24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Indie Focus

Sundance 2012: Tim and Eric walk into a film festival

January 28, 2012 |  2:57 pm

Comedians Tim Heidecker, left, and Eric Wareheim in Park City, Utah.
Nobody does absurdity quite like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, better known by their personas of Tim and Eric:  hapless bunglers with a mean streak, part lovable friends, part total jerks. So it somehow makes sense they should have two very different projects this year at Sundance, a place where absurdity often reigns, a weird mix of glitz and grunge, scrounging and branding, swag in the snow.

The duo premiered their own debut feature film, "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" here as part of the Midnight section, playing to crowds beyond their usual fans. They also both appear as actors in the Narrative Competition film "The Comedy," directed by Rick Alverson. One film is a ridiculous tour of their comedic world and the other a quietly crushing look at coming to the stark realization of what a mess you are.

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Sundance 2012: The unbelievable truths of 'The Imposter'

January 27, 2012 |  5:35 pm



"The Imposter," screening as part of Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition, is just the sort of thing that makes people say truth is stranger than fiction. Telling the story of how a 23-year-old French Algerian man in Spain with dark hair and dark eyes came to pass himself off as a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy from Texas who'd been missing for nearly four years -- fooling international officials and, most incredibly, the boy's family -- the film is an examination of deception, self-deception and the desire to believe.

Directed by the 36-year-old English filmmaker Bart Layton, who has made many documentaries for British television and with "The Imposter" makes his feature film debut, the film screened Wednesday afternoon to a packed house at the festival's Temple Theatre. At the conclusion, one could sense people in the room collectively shaking their heads in bewilderment, unable to believe some of the twists in the story and asking themselves the core question of "How could they all not know?"

Layton interviewed the impostor, named Frederic Bourdin and now living in France, for two days for the film, and the decision to allow a notorious liar to tell his own story gives the film a specific charge.

"I felt like that was part of the story we were trying to tell," Layton said in an interview following the screening. "I felt if he was manipulating me in the interview, then he was going to be manipulating the audience. I shouldn't try to sanitize or filter that. My thinking was that he should be allowed to do that, and to give the audience the respect they deserve to interpret that the right way."

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Sundance 2012: 'A Fierce Green Fire' tells environmentalist tale

January 27, 2012 |  4:18 pm

Mark Kitchell directed A Fierce Green Fire

Documentaries focused on environmental issues are something of a staple at Sundance. One of last year's entries, "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," was even just nominated for an Academy Award. But rarely do environmental-themed films come with the ambitious scope of "A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet," directed by Mark Kitchell and having its world premiere at the festival, which aims at nothing less than the history of environmentalism itself.

"The main difference between my film and a lot of other environmental films is that instead of it being focused on the issues, ours is focused on the movement and activism," Kitchell said in an interview Thursday afternoon. "I feel that telling stories of activists, taking up the battle and fighting, is the best way to explicate the issues. And that was my main handle on the environmental subject, doing the movement story."

"And nobody had done it yet," he added. "It's a brilliant idea, a hugely ambitious idea and something I feel is very needed. And I guess it was my hubris that I thought I could give meaning to the movement."

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

Kitchell is a veteran documentarian based in San Francisco, best known for his Oscar-nominated "Berkeley in the Sixties," about the Free Speech Movement and counter-culture protest. He initially began work on "Fierce Green Fire" in 2000 with the working title "The Environmental History Project," leaving and coming back to it in the intervening years as other work and production financing allowed.

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Slamdance 2012: 'Welcome to Pine Hill' among prize winners

January 27, 2012 | 12:12 pm

The Slamdance Film Festival wrapped up its 18th edition in Park City, Utah, with awards announcements on Thursday night. Taking place at the top of Main Street, the festival -- which runs concurrent with Sundance -- has retained its lo-fi, low-key vibe year-in, year-out even as Sundance has put on the glitz.  Living up to their motto of "By Filmmakers, for Filmmakers," festival co-founder and president Peter Baxter even had a film of his own playing this year, the sporting documentary "Wild in the Streets."

The winner of the grand jury prize for narrative feature was Keith Miller's "Welcome to Pine Hill." A statement from the jury lauded the film "for its poetic and emotionally honest depiction of one man's final journey in life, crafted from a true spirit of humanity and community." A special jury prize for bold originality went to Axel Ranisch's "Heavy Girls."

In the documentary category the grand jury prize went to "No Ashes, No Phoenix," directed by Jens Pfeifer, with that jury noting the film's "adeptly piercing and cinematic look at a basketball team's impassioned struggle not for glory, but to just avoid losing." The short documentary award went to "The Professional," directed by Skylar Neilsen.

The audience prizes went to the graffiti artist portrait "Getting Up: The TEMPT ONE Story" by Caskey Ebeling for feature documentary and Andrew Edison's high school comedy "Bindlestiffs" for feature narrative.

Short film prizes went to "Venus" by Tom Fruergaard, "I Am John Wayne" by Christina Choe, "Solipsist" by Andrew Huang and "I'm Coming Over" by Sam Handel.

A Spirit of Slamdance award was given to Axel Ranisch, Heiko Pinkowski and Anne Baeker, the creative team behind "Heavy Girls." The award for cinematography went to Kristina Nikolova for "Faith, Love and Whiskey." A Five Flavors of Filmmaking prize went to Josh Gibson for "Kudzu Vine," a one-minute short created during the festival.


Sundance 2012: Real-life scares at screening of "V/H/S"

Sundance 2012: A dilemma of ethics, power in "Compliance"

-- Mark Olsen, in Park City, Utah


Photo: Still from "Welcome to Pine Hill." Credit: Slamdance Film Festival



Sundance 2012: Real-life scares at screening of 'V/H/S'

January 25, 2012 |  1:41 pm


A late-night screening of the found-footage horror film "V/H/S" at Sundance yielded disturbing news: Shortly into the screening, one person had left the theater and fainted in the lobby while another had exited with nausea.

Producer Roxanne Benjamin, posting on Twitter, said that EMTs were called to the scene, that the event was not staged and "it was scary and not fun, and everyone is grateful the guy and his girlfriend are OK. And they wanted to go back in the theatre!" Benjamin would later post that the cause of the couple's problems were "altitude sickness, exhaustion, dehydration and alcohol” and not directly related to the film.

Either way, the movie is not for the faint of heart. Benjamin and fellow producer Brad Miska brought together six directors -- Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glen McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and a collective known as Radio Silence -- to create six short horror films based on the notion of “found footage.”

The frame story follows a trio of hoodlums who come across a cache of videotapes after they break into a house; each of the shorts portrays what the burglars supposedly see on the tapes. The shorts each have a unique style and offer the requisite twists and gore.

Wingard shot the hoodlum story, while Bruckner tells the tale of three young men who get more than they bargain for when they film a night of carousing. West created a home movie of a couple whose road trip goes off course. Though all the filmmakers worked independently of one another, there are recurring themes and images involving such subjects as voyeurism.

During the Q&A after the screening, with all the directors present, Bruckner summed up many of the shorts in the anthology when he said his inspiration was to make a viewer "feel guilty, maybe, about the things that you thought about doing with a camera, maybe things you've done with a camera, things you plan on doing with a camera and punish you severely for it.”


Photos: The scene at Sundance 2012

Joe Swanberg to release new film online for free

SXSW 2011: Horror mixes with wit in Ti West's "The Innkeepers"

-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah

Photo: Kate Lyn Sheil in "V/H/S" by Ti West . Credit: Sundance Film Festival


Sundance 2012: A child's-eye view in 'Kid-Thing'

January 23, 2012 |  9:02 am

David and Nathan Zellner are premiering their new feature, "Kid-Thing," at the Sundance Film FestivalBrothers David and Nathan Zellner are American originals, makers of willfully oddball films. They will be premiering their second feature, "Kid-Thing," at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday as part of its NEXT section. The duo have become quite a fixture on the U.S. festival circuit, with a series of shorts including the recent, outrageous "Sasquatch Birth Journal 2." Their previous feature, 2008's "Goliath," was about a man whose loss of control in his life is snapped into focus when his cat goes missing.

"Kid-Thing" is about a 10-year-old girl (Sydney Aguirre) largely left to her own devices. An outsider less by choice than circumstance, she marauds around the playground, makes prank calls and wanders the woods on her own. There she finds a woman stuck at the bottom of a well. Unsure of what to do, she doesn't tell anyone, but keeps returning to check on and care for her discovery.

Considering their short films are marked by an off-beat humor and eccentric worldview, the Zellners' two feature films each have an unexpected emotional core, a surprise seriousness. Which brings up the question: How do they know what makes for a short and what makes for a feature?

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

"When we first come up with an idea for something, we can't force it into a certain time length or anything," David Zellner said by the phone from their home base in Austin, Texas, shortly before the start of the festival. "The idea dictates."

"Sometimes ideas are big and sometimes they're small," added Nathan, also on the line. "I think we have enough of them that if we're waiting on one of the bigger ones to progress, we can dip in and do a small one."

"Kid-Thing" captures the point-of-view of a young child whose eyes are opening for the first time to the world at large. Some things are silly, some scary, and it's all new.

"We really wanted it to be from that perspective, as opposed to a nostalgic look back from an adult," said David Zellner. "We wanted it to be very much in the now, with the beauty and the horror of everything that goes on at that age. One thing I like about childhood: Kids are like scientists and explorers; everything is new to them and they are constantly testing boundaries.

"They don't have any experience to apply to something," he added. "They come in from a fresh perspective, an outsider's perspective that an adult might not have. But they also have a kind of screwy kid-logic in how they deal with problems."

They cast Aguirre, the daughter of a childhood friend, after having worked with her on a music video they directed. Hoping to capture the same qualities of native toughness and innocent willfulness as in Linda Manz's seminal performances in Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" and Dennis Hopper's "Out of the Blue," the Zellners said they were surprised by how Aguirre assuredly responded to situations.

"I don't think we had to manipulate her at all," said Nathan Zellner. "It was a lot of mature conversations about what the character was going through and what the scene was about. She got it as if she was a seasoned actress who had done it before."

"At one point she busted us for trying to dumb things down to her a little," said David. "We were trying to explain the language of why you shoot things in a close-up and she looked at us like we were total morons."

As the story of "Kid-Thing" progresses, and the girl goes back to the well time and again, the film takes on the tone of a parable, something perhaps not quite totally real as small flourishes begin to depart from strict reality. So, which is it?

"We'd like for people to decide on their own," said David. "We definitely wanted to combine those qualities that are like a really earnest, naturalistic coming-of-age story with some qualities of a fable and keep the line kind of blurred which is which."


Sundance 2012: A dilemma of ethics, power in "Compliance"

Indie Focus: "Nobody Walks" is a big step for Ry Russo-Young

Sundance 2012: Rashida Jones does romantic dramedy in "Celeste And Jesse Forever"

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Sydney Aguirre in "Kid-Thing." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2012: A dilemma of ethics, power in 'Compliance'

January 21, 2012 |  1:56 pm

Dreama Walker as Becky in COMPLIANCE Photo by Adam Stone

We all like to think we know how we would respond to certain ethical hypotheticals: that we'd return that wallet, help the weak or stand up to an abusive authority figure. But would we, really?

The film "Compliance," which had its world premiere Saturday morning as part of Sundance's low-budget NEXT section, hinges on just such a question, wringing a tense moral drama from a simple phone call. On a busy day at a suburban fast-food outlet, a phone call comes for the manager (Ann Dowd) telling her there has been an accusation of theft against one of her employees. The voice on the line (Pat Healy) identifies himself as a police officer and instructs the manager to take a young female employee (Dreama Walker) into a back room. After a time the girl is undressed and doing jumping jacks, all at the command of the officer on the phone, before things take a turn from the humiliating to genuinely hurtful. No one ever just hangs up.

The story is based on true events, which writer-director Craig Zobel read about in a newspaper. Zobel's previous feature, "Great World of Sound," premiered at Sundance in 2007, starring Healy as the reluctant employee of a fly-by-night record label, with Zobel shooting people who thought they were auditioning for a music deal. "Compliance" is in some ways the mirror-image of "Great World."

Photos: The scene at Sundance 2012

"It's definitely a story with the exact same question," said Zobel of both films central "what would you do" concern. "I guess I do have some attraction to those types of stories. I think that they make for interesting characters on both sides of the coin."

If Zobel intended "Compliance" as an answer film to criticism he received for the fake auditions he used in making "Great World of Sound" -- making a case that he never forced those people to sing for his camera -- he says it wasn't a conscious intention. "It took other people to point that out," he noted.

"To be honest, I'd like to be the brash filmmaker that was putting everyone in their place, but it was really that I'm interested in the way that we make these kinds of decisions," Zobel said. "I wish I was that Lars von Trier guy and that I was doing it all on purpose."

"I find a lot of sympathy for what's happening, I relate to and can see how people get into situations like in this movie or in 'Great World of Sound,' " he added. "And the fact that people rationalize that they're not doing anything bad. But everybody is."

For a film based largely on a phone call, Zobel had a set built that put two locations physically separate in the story side-by-side in a warehouse so that both parts of the conversation could be shot simultaneously with multiple cameras. This also allowed the actors to perform longer takes, really settling into the tense dynamic of the story. "In retrospect I can't imagine doing it another way," Zobel said.

Actress Walker was cast in the film after she shot a small role in David Gordon Green's recent film "The Sitter." Green, an executive producer on "Compliance," mentioned the project to her and she immediately recalled the news stories about the real-life series of events on which the film is based.

"I remember thinking about the girl, who would go through with all that?" Walker said. "How awful that poor girl must feel for going through something like that and then having people be like, 'You're such an idiot, how could you go through with all that?' "

"My whole thing for playing the character was that she wasn't an idiot," she added. "She was just really young, very naive and was in these high-stakes circumstances where she thought she was going to lose her job if she didn't do as she was told. We all think we would react in a certain way, react boldly. Sometimes that's not really the case at all."


Sundance 2012: False start for 'Red Lights'

Sundance 2012: 'Beasts' sparks a flood of strong reaction

Indie Focus: 'Nobody Walks' is a big step for Ry Russo-Young

-- Mark Olsen


Photo: Dreama Walker in "Compliance." Credit: Adam Stone



Anna Paquin on the unlikely resurrection of 'Margaret'

January 13, 2012 | 11:14 am


When Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" was quietly released last September, it seemed the end of a very, very long journey for a film caught up for years in post-production problems and various legal disputes. Although very few people saw the movie during its brief theatrical run, a vocal group of critics began to lobby on its behalf -- the unusual groundswell of support prompted in part by the year-end awards season crush and in part by a desire to simply be able to see a movie that had not played in their towns.

"Margaret" has since been inching its way toward reassessment and in some sense resurrection, to the point where there is now an undercurrent of backlash from those who feel its movie-you-can't-see mystique is too much a part of its appeal.

In the film, Anna Paquin plays an Upper East Side teenager named Lisa Cohen -- in one of the movie's signature quirks, "Margaret" has no character named Margaret -- who feels in part responsible for a bus accident that claimed a woman's life. This leads to a portrait, at once nuanced and raw, of dealing with grief and moving forward with life. The film features a deep bench of supporting performances from Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin and Jeannie Berlin.

"Margaret" is going to be playing for one week at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles starting Jan. 27, giving local audience another chance to see for themselves whether this most singular film lives up to its legend. Paquin, an Oscar winner and now the star of HBO's "True Blood," rather suddenly made herself available to a few press outlets just this week to talk about the film.

How weird is it to be talking about a film you shot in 2005?

I could not possibly have loved that script or loved doing that movie any more. It was one of the most incredible professional experiences I've ever had, and, you know, movies all have their own path to being seen by people and some of them are long journeys and some are really quick. And this one's just been a bit longer. I'm just pleased that people are watching it now.

When you were shooting the film did you have any idea it would become the problem child it turned into?

No, actually. The shoot was extraordinarily smooth. Everything kind of ran perfectly. It was a sort of long script, so obviously if you shoot all of a very long script there's just going to be a lot more material to play around with when you're trying to put the movie together. Which ultimately, as an actor, is not something that I really worry myself about. That's kind of, thankfully, somebody else's department. I'm just like sweet, I will shoot all one-hundred and sixty, seventy, whatever-it-was pages of incredibly well-written, beautiful scenes with incredible character work.

Did you ever reach a point where you thought the movie would just never come out?

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Around Town: 'Battle Royale' finally gets U.S. theatrical release

December 23, 2011 | 11:55 am

Battle Royale

A group of teenage schoolkids is deposited on a deserted island for the express purpose of killing one another in the hope of individual self-preservation. That might sound awfully similar to the plot of the upcoming "Hunger Games" movie due out in the spring, but it's actually the description for "Battle Royale," the 2000 Japanese film that has become one of the essential cult movies of the new millennium.

Incredibly, the film is getting its first U.S. theatrical run starting Saturday at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre. (Consider it holiday season stress release viewing.)

The film was the last completed work by the then seventysomething director Kinji Fukasaku, known to American audiences for his work on the WWII aerial dogfight action picture "Tora! Tora! Tora!" Even directors half his age would be hard-pressed to match the go-for-broke energy in "Battle Royale," adapted by Kenta Fukasaku (the director's son) from a novel by Koushun Takami, with its extremely violent, wildly funny and totally bonkers sensibility. (Kinji Fukasaku passed away in 2003 while working on a sequel.)

Actress Chiaki Kuriyama would again don a schoolgirl outfit to play the brutal killer Gogo Yubari in "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" made by Quentin Tarantino, an avowed "BR" fan. Iconic Japanese actor and director Takeshi Kitano fuels the film's satiric undercurrents with his typical laid-back intensity.

"BR" is widely available on DVD, but this is a rare chance to see the film in a theater. As extra enticement, there will be a special "cosplay" screening of the film on the 30th, with discount tickets to those who arrive in costume, so break out the school blazers, knee socks and odd track suit.

The film plays through Jan. 2. For more info, visit www.cinefamily.org.


Around Town: Don Hertzfeldt kicks of Cinefamily's 'Animation Breakdown'

Takashi Miike enters the samurai genre with "13 Assassins"

-- Mark Olsen


Photo: "Battle Royale." Credit: Toei Co.



Around Town: Don Hertzfeldt kicks off Cinefamily's 'Animation Breakdown'

December 2, 2011 |  1:01 pm


Beautifulday-02 (2)

Who shows up to watch a program of independently made, unconventional animated short films well past midnight? Quite a few people, as it turns out. Thursday night marked the opening of the Cinefamily's Animation Breakdown festival, and a healthy audience turned out for the 12:35 a.m. show, with filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt following his two sold-out shows earlier in the evening.

The program of shorts by Hertzfeldt included the local premiere of his "It's Such a Beautiful Day," the third and final film in his popular series on the adventures of a character named BIll. Hertzfeldt's unique animating style, which combines traditional animation with optical effects and, more recently, digital work, is singular for both its visual style and its emotional mix of innocent whimsy and cynically downbeat humor.

Hertzfeldt was nominated for an Academy Award in 2001 for his short film "Rejected" and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2010 at only the age of 33. Onstage Thursday in Los Angeles during one of his three Q&As, Hertzfeldt noted that though he studied live-action filmmaking at college in Santa Barbara, he had never taken an animation class and took only one art class in high school.

"I still feel like a live-action filmmaker who happens to draw, rather than an animator," Hertzfeldt explained.

The Animation Breakdown series continues through Tuesday with a varied mix of programs. Friday night will feature the first in a series of programs of classic Polish animation along with a screen of the Brothers Quay's "Maska." There also will be a series of films curated by the East Coast-based Animation Block Party (co-presenters of the fest with Cinefamily and Cartoon Brew) that includes new work by Spike Jonze.

Saturday will feature a screening of "La Luna," the new short film from Pixar that was just shortlisted for the Oscars, with director Enrico Casarosa in attendance. Also on Saturday will be a reunion of talent behind the cult television show "Space Ghost: Coast to Coast" which will be livestreamed for those who can't make it to the theater.

Sunday will see a tribute to Bruce Bickford, whom Cinefamily programmer Alex McDonald called "America's greatest underground animator," that includes the world premiere of the 20-plus years in the making "Cas'l" with live musical accompaniment. There is also an exhibition of Bickford's artwork at Synchronicity Space along with work from other animators featured in the festival.

For anyone who believes in animated filmmaking as more than just a platform to promote products for kids, the Cinefamily's Animation Breakdown, planned to become an annual event, should provide a wild and wonderful haven.


Indie Focus: Bill Plympton and Animation for Grown-Ups

Around Town: Strange Delights at Cinefamily's Everything Is Festival

-- Mark Olsen


Photo: "It's Such a Beautiful Day." Credit: Don Hertzfeldt



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