WEDNESDAY, January 21
I arrive in Park City for my fifteenth Sundance and the shuttle radio is playing the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” which is entirely appropriate. Not the song, but the fact that it’s the Carpenters. Park City. Sundance. Back again.
I bond with a fest goer over a mutual fandom of BIRDMAN and WHIPLASH. She insists that I see THE GREAT BEAUTY as soon as possible. Like do not pass Go or collect $200 on the Monopoly board. Go see the movie now! Meanwhile, two snow bunnies (a blonde and brunette matching set) are in the back of the shuttle working out their party going strategy. It sounds as serious as their mascara.
Next up is the traditional grocery shop where you buy an absurd amount of food even though you will only be at your place to sleep and maybe…maybe a shower in between screenings and parties. Yet, somehow all of that food is eaten. There is also a keen strategy as to what kind of food to get (Small, snacky things that can be grabbed on the run are good. Elaborate food prep dishes, not so much.) Last year, I ran into Mitt Romney in a checkout line. This year, no aspiring Presidential candidates are to be found.
I’m staying at the “Dallas House”, a condo that Friend-to-Indie-Film-and-wildlife, Ruth Mutch organizes every year. An Executive Producer of last year’s Sundancers LITTLE ACCIDENTS and INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, among other films, she also is the Executive Producer of my first feature film, THE LADIES OF THE HOUSE. For those reasons and several others, I, like many, many people, could spend all day singing the praises of Ruth. Among those also staying at the house are Dallas Film Fest Artistic Director James Faust and his programming teammate Sarah Harris, her boyfriend and filmmaker Eric F. Martin, and former Dallas Film Society Exec. Director and now blogger and stylish Jill-of-all-trades Tanya Foster. We close the evening with another tradition – dinner at Riverhorse on Main, where I eat buffalo, venison and elk – and listen to a singer/songwriter named Alicia Stockman, who sounds like Lucinda Williams’ sweeter voiced little sister.
We get home and I start watching THE TRIBE on a screening link. The Wi-Fi isn’t so good, so this 2-hour movie will take me several hours to finish. In the meantime, here are some reviews for films I was able to see before arriving in Park City:
Céline Sciamma’s GIRLHOOD centers on Marieme, a sixteen-year-old girl living in one of the low-income areas outside of Paris who is facing a crossroads in her life after her poor school performance has left her with the options of going to a vocational school or following her mother’s footsteps and becoming a hotel maid. It’s then that she falls in with a trio of local girls with a lot of personality, attitude and enthusiasm for trouble. At the same time, Marieme becomes attracted to a local boy who is friends with her very domineering older brother and her desire for him is something she can’t deny despite her better judgment. As she begins to discover her own strength and independence, she makes choices that may force her to cut ties with everything and everyone she has held dear to her.
GIRLHOOD is a solid coming-of-age story that does not take short cuts in showing the growth of its central character. Another strength of the film is that Sciamma is confident in her character’s arc not to ladle on the melodrama or “go outside” Marieme’s world to raise the stakes of her crises. I kept reflecting on Michelle Rodriguez’s “coming out party” in GIRLFIGHT as I watched the film, and while Karidja Touré doesn’t match that star-making charisma, her performance is soulful and affecting. So, is the film a rousing cheer for the girl to overcome the cards dealt to her to succeed? It is not. Rather, this is a thoughtful exploration of a young girl’s self-discovery amidst a world of vey limited options.
Expected Sundance Reaction: Sundance is not the place for expansive foreign film appreciation or love unless something has a “capturing the zeitgeist” quality or a major new star discovery. So, this one will be championed by the people in the target audiences and he type of film reps and execs it is specifically aimed at.
Expected Real World Reaction:
This is all about specialty art-houses. For those presentations, it should give a solid performance. However, a few “love letter” reviews from some prominent critics could nudge its profile – and business – a little higher.
MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Greg Whiteley’s MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED begins as one parent (Whiteley), while trying to figure out why his bright and capable child has little desire or incentive to learn, discovers a big part of the problem is that her school and teachers aren’t equipped to keep her engaged in the learning process itself. Whiteley then uses that experience as a leaping off point to explore how our very systems of learning were influenced and created by the Carnegies and Morgans and Fords, etc. to create a more malleable and uniform workforce for them to employ at their factories throughout the country. The only problem is that the information age has replaced the industrial age, and when a computer can both beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy AND replace autoworkers on an assembly line or middle managers in an office and even write basic press releases without any human assistance, then that education system is delivering graduates to the front door of businesses that no longer need what they have been educated and set up to do.
Enter schools like High Tech High in San Diego. Eschewing the educational format of separating class disciplines like math, history, science into separate rooms and one hour segments, the school purposely blends the lesson plans and forces the children to not learn facts and figures so they can pass a multiple choice test, but to learn “soft skills” like problem solving and project management to help them come together and create a final project for presentation. MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED lays out a very stark divide between the value of test preparation versus learning how to apply knowledge, as well as the emotional push and pull that parents face as they contemplate rejecting the only learning system they have known in order to properly educate their child to survive and excel in a world that provides information to anyone’s fingertips yet craves people that can utilize logical and critical thinking skills. I have to admit that this documentary made me get emotional at the end as I watched a very ambitious student fail at his project and then continue to work at it for four weeks after school was out in order to complete it. The final result, as well as the life lesson he would take from that experience – were worth more than few GPA grade points. This film should be a required course for all parents and educators.
Expected Sundance Reaction: I have to believe this will be a talking point movie at the fest.
Expected Real World Reaction: The question with a documentary like this is how to draw people to it. This is not a polemic, and if you aren’t courting controversy how do you get people inspired to engage – or go see a film like this? That will be the question, and one I hope they figure out because the film’s message needs to get out there.
Kornél Mundruczó’s WHITE GOD follows the invigorating, and oftentimes excruciating and heartbreaking struggle of Hagen, a dog trying to survive and ultimately reunite with Lili, the little girl who owns him after her father, unable to take the pressure and cost of caring for the dog, desperately leaves him on the side of the road to fend for himself. As the girl defies her father and other authority figures while trying to find him, Hagen learns how hateful and cruel humans can be with each successive person that crosses his path. Demonstrating a rare intelligence, Hagen doesn’t just absorb these lessons, he hardens and then utilizes them as he rallies and leads an army of street and pound dogs to sweep through the city of people that have abandoned or hurt them.
At first blush, WHITE GOD would simply seem to be something akin to Disney’s THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY with a harsher Hungarian edge. But anyone that has seen any number of videos on Facebook with cops shooting pets without cause or people torturing animals knows that in real life there is a current of animal cruelty that is hard to reconcile. And as Hagen’s journey continues, we experience the full scale of the worst of humanity through their eyes, from being discarded and unloved, then “jailed” in concrete cells in shelters to being tortured and killed in the world of dogfighting. However, the film also delivers a healthy bit of wish fulfillment as Hagen and his army of dogs don’t just rush back to some adorable moppet to give them a hug and tell them it’s all going to be okay. No, in this case – and apparently in Hungary – adorable moppets don’t exist. More importantly, here – like a doggie TAKEN – there will be some vengeance. And for anyone that has teared up at the site of those sad-eyed pups in the Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial, those moments of payback will be glorious.
Expected Sundance Reaction: People have been looking forward to this one since the trailer was unveiled, and it WILL NOT DISAPPOINT. I expect a lot of talk about this one.
Expected Real World Reaction:
I could see the film getting a lot of attention and making a crossover to a wider audience despite the fact that it is a foreign film. However, the balance to that is the fact that it is very much a “tough” movie. Heartwarming, it is not. So, not one for the kiddos and that tempers the business expectation.
THURSDAY, January 22
So, the next morning, the first order of business is to get our credentials for both Sundance and Slamdance. We make our way over to Sundance HQ first. On the shuttle there is a guy that apparently knows everything about film festivals and has consulted for them all and may have in fact, invented film. I have no idea who this guy is. James sort of thinks he might. He does have a nasty gash on his forehead, which leads me to believe that he might have neglected to invent a way to open a door properly while he was dishing out all that knowledge.
The credential pick up is a piece of cake and I see and say hello to film publicist David Magdael while we are there. As always, he has lined up some cool, smart stuff on his slate of films.
Next on the agenda is Slamdance. I always make a point to give Slamdance some love in my reports from Park City for one primary reason: I think their publicity team of Annie Jeeves and Melanie Márquez at Cinematic Red are top notch and as a fellow publicist, you want to reward the people that do this thing right. So, if you are a filmmaker or one of the top brass at Slamdance, you need to thank them if you get some coverage on “Films Gone Wild”. Seriously. And, as always, they both come through with the personal touch – getting my badge and walking me through the highlights, offering up screeners, etc. Annie even throws a couple ideas my way regarding the pending VOD release this Spring of my film. That’s how you do it.
A new wrinkle for me this year will be the fact that I will be a co-host on the Daily Buzz radio show with James, film festival bon vivant Mark Rabinowitz, film journalist and filmmaker Kim Voynar, and Hawaii Film Fest’s Anderson Le, among others. That means interviewing a half dozen or so filmmakers each morning and taking Sundance buzz with industry veterans and insiders, blah, blah, blah. At a walkthrough and introductory meeting, we’re warned that there are certain words we can’t say due to FCC regulations which aren’t swear words but apparently have some other insidious effect rendering them unmentionable. And now, we’re each envisioning going on a wild Tourette’s spree uttering some benign but dangerous word like “free” on the air. (Yes, that is actually one of the words we can’t say – go figure.)
Back home, I finally finish THE TRIBE before we head out to tonight’s Opening Night screening of WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? at the Eccles Theater and the Sundance “Artist at the Table” cocktails and dinner event.
The cocktails are a routine event with team Dallas trying to figure out who the filmmakers are in the room. Sarah notices one of them has our table’s number on his badge so I introduce myself to him. He’s Sacha Jenkins, whose directorial debut FRESH DRESSED is in the mix here. I introduce him to the group and we’re off to the races – and then off to the theater to see the film.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?
Liz Garbus’ WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? gives the documentary treatment to the life of jazz legend Nina Simone. From her beginnings as a classical musician finding a sometimes too confining niche in the jazz world, to her civil rights activism (writing and performing songs like “Mississippi Goddamn”, etc.) and the influence it had on her musical career, to her family and personal relationships, to her late-in-life self-exile to Liberia and France, the film does its level best to offer a comprehensive portrait of the woman known as the “High Priestess of Soul”. Simone was a confounding enigma to some and a defining influence to countless others that followed, and a rich character and subject to be mined and explored for a documentary.
On one hand, WHAT HAPPPENED, MISS SIMONE? has both a priceless personality to profile in Simone, as well as a vital connection to one of the most dynamic periods in our country’s recent history – the civil rights movement. For the most part, Garbus achieves a healthy balance between the music and the movement as Simone navigated her way through them both during her life. And let’s face it, you could get away with just stringing together footage of her performances and come away with something a lot of people would be happy to dish out their movie dollar for. However, there is much more ambition to be had here. And truthfully, as informative and entertaining as it is, the film may not completely soar for everyone looking for reassuring catharsis or definitive wrapping up of Nina Simone’s life. But I would chalk that up to an honest and fair examination of Simone herself – mercurial, but difficult, a wealth of talent, but a refusal to conform. In the end, what happened? was that some brilliant music was recalled and a “patron saint of the rebellion” was remembered.
Expected Sundance Reaction: People will have a proper reverence for both the doc itself as well as Sundance favorite Garbus.
Expected Real World Reaction:
I would think this would do solid business both in theaters and VOD.
Following the end of the film and a standing ovation for the memory of Nina Simone as well as the fine work of Liz Garbus on the film, we were treated to a rare live musical performance at a screening. John Legend played a three-song set, capped by a performance of Simone’s arrangement of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Another standing ovation later, Robert Redford escorted John Legend off the stage and we made our way back to the Stein-Erickson Lodge for dinner.
Along with Sacha Jenkins, a fellow New Yorker, our dinner table also included the director of UMRIKA, Prashant Nair and the composer for last year’s Sundance entry, WETLANDS, Enis Rotthoff. Sitting between them, I got to reminisce about my days as the publicist for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles with Prashant and our mutual fandom of that festival (which I still consider one of the most purely enjoyable fests in the country), as well as talk endlessly about WETLANDS (one of my favorite films last year) and film composing (especially the challenging work on that film) with Enis.
Other highlights of the evening included introducing myself to television legend Norman Lear and talking to him about Film Society and his place in New York City, introducing Sarah to Cary Fukunaga so she could tell him that he got Lake Charles, Louisiana “right” in “True Detective”. Finally, following a highly entertaining musical theater performance of a couple songs from a new show work shopped at the Sundance Institute, I introduced myself to Michael Cerveris and let him know that due to the fact I consider his performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to be my favorite and the coolness of his vampire villain/monster in STAKELAND one of the reasons I could watch that film over and over again, that he could do no wrong in my book.
It’s a great start to the fest.