Monday, January 30, 2012

An art film about art films.

I liked Nobody Walks from director Ry Russo-Young who cowrote the screenplay with Lena Dunham. But I'm not exactly sure why I liked it. Maybe it was because this is a movie that embraces light. And I'm not talking about big, Hollywood light that requires tons of equipment and electricity. I'm talking about warm, rich, intense California light.  This movie captures so much natural, beautiful light it's unlike any movie I've seen in a long time. Shooting with available light never looked so good.

Then again, I may have liked this movie because of the sound design. If there's one thing Sundance 2012 proved, it's that sound design matters. And this movie delivers wonderful sound. I guess it had to. After all, it's a movie about a young artist who visits the friend of a friend to get help creating the sound design for her latest art film. The art film within the art film is gorgeous and the sound design is even more luscious. It may be my favorite part of the movie.

Which leads us to the movie's plot. The young, female artist moves into the home of a successful California family. She;s not just sexy, she's strangely desirable. That means the entire family is thrown into chaos. The daughter is jealous. The young son is turned on. The husband does her. The wife wants to do her but can't because she's so pissed off at her husband. And that doesn't include the plot lines for the secondary characters.

Nobody Walks is a Sundance film that proves independent filmmakers are achieving new heights. It wasn't my favorite movie at this year's festival. But it's hard not to like this beautiful movie.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The war on the war on drugs.

Eugene Jarecki's documentary The House I Live In will likely make you mad. Plenty of people in the theater shifted uncomfortably in their seats, groaned with anger, even hissed at the screen. And with good reason. Jarecki does a great job of laying out his premise that the "war on drugs" isn't working and in fact is hurting many Americans. He also convincingly demonstrates that those being harmed the most are minorities and the poor. All the while, politicians and the incarceration industry benefit.

Jarecki works hard to keep partisanship out of the film. That's one of the reasons The House I Live In succeeds. Sure, I have a lot of conservative friends who would balk at some of the ideas expressed in the movie. And I'll bet Jarecki leans to the left politically. But this movie would make just about anyone angry with the crazy way we've dealt with the problem of drugs in society. The House I Live In makes you want to take action to change the system and alleviate injustice.

While Jarecki's passion for his subject matter ensures the movie communicates the right messages, it also works to the film's detriment. This is a long documentary.  OK so it's 110 minutes which may not seem unduly long. But key points are hammered home multiple times in slightly different ways.  It gives the movie a feeling of redundancy. I was often bored.

That said, I wish Sundance would head to Washington, D.C. and set up shop on Capitol Hill. They could show socially relevant documentaries like The House I Live In. Maybe, just maybe, it might help advance the cause for change that matters.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Never retreat. Retweet.

The two movies I wanted to see most at this year's Sundance Film Festival were both about contemporary art. Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present is a stunning view of art as performance. Art as protest is the central theme in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry from director Alison Klayman. While completely different in look and feel than the Abramovic documentary, this movie is just as engaging.

Klayman, who if I had to guess is only in her late twenties, does a great job of balancing the movie's focus between Ai Weiwei's gallery art and his more esoteric protest art. She tracks the artists attempts to identify all of the schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  Weiwei takes on this task because the Chinese government refuses to provide the information amid public outcry that the schools were built without necessary precautions to prevent earthquake damage. The artist tracks his efforts on his blog, becoming a hero of many working Chinese.

When the government shuts down his blog, Ai Weiwei turns to twitter to continue his criticism of the Chinese authorities and their lack of transparency. In the end, the artist is imprisoned for several months and still is not allowed to leave Beijing. While many have spoken about the power of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings, few seem to mention its importance in places like China. I'm glad this movie explores the value of social media in China, because I found this example even more compelling.

But Ai Weiwei isn't just an activist, he's also an artist. And Klayman's film is more interesting because she provides insight into the artist's history and follows him as he works on some of his largest projects. The context provided by the film makes Ai Weiwei's work more compelling. On the surface, 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds spread across the floor of London's Tate Modern may seem like just another meaningless Art-world stunt. But with the right context, it might be a commentary on China's working class and the issues they face. Smashing Chinese antiquities could be another bad-boy artist's attempt to shock the world and gain publicity. Or maybe it's a defiant reminder that old ideas need to change.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a movie with enough content that just about everyone will find something that will speak to them personally. And, like me, I'll bet you'll leaving the theater committed to being more courageous and more willing to stand strong in the face of authority.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sundance Film Festival; Chilean edition.

The Sundance Film Festival's dedication to global movies is legendary. That means it's hard to get through a festival without seeing several foreign films. The first of my 2012 festival is Violeta Went to Heaven from director Andres Wood and screenwriter Eliseo Altunaga. This is a biopic about Violeta Parra, a Chilean folksinger and pop icon. She'd qualify in the "national treasure" category for her dedication to expressing the soul of Chile by championing its traditional music. And according to the movie, she also somehow had her artwork shown at the Louvre simply by walking in and asking them to show her work.  Let's just say I'm skeptical about the authenticity of this scene in the movie.

In the spirit of successful Sundance movies (particularly this year), Violeta is a tortured artist and the movies takes us through her trials and travails until she ultimately (SPOILER ALERT) takes her own life.  This is a fine movie. Nothing more. Nothing less. The acting's fine. The direction's fine. I can't tell you what I don't like about it. I can't tell you what I do like. It just seems to be. I wouldn't add it to my Netflix queue.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The artist is indeed present.

You may recall that back in 2010 I went to see a retrospective at MoMA of the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic called The Artist Is Present.  You can read what I had to say here. I liked the show for the questions it raised about the role of performance art in the greater historical context.  So you can imagine how excited I was when I learned that a documentary about the exhibit was screening at Sundance.

The documentary was almost as engaging as the exhibit itself. HBO has always taken the art of the documentary seriously and this is no exception.  For a year, Matthew Akers and his crew were given access to Abramovic as she planned the show and then executed the performance. The result is Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present, a brilliant look at the mind of a history-changing artist.

I took so much away from this documentary.  I'll highlight three of those things here. First, this movie reinforces the questions raised by the original exhibition; what is the value of performance art in the entire history of art?  I commented in my original review of the exhibit, "As I've frequently said, 'No one's ever going to have a major retrospective of a performance artist.'  I guess MoMA decided it was time to prove me wrong." The filmmakers decided to really prove me wrong. I'm now convinced Abramovic has demonstrated performance art will exert its importance in art history.

The second thing this movie confirmed for me is how crazy Abramovic's performance at MoMA was.  I thought it was crazy when I saw the work. For three months, Abramovic spent seven to ten hours a day, six days a week sitting still in a chair and looking into the eyes of strangers. I can't imagine undertaking such a monumental task. This movie forces viewers to realize the physical demands required to complete this stunning performance piece, especially for a woman in her 60s.

The third thing I'll highlight from Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present is the big surprise. It seems like all my favorite movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival have involved surprises.  Having read about Abramovic's work for years, and having experienced her MoMA retrospective, I was sure I had a pretty good idea of what Marina Abramovic would be like in person. This movie shattered that image.  I expected a strict, cold intense persona who would never let her guard down. Turns out Abramovic is an intoxicating, sparkling presence who laughs her way through life. That charm was a devious element that allowed the filmakers to give the documentary unexpected warmth.  When I saw The Artist Is Present at MoMA I took away a message of endurance and an attempt to force the world to slow down. But seeing this film, I realized it was much more. It's a work about connecting with our fellow human beings. About sharing our happiness and our sadness. It asks us to stop, take a deep breath, and look deep into the eyes of someone who might need a few moments of understanding.

I could go on and on about this movie. Instead, I'll suggest you subscribe to HBO and wait anxiously for it to show up on your DVR record list. That said, I can't end this post without one last huge surprise. I've been complaining that at this year's Sundance, SLC has been forgotten with virtually no visits from filmmakers or talent.  Imagine my surprise when, at a screening I was sure would be without a post-film discussion, Marina Abramovic walked down the aisle of the theater and once again engaged the audience. Her charming, passionate, and angry responses to audience questions have made me a believer; the importance of performance art in the art history is now confirmed.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

SPOILER ALERT: Simon is a jerk!

Antonio Campos's Simon Killer is classic Sundance. It's got plenty of indie-film cliches to ensure it has significant Park City street cred. A plot that unfolds slowly . . . really slowly? Check. A tragic yet vulnerable prostitute? Check. Multiple masturbation scenes? Check. Charming American creep tormenting the women of a foreign country? Check. Raunchy sex, hip soundtrack, chain smoking, drugs, and seizure-inducing strobe effects? Check, check, check check, and check. Is it just me, or is there at least one screening a year where the volunteers have to break out the "this movie contains strobe lights" signs?

Even with all those classic indie chestnuts, Simon Killer lacked the necessary goods to guarantee Sundance mega-hit status. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty to like about the film. This is a beautiful movie. The direction and cinematography are so tightly integrated that the movie brings real innovation to the art film. Frequently the scenes are cropped so that you don't see the actors heads and faces, just their torsos.  And much of the movie is shot following the actors from behind, again obscuring the their faces.  You'd think this would make it difficult to connect with the characters. Instead these directorial choices create unnerving tension that heightens the movie's intrigue.

I also liked the lead actors. Brady Corbett as Simon is charming and sexy.  You can see how the women of Paris might fall for his quirky good looks and strange friendliness. And Mati Diop is perfect as the tragic yet vulnerable prostitute. I'll bet we'll see them both again at Sundance.

But all the good of Simon Killer can't seem to overcome the bad. I found the whole affair tedious. Even scenes I liked ultimately bored me because they dragged on endlessly. Take the scene where Simon is at a club dancing with his latest Parisian conquests. At first the music and Corbett's dancing and the crowd intoxicated me. But as it continued, it lost its luster and diminished the effect.

It will be interesting to see if this film finds distribution.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dole needs a better PR strategy.

As a holder of a degree in PR, I ask every PR instructor in America to please show your classes Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten's Big Boys Gone Bananas!*. This Sundance documentary may not be the best film at the festival.  But it might be the best case study of what big, American companies should NOT do from a PR perspective.

Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is the story of how Dole reacted to Gertten's earlier film, Bananas which looked at the use of pesticides in the banana industry and how it may have affected workers.  Dole wasn't happy about the film and went after Gertten, the LA Film Festival, and just about anyone else they could think of. With plenty of lawsuits, Dole broke out its legal muscle. Unfortunately, Gertten's tiny film company didn't back down.  The result? Dole comes off as the behemoth corporate entity picking on the little guy, and probably not being terribly honest in the process.  It appears that the company hadn't even seen the documentary in question before they started exercising their significant legal power.

This isn't a documentary that will have you raving as you leave the theater.  But it will have you shaking your head about Dole's lack of street smarts. You'll also have a great deal of respect for Fredrik Gertten and his willingness to play the role of David to Dole's Goliath. That makes Big Boys Gone Bananas!* a film worth seeing, even if you're not in a PR class.

Somehow, I thought I'd hate the super-rich more after this movie.

Sundance always surprises.  Particularly the documentaries.  I wasn't sure I wanted to see The Queen of Versailles from director Lauren Greenfield.  I thought it would be just another example of the ultra-rich whining about how miserable their lives are.  But when one of the stars of the film sued Sundance and the filmmakers for libel, I had to see the movie.

The documentary follows the lives of David and Jackie Siegel as they begin their quest to build America's largest house. The filmakers should thank their lucky stars that the economy tanked after they started making the movie.  It certainly made for a documentary that delivers greater impact.

David and Jackie are ridiculously wealthy.  And Greenfield exploits that fact to outrageous and humorous effect. Some of the opening scenes are so out of touch and filled with ridiculous wealth that the audience can't help but gasp in disbelief. Oh, and then burst out in laughter.

What surprised me about this film is that I expected to revel in the fall of an out-of-touch, mega-rich, 1% jerk off. Turns out, I was struck more by the tragedy. I liked Jackie and I'm sad about her downfall. I feel for David and the stress that has invaded his life.

Sure, these are people who took advantage of the American population and an unregulated banking system to build incredible, unrealistic wealth. But they turned out to be people.  People, who reminded me that plenty of Americans are facing insurmountable financial difficulties.

The Queen of Versailles is a tragic movie.  Maybe a little too tragic.  It drags on at the end and left me unhappy. It's message that the American Dream is dead sparks more than melancholy, it inspires dread.

Sex and the City, Sundance style.

So far, my Sundance experience has been surprisingly sweet. But the third film on my schedule brought a little raunch to the festival experience. It came in the form of Carrie Preston (director) and Kellie Overbey's (screenwriter) That's What She Said, a comedy romp through New York City featuring a whole bunch of crazy women.

The story focuses on best friends DeeDee (Anne Heche) and Bebe (Marcia DeBonis) who are spending the day together to help Bebe prep for a long overdue date (hopefully with sex). DeeDee is a character tailor-made for a Sundance audience and Anne Heche plays her brilliantly! She's snarky, irreverent, funny, and partial to narcotics, booze, and cigarettes.  She also may be just a little too mean to be someone you'd really like.  And yet, I really liked her.

Heche steals the show. But her performance wouldn't be as good if it weren't for the brilliant portrayal of Bebe by Marcia DeBonis. The opening sequence featuring Bebe in the bathtub prepping for her date is outrageous.  And the running gag it sets up for the rest of the movie is ingenious, a testament to the brilliance of Overbey's script. Bebe is one of those characters that we all know and love . . . and hate. She's too sentimental; completely disorganized; a little scatterbrained; and that friend whose life always seems to be falling apart.

Throw in a nymphomaniac, a couple of lesbians, and you've got a raunchy, chick-lit version of one of those great crime caper films of the past, without all the crime. Oh wait, there is some crime.  I'll admit, I'm not sure how to describe this film.

That's What She Said isn't perfect.  It's brilliant when it embraces its over-the-top comedy.  But when it sways into dramatic territory it loses some of it's punch. Even the acting becomes obvious with characters losing their believability. The exception is the closing scene which is lovingly acted, strikingly art directed, and beautifully shot.

When I grow old, I'll be perfectly happy living with a robot.

Salt Lake City officially opened its 2012 Sundance Film Festival Friday night with Director Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank.  This is a quirky film, loaded with charm that feels right at home in the indie vibe of Sundance.

The movie is the story of Frank, an aging man whose memory just isn't what it used to be. Tired of making the long trip to upstate New York, Frank's son Hunter gets his father a robot programmed to manage Frank's health and to improve the quality of his life.

At first, Frank wants nothing to do with the "appliance." But after a while, Frank learns to appreciate the robot, even developing a complicated, problematic friendship.  There's a lot to like about Robot and Frank. Frank Langella's portrayal of Frank is perfect with just the right amounts of grumpiness and vulnerability. James Marsden as Hunter is as always, easy on the eyes.  But he also brings a reality and attitude that I, as an adult dealing with aging parents, connected with on an emotional, personal level.

Schreier directs the story with a flat, no-nonsense style. That's not a bad thing. It gives the movie a sensibility that balances the potentially goofy nature of the story.  And screenwriter Christopher Ford delivers a tale with a slew of delightful surprises.

I also have to mention Susan Sarandon's portrayal as the librarian (who has a robot brilliantly named Mr. Darcy).  She added a lovely grace to the film.

With its themes of memory, loneliness, and the power of friendship, Robot and Frank is well worth spending a few hours in a darkened theater.

Wonder, indeed.

SPOILER ALERT: This movie is best watched if you know less about the story.  This post may give away more that you want.

The Sundance Film Festival is always at its best when it's telling surprising stories. My Sundance experience is off to a great storytelling start with Searching for Sugar Man from director Malik Bendjelloul.

This is the story of Rodriguez, a 70s rock musician who seemed to have a promising talent.  However, his recording career flopped dramatically in almost every country on the planet. Almost. In the South Africa of Apartheid, his music took hold. There, his legend grew as did his music's popularity. His South African fans came to believe that he may or may not have committed suicide on stage by shooting himself in the head, lighting himself on fire, or over dosing on drugs.

Turns out, none of that was true.  He was living in Detroit working construction.  What makes Searching for Sugar Man so exciting are the non-stop surprises. It's hard to believe this story is true.  And Rodriguez is a perfect inspiration.  More than once I found my eyes misting over. I started this movie thinking I was going to have to sit through another Sundance "tortured artist" movie. I left feeling I'd experienced a story of humanity.

Director Malik Bendjelloul gets a big round of applause for making some brilliant documentary decisions. The movie trots along at a delightful clip, which means the surprises pile up faster than expected. And Rodriguez is fantastic. He showed up at the screening where he stayed true to his every-man ideals.  Even though he's started to gain the recognition he never achieved in his youth, he still lives in his old Detroit home and continues to work construction.  He also gives most of his money away.  Why? Well as he said at the screening, "It ain't about the money. I'm doing it for rock and roll history."

Here's a picture of Rodriguez (left), one of his daughters (center), and the movie maker at the very first Sundance screening ever at the Salt Lake City library.

Oh, and by the way, Rodriguez's music is more than likable, like this catchy tune, I Wonder.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dance like no one's watching (or you're at CES).

I'm not cool enough to get the invites needed to experience true Vegas nightlife, particularly when the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is in town.  So it's a good thing I know Sara Bresee.  She knows all the right people.  That's how, without an invite, we were whisked into the HP/Intel party. Not only that, Sara managed to get us into a VIP area so I had a perfect place to enjoy the show at XS, the nightclub at the Wynn Encore.

I'll start with the weirdest part of the evening: Pole Dancers.  Yes, I went to an HP/Intel party where they had some serious pole dancing.  I'm still trying to figure out who thought that was "on brand."  Although there were a lot of old men in the VIP section getting surprisingly friendly with young women who may or may not have been paid for the evening's entertainment. I'm not exactly sure which brands may or may not have been paying for the services. I guess even managing your brand takes a vacation in Vegas.

The party ratcheted up the fun when global music master Tiësto took the stage.  The music was fantastic and the super-chic LED screen technology was mind blowing.  Talking about it is useless.  So I'll just show some pictures.

The way to stay in Vegas.

With a last-minute invite to attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas, I was nearly thwarted by the high-priced last-minute room costs. Fortunately our San Francisco office had reserved a block of rooms at the Cosmopolitan and just happened to have an extra. I'm glad they did, because the Cosmopolitan turned out to be one of the best Vegas stays I've ever enjoyed.

Here are a few of the reasons why. The check-in staff was exceptional with their super-friendly approach that made me feel immediately at home. There were other check-in details that made the experience extra fun from the iPads imbedded in the counters to the card keys that were printed with my name. As someone who likes to keep card keys as hotel souvenirs, that's a cool detail. The fact that my room was upgraded to a larger suite with an incredible view didn't hurt either.

I also liked that this mega hotel and casino was still able to maintain the feel of a boutique hotel. The night I checked in, someone softly slipped a sealed envelope under my door. When I opened it, I found a hand-written note from Ichabod, the charming man who had checked me in earlier that evening. Among other things, the note gave me a personal invite to call the front desk if I needed anything. I marveled at the idea that a hotel so large could generate kind notes to each guest. Well, at least until the next day when I mentioned it to colleagues who were also staying at the Cosmopolitan but hadn't received such welcoming correspondences. I don't think I've ever felt so welcome at a hotel. Here's a photo of Ichabod's delightful note.

The other thing that makes the Cosmopolitan so much fun are the design details. The bars are opulent with their dizzying chandeliers, mirrored finishes, and astounding light fixtures. The rooms also feature amazing lighting that seems intent on making guests look their best. I also liked the design details in the rooms that hint at vintage Vegas like this brocade-like wallpaper in the bathroom created from sexy silhouettes.

The Cosmopolitan features plenty of trendy restaurants including Comme Ça where we had a delightful dinner with some favorite clients. The roasted beet salad was ridiculously delicious. And while my blog title may belie the fact, I don't like lobster. But others ordered the lobster thermidor which arrived with dramatic flair.

My favorite design element of the hotel are the massive video pillars that greet you at registration. With their constantly changing imagery, they offer a never-ending source of fascination.

Thanks Cosmopolitan for an amazing Vegas stay. I hope to be back soon.