Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My Sundance Experience

I always said I wasn't going to go to Sundance until I had a film there, but when I was invited this year by Matson Duncan to attend his Cultural Leadership Summit, I really couldn't say no. I was, in fact, invited last year, but I couldn't make things work.

The purpose of the event was to bring together a bunch of like-minded filmmakers and those who think and write about film and culture in order to discuss how films can edify culture.

The event was a great success, for me at least. I met some terrific creative people and connected with them over morning sessions as well as in between films, over great meals (and rushed ones) on Main Street in Park City, UT. The weather was, on the whole, pretty decent, with temperatures staying in the high 30s during the day and only getting truly cold after dark. Crowds were down this year at Sundance, so while there were still lines aplenty, it was at least possible to move down the street (which, from what I've been told, hasn't always been easy in years past).

It was hard to get tickets to films. This is the kind of thing that makes you really want to have your film screen at Sundance -- there is no film that doesn't have a sold-out screening.

Here's what I saw:

Shorts Program IV: Shorts programs are always a mixed bag, and there are plenty of differing opinions on what a short should be. This program contained a little of everything (in my opinion, of course). The attack of the robots from Nebula was a quirky piece about an unbalanced fellow who believes the world will be destroyed soon (by the titular robots). It worked for me, but I could easily see why it might not work for others. Sparks, an Elmore Leonard adaptation by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, seemed like a good idea, I'm sure, but, in spite of its stylistic flourishes, it was essentially a story told in dialogue-heavy flashback by the two oh-so-clever main characters (Carla Gugino and Eric Stoltz). Elmore Leonard has been done much better in the past. Next Floor was a brilliantly realized take on gluttony, as a group of wealthy eaters pigs out on rare foods until they fall through the floor -- again and again. Completely visual (almost no dialogue at all), and really effective. Short Term 12 is a terrific emotional film about a psychiatric youth residential home, filled with screwed-up kids and damaged counselors. The worst of the bunch was Choices, a pointless piece wherein the audience watches a man make love to his girlfriend while he narrates the story of having to choose between his mother and his father when they divorced in his youth. Poorly shot and needlessly "edgy," it did nothing for me.

U.S.A./Canada/Kuwait, 2009, 96 min., color
English and Arabic with English subtitles
Amreeka tells the story of a Palestinian single mother and her son when they move to America and live with her sister and her sister's family right after 9/11. It keeps the tone light throughout much of the film, focusing on her fish out of water status and her frustration at not being able to find a decent job in spite of years of experience and education. The acting is quite good, and the writer/director smartly doesn't try to make things too maudlin, even though the events are serious. By using the tropes of a typical film in this genre, the filmmaker manages to get the audience to identify with this woman, who is an outsider to U.S. audiences by virtue of her nationality. Her plight is universal, though, and her love and concern for her teenage son shine through.

The Maid
Chile, 2008, 95 mins., color
From the Sundance site: "After 23 years of service to the Valdes family, Raquel is comfortably ensconced in a vague existence between maid and her illusion that she is a family member. Her barely concealed bitterness and increased clashes with her employer's eldest daughter lead the family to think she is overworked. They hire more help, and, feeling usurped, Raquel begins to sabotage each new employee by resorting to childish antics, clinging to her ambiguous place within the family." There were some very solid moments in this film -- some real human emotion and redemptive ideas. Ultimately, it's bogged down by a repetitive first half and some not-so-great camera and sound. I remember thinking that the film should have been shorter, but when I checked the running time, it was only 95 minutes. That's never a good sign. The first two-thirds of the movie seemed to repeat the maid's war with other maids over and over, and though I'm sure this is "how it really happened" (the director explained the semi-autobiographical nature of the story), it makes for lazy and ineffective storytelling.

You Won't Miss Me
U.S.A., 2009, 81 mins., color & b/w
The title is accurate. I won't miss this film. Or, more accurately, I won't miss the second half, which I didn't bother watching. I am not one to walk out of a film. I even sat through Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child. But 45 minutes into this film, I couldn't bear any more. It was pretentious and boring, an "unscripted" attempt to capture an unbalanced woman's miserable life. I guess it succeeded, as it made me pretty miserable. The improvisational nature of the shooting was, I'm sure, thought to be pretty innovative, but I thought it made for a pretty shoddy end result, with actors looking around uncomfortably as they apparently ran out of things to say. I thought about articulating more about why I don't think this is a good film, but I feel as though I've wasted enough time on it. In answer to the director, who asked me from a distance, as I walked out of the theatre, "So you hated it that bad?" -- yes. Yes, I did. I would have answered you at the time, but I wasn't aware you were talking to me at first, and the moment passed.

If you want to read more about the film, read the description at the Sundance site.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience. I hope to be back next year, and I hope to continue some wonderful new friendships.


Blogger BK Garceau said...

Sounds like the fest was full of some enjoyable moments and some not so!

1/20/2009 10:10 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I very much enjoyed reading about your experiences and your descriptions and evaluations of the films you saw. Although perhaps it would have been nice to read a few details about the pannel you were on. But very exciting, nonetheless. I hope someday I'll get to Sundance.

It's interesting about experimental films -- sometimes, just like in science, the experiment fails. At least you know what not to do next time. Reminds me a bit of "The Brown Bunny"--I almost walked out of that one.

(Last night, Debbie and I saw "Defiance" and we noticed a couple walk out of that one.)

1/22/2009 8:56 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

J -- I might write up some notes on the summit when I've had some time to think about them...

1/22/2009 4:38 PM  

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