Sony Pictures Classics has acquired "West of Memphis," the Peter Jackson-produced documentary about three men in Arkansas who were imprisoned for 18 years for murdering three boys and released last August after questions were raised about their prosecution and the evidence against them.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, follows the plight of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. They were never fully exonerated in the 1993 murders of the three boys in 1993. To attain freedom, they were forced to enter Alford pleas -- a unique situation in which defendants do not admit guilt, but admit that the prosecution could likely prove the charges. It's regarded in court as a guilty plea.
Directed by Amy Berg, "West of Memphis" garnered attention at the Sundance Film Festival in January because it included interviews with three new witnesses further implicating a longtime suspect in the case. Many believe it is possible the footage may prompt the Arkansas justice system to take a further look at that suspect -- Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, one of the children who was slain.
Of course, "West of Memphis" is not the first documentary to tackle the intriguing case. "Paradise Lost," a series of three films directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, followed the case for years and has been credited with helping to generate major public interest in the effort to free the three men.
The final film in the trilogy, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," was nominated for documentary feature at the Academy Awards last weekend but lost out to the football team drama "Undefeated."
A release date for "West of Memphis" has yet to be set.
Chris Rock has had some notable on-screen romantic partners over the years. He engaged in an affair with a slinky Kerry Washington ("I Think I Love My Wife") and was dumped by Robin Givens ("Head of State"). Last week at Sundance, he tried to co-parent with Julie Delpy amid a chaotic visit by her family in "Two Days in New York," the actress-director's sequel to her 2007 indie hit "Two Days in Paris."
But none of those colorful characters compare to the woman Rock next hopes to make his on-screen wife: Melissa McCarthy.
"I'm trying to romance her," Rock said, taking a break last week at a Park City, Utah. The comedian is writing a new untitled script, he said, in which he envisions the "Bridesmaids" breakout playing his wife as the pair indulge in some boisterous dysfunction -- a "Jerry Springer couple," as Rock put it. He said he hopes to persuade the comedic actress to come aboard, and has made some inroads.
It's one of several projects Rock said he is working on as a writer, including new material for a stand-up tour as well as a screenplay in which he'd play, well, a stand-up comedian.
Rock has a small part in this May's "What to Expect when You're Expecting" and will be heard but not seen a few weeks later in "Madagascar 3," the talking-animal toon in which the gang runs amok in Europe. He's also get his moment as a lead in "Two Days," which Magnolia bought at Sundance and probably will release this year.
The film has Rock trying to make things work with his partner, stepping into the Delpy boyfriend role that Adam Goldberg played in "Two Days in Paris." Rock stars as Mingus, an intellectual radio host who often plays the straight man to the loopiness around him (which includes plenty of misunderstanding with Delpy's on screen father, played by real life dad Albert).
"I probably stole a little Nelson George meets Elvis Mitchell," Rock said of his character. "But they're not married and I am, so I combined it with elements of my life, all the relatives coming over, and dealing with the kids."
Perhaps Rock's most high-profile turn at Sundance may have come in a movie he had nothing to do with, Spike Lee's provocative "Red Hook Summer." Rock was sitting in the audience during its premiere and asked the question that prompted the infamous rant from Lee that the studios "know nothing about black people."
Rock said he saw Lee afterward but came away as puzzled as everyone else about why the director went in that direction. "Maybe the altitude got to him," he said, shrugging perplexedly.
As life problems go, you could find yourself in worse pickles than deciding which Sundance house to stay in while you premiere a pair of movies at the country’s preeminent film gathering.
But don't douse the comedic actress Lizzy Caplan in too much hater-ade -- not even as she describes how she was forced to choose between the Park City, Utah, condo hosting the group from the grown-sibling dramedy "Save the Date," in which she plays a commitment-phobe sister, and the crash pad for the raunchy femme romp "Bachelorette," in which she plays a coke-fried bridesmaid opposite Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher.
"I spent one night [with the 'Save the Date' crew] and then realized it was too much to go back and forth, so I stayed with the 'Bachelorette' [people]'" Caplan said at the festival last week, describing her temporary housing situation.
At 29, after years of promising but false starts on sputtering television shows, the occasional part in a hit such as "Cloverfield" and very small roles in critically acclaimed movies (quick, who did she play in "127 Hours"?), the Los Angeles-raised actress is again on the cusp of wider fame. Needless to say, it's a position she's found herself in before.
"I did a show called 'The Class' where they took us on a private plane, the creators of the show and Jimmy Burrows, the epic sitcom director," Caplan recalled. "They brought us to Vegas and took us to dinner and took us gambling and gave us a big speech that it's the last time we're going to be able to go out in public. And everybody was like 'Oh my God.' So I said to Jimmy, 'Well, what's your batting average?'" And he said he was right almost every time. He was wrong only one time." She paused. "I was kind of honored to be the second time."
Ebullient and unguarded, Caplan, who is perhaps best known for the cult Starz television comedy "Party Down," has no shortage of fears about fame -- and few compunctions about revealing them. In an era when most actors put on a stoic front about how lucky they feel, Caplan is surprisingly open about the drawbacks and insecurities of a life in front of the camera.
On a snowy day last week in Park City, Utah, about 10 activists outfitted in costumes such as the Statue of Liberty and a Boston Patriot materialized in the parking lot of a Wells Fargo outside the city's Old Town. The Sundance Film Festival was taking place, and there was no better place for Occupy-style activists to deliver their message to the 1%.
The flash mob burst into a waiting area on the bank's ground-floor offices and began chanting "Pay your taxes, Wells Fargo" and "We are the 99%," marching in a small circle before reading a list of Occupy tenets.
The scene went on for about five minutes as employees and customers looked on. Then a branch manager came out of his office and asked them to leave. They agreed, and the protest moved to the corner of a busy intersection where snow was driving pretty hard. A policeman used tape to cordon off an area, keeping a stoic face as one of the protesters tried to give him a quick primer on the prison-industrial complex.
The protesters started up the chants again. Cars passed by — some drivers honking in solidarity, others waving their middle fingers.
"We feel that way about you too," activist Justin Kramer yelled back when given the bird. Then he turned to a reporter and said, "That doesn't seem like a good way to go about it. At Marmot [a clothing and equipment store on the city's Main Street] they put out a sign that said, 'Hey Occupy people, we're hiring.' His voice took on a rueful tone. "It's nice when they at least try to be creative."
Though filled with glitz and celebrity, the Sundance Film Festival, which wraps Sunday, has been a minor bed of activism over the past 10 days. In addition to the protests — several others were held on Main Street during the festival — director Jonathan Demme came to the Slamdance Film Festival (held in Park City concurrent with Sundance) and screened a short he shot at the Occupy Wall Street protests in October.
The effect of these events was to create an unusual contrast: inside the city's high-end restaurants, fine food and wine were being consumed by some of the entertainment world's richest and most influential people. On streets and screens, however, were persistent reminders of the economically disadvantaged, a juxtaposition we explore in this Times story. (Other films included the documentary "Detropia" and the corporate-tax investigation "We're Not Broke," the latter of which some of the Wells Fargo protesters were affiliated with.)
The activists explained why Sundance was an ideal forum for their message. “What were trying to do is reach the 1%, and there’s no better place to do that in Park City during Sundance,” said Kramer, 28, a Salt Lake City resident who has been active in the local Occupy movement.
The protesters said they had chosen Wells Fargo, they said, because of the low taxes the company paid, and generally thought Park City was a good choice because of the concentration of high-end brands “There are so many corporate sponsors here during the film festival,” said Kira Elliott, 29, an activist from Chicago. “We’d be crazy to be anywhere else.”
Demme's short, "Hyptnotic Fierce Drum Circle," was shot Oct. 15, and the title sums it up well: It captures dozens of percussionists — black, white, asian, male, female, young, old — plus people playing horns, whistles, guitars and cymbals. Without a conductor, they somehow improvise a melodic cacophony.
In an interview the day after the screening, Demme, who lives in New York, said initially intended to go check out the Occupy Wall Street protest for about an hour. "I was obliged to go down there," he recalled. "I've been complaining for years about the lack of a protest generation."
He stayed for an hour and then another, and then another, and then when he started to leave, a march started coming his way, so he stayed longer.
After his first visit, he and collaborator Shane Bissett, 25, returned a dozen times and shot footage at Zucotti Park and of other Occupy-related activities. They estimate they've collected more than 40 hours of footage, including some one-one-one interviews with individual protesters.
Their primary interest has been putting footage on the Internet, Demme said. "The premise is that if more people know what Occupy was really about — how positive it is — more poeple would join. So we've been supporting that as outsiders."
But they are also intending to go back and shoot more footage focusing on the stories of individual protesters. Ultimately, Demme said, they may cut together a couple of hours into a longer film (though he's also busy now trying to get two long-gestating projects, the animated "Zeitoun" and the adaptation of the Stephen King novel "11/22/63"). "People of my generation, the hippie generation," he said, "have been waiting for this."
You can check out another of Demme's Occupy shorts below:
The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up Saturday night in Park City, Utah, with "Beasts of the Southern Wild," directed by Benh Zeitlin, taking the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition. "The House I Live In," a look at the war against drugs and the American penal system directed by Eugene Jarecki, was awarded the grand jury prize for U.S. documentary.
"Beasts" had been the clear favorite in the dramatic category throughout the festival. The film is an expressionistic, uplifting fable of a little girl (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) struggling to survive on the Southern Delta in the face of poverty and flooding.
As the cast and crew took to the stage to accept the prize, Zeitlin declared, "I hope this film is just like a flag that goes up" in inspiration to other filmmakers.
"Violeta Went to Heaven," directed by Andres Wood, a film about singer Violeta Parra, won the World Cinematic Dramatic Jury prize. The jury prize for World Cinema Documentary went to Ra'anan Alexandrowicz for "The Law in These Parts," about the legal system in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The audience prizes went to Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate" in the U.S. dramatic category and Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War," about rape in the military, for U.S. documentary. "Valley of Saints" won with audiences in the world cinema dramatic category and "Searching for Sugar Man" won in the world cinema documentary contest. "Sleepwalk With Me," written, directed by and starring Mike Birbiglia, won the Best of NEXT audience award.
Other winners in the U.S. dramatic category were Ava DuVernay for directing "Middle of Nowhere" and Ben Richardson with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" for cinematography. The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to Derek Connolly for "Safety Not Guaranteed."
A special jury prize went to producers Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling who had both "Smashed" and "Nobody Walks" in the competiton. A special jury prize also went to the ensemble cast of "The Surrogate," which includes John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.
In the U.S. documentary category, Lauren Greenfield won for directing "The Queen of Versailles," Enat Sidi won for editing on "Detropia," and Jeff Orlowski with "Chasing Ice" for cinematography.
The awards ceremony was to be have been hosted by long-time Sundance favorite Parker Posey, but at the opening of the show John Cooper, director of the festival, announced that Posey had taken ill and was unable to attend. "This is real," he said to the crowd who assumed it was some kind of comedy bit.
Rather, he brought up actress and filmmaker Katie Aselton, at the festival with her film "Black Rock," to serve as co-host.
The evening also included a tribute to Bingham Ray, the veteran film executive, stalwart festival presence and leading champion of independent film who died this week after suffering a stroke at the festival.
Cooper took pause and choked up as he read a statement which noted Ray's was "a career that almost perfectly paralleled the rise of independent film in America."
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.
Of the many things you might expect when you walk into a Sundance movie, a cameo from a member of the Judd Apatow crew isn't at the top of the list.
But there was one of those insiders, Seth Rogen, materializing on-screen during the risqué comedy "For a Good Time, Call…" As a phone-sex call is made to protagonists Katie and Lauren (played by Ari Graynor and the film’s co-writer, Lauren Anne Miller), two economically desperate twentysomething women who've started a phone-sex line in their New York apartment, Rogen pops up on screen, wearing a pilot’s uniform and engaging in a solitary sexual act in an airport bathroom as he banters dirtily with the women.
The sight of the actor prompted a peal of laughter at the movie’s premiere at Sundance earlier this week. As the back-and-forth unfolds, Rogen rips off one of the best lines of the film when, as things heat up on the phone, he calls out to a crew member in the next stall to “Delay the flight.”
There’s a reason the comic actor wound up in the movie: Miller is his wife.
"I remember Seth and I were brushing our teeth one night and I said 'Wouldn't it be great if we got some comedians to do cameos as some of the callers,' " Miller recounted to 24 Frames. "And then I said, 'Wait, would you do it?' And he said 'Totally.' "
Though he has no formal role on the picture outside of the cameo, Rogen advised Miller and visited the set. “I would be silly not to listen to the person who is extremely successful at doing what I’m trying to do,” Miller said.
Rogen isn't the only raunch-comedy mainstay to have an unexpected moment in the film -- witness Kevin Smith as a cab driver who rings up the phone-sex line while a passenger waits in the backseat.
With its raunchy story of female friendship, "Good Time" has evoked the inevitable comparisons to the Apatow-godfathered “Bridesmaids.” Miller said she showed the movie to several people in the filmmaker's posse but not yet the director himself, who has been working on a new movie.
Filmgoers will get a chance to see the movie and Rogen’s surprise spot -- Focus Features acquired the comedy and will release it domestically. “I feel like that women who watch movies have been subconsciously wanting this,” Miller said. "I hope this is only the beginning of real stories about real women.”
"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."
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."
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.
IFC Midnight on Thursday acquired the North American distribution rights to "The Pact," a horror film written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy that premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
IFC Midnight paid in the high six figures for the rights, according to a source familiar with the negotiations who added that the company plans both a video-on-demand release and a theatrical run in several cities.
The deal marks a milestone for McCarthy, who was featured in a Times story last week. After years of struggling in Hollywood, he is offering up "The Pact" as his first feature film. “My whole life I have wanted to make movies that people will see and now that is going to happen,” McCarthy said shortly after the deal was completed. “Now I know it is going to be seen by thousands and thousands of people after this festival. It’s a great vote of confidence.”
Based on a short McCarthy film that played at Sundance in 2011, "The Pact" stars Caity Lotz and Casper Van Dien. It focuses on a woman struggling to deal with the tangled aftermath of her mother’s death while discovering terrifying truths about her family’s past and the house she grew up in.
The film’s distribution rights to the Japanese, British and Australian markets have also been sold at this week’s festival, according to Ross Dinerstein, who produced "The Pact. "