PARK CITY - "I found a state park in Texas that had burnt in a forest fire, and before it started growing again, I wanted to film a movie in it." That is the simple thought process that led director David Gordon Green to make "Prince Avalance," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Sunday afternoon. It was an area -- Bastrop State Park, southeast of Austin -- that he knew from hiking and the atmosphere spoke to him.
PARK CITY - It's been another good year for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival from what I've heard. I, unfortunately, have missed most, though I did catch up with Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" today. In a word, excellent. But I'll cover that in another capsule post later on.
The only other doc I've been able to catch up with was actually one of my most anticipated films of the fest: Barbara Kopple's "Running from Crazy." An examination of the Hemingway family's unfortunate history of mental illness and suicide, the film is seen through the eyes of "the littlest Hemingway," actress and model Mariel.
It's a fascinating subject and Kopple is one of the great navigators of the form, having won two Oscars, for 1976's "Harlan County, USA" and 1991's "American Dream." Indeed, the latter is the only film to sweep Sundance's documentary award categories. So the stage was already set for this one to be captivating, and that it is.
PARK CITY - Ahead of its premiere last Sunday, Zal Batmanglij's second feature "The East" -- which I reviewed earlier this morning -- was one of the most curiously awaited titles of this year's Sundance fest, not least because his first collaboration with writer-producer-star Brit Marling, "Sound of My Voice," made such a splash in Park City two years ago.
With their reputations thus established, the pair could command some bigger names for their follow-up -- among them, "True Blood" star Alexander Skarsgård and Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page. Both have key roles to play in this topical thriller on the theme of corporate terrorism, in which an intelligence agent (Marling) infiltrates The East, a mysterious group of left-wing anarchists bent on punishing corrupt corporations for their social and environmental misdeeds.
PARK CITY - "Why is it that self-righteousness always goes hand-in-hand with resistance movements?" So asks Brit Marling's prematurely jaded intelligence agent in her investigation of a particularly precocious band of eco-terrorists in "The East," a slick, involving, somewhat uneven independent thriller that marks the writer-producer-star's second promising collaboration with director Zal Batmanglij.
Funny enough in itself, the question encapsulates much of what works in this high-concept, higher-gloss bid for mainstream attention from the team behind "Sound of My Voice": incorporating and accommodating a range of views, the politics are elastic in what threatens from a distance to be a dry, earnest slab of liberal issue-mongering. Perhaps chiefly a study of noble causes pursued by less-than-noble means -- and questioning how wide that chasm between , "The East" follows Batmanglij's previous film in portraying the infiltration of a cult-like underground organization with an undefined depth of influence.
PARK CITY - The acquisitions announcements are coming thick and fast in Sundance, and while I haven't been keeping up with that side of things, I did notice that two of the festival's bigger British entries have found a home with the IFC family.
Michael Winterbottom's "The Look of Love," a semi-comedic biopic of London porn entrepreneur Paul Raymond, has been picked up by IFC Films -- no surprise there, given that they've handled most of Winterbottom's recent work. The new film has enjoyed a mixed reception at the festival -- I thought it was so-so myself -- but is on the accessible end of spectrum, and might actually play better on a VOD platform. (In my review, I mentioned that I thought the material best suited to TV, so close enough.)
PARK CITY - Going into Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale" this afternoon, I was unaware of the unfortunate case of Oscar Grant. So my experience of the film is bound to differentiate from someone who was up on the story or, indeed, any number of audiences who are bound to catch up with the film after the festival, once the particulars are chewed on in the entertainment media a lot.
So, on those particulars, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, was shot by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station on his way back from New Year's festivities in the wee hours of January 1, 2009. The altercation was captured by numerous cell phones and led to strife and unrest regarding police brutality. It has been argued an accident and an execution, but what Coogler's film does so well, and when it is at its best, is when it fleshes out and defines the life lost, the father trying to put his life back together and the pain that came with his death.
Sundance has been dominating my attention this week so it's been rather fortunate that there is a definitive lull in this year's Oscar proceedings. Perhaps that's one good thing to come of the Academy's new schedule. It gives those of us covering the fest some room to breathe before diving back into all that.
So then I missed "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, which featured "Silver Linings Playbook" star Jennifer Lawrence as guest host the very weekend her stiffest competition for the Best Actress Oscar, Jessica Chastain, was ruling the box office roost. And for her opening monologue, the writers set her up with some fun joshing toward her fellow nominees.
It's common knowledge that January is a cruel month for moviegoers -- assuming you can't just jet off to Sundance for the hell of it, once you've caught up with the late-releasing awards titles, there's little left to see but studio dregs like "Gangster Squad." Ty Burr considers the problem, digging up such noble January exceptions as "Dr. Strangelove" and "The Silence of the Lambs," and making this suggestion: "We should simply declare the first month of the year a new-release-free zone. As a preliminary step toward regaining our trust, studios would have to rerelease their most underrated entertainments from the previous year for a second chance: 2012’s sly meta-shrieker 'The Cabin in the Woods,' say, or the found-footage superhero movie 'Chronicle.'" [New York Times]
PARK CITY - There's something alluringly, disconcertingly off-kilter from the get-go in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," an imposing third feature from editor-turned-filmmaker David Lowery, and it's not merely the quivery infighting of strings and handclaps in Daniel Hart's striking score: it's that the opening scene of this film is one that has closed so many others. Bob and Ruth, criminal lovers on the lam, are apprehended by the cops on dun-colored Texan terrain after a bloody shootout, A killing spree is ended, justice is served, the couple is parted, pledging devotion. The end. No, the beginning.
PARK CITY - Four days into this year's Sundance fest and I should probably catch up with some thoughts on this and that. I've already written at length about the two films that are the big stand-outs to me thus far, Jeff Nichols' "Mud" and Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight," but I've filled in my schedule with a few things in between.