Polanski's work running Thursday through Sunday, beginning with his often-overlooked debut film, 1962's "Knife in the Water."

But "Chinatown" remains one of Polanski’s masterworks -- and one of my favorites. The 1974 film scratches the city's dark underbelly, circa 1937, when guys wore zoot suits and fedoras, and water rights were like gold just waiting to be minted. The film itself represents a bit of Hollywood history as well, with 11 Oscar nominations coming out of the extraordinary collaboration of creative talents that started with Robert Towne writing what would be arguably his best script, which is saying a lot, and the film's only Oscar winner.

The film starred a triumvirate of greats -- Jack Nicholson in his classic performance as the local gumshoe J.J. Gittes, Faye Dunaway as the ultimate enigma of a dame with the best marcel ever, and the aging John Huston, huffing and puffing cigars and destruction at every turn. And "Chinatown" represents Polanski's filmmaking at its best. His cameo as a knife-wielding, nose-slitting thug remains one of the film's most memorable moments. It's noir; it's L.A.; it's Dunaway, Huston and Nicholson. It's more than enough.

-- Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown." Credit: Paramount Pictures


Around Town: Roman Polanski, Elvis Presley and French film legend Claude Chabrol

January 27, 2011 |  5:00 am


Roman Polanski, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who is still a wanted fugitive in the U.S., is being feted this weekend at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre with a four-day retrospective.

The programming kicks off with his 1962 feature debut, the Polish thriller, "Knife in the Water," which was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar, and his 1971 adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth," starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. Scheduled for Friday are  his seminal 1974 film noir, "Chinatown," which was penned by Robert Towne, and stars Jack Nicholson as private eye J.J. Gittes, and his creepy 1976 thriller, "The Tenant," in which he also stars.

Saturday's offerings are  1965's "Repulsion," Polanski's second film and first in English, starring Catherine Denueve as a woman who loses her mind, and his first American film, 1968's deliciously terrifying "Rosemary's Baby," starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon in her Oscar-winning performance.

The festival concludes Sunday with the rarely seen 1966 thriller "Cul-De-Sac," starring Denueve's sister, Francoise Dorleac, and his 1967 comedy "The Fearless Vampire Killers," in which Polanski also stars with his then-wife Sharon Tate, who was tragically murdered two years later.

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Sundance 2011: Jeremy Piven's 'I Melt With You' fires them up in Utah

January 27, 2011 |  1:51 am


When a film-festival screening ends with the director thanking the audience for sitting through the movie, you know it's been a doozy.

Or, more specifically in the case of Mark Pellington's "I Melt With You," which world-premiered on Wednesday night at Sundance, that it's a trip through the shocking and the outrageous  -- literally a trip, first off, and also the kind of experience that prompted at least one audience member to leave midway because it was "too dark for me" and another to congratulate the filmmakers because he felt like he'd "been on a bender" after seeing the film.

The male-bonding drama -- for lack of a better known genre -- starts out on an almost sane note, with a quartet of longtime, 40-something buddies (Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Thomas Jayne and Christian McKay) leaving behind their daily lives and heading off for a week of debauchery in Big Sur. Things go according to plan for the first hour or so of the movie -- the plan being to ingest every controlled substance known to man, go on sports-car joyrides across the Northern California landscape and have semi-deep conversations about their troubled lives. Pellington draws heavily on his music-video background, cutting quickly over a soundtrack of punk, New Wave and other '80s music.

That's the almost sane part. The insane part...well, without giving too much away, let's just say when tragedy strikes one of the friends, it sets off a chain of dramatically self-destructive events, each more outrageous than the last, almost as though Pellington was daring the audience to stay with him.

And apparently, he was.

When the lights came on after the screening at the festival's Eccles Theater, the audience in stunned silence, Pellington walked on stage with a reaction you don't hear every day from a director. "My hats off to you for staying for this," he said. "Fifty people didn't walk out." (At a press screening earlier in the week, nearly that number were said to do just that.)

He was hardly the only one apologizing, or at least joking about the buttons pressed. Piven said he was sorry to his mother (she was, it appeared, sitting in the theater). And Lowe said he wasn't deluding himself that this film was anywhere near the mainstream. "Clearly it's going to be such a polarizing movie," he offered. (The critics seem to feel that way too; it's been evoking some pretty divisive reactions).

There will be no doubt be speculation about why a group of established actors took on roles of such shocking extremes. The performers went with the more generous explanation, that of artistic bravery: "'It's a business that in large part gets safer and safer every year," Lowe said. "Movies are, more and more, geared for more and more people."

(People, incidentally, will get to see "I Melt With You" and decide for themselves. On Wednesday morning, Magnolia Pictures announced it had acquired rights to the movie. Pellington made a point from the stage of thanking his sales agents; lord knows they earned their keep.)

Just before the question-and-answer session ended, an audience member asked the director, who was last in Sundance with the, um, far quieter spiritual drama "Henry Poole Was Here," what he expected filmgoers to take away from his movie. "I just want people to feel, whatever they feel," he said, "to have something stay with them beyond the parking lot." By that measure, at least, he succeeded.

--Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman in Park City, Utah



Photo: A still from 'I Melt With You.' Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2011: 'The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75' brings the past into today

January 26, 2011 |  9:00 pm


Sweden might seem an unlikely place to uncover a treasure trove of archival material about the American Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s, but journalists from that country actually compiled an extensive library of film footage of African American activists from that era. Director Goran Hugo Olsson's "Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," which had its world premiere this week as part of the Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Documentary section, charts a movement from inspiration and activism to disillusionment and inertia. 

The footage includes clips of Stokely Carmichael's whirlwind speaking tour of Europe; Carmichael playfully taking over for a reporter to interview his own mother; the Black Panthers' headquarters in Oakland; and a riveting, passionate interview with Angela Davis conducted while she was in prison.

The challenge for the director was how to give some shape to footage collected over a wide span of time from various news reports. "It's a mixtape," Olsson said at a screening Tuesday, "but we tried to keep a storyline."

In perhaps his boldest move, Olsson has his interview subjects (including Davis, Harry Belafonte, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Talib Kweli and scholar Robin Kelley) talk over the vintage images -- musician Erykah Badu at one point even breaks into song. After the screening, Olsson said he was inspired by DVD commentary tracks.

The tactic brings the images from the past into the present, giving a sense that they still hold the power to engage. The film is in some ways a reminder of the importance of historical records and the vibrancy of archival film, as no photograph or written article could quite convey the real sense of time and place that these moving images do. 

During an especially lively Q&A after the movie screened, Olsson was peppered with questions about certain choices, such as why he did not include any contemporary African American activists among his voices, opting instead for entertainers and performers. Olsson said he sought to include performers who would attract a younger audience and engage with the footage emotionally. He also rather humbly admitted he did not know any contemporary activists and might have included them if he did, adding with just a hint of irony, "Yes, you are right and I feel ashamed."

Olsson said his main impulse for making the film came after he saw a piece of footage of Carmichael speaking about Martin Luther King Jr. and the meaning of nonviolent resistance. He realized, he said,   "this is not archive footage; this is something really important to bring out." He said he hoped the film would "bring these images from Sweden, from the past" into the present.

-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah

Photo of Stokely Carmichael from "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975." Credit: Sundance Film Festival 


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