Monday: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, In A World…

Up until yesterday evening I was feeling kind of meh on the whole.  However, after a productive day of studying I went to two good U.S. Dramatic films at Rose Wagner that perked me up.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Pretty darn good. A love story between two outlaws destined to be kept apart. Beautiful and sad, with sacrifice and selflessness (or is it selfishness?), forgiveness and acceptance. The storyline was just vague enough that I never fully connected with the main characters and didn’t become invested in their relationship. I wanted a little more information to make me understand and care. Perhaps if I saw this again I might feel differently; this is certainly a film I would see again. I loved the evocative aesthetic; everything was faded and crumbling but almost homey and comfortable, from the worn dresses to the town buildings to the fields and hills of Texas. The director wanted his work to be timeless and he certainly achieved that. The music was great. The director and most of his crew were all a bit cocky and unapproachable in the Q&A.

In A World…: I think this is my favorite film thus far! Comedies are rare at Sundance, and this is an excellent one. As Lake Bell emphasized in the Q&A, this is not a movie about the voiceover industry, it only that happens to be set there. The family issues – egotistic/neglectful/even abusive father, marital strife, growing up – were realistic enough to be relatable and heartfelt, but overdone just enough to be comedic. Really a very well balanced film and not overly ambitious. Lots of fun, I laughed the whole way through.

Now back to the books and hopefully I can squeeze in another movie tonight!

~Nan

Kate – Day 2 at Sundance

#3 – Mother of George: This is a poignant story. Unhurriedly following an emigrant Nigerian family in Brooklyn, New York, a clash of cultures and of generations is framed in richly colored fabrics that form a character unto themselves. The bride is desperate to produce a son, and her mother-in-law is eager to produce a remedy. The family ends up with an unbearable secret, and the husband an untenable dilemma. People go to great lengths for love.
#4 – Twenty Feet from Stardom: What voices! What beauty, what power, what joy, what fun. Backup singers make the music and the sound.
#5 – Don Jon’s Addiction: This is an issues movie. My first thought was to simply report not to go see this one, enough said. The characters are not particularly sympathetic and have minimal development, and some disgusting imagery is included. On the other hand, it is an issue which is quietly and conveniently ignored, and Sundance is saying you know, we ought to take a look at it. Don Jon’s uses pornography. Half the world, like Don Jon, may well respond “Yea, so? What’s the issue?” The other half, like his girlfriend, may well respond “Are you kidding me?” The problem is that with the internet we have eliminated the controls to access which existed a generation ago. Use has skyrocketed, and an argument can be made that it interferes with gender relations. If you want to talk further, let’s go out for a (insert drink of your preference here).
#6 – Touchy Feely: This was yet another dysfunctional family. Each member has a skill. Each looses the skill. Each regains the skill, and is transformed in the process. Except that the director was not particularly successful in conveying the audience along a dramatic arc. Boring.

Death day: Circles, Kill Your Darlings, Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

What started as a quick note between films has turned into another end-of-day summary. It’s definitely been a good day, though.

To start it off after Sunday brunch, Circles, directed by Srdan Golubovic: Another slow film (I’ve seen a lot of those thus far) but very powerful. Dialogue was minimal, but sufficient. The story was quite lovely (my favorite word) and lyrical, about redemption and forgiveness. There were lots of long shots of Eastern European men staring off into the distance that gave me time to reflect and feel the characters’ emotions and understand the storyline. I felt quite pleased with myself for following the film and mostly getting the director’s intent (per his explanations during the Q&A). The Q&A was fantastic because, despite the language barrier, the crew was very generous about sharing their thoughts and experience; i.e. they actually answered questions instead  of offering the typical, “well, that’s for you to decide/interpret/whatever.” There were some interesting tidbits shared, including that the Trebinje market in which the murder of Srdan Aleksik occurred was used for the movie scene and that one extra in this scene was at the scene of the crime.

Next was Kill Your Darlings, which received a lot of pre-festival buzz mainly due to the all-star cast. Truthfully, I saw this film because nothing else in the time slot sounded any better; I wasn’t all too excited and expected that it would be a disappointment. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this film about the murder of David Kammerer and the first escapades of the Beat Generation. Good acting (props to Elizabeth Olsen for making the most of a 5 minute part), strong characters, interesting story. The balance between a murder mystery/thriller and coming-of-age story (to paraphrase the director, “who or what do you have to kill to become yourself and become your best”) worked for me. Also, fantastic soundtrack.

I took a brief break for some ultimate frisbee and finished the day at Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, another film that I had been avoiding, this time because “a hyperstylized … film that vacillates between surrealism and realism” sounded a bit too New Frontier-y to me. Again, I am so glad that I went. SPOILER ALERT, highlight to read: In as few words as possible, this film is about a daughter who has killed her mother (in childbirth) and a mother who has killed her daughter (accident, blames self) and how they help each other heal. Overall, two thumbs up to this female-dominated film (director/screenwriter, cinematographer, 3 complex and generally sympathetic leads). Given the sniffles throughout the theater during the credits, I’m not the only one who thought so. Jessica Biel impressed as Linda, one of her more complex and mature roles to date, and it was fun to meet the talented Kaya Scodelario. I haven’t heard much rumbling about the breakout starlets of 2013, but she makes an obvious candidate (although she has quite a career in England). Our party of family, friends, and neighbors had a brief but interesting discussion about whether this film featured family disfunction (my mother) or a broken family (everyone else). My first reaction was that this film is the new Beasts of the Southern Wild, but after sleeping on it, this film wasn’t quite as tightly knit. The artsy water/fishes theme felt heavy-handed and awkward. I would have loved to hear this explained by the director, but unfortunately there was no Q&A. I must admit that my ballot/vote/grade/thing was lower for this reason.

Now, finally, to bed!

~Nan

Day 9, 10, 11 – #28, #29, #30, (& #31?)

OK people – you hung in there, and this is it.  No more Sundance till next year. Final score:

Kate – 30 (maybe 31)
Nan – 29 (she really came from behind)

How many families do you know that are into competitive film watching?  It was a fun week.  Thank goodness it is only once a year.  Thank you, thank you, thank you to all my friends who came with.  It was a blast.  Movies with friends are so much more fun than movies alone.

Here are the final reviews:

Arbitrage (Premiere):  If you want to visit with a schmuck who cheats his wife, cheats his daughter, cheats his friends, cheats his company, cheats his buyers, cheats the stock market, cheats the DA, this is the movie for you.  The film’s not bad, considering.

Red Hook Summer (Premiere):  This is the movie that my daughter didn’t want me to take my friends to because it includes icky sex.  After some mutual discussion, we concluded that we had been exposed to enough in life that we could handle it.  Yes, the sex was icky, but we did come out feeling relatively unscathed.  It was the blood inducing beating that actually got to us.

Predisposed (Premiere):  The description for this film starts out: “Piano prodigy Eli Smith has talent to burn, but he is constantly derailed by his troubled mother . . .”  I had to go see this one, right?  The mother, I ought not comment about.  However, I can honestly say that Eli is not a prodigy and he does not have talent to burn.  All artists have to promote their own work, but this was a clear case of false advertising by the film makers.  And it barely even included any piano music, particularly the type that a prodigy would play.  I want my money back.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (US Dramatic):  I actually haven’t seen this one yet.  Am planning on attending this evening at 9:30 after a 7:30 violin concert.  If I make it, it will be movie #31 for me.  It won the Grand Jury Prize for US Dramatic film.  If you want to know more about it, Nan saw it earlier in the week, so check out her review.

It (was) Friday, Friday!

Slavery by Another Name – There were a lot of components of this film that bothered me and unfortunately, I don’t think that Slavery by Another Name did justice to the subject of legal and economic slavery following the Civil War.  This could have been a nice follow-up chapter to Ken Burns’s Civil War (indeed, it set itself up as such by using some recognizable music from the latter), but fell so, so short in my opinion.

I found it difficult to keep track of the individual stories chronicled and don’t think that they were the best selections for illustrating the legal and social timeline that was supposedly documented.  It was quite jumbled (but in the film’s defense, my exhaustion may have contributed to this impression.)

One interviewee acknowledged that this period was brutal socially but made perfect economic sense.  This was one of the more interesting moments in the film because this conflict between social justice/opportunity/etc. and economic interests continues today.  Many parallels can be drawn between the “threat” freed blacks posed to whites – both the poor competing for jobs and the powerful rich – after the Civil War and hispanic immigrants today.

But there were some little annoyances, like the mismatched fonts used for quotes versus names of speakers.  And I thought the reenactments were hokey.  And the ending seemed abrupt; while it wasn’t entirely neglected, I think I expected to hear more about how current social norms descend from this time period.  I’m pretty sure this has been my least favorite film this year.  But maybe it will still be effective for a high school history class.  [ETA: apparently this got a standing ovation in Park City. Hm.]

The Surrogate – I was initially planning to pointedly avoid this film because the subject matter seemed so not up my alley.  A physically disabled man hiring a sex surrogate?  Um…

After hearing the buzz surrounding The Surrogate, directed by Ben Lewin, though, I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised.  Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) confronts life with humor and hard work but does have his own demons that the sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), recognizes and helps to fight off.  This film is both a testament to all of the people, women in particular, who love and support Mark and the richness of spirit that he shares with others.  One of my favorite moments was when Mark’s priest and friend, played by William Macy (love!), tells him to “go for it” (doing the deed, that is) during a confession of sorts in the church.

The Surrogate displayed, like many other films I have seen this year, a skilled balance of humor and poignancy, but with the addition of a liberal dose of nudity.  The cast is fabulous.  John Hawkes shows his mastery in yet again – I’ve yet to be disappointed by one of his Sundance performances.  If you’re interested, here‘s an interview with him in the Wall Street Journal.  The Surrogate may not in my top 3, but is definitely recommended.

The Raid – This was badass, no mincing words about it.  I don’t usually watch action films like this, but the story line didn’t seem half bad either, following the annihilation of a SWAT team on a off-the-grid mission to take down a drug lord.  There’s even some police corruption and familial strife squeezed in – on one hand, absolutely essential to giving the audience a breather of sorts, but on the other hand, impressive (and impressively well integrated) for a film so jam-packed.

But really, the action was the reason why the theater was absolutely packed at midnight (I even met a group of guys who flew in from San Diego just to see this movie!) and it did not disappoint.  The director (Gareth Evans), the actors, whoever the designed these epic fight scenes, all contributed to make what has been termed “the best action movie in years.”  The hand-to-hand combat was insane.

This movie will be released in March in the US and I definitely recommend getting to see the original before a remake is done.  And if you want to see more, I’ve embedded the trailer below and here’s a link to the director’s blog.

The Raid Trailer v.2 from Merantau Films on Vimeo.

I’ll be back later with updates from the previous few days!  I’ve been slacking!

~Nan