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By John Wildman | January 20, 2012




So it is time to clear the cobwebs off “Films Gone Wild” and start charging this thing up again….

Sundance is back! Now, to catch everyone up, I am the Senior Publicist at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This is why I have not written this column for a long time because Film Society insists on screening movies every damn day and night in each one of its theaters and amphitheater. It never ends and I wanted to be careful about this column seeming like it was a publicist sales job with me being all braggy about Martin Scorsese here, Albert Brooks there, “Oh, look! We’ve got Steven Soderbergh and Gina Carano doing a HAYWIRE sneak preview!”

But, you know, screw that.  This column will now be devoted to whatever the hell is going on with me in movieland or whatever the hell I think about what is going on in movieland. Because, seriously, why should my facebook friends get all the good insider stuff.

Anyway – as with every single person that goes to Sundance – getting out of town and to the airport is Problem #1. For me, I had to get out a press release announcing the first seven selections for the 2012 edition of New Directors/New Films. There were last minute edits (there always are last minute edits) and tracking down a wayward quote (because the people you need to quote in press releases are the last ones that ever want to actually write their quote for the press release) and I had a taxi to catch to the airport. And it’s like we’ve been putting out a press release every other day at Film Society. THE TURIN HORSE is screening with a Bela Tarr retrospective (Send a press release!), Raquel Welch is coming to town with a cool film series of her films (Press Release!), New Directors/New Films (Quick! Get that press release out!). I joked with our Marketing and PR Director Courtney Ott that I was fast at work that morning building one of those t-shirt guns they use to shoot swag to the crowds at sporting events. That way I could just load that sucker up with our press releases and shoot ‘em at people.

So, press release goes out and everyone gets to make fun of the fact I’m dressed as if I was an extra in HOT DOG: THE MOVIE (Oh, Shannon Tweed. What happened?), I hurry down to the street and camouflage my suitcase so I can trick some cabbie into picking me up (because they HATE the airport runs mid-day) and I’m off. Once on the plane, I find I’m sitting behind Indie Wire’s Go-go-go team of Nigel Smith and Bryce Renninger. This is great because I’ve got another press release to send out tomorrow and now I can chat them up about it before hand.  After some being stuck on the tarmac in New York (of course) and then having to do a plane and gate switch in Dallas (of course squared) we arrive in Salt Lake City an hour late.

At baggage claim, the talk quickly turned to the Sundance parties. Because we have priorities, people. Nigel and Bryce were all about the legendary Sundance Chili Party. When and where and how and how long and are we sure and are you coming and I’m not sure, I was going to try and see a movie but maybe… That kind of thing.

And then, my first happy/excrutiating moment of Sundance 2012 hit: At baggage claim, I saw Sophia Takal, the director, writer and star of GREEN, with her co-star in that film (and in real life) Lawrence Michael Levine. Now, I was a juror at the wonderful Denver Starz Film Festival last year and GREEN was the film we chose to win the Emerging Artists category. I LOVED the movie. Put it on my top ten list for 2011. LOVED it. So, here’s the funny thing that happens in this situation: I talk too fast and get embarrassingly fumble mouthed, etc. Now, for context you have to keep in mind that with all the red carpet stuff I do, all the filmmakers, celebrities, blah, blah, blah I deal with, it rarely and barely registers with me any more. George Clooney is charming and nice.  Michelle Williams is very sweet. Spike Lee, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman…they’re fine, great, okay… But when I first meet a filmmaker like Sophia that I was really impressed with, that got me stirred up about movies and a new artist’s potential: I’m lame. The same thing happened when I met Sophia’s other co-star in GREEN, Kate Lyn Sheil, at Larry Fessenden’s Christmas party in December. Just…not my best moment. God forbid I casually run into BELLFLOWER’s Evan Glodell. And to make it worse, Takal was absolutely delightful and gracious. She pointed out that we were facebook buddies and was appreciative of the compliments I was delivering to both her and Lawrence. Then to seal the deal on Awkward Town Sundance moment #1, Lawrence went to shake my hand but it looked like he was going for a fist bump which was perplexing but that wasn’t what he was doing, it was actually a hand shake. So, I managed to pull that off and then mercifully got the hell out of there.

Thankfully, I then ran into one of my favorite publicists, Emily Lu. Back on familiar and comfortable turf, we talked about a film she was working on, ARBITRAGE. The thriller stars Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon and isn’t the kind of film I gravitate to when I’m at Sundance, but Emily convinced me to make my first schedule change of the fest – so one film (that wasn’t repped by PR Girl on-the-spot Emily Lu) went bye bye and ARBITRAGE got added to the schedule.

Three hours later, the shuttle delivers me to the “Dallas House” condo I’m staying at. Three hours. If I remember correctly, that’s how long the tour was that got those people lost on “Gilligan’s Island.” I had plans to watch a screener or two before I went to bed, but now not so much. A couple hours of sleep is what was going to happen now.

The next morning, the laptop and blackberry bells and whistles (literally, bells AND whistles) woke me up on New York time to send out that next press release. I bet you thought I was kidding. This press release was to announce the new Operations Manager and Sponsorship Exec at Film Society. Unfortunately, the press release gun isn’t finished yet, so I had to send it out the old fashioned way.

Following meets and greets and “happy-to-see-yous” with James Faust, the Artistic Director and Sarah Harris, the Senior Programmer of Dallas Film Society, we got ready to head to Sundance headquarters. The Dallas House is “hosted” by Ruth Mutch. A supporter, both financial and figurative of indie film (and some films in particular) and a benefactor of the Dallas Film Society and the DALLAS International Film Festival, Ruth is pure goodness if you are a filmmaker with an ounce of creativity or if you are a film fan that lives in Dallas. She also has a taste for the genre films and frequently becomes my viewing partner for the Midnight movies that the lightweights and squeamish won’t go near. I love me some Ruth Mutch and I love being at the Dallas House.

At Sundance Headquarters, I ran into champ publicists Chris Libby and David Magdael and film journalist and festival bon vivant James Rocchi as well as friends and programmers (Sundance and elsewhere) Basil Tsiokos, Mike Plante and Landon Zakheim. Landon is straddling the Sundance/Slamdance divide by programming Sundance Shorts and having his own short film play at Slamdance. Maybe he has too much energy… Seeing people at Sundance is often like a human version of Galaga, with people just constantly heading your way and you can’t possibly shoot each of them down with even the briefest and decent “Hello, how are you doing?” “What have you been up to?” and “What are your plans here?” kind of moment, let alone a conversation. So you find yourself a kind of mutual side step smiley swiping by people thing or doing a wave in transit, so they know you saw them and you like them or at least recognize them and telepathically say, “Wouldn’t be great if we could all just stop everyone else momentum so we could chat. Nicely.”

Back at the house, we’ve got a bunch of people from the film LUV, including director Sheldon Candis and producer Jason Berman hanging out and getting ready to do their “ground game” promotion for their film. Also here is Ryan O’Nan. The star of THE DRY LAND, which was a winner at DALLAS IFF a couple years ago. THE DRY LAND was one of those unfortunate situations where the memory of it being a great movie has since been soured by the fact that Maya Entertainment, the company that produced it has not actually managed to pay anyone involved in making it. I helped launch the film in the Dallas and Southwest market a year and a half ago – and they still owe me. And, gathering from what I learned from Ryan (my Dallas House roommate, by the way), I’m not the only one. (At this very moment, countless freelance publicists are either nodding their heads in understanding or laughing because they’ve dealt with countless deadbeat clients that refuse to pay the people they helped get press for. So, if you know anyone from Maya Entertainment, this might help explain why they never pay for lunch…)

Dallas Film Society spiritual leader and past Sundance award winner (TV JUNKIE) Michael Cain stops by with his wife and dynamo producer, Melina McKinnon to threaten that they will turn this place into party central every night. And seeing as how he has been at work resurrecting the memory of Dallas’ infamous Starck Club in the 80s for his next documentary, I’m not brushing it off as an idle threat.

Finally, I’m off to my first screening, which – as most of everything I will see over the next few days – I know very little about. One, because there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of pre-fest hype that has reached me. And two, I haven’t really sought it out, hoping to come at the majority of these screenings with minimal expectations. The film is WISH YOU WERE HERE and pretty much all I know is that it stars Joel Edgerton, who recently starred in the underappreciated WARRIOR and, Rosie Wong, the heart and soul of Sundance in my opinion, told me she loved it as I entered the theater.

Directed by first timer Kieran Darcy-Smith, WISH YOU WERE HERE opens on a young Australian married couple and expectant parents Alice and Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice’s sister Steph and her new boyfriend Jeremy as they party, drinky and druggy it up in some Cambodian getaway.

Stop right there. Name me a single film that ends well after it starts with Hedonism Mach II in Cambodia. Your time is up. Because you can’t. And this won’t.

Next thing we see is Dave through some burned out ghetto wasteland all dazed and confused. And then we’re back in Australia.

Well, not everyone – because Jeremy is missing. He disappeared and no one knows what happened or where he is because… Well, remember the drinking and the drugs? As the authorities try to find him and piece together what happened with the selective information they are given by Alice, Dave and Steph, that trio also begins to sort things out as they reveal by admission to each other and flashbacks to us, damaging truths about what happened to Jeremy.

The movie worked for me in a modest way. The tragedy of flawed people trying to hold back the inevitable tide of guilt and hurt over mistakes they’ve made for me are more effective the more they stem from our insecurities that lead us to making fatefully bad decisions. That’s a universal fear, the “if I had only not done this” thought. And, while not groundbreaking by any means, WISH YOU WERE HERE does effectively tap into that thought.

How will it fare in the real world: I don’t know how much of a life it could have as a multiplex movie or any big screen that isn’t in a big city. While I think it is effective, it’s maybe more effective on your television so you can check on the kids afterward and promise them as they sleep that you’ll never go on a party-binge in Cambodia, ruin your life and jeopardize theirs until they’ve graduated and gone to college.

My oft-repeated theory about documentaries is that there are two basic categories: Docs about stuff you had no clue about and docs about stuff you thought you had a clue about but you really had no clue about. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN falls into the former category for me. The film investigates the mystery (or mysteries) surrounding the 70s rock legend Rodriguez. Now, if you didn’t know there was a rock legend named Rodriguez then you can now rest assured that you aren’t South African. Because that is where his legend was born and for the most part where it stayed.

Sounding like a cross between a Hispanic Donovan or Jim Croce, Rodriguez released a critically acclaimed record called Cold Fact in the early 70s that was ignored by the public. That is, until a bootleg of the record made its way to South Africa and somehow, rapidly, became so popular that the record was not just considered a staple for any self-respecting Afrikaner’s collection, it actually contained songs that were seen by some as anthems for the first protests against apartheid. What added  to the mystique and legend was the fact that the only information anyone could find about Rodriguez were conflicting reports of how he killed himself onstage during his (obviously) last concert.

It wasn’t until the re-release of his second album, that two fans took it upon themselves to finally uncover the mystery of who Rodriguez was and what really happened to him. And what they discovered and what resulted from that discovery arguably eclipsed the original hard-to-believe story.

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is one of those films that is thoroughly engrossing, entertaining and emotionally involving – as long as you don’t think too hard about what you’re watching. Bendjelloul takes us down some avenues that he arbitrarily abandoned and seemingly accepts at face value explanations from interview subjects that beg additional questions. The film also has no issue with pushing grand ideas, such as the possibility that had it not been for Rodriguez’s songs, apartheid may have continued unopposed. Which is too bad, because more judicious editing and not overselling the man and his work would have better served the film. As it is, it is still enjoyable. And, as the man is a doppelganger for Edward James Olmos, a dramatic film of Rodriguez’s story would practically be pre-stamped as an Oscar qualifier.

How will it fare in the real world: Again, this is specialized interest territory. It IS a fascinating and rewarding story about a genuinely interesting man. And again – if you buy in (which isn’t tough to do) then you’ll leave the film quite happy. I just don’t know how you convince people to want to see it the first place. Marketing geniuses, you’re on!

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