We pull somewhat of a Sundance all-nighter: After not getting back to our hotel until nearly 3 a.m., we are back on the shuttle at 7:30 a.m. to see Safety Not Guaranteed. On the bus, we run into Ben Kalsulke, who filmed Chris at our house for the short film, "The Dude." This was back in February during Lebowski Fest. We’re not sure if he recognizes us, but Chris shouts hello anyway.
They can’t all be winners at Sundance. Here are some signs of a potentially bad film: there is hardly anyone in the wait list, people come to sell unwanted tickets to the wait-listers, and people walk out during the film. All three of these things happen at Bestiare, a New Frontier film which is basically a silent slide show filled with images of animals in a Quebec zoo. Chris asks a question during the Q&A about why taxidermy scenes were stuck in the middle of the film, and the director mutters something about the circle of life. Sorry — we are just not buying that the film can even muster up that semblance of meaningfulness.
Our day begins with a visit to Temple, our least favorite venue. It is closer to Kimball Junction than Main Street and there is only one bus that goes there. We are excited to see our only documentary of this fest, Detropia, a film about the decline of Detroit. It falls somewhat short of our expectations, focusing on the downfall of the auto industry and the outsourcing of jobs. Current and relevant problems no doubt, but we had hoped to see something more along the lines of the Ruins of Detroit about decaying structures. Still, it is a good film, as the filmmakers try to tackle an enormous theme by focusing on a tapestry of local individuals in 90 minutes.
From Detropia, we go straight to our next screening in the midst of a healthy snowstorm. Robot and Frank (played perfectly by Frank Langella) is a futuristic tale about a retired cat burglar with a failing memory, who is given a caretaker robot by his grown children (played by Liv Tyler & James Marsden). Frank rejects the robot initially, until he realizes it can assist him with criminal mischief. Robot and Frank is part drama, part dark comedy. It is set in the near-future, perhaps 20 years from now, and its scenarios are disturbingly believable. It is a future where robots do human jobs; the local library is a bookless “social center,” run by a sketchy consulting company; and paper materials have become relics. It’s a complex, thoroughly enjoyable film and our favorite up to this point.
We begin our first day at Sundance with a visit to Squatters, Chris’s favorite Utah brew pub. Then it’s time for our first SFF12 screening, Beasts of the Southern Wild at Eccles. A Sundance Institute project, this film had significant assistance to get it into the festival. There is a large group of filmmakers sitting front and center cheering for the film. The accolades are not without merit: we both enjoy this surreal story of a young girl (impressively played by Quvenzhane Wallis) and her ailing father living a fictional wetland outside New Orleans called “The Bathtub.” The opening scene of the film felt like a cross between Mad Max and Arthur. That said, the film manages to pull off a seemingly impossible story line that includes the rise of ice age creatures called Aurochs. During the Q&A, one actor talks about being discovered and trained in acting while doing his work at a bakery. How indie!
The sunny weather and the lure of Main Street leads to a change in our earlier plans to sit in a 2 hour wait list line for That’s What She Said. Instead, we stroll through the chaos of Main Street. This is the image that comes up so often in Sundance footage and it is the hub of festival activity. After stopping in the Sundance Filmmaker’s Lodge, we are disappointed to find they have discontinued the afternoon wine receptions. A volunteer suggests we try another location she heard was providing a happy hour. All she was able to provide was an address, which turned out to be the Fender Music Lodge. At the door, they have a list and we are not on it. After Chris chats with the gatekeeper, his charm or business card must have worked because we were issued a couple of wristbands. After some refreshments, we wandered around more of this back alley mall and stumbled into the Celebrity Gifting area and a couple of pop up shops selling some hip art and handmade jewelry and bags, plus what everyone seems to be sporting here - Spirithoods.
Our evening selection is Red Lights, which Jenn wanted to see due to the paranormal story and Chris figures it will be packed with stars since Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Robert De Niro and Elizabeth Olsen round out the cast. Unfortunately, this $17 million dollar film (look for it in theatres on March 2) feels entirely average and the ending is less than satisfying.
Where should I stay?
This really depends on your budget and what kind of festival experience you are seeking. There are festival venues spread throughout Park City and Salt Lake City, with additional theaters in Ogden and at the Sundance Resort in Provo Canyon. If you just want to see some of the films, Salt Lake City is the most affordable option. The same films that screen in Park City also screen in Salt Lake City and you will save significant cash on lodging.
That said, for the true festival experience — where you’re apt to run into Bob Redford and other celebs — you should plan to go to Park City. It's possible to stay in SLC and drive up to the festival, but that 40 minute mountain drive can be snowy and treacherous, especially after a midnight screening or party. If you decide to stay in Park City, book your hotel at least 6 months in advance. The demand for rooms is high, as are the prices.
Sundance Eve... bags packed... films selected... flight to the blizzard awaiting Park City a mere 5 hours away.
It's hard to imagine this frantic flurry of last minute running around as the calm before the storm, but it is.
We are Chris & Jenn, a couple of film geeks who like to sundance whenever we can. Every year, Sundance draws a bunch of like-minded folks to the top of a mountain in the middle of winter to sit inside dark re-purposed rooms to watch a movie. Sometimes it's a blockbuster hit, other times it's fantastic but never to be seen again, and occasionally it's so esoteric or weird you sort of feel WTF -- these films can run from amazing to awful to snoozers -- but they always feel special.
This year we're hoping to provide reports from the festival on a fairly regular basis. The Sundance Institute has partnered with everyone's favorite social photo app Instagram and created a group #sundance to flood the internet with on-the-spot sharing of the experience. We hope to provide a little of that, too, with a second tag to show our stream of photos on the Daily Loaf.
Check back often, because once we are on the ground in Park City we will be providing reviews of some of the films we see, the aforementioned photo updates, as well as tips and tricks on how to sundance.
I saw more than 30 films at the Sundance Film Festival, and my favorite feature was Mad Bastards, a small independent gem from Australia. Director Brendan Fletcher had created several videos with the Pigram Brothers, well-known Australian folk musicians. They wanted to collaborate in the development of a feature film exploring a side of Australia largely unknown to most Australians, and completely alien to the rest of the world. They listened to stories from the strongly aboriginal region of Kimberley, Australia, where they'd been working, and a recurrent theme emerged: Many of the men had grown up without a father, and as they grew up they felt unhinged and uprooted and angry. They had become literally what they call locally "mad bastards."
The filmmakers decided to tell the story of a troubled man in search of the son he'd abandoned long ago. To achieve authenticity, they drew elements of the story directly from the lives of the key actors in the film, most of whom had never acted before. The result is fantastic it looks good, the acting feels utterly fresh and convincing, and the music is refreshing and upbeat. What's even better, you don't have to wait to see it, as it was picked up by IFC and is right now available on local cable on demand through its "Sundance Selects" program.
What struck me at this year's Sundance Film Festival is that the features I reacted to most strongly were either documentaries that exposed me to the world in a new way, or oddball explorations of utter unreality.
Sundance is most often mentioned in connection with the American independent features that found their audience here. What keeps me going year after year are the documentaries, both domestic and international. There's always something new to be discovered, a fresh window on the world, a refreshing take on reality. Many of the most notable documentaries of the past several years got their start or at least their US premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, four of the five documentaries nominated this year for the Oscars played at last year's Sundance.
I had a chance to sit down with Gregg Araki one of the most distinctive voices of the so-called "New Queer Cinema," and the director of critically acclaimed indie classics such as The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, Nowhere and Mysterious Skin. While it looked like he might be heading mainstream with his stoner comedy Smiley Face, his latest film Kaboom is far from a sell-out. I described the film in a previous post as "an apocalyptic, conspiratorial, supernatural, polysexual, coming-of-age, comic thriller." While it will likely appeal to some of the same college crowd as over-the-top, boundary-pushing comedies like The Hangover, it completely rejects the implicit assumption of heterosexuality as a norm that creates much of the comic edge in such male-buddy-bonding flicks.
There's something here for everyone except the easily offended. Araki treats ambiguous sexuality as a fact of life and hedonism as nothing to be ashamed of. I asked him about his aims as a filmmaker, and about the odd pairing of a kind of utopian vision of sexuality with a global apocalyptic vision in his bizarrely entertaining film.
Keep reading to see the video of my interview with Gregg Araki
If you haven't been keeping up with the reports out of Park City, Utah by Eckerd College prof Nathan Andersen and his merry band of festival-going students, you're missing the full story of this year's Sundance Film Festival. The group from St. Pete has already rubbed elbows with big stars, seen outraged audience members escorted away by security and caught at least a few worthwhile flicks. We expect more reports from our traveling cineastes soon, but here's the story so far to tide you over: