Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance Weekend Recap: Life Itself, Boyhood and the Current Buzz

Mark_ruffalo_infinitely_polar_bear_a_lIt has been a weekend marked by cheers, tears and standing ovations here in Park City. For those of us on the ground, it is quite challenging to predict what will be the it film that will not only be celebrated here, but also spark interesting conversations in the coming year and embed itself into the film culture with hopes of longevity. While we can’t predict it, we can certainly take cues from the word on the street and on Twitter. Based on my observations and things I hear from friends and fellow press in ticket lines and long shuttle rides (getting stuck in traffic has its advantages sometimes), here’s a recap of what’s leading the pack in Sundance after its first weekend. Among the US Dramatic competition titles, three films seem to have either won the audiences over so far (and critics for the most part with some exceptions as usual) or stirred up enough conversation to remain top of mind. The first one is the opening night film -Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash- which I talked about in my previous dispatch (with mixed personal reactions). The second one is Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear, that I had a chance to catch during a press screening after the positive word following its first public screening. Starring Mark Ruffalo (as Cameron) who portrays a bipolar father of two in the late 70s and Zoe Saldana as his ex-wife Maggie, who tries to get the family back on its feet while Cameron takes care of their precocious and spirited kids, Infinitely Polar Bear was received exceptionally well, earning a long standing ovation and loud cheers from the audience. Across the festival’s various segments, there seems to be an abundance of titles this year that touch upon stories of resilient children and struggling parents (Kat Candler’s Hellion, Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, and Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, to name a few), and Infinitely Polar Bear surely fits into this thematic pack. I can’t say the film has completely won me over, yet I have to admit that it has the kind of undeniable charm that ‘Audience Award’ winners at Sundance are made of.

Dear-white-peopleThe last title from the US Dramatic competition that is attracting love from critics as well as loud reactions from the audiences (I hear many were challenged by the film), is Justin Simien’s Dear White People, which is said to explore “racial identity in post-racial America” with a tongue-in-cheek manner. I haven’t seen the film, and based on my schedule and departure date, I don’t think I will be able to fit it in, but it’s worth noting that Dear White People has been a divisive and often talked about title here in Sundance, hinting that it would have a life of its own outside the festival dates.

13922-1In the US Documentary Competition segment, Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s The Case Against 8 has generated a positive consensus. My Twitter feed on Saturday (when the film had its first screening) confirms that there was a spontaneous applause from the audience towards the end of the film, who later on awarded it with a standing ovation mixed with tears and cheers. There are still a number of competition titles within the documentary segment which remain to be seen, however I won’t be surprised if The Case Against 8 –which spans over 5 years, providing a detailed look at the case to overturn California’s ban on same sex marriage- ends up being the winning film here.

LithgowSo, what have I been up to during the weekend? On Saturday, I split my time between four films. Eskil Vogt’s Blind, which is competing in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, is so far one of my favorite films of Sundance 2014. Vogt might be a first time director, yet he comes with impressive screenplay credits, being in the writing team of two stellar Joachim Trier films, Reprise and Oslo August 31. Blind tells a maze-like story, traveling inside a blind writer’s mind, making the viewer often question what’s real vs. what’s a product of her imagination. Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger was my next stop, and despite the juicy material, I found it a bit overlong and often overtly bombastic (in the style of Salinger, in a way). Then, I was lucky to see another festival favorite for me – Ira Sachs’ elegant celebration of intimacy Love Is Strange, starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a couple entering a challenging chapter in their lives, after one loses his job. Set mostly inside New York City apartments, the film brings to mind Ozu’s Tokyo Story in a way, with themes around sacrifice, privacy, love and family. My last stop on Saturday was Infinitely Polar Bear, before I headed to Main Street to catch up with friends.

13883-1Sunday was perhaps the most memorable day of the festival for me although the first two titles I caught ended up being disappointments. After Mike Cahill’s fairly entertaining but overtly self-indulgent sci-fi I Origins (starring Michael Pitt and Brit Marling), and Jeff Preiss’ dreadful competition title Low Down (which unfortunately didn’t work on any level, despite a stellar cast with John Hawkes, Elle Fanning and Glenn Close), I caught the premiere of Life Itself, Steve James’ moving documentary on the late, legendary Roger Ebert. As expected, it was a beautiful and emotional screening (rightfully earning its standing ovation), with the attendance of not only director James, but Roger Ebert’s wife Chaz Ebert, and Gene Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen. Director Steve James is mostly known for his documentary Hoop Dreams, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Editing (also being screened in Sundance this year), and which Siskel & Ebert famously championed by giving it a two thumbs up exactly 20 years ago. Furthermore, Ebert named it the best film of the decade, putting both James and his film on a mainstream map. After a very heartfelt introduction during which director James couldn’t hide his tears, Life Itself profiled the life of an American treasure on screen with exceptional honesty and poignancy, covering Ebert’s early career, his alcoholism & recovery, the Siskel & Ebert rivalry, his marriage/family life and his late years where he made his blog and social media presence his voice. You could sense the feeling that most lives in the theater were touched by Ebert’s love for film and his ability to connect with everyone through the empathy he often credited the power of cinema for. The Q&A also housed a colorful moment that briefly brought the Sikel & Ebert rivalry into play in the most humorous sense. Referencing a moment in the film, Chaz Ebert said to Marlene Iglitzen: "Gene wasn't more elegant than Roger", to which she quickly responded "It's your night, Chaz." It’s pretty safe to say that Life Itself is so far my favorite film in the festival.

BN-BD974_boyhoo_ER_20140120100459Following Life Itself, I made a quick stop at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s party, and later on attended the premiere of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood at the Eccles. A late entry into the Sundance program, Boyhood is Linklater’s 12 years worth of labor of love and has been produced by IFC Films in its entirety, starting all the way back in 2002. Starring Ethan Hawke (Mason Sr.) and Patricia Arquette (Olivia) as divorced parents of two; and Ellar Coltrane (Mason) and the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater (Samantha) as their children, Boyhood follows the family members’ everyday life starting from the childhood years of the children through the early college days of Mason, who is the film’s primary focus as the title suggests. With its nearly 3-hr running time, Boyhood is epic in its scope and instantly captivating as it envelops a little of all of us while the ordinary struggles and triumphs of Mason (and his family) patiently unfold, alongside a decade full of cultural references around art, music, and technology. It is not a perfect film, but it is a modern day American masterpiece which has never been made before. This is a film that requires revisits in order for one to fully appreciate all its details and craftsmanship.

It will be interesting to watch what the next few days will bring, other than the surprise screenings scheduled at the Egyptian tomorrow (which some predict to be Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel or Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, even though both titles are slated for Berlin).  While we wait to find out, here is a recap of what has been acquired to date, so you can start looking forward to seeing them.

CNN Films and Lionsgate

Dinosaur 13

Pivot and Univision (TV Rights)

Cesar’s Last Fast

Magnolia and Paramount

Happy Christmas

Solution Entertainment (International)

Infinitely Polar Bear

Sony Classics (US), Sony Pictures Worldwide (International)




Obvious Child

Focus Features

Wish I Was Here


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