Sunday, January 25, 2009

We're screwed.

Yes, I’ve been to yet another environmentally-themed, Sundance documentary. This time it’s Earth Days from director Robert Stone. Can you blame me? My birthday is April 22, the same day as Earth Day.

You know you’ve seen too many environmental documentaries when you start seeing the exact same stock video clips in multiple movies. And who knew Johnny Carson interviewed so many environmental activists?

There’s a documentary theme developing. What Art and Paper is to advertising, what I Knew It Was You is to acting, Earth Days is to environmentalism. It’s an opportunity to look back and celebrate the voices of the past, with little consideration for how these voices matter in the present or the future. And Earth Days left me hopeless.

The message I took away from the movies is, “We’re screwed.” Oh sure, we had a few environmental successes like ozone and cleaning up some of our water and air. But in reality, we’ve missed just about every opportunity to make real changes. Many of the environmental challenges we face today are the sames challenges faced by these early environmentalists. And we haven’t moved the ball very far. In fact I think things have only gotten worse. Sorry future generations, but we’re going to destroy the planet and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s a Ronald Reagan speech in the movie that confirms our right as Americans to complete, consumptive excess. And I need to get busy because I’m certainly not doing my part to over populate the planet.

This movie wasn’t that great. I think it wanted to be celebratory, but it just scared me. It missed an opportunity to encourage similar environmental activism today. So let’s all go burn some fossil fuels and make some babies. It’ll make us feel better.

That’s so dirty.

Refusing my own advice to lay off environmentally themed documentaries, I decided to see a screening of Dirt! The Movie. The show (which is narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis who really doesn’t have a great documentary voice) offers some interesting information; I learned a fair amount. But the movie didn’t work.

First, the film is didactic, coming across as preachy, even morally superior. So while I should have been guilted into refusing to eat commercially farmed mono crops, I was kinda like, “whatever.”

And I know it’s all the rage these days to use cutesy animations to make documentaries more approachable (thanks Morgan Spurlock). But the animations in this movie are embarrassing, really embarrassing. And they have no visual consistency. Someone needed a good art director. I’ll be surprised if Dirt! The Movie has much of reach beyond the film-festival circuit.

Who likes short shorts?

Everyone knows that documentaries are often the best movies at Sundance. That can also be true of the Shorts. So I always like to try and catch the Documentary Shorts screening. This year’s group included eight films and as usual they represented a wide range of topics and quality.

Some bordered on boring, like Steel Homes by director Eva Weber. This ten-minute film explores the emotional issues associated with Scottish storage units. There was the Real Place, an animated film about John Murrell from director Cam Christiansen. The animation was cool but the movie made me feel stupid. It didn’t tell me who Murrell is and seemed to suggest I should already know. (He’s a famous Canadian playwright.)

Chop Off was just plain creepy. This strangely made film by director M.M. Serra tells the story of a body modification enthusiast who is covered in tattoos and regularly chops off chunks of his fingers and toes with a hammer and chisel. Don’t rush out to rent this one.

I knew It Was You by director Richard Shepard is to acting what Art and Paper is to the advertising world. By looking back at the life of John Cazale (who died in the 70s at the age of 42), a who’s who of acting legends gets to reminisce about the good old days. At 40 minutes, this barely qualifies as a short.

More powerful was Annie P. Waldman’s So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away which takes a look at teenagers dealing with the aftermath of Katrina. The people at GOOD (publishers of GOOD Magazine) offered two films. The better of the two was GOOD: Internet Censorship by Lindsay Utz, Morgan Currie, and Jason Jones. I love the way GOOD Magazine presents complex statistical information. And this film took the same stylized design and elevated it, informing us how American companies are contributing to Internet censorship around the world. You can watch the short here.

My pick of the group is Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall from the “too crazy to be fiction” category. Filmmakers Sam Green and Carrie Lozano take us to a city in China that has no airport or major roadways leading to the town. A local entrepreneur turned billionaire returned to his hometown and decided to build the world’s largest shopping mall. It’s twice as big as the Mall of America. “Build it and they will come” didn’t work this time. The film wanders the strangely quiet compound. It’s all but vacant. A Teletubby-like character dances through the empty streets, waving at no one. A Gondolier guides an empty Gondola through the canals of a faux-Venice. And a worker at a lone retail store admits she’s sold nothing today. This is a fantastic film that tells an extraordinary tale with haunting humor.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I may need to stop seeing so many environmental films.

I’m drawn to environmental documentaries. It’s a subject that interests me. But I’m getting a little depressed. Is it just me or are we trying to destroy the planet as fast as possible? These movies are inspiring me to change my behavior. Let’s review. Big River Man means I can no longer eat fast food burgers because we’re destroying the Amazon rain forest to satiate our never-ending need for beef. The Cove means I can't support water parks or other resort destinations that keep captive dolphins. And now with End of the Line, I’ll need to be more responsible in my consumption of seafood.

This movie from director Rupert Murray is meticulously researched. And the filmmakers traveled the world to show exactly what’s happening. What is happening? Thanks to greed (and massive improvements in commercial fishing technology), we humans have raped the oceans to the point where many fish populations have collapsed or are in the process of collapse. Does that mean we’ve stopped fishing these populations? Of course not. We just develop ever more powerful technologies to make sure we can catch every last damn fish.

This movie does offer some hope including a shout out to Alaska salmon fisheries. Alaska carefully controls its salmon industry, ensuring a reasonable harvest each and every year. And that means it’s OK to eat wild Alaskan salmon. It’s not OK to eat farmed salmon as it takes something like 15 pounds of smaller ocean fish to create one pound of farmed salmon.

The filmmakers distributed handing pocket guides to make it easier to eat seafood responsibly. If you would like to be more responsible in the way you consume seafood, you can download the pocket guide here.

It's official. I'm OK!

At the Salt Lake City screening of End of the Line, the theater staff ditched their usual hand stamps featuring cutesy paw prints, spirals, or flowers. Instead, they proudly stamped everyone “OK.” I like this idea. In today’s gloomy economic environment, I think we could all use a little hand-stamp pick-me-up. So why not expand the library with things like “nice smile,” “lookin’ good,” or even “have you lost weight?”

This movie is horrific. You should see it.

The Cove by director Louie Psihoyos may be the most powerful movie I’ve seen this year. It makes me want to change my behavior. This is a movie made not by filmmakers but by activists. And you feel the passion in every frame.

As a viewer, you’re transported to Taiji, Japan, a place that feels like a resort for dolphins, whales, and those who love them. But the reality is just plain gruesome. Richard O’Barry (Flipper’s trainer who now works to free captive dolphins) is intent on pulling back the curtain to reveal the truth.

Every September, Taiji begins its annual dolphin harvest. A wall of boats corral hundreds of dolphins into a large lagoon. There, dolphin trainers pick their favorites to sell to water parks around the world for $150,000 or more. The dolphins that don’t make the cut? Rather than returning them to the open waters, they are herded into a secret cover where they are brutally murdered.

The secret cove is protected by local government officials and fishermen to ensure that no one sees the horrors occurring there. The filmmakers go to great lengths to document the harvest. This movie plays like a spy thriller as the team plans secret missions to plant hidden cameras and microphones in the hope of shining a light on this unnecessary slaughter.

The final scenes in The Cove are difficult to watch. But more people need to see them. I’m sure that as the world sees what’s really happening, these fishermen will be shamed into stopping their barbaric practices. Congratulations to these activists turned filmmakers for a powerful movie that will make a difference.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You had me at, “She likes Magritte and Hopper.”

I don’t even know where to start with this movie. So I’ll start with the gushing. I loved 500 Days of Summer. How do you describe it? Is it the ultimate chick flick? Or the ultimate anti-chick flick? It’s obviously not a musical. But it’s kind of a musical. Maybe it’s an art film. Or maybe it’s just mindless pop-culture. Whatever it is, I liked it.

So what made me like it? Well, there’s the script. It’s some damn snappy writing, with all kinds of subtle references to art, literature, and music. And then there’s the precision film making. Director Mark Webb is a planner. I don’t think much of this film was left to chance. He actually mentioned “animatics” during the Q and A. I’ve heard of story boarding live-action movies, but animatics?

You also can’t ignore the music. Yes, there is one production dance number in the movie. And you know that scene was planned well in advance. The surprise is that it’s obvious the rest of the soundtrack was determined before shooting began. The music is almost a character in the movie.

And speaking of unusual characters in movies, let’s talk about Los Angeles. I love movies that cast cities as characters. But not very many movies choose to romanticize L.A. Not since L.A. Story (one of my favorite movies) have I seen such a charming love letter to the City of Angels.

I also have to mention the performances, particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A
ll I can say is brilliant.

I’m pretty sure this movie isn’t as good as I think it is. But it got to me. Several moments during 500 Days of Summer I felt like the director, the writers, and the actors were speaking directly to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a personal cinematic experience.

OK, that's just crazy!

Let’s imagine you’re in your fifties, over weight, and drink a couple of bottles of wine a day (and maybe a whiskey or two). And let’s also imagine that you want to do something to inspire the world. I’m guessing you wouldn’t choose to swim 3,375 miles over just 65 days. And you certainly wouldn’t choose to swim all those miles in some of the world’s most dangerous water. Because that would be crazy.

Well Martin Strel decided to do just that. And he succeeded, accomplishing history’s longest swim. That’s the story that unfolds in Big River Man directed by John Maringouin. It’s a story about crazy characters. Martin Strel is qualified to make this swim. He’s swum the entire lengths of the Danube, Mississippi, and Yangtze rivers—all in an attempt to bring attention to the sorry state of our environment.

This is a movie about characters. Because not only is the idea crazy, but the way Martin goes about achieving this accomplishment is even wackier. The manager of the event is Martin’s son Borut. He’s smart, charming, totally dedicated to his father, and terrified by his father’s exploits. And then there’s the river guide. Let’s imagine you need a river guide to get you through the maze of tributaries that make up the Amazon. Maybe you’d choose an experienced local. Or maybe you’d choose a Walmart employee from Wisconson who doesn’t know how to use a GPS device. Martin Strel chose the Walmart employee.

Big River Man is an unbelievable story. The fact that I’ve never heard of Martin Strel surprises me. Borut has tried to get the story out, even pretending to be his father in phone interviews with media including the BBC. But many of the biggest media opportunities (like David Letterman and Jay Leno) have ignored the story.

The film making here is little rough. It made it hard to vote for this film because the story was so engaging while the craftsmanship was lacking. But in the end I gave this movie four stars, the most possible. That’s because even if the production values could have been better, it was a brave director who agreed to try and tell this amazing Amazon story.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Who knew advertising was so inspired?

Art and Copy is a perfectly fine documentary from director Doug Pray. But as someone who works in the ad business, I’m not buying it.

Sure the campaigns featured in the movie are brilliant. They’re fun, human, even emotional. So it’s worth seeing the movie just for the advertising fun. The titans of advertising featured in the movie are legendary—it was really interesting to hear their thoughts on the industry. But advertising is nowhere near as altruistic as these folks would like us to believe.

This is a lopsided documentary. And when you learn that the movie was produced by The One Club as a tribute to advertising’s greatest leaders, it’s easy to understand why the movie is so worshipful. This is the advertising industry masturbating—stroking itself for its own pleasure.

I think people will find Art and Copy enjoyable. I just wish it presented a more realistic view of advertising and how it affects our lives.

Have I got a sponsorship idea for Kleenex®.

I’m not a fan of movies about current wars. I think it’s hard to make an objective movie when you’re still in the middle of a confrontation. So even though it involves the war in Iraq, I decided to see Taking Chance by director Ross Katz because the story involves my home state of Wyoming. (Interestingly, Katz has been involved with two Wyoming-based movies at Sundance. The Laramie Project premiered in Salt Lake City several years ago.)

This war movie avoided many pitfalls by not making political statements. Taking Chance is based on the story of Lt. Col. Michael R. Stroble (ret.). He volunteered to escort the remains of 19-year-old Chance Phelps who was killed while serving in Iraq. Stroble travels with body from the national morgue to Dubois, Wyoming.

Taking Chance
is a powerful film no matter how you feel about the war. It’s a reminder that the cost of war is high, a fact that’s easy to forget when the horrors of the war touch very few of us. The film inspires strong emotions right from the beginning—and those emotions never let up. A constant hum of sniffles and muffled sobs filled the theater. A lot of people could have used a tissue or two.

The movie is a tribute to the beauty of the traditions of the American military. It’s also an insider’s look at military traditions that are seldom seen by civilians. I learned a lot from this movie. One woman in the audience admitted that her son had been killed and Iraq and took great comfort seeing the respect with which fallen soldiers are handled.

The handsome performance of Kevin Bacon in the lead role is powerful. Bacon never over performs. He simply let’s the story unfold around him. Bacon was at the screening as was the director and Stroble. Stroble is strikingly handsome, articulate, and soft spoken. This is one of the few times the real person was more attractive than the idealized Hollywood star. It was no surprise that Stroble was the author of such a sensitive story.

The film isn’t perfect. There are moments when it becomes overly sentimental. But it’s easy to overlook the flaws thanks to the beautiful production values, the well-told story, and the
strong performances.

It just wouldn’t be Sundance without a couple of dysfunctional families.

Lymelife from director Derick Martini follows two less-than-perfect families largely from the point of view of the teenagers. Sure we’ve seen this story before. But writer Derick and Steven Martini add enough twists, that it feels fresh.

Having spent my childhood in Wyoming, I loved the panic associated with ticks. I’ve been there. I also liked the hunting themes which also felt familiar.

Lymelife also benefits from some strong performances. Rory Culkin in the lead role is good but Kieran Culkin is even better as the older brother. And is there a better bad dad than Alec Baldwin. No matter how evil he gets, you still want to like him.

Tension builds throughout the movie culminating in a final scene that induced gasps from the audience. This may not be the most inventive movie at Sundance, but I liked it for it’s solid acting and well-formulated story.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A movie about gay porn without the gays or the porn.

Director Lynn Shelton is great. I’m actually starting to believe that Sundance really is returning to its old-school support of independent film. Shelton makes it clear that she makes films as an artist. Even her way of funding films is more closely related to non-profit arts efforts than traditional film funding.

Humpday is her third film and the first to screen at Sundance. Here’s the premise. Two college buddies reconnect after not having seen each other for years. One is a free-spirited, wanna-be artist who’s spent plenty of time in Mexico exploring his creative side. The other has gone mainstream; getting married, buying a home, and embracing suburbia. On a drunken night with some sexually-fluid women, the two decide to participate in an amateur porn festival. But they realize that in order to compete, they must do something ground breaking. They decide that ground breaking equals two straight men having sex with each other.

OK, the plot is unlikely. Even the director admitted that. But somehow, it works and Humpday is believable. The director noted that while every scene (except for the last) was carefully planned, the dialogue was mostly improvised. And it was surprisingly natural. In fact, the natural dialogue made the movie. And the wife’s struggle with her husband’s sudden irresponsibility was fantastic.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal the ending of the movie. The final scene takes place in a hotel room where the two male leads are supposed to film their man-on-man action. (Keep in mind this is the only scene in the movie the director chose not to script; she just let the actors decide the outcome.) In the end, the two men can’t go through with it.

Now before I get all critical on this film, I just want to say I really liked it. It was fresh, funny, and presented a new point of view. But I think it’s pretending to be something it’s not. The movie wants to be ground breaking in it’s liberation of sexuality. But in the end it just presents the same old clich├ęs. Women who are sexually fluid, who are willing to have sex with other women and with men, are not only OK, but kinda hot. Two men having sex is uncomfortable, squirmy, even gross.

I’ve made this argument to other men who saw the movie and they disagree. But the movie sets up a different ending. One of the male characters admits that earlier in his life he had an experience where he was sexually aroused by another man. The other male lead is a freewheeling, open-minded artist who seems intent on finally following through with something. And throughout the movie, the chemistry between the two is sexual even though it’s obvious they’re straight. Yet when they kiss, the characters disappear and are replaced by their straight actors. We’re suddenly aware it’s impossible for two straight men to get naked and get it up. For me, that was a cop out.

Sundance surprise no 113: a chunk of clay can make me cry.

This year, the Sundance opening film was a first in more than one way. It was the first Australian film and the first animated film to ever open Sundance. The movie was Mary and Max from writer/director Adam Elliott. Loosely based on Elliott’s own 20-year correspondence with a pen pal, this movie tells the story of two misfits living on opposite sides of the planet. Mary Dinkle lives in Australia and through an act of happenstance, begins a correspondence with Max Horowitz, who lives in New York City. The film covers their relationship as it unfolds over multiple decades.

The stop-motion animation is stunning. As he introduced the film, the director noted that no computer generated effects were used in the film—it was made entirely “in camera.” A fact that seems impossible once you see the movie. (Elliott also noted that the water effects in the movie were made using over “ 60 tubes of sexual lubricant.”)

Even more brilliant than the animation is the art direction. Australia is cast as a land of browns (Mary’s favorite color) and sepia tones. While New York is a city of cold grays. The hand-drawn nature of many elements in the film and the stylized characters added to the melancholy beauty of the film.

This is like no other animated movie I’ve seen. Sure there are plenty of things to make you laugh. But there are also many darker moments filled with sadness. In the end, the movie provides a ray of hope for anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast. And I’ll admit, I had to wipe away a tear or two.

The Sundance Tattoo.

I’m seeing more movies than ever at this year’s Sundance. And that leads to what I’m affectionately calling the Sundance Tattoo. Anyone who’s gone to a Sundance screening knows that every time you go to a movie, you get your hand stamped with some random shape. And when you see lots of movies, you’re hand gets pretty colorful. Sure as you shower and wash your hands, some of the stamps start to fade. But you still build the mark of a true indie film fan. So here’s the start of my Sundance Tattoo.

Note to self: don’t dance in Afghanistan!

From the World Documentary Competition comes Afghan Star by first-time director Havana Marking. Once again Sundance delivers with an engaging documentary that I would likely not have seen if it weren’t for the festival.

Afghan Star follows several contestants as they compete in Afghanistan’s answer to American Idol. I got a lot from this film. First, if you want to feel really grateful to be living here in the U.S., see this movie. For a bunch of reasons, this film inspires gratitude for what you’ve got. Other Things I learned from this film:

  • Religion really needs to get over the relegation of women to second-class citizens. This show confronts the issue in startling ways. But it also reminded me that we in the U.S. still have a long way to go before religion and the rest of society put men and women on equal footing.
  • Don’t dance in Afghanistan. In the not too distant past music, dance, and TV were outlawed in Afghanistan. And they’re still really freaked out by the dancing. When one of the female contestants gets voted off the show, she sings her final song and dances without a scarf covering her head. The reaction is beyond belief. Her fellow contestants are horrified as they watch the performance back stage. And that’s just the beginning. Religious and government leaders are incensed and even men from the woman’s own region call for her death. Yes, I said death! It was hard to watch some of these scenes.
  • Even Afghanistan has a bad music fashion history. Before the religious radicals took such a strong role in Afghanistan, the placed looks surprisingly European, complete with 80s bands wearing clothes that would embarrass even the most embarrassing American fashions from the same decade.

This movie is a little rough around the edges, but when you consider it was just the first-time director and a photographer who captured the story, it’s understandable. If you get the chance, see this show. As Americans, I think we need to be more aware of how difficult it can be to live in other parts of the world.

Even the kids these days are making movies.

Unmade Beds by director Alexis Dos Santos is so hipster chic that I’m not sure I qualified to be in the audience. The movie tells two stories that unfold simultaneously and only truly intersect at the end. From the music to the young actors, this movie felt more current than anything I’ve experienced in a long time. Even those Vogue trendsetters in The September Issue are behind compared to this film.

So maybe that’s why some of this movie was tedious from my point of view—I’m at least a generation past the moment captured in this film. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the movie. Dos Santos strikes me as the real deal, a genuine indie director set on creating art house movies. Unmade Beds is filled with intriguing visual themes that track intelligently
to the story. And the story lines weaved melancholy themes of losing things (like memories and relationships) with the pleasure of finding things. By the end of the movie, even the name of the hipster nightclub (Lost and Found) felt like an intentional thematic statement. I will say this, it seems like the cool kids these days are drinking a lot, listening to cutting-edge underground music, and having plenty of crazy hot sex.

The youthfulness of the cast and the director only added to the hipness of the movie. The male lead, Fernando Tielve, looks like he’s about 12 and delivered a fantastic performance. And he was surprisingly friendly in person. I ran into him before I saw the film so didn’t know who he was. He was more than happy to strike up a conversation without ever mentioning that he is the star of a Sundance movie.

One final note: While much of the music was not to my taste, it’s obvious that Dos Santos is passionate about music and he uses it to amazing effect in this film.

Sundance bonus: Katie Wolf’s short This is Her is excellent. With humor and emotion, the film tells a future story of sadness from a current story of great joy. I loved this 12-minute gem.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I hate fashion. I love fashion. I hate fashion. I love fashion.

The September Issue from director R.J. Cutler is brilliant. I often complain that Sundance documentaries never make it out of the film festival circuit. But you will see this movie in theaters and on TV.

I love the way the filmmakers approached the topic. There was no judgment. Just an honest view of the fashion world. Consequently, the movie makes you hate fashion for its superficiality. And love fashion for its depth, passion, and beauty.

The movie was filmed over nine months and follows the development of the 2007 September issue of Vogue magazine, the biggest issue of the year. Anna Wintour is the star and she’s everything you expect; cold, calculating, and brutally direct. I expected that. What I didn’t expect were the supporting characters. Two people in particular made the movie. Grace Coddington, an aging model turned editor extraordinaire is genius. And famed fashion photographer Mario Testino was just crazy enough to make you want fly to Rome and have your picture taken. Once again, I was reminded why I love Italians.

Anna Wintour summed up my anticipation for the rest of Sundance with the last line in the movie, “What else?” I can hardly wait to find out.

Skip the skiing. Spend a day at the beach.

To start my Sundance experience, I saw an Italian film. The poorly translated film title, One Day in a Life, didn’t reflect the Italian title, Un altro pianeta (Another Planet). But I guess a similarly named American movie is responsible for the bad translation. Nonetheless, the movie was charming. I have to offer this warning: the movie contains full-frontal male nudity, gay sex, and straight sex.

One Day in a Life is charming. It’s classic Italian cinema. Sure, it’s melodramatic. But it’s melodrama so warm, so sunny, so friendly that I can only hope my life is so tragic. And let’s face it, spending a day at the beach with a bunch of attractive Italians clad in skimpy bathing suits (or nude), is fun.

I think the movie gets its charm from the director, Stefano Tummolini. He was at the screening with two of the actors. They instantly warmed to the audience and seemed surprised that two disparate cultures can share mutual experiences. He admitted, “you laughed at the moments I expected you to laugh, and you were moved when I wanted you to be moved.” Thanks Stefano, I was moved. And you reminded my why I love Italians.

Back to the blog.

After a bit of a holiday break, I’m returning to writing. Why? Well, the Sundance Film Festival has returned to Salt Lake and Park Cities. I’ve volunteered for the last five years. But that volunteer business just gets in the way of seeing movies. So this year, armed with my Locals Only Quick Pass that gets me into just about any screening, I’ve decided to spend plenty of time in darkened theaters. And why not record my Sundance experiences by posting mini movie reviews. So expect plenty of posts over the next ten days.