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Category: Sundance

Sundance 2012: Spike Lee made 'Red Hook' because Hollywood wouldn't

January 23, 2012 |  2:13 pm


A day after he provoked a Sundance Film Festival crowd by telling it that studios "know nothing about black people," Spike Lee sounded a more contrite note—sort of.

“My wife told me when I left this morning ‘You’re defeating the purpose. Just talk about the movie,’” he told The Times while sitting at a Park City, Utah, cafe on Monday morning. The movie Lee was referring to is “Red Hook Summer,” his new film about a preacher and his grandson in a contemporary Brooklyn housing project.

Lee said he’d prefer not to elaborate further on his belief about why studios couldn’t handle a black coming-of-age story. “I’m not here to condemn Hollywood—even if it may sound like that,” he said, giving a small laugh.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

Lee had stunned an audience of as many as 1,000 people at the festival’s Eccles Theater into silence on Sunday when, responding to an audience question from Chris Rock, he said that "they [studios] know nothing about black people ... and they're going to give me notes about what a 13-year-old boy and girl are doing in Red Hook? [Shoot] no," he said, repeating it several times, only without saying “shoot.”

On Monday, Lee said he made the film because he felt Hollywood had shirked its duty when it came to portraying young people of color. “One of my favorite films is ‘Stand by Me.’ But there’s no black person in it. It’s a great film, but where’s the African American version? You know, kids growing up. It doesn’t have to be all ducking bullets and.…”

Lee's new movie tells the story of a young Atlanta boy named Flick who is sent to live with his preacher grandfather over one hot summer. In its look at a young man coming of age on the streets of Brooklyn, it is a companion piece of sorts to his 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing.” There are all sorts of callbacks to that film in “Red Hook,” including several scenes in which  Lee reprises his role as the iconic Mookie, updating the audience on how his life turned out. (He’s still delivering pizza, though things didn’t work out with Rosie Perez’s Tina.)

PHOTOS: Spike Lee's controversial quotes

“Red Hook” also deals with issues in contemporary Brooklyn, including gentrification, black poverty, the strong influence of religion and sexual abuse.

The movie takes an unexpectedly dark turn in its final half hour, prompting some in the audience to say they felt whiplash. But Lee was unrepentant. “They have these certain rules that you can’t do this or that. Who says that?”

Lee also remained defiant  about the most controversial element of the film [Spoiler alert: please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you'd rather not know]—a scene in which a preacher molests a young boy while having him read the Bible. The moment has generated a backlash among some in the media and at the festival. Entertainment Weekly called the film “ranting” and “shocking” as a result

“It was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever done,”  Lee acknowledged on Monday. “But I knew it had to be done. It would have been cowardly and gutless and punkish to not deal with it straight on” (that is, by just referencing it without showing it, as Lee said co-writer James McBride had preferred).

"And here’s the thing. It’s my money. I financed the film because I didn’t want to have notes and didn’t want people to tell me there’s no audience for this film so we need to change this or that.”

The movie does not yet have a distributor, but Lee, who hasn't made a feature in nearly four years, said that he was confident it soon would and that it would be released to theaters this summer.


Sundance 2012: Spike Lee says studios 'know nothing about black people'

Sundance 2012: In 'Shut Up,' the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Spike Lee at the Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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: Spike Lee: Studios 'know nothing about black people'

January 23, 2012 |  7:00 am

At the Sundance Film Festival, Spike Lee premiered "Red Hook Summer," his new Brooklyn movie that has echoes of "Do the Right Thing"

Film festival screenings can take some unexpected turns. But unexpected is an understatement for what happened when Spike Lee took the stage Sunday night at the Sundance Film Festival to field questions about his new film, "Red Hook Summer."

After introducing the cast and principals of the low-budget independent -- about a bible-thumping preacher and his intelligent but alienated grandson in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood -- Lee then fielded a query from an unlikely audience member. "Hey, it's Chris Rock," actor Jules Brown, who plays the grandson, said from the stage.

And indeed, there was Rock, asking a reasonable question about how the movie would have looked had it been made at a studio. ("Would you have blown things up?" he deadpanned.)

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

Lee, who had already been moving freely about the stage riffing about everything from the New York Giants' playoff win to the lack of black people in Utah, came back with what he would later acknowledge was a "tirade" about the studio world. Most notably, he said that "they [studios] know nothing about black people ... and they're going to give me notes about what a 13-year-old boy and girl are doing in Red Hook? [Shoot] no," he said, repeating it several times, only without saying 'shoot' and without sounding like he was joking. He also seemed to call out Universal for dithering on a planned sequel to "Inside Man."

He then defused the moment -- somewhat -- by calling the comments a tirade and trying a joke that "my wife is looking at me like I'm crazy."

It didn't help -- or, rather, it made things more surreal -- that the voluble Lee had just shown what was by any standard one of his most audacious films in years, a movie that had been shot in ultra-secrecy over just 19 days on a few Brooklyn blocks. For about two-thirds of its running time a gritty and music-heavy street drama about an assortment of neighborhood characters (with religion instead of race as its main Lee preoccupation this time around), the film in its last section takes a turn to the shocking.

PHOTOS: Spike Lee's controversial quotes

Without giving too much away, we'll just say that a main character is revealed with little warning to have committed a heinous act. A scene involving a sex act and the Bible is involved, and we won't sugarcoat it -- it will be polarizing even to hardened viewers. In the lobby afterward, normally jaded festival-goers were arguing over whether the movie, which does not yet have U.S. distribution, was hateful and/or misanthropic. Even the actors admitted some scenes were hard for them to watch.

But it was also, undeniably, Lee doing what he does best: using low-budget filmmaking and street-friendly storytelling as a means of provocation.

The film also had plenty of Easter eggs to "Do The Right Thing," with Lee's Mookie appearing in several scenes (he's still delivering for Sal's Pizza; apparently it had been rebuilt) and sly references to famous lines from the 1989 classic, such as "And that's the truth, Ruth."

But Lee, who's been saying the movie is simply another one of his nearly half-dozen films set on the streets of Brooklyn, wasn't eager to embrace the comparison.

"Please," he said, pleading with the attendees who would be talking about the movie with their friends, "tell them it's not a ... sequel to 'Do The Right Thing.'"


Sundance 2012: In "Shut Up," the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

Sundance 2012: A 65-year-old takes on disability and sex in "The Surrogate"

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: A scene from "Red Hook Summer." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2012: 5 things that happen while waiting for Drake

January 23, 2012 |  1:37 am

 At the Sundance Film Festival, a number of interesting things transpire when you're stuck waiting for Drake for three hours

I wasn't expecting Drake to be on time. After all, rappers aren't exactly known for their punctuality. But when the 25-year-old showed up to greet a clutch of reporters at the Sundance Film Festival three hours after he was scheduled to arrive, I'll admit I was just a tad surprised.

On Saturday night, at a bar sponsored by the search engine Bing in downtown Park City, Utah, Drake was scheduled to perform one of the most hotly anticipated shows of the festival. Hundreds of young women, inappropriately dressed in faux-fur leopard-print coats and miniskirts, crowded the street outside the venue in the midst of a blizzard in hopes of getting into the invite-only party.

Once inside, partygoers were packed like sardines in the basement, sipping free cocktails and bumping their heads to some overpowering bass. Meanwhile, I hung out by the door with some other journalists and photographers, waiting for the rapper to arrive. And as you might expect, a number of interesting things transpire while waiting for Drake for three hours.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

Five highlights:

1. "The Bachelor" shows up. Yep, Ben Flajnik, the star of the ABC reality show. You know, the Sonoma-based winemaker who has no connection to the film industry? As it turns out, Monday's episode of "The Bachelor" was conveniently filmed in Park City, and Flajnik was on hand to promote it. Oh, and to score some free Sorel snow boots. And to "rub elbows with real actors."

Flajnik said he'd seen the Australian thriller "Wish You Were Here" and dined with actor Michael Cera -- an event apparently coordinated by the entertainment television show "Extra." Flajnik said he was enjoying being starstruck after the last few months, during which he has been approached on the street by fans of "The Bachelor." 

"I've been stopped a lot by younger women who are like, 'Hey, can we take a picture?'" he said. "And finally it was my turn to say, 'Hey, can I take your picture?'"

2. Quincy Jones slaps you (gently) on the face. Yep, that's right. The music legend patted me on the cheek after gushing about his daughter, Rashida Jones, who stars in the Sundance film "Celeste and Jesse Forever."

"It takes me on a ride every time I see it," he said. "It's very emotional. It touches me that way."

I asked the music veteran what he thought about Drake's tardiness. "Oh, whatever," he smiled.

3. You meet Drake's cousin. Well, maybe. After spotting one young man who eerily resembled the rapper, our photographer approached the possible relative to ask if he shared blood ties with Drake. He denied any connection, but his friends insisted otherwise. "He is Drake's cousin, and he always lies about it!" they yelled. "Take his picture!" And so we did.

4. Anthony Mackie fills you in on the ins and outs of judging Sundance films. The actor is one of the jurors for this year's festival, and it appears he takes his duties rather seriously. After viewing a new film, "The Adjustment Bureau" star said he jots down a short essay describing his feelings about what he has just seen. So what is he looking for exactly? Clarity of storytelling and dedicated acting. "Being able to go that extra mile and not just try to be James Dean and handsome," he said.

5. You go from loving to hating to loving Drake again. Although he kept us waiting for what felt like an eternity, when Drake actually did arrive around 12:30 a.m., he was frustratingly nice. And really, how could anyone get mad at the guy who played Wheelchair Jimmy on "Degrassi"?

Drake insisted he was late not because he was being obnoxious, but because his plane had been delayed and he was caught in the snowstorm. So why did he make the apparently arduous trek?

"Sundance has always been this thing I wanted to attend, no matter what," he said. "I like the acting crowd, you know? It's less confrontational."


Sundance 2012: In "Shut Up," the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

Sundance 2012: A 65-year-old takes on disability and sex in "The Surrogate"

-- Amy Kaufman

Photo: Drake talks with reporter Amy Kaufman. Credit: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Sundance 2012: 'Finding North' looks at hunger in America

January 23, 2012 |  1:23 am

The Sundance Film Festival documentary "Finding North" forcefully makes the case that hunger poses serious economic, social and cultural implications for the nation

The Sundance Film Festival is chock full of documentaries this year about the troubles besetting America, with movies examining the shortcomings of the war on drugs (Eugene Jarecki's "The House I Live In"), the problems with the healthcare system ("Escape Fire") and the ability of corporations to evade taxation ("We're Not Broke"). But "Finding North" may rank among the most moving (or disheartening, depending on your viewpoint) in that it tackles a seemingly straightforward, solvable problem: hunger in the United States.

Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson share directing and producing credits on the documentary, which focuses on three main characters: Rosie, an endearing fifth-grader from a small town in Colorado whose family relies on handouts; Tremonica, an overweight second-grader from Mississippi whose poor diet is leading to health problems, and Barbie Izquierdo, 24, a mother of two struggling valiantly to put food on the table in Philadelphia.

"Finding North" forcefully makes the case that hunger has serious economic, social and cultural implications for the nation. Examining everything -- including federal subsidies for agribusiness, how much Uncle Sam pays to provide school lunches for poor kids, and the lack of fruits and vegetables in many poor communities -- the movie argues vehemently for greater government spending on food stamps and childhood nutrition programs, a shift in subsidy programs away from sugar and starch crops and toward fresh produce, and a "living wage" so the working poor can afford to feed themselves.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

Although the filmmakers give a big shout-out to the religious and charitable organizations that provide many hungry Americans with hot meals and pantry handouts, the movie argues that charity alone will never solve the hunger problem -- which they say affects 49 million Americans (1 in 7).

Silverbush said she was inspired to make the film for two reasons: (a) her husband, "Top Chef" Tom Colicchio, had spent years working on anti-hunger and childhood nutrition initiatives, and yet the problem continued to grow and (b) an adolescent girl she was mentoring was struggling with hunger.

"I realized she was hungry, and it was messing up her life," Silverbush recalled after the film's premiere Sunday night in Park City, Utah. "Her school called and said she was scavenging for food."

Silverbush, whose experience is in fictional films, floated the idea to Jacobson, who had experience in the documentary world, and they decided to embark on the project together. Filming started in 2008, but the two encountered doubts amid the election of Barack Obama.

"We thought at one time, 'Do we still have a story to tell, now that Obama has been elected?'" Silverbush recalled. "But the landscape has changed [with the ongoing economic malaise]. People are no longer seeing the hungry as 'the other.' People in this country are realizing that they too could be one injury, or one mortgage payment, away from hunger."

The pair have teamed with Participant Media to begin a social action campaign around the issue, including outreach to schools, churches, synagogues and hunger organizations in urban and rural communities, as well as lobbying of legislators.

"We are both really committed to the idea that this film has an impact," Jacobson said.


Sundance 2012: Is "Arbitrage" this year's 'Margin Call?'

Sundance 2012: In "Shut Up," the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

 -- Julie Makinen in Park City, Utah 

Photo: Rosie, a fifth-grader from Colorado who struggles with hunger in "Finding North." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2012: Josh Radnor's 'Liberal Arts' gets ovation at premiere

January 22, 2012 |  9:31 pm

Liberal Arts premiered to strong reviews at the Sundance Film Festival]
Standing ovations are rare at the Sundance Film Festival, but "Liberal Arts" got one here on Sunday.

The film, directed, written by and starring "How I Met Your Mother" lead Josh Radnor, came to the festival with a low profile. While Radnor's debut directoral effort "happythankyoumoreplease" took home the festival's audience award in 2010, the movie failed to translate outside of Park City,  Utah, flopping at the box office with just over $200,000 in ticket sales.

Perhaps as a result, there wasn't much buzz about "Liberal Arts," in which Radnor plays Jesse, a thirtysomething pining for his days at Kenyon College, a small school in the Ohio countryside (which the actor actually attended). While visiting an old professor at Kenyon, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a bubbly, idealistic sophomore. The two share a passion for reading and begin trading handwritten letters once Jesse heads back to his unfulfilling job in New York City. While Zibby is thrilled to be embarking on a romance with an older guy, Jesse's unease over the age difference begins to complicate things.

At a party after the screening, Radnor was glowing over the positive reception to the film.

"I mean, I was prepared for any eventuality. But it was great," he said. (You can watch a video interview with the actor below.) "I could really feel that [the audience] were really with it."

Olsen said her interest in the film began after her agent -- also Radnor's -- presented her with his script. Following her emotionally intense performance in the cult drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene" last year and two other similarly dark films, the actress said she was eager to sign on to "Liberal Arts."

"I didn't want to put myself through torture after three traumatic movies," she said. "I wanted to do something fun and lighthearted, with lots of heart."

It seems likely that "Liberal Arts" will be picked up by a distributor, and Fox Searchlight was already expressing early interest in the picture Sunday evening. That would only be further validation for Radnor, who said people had been coming up to him after the screening and telling him to continue making movies. 

"That's the most encouraging thing," the 37-year-old said. "And I think the first time the perception was like, 'Oh, an actor made a movie.' ... So now it feels like I have a little more momentum as a person who writes and directs movies, and that's great, because I want to keep doing it."


Sundance 2012: Is 'Arbitrage' this year's 'Margin Call?'

Sundance 2012: In 'Shut Up,' the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

--Amy Kaufman


Photo: Josh Radnor, top left, poses with "Liberal Arts" cast members Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Olsen and Allison Janney. Credit: Victoria Will / Associated Press

Sundance 2012: A 65-year-old takes on disability and sex in 'The Surrogate'

January 22, 2012 |  8:45 pm

The Sundance Film Festival is famous for discovering fresh talent: Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Carey Mulligan among them. But one of the writer-directors most likely to make waves at this year’s festival hardly fits the mold. He’s 65-year-old Ben Lewin, a TV veteran whose last narrative film credit came 18 years ago.

Lewin’s “The Surrogate,” premiering Monday, is an affecting drama about a middle-age disabled man who wants to lose his virginity, and anyone who sees it would scarcely guess that its author is of a certain age. The movie is filled with sharp wit, full-frontal nudity and frank conversations about sex. “As a director, you don’t need to have youth on your side,” said Lewin, who lives in Santa Monica.

“The Surrogate” is based on the life of Mark O’Brien (played by “Winter’s Bone” star John Hawkes), who contracted polio as a child and was largely paralyzed. A poet and journalist, O’Brien wrote about his disability — he breathed with the help of an iron lung and was transported in a gurney — with candor in the book “How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence.” O’Brien was featured in the 1996 documentary short “Breathing Lessons.”

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance 2012

Lewin, who himself had polio at age 6 and walks with crutches, didn’t set out to make a feature about O’Brien. Instead, he was surfing the Web “looking for tasteless material about sex and the disabled” for a sitcom idea he called “The Gimp.”

Lewin came across O’Brien’s 1990 story “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which described his losing his virginity at age 36. “I stumbled across this article, and it really affected me — enough to make me want to commit the next five years to it,” said Lewin, whose TV credits include “Touched by an Angel.”

O’Brien died in 1999, but Lewin was able to track down women who were close to him, including Cheryl Greene, a “sex surrogate” who teaches clients one-on-one how to have intercourse. “It was a real turning point,” Lewin said. “There was a question in my mind, ‘What’s the difference between what she does and what a hooker does?’ Part of the answer is, the sex surrogate keeps notes.”

In addition to Lewin’s writing and directing the film, Lewin also helped raise much of its roughly $1-million budget. Among the film’s producers is Judi Levine, Lewin’s wife of 36 years.

While Lewin’s movie does not shy away from the mechanics of sex and disability, “The Surrogate” is ultimately a romantic comedy about one man’s fears and his struggles to overcome them. “I didn’t want to make a biopic,” Lewin said. “I wanted to make a relationship movie.”

As written by Lewin, and played by Hawkes in a performance that recalls Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning role in “My Left Foot,” O’Brien is an articulate and self-deprecating observer of his life. “I can be a bit time-consuming, but I’m worth the trouble,” he says early in the film. Determined not to die a virgin, he turns to a priest (William H. Macy) to discuss his options.

With the priest’s reluctant blessing, O’Brien contacts Greene (Helen Hunt). Hunt boldly pulls a full Fassbender, stripping naked as she tries to teach O’Brien how to make love and “stop acting like you’re going to your own execution.”

Part of the film’s conceit is that Greene’s relationship with O’Brien starts to cross a professional line. “I thought that was dramatically interesting and necessary,” Lewin said. Greene “didn’t feel as if it was that much an exaggeration,” the filmmaker added, and “she described her time with him as ‘magical.’”

Stephen Nemeth, whose Rhino Films served as a “Surrogate” producer, suggested that Lewin submit the film to Sundance. “Ben has a great sense of humor about disability and himself,” he said. “The film could have been something very different but for his attitude and levity. And he’s a very hip guy — he’s exposed to everything in pop culture.”

Lewin seems unworried about his own job prospects going forward but is concerned about how “The Surrogate” might be received. “I think there are some audiences that aren’t going to relate to the movie,” he said. He rewrote an early “Surrogate” draft because he feared it was too explicit.

He said his own disability hasn’t hurt his career. “If you look at the types of directors out there,” he said, “I’m not as weird as most of them.”

Nemeth has high expectations for the film and its maker. “I think it’s a very important film for the disabled community and will change how we see the disabled and sexuality,” the producer said. And if Lewin is discovered in Park City, Nemeth added, “That will be the coolest thing that has ever happened to him or to Sundance.”


Sundance 2012: Is 'Arbitrage' this year's 'Margin Call?'

Sundance 2012: In 'Shut Up,' the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

— John Horn in Park City, Utah

Photo: Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in "The Surrogate." Credit: Sundance Film Festival.


Sundance 2012: 'Safety' offers time-travel heart, laughs

January 22, 2012 |  8:35 pm

Safety Not Guaranteed
Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) in “Safety Not Guaranteed” isn’t going anywhere fast. She can’t even get a job waiting tables at a diner—“You’re just not a quality hire,” the manager tells her—and her own dad says of her stuck-in-neutral life, “It’s like there’s a cloud following you.”

Her internship at a Seattle magazine doesn’t look promising, either, until she’s asked to help lazy, misogynistic writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) look into who might have placed a strange classified ad looking for a time-traveling companion who “must bring your own weapons,” with the warning, “safety not guaranteed.”

(The movie is based on an actual, but prank, notice that ran in Backwoods Home magazine in 1997, and its author, John Silveira, has a cameo in the film.). The author of the ad, Kenneth Calloway (indie filmmaker Mark Duplass) may not be playing with a full deck, but there’s something charming about his paranoia and plans, including ninja-style training.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance 2012

Before long, Darius is not only looking at Kenneth with more than journalistic curiosity but also considering trying to travel back in time with him. “Safety,” whose whimsical style recalls "Juno" with a sci-fi twist, gives Plaza a good chance to expand her career beyond second-banana roles in movies like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and the TV series “Parks and Recreation.”

Written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow, “Safety Not Guaranteed” enjoyed an animated reception in its premiere dramatic competition screening Sunday night, and several buyers leaving  the theater expressed interest in buying the film.

Connolly admitted that he toyed around with several scenarios about whether the time machine would even work (you’ll have to see the film to find out which one they chose).

Trevorrow said he was less interested in the ad itself than using it as a starting point for a love story with time travel at its center. “Even crazy people deserve to be loved,” Trevorrow said. “So find your crazy person and march through time with them.”


Sundance 2012: Is 'Arbitrage' this year's 'Margin Call?'

Sundance 2012: In 'Shut Up,' the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

--John Horn

Photo of Aubrey Plaza in “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Credit: Benjamin Kasulke


Sundance 2012: Ai Weiwei screening becomes a political event

January 22, 2012 |  4:18 pm

Ai Weiwei. Sundance 2012: Ai Weiwei screening becomes a political event

The Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has inspired activist gatherings around the world with his work and his statements about democracy. But on Sunday a new movie about him brought the politics of protest to a different place: a movie theater.

"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival's Library Center Theatre and inspired a rare standing ovation and a general activist fervor at the Utah film gathering. Members of the audience praised the director and expressed a willingness to get involved as they nosily exited the theater.

Directed by newcomer Alison Klayman, a freelance journalist in her 20s who spent years with the artist, the movie is a hybrid talking-head/fly-on-the-wall documentary that draws a portrait of a surprisingly accessible political icon. Ai, the 54-year-old son of poet Ai Qing, has become one of China's most potent symbols of artistic dissent thanks largely to social media. He comes across here as a genial everyman, supervising a team of artists who help carry out his visions and displaying a certain amount of mirth, even as he can get deadly serious toward and about government authority.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance 2012

Klayman has an unusual amount of access to her subject. She spends time with him as he designs the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics but then disavows the structure because of the government's policy of displacement. She delves into his personal life, showing his playful relationship with a son he had with a woman who is not his wife.

And of course she shows the creative process behind, and cultural implications of, his politically inflected work: the painting of an historic urn with the Coca-Cola logo, his Tate Modern show in which millions of hand-painted sunflower seeds were scattered across a giant floor, and an installation that featured the names of victims of the massive earthquake in Sichuan province.

The film spends a great amount of time on that last piece and the circumstances surrounding it. Ai created it to protest the government's shoddy construction of schools that he and many other critics believe led to the death of thousands of children. Ai's outspokenness on the issue leads to a confrontation with police in which he is beaten in the head and given a serious brain injury.

We don't see the seemingly unprovoked attack but we hear it, and we later are shown another face-off with government authorities, who as the months go on increasingly follow and pay attention to Ai in all sorts of insidious ways. (In one semi-comical scene, an official begins videotaping a meal Ai is having with his colleagues and other protesters, prompting one of his assistants to begin photographing the government videographer.)

The movie's emotional punch comes in the final 15 minutes, when we learn that Ai has vanished, presumably whisked away by authorities as part of a larger dissident crackdown. Ai spends 81 days being interrogated at an undisclosed location, during which people around the world show their support with protests online and in the streets. "They silence him but his voice grows louder and louder," reads one stirring tweet, and other supporters take solemn photographs holding placards bearing his name. (Needless to say, the film is not likely to be screened in China.)

Klayman had already returned to her native New York to begin postproduction during that time, but she goes back to China to offer a jolting epilogue to the film. She chronicles the moment when Ai is released but has now been put under a one-year media and travel ban. His outspokenness transmutes into an unsettling silence, with the previously voluble artist telling cameramen he cannot offer any details about his incarceration or even comment about the nature of the ban.

At the post-screening question-and-answer session, Klayman explained that it was this ban that prevented him from coming to Sundance. "A year ago he would have been here," she said. Even a planned video linkup had to be scuttled because of ban-related fears.

"Things have been changing since [he was detained]. He does have to be more cautious." Klayman said. But she added that since the government hit him with a $2-million tax bill, he has grown increasingly discontented and willing to speak out a little more freely." He has seen the film, she told the audience, who was given information and exhorted to tweet about it upon leaving the theater.

In one of the film’s numerous scenes of defiance, Ai describes his motivation for his art and his statements. "If you don't publicize it, it's like it never happened," he said. There was little danger of that Sunday.


Sundance 2012: Is 'Arbitrage' this year's 'Margin Call?'

Sundance 2012: In 'Shut Up,' the enigma of LCD Soundsystem

Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2012: 'Beasts' wins producer fellowship

January 22, 2012 | 12:36 pm

Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Already the talk of the Sundance Film Festival, the dramatic competition film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” received more good news on Sunday, as the film's producers won the first fellowship prize presented by the Sundance Institute and the independent film company Indian Paintbrush.
The inaugural award for producers Dan Janvey and Josh Penn carries a $10,000 grant and was presented at a lunch ceremony Sunday. The money is intended to “support the development, pre-production, post-production, distribution and/or marketing” of a film project.

Directed and co-written by Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts” is now the focus of interest from several potential distributors, including the top specialized film company, Fox Searchlight. Set in a remote, impoverished outpost off the Louisiana coast, “Beasts” focuses on a young girl named Hushpuppy and her dying father. The film is populated with nonprofessional actors and features a post-apocalyptic plot involving mythical beasts.

“'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is a daring, original film that represents the best of American independent cinema," Indian Paintbrush, which acquired the Sundance title “Like Crazy” at last year’s festival, said in a statement. The production company praised the film for its “profound soul that challenges the way we think about our world."


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

Photos: The scene at Sundance 2012

Sundance 2012: Rashida Jones does romantic dramedy

— John Horn

Photo: Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Credit: Jess Pinkham.


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