Posts Tagged ‘Sundance’
For any dedicated cinephile, there’s a certain comfort in the daily routine at Sundance: wake, drink coffee, queue up half an hour before the first day’s screening, absorb film, queue again, repeat until exhausted. (Twelve hours is my personal limit.) Sitting in a darkened theater all day long, it’s easy to feel you’re existing in a bubble, as the rest of the world falls away like molted skin. Yes, the place is ablaze with the LED glow of various mobile devices as people compulsively check email and try to maintain a haiku-like thread of electronic contact with coworkers and loved ones. But the theater is also a refuge from normal obligations, where the chatter concerns films seen, and little else. People exchange heated opinions, discuss the latest acquisitions, and share recommendations. Here in Park City, as far as I can tell, few people are trying to wrap their heads around the protests in Egypt or Obama’s State of the Union speech, even if they’ve glimpsed the day’s headlines on a news feed. The world could be ending and no one would notice. Read the rest of this entry »
Sundance has its charms. Pristine mountain air and bison burgers aside, the Mormon hospitality—people are unfailingly nice around these parts, considering the massive influx of New York and L.A.–based douchebags who invade their quaint resort town every year—makes up for the expensive food, overstuffed shuttle buses, and hordes of Main Street swag hunters. So, too, does the progressive spirit underlying the festival, the emphasis on artists and the relevance of their work to the wider social world. The festival prides itself on nurturing next-wave talent, and often prioritizes alumni of the Sundance Institute’s vaunted writing labs, finishing schools that can sometimes create a formulaic “Sundance effect” among competition entries, especially on the narrative side. (Trauma/conflict + minority characters + impossible situation + hard-won resolution = the indie gold standard.) But there are always nuggets to be found among the glittering specks of fool’s gold. One reason I like to come to Park City is to glimpse whatever finely crafted, commercially viable independent films will find their way into theaters later in the year, and others (usually docs) that won’t connect with an audience at all. Another is simply to experience the collegial atmosphere of a festival that, despite the more invidious aspects of its growth over the past 25 years (brand specialists and bogus PR events grow around this place like kudzu), continues to inspire me. Read the rest of this entry »
Whether you see them as merry pranksters for moral justice or asinine hoaxsters with a hard-on for anti-globalist propaganda, there’s no question that Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, better known as the Yes Men, know how to goose the news media and middleminded corporate enterprisers with straight-faced impersonations of legitimate (often nonexistent) Big Biz types. Phony aliases, outlandish PowerPoint presentations, and giant-prop-assisted demos are all in a day’s work for these culture-jamming wags, who’ve punked everyone from Exxon and the World Trade Organization to Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, targeting the logic of free-market capitalism with an eye to boosting a greener, more idealistic society.In September, for instance, on the eve of the U.N. summits on climate change, the satirical activists distributed a fake “Special Climate Edition” of the New York Post with the Rupe-worthy headline WE’RE SCREWED.
In their latest film, The Yes Men Fix the World (co-directed by Kurt Engfehr), the duo create one of their most elaborate stunts, appearing on BBC World in the guise of Dow Chemical who, on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, issues an unheard-of mea culpa and announces a $12 billion aid plan to the people sickened long ago by the chemical spillage. Within half an hour, Dow’s stock has plummeted. By the time Bichlbaum (appearing as the ludicrously named rep) has been unmasked, the message about corporate responsibility has filtered through world news outlets, taking on a life of its own.
Time travel has been an idée fixe in the realm of sci-fi since 1895, when H.G. Wells published his classic novella The Time Machine, an influential story that spawned an entire subgenre in literature of the fantastic and, eventually, cinema. The latest twist on the genre, Nacho Vigalondo’s Russian doll-like thriller Timecrimes, will get a theatrical release tomorrow from Magnet Releasing, a specialty division of Magnolia Pictures. The film—about a man who repeatedly travels a few hours into the past to untangle a dark chain of events—was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, and United Artists already has plans to remake the film in 2009 with Children of Men screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton and Canadian auteur David Cronenberg reportedly attached.
In the film, middle-aged Hector (Karra Elejalde) is vacationing with his girlfriend Clara (Candela Fernandez) at a country house in Spain. A few disturbing encounters—agitated phone calls from a creepy stranger, then the alarming appearance of a naked young woman on the grounds—sends him into the woods to investigate. After locating the woman, now unconscious, he is attacked by a scissors-wielding lunatic whose head is wrapped in bloodied bandages. Wounded and scared, he flees to a nearby research facility where a frightened scientist (Vigalondo) convinces him to “hide” in a fluid-filled pod. Naturally, the mechanism turns out to be an experimental time machine, and Hector is transported into the recent past, though to say more would spoil the fun of Vigalondo’s meta-puzzle. It’s a meticulous reworking of the basic Wellsian template, updated with borrowings from horror and contemporary thrillers. Most inventive is the way Vigalondo toys with our sense of perspective, jumbling a panoply of Hector’s past and future selves so we are unsure, as spectators, how to orient ourselves. Perhaps Sexton will have more success beefing up his characters, but at least at the conceptual level, Timecrimes is a worthy addition to the time-travel canon.
Revisiting Vigalondo’s film got me thinking about another recent sci-fi indie thriller, Shane Carruth’s talky, super-brainy Primer, which earned the Dallas-based writer-director a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and several Independent Spirit nominations in 2004. Shot with an amateur cast and crew on a minuscule budget (about $7,000), Primer boasts finely modulated performances by Carruth and David Sullivan, but, like Timecrimes, virtually no special effects. Instead, Carruth creates tension in edgy, conversational exchanges and precision editing, not to mention assured camerawork, in which time overlaps are rendered by shifts in perspective and subtle structural adjustments to the filmed action. The story concerns Abe and Aaron, a pair of young, entrepreneurial-minded corporate engineers working on a potentially lucrative project in their spare time, with a suburban garage functioning as their makeshift lab. They build a “box” out of home-appliance scraps to test their theories, and make an important discovery about their newfangled device, which does something they never anticipated, appearing to transport a tiny canister of argon three seconds into the past. Things get interesting when they attempt to duplicate the process on a larger scale.
Most time-travel films position their protagonist (usually a man) to arbitrate a moral crisis created by a disturbance in the time-space continuum, an aberrant circumstance prompted by some selfish motive (love, greed, glory, hubris, scientific curiosity) on the part of one or several characters. In the case of Primer, Abe and Aaron are not mad tinkerers at all, but factotums of corporate industry, ultra-productive rationalists committed to “36-hour days” who ultimately run up against the limits of their own emotional and psychological endurance as extended-time voyagers. The film is just 77 minutes long, and the jargon-heavy dialogue can at times obscure the relevance of key scenes, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise suspenseful, ingenious iteration of the time-travel genre.
There are a few scenes available online at video-sharing sites, but I’ve pasted a YouTube link below that I think gives a good sense of the film without giving away any of it key plot points.
Gripe if you like about Sundance—and believe me, people do (too much hype! too many celebs! too much talk about the zillion-dollar deals!)—there’s really nothing quite like it. Still the largest venue for Amer-indie films, Sundance has a cachet that separates it from other festivals, even if it is drowning in a sea of swag. Is the festival a victim of its own success? To quote the old Magic 8-Ball: “MY SOURCES SAY YES.” Friends and professional colleagues who have logged hours at the fest multiple times through the years often attest to how “it isn’t what it used to be,” and how the founding ideals of the Sundance Institute have been woefully corrupted, mostly by the influence of Hollywood ideology (on the films) and piggybacking product hawkers looking to cash in on the scene. Inaugurated 30 years ago, when it was known as the US Film Festival, the reputation of this now heavily branded and mega-corporate-sponsored 10-day event soared in 1989 when Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget, bare-bones relationship drama sex, lies and videotape premiered in Park City, where it won the Audience Award and went on to become an unlikely international sensation. The heady early days of Sundance and its growing pains under the stewardship of founding kingpin Robert Redford were eloquently documented in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, an outrageously dishy book that also regaled readers with the story of Miramax’s concurrent rise to becoming the most formidable U.S. distributor of independent film. What a time it must have been!
So where does that leave newcomers (like me) to Sundance, movie lovers with a sense of adventure who may be excited to discover a fledgling filmmaker with a distinctive vision, or a one-of-a-kind foreign film or genre oddity that may never get a theatrical release? If the past few years are any indication, there may be a minefield of mediocrity to wade through, generally speaking, with respect to the quality and seriousness of much Sundance fare. But with 121 entries all vying for attention (87 of those world premieres), there’s still plenty of room for discerning viewers with a program guide and a yellow highlighter to navigate past the obvious star-studded crowd pleasers (Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, playwright Martin McDonagh’s Opening Night film, In Bruges) and make a true find among all the offerings. Think of Daniel Day-Lewis’s rugged Daniel Playview in There Will Be Blood, scratching around in a vertiginously deep mine shaft looking for raw ore. One day he’s a dirt merchant, the next he’s a self-made oil tycoon with a vast empire of holdings. I may be showing up at the party a bit late, but I believe that with a bit of digging (this year especially), there’s a wonderland of priceless (not so much precious) images waiting to be found beneath the winter sludge.