MUSIC To be at SXSW is to know you're missing out on a lot of good music. Fortunately the music you do see makes up for the difference, and very often it's the unexpected showcases, the things that weren't on your radar until that very moment, that end up being the highlights of your experience. That said, here are some of my impressions from this year's slate:
Due to health problems, Big Freedia had to cancel her and Rusty Lazer's Noise Pop gig at Public Works Sat/25. The event been transmutated into a big gay dance party with Double Duchess, DJ Bus Station John, and more. You should still read this interview, though.
With all its technicolor thrift flair, Mardi Gras costumes in state of midway-preparedness, and sleepy passels of breakfast-cooking houseguests, Jay Pennington's New Orleans clapboard house is pretty hallucinatory on the Saturday afternoon of Carnaval weekend. Staring out the window waiting for the bounce DJ to call me up for our interview, I was to be excused for imagining that the shed in the side lot was producing actual chords while the New Orleans monsoon that raged outside hit it. Read more »
No film at this year's festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel's Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can't buy that kind of publicity. Every screening (public and press) that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.)
What is so impressive about Zobel's film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, specifically in the final act of the film. Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized. You'll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that's exactly why the film is so brilliant.
Park City at Midnight is what excites me most about each Sundance Film Festival. Yet, many other films screen at midnight that aren't technically part of the actual category, which brings up the dilemma of what type of film warrants the designation of "Midnight Movie." Late-night audiences range from the inebriated to the intellectual (and often both combined). This year's crop of midnight films, in and out of the Park City at Midnight category, was genuinely one of the most eclectic and enjoyable group of films presented in years.
Quentin Dupieux's Wrong — his follow-up to 2010's unstoppable cult hit Rubber — is an absurdist journey where everything and nothing can happen, as long as it's what you'd least expect from a narrative. The reactionary rules of this wandering wonder (don't read any spoilers about it!) seem to have expanded David Lynch's quietest, most awkward moments into a web of surrealist silliness that I immediately wanted to watch again as soon as it was over. As audiences were exiting at two in the morning, half of them were bleary-eyed from laughing hysterically, while the other half were in groggy, drunken stupors. For me, this confirms that Dupieux has achieved exactly what he wanted (to make the obvious joke, something so Wrong it's right).
So Yong Kim's character study For Ellen is only 93 minutes long, but the experience of watching it felt like it took an eternity. But — even though the film did not win awards at this year's festival — it resonated; it was filled with many memorable, quiet moments. Paul Dano (never before so vulnerable) takes the reigns as a struggling musician who, while taking a break from touring to sign the papers for his long-overdue divorce, is forced to confront his own selfish tendencies when his custody rights start slipping through his fingers.
Writer-director Kim (2008's Treeless Mountain) uses long, handheld takes that often prevent the viewer from seeing the actual feelings of our anti-hero. This subtle slice-of-life portrait never wavers from its sullen tone, which might explain why many critics seemed underwhelmed after its screening. For Ellen doesn't give its flawed protagonist an easy way out, in a way that's reminiscent of Darren Aranofsky's The Wrestler (2008).
In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, and third entries.
Winner of both the World Documentary Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize for its celebration of the artistic spirit is every musicologist's dream film: Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man. This larger-than-life tale is about obscure Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who created two brilliant albums, Cold Fact (1969) and Coming from Reality (1971), which some have compared to Bob Dylan's greatest works. Yet virtually no one bought either of the records ... except South Africans. The film reveals a fan base of millions, comprised of multiple generations who have viewed Rodriguez's songs as political anthems for 40 years. And that's just the first 15 minutes of the film!
Rodriguez's lyrics and lifestyle celebrated a working-class hero mentality that seems to be as precious as the songs themselves, and Benjelloul's film about his impact on a seemingly far-removed audience is a standout. But here's a warning: be careful while reading any reviews of this film before you see it! Every single critic I've read has spoiled major dramatic points in the film, so try your best to catch it before you come into contact with any spoilers. Read more »
In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first and second entries.
Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Ice, which won this year's Excellence in Cinematography Award for a U.S. Documentary, manages to sidestep the frivolous argument between liberals and conservatives as to whether or not the polar ice caps are melting. In fact, this beautiful documentary is so jaw-droppingly visual, you end up interacting with and understanding the planet's ice structures as if they were your own grandparents. Trekking out to the furthest spots in the Northern Hemisphere, National Geographic photographer James Balog, his hard working-crew, and director Jeff Orlowski have created a document that will force the world to actually see what is happening as opposed to arguing assumptions. What I found even more unnerving is how beautiful I found crumbling ice caps to be. Am I part of the problem?
Doc fans will recognize the name Kirby Dick; his previous works include This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), which exposed the MPAA (the highly-secretive, surprisingly small group which has been censoring cinema since 1968), and his controversial 2009 film Outrage, which aggressively outed closeted gay politicians who have and continue to vote against gay rights.
In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first entry here.
The surprise hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival was Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, which not only has the power to hypnotize but to also enlighten with its striking cinematography, fantastical special effects (wonderfully designed by San Francisco's own Academy of Art University), and a truly guttural performance by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. She plays Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year-old searching to understand a world post-Katrina, post-race, and more importantly post-childhood.
Combining David Gordon Green's George Washington (2001), Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2008), and most appropriately Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), Zeitlin has created a genuinely haunting enigma for modern audiences that deserves multiple viewings for maximum understanding. But even though it won both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Excellence in Cinematography Award at this year's festival, will Beasts ultimately be able to find an audience outside of the festival?
In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
This was my 22nd consecutive Sundance Film Festival (which is well over half of my life), and I found myself more excited than ever to pack in as many films as humanly possible in seven days. Thirty-seven programs were achieved, and mind you: the trick is not to fall asleep, which so often happens at press screenings, resulting in many critics hypocritically denouncing whatever film they slept through.
Oddly enough, two of the biggest world premieres of the festival, Lee Toland Krieger's Celeste and Jesse Forever and Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts both explore the lives of thirtysomething men named Jesse who "have a lot of potential" but for some reason just aren't making the most of their lives.