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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sundance report: Our correspondent writes

Posted by on Wed, Feb 4, 2009 at 1:59 PM

Indy freelancer Marc Maximov spent the last two weeks of January where he always does: at Park City, Utah, volunteering with the Sundance Film Festival and taking in films. Lots of films.

Every year, he sends an e-mail to his friends with the skinny on the films--especially the documentaries, which he finds to be the festival's most consistently rewarding offerings. With any luck, Triangle residents will have the opportunity to see some of them at Durham’s Full Frame documentary fest in April.

Marc's note follows:

Another Sundance come and gone-it was the festival's 25th anniversary, but markedly lower crowds (due to the economy, I guess) damped the celebration. Good news: Poor attendance favored the wait-list lines, so I got into almost every screening I tried for. Bad news: The movies weren't nearly as good as last year's, which weren't nearly as good as the year before. Good news: Despite a "Do not invite back" injunction from last year's less-than-pleasant volunteer coordinator, this year's more-pleasant coordinator gave me the benefit of the doubt and let me return, in a capacity to be named later. Bad news: My job was to drive around by myself 6-8 hours a day in a minivan, delivering batteries and ballots and stuff to the theaters (which wasn't all that bad, really, just lonely). Good news: My housing just gets better and better as I accrue volunteer seniority, and this year I had a queen-sized bed in a private room (with my own bathroom!) in a very nice condo that I shared with two amiable housemates. Bad news: We didn't have a hot tub! HOW can you expect people to volunteer at Sundance, and NOT give them a hot tub! Oh, the humanity.

Here's a rundown of the 17 screenings I attended. Ratings are 0 to 5 stars, I hope the good ones come soon to a theater (or TV set) near you.

Afghan Star - Doc - ***  Two thousand contestants try out for Afghanistan's version of "American Idol," of whom only three are women (two of them make it to the final round, however). The show, produced by an independent TV station, is hugely popular, which shows the Afghan people's thirst for art and pop culture after years under the repressive Taliban. The filmmakers follow a select few participants, illuminating the hopes and concerns of ordinary Afghans. The three finalists, who represent the country's largest ethnic groups-Tajik, Hazara and Pashtun-hope that their friendly competition can help bring their troubled nation together.

Amreeka - Feature - *  I was rooting for this immigrant tale of a middle-aged divorced Palestinian woman and her teenage son coming to America, but it'll probably never hit the theaters: it's clunky and contrived, and like its main character, it's good-hearted but too simple-minded to be believable.

The Cove - Doc - ****  In Southern Japan, there's a secret cove where thousands of dolphins are captured each year, to stock Sea World-type parks and "swim with dolphins" encounters around the world. Those that don't make the grade are cruelly slaughtered and sold for lunch meat. The former trainer of TV's Flipper, who's devoted the remainder of his life to saving these playful, intelligent creatures, helps put together a crack team of infiltrators to smuggle footage from the restricted area. Which makes for a great hybrid documentary, half advocacy and half spy thriller. Don't miss it.

Crude - Doc - **  An expose of Texaco's oil operations in Ecuador, which appear to have seriously polluted the landscape and sickened the local population. I say appear because the filmmaker, Joe Berlinger (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), doesn't fulfill one of the primary responsibilities of activist filmmaking, which is to prove his case. He doesn't consult a single expert on water quality, epidemiology, etc., so the whitewashing claims of Texaco spokesmen go unchallenged. He also lavishes way too much attention on Sting and Trudy Styler, who drop in to show concern, and not enough on the Ecuadoran lawyer who's spent his entire career fighting on behalf of the afflicted.

Dirt! The Movie - Doc - ***  The adjective "dirty" should be a high honor, given that we depend for our lives on the hard-working complex of organisms that make our soil. This doc starts out excessively general and dumbed-down, like a filmstrip you had to watch in grade school, then gets more interesting as it gets into specific examples of how dirt is made and how it's used. Best bits: a young couple in New England make earthen walls for eco-friendly homes out of horse poop, and a movement in the LA area seeks to tear up the asphalt and concrete in schoolyards so kids can get their feet back on the ground.

The End of the Line - Doc - ***  A very well-produced British documentary about the crash of fish populations around the world. If we keep eating seafood at current rates, the oceans will be almost completely devoid of big fish in 50 years, and some species might never recover. Folks, if you feel you must eat fish, consider getting a copy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sustainable Seafood Guide (the producers were handing them out after the screening, and they're available online: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch). Short version-eat wild Alaska salmon, which are fished responsibly under strict regulation.

Good Hair - Doc - ****  After Chris Rock's young daughter complains to him that she doesn't have "good hair," he sets out to investigate the many cultural, economic, and aesthetic implications of black hairstyles, particularly women's. This is a thoroughly entertaining documentary that covers a lot of ground in an hour and a half, addressing weaves and extensions (the use of which often cost African-American women thousands of dollars a year), chemical straighteners (which typically use sodium hydroxide (lye), a dangerous chemical), and the $9 billion black hair care industry. The film climaxes with the styling competition at the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show in Atlanta, an over-the-top, Super Bowl Halftime-style extravaganza.

Johnny Mad Dog - Feature - ***  A fictional but very real-seeming portrayal of a band of child soldiers in Africa. Many of the powerful performances are delivered by children who lived through bloody conflicts like those portrayed in the film. Ultra violent, but never glamorizing, with outstanding sound design that punches you in the gut.

Kimjongilia - Doc - **  North Korean emigrants describe the horrors of life under Kim Jong Il (the title of the movie refers to a flower hybrid created for his birthday) and their traumatic stories of escape. The interviews are affecting, but the film interrupts them with long gaps of cinematic filler, so it's a bit dull.

No Impact Man - Doc - **  New York writer Colin Beavan conducted a one-year experiment in living with as little environmental impact as possible, dragging his less enthusiastic, slightly irritating wife (and their 3-year-old daughter) with him. It's an interesting project, but not a great documentary, because Beavan and his wife are way too aware of the camera (read: the filmmakers didn't spend all that much time with them), which makes their interactions seem phony and gives the project the feel of a P.R. stunt, or an episode of MTV's "Real World."

Passing Strange - Doc - ****  Spike Lee shows a better way to turn a Broadway play (a musical, actually) into a movie than the standard Hollywood method of adapting a script and turning it into a second-rate screenplay: he went to the Belasco Theater and filmed the show live, in front of an audience. And what a show! It's an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young African-American man's journey from his childhood home in LA to a wild bohemian scene in various European capitals. The musical's creator, who goes by the name of Stew, plays the narrator on stage, commenting on the foibles of his youth with wise and acerbic perspective. The music is thrilling, the acting fantastic, and, since it's a Spike Lee joint, the camerawork is superb. I defy my friends who work in theater to watch this film and not want to run out and immediately stage their own productions.

Prom Night in Mississippi - Doc - ***  In 1997, Morgan Freeman offered to pay for the high school prom in Charleston, Mississippi, on one condition: that it would be open to all students, ending the tradition of separate black and white proms. He was turned down. He asked again last year, and the result was the first integrated prom in the town's history (can you believe, in 2008!). It's a fascinating and finally uplifting story, well-told from the points of view of the white and black students, parents and administrators, but I would've liked more in-depth portraits of the people involved.

Stay the Same, Never Change - Feature - **  The first feature film by the talented young photographer/filmmaker/provocateur Laurel Nakadate has a cast of amateurs, shot in their homes and neighborhoods in Kansas City. It played in the "New Frontier" program (for untraditional and non-narrative films), which is basically a warning that your reward will correspond closely to your attention span. It's about a bunch of withdrawn teenage girls, and it has some funny and affecting moments.

We Live in Public - Doc - **  Director Ondi Timoner won her second Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary with this film about the techno-art experiments of millionaire oddball Josh Harris, who rigged up a warehouse in Soho filled with resident volunteers, and later his own apartment, with dozens of webcams to record every waking (and sleeping, shitting, showering and fucking) minute, a la TV's "Big Brother." Harris's stunt was previously profiled in Errol Morris's TV documentary series "First Person"; the difference here is that Timoner's method is to slather on suffocating layers of hype in the form of blaring indie rock and quick cuts. Like she did with her subjects in DiG!, about the rock bands the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, she portrays this fairly interesting self-promoter as one of the great geniuses of our age. It just isn't so.

Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy - Doc - ***  Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) is still kicking around, and directed this overview of the history of black comedians. Lots of interesting footage and interviews. Minor quibbles: the interview sets and soundtrack are straight out of 1987, and for humility's sake he probably should have left himself out of it (even if Hollywood Shuffle was a landmark). It sounds like he's tooting his own horn, and that of one fairly obscure recent comic, who must be a good friend of his, who gets like 5 minutes of screen time-not much less than, say, Richard Pryor.

Wounded Knee - Doc - ***  A straightforward, PBS-style doc about the Native American takeover of a small town in South Dakota in 1973. There were a few casualties in the ensuing 71-day standoff with federal marshals, but the nation's attention was focused at the time on Nixon and Watergate. MacArthur grant recipient Stanley Nelson directs, and his team unearthed an amazing amount of archival footage, so there's very little Ken Burns-style panning and scanning over photos. Instead, you get a real sense of what it was like to be there. Modern interviews with former leaders of AIM (American Indian Movement) flesh out the story. It'll be shown as the fifth of a five-part PBS series on Native Americans starting in April (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain).

The Yes Men Fix the World - Doc - ***  The anti-corporate pranksters profiled in 2004's Sundance entry The Yes Men star in their own documentary. It's a lot of fun, and also revealing; for example, they're not shy about showing the nerve-wracking runup to their biggest, most public coup, or their feelings of guilt after they cause Dow Chemical's stock to fall $2 billion in 20 minutes. Even when their high jinks misfire, though, they're clearly having a great time, and their enthusiasm is infectious. At the screening they handed out copies of the fake NY Times they helped produce last November (http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/12/pranksters-spoof-the-times).

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